During the third and final act of Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s summer blockbuster about the father of the atomic bomb, the movie dramatically shifts in tone. There’s a tense, closed-door hearing about J. Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance, where witnesses from his past are called in and grilled to a crisp. Later, we witness a heart-pounding Senate confirmation hearing for his adversary, Lewis Strauss. Treachery and machinations abound. By the time a clever young Senate aide played by Alden Ehrenreich smugly delivers the line, “the junior senator from Massachusetts, young guy, trying to make a name for himself … John F. Kennedy,” I was practically levitating. Though it was a biopic, Oppenheimer had managed to smuggle in one of my favorite genres: the legal thriller.
Specifically, I can’t get enough of ‘90s legal thrillers. In life’s endless journey of self-discovery, I was surprised to learn this. Maybe a little disappointed. I had always considered these to be movies that dads watch while standing two feet away from the television screen—and they are, indeed, a subset of classic ‘90s dad thrillers.
Ah, but we all become washed one day, my child.
It started with a bored rewatch of 1999’s Double Jeopardy, which was not what I would call “high quality” or even “legally sound in any way,” but there was a potent enough combination of nostalgia and easy streaming availability to keep me going. I burned through 1993’s The Firm (Tom Cruise joins a nefarious law firm connected to the mob), 1992’s A Few Good Men (Tom Cruise yells at Jack Nicholson in court), 1993’s The Pelican Brief (Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts team up to expose why two Supreme Court justices were assassinated), 1994’s The Client (Susan Sarandon helps a kid who gets ensnared in mob dealings), 1996’s A Time to Kill (Matthew McConaughey defends Samuel L. Jackson, who killed two men to avenge his daughter’s rape), 1997’s The Rainmaker (Matt Damon takes down an evil insurance company), and so on. Most of these are adaptations of John Grisham books and, as such, follow a similar formula: a young, idealistic lawyer from the South gets caught up in a conspiracy much bigger than they are, eventually persevering, but not before some nail-biting action and a rousing courtroom speech.
What a satisfying formula it is! Because movies hinged on big stars back then, we’re practically drowning in charisma. (Everyone also gets a chance to try their spin on a Southern accent, with varying levels of success.) If the fight between good and evil isn’t exactly nuanced—in the world of the ‘90s legal thriller, the righteous always prevail—the politics are better than you’d expect. (Villains include virulent racists, insurance companies, and oil and gas execs.) Along with the entertainment factor, there’s a swift competency to these films that’s inherently gratifying. Often, the scheme “goes all the way to the top.” I love it when it goes all the way to the top!
And there were some sublime fits, even amidst such a buttoned-up profession. In fact, this entire article might be an excuse for me to share Joel Schumacher’s campy interpretation of a mobster, played by Anthony LaPaglia, in The Client.
Today, the genre has all but disappeared. As TV became ascendent, these sorts of adult dramas were relegated to series both prestige and otherwise. (There was even a one-season attempt to reboot The Firm in 2012.) But in the ‘90s, conditions for these movies could not have been more ideal. At the time, John Grisham ruled the bestseller lists. As soon as he pumped out a new book, the rights were sold, and it was guaranteed to become a film that grossed massive numbers at the box office—most of these were made in the $40 million range and earned upwards of $100 to $200 million.
“It hit almost all the boxes of what was working in Hollywood those days,” Ben Fritz, the author of The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies, told me. In part, “it was really still a domestic business. The international markets outside of Europe hadn’t really kicked in.” These movies about the American justice system, the intricacies of which might not resonate outside of the States, didn’t have to worry about appealing to a global crowd.
“Stars were the king,” Fritz added. “Instead of people being like, ‘I’m going to see the latest Marvel movie,’ people were like, ‘I’m going to see the latest Denzel movie, the latest Julia movie, the latest Tom Cruise movie.’”
These movies also had legs when it came to VHS rentals and, soon after, DVD sales. Brian Raftery wrote the book Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen—and, long before that, he worked in a video store in Pennsylvania. “I specifically remember both Murder in the First and Just Cause came out during the first time I worked there and those movies rented like crazy for weeks and weeks and weeks. We couldn’t keep those kinds of movies on the shelves,” he told me.
“I love The Firm, I think it’s one of the best ‘90s studio movies,” Raftery said. “And that kind of movie is absolutely not going to get made: it’s long, it’s about a marriage, it’s got 15 different character actors. It’s not about a superhero, it’s just about a guy getting slowly screwed by his law firm.”
So why won’t studios put up $40 million for a movie about tax attorneys anymore?
John Davis, longtime producer and the founder of Davis Entertainment, had a scout tip him off to Grisham’s manuscript of The Firm before it became a bestseller. He blazed through it and bought the rights the next day. With Cruise attached to star and Syndey Pollack attached to direct, he knew it would be a hit.
“We were looking for variety,” Davis told me, reflecting on ‘90s Hollywood. “It wasn’t like the business is today, which has strict ideas about what works. It’s either got to be a horror film that you make for a small amount of money, or something based on a famous piece of IP with visual effects. Look, I’m happy to make those films, and I have, but that was a time when people would take risks. That was a time when you would do something that felt interesting. Now we’re living in a time of high concept. That was a period of interesting concept and that was really freeing and excellent and wonderful and I hope that comes back.” Even he concedes that if The Firm were made today, it would go straight to streaming.
The death of the mid-budget movie has been well-documented. Marvel began to dominate, and IP replaced movie stars as the main draw. It’s true, too, that at the end of the 20th century, these movies had perhaps started to feel stale. “Not every 1999 movie was trailblazing—it wasn’t all Three Kings and The Matrix and Fight Club,” Raftery said. “But the big studios were opening the gates to younger filmmakers who came up in the indie world, and I don’t know if they were quite as interested in courtroom dramas as maybe the generation before them.”
Even John Grisham saw the industry change before his eyes. “I sold the film rights to The Runaway Jury in 1996 to New Regency for a record amount. I can’t get a fraction of that today,” he told The New York Times Magazine last year. “You can say, Well, we choked the golden goose, but all those films made money. Then Hollywood changed. I don’t understand that world. Nobody understands that world. There’s no rules. We learned years ago, do not believe a word until they start filming. Runaway Jury was actually the last big contract I got.”
Three decades later, it’s time to bring the heady legal thriller back. There have been recent, varyingly successful attempts to revive other successful genres of yore, from the ‘80s erotic thriller (2022’s Deep Water) and the raunchy early-aughts comedy (this summer’s No Hard Feelings and Bottoms). Even Meg Ryan is returning with a new romcom this year.
With all due respect to the Lincoln Lawyer, a TV series based on the 2011 Matthew McConaughey movie of the same name—I don’t mean like that. It’s not a new gripe to bemoan the loss of middlebrow movies for adults. But that doesn’t mean things aren’t getting worse. Forget Marvel. Following Barbie’s success, a new wave of IP-driven toy movies is coming. You can’t read the news about Lil Yachty making a heist movie based on the card game Uno, Daniel Kaluuya producing a Barney film, or Lena Dunham directing a Polly Pocket movie and feel good about the future of cinema.
The time is ripe. Nineties nostalgia is stronger than ever. And Hollywood seems to be underestimating young people’s appetite for solid adult stories. Even Gen Z is proving to be legally-minded, whether it’s watching 12 Angry Men in snippets on TikTok (true story) or obsessing over the court reporter covering the Tory Lanez trial. The 2010s legal drama Suits somehow became the most-watched show of the summer. As for plot, no need for a reboot. In the past 30 years, America has generated more than enough social issues to tackle in the fictional courtroom, whether it’s gerrymandering, environmental scandal, or the actual president getting arrested. But, to be fair, Grisham is still churning them out—and even has a sequel to The Firm, titled The Exchange: After The Firm, publishing this October.
Sure, we can and should get Tom Cruise back in the courtroom, but I’d like to see our brightest young American stars shine in this genre. Let Glen Powell take up the role of Mitch in The Firm sequel. Give Timothée Chalamet a closing trial monologue to make us weep. Have Zendaya make someone squirm on the witness stand, or uncover some documents not meant for her eyes. Jeremy Allen White? That man was made to yell “objection!” in a courtroom. Hell, Austin Butler’s voice is already stuck in John Grisham movie mode. Let him cook!
Plus, in life, as in art, sometimes it really does go all the way to the top.