Cause and Defect

Okay, I admit it. Sometimes, just like you civilian moviegoers, I succumb to the hype and convince myself to see a flick when I really should know better. For example, take the new Sean Connery vehicle, Just Cause. I like Connery because A) he is, was, and always will be James Bond; B) I have a vested interest in rooting for bald, middle-age white men who women still consider sexy; C) in a pinch, he can act. Laurence Fishburne costars, and while reasons A) and B) do not apply to him, reason C) does. Plus, Fishburne tops the short list of actors under consideration for the role of Jimi Hendrix, in the event Hollywood turns the guitarist's life into a biopic. And Jimi Hendrix, as we all know, is almost as cool as Bond.

Just Cause also boasts several elements that boost its curiosity value here in South Florida. John Katzenbach, a local boy made good (and a former Miami Herald reporter, but don't hold that against him), wrote the novel of the same name upon which the movie is based. The film utilizes several familiar local settings as backdrops. Remember last summer when they closed the MacArthur Causeway for six nights in a row for no apparent reason? It was so that the makers of this film could shoot a climactic car-jumps-open-drawbridge stunt.

If finding an alternate route to and from the Beach frustrated you, just wait until you see the footage that resulted from that traffic disruption. It amounts to a few seconds of screen time, part of a chase sequence that, like the entire third act of the film, offers little -- save for the Miami skyline -- to distinguish it from countless other thrillers of recent vintage.

That Just Cause ends so badly is all the more disappointing because the movie breaks from the starting gate like a world-beater on the strength of its leads' star power. Connery and Fishburne (a far worthier foil than Rising Sun's Wesley Snipes, although we can only hope this isn't the start of a Sean Connery-and-a-black-guy casting trend) do the time-honored adversaries-who-join-forces-in-the-end shtick, and they do it well. The script is a little shakier than the acting in the extreme early going, but it gathers momentum as it rounds the first turn, then hits the backstretch in good shape. Unfortunately, the story, handicapped by a few unnecessary pounds of subplot, falters on the final turn, finally getting tangled up in its own legs and going down in a grotesquely gnarled heap a few lengths away from the finish line. You buy a ticket to the spectacle expecting to see thoroughbreds in action, but only morbid curiosity prevents you from averting your eyes from the sad finale.

Take my advice: Walk out half an hour or so before the end. That way you can enjoy the setup and the stars and most of the banter without having to sit through the improbable plot twists, the inexplicable self-destructive impulses of the bad guy, the good guy's lucky hunches, the high-speed car chase, and the contrived nick-of-time rescue.

"I refuse to believe in any god or government that practices torture for torture or death for death," pronounces Paul Armstrong, the Harvard law professor and vocal opponent of capital punishment played by Connery. Of course you know right from the get-go that part of the fun of this movie will be seeing how the filmmakers conspire to make Armstrong eat his words, especially the death-for-death part.

Enter Ruby Dee as the spunky mother of a small-town boy named Bobby Earl Ferguson, who languishes on death row in a Florida prison for the grisly rape-murder of a young girl in the Everglades some eight years earlier. Mrs. Ferguson prevails upon Armstrong to handle her son's last-ditch appeal. Armstrong turns her down; after all, he reasons, he hasn't practiced law in 25 years.

"Every now and again you've gotta get a little bloody. It's good for the soul," goads Armstrong's wife, Laurie (Kate Capshaw), a former Dade County prosecuting attorney with a secret interest in Bobby Earl. Outflanked by a determined mom and a persuasive wife, Armstrong throws in the towel and heads for tiny Ochopee, Florida, to begin his investigation. There he butts heads with Fishburne's Tanny Brown, the tough cop who put Bobby Earl away in the first place and remains convinced of his guilt. Brown resents Armstrong's intrusion for a number of reasons. Armstrong is an outsider from the world of academia; his mere presence challenges Brown's intelligence and competence. Brown never liked Bobby Earl much, either; the cop always bristled at Ferguson's "pretty-boy looks and college-boy words." And, naturally, Brown has the requisite hidden agenda.

Speaking of hidden agendas, Just Cause is rife with them. Everyone harbors one except Armstrong. Like novice players at the track who win a few bets early then blow it all by backing the wrong horse in the last race, producer-director Arne Glimcher and screenwriters Jeb Stuart and Peter Stone layer on the gratuitous subplots before ultimately throwing all their capital at the wrong one. Connery and Fishburne do their best to keep the film from collapsing under its own unwieldy machinations, but by the time Ed Harris's psycho serial killer enters the mix, you sense that the filmmakers have completely lost control. What could have been a tight little ending degenerates into a muddy mess. When the alligator Glimcher repeatedly cuts away to throughout the film (reminding us what a wild and dangerous world we've entered) eventually slithers into the swamp to clean up the loose ends, we're hungrier than he is for a resolution. Any resolution.

Too bad. Just Cause looked like a winner in the paddock. But it finished more like a candidate for the glue factory.


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