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'The Gingerbread Man' Tells Gripping Tale of the South

'The Gingerbread Man" comes from major talents: director Robert Altman, stars Kenneth Branagh and Embeth Davidtz, and bestselling author John Grisham, who dreamed up the story.

Like other Grisham tales, including "The Rainmaker," it's about an attorney's adventures. While it offers no great revelations about the hero's profession, it has enough suspense and surprises - along with striking camera work and sound - to make it the most gripping entertainment of this very young year.

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Branagh plays Rick Magruder, a Georgia lawyer who's successful in the courtroom but dogged by personal problems. An ill-advised love affair gets him involved with a woman whose father appears to be threatening her safety. Magruder helps put him behind bars, then finds himself - and his children - the target of a dangerous scheme.

Parts of "The Gingerbread Man" seem like a replay of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," which also involves a Savannah attorney. "The Gingerbread Man" is more excitingly filmed, though, taking its tone from a feature of Southern life: hurricane season, which douses the story in more water than any picture this side of "Titanic."

The acting is also solid, starting with Branagh's believable Georgia accent. Robert Duvall etches the role of the father with his customary skill.

"The Gingerbread Man" won't go down as an Altman masterpiece, and its faithfulness to Hollywood-thriller rules makes it a touch less artful than some of his other films. But it's a pleasure to see the quality he brings to this genre.

* Rated R. Contains nudity, violence, and a menacing atmosphere.

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