Friday October 11, 1996

     Don't blame "The Chamber." It's not its fault. Really.
     It's not its fault that it's the third recent film (after "Dead Man Walking" and "Last Dance") to focus on last-minute efforts to postpone the execution of a convicted murderer. Movie audiences may be forgiven for feeling they've walked enough last miles to compete in the Boston Marathon.
     And because everyone in Hollywood believes the Boys Town dictum that there's no such thing as a bad boy, or girl, "The Chamber" is also the third film to have its cranky death row protagonist start out as the hardest of cases only to end up, after the appropriate dose of tough love, revealing a hint of lamb underneath the lion.
     It's also not "The Chamber's" fault that it's the fifth film, the second of this calendar year, in a rapidly growing series based on John Grisham novels. The plights of idealistic but embattled young lawyers in a deeply corrupt South are becoming as horrifyingly familiar as shots of the O.J. Simpson Dream Team used to be.
     That "been there, done that, don't blame me" plea bargaining feeling "The Chamber" gives off is only part of why this turns out to be the weakest of the Grisham films to date. Flat and lackadaisical, it's the first of the five adaptations to seem embarrassed by the pulpiness of its material, which is not the best way to handle the mighty monarch of best-selling authors.
     It's ironic that this problem should arise on "The Chamber," because reviews of the book credit it as an attempt by Grisham to deal with important themes like capital punishment. But director James Foley and screenwriters William Goldman and Chris Reese (the pseudonym of a presumably disgruntled collaborator) have come up with a stilted, unconvincing movie where everything resembling emotion feels phoned-in.
     The film's protagonist is Adam Hall (Chris O'Donnell), a 26-year-old associate in a large Chicago law firm who tells partner E. Garner Goodman (Robert Prosky) that he wants to take over the defense of Sam Cayhall (Gene Hackman). Sixteen years on death row for a fatal 1967 bombing that targeted a Jewish lawyer involved in civil rights work, Cayhall is a crude, abrasive racist who never had a nice day. Goodman understandably thinks Hall's idea is a screwy one until the young man plays his ace: Cayhall is his grandfather, though they've never met.
     Down in Mississippi, no one is particularly happy when Hall shows up. That surly grandfather, unmistakable in a red prison jumpsuit and wool watch cap, is an even fouler character than imagined. And Cayhall's daughter, Lee Bowen (Faye Dunaway), is an alcoholic socialite fearful that the truth about her father will ruin her precious social standing.
     With the off-and-on help of the legal aide ("Waiting to Exhale's" Lela Rochon) to an opportunistic governor (David Marshall Grant), Hall spends most of the movie pursuing unconvincing legal strategies. He also noses around what look to be dark secrets (are there any other kind in the South?) having to do with his grandfather's friends and associates.
     One of the problems "The Chamber" faces is the sourness that infects all its major characters. While it's acceptable for mean old Sam Cayhall to snap out sentiments like "You don't look like you could save a turkey from Thanksgiving," no one seems to have noticed that Adam Hall is even more of a mouthy jerk than his grandfather. The self-righteous arrogance that O'Donnell has chosen for his character's touchstone is a serious miscalculation.
     "The Chamber's" other actors also seem to be on their own, with not the best results. Most unfortunate is Dunaway, encouraged to go over the top and forced to hiss lines like "You understand nothing." Only former two-sport man and Nike icon Bo Jackson, of all people, makes a solid impression as a prison guard. Bo doesn't know acting yet, but he's headed in the right direction.
     Though Joel Schumacher's insistence on full-throttle manipulation in his version of Grisham's "A Time to Kill" had its own problems, no one could accuse him of allowing the material to turn dull. "The Chamber" is like a balloon that all the air has leaked out of. Maybe it wasn't magnificent before, but in its current state it is sad indeed.


The Chamber, 1996. R, for violent images and some language. Imagine Entertainment presents a Brian Grazer/Davis Entertainment production, released by Universal Pictures. Director James Foley. Producers John Davis, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard. Executive producers David Friendly, Ric Kidney, Karen Kehela. Screenplay William Goldman and Chris Reese, based on the novel by John Grisham. Cinematographer Ian Baker. Editor Mark Warner. Costumes Tracy Tynan. Music Carter Burwell. Production design David Brisbin. Art director Mark Worthington. Set decorator Lisa Fischer. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. Chris O'Donnell as Adam Hall. Gene Hackman as Sam Cayhall. Faye Dunaway as Lee Bowen. Lela Rochon as Nora Stark. Robert Prosky as E. Garner Goodman. Raymond Barry as Rollie Wedge. David Marshall Grant as Governor McAllister. Bo Jackson as Sgt. Packer. Josef Sommer as Phelps Bowen.