One of numerous studio-backed potboilers to have largely fallen out of the public memory, Michael Apted’s Class Action is an almost entirely formulaic legal drama that benefits from – and is immeasurably lifted by – stars Gene Hackman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. They squeeze every ounce of emotion and conflict out of it. Nobody was going to win awards from the writing or the serviceable direction, but seeing two great actors go head-to-head is always worth a viewer’s time.
The plot contrives to take two characters – a father and a daughter, both lawyers – and pit them against one another in a set-up that allows their professional battle to reflect their personal animosity. Jed Ward (Hackman) is a left-wing crusader in the courtroom, and is hired to lead a lawsuit against a large car manufacturer. His daughter Margaret (Mastrantonio) works as an associate for the slick, high-end law firm that has been hired to defend the case. There is, of course, corporate malfeasance involved, and no one will be surprised at how the courtroom battle turns out, but it’s all a framework for the main attraction anyway.
Gene Hackman is, to my mind, one of the greatest actors of the 20th century. From 1964 to 2004 his career encompassed two Oscar wins, another three nominations, and a string of iconic screen characters. “Popeye” Doyle in The French Connection. Harry Caul in The Converssation. “Little Bill” Daggett in Unforgiven. He has provided his exceptional talent and premise to the likes of Crimson Tide, Superman, Enemy of the State, Mississippi Burning, No Way Out, Night Moves, The Poseidon Adventure, and numerous others. To his performances Hackman brought all of the experience and energy of a broken childhood, a working-class background, and a four-year stint as a US marine. He combined an undercurrent of simmering rage with an innate charisma that made him the most watchable character on screen in any film in which he appeared.
Class Action may be a simple film with an ordinary script, but Apted smartly gives much of the attention to Hackman’s acting. Jed may be a celebrated ‘lion of the left’, but in Hackman’s hands he is also boastful, elitist, untrustworthy, and petty. He makes it evidently clear why his daughter despises him, and yet he does so in such a human fashion that he remains engaging throughout.
He is well-matched with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, another actor whose work I have consistently appreciated. Whether here, on in Scarface, The Abyss, and even Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, she always brings a bold presence. She needs it here, playing directly opposite Hackman and successfully matching him throughout. They are the reason to watch Class Action; they are the reason the film remains enjoyable. There are other excellent performers in the film, including Donald Moffat, Laurence Fishburne, and Colin Friels, but they cannot help being sidelined by Mastrantonio and Hackman. It is their show. It is their success.