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Michael B. Jordan, left, stars as Bryan Stevenson, who moves to Alabama to take on the case of Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx), convicted of killing a white teenage girl decades ago.

Jake Netter/Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

  • Just Mercy
  • Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
  • Written by Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham
  • Starring Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Rob Morgan
  • Classification PG; 136 minutes

rating

After its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September, I asked whether it was too early, or too annoying, to declare Just Mercy the shoo-in for that year’s TIFF People’s Choice Award. Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s legal thriller is the kind of movie where, when its characters applaud, the audience joins in. Yet since its fall festival tour, the heat on Just Mercy has significantly cooled, which I have to agree with after taking it in a second time over the holidays.

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Chief among the film’s problems is its intense people-pleaser sensibility, which defines all of Just Mercy, a drama whose mission is noble – it’s based on the real life of lawyer Bryan Stevenson, who’s dedicated his career to examining death-row cases – but whose style is strictly procedural. Michael B. Jordan stars as Stevenson, who moves to Alabama to take on the case of Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx), convicted of killing a white teenage girl decades ago.

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Cretton (Short Term 12) is skilled at pulling apart the pieces of a horribly unjust legal system, but struggles to give Stevenson or McMillan much depth beyond “lawyer” and “inmate.” (The less said about Brie Larson’s legal assistant the better, not because the actress is bad, just unbelievably ill-served.) Yet Jordan, Foxx and long-time character actor Rob Morgan, who plays a definitively guilty man on death row who nevertheless invokes extreme sympathy, take the little material they’re given and play it as deep as possible, turning in memorable performances. But there is also a reason that Just Mercy never did end up getting that People’s Choice Award back at TIFF.

Just Mercy opens Jan. 10.

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