Courtroom dramas based on true stories about plucky underdogs taking on huge corporations and winning have become a staple of previous awards seasons, Erin Brockovich being just one notable example. However, in recent years, nominating panels have come to overlook such films in favor of edgier fare like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Parasite. It perhaps makes sense, then, that a film like Clark Johnson’s Percy Vs Goliath, which was made in 2019 and tells a well-worn tale of a salt-of-the-earth farmer fighting a courtroom battle against an agricultural giant, is only being given a low-profile, online-only release now, having failed to attract much publicity or awards chatter during its festival run. Even the title, which sounds like it could only have been tweaked slightly from an elevator pitch, tells the viewer that this film isn’t going to stray too far from its formerly Oscar-baiting narrative mold.

The film is set in Bruno, Saskatchewan during the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, at the height of public anxiety over genetically modified foods. It stars a cast-against-type Christopher Walken as Percy Schmeiser, a veteran farmer in his late sixties who receives a letter informing him that he owes agricultural corporation Monsanto several thousand dollars as they own a patent to all of his crops which can resist their genetically modified weed-killing agent. Angered at the idea that he cannot legally continue to grow crops which he’s been happily cultivating for decades due to a loophole in intellectual property law, Percy and his wife Louise (Roberta Maxwell) enlist the services of personable small-time lawyer Jackson Weaver (Zach Braff) to contest Monsanto’s demand for payment in court. The trio are joined in their years-long uphill legal battle against the company by the youthful and idealistic but media-savvy and self-interested Rebecca Salcau (Christina Ricci), a campaigner at the People for Environmental Protection, an organization which provides financial assistance to the Schmeisers.

Credit should be given to Walken, Maxwell et. al for turning in (mostly) engaging performances here, and Johnson and cinematographer Luc Montpellier manage, in the film’s early scenes, to vividly visually convey the bleakness of farming in Canadian autumnal conditions. However, the story never does anything experimental with the storytelling tropes it employs, meaning that it feels clichéd and predictable at several crucial points. As we’re so used to seeing Walken playing evil, villainous characters in films like A View to a Kill and True Romance, it’s difficult for the viewer not to hear his distinctive, oscillating voice and associate it with those earlier roles, thus allowing them to be distracted from the film they’re supposed to be watching.

Another flaw of Percy Vs Goliath is that the story itself now feels somewhat dated, with a lot of the fears about genetically modified foods on which it’s centered now having been debunked. Steven MacKinnon’s score is used by Johnson in a very on-the-nose way and occasionally becomes intrusive. Having said that, the film poses a very reasonable question: namely, how can the average citizen be expected to keep track of all legislation pertaining to their business and personal dealings without falling afoul of loopholes that can be exploited by business interests? And Walken manages to make a genuinely affecting speech on the evil genius of Monsanto’s business model (i.e. in order for a farmer to determine whether their crops are resistant to the company’s GM weed agent, they have to spray all their crops with it, meaning that any of their crops that can’t resist it die and the ones that survive are proven to be resistant and thus Monsanto’s intellectual property), as well as the emotional and financial stress the company has caused to average farmers.

Overall, Percy Vs Goliath is an engaging but predictable and clichéd courtroom drama with entertaining performances from an interesting cast. Clark Johnson displays none of the distinctive visual flair he brought to TV series like “The Wire” and “Your Honor,” or even his 2003 action feature, S.W.A.T., and he reaffirms his status here as a director who, on a technical level at least, does his best work on the small screen. The film feels somewhat out of step with modern cinematic mores and like it would have enjoyed more success 15 years ago or so, but devotees of films like A Few Good Men and A Time to Kill may well have a good time watching it.

Christopher Walken stars in an engaging but predictable legal drama based on a true story.
62 %
Engaging but Predictable
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