About the only thing of note in Just Cause, a middling legal thriller starring Sean Connery and Laurence Fishburne, is Ed Harris' crazy supporting role as a convicted killer turned sadistic puppet master. Set in the sticky Florida Everglades, Just Cause sees Connery's gristly Harvard law professor return to the courtroom after a young black man on death row begs for help overturning his conviction. Connery butts heads with Fishburne's old-school detective, who put the man away, and discovers his client may only escape the electric chair if Harris' character, a fellow inmate, comes clean about his past. Adapted from a novel by John Katzenbach, Just Cause jumps from one ridiculous revelation to another, ignoring continuity and the implausibility of each plot twist.
After giving an anti-death penalty lecture at Harvard, Connery's Paul Armstrong is approached by the grandmother of Bobby Earl Ferguson (Blair Underwood), a black man on death row for raping and murdering a young white woman, and agrees to meet with her grandson. Ferguson tells Armstrong that he was abused by a racist detective, T.J. Wilcox (Christopher Murray), and beaten into confessing to a crime he didn't commit by Sheriff Tanny Brown (Fishburne). Armstrong begins snooping around, much to the chagrin of local law enforcement, and discovers that Brown did dragoon a confession out of Ferguson. Armstrong and Brown go for a ride near the crime scene, and the hot-tempered sheriff wraps his car's seatbelt around Armstrong's neck to simulate the fear the deceased woman felt before dying.
The first problem with Just Cause is Armstrong's motivation for taking such a cluster of a case. The brief death penalty lecture scene and a few offhand comments are meant to convince the audience that Armstrong is so staunchly against the death penalty that he would return to the courtroom in another state after 25 years on little more than a whim. Details of the case do not add up from the get-go on all sides, which is how Harris' Blair Sullivan, already serving life, gets involved. Sullivan claims Ferguson was set up and sends Armstrong to the swamp to find the real murder weapon, which he uncovers in a drainage pipe. Every time Sullivan opens his mouth, it's clear he is manipulating everyone around him, though Armstrong is slow to learn.
Perhaps the source novel unspooled with more conviction, but Just Cause stays one step behind the audience. Armstrong discovers that Sheriff Brown's daughter was friends with the murder victim, and the film treats this like some revered truth brought to light. OK, Brown had a personal connection to the victim. He's from a small town, not New York City, so who cares? As the film moves forward, it becomes clear that Brown is not the enemy he was made out to be, but Just Cause never really addresses Detective Wilcox. The injection of Sullivan into the proceedings detracts from the main story but actually adds to the film, since Harris goes for broke with his character. A year before he targeted The Rock, Harris gave this wild performance. Sullivan is pure evil madness, and Harris provides an edginess Just Cause sorely lacks.
The final nail in Just Cause's coffin comes when the truth is revealed. By that point, the audience has likely figured out most of the film's tricks, and even the few violent surprises that come during the climax are unsupported by reason or common sense. Connery looks bored here, and it's not difficult to see why. Even Underwood, whose struggle is the catalyst for Armstrong's actions, is underused. Just Cause is bloated and boring - two attributes that do not make an effective thriller.
Warner Brothers has been inconsistent with their catalog titles of late, but the 2.40:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer for Just Cause looks pretty good. There is some subtle grain and the image retains a nice, film-like appearance, which means Warner did not go crazy with its digital noise reduction tools. There are some surprisingly deep colors, particularly in the film's outdoor scenes, and black levels are good. There is some black crush and a bit of noise in early wide shots, but the image displays some nice detail and texture.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is similarly effective; it's not the most immersive mix, but the dialogue, effects and score are well balanced. Some ambient effects are present, and the surrounds and subwoofer are sporadically used for action effects. Dialogue is always crystal clear. The disc includes a host of alternate audio mixes: a French 2.0 Dolby Digital mix; German and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital mixes; and a Portuguese Dolby Digital mono mix. There are English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German SDH, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish and Swedish subtitles.
Just Cause certainly isn't a very thrilling legal thriller thanks to its clunky script and silly plot twists. The film wastes the talents of Sean Connery and Laurence Fishburne, but Ed Harris gets a few minutes to shine in a crazy supporting role. Connery looks especially bored as a law professor who agrees to help a death row inmate overturn his conviction for rape and murder. There are better legal dramas on daytime cable. Skip It.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.