'Just Mercy' a familiar, crowd-pleasing civil rights courtroom drama

  • An attorney (Michael B. Jordan), left, tries to save an innocent man (Jamie Foxx) from the electric chair in "Just Mercy."

    An attorney (Michael B. Jordan), left, tries to save an innocent man (Jamie Foxx) from the electric chair in "Just Mercy." Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

  • Attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) fights for prisoners on death row in the fact-based "Just Mercy."

    Attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) fights for prisoners on death row in the fact-based "Just Mercy." Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

  • An idealistic attorney (Michael B. Jordan), right, takes the case of a wrongly accused man (Jamie Foxx) on death row in "Just Mercy."

    An idealistic attorney (Michael B. Jordan), right, takes the case of a wrongly accused man (Jamie Foxx) on death row in "Just Mercy." Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

 
 
Posted1/9/2020 6:00 AM

"Just Mercy" -- ★ ★

The civil rights/courtroom drama "Just Mercy" doesn't merely ask for our attention and approval, it demands them, as if its noble crusade against the injustices of racism should be sufficient for critics to fawn over its importance, and for the public to love it at the box office.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Maybe it will be sufficient.

Nonetheless, Destin Daniel Cretton's lightly bloated 136-minute feature comes off as a slickly produced, assembly-line, Hollywood feel-OK project that never achieves the level of outrage that its fact-based story deserves.

The gifted, charismatic Michael B. Jordan brings smarts and passion to his role as Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard-educated attorney who moves to Alabama to create the Equal Justice Initiative, a free service dedicated to defending wrongfully convicted prisoners on death row.

He meets inmate Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a blue-collar laborer who goes by the nickname "Johnny D."

Stevenson cannot believe how white law enforcement officials flagrantly framed McMillian in 1987 for the murder of a white teenager, despite a lack of evidence and a plethora of witnesses supplying him with an ironclad alibi.

The attorney goes to work, using the home of a local paralegal, Eva Ansley (a woefully underused Brie Larson in a thankless sidekick part), as his makeshift office.

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Soon, the expected threatening phone calls begin, and Stevenson confronts a corrupt judicial system intent on executing McMillian for no other reason than to save face for his egregious, racially motivated arrest and conviction.

How egregious? McMillian is placed on death row before he even goes to trial.

As Stevenson continues to exude the giddy idealism of the young law intern he was at the beginning of the movie, McMillian sinks into angry hopelessness following his abandonment by earlier attorneys who disappeared once their client's money ran out.

Unlike Jordan's attorney -- more of a steely cool knight in shining armor than a fully fleshed-out underdog -- Foxx's prisoner juxtaposes cynicism with resignation in a portrait of dignified despair.

Foxx's low-key anguish carries this movie, although another death row inmate defended by Stevenson threatens to hijack it.

A troubled, stuttering Vietnam vet named Herb Richardson (a painfully empathetic Rob Morgan) is tormented by remorse over planting a bomb that killed a local woman.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Stevenson's best efforts fail to secure a stay of execution, prompting the convict to observe that his struggles in Vietnam were different: "I had a chance there."

So, Richardson, who could have carried an entire movie on his own, must die in the electric chair, foreshadowing what McMillian faces if Stevenson can't pull off a miracle.

Stevenson knows he must disprove the eyewitness testimony of wild-eyed Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson in a superbly twitchy, edgy performance), but something holds him back. But what?

Cretton, who teamed with Larson in his critically acclaimed indie feature "Short Term 12," directs "Just Mercy" with plenty of crowd-pleasing speeches and extremely familiar material.

It doesn't help that a market-friendly PG-13 rating constrains the movie so that it resembles a network TV production with the rough edges of real racism rounded off way too nicely.

• • •

Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson

Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton

Other: A Warner Bros. release. Rated PG-13 for racial epithets. 136 minutes

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