Opened: Oct. 11, 1996 | Rated: R
Sooner or later somebody was bound to make a bad movie from a John Grisham novel, and "The Chamber" is a stinker.
In this, the second Grisham film of 1996 ("A Time To Kill" was the first) Chris O'Donnell ("Batman Returns") plays one of Grisham's standard handsome, young lawyers driven to take a case beyond his abilities. Gene Hackman is his charge -- a KKK bomber scheduled to die for blowing up a Jewish family in 1967 -- who happens to be the young lawyer's grandfather.
With a subtext-heavy set-up like that, it's hard to imagine how a director could manage to make a movie with no depth, no development and no heart. But "The Chamber" was under the command of James Foley, the mastermind of such cinematic genius as "Who's That Girl," and "Glengarry Glen Ross" -- another adaptation (of a David Mamet play) that lost everything in the translation to the screen.
Foley's take on Grisham's novel fails to read between the lines. In two hours, O'Donnell's motives for wanting to save his racist grandfather from the gas chamber are never even touched on. He is eagerly helped by a gubernatorial aide (Lela Rochon), who is black, but Foley doesn't bother to address her feelings about trying to save a racist murderer, either.
Faye Dunaway pops up as Hackman's drunkard, melodramatic daughter (even though she's only a few years younger than he is) who years before changed her name and married in to the social elite, only to have the past come back to haunt her in the newspapers.
"The Chamber" plays like a TV movie of the week -- cheap production values and shallow characters defined only by their resumes (lawyer, prisoner, alcoholic) -- the only thing missing is a kidnapped baby.
There's even a special guest star. Super-athlete Bo Jackson plays a prison guard who is friends with Hackman (again, the film fails to address why he would befriend a vicious racist).
Without any wisdom to impart or character depth to explore, and drowning in ham-fisted acting (Hackman being a notable exception), "The Chamber" could have borrowed the cast of "Melrose Place" and had more lucid performances. O'Donnell's boyish looks and Hackman's stalwart performance are left to carry the film.
"The Chamber" plays heavily to our sympathies, but never tells us why we should care. Toward the end it becomes purely formula stuff, with the prisoner's speech of remorse, the governor's press conference outside the prison and the emotional lawyer crying a river.
This film is a sign that it's time Hollywood took a break from death row movies and Grisham adaptations.