Judge Clark Douglas would rather spend an afternoon swimming with alligators than sit through this film again.
Buried deep in the Florida Everglades is a secret that can free an innocent man or let a killer kill again.
"Every now and then, you have to get a little bloody. It's good for the soul."
Facts of the Case
Harvard Law Professor Paul Armstrong (Sean Connery, The Name of the Rose) hasn't actually practiced law in 25 years, but all of that changes when he receives an impassioned plea from a man named Bobby Earl (Blair Underwood, Dirty Sexy Money). Bobby has been convicted of murdering a young girl and is scheduled to be executed, but insists that local Sheriff Tanny Brown (Laurence Fishburne, Boyz N The Hood) used torture to gain a false confession. Paul's investigation eventually brings him into conflict with both the sheriff and a sadistic serial murderer named Blair Sullivan (Ed Harris, The Rock). Will Paul be able to put the pieces together before it's too late?
That was my verbal declaration as the end credits for Just Cause began to roll. I was both disappointed and bewildered by what I had witnessed. How did the movie arrive at its messy destination? What went wrong in the screenwriting process? Up to a certain point, the movie is a competent if somewhat unremarkable procedural that features stellar performances and an engaging story. For a while, it plays out like a Floridian variation on race-against-the-clock legal thrillers like True Crime. Then, during the third act, the filmmakers jump on the crazy train and take things right off the rails.
The film initially seems to be about the injustices of the legal system, but eventually reveals itself as a condemnation of a well-intentioned liberal's belief in mercy. In his first scene in the film, Paul debates the death penalty with another esteemed professor (the manner in which the debate is written might lead one to think it's actually a debate between two high school students who have been held back a very long time, but no matter). Paul doesn't believe in any system of government that approves of executing people. And yet, in the suspect tradition of Unthinkable, Harry Brown and Rambo, the plot will eventually teach this peace-loving man to embrace the primitive killer lurking inside him. The climax (in which Connery participates in a clumsily staged conflict in the middle of a swamp) is an embarrassment to everyone involved.
The basic flaw with the Just Cause screenplay is that it vastly overestimates the value of surprising plot twists. Yes, almost everything that happened in the last half-hour was surprising. I didn't see it coming. However, that's not a virtue if the surprise is rooted in the fact that none of the behavior the characters demonstrate makes any sense whatsoever. The true villain's motivations are beyond contrived, a mash-up of laughable psychological conceits. I won't spoil anything for you, but suffice it to say that the film's ending involves exceptionally gratuitous use of a young child in peril, alligators, legal technicalities and an out-of-left-field story about castration.
The ending wouldn't be so exasperating if this were a crummy direct-to-DVD thriller, but for a long while Just Cause is an interesting movie. Sean Connery does solid work in the lead role, bringing his usual charm and intelligence to the part (it's difficult to think about how much time Connery wasted on terrible films during the later stages of his acting career). The atmosphere is effective in a Wild Things sort of way, and the supporting cast is solid. Ed Harris is actually quite electrifying during his scenes, playing some kind of southern Baptist Hannibal Lecter with severe anger management issues. His moments are among the film's silliest, but his tendency to flip between sly trickiness and religious rage is legitimately spooky.
Just Cause (Blu-ray) delivers a solid 1080p/2.40:1 transfer that does a nice job of highlighting the film's memorable locations. The level of detail is exceptional throughout, and thankfully Warner Bros. seems to have avoided any DNR or other artificial tampering. The large handful of catalogue releases they've been unleashing lately have been pretty stellar (if less than spectacular). Flesh tones are natural and blacks are deep. The vivid color palette manages to deliver some considerable pop during the brighter daytime scenes. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track fares pretty well too, even if the score by James Newton Howard (who wrote approximately 1,284,845 thriller scores during the 1990s) is pretty run-of-the-mill and doesn't capitalize on the swampy nature of the film well enough. There are no supplements whatsoever. Too bad. I would have loved to hear some of the filmmakers attempt to justify this mess in an audio commentary.
Just Cause starts out well enough, but eventually turns into horrible mess of a movie. A fine cast is wasted on a truly disastrous story.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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