Fine acting doesn't save 'Just Cause' from lazy screenplay

By Doug Cummings

Arizona Daily Wildcat

"Just Cause," the new thriller based on John Katzenbach's best-seller about a lawyer who tries to free a convict on death row, is a watered-down cross between "Silence of the Lambs" and "Cape Fear." The movie borrows social issues only to use them as excuses for escapist entertainment. The end result is not only sensationalistic, it's also lazy. The film's true disregard for its central issue becomes apparent through muddled thematic structure and improbable melodrama.

The movie stars Sean Connery ("Rising Sun") as Paul Armstrong, a principled Harvard law professor who opposes capital punishment. He agrees to help exonerate Bobby Ferguson (Blair Underwood), an amiable young man who claims he was coerced into delivering a murder confession.

Armstrong travels around the prison's small town in the Florida Everglades interviewing faltering witnesses, doctors, and lawyers. The local detective, Tanny Browne (Lawrence Fishburne) tries to intimidate Armstrong by insinuating as many threats as he can, but Armstrong nevertheless continues his investigation.

Just when the movie seems to be developing an image of a biased bureaucracy that sends innocent victims to the electric chair, it explodes with implausible plot twists and standard action sequences that completely reverse the themes developed during the first hour. Apparently, the surprises force Armstrong to come face to face with a provocative reality that challenges his idealism.

The film supplies its own contribution to the new movie hero: the amiable serial killer. After movies like "Silence of the Lambs" and "Natural Born Killers," the traditional serial killer is finally displaying the philosophical depth and spiritual understanding previously unnoticed. Blair Sullivan (Ed Harris), the prison's most psychotic inmate, helps Armstrong solve the mystery by imparting Bible verses and much-needed clues.

Despite the movie's jumbled scenario, Sean Connery and Lawrence Fishburne ("Higher Learning") exude their usual appealing presences and dramatic charms. When Connery cocks his head, squints his eyes, and growls out a line of dialogue, he can make any writing seem fresh. Fishburne resorts to the volatile coolness of his action roles, and creates a watchable intensity.

Director Arne Glimcher ("The Mambo Kings") tries to make each scene work, and for a while, he seems to succeed. But after the surprises begin, he indulges in larger-than-life melodrama that undercuts the themes and the more personal approach in the film's beginning.

"Just Cause" is a movie that depends on its capital punishment theme to get the story moving and then dithers on its stance once the action begins. Its charming stars, unfortunately, do not make up for its facile and implausible attempts at ideological drama.

"Just Cause" is showing at Catalina Cinemas, 881-0616.

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