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'Just Cause' Just Short of Thrilling


By Benjamin Cavell

Just Cause

directed by Arne Gilmer

starring Sean Connery, Laurence Fishburne and Blair Underwood

Just Cause," directed by Arne Glimcher ("The Mambo Kings"), starts out looking like a nearly step-by-step rip-off of "True Believer," where James Woods plays a lawyer trying to free a man who has spent eight years in Ossining ('Sing Sing') for a murder he didn't commit. In "Just Cause," James Woods' Eddie Dodd, a washed-up, 1960s hippie lawyer is replaced by Sean Connery's Paul Armstrong, a lawyer-turned-Harvard professor. Neither of the men has tried a murder case in a number of years, both are reluctant to take on a new one.

Armstrong is approached by the imprisoned man's grandmother (in "True Believer," it was the mother), played by the great Ruby Dee. She begs him to come to South Florida to look into the case of her son, Bobby Earl (Blair Underwood), convicted in 1986 of the rape and murder of eleven year-old Jodie Shriver. He has been living on death row for eight years. Armstrong ultimately takes the case at the behest of his wife, played by Kate Capshaw. And here, the movie begins to make its own way.

The police didn't have and didn't need any physical evidence to convict Bobby Earl, because they had his taped confession. Never mind that Bobby confessed only after twenty-two hours of beatings with hands, feet and phonebooks. Never mind that, when the beatings didn't work, the police chief played a game of Russian roulette with his gun in the suspect's mouth.

Laurence Fishburne plays Tanney Brown, the small-town police chief and Russian roulette-player, and he steals the film from Connery. As it turns out, that isn't difficult, for Connery does almost nothing, jumping occasionally from anger to fear and never holding either very well or for very long.

In fact, Fishburne's only competition is Ed Harris, a wonderful actor, who is wonderful chilling as the so-called "Angel of Death," another death-row inmate who meets with Armstrong. He uses passages from the bible which will supposedly guide the lawyer to the discovery of Jodie Shriver's real killer. Now, the movie seems to be ripping-off "Silence of the Lambs."

The movie appears to steal ideas from a great many other things, and tries to bring it's own twist at the end. It nearly pulls it off. Nearly.

The ending, part "Cape Fear," part just silly, doesn't quite tie everything together into the neat package the writers intend, perhaps because we have seen it before.

Fishburne's character is the only truly original one, and Fishburne himself is more than reason enough to see this film. He participates a little in the silliness at the end, but he ought to be a shoo-in for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. One hopes that the Academy can overlook the limitations of the script and focus on his virtuosic performance. Without showing extreme emotion, he conveys a violence and complexity of character that is fascinating to watch.

As a whole, the film is an excellent idea with a presentation that leaves a great deal of room for improvement. Although it is predictable throughout, the movie does supply some moments of excitement, but they are lessened by Connery and Capshaw's lethargy. The excitement is also undercut by the movie's rush to reach the last scene, which turns out to be disapointing anyway. The characters should be in a rush, but the writer and director should spend as much time as it takes.

A good thriller builds in excitement all the way through and, when it has reached its pinnacle, releases all of the agitation and worry in a climax which has the audience drawing sharp breaths and watching through their fingers. "Just Cause" is painfully close to that, but falls just short. It is not original enough, and the film-makers seem not to care enough to take the time required. To Harris, Fishburne and us as the audience, that is utterly un-Just.

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