Skip to main content

Hipster Holy Grail: Final Justice (1998)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Final Justice took me by surprise.  It's kinda dumb, but thoroughly watchable and even breaks itself out into neat, tidy 30-minute acts that you can watch in separate pieces if you don't have time to watch it all at once.  If you're going to watch a Lifetime TV movie, this is a pretty decent choice.

My Rating: 3 / 5

The Plot Summary

The film opens with Merle Hammond (Michael McKean), who we'll later learn is a successful criminal defense attorney, running desperately through the woods.  He stumbles out onto a road and is picked up by a passing cop, to whom he dramatically reveals: "I've been kidnapped!"

Then the movie crossfades into the past - but either I wasn't paying attention or it didn't have a "Two Months Earlier..." type of title, because I had no clue that we were going back in time.  And this right here is where I'm going to take an aside to say that I hate this opening.  Not long from now - in only like thirty minutes, actually - you'll find out exactly why Hammond was kidnapped and who did it, and I feel like the movie would've worked better if his kidnapping was presented as a surprise plot twist rather than the whole point of the movie.  I mean, it is the point of the movie, but still.  It's kinda like knowing ahead of time what the point of From Dusk 'Til Dawn is, except we're talking about a Lifetime original here.

Anyway, back to the past.  Gwen Saticoy (Annette O'Toole) is an average American woman who teaches history at a Catholic school, and she has a brother named George (Duffy Epstein) who owns a cafe along with his friend Damon Benning (Kevin Loomis).  George is gay, and the movie introduces this to us about as subtly as a Clinton-era movie could: he uses the word "fabulous" a lot and has a pierced ear.  And... that's about it, actually.  Considering that it was 1998, I'd say this was pretty progressive.

Gwen is driving George to the cafe one morning in her new car and drops him off a few minutes before he normally starts work.  When George goes inside, he's horrified to discover that Damon is dousing the place in gasoline and getting ready to torch it.  Apparently, the cafe's been bleeding money for some time now, and Damon is convinced the only way he'll get above water is to burn it for the insurance money.

The movie cuts away before we see anything happen, but through the police investigation / news reporter / trial preparation scenes we see immediately after, we learn that Damon shot George in the back several times as he tried to run away and was arrested for murder.  However, Damon alleges that he killed George in self-defense.  His story?  George was threatening to cut himself and bleed HIV-positive blood all over Damon.  Naturally, he had to shoot George in the back.

His story is pretty clearly bullshit, and I appreciate how the main cast all treats it as such.  Gwen is annoyed to hear it and scoffs, and the prosecution lawyer on the case similarly thinks that Damon's conviction is going to be a cakewalk.  But there's a wrinkle: an anti-gay religious group named People for Family Values (or some other similar horseshit) has paid big bucks to secure Merle Hammond as Damon's attorney, which is bad news for the Saticoy family.  Hammond is one of those celebrity lawyers who's renowned the country over for getting people cleared of charges, no matter how dire their situation seems.

In very short order, the trial goes south.  Although the prosecutor provides very clear and direct factual evidence that makes it clear Damon is guilty, Hammond distracts the jury by playing to their homophobia.  He frames it as the story of a perverted gay with a gay disease who gayly lied about being gay and then gayed it up at his cafe, so obviously you can excuse Damon for acting irrationally.  He also does everything he can to destroy George's character and makes him out to be some ludicrous monster.  The jury eats it up and soon they issue a Not Guilty verdict, to much applause.

Things go from bad to worse for Gwen.  Not only has Damon gotten away with murdering her brother, but the whole affair lands him a massive book deal and instant fame.  Then, to rub salt deeper into the wound, the church that operates her school has decided she's too controversial a staff member to keep on, what with her gay brother being gayly murdered and all, so they put her on an involuntary, open-ended sabbatical.  Gwen quits out of disgust.

Then one day, while she's drinking Maalox out of a highball glass - which is a little weird if you ask me - she catches a biography on TV about Merle Hammond.  He says something about how he always wins and that pisses her off enough that she throws the glass at the TV and decides right then and there to kidnap him.

Now, before I focus on the kidnapping part, let me ask: was she drinking Maalox out of that glass just so she could throw it?  If so, why not just have her drink a glass of water?  It's a little weird.  And no, I can't let this detail go.  This is not normal behavior.

Anyway, the kidnapping.  Gwen doesn't have much of a plan - she's definitely acting on raw emotion.  She rents a cabin in the woods, then holds Hammond at gunpoint and forces him into a dog kennel.  She lets him out at the cabin and handcuffs him to a cast iron tub inside, then gets a rap CD and plays it loudly on loop in the bathroom for about 18 hours or so to torture him.

This part is a little messed up.  Final Justice tries to have it both ways here - the movie will later use Hammond's reaction to the music to play him up as racist, as if it being filthy black music is the problem and not the fact that it's the same damn song played so loud he can't think for eighteen straight hours.  But at the same time, Gwen is seen listening to pleasant, soft, gentle white classical music on her headphones during this time, and she gets away without any racist accusations her way.  I get what the movie was trying to do here, but I feel like it would've worked better if they just used a Spice Girls knock-off instead.

Gwen occasionally busts into the bathroom to throw her weight around and remind Hammond that she's in charge, but she still doesn't really have a plan yet.  And the bad news is that her cop boyfriend, Mark (Brian Wimmer), is actually a baseline competent officer and very easily puts the pieces together to realize what she's doing.  On the plus side, he's grappling with whether or not to bust her, so that buys her a little more time.

Eventually, Gwen has an idea to do something more than just psychologically torture Hammond.  She makes contact with Gordon Osborne (George Fosgate), a farmer who also has beef with Hammond.  Some time ago, Gordon's daughter was raped, and Hammond defended the rapist.  He was able to get a not guilty verdict in that case, too, mainly by discrediting Gordon's daughter's testimony and defaming her in classic "she was asking for it" fashion.  After the trial, she was shunned and slut-shamed by her community and tried to kill herself by swallowing a bunch of pills.  Nowadays, she sits around on Gordon's front porch in a brain-dead coma, waiting for the rest of her body to die.

Gwen takes Hammond to Gordon's farm to force him to confront the long-term results of his work, thinking that maybe it'll get him to admit some level of responsibility and culpability.  But Hammond steadfastly refuses - he explains that he was just doing his job, and that whatever happened afterward is not his fault.  He and Gwen have this exact same conversation in her car en route.

Eventually, Hammond escapes from the cabin and is picked up by a passing cop.  Mark goes to meet Gwen separately and takes her into custody, giving her a primer on what not to do in order to avoid an automatic guilty sentence and to get a chance at her trial.  And then we fast forward a bit until it's trial time (again).

Here's where Gwen's luck improves.  Turns out Danielle Kline (CCH Pounder), another high profile criminal defense attorney, has been following Gwen's case and wants to defend her pro bono.  Kline explains that she sympathizes with Gwen and has some personal interest on a humanitarian level, but mostly she's just excited to challenge Hammond in court.  She hates him and wants to see him taken down a notch.

So, cue the second trial of the movie, with the roles reversed.  Hammond gives a fairly accurate testimony to the court of what happened to him, and since Gwen has already admitted to the basic facts of the case, it seems it should be a slam dunk conviction.  However, Kline picks at small details in Hammond's retelling to make it seem not quite as bad as he says.  She points out that he was cared for physically, he was never attacked, he got a home-cooked meal at one point, etc.  And then she makes a big point about Gwen's emotional state, framing the situation not as a cold-blooded, premeditated crime, but rather a reaction out of love for her family.  She also subtly makes the case that Hammond was asking for it, since he's a total jerk.

The jury pretty easily buys into Kline's version of events since it's easy to find evidence of Hammond being a douchebag.  But the decision of the trial is still on the fence.  Then we cut away back to Gordon Osborne.  Earlier in the movie, Gwen asked if she could park her car at his farm once she knew she was going to be arrested, and he agreed.  (How this did not land him an arrest as an accessory to her crime, I don't know.  Guess the authorities decided he didn't do very much that was worth kicking up any dust.)  But while Gordon is bringing her car back to the city, he finds a cassette tape inside with an incriminating conversation that was inadvertently recorded.  (I glossed over it earlier, but the movie makes a huge, huge deal of setting up that Gwen's car radio has a record button, since she wanted to be able to dictate notes while driving.  It's set up so clearly that you basically spend the rest of the movie waiting for it to reveal what amazing thing she recorded.)

Gordon anonymously submits copies of the tape to the press and then to the judge presiding over Gwen's trial.  When she gets the tape, she declares a recess and brings the attorneys to her chambers to listen.  Turns out it's a recording of Hammond in the car talking about how dumb jurors are and how easy they are to manipulate, and why it's okay for him to do that in order to win cases.  The tape is bound to destroy Hammond's career and is likely to secure a not guilty vote for Gwen, so Hammond's lawyer advises him to accept a plea bargain deal now and ensure that Gwen at least gets some form of punishment.  Hammond reluctantly agrees, then leaves the courthouse to be immediately pestered by reporters.

Kline negotiates with the prosecuting attorney to get Gwen a pretty light sentence, something like 18 months of probation and 6 months of community service.  In the last few minutes of the movie, Gwen goes for a casual, wistful walk past her old school while various cutaway shots inform us that Hammond's career is over, but Damon's book is a smash bestseller.  So, not exactly a happy ending, but what can you do.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

Since this was a Lifetime movie, I have to grade it on a bit of a curve, and on that curve, I think it's mostly a success.

Lifetime movies have a bad rep because they're traditionally melodramatic, over-acted, and have plots that take real-world concepts and blow them out of proportion.  Final Justice is no exception.  The music is hammy as hell, everybody is in full-on "TV Drama" mode, and all the plot twists are a mix of contrivance and ludicrousness.

But... it still kinda works.  In spite of itself, the movie has a good setup and I mostly liked it.

I think part of the reason I like it is because the initial court case is simultaneously ridiculous, but also an accurate snapshot of the country at that time.  Damon's story that George was going to bleed on him and give him HIV is such a preposterous story to my 2017 ears, but the thing is, I was alive and aware of my world in 1998.  I know from personal experience that this is the kind of dumb shit that homophobes believed in - and a lot of them still do.

Personal detour: 1997-1998 was socially one of the worst years ever for me because I was bullied pretty severely after a rumor went around that I was gay.  I got spat on, kicked, and had my shit stolen for months because hicks thought I was going to magically give them AIDS.  Things are fine now, obviously, and even by '99 I was feeling pretty good about life, but that little taste of what it's like to deal with dumb bullshit every day really cemented my personality and politics ever since.  Anytime a class mate went off about what "the gays" were trying to do, I was compelled to tell them just how many shades of stupid they were.  Pretty soon I realized just how deeply affected people are by homophobia.  The number of times kids had gay panic over things as simple as sharing a pencil, or splitting things off a lunch tray was mind-boggling.

But then I started to pay attention to those idiots' parents, and it got worse.  Homophobic kids are just misled, but homophobic parents are fucking awful through and through.  I can't tell you the number of times somebody swore that "some fag" was trying to give them an unwanted blowjob in the restroom - as if there was this hidden epidemic of wild gay men roaming department stores and Sizzlers looking for innocent straight men to seduce.  Before the rumor, I grew up thinking that life as an adult was a constant struggle to avoid having your dick land in or near people's orifices, either accidentally or by coercion.  After the rumor, I realized that people will go to any lengths to justify their bigotry, even with bullshit so obvious that you laugh in their face.  Then I realized that those same people have no problem teaching their kids to do heinous shit, and I have yet to stop being angry.

So, yeah, Damon's defense might seem like a hilariously nonsensical story, and I sure hope that my kids grow up scoffing at how dumb the plot sounds since that means we'll have made progress, but I was there in '98 - and this is exactly what it was like.  Final Justice is only preposterous because it's too real.

For awhile, anyway.  The follow-up kidnapping and second trial don't actually live up to the first act of the movie.  They're not bad, but they're definitely a step down.

The main thing that doesn't work for me is the movie's understanding of "justice."  I see what they're trying to do by putting Gwen in a second trial to parallel the first one, and I appreciate the irony.  The problem is, this is a movie in which justice is denied twice and two careers are ruined, yet the movie neither has the caustic tone of a sarcastic, cynical satire nor does it have the gritty, mournful tone of a revenge tragedy.  It treats Gwen's arc as an inspiring journey of self-discovery and hope instead of just a petty gaming of the system.

The movie is clearly setting out to say something meaningful about our justice system.  It has one too many sincere conversations about the law to be understood as anything other than a message movie.  But its understanding of the law isn't well-rounded; it dwells too much on the rights of victims and their families and seems to argue that, by extension of those rights, the accused are not entitled to defend themselves in court, which is out-and-out nonsense.

Sure, Hammond is a sleazebag, and he might sound like a douchebag when he explains himself to Gwen - but he's 100% right.  If you're on trial, you have the right to an attorney, and wouldn't you want an attorney who's competent, able, and willing to do anything they can to ensure your best interests?  That's the exact point of our justice system, and that ideal is why due process is so awesome.

Now, to be fair, the movie does attempt to treat trials with some degree of levelheadedness.  It's not that Gwen is a straight-up maniac who doesn't see the point of the Bill of Rights.  It's more that she's aggravated that a jury could so easily be swayed in a case where all the physical evidence points in the direction of guilt.  But even focusing on that shortcoming is a bad argument - if there is strong evidence that somebody is guilty, then it's on the part of the prosecution to drive that home.  And if the jury is too fucking stupid to see very obvious facts because they're distracted by their innate bigotry, then that's a social problem, not a legal one.  By reframing it as a story where the lawyer is the bad guy instead of the murderer, the movie creates all kinds of moral ambiguity, yet it never seems to realize that.  Final Justice moves forward with confidence that you're on Gwen's side the whole time.

Tellingly, the actual criminal in this movie is scot free and rich at the end with no comeuppance whatsoever.  I have to assume the title Final Justice is ironic.

I hate to compare this to a traditional guy movie where somebody would just get a gun (or at least a heavy piece of wood) and go around roughing people up to get revenge, but I'd rather have that than this.  Final Justice has all the same elements as a male power fantasy, only without the sweet catharsis of seeing the bad guy get bludgeoned.

You know how to make this a better movie with only a few changes?  Make it so that Gwen kidnaps Damon instead, and have him spout off all the same stuff Hammond did about how he had the right to defend himself in any way possible during his trial, and then he gives a secretly-captured-on-tape admission of guilt when Gwen pushes his buttons.  Later, when Gwen is on trial, the last-minute reveal of the audio gets Gwen the same plea bargain (or even an acquittal, whatever).  Then it ends with Damon being free to go because he was already acquitted, but his book deal falls through and he ends up having to face his debtors and a whole lotta angry people.  It's still not perfect, and its messages would still be muddled, but that at least delivers on the justice part.

Still, despite some significant logical flaws and the overall Lifetime-iness of it all, the movie has a lot going for it.  It doesn't bite off more than it can chew - there are no ridiculous set pieces or anything that's too grand for its budget.  It has excellent pacing and stays pretty punchy throughout.  The acting, while hammy, is generally on point, with Michael McKean hitting it out of the park.  (I don't know if it's a compliment, but McKean can outsleaze just about anybody.)

I can't ultimately call this a "good" movie, but it's very watchable and possibly the best Justice movie I think I've watched for the Holy Grail so far.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

A decent amount.  It gets 40 cred for obscurity, having well under 200 IMDb ratings as of today.  I'll give it a pedigree bonus of 15 points as well for being a Lifetime TV movie.  That's a pretty good head start, but I'm also going to give it 10 more cred as a "No, the other one" bonus since it is the third movie named "Final Justice" on IMDb and has the least ratings of them all.

Plus, I seriously/ironically love that the big McGuffin setup-and-payoff trope here relies on an analogue cassette recorder that the main character had installed in her car for spurious reasons.  So I'm giving it another 5 points for outdated tech being a major plot point.

That adds up to a respectable total of 70 hipster cred out of a possible 100.

Where You Can Watch