Scene for scene and moment to moment, the fact-based legal thriller “Just Mercy” is one of the most predictable movies you’ll ever see.
That doesn’t mean it’s not a solid, inspirational, debate-provoking work; it’s merely to say the viewing experience is akin to enjoying a well-crafted cover of a classic song we’ve heard many times before.
This film is a symphony of recognizable notes.
From the opening scenes of an innocent man (Jamie Foxx) arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit; to the introduction of an idealistic young lawyer (Michael B. Jordan) who pours his heart and soul into exonerating his client; to familiar characters such as the Dignified Elderly Inmate and the Stubbornly Wrong-Headed District Attorney; to courtroom scenes with judges admonishing everyone to comport themselves accordingly or be charged with contempt; to the rollercoaster ride of setbacks and victories, “Just Mercy” is a 21st century film set in the 1980s and 1990s — with throwback plot elements dating back to the dawn of this genre.
You’ll likely never be surprised by a single development in this movie. Also, you’ll likely be constantly impressed by the steady, sure-handed work by director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton, the first-rate production values — and the brilliant, authentic, heartfelt performances by an A-list cast including the aforementioned Jordan and Foxx, as well as Brie Larson, Tim Blake Nelson and Rob Morgan.
Based on a true story, “Just Mercy” kicks off in the late 1980s. Michael B. Jordan delivers another natural, screen-commanding performance as Bryan Stevenson, a hotshot Harvard Law grad who could take a high-paying gig with any number of silk-stocking law firms, but instead opts to head to Alabama to work for next to nothing for victims advocate Eva Ansley (Brie Larson).
Jamie Foxx sublimates his star power wattage and turns in one of his most powerful performances in years as Walter McMillian, a family man and self-employed businessman who is convicted and sentenced to death for the horrific murder of an 18-year-old young woman, despite the utter lack of forensic evidence or motive. Walter’s conviction rested almost entirely on the decidedly credulity-stretching, extremely wobbly “eyewitness” testimony of convicted felon Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), who was threatened with possible execution if he didn’t identify Walter as the killer.
The case virtually screams for a retrial, if not an outright dismissal of the charges, but by the time Bryan meets with a hard-bitten, understandably defeated Walter in prison, the legal system and the community as a whole have long since decided Walter is guilty and should be executed — and any appeals on Walter’s behalf would only re-open old wounds and cause further suffering to the victim’s family.
Jordan and Foxx are electric together as Bryan and Walter go through the time-honored steps of the wrongly convicted man brusquely dismissing this new attorney’s enthusiasm, gradually coming to trust and believe in his attorney, and eventually forging a brotherly bond.
Rob Morgan is devastatingly memorable as Herbert Richardson, a real-life death row inmate and Vietnam veteran who was executed for killing someone while suffering from PTSD. Richardson takes full responsibility for his heinous crime and believes he deserves his fate — but that doesn’t make it any less impactful when director Cretton walks us through the last moments of Richardson’s life in almost documentary-style realism.
The veteran character actor Tim Blake Nelson is his usual outstanding self as Ralph Myers, a backwards-thinking redneck who initially comes across as a sociopathic hayseed but becomes a more layered and even empathetic soul. Myers is hardly a saint, but he actually has something in common with Walter: They’ve both been terribly abused by the system.
“Just Mercy” eventually delivers the expected applause-worthy moments of triumph, but the extended epilogue informing us of what happened to the main characters in this story is a sobering reminder of a deeply flawed, socially unbalanced legal system that to this day often turns its back on persons of color who can’t afford the legal defense they truly deserve.