The 20 Best Legal Thrillers In Cinema History

The legal thriller is a genre that often relies on heightened reality. The truth of the legal profession is less than gripping: a life of memorizing documents filed by a citation system that's relatively simple but sounds intimidating. Judges at varying stages of power trips. And there's lots of takeout food. What we're saying is that the job's usually a snore factory, and the most interesting lawyers that we've heard of are rarely our most beloved members of society.

A good legal thriller lets the lawyers out to play, often mixing together bits of legitimate law with blood-pumping action. A few special films manage to work mostly within the courtroom, ratcheting up the tension by virtue of an excellent cast and a situation we become invested in. It's the humanity caught within the legal documents that we're drawn to. And many films are all too real — fictional yet drawn from actual events and the heartbreak they caused. These are some of the best, and you won't need to know what United States v. Paramount was to enjoy any of them.

The Devil's Advocate

There are two great stories about putting the devil in the courtroom. "The Devil's Advocate" is way more bombastic than the classic tale "The Devil and Daniel Webster," but it's also a hell of a lot more fun. With the most blatant pseudonym since Sue Denim, Al Pacino takes his paycheck and gives back everything he can possibly offer as John Milton. The devil himself is here, and he's always ready to rock.

Facing him is a confused but affable Keanu Reeves, who doesn't quite sell it as down-home country lawyer Kevin Lomax. His accent is a riot, but he's so very "Keanu" that it doesn't matter. His wife is played by Charlize Theron in a remarkable and often haunting early role. "The Devil's Advocate" leans into the theatrical wildness of its premise with glimpses of demonic entities and temptations beyond measure. All of it hinges on a simple, moral choice Lomax makes in a courtroom one day — or so he believes. Satan's learned from his day with Daniel Webster, and it's doubtful Lomax is going to slip his blood-bound contract this time.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Today's audiences need reminders of how powerful a performer Gregory Peck was. From sober and fair to haunting to hilarious, he was one of the 20th-century cinema's brightest lights. In "To Kill A Mockingbird," based on Harper Lee's 1960 novel of the same name, it's initially fair to nick Peck's iconic outing as Atticus Finch as just another example of the white savior trope. But by the end of this heartbreaking story, Finch and his family have faced real peril — all for the crime of trying to teach these small-minded white men that Black lives matter and that the truth matters. It's Peck's performance that drives this message home.

Atticus Finch is a good man. He's so genuine that he feels purely fictional. There are real people like him around us, however, and it's that reminder that keeps this film from turning tragic. Still, there's sorrow enough in-store when you realize Finch's attempts to prove a young Black man's obvious innocence won't mean anything to this racist town. Note also that this film features the debut of Robert Duvall whose small but meaningful role provides the title drop.

My Cousin Vinny

Primarily a comedy, there's a taut thread in the first half of the legal world's favorite movie, "My Cousin Vinny." New York kid Bill Gambini (Ralph Macchio) and his best friend, Stan (Mitchell Whitfield), are at real risk of getting railroaded into first-degree murder charges in rural Alabama. They make the mistake of talking to the cops without a lawyer. Consequently, a shoplifting charge turns into a high-stakes mess, and you know the cops won't back down for fear of being embarrassed.

Enter Joe Pesci as Bill's cousin Vinny, big of heart and short on common sense, who's recently passed the bar exam and has the right to represent clients in civil cases — not criminal ones. Still, he can skate through on some fast talk and big-city charm — and that's half of good lawyerin' right there! The rest of the film is the funniest legal thriller ever.

The Firm

John Grisham rebooted the modern legal thriller in the '90s with a steady stream of bestselling potboilers that made everyone's parents sound like they knew a tort from a tortilla. The legal profession's answer to Michael Crichton, Grisham was both a practicing lawyer and former politician. The man knows how to sell the sizzle, and his second novel, "The Firm," became a Tom Cruise-led blockbuster in 1993.

Twisty enough to hold your attention and loaded with enough action to keep you awake, "The Firm" hides some nifty discussions of ethical dilemmas inside its Mafia-enabling-firm-versus-the-Feds exterior. Explaining what RICO charges are without putting an audience to sleep is an achievement in itself, and Cruise sells both idealism and cynicism in equal measure. Supporting him is a rock-solid cast, including Gene Hackman, Ed Harris, and Wilford Brimley in his most unsettling role since "The Thing." Brimley's not here to be cuddly, folks. He's going to protect the firm at all costs.

Primal Fear

Film nerds know immediately which film they were watching when they discovered Edward Norton. "Fight Club" is a popular entry point into the actor's career, but some lucky fans caught his first cinematic outing in 1996's "Primal Fear." A standard but well-oiled vehicle for star Richard Gere, the film gave the "An Officer and a Gentleman" star the meaty role of a defense lawyer whose client (Norton) is accused of murdering the priest that abused him for years.

As lawyer Martin Vail, Gere is as strong as ever, but he's immediately sidelined by his powerhouse costar. It has to be stressed that, at the time, Edward Norton was a nobody, and this role instantly put him in the running for an Academy Award

A mix of scenery-chomping destruction and pure, furious acting, the finale between Gere and Norton is a showstopper. Norton, as Aaron Stampler, is unforgettable. For those needing closure, "Primal Fear" is based on the novel by William Diehl and has two sequels that feature both Vail and his terrifying client.

A Civil Action

John Travolta enjoyed a modest comeback after his turn in "Pulp Fiction," and one of his best roles to come out of that period was as the real-life lawyer Jan Schlichtmann in "A Civil Action." A fictionalized but moderately accurate and intelligent depiction of the contamination incidents that happened in Woburn, Massachusetts, during the '70s, the film stars a perfectly cast Travolta as an opportunistic legal eagle. As Schlichtmann, he finds himself becoming passionate about an environmental disaster that's inflicted leukemia on a generation of local children. Still, he has a long road ahead of him.

A Superfund site is a big deal. It means the EPA has recognized and is diverting funds to clean up a hazardously polluted area. But first, the site needs to be legally recognized. The town of Woburn struggled for years to get a trio of corporations to admit they'd been quietly dumping a dangerous solvent. Jan Schlichtmann, seeing a fat paycheck, ends up in a struggle with corporate lawyers that wears him down. The key to the film is humanity — flawed, sick, tired humanity — versus a corporate monolith. "A Civil Action" is an excellent film that's never dry in how it showcases civil law.

The Lincoln Lawyer

Make your own jokes about Michael McConaughey's Lincoln car commercials. God knows I have. There's no proof that his role in the understated but rock-steady thriller "The Lincoln Lawyer" directly led to his secondary career, but it is a nice bit of synchronicity. Yes, McConaughey's skeevy-but-sharp lawyer, Mickey Haller, works out of a chunky old Lincoln Town Car, hence the name. Although he sells a certain street style, Haller is nevertheless smarter than the people he's up against.

Haller takes on a high-profile case that involves a rich boy up on some big charges. At first, he believes the kid. Haller has ethics and (for reasons of his own) prefers to take on clients he believes are innocent. However, genre fans know legal thrillers rarely end anywhere close to where they begin, and it'll be no surprise to learn that this poor rich boy is an entitled wolf with some big, bad hobbies. The case nearly spirals out of Haller's control, but McConaughey's intensity helps hold the whole thing together.

Bridge of Spies

It may seem weird to forget that a Steve Spielberg movie exists, but "Bridge of Spies" seems like it fell out of everyone's head after the 2015-2016 awards season. Tom Hanks plays real-life lawyer James Donovan who acted as a legal assistant in the Nuremberg Trials. In 1957, Donovan refused to compromise his principles and offered Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) a full defense despite his clear guilt. Hanks adds humility and strength to Donovan, who earns derision from his peers for doing his job.

Donovan wins Abel his life, ensuring his client avoids the death penalty. Donovan believes a living prisoner might one day save an American, and years later, he's proven right. In a plot twist worthy of a Tom Clancy novel, Donovan must oversee a prisoner exchange that turns complicated. All of this is set against the most stressful, paranoiac era of the Cold War, with the rise of the Berlin Wall becoming a poignant focal point. As lush and intricate as any Spielberg film, "Bridge of Spies" features yet another fantastic Hanks performance.

The Insider

The controversies that (slightly) hamstrung the massive United States tobacco industry are treated as historical fodder now — cute and archaic amidst the rise of vaping technology and a bevy of new products. But once upon a time, Big Tobacco was the force one did not mess with, and Michael Mann's legal drama "The Insider" breaks down one of their biggest scandals — one that nearly took the credibility of the respected CBS news program "60 Minutes" down with it.

Australian actor (and occasional brawler) Russell Crowe was already making waves in the U.S. when he was cast alongside Al Pacino in "The Insider." That's a tough draw for anyone, but Crowe, as the real-life whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, dances with Pacino's "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman with just the right amount of trepidation and force to make him the centerpiece. Yes, Bergman's devotion to his ethics in the face of pushback from network brass is the foundation, but Wigand's defiance is key to making it all happen. Underrated and overlooked, "The Insider" is one of Mann's best.

Presumed Innocent

Just before John Grisham blew up the legal thriller scene, there was Scott Turow. Overshadowed by the king of the bestseller list, former Chicago Assistant U.S. Attorney Turow nonetheless has a nice body of work any fan of the genre should look into. In 1990, Turow's first novel, "Presumed Innocent," was adapted into a sexy affair starring Harrison Ford at his mussiest and most befuddled.

There are not very many nice people in "Presumed Innocent," and that includes our protagonist. Kind of a dork, Ford, as Rusty Sabich, gets saddled with a case in which he has a major conflict of interest. Our boy was sleeping around with the recently deceased, and it's not long before he winds up looking like the prime suspect. In the sort of twist that only works in lusty, early '90s films, the real culprit is a head-spinner. Melodramatic but featuring great performances from Raul Julia and Bonnie Bedelia, "Presumed Innocent" is definitely a product of the 1990s — a really good product ... like Dunkaroos.

Erin Brokovich

For whatever inane reasons, everyone has performers they don't enjoy. I have some issues with Julia Roberts. It's not her. It's me. Regardless, no fan of legal thrillers can ignore "Erin Brokovich." It was a juggernaut, a solid critical and box office success with a full plate of award nominations, with Roberts starring as the real-life activist who brought the Hinkley groundwater contamination disaster to light.

Brokovich, as portrayed as Roberts, isn't plucky. She's ferocious in a way that sometimes undermines her goals. But there's no doubting her passion and tenacity, and her work as a legal clerk under Ed Masry (Albert Finney) puts her in a position to do something useful with her persistence. 

Again, a corporation has used a small town as a dumping ground, and again, there's an uphill fight to get the company to admit wrongdoing. The film is a showcase for Roberts as Brokovich as she navigates the tough world of corporate crime. Despite the film's hopeful note, the real-life cleanup of Hinkley, California, remains a painful affair. Today, the town is nearly deserted, its water still contaminated with chromium-6.

The Hurricane

Another historical drama with tough psychological moments and some hard discussions, "The Hurricane" is one of Denzel Washington's less well-remembered films. That's a shame. Directed by Norman Jewison with cinematography by the legendary Sir Roger Deakins, the film stars Washington as Rubin Carter. Carter was a Black boxing contender of the 1960s who earned the moniker The Hurricane for his speed in overpowering his opponent.

The movie uses a dual motif to tell Carter's story: The core of the film is Carter's racism-fueled conviction in a triple homicide in 1966, a miscarriage of justice that railroaded the boxer and his friend, John Artis (Garland Whitt), into multiple life sentences on little evidence and a lot of infringement on their constitutional rights. Alongside the main plot is the 1980s-based story of a young man named Lesra Martin (Vicellous Shannon), and his years-long struggle to get Carter's case re-examined in federal court. Heartbreaking, ever-relevant, and painful, "The Hurricane" features a slew of excellent performances. The reality behind the film is a little bit more complicated, but then, it always is for Black men in America.

A Time to Kill

Based on John Grisham's first novel (the fourth to be filmed), "A Time To Kill" is a leading contender for the best adaptation of the author's work. And while it feels like Matthew McConaughey has been with us forever, this is the film that provided his major breakthrough. "A Time To Kill" is a ticking timebomb of tension. It is a story that knows it's asking for the audience to root for a defendant who is clearly guilty, demands we examine our motivations, and allows us the empathy to accept them.

Justifiable homicide is a knotty issue. It's also not a defense that's going to hold water when furious father Carl Lee (Samuel L. Jackson) guns down the two men that raped and nearly killed his daughter (RaéVen Kelly). It's hard to keep the nuances in mind. Emotionally, Carl Lee is justified in his actions. His tangible rage surges throughout Jackson's fiery performance. However, the law is clearly not on his side. Grisham's tale of a man who does what the law will not remains controversial. "A Time To Kill" is an excellent story filled with complicated questions.

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What was up with Matthew McConaughey and legal dramas in the '90s? He's not the centerpiece of Steven Spielberg's "Amistad," though. That honor goes to Djimon Hounsou in one of his finest roles to date. The entire ensemble is excellent and includes Sir Anthony Hopkins (as John Quincey Adams), Morgan Freeman, Pete Postlethwaite, Stellan Skarsgard, and an early appearance by "12 Years a Slave's" Chiwetel Ejiofor. 

In 1839, Joseph Cinqué (Hounsou) leads a revolt aboard the slave ship La Amistad. However, he and the survivors arrive on the shores of the United States, not Africa. Soon, Cinqué and his fellow captives are caught up in a legal battle over their rights as property. 

Of course, this pre-Civil War film recognizes the great evil of slavery, but the fight itself is bittersweet. The defense and the audience know this is about basic humanity, but in that era, it was, unfortunately, more about politics and the proper accounting of legal property. It should disgust — and it does. There's little that's purely optimistic here, but Hopkins provides a stunner of speech that helps give hope as the credits roll.


It's a blessing that both the social stigma and the health threat of HIV/AIDS have been greatly reduced. For many gay men in the 1980s, the risk of the disease and the impact their sexuality had on their public lives caused them to live in constant fear. It was not mainstream. Sexuality was often hidden. Consequently, thousands died in silence. "Philadelphia" helped to change that

"Philadelphia" also turned Tom Hanks into a serious dramatic actor. Its success relies on the humanity and the empathy that grows between Hanks and Denzel Washington.

The civil case presented in the film is fairly straightforward. Hanks stars as Andrew Beckett, a lawyer who tries to keep his sexuality and HIV diagnosis secret. When he is dismissed after a paperwork error, he suspects his firing was punitive —  a way for his firm to avoid a wrongful termination suit on the basis of discrimination. 

At the height of the AIDS crisis, Beckett is left to advocate for himself. Joe Miller, a homophobic Black lawyer who fears the now-debunked ways to contract AIDS, realizes the parallels between racism and this new era of discrimination and agrees to help. As a memoir of a dark period in modern America, "Philadelphia" is a heartbreaker. We're a little better than this now. But there's still a long way to go.


Based on author Lorenzo Carcaterra's 1995 book of the same name, "Sleepers" is a tough story about the life-destroying weight of abuse. Although the film's courthouse drama feels understated compared to its larger story of the tragedy that befell a handful of Hell's Kitchen kids and how they exacted revenge on their abusers, Brad Pitt's performance is gripping throughout.

A brutal counterpart to "Stand By Me," "Sleepers" is a lesson in outsized consequences. The four young protagonists are street punks who make extra cash by doing odd jobs for local crime families, but they're not bad kids at heart. They screw up and end up in a juvenile center run by sadistic guards who prey on them. As adults, the scars of their experiences are deep. A revenge killing pulls the four back together for a bittersweet reunion that can't last. Yes, Carcaterra's story has earned pushback over the years, but with the Kids for Cash scandals and the horrifying Elan School tragedy as our reality, this fictional tale of revenge is cathartic.

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A Few Good Men

How can you not be a sucker for Jack Nicholson yelling at the top of his lungs? "A Few Good Men" sets up some good reasons for Nicholson to be an utterly entertaining bastard by putting him on a witness stand in front of a full audience. In the film's famous courtroom sequence (which has caused even eight-year-olds to scream "You can't handle the truth!" without having any idea where the phrase came from) the veteran actor is gripped in ham-to-ham combat with none other than Tom Cruise.

Written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Rob Reiner, "A Few Good Men" walks its audience through the purposefully complicated world of military law. Court martials are at stake for two young Marines accused of murder, but the chain of command means that's neither where the story ends nor where it begins. As Colonel Jessup, Nicholson is as terrifying as he is mesmerizing. Ultimately, what's at stake in "A Few Good Men" is the true definition of honor.


I'm not going to play around. Oliver Stone's "JFK" is fiction built out of all the juiciest bits of conspiracy that came out of the Warren Commission. Still, it's terrific fiction — a stewpot of magnificent performances and cinematography that lingers in the mind. It's got John Candy in a rare dramatic role as a troublesome New Orleans lawyer. It's got Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald. It's got Donald Sutherland as a faux Deep Throat guiding Kevin Costner through a conspiracy-filled minefield.

Nominally, "JFK" is about the way these complicated theories build on each other, giving rise to our collective frustration with finding the truth. It is also about trying to implicate the so-called deep state for the assassination of a sitting president. As tantalizing as that may be, the movie doesn't sell the premise well enough for even its fictional jury to buy. It's a great film that gives insight into Oliver Stone's alternate reality. Yet, like a glimpse through Tolkien's palantíri, it's not real. But it is spectacular to watch.

12 Angry Men

There's a fair chance you saw Sidney Lumet's "12 Angry Men" as part of a course in high school or college. If you haven't seen it since then, it's time for a rewatch. The kind of film that Aaron Sorkin fights to recreate with his didactic intrigues, "12 Angry Men" is a masterwork of body language and dialogue. The key to "12 Angry Men" is its simplicity: An anonymous jury of 12 men must deliberate over the fate of a young man who, if he's found guilty, will be sentenced to death.

For roughly 90 minutes, these men interrogate each other, sometimes aggressively, about the details that stick out from the testimony they've heard over a long trial. They must also contend with the issues of memory and emotion. Behavioral cues become meaningful, personal stakes become important, and in the end, they make the only decision they can. 

Michael Clayton

Directed by Tony Gilroy, writer of the "Jason Bourne" franchise, "Michael Clayton" has a title that makes it sound like it's going to be a docudrama about some boring, typical white dude. But keep the "Bourne" thing in mind. As the titular Clayton, George Clooney is an amoral troubleshooter for a big law firm. He's kind of like The Wolf (Harvey Keitel) from "Pulp Fiction" but sexier. No offense, Harvey.

"Michael Clayton" is an intricate thrill-ride that looks at John Grisham's work and says, "Yes, that's very nice. But how about we add some explosions?" To make sure the audience is awake, the film starts with the possibility that Clayton is dead. Then, we go back several days to see just how he wound up with a self-disassembling car. The answers are complicated, but naturally, greed is a factor. This movie deserves the chance to be seen with no expectations on the part of the audience, so let's end any discussion of plot details here. Trust the reviews on this one. The critics loved it. You will, too.