Recently, I made the point that Hollywood needs to bring back the ‘90s legal thriller, a genre that once dominated the big screen but has all but disappeared. Based on the reaction to my article, many of you agreed. We wanted masterful arguing and devastating twists! We longed for charisma in the courtroom! We needed this to all take place in under two and half hours instead of a tedious 10-part streaming series! Well, ask and you shall receive.
Two movies hit this week that coincidentally satisfy those requirements: The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial and The Burial. Admittedly, both are more legal drama than thriller. And neither is going to make $250 million at the box office and be the movie event of the season. But after watching both, I can confirm that they do scratch that itch.
First up is The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, which premieres on Paramount+ with Showtime on October 6th. It’s a straightforward, thoroughly competent courtroom drama based on the 1953 Herman Wouk play of the same name. Wouk based the stage play on his 1952 novel—and that book was then adapted into a Humprey Bogart film in 1954. Robert Altman also previously adapted the play into a TV movie in the 1980s, starring Jeff Daniels, Peter Gallagher, and a young Eric Bogosian. Basically, we now have enough Caine Mutiny Court-Martials to publish “Caine Mutiny Court-Martials, Ranked.”
The 2023 Caine Mutiny Court-Martial is legendary director William Friedkin’s final work, released posthumously after his death this August. It takes place almost entirely in the insulated world of a courtroom. The case at hand? An accused mutiny on a naval vessel stationed near the Persian Gulf. (That’s right, baby—this one’s for the ship freaks too.)
Jason Clarke, whom we last saw doing some hibachi-level legal grilling in the third act of Oppenheimer, plays Lieutenant Barney Greenwald. He’s a lawyer tasked with defending the young Lieutenant Stephen Maryk, who’s accused of plotting a mutiny against his ship captain Lieutenant Commander Phillip Queeg—none other than ‘90s legal thriller stalwart Keifer Sutherland. The head judge is also played by the late, great Lance Reddick in his final performance.
Because the film is so self-contained, with the events of the accused mutiny relayed only through various witness testimonies, everything relies on the acting—which more than delivers. The whole feel is also charmingly vintage. I mean, when was the last time mutiny seemed plausible in the 21st century? This is one to keep you going until The Wager film adaptation hits.
Also on October 6th, The Burial comes to theaters, before streaming on Prime Video on October 13th. The Burial is based on a true case from the ‘90s in which a failing family funeral home business took on a big funeral industry baddie. Tommy Lee Jones (‘90s legal drama siren) plays Jerry O’Keefe, the plaintiff and owner of the small business, and Jamie Foxx plays Willie E. Gary, his slick, fast-talking, Johnny Cochran-idolizing lawyer.
The Burial is more fun and flashier than any of the John Grisham adaptations, but it does hit many of the same notes—a Southern setting, an evil corporation, and a supremely charismatic lawyer at its center with Foxx. Jurnee Smollett, as the fierce defense lawyer Mame Downes, is a welcome foil for Foxx. (Alan Ruck of Succession and Bill Camp—where are my Campers at?—also star.)
Will the legal drama be ascendent again? Will we ever return to the halcyon days of a $50 million Grisham adaptation packing the theater? We may never fully get back there, but this a good start for a new wave—and a good reminder to text your dad.