“Just Cause” ambles along for more than an hour as a perfectly respectable mystery procedural, with Sean Connery’s Harvard law professor as a fish out of water in the Florida backwoods gradually trying to set things right for a young man he believes was unjustly sent to death row years before. But then all hell breaks loose, with one unconvincing twist after another being thrown at the audience, to the point where all credibility and suspense are drowned irretrievably in the murk of the Everglades. Warner Bros. release has enough commercial elements to make it a serviceable, if unremarkable, late winter B.O. attraction.
Script by Jeb Stuart and vet Peter Stone (the latter with his first bigscreen credit in well over a decade) does a solid, craftsmanlike job of pulling the viewer way into the story before letting on that things may not be as they seem. Paul Armstrong (Connery), an eminent legal sage and death-penalty opponent long absent from the courtroom, reluctantly signs on to try to save a black man from the electric chair in the Deep South.
Bobby Earl (Blair Underwood) has been convicted of raping and murdering an 11 -year-old girl eight years before. A highly articulate fellow who went to Cornell, Bobby Earl claims that his self-incriminating confession was drummed out of him only after 22 hours of torture at the hands of black cop Tanny Brown (Laurence Fishburne), who is none-too-welcoming when Armstrong comes snooping around trying to resurrect the case.
While not exactly throbbing with excitement, first 45 minutes build a fair amount of interest, as the initially reticent Armstrong becomes increasingly intrigued in the course of interviewing people involved with the case. There’s every reason to think the confession was, in fact, coerced, and it eventually begins to look like the real murderer was another resident of Florida’s death row, maniacal serial killer Blair Sullivan (Ed Harris).
But then the flip-flops, coincidences, surprising disclosures, far-fetched happenings, TV-style chases and illogically protracted confrontations come flying virtually all at once, obliterating the plausible character work and making the film feel like a hundred others. Actual climax is a replay of “Cape Fear,” with nuclear family threatened by baddie out in the swamps, followed by a laughable “Peter Pan” capper thrown in for good measure.
Second directorial effort, after “The Mambo Kings,” by art gallery honcho Arne Glimcher, is professional without being particularly nuanced through the first two-thirds before capitulating to the gracelessly conventional in the home stretch.
Thesping is solid as long as the story retains credibility, with Connery effectively anchoring the picture as an honorable, diligent man of law rather out of his element doing detective legwork. Fishburne steals most of the scenes he’s in as a cop with a nasty streak, while Underwood keeps the audience guessing as to his character’s veracity. Chaineddown like a mad dog and lit demonically, Harris registers intensely in a Hannibal Lecter bit. Kate Capshaw is somewhat less convincing as Armstrong’s assistant d.a. wife.
Tech contributions are decent, but pic is not exactly drenched in atmosphere despite diverse Florida locations. Final nocturnal swamp fight is so dark one can only guess who is doing what to whom, although it’s not hard to guess right.