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.
Enter Blair Sullivan (Ed Harris), an inmate who Bobby Earl says is the girl’s true murderer. It’s around here that the plot starts to fall apart, becoming increasingly convoluted and hard to swallow. As by rote as the anti-death penalty sentiments are, at least they grounded the film in some semblance of reality. But eventually, Just Cause devolves into a standard issue psycho-killer movie that negates the entire setup.
Just Cause is presented on Blu-ray in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer looks strong on all levels. The image is very clean throughout, with a crisp look that allows for a high level of fine detail. Textures are varied and realistic, particularly in the Everglades scenes. The glistening alligators and swamp greenery look terrific in high definition. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is pleasingly dynamic. Outdoor scenes are rife with surround activity, including lots of wildlife noises. Dialogue has a great deal of resonance, especially important with the histrionics of Fishburne and Harris. All in all, this is a strong presentation of a catalog title.
Maybe the plot comes across more convincingly in John Katzenbach’s 1992 source novel, but the film simply doesn’t work. Once I realized the entire setup of the movie was basically a trick, I lost interest. Only Ed Harris’ gleefully over the top supporting turn makes this worth seeing. Oh, and it also features an 11-year-old Scarlett Johansson as Connery’s daughter, which is kind of a trip seeing her that young. Collectors of Sean Connery’s films will of course be glad to have this on Blu-ray, but disappointingly there are no special features included.