One of his clients is a man wrongly imprisoned due to a name mix up and frame job, and whom the Jerkass Judge Henry T. Fleming (Forsythe) won't release due to a minor technicality. His close friend and colleague Jay Porter (Jeffrey Tambor) has a mental breakdown when a client murders again after being acquitted, and Kirkland watches as one of his cases goes to an apathetic lawyer. He's also in trouble with the state bar ethics committee, for snitching on a client (after he learned that someone was forcing people to put lit cherry bombs in their mouths at gunpoint... just like the client had repeatedly fantasized about doing). Meanwhile, he's romantically involved with one of the committee members (Christine Lahti), his beloved grandfather (Lee Strasberg) is slipping into dementia, and the closest thing he has to a mentor is eccentric Judge Francis Rayford (Jack Warden), who repeatedly engages in borderline-suicidal behavior.
While Kirkland is in this happy place, he learns that Judge Fleming has been arrested for rape. Not only that, but to his gaping incredulity, he learns that Fleming wants Kirkland to be the defense attorney. Fleming, though he loathes Kirkland, feels that if he's seen representing him, it will make people think Kirkland believes he's innocent and help the case, since why defend a man he so despises otherwise? Kirkland can't get out of it either, because Fleming has friends in high places, and great sway over the ethics committee (he is also the one that brought the client-snitching to their attention), as the judge reminds him.
Stress and frustration mount up as one client commits suicide and another is killed in prison. Meanwhile, Kirkland gets more and more proof that Fleming is guilty as hell. Then, just before Kirkland stands up to give his opening statement on Fleming's behalf, the judge says he'd be happy to "meet" the victim again sometime...
Not to be confused with Metallica's 1988 album of the same name.
This work contains examples of:
- Actually Pretty Funny: The man with "diabetes" gets the whole courtroom, including the cop testifying against him, laughing when he calls the judge a douchebag.
- Amoral Attorney: Played with. Kirkland's girlfriend Gail Packer, from the ethics committee, points out that much of what disgusts him about the justice system is, in fact, legally and procedurally correct. She presents an opposing view from Kirkland by standing up for the law and enforcing a separation of emotions from duty; people who let their emotions or personal convictions interfere with their job can't be effective lawyers. Kirkland retorts that something being legal doesn't make it right, but on the latter point she's vindicated by the end.
- Bittersweet Ending: Jeff is dead and Kirkland will probably be disbarred, but he has kept his integrity.
- Black Comedy: The film puts a fair amount of effort into showing the people involved in the justice system either don't care about the lives/laws involved, or end up killing themselves unless they can turn it into a big joke. Judge Rayford's approach is that life sucks, combining both results.
- Casting Gag: Lee Strasberg plays Arthur's (Al Pacino) scatterbrained and loving grandpa while just a few years earlier he was playing Michael Corleone's (also Al Pacino) hated Arch-Enemy Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part II.
- Chewing the Scenery: Pacino's over-the-top performance during Kirkland's opening argument gives rise to a famous quote. Given what his character's going through, this was probably the best way to play it.
- Confess in Confidence: After Kirkland confronts Fleming with some incriminating photographs he's gotten, Fleming confesses to having committed the rape, which Kirkland cannot disclose by law. However, he would be legally required to turn over photographic evidence to the prosecution...
- Death Seeker: Judge Rayford has figured out the meaning of life after skydiving with a broken parachute and reserve; it sucks. Because of this, Kirkland identifies him as having a death wish, and the audience gets to see him trying to eat a bullet during a recess.
- Deus Angst Machina: If you're a client of either Kirkland or one of his friends, the best way to be found guilty is to be completely innocent, or vice versa.
- Did I Mention It's Christmas?: The last time Kirkland visits his grandfather at the nursing home, a Christmas tree is visible in the background. No other mention of the holiday is ever made, but the visit before last was Thanksgiving and it's explicit that Kirkland hasn't come for three weeks, which would often coincide with the Christmas season.
- Disproportionate Retribution: Fleming tells Kirkland they should have unjust punishments, like hanging people for armed robbery, while rehabilitation is a joke. This drives Kirkland away in disgust. Ironically, Fleming has beaten and raped a woman himself. One wonders about what punishment he would get under the system he's proposing.
- Driven to Suicide:
- Entitled Bastard: Fleming, especially when he blackmailed the honest Kirkland to defend him in court.
- Frame-Up: Jeff had the knife which a guard was stabbed with planted in his cell, leading him to be sentenced to five years in prison.
- Freeze-Frame Ending: The credits roll over Arthur's stunned expression as he sees Jay coming back to work, apparently back to normal.
- Good Lawyers, Good Clients: Arthur Kirkland appears to be a straight example, because Aggie's guilt is firmly established, but he'd probably be fine if he was kept in good company, while Jeff is innocent of everything except for having a broken taillight, for which he's spent months in jail as a result. But Kirkland's other two on-screen clients aren't as good; his "first" client (the first one he ever represented, not the first one the audience sees) turns out to be a Manipulative Bastard of his own, regularly getting into trouble by consorting with prostitutes and hiding it from his wife. He gets great information that Judge Fleming is actually innocent of this crime, despite the judge's horrible ideas. Which turns out to have been manufactured by the judge's "friends", without ever having to give an explicit request.
- Grey-and-Gray Morality: The entire legal system, as depicted in the film, combines this with copious amounts of Crapsack World and World Gone Mad. The judges are either borderline insane like Rayford, or downright evil like Fleming. The prosecutors are more interested in punishing people for minor offenses while pursuing high-profile cases that make them look good in the press. Most of the public defenders have either surrendered to apathy or are so swamped with cases that they can't apply any sound judgment handling them, and even the ones who want to do good like Kirkland can't break through the wall of corruption and incompetence overwhelming the courts.
- Hanging Judge: Fleming. He is not interested if the people he judges are guilty or not and seems to punish people because he enjoys it.
- Hated by All: Judge Fleming is such an asshole that almost nobody in the entire city thinks he's innocent of rape.
- Hate Sink: Judge Fleming. He is completely absent of any redeeming qualities, punishes innocent people without a thought and is a sadistic rapist to boot.
- Heroic BSoD: Kirkland, about halfway into the movie and well up to the moment Fleming pushes him over the edge.
- Hollywood Law:
- It doesn't seem that Kirkland should be in danger of losing his license over telling the police his former client was probably the one forcing lit cherry bombs into people's mouths. Attorney-client privilege only applies to past crimes, and this was a crime the client fantasized about committing in the future. In that case, attorneys are actually required to notify the police of what their client plans.
- Some of the evidence Kirkland digs up on Fleming should have been turned over to the prosecutor's office too. For instance, Fleming reveals to him that a supposed witness who says he saw another man leaving where his victim lived actually was paid to lie. Knowing that, he had an obligation not to put this witness on and report the planned crime, which would torpedo Fleming's case through a completely legal method, rather than killing his career by turning on Fleming during his opening argument. The photographic evidence which shows Fleming did know the victim previously could also be turned over.
- Hypocrite: Judge Henry T. Fleming is a staunch conservative who thinks punishments should be much harsher than they are, with no sympathy toward criminals (even when they turn out to be innocent). It is revealed he's a rapist himself, not only having no remorse, but casually saying he would like to do the same thing again.
- Important Haircut: Jay Porter shaves his head after flipping out over a client who murdered two children after he got him off.
- Jerkass: Fleming is disgustingly arrogant and condescending to everyone and has nothing but contempt and disregard for his fellow man. By the movie's end, when he makes that horrifying remark about his rape victim, it's revealed he's not merely a jerkass but a savage rapist too.
- Miscarriage of Justice: Jeff was arrested due to Mistaken Identity (he had the same name as a suspect) then framed by other inmates for a prison guard's stabbing. Kirkland can't get him out due to the evidence clearing him coming in too late, leading Jeff to snap, taking hostages after being gang-raped by fellow prisoners and is then shot dead by a police sniper.
- Mood Whiplash: From zany comedy to heavy drama and back again.
- My God, What Have I Done?: Warren's reaction, after learning that Ralph hanged himself after getting sent to jail due to him forgetting to show up at a hearing to present favorable evidence which could have gotten Ralph probation instead.
- No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Kirkland's honest attempts to help his clients Jeff and Ralph led him to be jailed at the beginning of the film and later Jeff's and Ralph's deaths. Also, even though he got Fleming in jail for the rape crime at the film's climax, he'll probably be disbarred.
- An Offer You Can't Refuse: The first time the offer is made, it's done indirectly, through Judge Rayford. Kirkland realizes that Fleming may have connections that will cause him to be disbarred if he chooses not to represent Judge Fleming. The offer continually gets worse for Kirkland, until he finally snaps during his opening arguments, revealing the corruption he's discovered.
- Off on a Technicality: Cruelly inverted with Jeff, whom Kirkland is unable to get off (although he's innocent) because of a technicality.
- Parental Abandonment: Kirkland was abandoned by his parents as a child and raised by his grandfather, who was the one who encouraged him to become a lawyer and put him through school.
- Prison Rape: What drives Jeff over the edge.
- Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: A trait of Kirkland, especially when he decides to turn against Fleming at the trial at the climax of the film.
- Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: The fed-up Judge Rayford leaves his stand after Kirkland's antics and his delivery of his Signature Line (see below) after telling him he's out of order to keep him under control and having him removed from the courtroom.
- Signature Line: "You're out of order! You're out of order! The whole trial is out of order!"
- Slimeball: Fleming, an Entitled Bastard who smugly admits he's guilty and takes sadistic joy in sleazily expressing a desire to rape his victim again.
- Smug Snake: Fleming, he is arrogant and an Entitled Bastard in general, freely admits he's guilty of the charge leveled and makes a sleazy remark about wanting to rape his victim again.
- The Sociopath: Fleming, as he has a Lack of Empathy towards innocents who appeared before him in court like Jeff and expresses interest in raping his victim again, which led him to be on the other side of the trial with Kirkland to defend him without any remorse or true guilt and evenly smugly admitting he's guilty like he was proud of his crime before the trial when pictures of him with a call girl are revealed to him.
- Soft-Spoken Sadist: Fleming, a Smug Snake Slimeball who seems to take pleasure in declaring innocent convicts to be guilty and voices a desire to rape his victim again once he is cleared of charges himself.
- Title Drop: The opening credits are accompanied by voice overs of children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, which naturally ends with the title phrase.
- Villainous BSoD: Fleming scornfully sits down in defeat after Kirkland betrays him in court.
- What the Hell, Hero?: Kirkland bitchslaps Fleming with this; even though the latter is evil, he's still a judge.Kirkland: You son of a bitch! You're — you're supposed to stand for something! You're supposed to protect people! Instead you FUCKING MURDER THEM!!!