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For the last seven years, screenwriter Tony Gilroy has meticulously constructed the Bourne trilogy, a superb series that see amnesia victim Matt Damon dashing through increasingly thrilling episodes to discover his identity as basically a bad guy. In "Michael Clayton," his directing debut, which he also wrote, Gilroy has reduced his formula to a single film: The eponymous Michael Clayton hurries -- dashes would be too strong a word -- through increasingly dangerous episodes to learn what he probably already knows, that by doing the dirty work of pond scum he is little more than a bad guy himself.
As with the Bourne films, Gilroy has a knack for creating strong characters and situations that resonate with tension. It may be formula, but the guy is a solid chemist as he crafts excellent set-ups and payoffs, and he has mastered those "ah-hah" moments when everything locks into place. With newly Oscar-anointed George Clooney heading a cast who love to roll up their sleeves to dig into their roles, "Michael Clayton" should perform well above average for Warner Bros.
Maybe all large corporate law firms have guys like Michael. He calls himself a "janitor." He is a lawyer, but his "niche," as the Manhattan firm's co-founder Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack) so delicately puts it, is to clean up messes by the firm's motley clients.
While driving back from a cleaning job in upstate New York, Michael unaccountably stops on a lonely road to observe a trio of horses. (This is one of several plot holes.) Suddenly, his car blows up. Someone has tried to kill him!
Backtrack four days. Near the conclusion of a six-year class-action suit against an agrochemical client, the firm's top litigator, Arthur Evans (Tom Wilkinson), who is on the road and about to pull off a pretrial settlement, suffers a movie-attorney meltdown, the kind real-life lawyers never have: Like Al Pacino in "... And Justice For All," Arthur discovers that his client is guilty as Hell, and he wants to make amends. A manic-depressive and off his meds, he is switching sides. He is also behaving strangely as he performs a strip tease during a deposition.
Michael rushes to the Midwest to rescue mad Arthur from lock-up. Arthur slips from his custody and gets back to Manhattan where he holes up in his loft and makes surreptitious phone calls to a female plaintive.
Meanwhile, Michael's own life is in freefall. A serious gambling addict, he has decided to gamble instead on a restaurant venture, which his alcoholic brother has run into the ground. He owes $75,000 to some apparently bad guys and makes a devil's bargain to turn the Arthur situation around for a bailout by the firm.
The agrochemical company's chief counsel Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), so anxious and overwhelmed by her knowledge of the firm's culpability and, by implication, her own shortcomings, panics. She hires shady characters to take care of loose-cannon Arthur. Following this much more noxious type of cleaning job, the shady characters can't help noticing Michael snooping around to learn the truth behind his friend's demise. Thus, the maladroit car bomb.
All of this cloak-and-dagger melodrama is designed to make Michael question what kind of man he has become in the firm's "niche." "What are you?" asks Arthur. "You know exactly what you are," spits his cop-brother in another scene.
A question you may ask yourself: Why a car bomb? Isn't that rather clumsy and attention-getting in the midst of a delicate legal settlement? And why on earth do the hoods stake out the sealed loft of the deceased?
Funnily enough, you ask these questions only after the credits roll. Until then, you are genuinely caught up in the thriller, as Gilroy proves a decent director of his own literary inventions. He trusts his actors, and they return the favor with solid characterizations down even to small roles.
A clutch of major directors who signed on to produce -- Pollack, Steven Soderbergh and Anthony Minghella -- make sure Gilroy is surrounded by pros: Cinematographer Robert Elswit keeps things crisp and immaculate. Designer Kevin Thompson makes every set and location an eye-grabber. James Newton Howard never intrudes with his score but keeps the tension subtly building. And Gilroy's own editor-brother John has nicely stitched together the often complex scenes.
Warners Bros Pictures presents in association with Samuels Media and Castle Rock Entertainment a Mirage Enterprises/Section Eight production
Writer/director: Tony Gilroy
Producers: Sydney Pollack, Jennifer Fox, Steven Samuels, Kerry Orent;
Executive producers: Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney, James Hold, Anthony Minghella
Director of photography: Robert Elswit
Production designer: Kevin Thompson
Music: James Newton Howard
Costume designer: Sarah Edwards
Editor: John Gilroy.
Michael Clayton: George Clooney
Arthur Edens: Tom Wilkinson
Karen Crowder: Tilda Swinton
Marty Bach: Sydney Pollack
Barry Grissom: Michael O'Keefe
Don Jefferies: Ken Howard
MPAA rating: R, running time 120 minutes.