The saga of Harvard grad Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a man who has now managed to overturn the death row sentences of over 140 inmates in America, is brought to the screen by way of Destin Daniel Cretton’s frustratingly conventional “Just Mercy.”
Despite his east-coast roots at Harvard, Stevenson, decided to move to Alabama to defend the disenfranchised and wrongly condemned. His urgency to find justice had him thrust upon the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a black man sentenced to death, despite evidence proving his innocence.
With the help of a civil rights activist (Brie Larson), Stevenson ended up investing heart and soul into Walter’s case, all this despite the bias of a racially motivated Alabama police force and equally biased state judges. Stevenson’s coup-de-gras in the case would be found in Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), the convicted felon filled with regret, whose testimony against McMillian had been coerced by police and had led to his getting off of death row.
Jordan and Foxx are excellent in their respective roles. The scenes they share together are intensely written and passionately shot. There’s also a sense of topical importance to the whole thing, but then again, we have seen this movie before, not to mention done in better and more assured ways (“The Hurricane,” “Crown Heights”).
“Just Mercy” doesn’t know what it wants to be. Yes, its main intent is to concentrate on the McMillian case, but it also has a knack of switching its focus, unsuccessfully, on some of the other death row inmates at the penitentiary. Those include Rob Morgan as a PTSD-inflicted war veteran, and O’Shea Jackson Jr. as a tough guy who may very well be innocent of the crime he was convicted for.
Based on Stevenson’s book of the same name, “Just Mercy” has Cretton getting bogged down by heavy-handedness throughout — there are even two unnecessary and over-the-top courtroom speeches which leave a bitter taste during the climax. A real shame, if you ask me, because this is a story worth telling, but not this way and not in the matter and fashion of a ‘90s Oscar-bait movie. [C]