Want to foul up your next crime thriller? It's easy. First, go down to the Florida Everglades at midnight and find some alligators. Next, reheat a big, dangerous slab of Cape Fear, add a humid chunk of In the Heat of the Night and a racially motivated miscarriage of justice. Fold in plot thickeners, character quirks and illogical twists to your heart's content.

Toss in the death-penalty debate. Season with Sean Connery for dramatic dignity, garnish with a bargain-basement knockoff of Hannibal Lecter, and there you have it: Just Cause.

If there's a more preposterous movie on the market this winter, let's see it. If you didn't know better, you might even suspect Arne Glimcher, an art-gallery-owner-turned-producer-turned-director, of trying to spoof the entire serial killer/legal thriller genre. No such luck. Glimcher and his writers, Jeb Stuart and Peter Stone (by way of a John Katzenbach potboiler), are dead serious in their effort to string us along a trail of child murder, Southern justice and shocking reversal.

They succeed only in setting off the new year's first major movie bomb.
There's no point feeling sorry for Connery at this point in his estimable career, but Just Cause won't be going on the highlight reel.

Here he plays a distinguished Harvard law professor who comes out of retirement to answer a last-ditch appeal from well-mannered, nicely spoken Bobby Earl Ferguson (Blair Underwood), a young black inmate scheduled to fry for a murder he and his grandmother say he didn't commit.

The scene of the crime, Ochopee, Florida, is the kind of small town only clumsy screenwriters can dream up--full of central-casting bigots, frightened witnesses and a glowering black cop (Laurence Fishburne) who's more vicious than Bull Connor. Over at the penitentiary, a wild-eyed Ed Harris puts in a fair imitation of Anthony Hopkins's liver-and-fava-bean bit, right down to his searing insights about Connery's character, and Kate Capshaw provides another clunky piece of plot as Connery's ex-prosecutor wife.

Amid Glimcher's steamy Southern Gothic touches and idiotic narrative ploys, it's awfully hard to care about who killed whom down in the swamp--and what the alligator is gonna get for breakfast.

Flee as fast as you can in the opposite direction.


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