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‘Just Cause’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 17, 1995

There are so many plot twists in "Just Cause," the good people of Warner Bros. have requested the media to keep as mum as possible. So let us tread carefully: Sean Connery, a Harvard law professor and eloquent anti-capital-punishment advocate, is approached one day by a very determined Ruby Dee. The grandmother of a convict (Blair Underwood) on death row, she has come to seek Connery's help.

It seems that, eight years ago, Underwood was dragged into an interrogation room by small-town Florida cops and subjected to 22 hours of sheer brutality. After being beaten with the spine of a telephone book and subjected to Russian roulette intimidation, Underwood confessed to the rape, stabbing and carving-up of a local 11-year-old girl.

Connery is touched by Dee's devotion, as well as the revelation that Underwood went to Cornell. (What would he have done if Underwood hadn't gone to Cornell?) He's also spurred by Kate Capshaw, his ridiculously younger wife who declares that, "every once in a while you've got to get a little bloody." Whetted with enough preliminary evidence to suggest a miscarriage of justice, Connery breaks a 25-year absence from active law and -- in that marketable Scottish accent -- confronts the coroner who paid little attention to the physical evidence, the defense lawyer that blew the case and Laurence Fishburne, the sheriff who pushed a gun into Underwood's mouth to induce the confession.

Well, of course you want Connery to rain justice on those small-minded rednecks (no matter what color they are) and save Underwood from the chair. Unfortunately, this desire for retribution is dangled like a moral carrot before the audience. "Just Cause," adapted from John Katzenbach's best-selling novel, essentially wants to lead you (entertainingly of course) through a swamp of cheap suspense, cynical manipulation, and the ever-present tragedy of that brutalized girl.

In fact, the movie, which also features Ed Harris, Ned Beatty, Chris Sarandon and Daniel Travanti, manages unintentionally to display more that is disgusting about our amoral, couch-potato culture than "Natural Born Killers" dreamed of. There's a sort of corporately sanctioned, safely R-rated smell of blood in the air, as you undergo scenes of horror (the movie's big on stabbing) and lurid descriptions of the original victim, who was "filleted," to quote one Florida detective.

Of course the carnage is all in narrative context -- the context of a film that draws shamelessly from such movies as "Silence of the Lambs," "To Live and Die in L.A.," "Speed," "The Thin Blue Line" and "Cape Fear."

Mmmm, so it's brutal, horribly manipulative, and we've seen this stuff before in better pictures. Excellent! At a recent screening of "Just Cause," a woman sitting next to me clutched and clawed at her face throughout the movie. She seemed rather anxious. A woman behind me punctuated the evening with low moans of dread. Just how much fun were we having?

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