Just Mercy: Entertaining Legal Drama Has Strong Message

3 out of 5 stars (average)

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Just Mercy is a good film with the ingredients to be a great one.  Taking a racially charged true to life story, the film tells a well-acted but somewhat simplistic tale elevated by its cast and direction that ends on a surprisingly perfect note.  Just Mercy will entertain fans of courtroom dramas and has a timely message, but its slightly exaggerated villains prevent it from joining the greats.

In 1989, idealistic Harvard lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) heads down to Alabama to establish the Equal Justice Initiative, a place where wrongfully incarcerated people on death row can be given proper legal representation.  Aided by office manager Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), Bryan takes on the case of Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx), who he discovers was convicted on circumstantial evidence with more holes in it than a cheese grater.  However, the legal system of Alabama wants this to be an easy open-and-shut case, forcing Bryan to grow up fast and fight for justice to be served.

Just Mercy is well-acted and has a strong message, but suffers from some uneven writing and a slow midsection.  Jordan impresses with a quiet yet charismatic performance while Foxx provides his best work since Collateral and Larson does well.  Unfortunately, the racists come off as one-dimensional caricatures rather than believable people, conflicting with the grounded heroic characters and tone.  The film briefly highlights how the townspeople are (understandably) angry at our heroes for opening recent wounds, but fails to utilize the drama and tension that could have been mined from that.

Lastly, while the overall strong script occasionally lurches into forced sermonizing, the final courtroom speech is impeccably written and should resonate for generations to come.  Just Mercy won’t rank among the classics, but it’s a well-made, entertaining legal drama with strong performances and a timeless message.  See it.

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Content Including Some Racial Epithets

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