Why do we all enjoy murder mysteries now and then? Certainly, the act of killing itself is distasteful to almost everyone, and furthermore, I think it’s fairly safe to assume we would all rather not participate as the victim in real life. Still, there’s no denying human bloodlust. Perhaps its appeals to our sense of morality - to see the villain get punished in the end - or to our intellect when exercising our own powers of deduction to solve the crime before the protagonist. Whatever the satisfaction derived from the safety of our theater seats, there’s little to deny mankind’s bottomless thirst for a good thriller and Arne Glimcher’s Just Cause (1995) remains a fairly clever way to satisfy that criminal element lurking in all our minds.
The film is loosely based on John Katzenbach’s novel of the same name. In reshaping the story, screenwriters Jeb Stuart and Peter Stone have inexplicably transformed Katzenbach’s hero from a probing investigative journalist into a liberal law professor who does not believe in capital punishment. To what effect? I’m not quite sure. Having read Katzenbach’s novel before seeing the film I have to state that the character in both works just fine. There’s virtually no more or no less dramatic tension gleaned in making this alteration. So, six of one/half a dozen of the other, I suppose.
Our story opens at Harvard where Paul Armstrong (Sean Connery) is giving an evening lecture to a packed audience. After a thunderous ovation, Armstrong is cornered by Evangeline Ferguson (Ruby Dee), the aged mother of death row inmate, Bobby Earl (Blair Underwood) who is awaiting the electric chair after being convicted of the brutal rape and murder of an underage white girl. Evangeline pleads with Armstrong to reopen the case, insisting that her son has been framed by a corrupt officer. At first Armstrong is exceedingly reluctant to pursue the matter. He’s grown comfortable in academia and really isn’t interesting in returning to his former profession. But the more he probes into the particulars, the more intrigued he becomes. Bobby Earl was a Cornell student, a highly intelligent, articulate and utterly charming boy with a very bright future when everything suddenly seemed to go horribly wrong. The pieces don’t fit. But why?
So Paul agrees to do a little digging on Earl’s behalf. Paul, his wife – retired prosecutor Laurie Prentiss (Kate Capshaw) and their daughter, Katie (Scarlet Johansson) fly to Florida. While Laurie and Katie treat the trip as a vacation, meeting up with her father Phil (Kevin McCarthy) and mother Libby (Hope Lange), Paul hunkers down over old police records and court documents. Very quickly he comes to butt heads with Sheriff Tanny Brown (Laurence Fishburne) who harbours an almost maniacal hatred of Bobby Earl. At every step in Paul’s investigation Tanny ‘encourages’ Paul to leave well enough alone. Regrettably, Tanny’s strong-armed tactics have just the opposite effect and before long the two men are forced to prepare for a long, hard battle of wills.
Paul confronts Bobby Earl with his own confession and Earl tells him he was coerced by a racist cop. Earl also claims to know who actually committed the crime; fellow inmate and serial killer Blair Sullivan (Ed Harris) who has been bragging incessantly to his jailhouse buddies about his prowess with a knife. Paul challenges Sullivan – a real psychotic - who toys with him before divulging where he hid the bloody weapon; inside a remote sewer deep in the swampy marshes. Paul goes to Tanny and learns that no murder weapon was ever recovered during his investigation of Bobby Earl.
Now the two men make haste into the swamp and find the knife exactly where Sullivan said it would be. Paul also learns that the girl who was murdered was a very close friend of Tanny’s own daughter, Lena (Taral Hicks). Tanny begins to suspect that his own personal investment in the case may have muddled his deductive reasoning, though he still cannot rid himself of the gut feeling that Bobby Earl is guilty. Nevertheless, as a result of these new findings Earl gets a retrial and is acquitted on all charges. Believing he has righted an injustice, Paul is surprised when he receives a call from Sullivan requesting that he visit his parents who also live in the bayou. Apprehensively, Paul goes to the secluded home, discovering it unkempt and dark. Paul forces his way into the home where he makes the gruesome discovery of two rotting corpses with their throats slit. Hurrying back to the prison with all speed Paul is confronted by an even more unsettling realization; that he has been duped into letting a murderer and a rapist go free.
It seems that Earl and Sullivan have been working together to pull the wool over Paul’s eyes from the beginning. In exchange for lying about his complicity in the young girl’s murder, Sullivan – who has absolutely no chance for parole - made Earl promise to murder the parents he always despised. The worst, however, is yet to come. Having learned that Paul is married to the former prosecutor who had him incarcerated on a rape charge long ago – one that resulted in his brutal castration inside prison, Bobby Earl kidnaps Laurie and Katie from their hotel. Paul alerts Tanny that he was right all along and together they rush to an isolated shack deep in the Everglades where Tanny is certain Earl has taken Paul’s wife and child.
Paul arrives first and confronts Earl who tells him that the only reason he was contacted in the first place was so that he could exact his revenge on Laurie. Earl blames her for the loss of his Cornell scholarship and the ruination of his reputation. Paul bides his time until Tanny arrives. Realizing he has been set up, Earl attempts to murder Laurie and Katie. But Paul intervenes. The men wrestle and Earl is thrown into the bayou, shot to death by Tanny before being eaten by a nearby alligator.
Just Cause is a fairly engaging suspense movie – albeit with a few heavy-handed clichés expertly feathered into its rather conventional plot. At this point in the evolution of entertainment pretty much everything we see is clichéd to some extent. The trick of the exercise is to make the menial magnificent. In film, unlike literature or radio, this can be achieved in a lot of different ways. Just Cause has some spectacular cinematography by Lajos Koltai that really manages to capture the oppressive, humidity-saturated mildew and moss covered exteriors of the Florida bayous with a palpably sweaty quality. The intensity of the characters race against time is magnified by this visualization; stiflingly hot and dank.
It goes without saying that Sean Connery and Laurence Fishburne are professionals. But there’s also an interesting adversarial chemistry at play between these two – a sort of antithetical take off from the oft’ overplayed buddy/buddy relationship or bonding between men who are, in this case, mostly driven by polar opposite motivations. Their confrontational ambitions act like heated foreplay before great sex – tearing at one another’s deep seeded desires until each realizes they share a common goal. Blair Underwood gives a chilling performance as the egotistical serial killer who convincingly masks his true intentions with a sly grin and too clever to be believed nonchalance that only begins to crumble in the last act. Just Cause isn’t a seminal thriller, but it is a very good one; highly enjoyable and most definitely worth a second look on Blu-ray.
Warner Home Video gives us a very nice 1080p bare bones transfer: very solid, strong colors and accurate contrast levels. Fine detail is impressive, particularly in close ups. Curiously, certain scenes are wanting in overall clarity. Take a look at chapter 3 where Paul comes home to a house full of screaming kids. The color is weaker than in either the scene that precedes or follows it, and fine details tends to slightly blur – odd! Film grain is accurately represented throughout. On the whole the image will not disappoint. The audio gets a big upgrade from Warner’s previous DVD, in 5.1 DTS with a genuine presence in music and effects. Good stuff. Too bad about the extras. There are none. Bottom line: Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)