A young, Ivy League-educated black man (Blair Underwood) is on death row in Florida for the gruesome murder of a white girl in the Everglades. He swears he didn't do it, says that a confession was tortured out of him by a vicious small-town cop (Laurence Fishburne) who's out to put down a handsome, uppity brother, and pleads that Paul Armstrong (Sean Connery), a Harvard law professor who opposes capital punishment, is the only lawyer who can save his life.
In Just Cause (Warner Bros., R), which is based on the 1992 suspense novel by John Katzenbach, producer-director Arne Glimcher tries like hell to spook up the screen. Armstrong may be working for an innocent man or a cool con artist, so Glimcher goes for camera-induced tension: lots of truth-or-dare close-ups on Connery's manly, quivering lips and Underwood's victim-of-the- system eyes. Racial indignities, insular Southern small-town behavior, tangled past history involving Armstrong's wife (Kate Capshaw), and the twisted agenda of a prison psychopath (Ed Harris) all make guest appearances. Even alligators are employed, swimming in the night with eyes shining like lightbulbs.
But for a story with so much going for it -- including an interesting cast -- Just Cause is just not taut and thrilling enough. Glimcher, an established art-gallery owner and producer (Gorillas in the Mist, The Good Mother) but a novice director (his only previous credit is The Mambo Kings), unerringly goes for the obvious when the subtle would be appreciated. An interrogation scene with Harris (who wears a regulation madman haircut and quotes the Bible, an activity that, in movies, is primarily the province of nuts) is lit like a ring of Dante's Inferno; that the Armstrongs' young daughter may be in danger is telegraphed by a shot of her stuffed animal lying on the floor. Et cetera.
Under this heavy-handed steering, even the most charismatic of actors can falter. Fishburne survives best, finding in the complex character of a black cop intent on nailing a black convict a psychology compelling enough to keep his fine acting instincts focused. But Connery, the old pro, seems exhausted by all he's required to do -- including sloshing through nasty water, playing dapper husband to a woman who looks young enough to be his daughter, and having to recite dialogue like this: ''If that's a confession, my ass is a banjo!'' Poor man. In this swampy production, only the gators have any bite. C-