Trial attorney Jedediah Tucker (Gene Hackman) has built his reputation defending the underdog against huge, impenetrable corporations. His latest David vs. Goliath case involves a man suing an auto company over a safety problem that left him crippled and caused the deaths of his wife and baby. Things get complicated when Jed discovers that the defence attorney is none other than his estranged daughter, Maggie (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio).
There are two kinds of courtroom drama. Those that deal with the ethical issues underlining the legal process (e.g. Anatomy of a Murder (1959), And Justice For All (1979), A Civil Action (1998)) and those that use the courtroom as a backdrop for all kinds of sexy goings on (Jagged Edge (1986), The Lincoln Lawyer (2011), most John Grisham movies). Class Action falls squarely in the former camp yet while husband and wife screenwriter-producers Christopher Ames and Carolyn Shelby (in their sole feature film credit after extensive television work) and co-writer Samantha Shad steer clear of trashy melodrama the film still boasts something of a high-concept gimmick. It is dad versus daughter as the somewhat overbearing and self-righteous Jedediah takes on the resentful and ambitious Maggie. Early on their long-suffering wife and mother (Joanna Merlin) remarks that she should have locked them in a room together years ago so they could sort out their differences. Which is exactly what happens as the courtroom becomes an extension of their personal issues.
Class Action spends equal time detailing Jed and Maggie's domestic squabbles along with their clashes in the courtroom and the screenwriters can't resist upping the stakes with some soap opera plot wrinkles: e.g. Mom dies immediately after their first courtroom battle, Maggie is literally in bed with the enemy. Nevertheless the film avoids ringing any false notes thanks to a sober tone, solid scripting and full-throttle performances from the leads. Both Hackman and the oft-underrated Mastrantonio inhabit their roles with mega-wattage movie star charisma. Of course actors love courtroom dramas because they provide an opportunity for big impassioned monologues. Here however the stars carefully modulate their performances so that the expected showboating seems suitably naturalistic.
British director Michael Apted's background in documentary filmmaking ensures the film is pretty unsparing in detailing the legal system, warts and all, which includes the often brutal treatment of people caught in the crossfire between prosecution and defence. For example the scene where Maggie destroys an elderly scientist (Jan Rubes) on the witness stand. Especially fascinating are the sneaky tactics employed by either side that skirt the parameters of what is legal, such as when Maggie's firm bury some damning facts on their case in a blitz of pointless information sent to the prosecution team. Though the sober, even handed approach does leave the film lacking the kind of dramatic fireworks that would make it stand out in the memory, it plays overall because the ethical and emotional conflicts driving the plot seem real, not contrived.