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Final Justice (1998)
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by Jack Sommersby

"Deserves a Stiff Sentencing"
2 stars

Aside from Annette O'Toole's remarkable lead performance, this made-for-tv domestic/courtroom drama serves up too many easy answers to complicated topical questions.

The red-haired beauty Annette O'Toole should have become a major A-list star in the 1980s after her sure-footed, outstanding performances in one film right after another. As the (justifiable) love interests of actors Gary Busey, Nick Nolte, and Christopher Reeve in Foolin' Around, 48 Hrs., and Superman III, she effortlessly displayed a magnetic talent too few actresses possess: the ability to be both vivid and convincing, with the inability to make not so much as a single false move on the silver screen. But O'Toole didn't possess the kind of knockout beauty that sublimates innate talent in the eyes of gullible filmgoers by the likes of a vapid Julia Roberts -- she had to earn her lunch by etching three-dimensional, lived-in characters who made dramatic sense. Even when she took a chance by disrobing (agreeably, mind you) in the kinky 1982 remake of Cat People, audiences still weren't having it -- they were too busy preoccupied with the leading lady of that film, that non-actress Nastassja Kinski, going the full-frontal route instead of just an above-the-waist one. Red-haired actresses have always had a time of it striking major chords, and the only conceivable reason why that vapid ice-queen of an actress Nicole Kidman has thus far enjoyed a lucrative career is undoubtedly because of her well-publicized, high-profile marriage to box-office sensation Tom Cruise. The U.K. imported the phenomenally talented Alice Cringe over to the States after she'd made quite an impression in a supporting turn in the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, but she, too, never caught on with audiences, even after doing the full-frontal thing herself in the 1981 adaptation of best-selling author Peter Straub's Ghost Story.

O'Toole was afforded an opportunity at stardom in the 1987 romantic comedy Cross My Heart, where she played a single mom set up on a blind date with harried executive Martin Short. But the filmmakers unwisely gentrified her down to Ronald Reagan-sanctioned social norms: that of a woman who, as strong-willed and independent in nature as she alluded to be, ultimately needed a man to justify her existence. (It also didn't help that she was all but sexually neutralized in an unflattering array of conservative-minded clothing that helped reign in her sultry overtones -- a liability that also affected but didn't completely cancel out Kim Basinger's forcefulness in 1987's classically uproarious Blind Date). O'Toole had the talent, looks, and bod to make it big, but conditioned audiences weren't having any of it; even though the late, great critic Pauline Kael had hailed her as a just-as-talented but more emotionally lucid Meryl Streep, O'Toole just wasn't scoring big with the same dumbed-down masses who were still thinking the much-publicized Kinski was going to reveal some genuine acting talent sometime within the next century or so. Regrettably, O'Toole's career sank to middle-of-the-road and television fare, rendering her emotionally accessible, pale-skinned, and dazzling blue-eyed self to the artistic recesses of unworthy material. A case in point is the ho-hum made-for-tv melodrama Final Justice, which offers up a painless-enough time even when you know perfectly well you shouldn't be tolerating it as much as you are.

As to be expected in this broadcast medium, whatever serious social issues raised at the onset are soon diluted of their potency to fuse with easy-to-please target audiences who're weary of complexity and crave nothing more than warmed-over relevances so as not to cause them any undue moral confliction. Just about everything presented here is blatantly spelled out and sanitized, every story obstacle is neatly resolved in the end, and whatever emotional ambiguity is presented comes off as nothing more than incidental, tacked-on footnotes to simply give off the impression of ambiguity. In a lot of ways, it's remarkably (though certainly not commendably) similar to last year's overrated, simplistically shameless In the Bedroom in its depiction of a small-town family's grievance over the tragic death of a murdered loved one. O'Toole plays the sister of the victim who's left to sit by as a flawed justice system -- and, more to the point, a contemptuous media-hound of an amoral criminal defense attorney (deliciously played by Michael McKean, O'Toole's off-screen spouse) -- releases the guilty-as-hell murderer when the trial is cannily manipulated so that the victim, an open and HIV-infected homosexual, is put on trial instead of the slayer in the eyes of a conservative-minded jury, who return a not-guilty verdict. The legalese presented here is semi-believable yet not convincing enough; you can foresee logic loopholes being employed as a sort of shorthand to progress the story onward past the trial and onward to the "meat and potatoes".

The pivotal section involves the O'Toole character kidnapping the attorney, handcuffing him to the leg of a cast-iron bathtub in a remote cabin, and subjecting him to certain tortures ranging from a little Russian Roulette with a handgun to the around-the-clock playing of a rap-album CD that unsettles him so badly he's soon begging for aspirins to appease his throbbing head (this is about the point when you suspect screenwriter Babs Grayhosky's mind must have gone dead). In these scenes, we hear the same old cliches about big-cat, high-priced lawyers sublimating humaneness for steep legal fees in drawn-out, forced dialogue exchanges that couldn't be more generic than as if they were affixed with barcodes. (With just a simple, throwaway line in William Friedkin's spectacular To Live and Die in L.A. by character actor Dean Stockwell, "I don't make any apologies for being a defense attorney. If I didn't accept the case, someone else would, without a doubt," the very same thing was just as aptly conveyed.) The story moves onward to where McKean escapes, O'Toole turns herself into the police, and she's put on trial for kidnapping. Enter another defense attorney (a dynamic CCH Pounder) who takes on O'Toole's case pro bono for a not-altogether altruistic reason: she wants to slam it to this celebrity attorney who's despised by all too many in the legal circle. Will O'Toole get off in the end? Uh, have you seen more than, oh, say, five films in your lifetime?

Final Justice is best when examining just how flawed and prejudiced today's American jury pool can be, how rock-solid forensic evidence and the thorough presentation of substantiated facts can be conveniently overlooked if the defendant or victim has led an unorthodox lifestyle deemed as socially or morally unacceptable in the eyes of jurors. The citizens of this small community are predominantly Catholic, and the victim's homosexual lifestyle is masterfully milked by McKean so attention is drawn away from the heinous nature of the crime; when he later refers to jurors as "sheep" to be led wherever the "shepherd" he sees himself as wishes, he's admittedly not too far off -- he knows the scales of justice can never be equal when jurors carry judgmental baggage into the courtroom. He even tries working this over on O'Toole when she insists that all she wanted was a fair trial, to which he counters, "Whenever someone talks about a fair trial, they mean when it goes in their favor -- then it's fair." It's akin to what Dallas author Jim Schutz explored in his devastatingly effective true-crime book Bully: Does Anyone Deserve to Die?, where a Florida prosecutor remarked that straight-laced, middle-class white jurors can be dangerously forgiving when one of their own is put on trial, even if the crime being tried is a brutal, first-degree murder. Schutz was less interested in the crime itself and more in the lack of conscience in both the teenage slayers and their suburbanite parents, who refused to accept that their children should be punished with the same legal criteria administered to a "real" criminal.

Final Justice is fairly shameless, though, in tackling the legal justice system issue because it's too intent on delivering immediate effects; too many scenes come equipped with their own climax to retain those thirty-second attention spans, so nothing is explored very deep and whatever tantalizing aspects surface just get smothered rather than mulled over to get on to progress things onward, onward. The homosexual angle isn't exactly negligibly handled by the filmmakers, but it you can't help feeling it's been incorporated here as mere window-dressing to spruce things up (as the sexual harassment angle was in 1994's ludicrous, dishonest Disclosure). And there are just too many whopping coincidences and logic loopholes throughout -- like O'Toole happening to leave open the drawer where she kept her gun just so her policeman boyfriend can see it and put two and two together -- which temporarily jar us right out of the passable story. We can accept it when two pre-teen students question O'Toole (who teaches at a Catholic school) about the ambiguous afterlife her brother conceivably faces because of his sexual orientation, but when she's later ousted by the presiding school priest, we've already seen it coming several scenes before, as if it had to be checked off of a master list of story perfunctories. This also goes for such sledgehammer subtleties as O'Toole waking up the morning after the disastrous trial and hearing McKean's voice on the radio being interviewed for a talk show, and right after tendering her resignation and arriving home, McKean is, again, there to indirectly taunt her, this time on a television news bite, which causes her to snap and hurriedly instigate the kidnapping.

It's all trumped-up poppycock, and the director, Tommy Lee Wallace, who showed some visual snap in the entertaining Halloween 3: Season of the Witch but floundered with the dreadful Vampires: Los Muertos, is unable to provide much storytelling panache to help glide over them. He seems restricted by the cramped 1.33:1 television aspect ratio he's having to work with here, rather than the 2.35:1 widescreen one he has demonstrated some panache with. Not only is Final Justice devoid of a rich visual life, but it's editing rhythms are faulty, too, with the pacing uneven and which progresses forth in fits and starts. Obviously, Wallace didn't have a whole lot of passion for the material, and his lazy execution of it further accentuates the flaws. But the whole thing can't be totally written off because the performances are uniformly superb. Michael McKean manages to do wonders with the cliched role of an unscrupulous attorney who loves the letter of the law as long as it rewards him with riches and prestige. He was a bit over-the-top as the smarmy prison chaplain in Clint Eastwood's excellent True Crime, but he admirably modulates his villainous interpretation this time around, feeling through his line readings and etching a believable portrait of a smart, calculating man who long ago dispelled any notions of righteousness and love (two emotional components he insists clouds a person's sound judgment). CCH Pounder performs with the kind of crackling intensity evident when an actress is hugely enjoying what she's being paid so generously to do; the film gets a near-seismic burst of energy whenever she's onscreen.

And then there's the invaluable Annette O' Toole. She's simply spellbinding in a galvanizing performance that touches, and touches deep. Everything she does here is unexpected, as if she hadn't read the next page of the script; in fact, O'Toole's work -- which is a magical combination of imagination and technique -- is so affectingly honest she not only overcomes her bum dialogue but also (to the filmmakers' disadvantage) reminds you of how mediocre her artistic surroundings are. She's especially good when joyingly taunting the handcuffed McKean with dark, malicious humor (something Sigourney Weaver failed to pull off with a similar character in the uninvolving Death and the Maiden), and her emotional transitions are so convincing you might believe him in actual mortal danger if you weren't privy to the fact that this is a tv-movie where a cold-blooded murder committed by the heroine is viewed as a no-no by ratings-conscious studio execs. If the role doesn't give O'Toole the creative leeway for a rich, risk-taking performance of the like which was afforded the phenomenal Diane Lane in this year's Unfaithful (which is still the greatest work by an actress so far this year), then she at least gives pretty much the best performance that could possibly be derived from it. She's sensational. The film she's in is anything but.

Closing statement: Guilty of sugar-coating for IQ-depleted audiences.

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originally posted: 01/01/03 02:16:29
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