An earnest, ambitious, and highly principled young lawyer takes on an unpopular case and uncovers evildoing in high places. Question #1: Which movie based on a John Grisham novel does that synopsis describe? Answer: All of them. Question #2: How many of those films suck? Answer: See Answer #1.
Say this for Grisham movies, though -- some decent acting (especially by Hollywood blockbuster standards) goes down the toilet with the disposable scripts. Denzel Washington in The Pelican Brief; star Tom Cruise and supporting players Gary Busey and Gene Hackman in The Firm; Susan Sarandon, Tommy Lee Jones, Brad Renfro, and Anthony Edwards in The Client; Samuel L. Jackson and Oliver Platt in A Time to Kill; and now Gene Hackman with a leading role in his second Grisham groaner, The Chamber -- all have risen above the boring legal wrangling, the brazenly manipulative plot devices, the big speeches, the sinister conspiracies, and the histrionics.
Fresh-faced Chris O'Donnell isn't bad as Adam Hall, the idealistic Grisham stand-in who risks his own life in an effort to rescue his white supremacist grandfather from a cyanide steam bath. But Hackman steals the show as Sam Cayhall, the stubborn, grizzled Ku Klux Klansman who would rather die than let an old nemesis make political hay out of his case. Sam's misguided sense of loyalty to the Klan prevents him from revealing who really planted the bomb that killed two innocent children and earned him a murder conviction. Sam's refusal to compromise makes defending him doubly hard for his plucky grandson, who has never represented a death row client before.
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Hackman's performance here doesn't quite measure up to the standard he set in The French Connection. Nor does it match the level of Sean Penn's harrowing turn in last year's Dead Man Walking (in which Penn also played a bullheaded soon-to-be-executed racist languishing on death row). But it's still top-shelf acting; Hackman is one of those guys (The Long Kiss Goodbye's Samuel L. Jackson is another) who seem incapable of delivering a lousy performance, even in a subpar film (such as both men's current offerings).
Unfortunately Hackman's skills don't rub off on the rest of the cast. Faye Dunaway as Sam's social-climbing daughter is great two-thirds of the time and way over the top the other third. Lela Rochon makes you wince at her amateurish portrayal of a key aide to the governor of Mississippi, and Raymond Barry doesn't fare much better as a furtive Klan leader. At least former football great Bo Jackson looks the part and doesn't stumble over his lines as a tough but compassionate prison guard, although Jackson's acting will never earn him as many raves as his gridiron exploits.
But even had Hackman played all the roles, The Chamber would still suffer from the usual Grisham-movie maladies. Maybe the best-selling author's books are substantially better than their cinematic adaptions, but these movies are so stupid that none of Grisham's legal eagles could win them acquittals from charges of derivative stories, weak characterizations, shaky legal shenanigans, unabashed melodrama, stilted dialogue, and simplistic racial politics. The Chamber is an egregious waste of celluloid. If Grisham were to face trial based on the evidence presented in this most recent adaption of his work, the verdict would be unanimous: Gas his ass.
Written by William Goldman and Chris Reese; directed by James Foley; with Chris O'Donnell, Gene Hackman, Faye Dunaway, Lela Rochon, and Bo Jackson.