If ever there were an oxymoronic genre, it's the legal thriller. Courtrooms are, by definition, boring. Well-educated (and well-paid) people argue with one another in some kind of high-stakes parlour game while the poor defendant looks on, baffled. It's not always the stuff of high drama - even if television programmes such as Law and Order try to sprinkle the courtroom with an element of stardust. But enduring two-hour films teeming with legal argument is nobody's idea of fun. Remember Steven Spielberg's Amistad, charting the courtroom fallout from a mutiny on a slave ship? Thought not.
Which is why Brad Furman's new movie, The Lincoln Lawyer, is so interesting. It's that rare beast - a legal thriller that's actually rather good, and not just because Matthew McConaughey (who starred in Amistad, coincidentally) has turned in a career-best performance as a criminal defence attorney who works out of the back of his car. McConaughey's character might flit from one court to another, essentially representing anyone who can afford him (he works for a gang of Hell's Angels and the rich son of a businessman who is accused of attempting to kill a prostitute) but it's the twisty journey he goes on rather than the victories he notches up that makes The Lincoln Lawyer so interesting. It's certainly more thriller than pedestrian courtroom drama.
The Lincoln Lawyer is an adaptation of a best-selling book by Michael Connolly. And in publishing, the legal thriller has become big business. In a way, this isn't surprising; the slower pace is undoubtedly better suited to page than screen. But where did this interest in the exploits of clever legal types come from? Some point to Shakespeare's Merchant Of Venice, where Portia disguises herself as a judge to pass sentence on Shylock. More recently, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic of the form, Atticus Finch defending a black man charged with the rape of a white girl in America's Deep South.
But the idea of a legal-thriller genre developed only after Scott Turow's hugely successful book, Presumed Innocent, in the late 1980s, in which the prosecutor himself is charged with the murder. It helped that Turow was a lawyer by trade - Presumed Innocent is impressively authentic - but it also tapped into something more fundamental.
America in particular is obsessed with the law; not just in terms of its highly litigious culture but also its love of stories about justice. This is the country that has entire television channels devoted to live action from courtrooms.
Presumed Innocent also sold millions because it's a great story, and the Hollywood film followed soon after. Starring Harrison Ford, it was by no means as seismic a moment in the history of cinema as it had been in literature, but the groundwork had been done. No wonder Turow once told The Observer, "the great break of my literary career was going to law school." And, before long, there was another practising lawyer writing international best-sellers. His name was John Grisham, and he swiftly became the pre-eminent legal thriller writer simply by dint of having far more of his books adapted into films than Turow.
No one - not even Grisham himself, you suspect - thinks that his novels are great literature. They are as heavy on legal detail as they are on plot exposition, but that hasn't prevented Grisham from becoming one of the best-selling novelists of all time. And perhaps the jump from lawyer to novelist is not so ridiculous as it might at first seem. After all, the skill requirement is essentially the same: telling a coherent story.
Whether such storytelling truly translates to the screen is another matter. Some of the greatest directors of the modern age have taken on Grisham's books (Sydney Pollack with The Firm; Francis Ford Coppola with The Rainmaker) and not made fully convincing films out of them - largely because the nuances of legal arguments hardly make for sparkling scripts.
Of course, there are exceptions. A Few Good Men works not just because Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise are convincing, but because this 1992 drama about the death of a US Marine was from the pen of the acclaimed writer Aaron Sorkin. The film of Erin Brockovich's campaign against contaminated drinking water could ostensibly have been a straight courtroom drama, but Steven Soderbergh fashioned something altogether more involving and memorable from the details of her life.
So will the success of The Lincoln Lawyer encourage an increase in quality, or just provoke another rash of turgid courtroom dramas? The jury, sadly, is still out on that one.
Ÿ The Lincoln Lawyer will be in cinemas in the UAE from tomorrow.