The late Alan J. Pakula is one of my favorite, and perhaps one of the most underrated, directors of the '70s. From 'Klute' to the 'The Parallex View,' he excelled at creating tense, literate and complex adult thrillers, all with a timely political edge that hasn't dulled with age. Which is why Pakula's output in the '80s and '90s remains so disappointing. Gone was most of the visual dexterity and editorial uniqueness that marked his '70s body of work, replaced by a more cookie-cutter, mainstream-friendly veneer that transformed his style from sublimely low-key to merely banal.
Such is the case with 'The Pelican Brief,' Pakula's penultimate film (before his untimely death in an auto accident in 1998). 'Brief' is just too rote and pedestrian an adaptation of the John Grisham best-seller of the same name, which itself was hardly one of the prolific novelist's more memorable efforts. Despite a high-wattage cast including Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts, and a fairly intriguing set-up, 'The Pelican Brief' rarely engages, from the by-the-book plotting and dull characterizations, to the poor villains and the lack of a truly compelling relationship between its two lead protagonists.
In 'The Pelican Brief,' Grisham mines his now-patented scenario, where an ambitious young upstart is embroiled in a plot involving murder, conspiracy, and corruption at the deepest levels of our legal system. This time, it's ambitious young law student Darby Shaw (Roberts), who uncovers evidence of a plot involving two murdered Supreme Court justices. Enlisting the aid of investigative reporter Gray Grantham (Washington), the two are soon on the run from the law and those behind the conspiracy. If they are to remain alive, they must not only escape their pursuers, but unmask the guilty parties and clear their names.
What I found most disappointing about 'The Pelican Brief' is the dull relationship between Shaw and Grantham. Roberts and Washington of course have great charisma, but their characters have so little real and meaningful interaction they can't overcome the script's limitations. Indeed, Darby and Gray are so busy running around and resolving plot points that there's no connective emotional tissue to their journey. They're so caught up with their bits of plot business that it feels like any other character could have done just as well, and shockingly, they likewise could have been played by anybody.
Pakula attempts to give 'Pelican Brief' at least some modicum of tension. However, unlike his '70s masterpieces, or even 'Presumed Innocent' (certainly the best of his later efforts), here his restrained style feels inert. There is little visual flourish, leaving 'Pelican Brief' with that generic, early-'90s Hollywood look. Likewise the film's action feels shoehorned into the plot and is rarely pulse-quickening. Roberts and Washington also don't really gel as action stars, and Roberts in particular seems uncomfortable with the demands of the genre.
Is 'The Pelican Brief' entertaining? Slightly. But despite Roberts and Washington, plus a supporting cast that includes Sam Shepard, John Heard, Hume Cronyn, Tony Goldwyn, and Stanley Tucci, it's shockingly, oh-so-unmemorable. Though I expected more energy from Pakula, I ultimately lay the blame on Grisham's source material. There's just too little to differentiate 'The Pelican Brief' from his superior works, and the whole affair seems like too many borrowed parts and Grisham cliches. 'The Pelican Brief' isn't an out-and-out disappointment, but only five minutes after watching it, it's already faded from my memory.
Warner has remastered 'The Pelican Brief' in 1080p/VC-1 video (2.35:1), and confined it to a BD-25 single-layer disc. The film was previously released on standard DVD in 1997, and it's hardly an impressive presentation in retrospect. This Blu-ray is quite superior, and a noticeable upgrade.
Though not pristine, the source is cleaner, with fewer instances of dirt and blemishes. Blacks are richer, but most welcome is the boost in contrast. The image is now brighter and with well-improved shadow delineation, which boosts visible detail. The color palette likewise enjoys better saturation, smoother primaries and more accurate fleshtones. This transfer still isn't absolutely first-rate in terms of depth and "pop-ability," but it nearly blows the DVD away.
Warner has also boosted the audio on 'The Pelican Brief' Blu-ray over the DVD, giving us a first-ever Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/16-bit). It's better than the DVD, if not exactly the kind of wall-to-wall action mix that screams demo disc.
There are only sporadic bursts of surround activity -- a few explosions here, a chase scene there. Discrete sounds are relatively precise and pronounced, and minor ambiance is fairly engaging if still a bit weak. Perhaps enjoying the most welcome expansion is the score by James Horner, which is now fuller in the mix. Dynamics are fine for a 1993 film, with adequate low bass. Dialogue is really the star of this show, and it's well-recorded, presented, and balanced. Not a bad remastered soundtrack.
Oddly, Warner hasn't bothered with any supplements on 'The Pelican Brief.' Guess this is one catalog title that the studio just didn't feel warranted the deluxe treatment.
'The Pelican Brief' is a decent adaptation of a decent John Grisham novel. I simply found the film unmemorable, if relatively involving while watching it. This Blu-ray is likewise -- the audio and especially the video are a nice boost over the pale old DVD, but with no extras in sight, this is hardly a noteworthy catalog release from Warner. 'The Pelican Brief' is probably worth a rental, but only diehard Grisham fans need apply for a purchase.