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‘Just Cause’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 17, 1995

In his long career, Sean Connery has played scoundrels, cops, kings and men who would be king -- and made them all seem effortlessly believable. But in his latest film, "Just Cause," he plays the one character who is perhaps beyond his range: an ineffectual man.

Sturdy as ever in his silver goatee and black polo shirts, Connery is Paul Armstrong, a Harvard law professor whose public opposition to the death penalty is possibly meant to indicate that the great scholar has been cloistered away in his ivory tower far too long. One night, though, the "real world" walks right up to him in the person of an older woman (Ruby Dee) who has traveled by bus all the way from the Florida Everglades to give him a chance to test his lofty ideals. Reading the letter she shoved into his hand, Armstrong discovers that her grandson, Bobby Earl Ferguson (Blair Underwood), is on death row for the savage murder of an 11-year-old girl -- a murder he swears he didn't commit.

But Armstrong, who hasn't been in an actual courtroom for years, is a professor, not a lawyer. He remains determined not to get involved, even after learning that Ferguson had been beaten severely during a 22-hour interrogation that ended with the gun of gator-country detective Tanny Brown (Laurence Fishburne) in his mouth and his signature on a confession. Sorry, Armstrong tells her, before turning to walk away, "I can't."

Of course, Armstrong can't let the matter drop there. He's thoroughly convinced that the death penalty is medieval, an expression of our base desire for revenge. The law, he argues, must prevail over these primitive urges. But then he's never seen what Brown has seen; never tracked a real murderer, following the blood trail from one gory corpse to another.

If he did, the movie suggests, he might not be so sure that, if his wife or child were ever put at risk, he wouldn't abandon his principles and resort to violence. The obvious problem here is that the equation the movie sets up is between apples and oranges. It is, however, a perfect example of the filmmakers' inability to think their way out of a paper bag. And as it turns out, neither can they move the narrative forward without cheating the audience with misleading clues.

The movie contains a handful of plausible scenes -- almost equal in number to the implausible ones -- and several above-average face-offs between the terse Scot and his co-stars, Underwood, Fishburne and Ed Harris, who plays Ferguson's death row neighbor. For the record, Connery isn't bad in the part; at first, it's even sort of a kick watching him pretend to shrink away from local cops like Fishburne's Brown. But as the movie progresses, this most casual of actors seems a little too relaxed. By comparison, Fishburne looks as if he lowered his body temperature to play his part; even if they don't glow in the dark, he's got crocodile eyes. And as for Harris, he looks as if he spent most of his off-camera time with his finger in a light socket, charging up for maximum wacko effect.

Though director Arne Glimcher -- working in a style that might best by described as "thrifty" -- builds up a good head of steam in the early going, the Jeb Stuart-Peter Stone adaptation of John Katzenbach's novel wastes it by running us down so many dead ends. Most galling, though, is that the filmmakers raise a serious issue, then have the audacity to fudge when it's time to take a strong position. The picture builds to an action-packed climax but, both in terms of story and theme, it never really comes to a satisfying resolution. The longer you stay with it, the more routine and uninspired it seems -- not to mention cowardly.

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