In New York City, two men have been murdered in the same ritualistic way. Both of the men were accused rapists who beat the system, getting their charges dismissed due to legal technicalities. When detectives Tom Chaney (Jeff Fahey) and Rod Lambeau (Carl Marotte) discover that assistant D.A. Katy Wesson (Marlee Matlin) was the prosecutor on both of the dead men’s cases, she becomes their number one suspect. However, Chaney has his doubt about her guilt, especially after he goes on a few dates and starts sleeping with her. Katy is an enigma with a traumatic childhood and penchant for picking up men in nightclubs but is she a murderer? Other suspects include a creepy artist named Josh (Charles Powell), who also works as the deaf Katy’s interpreter, and Katy’s overdramatic mother (Monique Mercure).
That a direct-to-video thriller from 1999 would be a rip-off of Basic Instinct is not a shock. Almost every thriller released between 1992 and 2000 was at least partially cloned from Basic Instinct. What sets When Justice Fails apart is that it’s probably the only Basic Instinct clone to actually feature it’s two main characters discussing the ending of Basic Instinct post-coitus. (For the record, Chaney thinks that the final shot means that Sharon Stone was the murderer while Katy says that the ice pick showed that the director was playing a joke on the audience.) I guess When Justice Fails deserves some credit for being willing to so directly acknowledge the film that inspired it but, when you’re a mediocre film, you probably don’t want to intentionally remind audiences that they could be watching something better.
When Justice Fails actually gets off to a good start, with Jeff Fahey playing another one of his driven loners and Marlee Matlin really committing to the role of the film’s femme fatale. The movie even manages to avoid the usual awkwardness that comes from having a hearing character repeating everything that a deaf character either signs or writes down. The early scenes have a Law & Order feel to them, with Chaney and Lambeau interviewing witnesses on the busy streets of New York and also talking to a world-weary coroner. It would have been a surprise if Stephen Hill had suddenly shown up and said, “Your case is weak and this trial could drag on through election day. Make him an offer. Man 1. Depraved indifference.”
Unfortunately, once Chaney sleeps with Katy, the movie becomes increasingly implausible and goes downhill. There just aren’t enough suspects to generate any suspense over who the murderer is ultimately going to turn out to be. The surprise at the end is only a surprise because it didn’t occur to Chaney to run a routine background check on one of his suspects, something that I would think most cops would do at the start of a murder investigation. Marlee Matlin is a terrific actress who is always interesting to watch but When Justice Fails ultimately fails to be very memorable.