The Evil and the Stupid

Reactionary and racist, Just Cause is just too dumb to get worked up about

It's pointless to respectfully review a film as ineptly written, indifferently directed and slothfully performed as Just Cause, the new legal thriller about a Harvard law professor and anti-death penalty advocate (Sean Connery) who heads down south to the Florida Everglades to win freedom for a condemned black murderer (Blair Underwood) whom he believes is innocent.

To be fair, if the movie had been an interesting piece of filmmaking that held my attention, a lot of the things I hate about it might not have even occurred to me. (An improbable plot never hurt Vertigo or Dirty Harry.) So instead of a review, I'll offer a list of questions to put to anybody who tries to convince you this film is good.

Now it's difficult to discuss the countless reasons why Just Cause is morally repugnant or the countless reasons why it's a rotten movie without giving away key elements of the plot; the screenplay's surprises may be stupid, but they're still surprises. So if you haven't seen the film yet, read no further:

1. When Professor Paul Armstrong (Connery) faces down a prominent conservative opponent (George Plimpton) in a death penalty debate at the beginning of the picture, is it possible that the two sides of the issue could have been presented any more simplistically?

Between Armstrong's rote babbling about the effects of electrocution on the human body and his opponent's riposte that the death penalty satisfies our need for "revenge" and "an eye for an eye" (Harvard sure knows how to choose intellectually worthy opponents, eh?), the scene appears to have been conceived by a precocious junior high schooler who suddenly remembered he had to write a report on capital punishment 10 minutes before class.

2. Afterward, a woman (Ruby Dee) shows up and gives Armstrong a letter from her son, Bobby Earl Ferguson (Underwood), that pleads for the professor's help. Bobby Earl was convicted in the 1987 rape, mutilation and murder of a prepubescent white girl, but the prosecution's only substantial piece of evidence -- Bobby Earl's confession -- was extracted at gunpoint by a supposedly self-loathing black cop (Laurence Fishburne). Bobby Earl's mother reveals that her son specifically told her to approach Armstrong first, and said if she was turned away, she was to proceed down a list of famous capital punishment opponents until she found one willing to take the case.

We later find out that Bobby Earl is evil, brilliant and guilty as hell, and that he only secured Armstrong's services because he wanted to get revenge against Armstrong's much younger wife, Laurie (Kate Capshaw), by trapping the Armstrong family in a web of lies so elaborate that not even God could have kept track of all the details.

Capshaw plays a onetime lawyer who grew up in Bobby Earl's town. At the beginning of her legal career, she prosecuted Bobby Earl on a trumped-up, racially motivated kidnapping charge -- a charge that was later dismissed for lack of evidence. The lawyer knew she had no evidence against Bobby Earl, but she contrived to keep him in jail anyway, just to establish herself as a tough cookie. While he was in the clink, cops beat, tortured and castrated him. And according to the film's comic-book Freudian theorizing, this tragedy is what turned him into a child molester and murderer.

Here, finally, is question two: What if Armstrong had said no to Bobby Earl's request for help? What would Bobby Earl have done? Would he have picked a different famous professor with a wife who deserved death and tried out his revenge plot on another family? Or would he have simply shrugged and accepted his fate?

Related questions:
Is there any jailhouse on earth, no matter how backward its locale, where the castration of an inmate could go unnoticed and uninvestigated?

Is there any human being on earth (besides, apparently, Bobby Earl) who would suffer castration during a police interrogation and just go on with his life?

3. Again, Bobby Earl is guilty as hell and just about everybody on Earth seems to know it except the hero. Why, then, when Armstrong goes down to the Everglades to gather evidence, do the townspeople continually harass and intimidate him? Moreover, why do the police who coerced Bobby Earl's confession harass and intimidate the visiting Yankee, if indeed they are convinced of their own righteousness?

4. If there were a real Florida town with the same name as the one in the film, would its inhabitants be able to hire a lawyer, unearth some kind of obscure anti-defamation statute and sue the filmmakers for making every last person who lives there look like a racist, idiotic monster?

And if the potato-headed kid on that front porch in Deliverance lived in this town, would these people be so bowled over by his intellect that they'd elect him mayor?

5. Because Bobby Earl is guilty as hell, the whole movie is a sick joke on the poor, ignorant, bleeding-heart liberal professor. Is the movie's message, then, that civil rights should only apply to innocent people -- and that the cops were justified in torturing and intimidating Bobby Earl to extract a confession, seeing as how he later turned out to be guilty as hell?

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