Picks and Pans Review: Just Cause

updated 03/06/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/06/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

Sean Connery, Laurence Fishburne, Blair Underwood, Kate Capshaw, Ruby Dee, Ed Harris, Christopher Murray, Daniel J. Travanti, Ned Beatty

As eerily perverse and tension-ridden as The Silence of the Lambs, only better paced and spiced with more twists, Just Cause is—to revive an expression from the Swing Era—a thriller-diller chiller. Like Silence, this film depends on an extraordinary cast and a resourceful director to rescue a script that is, at best, nondescript and, at worst, absurd.

Connery is a Harvard law professor and anti-death-penalty crusader. He is talked into reopening the case of a young black man from Florida (Underwood), who was convicted of murdering a 10-year-old white girl and is on death row. (Persuading him to take the case is the prisoner's grandmother, played by Dec in a brief but typically intense and busy performance.)

Connery goes to Florida, where he encounters Fishburne, the brutal but honest homicide detective who coerced Underwood's confession (Murray is striking in a James Woodsian way as Fishburne's redneck deputy).

In a prison visit (the long-lost Travanti enlivens a token role as a warden), Connery meets Harris, who is Underwood's cellblock neighbor and a certifiable serial killer of the Hannibal Lecter school with overtones of religious fanaticism. (The wild-eyed Harris, younger and clearly stronger than Anthony Hopkins was, makes a much scarier psycho.)

Writers Jeb Stuart and Peter Stone, adapting a John Katzenbach novel, often lose control of their characters; Fishburne, for instance, unnecessarily strong-arms Connery in a way that would have the FBI down on him in a minute.

But they save some nice surprises for the end, most of them involving Capshaw, who is Connery's lawyer-wife. While director Arne Glimcher, whose only other film was 1992's The Mambo Kings, deftly uses closeups to exploit the expressive faces of his talented cast, he bungles a crucial fight scene set in a swamp, lighting and shooting it so murkily that the action is virtually impossible to follow. Fortunately for Glimcher, by that point, Connery, Underwood, Harris et al have already carried his movie pretty well out of harm's way. (R)

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