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03/18/2011

Finally, McConaughey returns to drama

It's good to see Matthew McConaughey acting again.

I mean really acting, as opposed to yanking his shirt off in semi-entertaining comic adventures that, like the shifting sand in "Sahara," have little foundation as solid memories.

In the dramatic-thriller "The Lincoln Lawyer," McConaughey doesn't exactly return to a serious courtroom drama on the level of "A Time to Kill," the crusading lawyer drama of 1996.

Even though he's dressed like an adult -- suit and tie; appropriate courtroom attire -- this time, a bit of the McConaughey swagger remains evident as Mick Haller.  A Beverly Hills ambulance chasing attorney, although that's only implied, Haller operates out of the back seat of his chauffeured Lincoln Continental sedan.

There's a throwaway line or two about when Haller got his license to drive back.  I suspect that aspect of the character is better explained in Michael Connelly's bestseller of the same title.

The adaptation by John Romano ("Nights in Rodanthe") is a little sloppy on details, preferring instead to showcase Haller's coolness in a courtroom, on the streets where a motorcycle gang (led by country crooner Trace Adkins, no less) is prone to pull him over for some lawyer-client chatting and, of course, with the ladies.

This would be a much better thriller if "The Lincoln Lawyer" more closely mimicked -- Sorry, I mean paid homage to -- "The Verdict" and "Fracture," both of which deserve a slice of the profits.

Haller is a hard drinking attorney.  He has has made mistakes in the past, but is honorable enough to fight to try to make things right.  That's just like Paul Newman did in "The Verdict" in 1982, although the case details vary.

The other strikingly similar element is the old attorney/client tete-a-tete.  In this one, a wealthy client played by Ryan Phillippe is up on an attempted murder charge.  As the plot thickens, an all-too-common game of cat and mouse shows signs of becoming deadly.  

If you saw "Fracture" in 2007, you know that Anthony Hopkins admitted to shooting his wife in the head, then dared the assistant district attorney to do something about it.

"The Lincoln Lawyer" works best as an entertainment ride.  Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei ("The Wrestler," "Cyrus") works well with McConaughey as Maggie, his ex-wife and crusading assistant D.A.  (Small world, this.)

By the time the final gavel falls, it's quite apparent that McConaughey, who only takes his shirt off once, is well aware of where he's at.  More important, though, is where he might be going.

The hard-working Texan who began his career Richard Linklater's "Dazed and Confused," then sort of got that way in mid-career, finally appears back on track.

"The Lincoln Lawyer" is flawed cinema at best.  But sometimes, on a purely entertainment level, the old "Lincoln" purrs across the screen.

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