Just Cause (1995)
Just Cause (1995)

Genre: Thriller Running Time: 1 hr. 42 min.

Release Date: February 17th, 1995 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Arne Glimcher Actors: Sean Connery, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Capshaw, Blair Underwood, Ed Harris, Christopher Murray, Ruby Dee, Scarlett Johansson, Ned Beatty

 


 

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or eight years, former Cornell student Bobby Earl Ferguson (Blair Underwood) has been on death row for murder. His conviction is likened to a difficult life in Ochopee, Florida, a small, racist town that desperately wanted revenge for the brutal rape, scimitar mutilation, and murder of 11-year-old Joanie Shriver, the daughter of a popular white doctor. Earl’s confession, given after 22 hours of torture, was mercilessly coerced by Sheriff Tanny Brown (Laurence Fishburne), a black officer intent on preventing those he dislikes or disapproves of from escaping his wrath. His methods are well beyond legal parameters and he exhibits all the signs of a loose-cannon psychopath.

As Earl’s scheduled execution looms, he begs his grandmother Evangeline (Ruby Dee) to contact lawyer Paul Armstrong (Sean Connery). Though he’s been retired for 25 years, Armstrong is a current Harvard professor and notably opposed to the death penalty. His wife Laurie (Kate Capshaw) has unknown ties to the boy, prompting her to coax him into investigating the circumstances of the case.

Reluctantly, Paul decides to dig around in Florida, where he’s welcomed with immediate hostility and vandalism. He’s tearing open a wound that the narrow-minded, vengeful townsfolk aren’t too thrilled about. Public defender McNair (Ned Beatty) practically gave up on the case, realizing that Earl wasn’t in a position to win the “popularity contest” that was the crooked trial. And though Detective T.J. Wilcox (Christopher Murray) bullies the newcomer, no one presents more of a roadblock than Tanny Brown, who isn’t afraid to use physical intimidation to get his point across. The crime was supposedly solved – so why go poking around in someone else’s jurisdiction? Clearly, justice hasn’t been attained.

Ed Harris is perfectly cast against type as the “Angel of Death” serial killer, a man also on death row for a string of heinous sex crimes. He reveals that upbringing isn’t always the reason for murder – he simply had a predisposition for an appetite. His performance channels the kinds of cinematic killer hopefuls emulating Hannibal Lecter. Likewise, Sean Connery delivers a sensationally genuine turn as the professor, proving once again that even in a mediocrely written role, he’s a joy to watch. Also, look for Scarlett Johansson in an early bit part as Armstrong’s daughter.

Flashbacks to the victim, to Earl’s torture, and to torments in the prison aren’t very effective, but thankfully they’re short-lived. “Just Cause” is paced and styled like a courtroom drama, with a brilliantly devious plot featuring an above-standard presentation of hunting for clues, uncovering conspiracies, and interrogating witnesses. Toward the climax, however, the movie abruptly changes tone and structure to become something of an action thriller (a path identically undertaken by “8MM” four years later); it goes so far as to include a slow-motion leap off a bridge in a car (accompanied by a tense score by James Newton Howard). And the inevitable twist ending (the existence of the gimmick being expected, the actual scenario not so predictable) alters the direction of the picture so drastically that it feels like two different movies sewn together. Had it not been for this odd approach to the finale, “Just Cause” would have been a much more rewarding little experiment. But despite its faults, it still deserves credit for the character designs and story ideas – an all-around, pleasantly suspenseful assemblage, based on the novel by John Katzenbach (“The Mean Season,” “Hart’s War”) with a screenplay by Jeb Stuart (“Die Hard,” “The Fugitive”) and executive produced by Sean Connery himself.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10