ST. LOUIS — Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) had a Harvard law degree and could have gotten a job anywhere, but instead chose to go to Alabama and defend inmates on death row. A civil rights activist, Stevenson took the hardest cases in one of the most racist towns in Alabama. One of those cases was Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx).
Destin Daniel Cretton's new film, "Just Mercy," isn't exactly a film that reinvents the cinematic wheel on how to make a biopic, but it sticks in your memory due to the powerful story and its dedicated cast. Sometimes, good acting and a fine tale can overcome machine-like plot points, predictable arcs, and a movie that feels familiar.
McMillian was a regular working man with a little darkness in his past who gets arrested and convicted with little evidence, a product of racial profiling in a racist town. He's one of many wrongly accused felons living on the block when Stevenson comes to town and opens The Equal Justice Initiative. With the help of the resourceful Eva Ansley (Brie Larson, working with Cretton for the third time), Stevenson started something out of literally nothing.
In this particular case, the true story is better than the film it's based on. I feel like this film should have left more of a dent in me, but for the first hour or so of the running time, it's hurriedly setting everything up, like a car making pit stops in town. The film doesn't cover a ton of time, but I felt like some editing could have tightened this movie up a bit. By the time Stevenson is dug in on McMillian and other prisoners like Herbert Richardson (a superb Rob Morgan), the viewer finally gets to settle in and try to detect the power.
The following trials and hurdles occur without much tension, but the film does find its footing in the end, where McMillian's story comes to a head and the script bites down a little harder. Carrying high expectations into a film can dampen the effect of certain scenes, because you are expecting to be moved relentlessly, but it doesn't always go that way.
Jordan proves he is a star that has already arrived. He shoulders this role with delicate confidence, and it should be no surprise. Ever since he carried Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station," I've known he could transform into so many different people without breaking a sweat. He doesn't waste a second in making Bryan vulnerable and making you buy into his hard-working integrity.
Larson shows you the Oscar winner before she climbed on the Marvel playground. Eva gets to deliver some normally placid speeches throughout the film that other actresses may have tripped over in trying to bring life to. Larson does it with ease. There's a comfort with Cretton that is easily detectable.
Foxx cuts deep as McMillian, a role that the Oscar winner easily connects to, showing you the pain in a man stuck in neutral due to uncontrollable circumstances. While he doesn't blow your socks off, the minimalist energy Foxx brings to the role heightens the drama when the film gets rolling.
The true standout, though, is Tim Blake Nelson. Playing a key component in Stevenson's case, the seasoned actor steals the film with only a handful of scenes. You'll find it hard getting too close to his Ralph Myers, but you'll also have a hard time seeing where he begins and Nelson ends. It's a full immersion experience, right down to the facial expressions and walk. The movie didn't stun me, but Nelson did.
If you like reliably cinematic true stories that involve a lot of jails and courtrooms, you'll enjoy "Just Mercy." It's not an Oscar worthy film, but a solid tale of justice nevertheless. Some films aim for the stars but are lucky enough to strike a cloud.
The story and acting resonate enough to make "Just Mercy" a worthy watch, even if the overall screenplay and follow-through feel familiar.
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