Just Cause is a movie that starts off being about something, namely the debate surrounding capital punishment. By the end it isn’t about anything, having gradually abandoned any attempt at thoughtfulness. Not that a courtroom potboiler necessarily needs to tackle lofty topics to be entertaining. But as heavy-handed as it is, the first act of this 1995 film presents itself as an examination of racism, socio-economic injustice, and the death penalty, only to pull the rug out from under the viewer.
It’s hard not to feel cheated by the end of the film, as if director Arne Glimcher (The Mambo Kings) deliberately wanted to spit in the face of the viewer. Far from the best work of its two screenwriters, Jeb Stuart (The Fugitive) and the late Peter Stone (the 1974 The Taking of Pelham One Two Three), the storytelling in Just Cause is ludicrous.
Sean Connery stars as Paul Armstrong, a Harvard law professor who was once a practicing attorney. The film opens with a rather good-natured debate in front of a student audience between Paul and fellow professor Elder Phillips (George Plimpton). Paul is staunchly opposed to capital punishment and swiftly wins the audience’s support with his argument. Immediately following the debate, Paul is accosted by Evangeline (Ruby Dee). Her son, Bobby Earl (Blair Underwood), was convicted after being violently coerced into confessing to the murder of a young girl (we see some of this in a brief prologue). He’s been sitting on death row from for eight years and Evangeline wants Paul to investigate the case and try to save her son from execution.
It spoils nothing to say that Paul, after some obligatory hemming and hawing, agrees to travel to Florida and do exactly what the distraught mother has asked of him. Sheriff Tanny Brown (Laurence Fishburne) immediately shows his disapproval of Paul’s nosing around the long-closed case. The whole town wants to put the child’s murder behind them and Paul becomes the target of threats and a victim of vandalism.