|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 22 June 1999|
‘Just Cause’ is a thriller full of plot twists. It’s difficult to discuss the film’s effect even in broad strokes without giving the game away; any mention of the ultimate message is liable to tip the outcome.
The set-up (pre-twists) is this: Bobby Earl Ferguson (Blair Underwood), a young man of humble beginnings who nevertheless attended an Ivy League university, is arrested in his small Florida hometown and charged with the rape and murder of a child. Eight years later, Bobby Earl’s devoted grandmother (Ruby Dee) persuades Harvard law professor and famed death-penalty foe Paul Armstrong (Sean Connery) to take up the condemned man’s death-row appeal. Armstrong does some digging and becomes convinced that Bobby Earl was railroaded by a confession that was tortured out of him. Arresting officer Tanny Brown (Laurence Fishburne) is still dead certain that he got the right guy and did the right thing.
For the first half of ‘Just Cause,’ director Arne Glimcher and writers Jeb Stuart and Peter Stone, working from John Katzenbach’s novel, do a good job of keeping us intrigued and swaying our suspicions this way and that as to what’s really going on.
As the thoroughly decent Armstrong is played by Sean Connery, we know the protagonist is a true hero, a man of rectitude and courage and innate good sense. The casting puts us on Armstrong’s side -- but, because of the genre, Connery’s presence also signals us that at some point, the erstwhile pacifist is going to throw a punch or two (if not more). The filmmakers are largely tripped up by the inevitability of the second half of their story. Clever though the script is, when a particular development occurs at midpoint, there’s only one logical course for the tale to take. This isn’t to say that there aren’t a few more minor twists in store, but ‘Just Cause’ is a case where running time is destiny.
In addition to being foreshadowed, the climax is so physically dark that it is difficult to see the action. On the plus side, there’s a jailhouse scene between Connery’s worldly but uncynical Armstrong and a monumentally unhinged serial killer played with thrashing kamikaze energy by Ed Harris that’s worth watching all by itself.
There aren’t many dull moments in ‘Just Cause,’ but its outlook won’t be for everyone. To say more would be to give the game away.