The term “Habeas Corpus” is Latin for “produce the body.” Considering the PG-13 rating, I knew I wouldn’t get to see Julia Roberts in the full frontal nude (I’m not even sure I want to)…but why the constant shots of Bruce Willis’s naked keister, and always in such sharp focus? Was the director trying to tell us something? Was Bruce?
Regardless, for some reason, this utterly routine, yet stupefyingly implausible, legal thriller was the biggest hit of 1992, spawning a sequel (“Habeas Corpuses”) plus a host of imitators.
The plot — courtesy of former screenwriter teachers Tom Oakley and Andy Civella — concerns the near-death experience of spunky, unpretentious Marsha Kent (Julia Roberts). Ms. Kent spends her time working a waitressing job at a funky diner and hanging out at the stunning, yet strangely inexpensive, Santa Monica apartment she shares with Yolanda, her African-American girlfriend (Kasi Lemmons in a three-line role). The rest of the time, she spends jogging in slow motion down the Venice boardwalk accompanied by her three adorable purebred, show quality Pekinese dogs. The only fly in the ointment is Perl, her sleazy boyfriend (played, in one of the strangest casting moves in Hollywood history, by Ms. Robert’s real-life estranged brother, Eric Roberts).
She believes Perl makes his living importing flannel shirts for grunge rockers, but in truth he is an ex-CIA hitman turned international arms smuggler. When a deal with a group of white separatists goes badly awry, the entire population of Iowa is killed. Soon, the public is out for blood and only the death penalty will do. Realizing the Feds are on his tail, the ruthless yet seductive arms smuggler frames his own girlfriend and kills Yolanda and the three Pekinese dogs for sheer spite.
Marsha is utterly alone in the world, until she meets her cynical yet heroic public defender, wisecracking Sam Winnebago (Bruce Willis, smirk at the ready). At first, Sam is convinced of Marsha’s guilt and tries to persuade her to accept a plea for Second Degree Genocide, but the spunky young waitress insists on her innocence. Before long, Sam finds himself falling for her — hard. Soon, the two share an all-too-fleeting moment of passion after lights out as Julia’s lesbian cell mate (Camryn Manheim in a surprisingly touching supporting role) stands lookout.
Winnebago’s efforts notwithstanding, Marsha is convicted through the work of a crafty DA (Joe Mantegna). The result: She is sentenced to death in California’s new, I.M. Pei designed gas chamber. When appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court and the lovably acerbic California governor (James Earl Jones) fail, Sam must take matters into his own hands — even if that means enlisting an elite team of international commandos (who all happen to hang out at a Venice Beach bar) to help him break into the prison to reach Julia before her slow but certain death by asphyxiation.
With its famous catchphrase: “Not without the catsup, honey…never without the catsup!” “Habeas Corpus” won the hearts of filmgoers while leaving critics scratching their heads. Regardless, the movie enriched the careers of Roberts and Willis while, today, even some cineastes consider it a classic of sorts. Certainly, newly crowned studio head Griffin Mill loves bragging to Charlie Rose about the success of both “Habeas Corpus” films, but this curmudgeonly critic merely wishes he’d never lived long enough to see it.