The Chamber - * *

A mostly well acted John Grisham tale can’t hide the fact that it doesn’t really have anything to say. Adam Hall (Chris O’Donnell) is that everpresent staple of Grisham works, the eager young lawyer who tackles a big job. In The Chamber, it is the case of Sam Cayhall (Gene Hackman), a racist murderer on death row for a bombing he did 20 years ago. The twist here is that Sam is Adam’s grandfather. The film turns out to be more of a family saga than a legal wrangling, focusing on Adam, who lost his father to suicide, his rich socialite aunt (Faye Dunaway), who hides from the family shame, and gruffly racist Sam, who, although still a vocal KKK supporter, seems to have attracted the sympathies of several blacks in the prison, including guard Sgt. Packer (Bo Jackson, in a particuarly stiff performance). Gene Hackman gives a good performance, but he never seems to grasp that his character doesn’t have any good qualities. There’s that twinkle in his eye that seems to say, “I’m sure I’ve got a heart of gold around here somewhere”. Chris O’Donnell is rather flat as the lead character, expressing his character’s eagerness rather well, but nothing else. Faye Dunaway does a admirable job as the alcoholic socialite. Unfortunately, they all have the script to deal with, which, in fairness to scribe William Goldman, is mostly faithful to what is, perhaps, the worst of Grisham’s books. It flounders around, initially looking as if there will be poignant moments about racism, violence and capital punishment…but none appear. Even an inexplicable series of events involving Sam’s partner, Rollie (Raymond Barry), which might clear his name, never takes off. The filmmakers are stuck with the central dilemma of attempting to rescue an unsympathetic man, and no matter how hard they struggle, they never surmount it. Director James Foley merely goes through the motions with this one, which, if it only had a point, might have made a good movie.

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