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The Chamber may be the best Grisham film yet-- if that means anything

For a few years now, I've been praying to the talent gods to give me the strength to keep liking James Foley movies. When Foley first began directing 12 years ago, his films ran the range from pompous and dull morality plays (At Close Range, Reckless) to the mind-bendingly idiotic (Who's That Girl?). His personality--or any personal vision, for that matter--was such a nonentity in his films that it was almost impossible to believe he kept getting hired.

Then in 1990 he directed After Dark, My Sweet, a sexy, hip adaptation of Jim Thompson's pulpy novel. Although he updated the setting from the '50s to the '90s, Foley preserved the noirish feel, the opaque, moody tone, and the brooding mystery of the characters. Two years later he made Glengarry Glen Ross, which also bore the crackle of good moviemaking.

So after years of tolerance, I finally was looking forward to Foley's next film. And how did he repay me for my dedication? With the Marky Mark fiasco Fear--pure hackwork--and now one of John Grisham's potboilers, The Chamber. To say that my expectations were low going in is an understatement, but Foley manages to filter out the dreck while crafting a fairly brisk, sure-footed death-row drama. If he still has yet to fulfill his promise, at least he doesn't make a chump out of those who have been defending him for so long.

It's not easy to forgive Foley, however, for signing on to a mainstream, cookie-cutter entertainment like The Chamber. Studio versions of popular novels--like Coca-Cola, Bud Light, and Mickey D's--are designed for mass consumption. And few entities are as easily digestible as John Grisham. Grisham long ago stopped being a novelist and started being a pop culture franchise; his name carries with it a kind of sociological shorthand--like MTV and Friends. So there's no need to analyze Grisham's work, or even think much about it; if the marketing does its job--and Grisham is nothing if not a product of marketing--your response should be Pavlovian, almost autonomic. The Chamber may be the best novel-to-film adaptation of a Grisham book, but so what? Given the curiously consistent mediocrity that characterizes The Firm, The Pelican Brief, The Client, and most recently A Time to Kill, that's hardly high praise.

That's where the hiring of Foley to direct was both the riskiest move the producers could have made and also the only sensible one. As a book, The Chamber is deadly dull, even by Grisham's parched standards of plotting; the movie isn't much of an improvement. There are no great action centerpieces, nor any stirring, heartfelt closing arguments to a jury. Instead, The Chamber generates its measure of excitement by virtue of two wild cards. The first is the clinical efficiency with which Foley conceives, stages, and edits most of the scenes. He's aware that he's just another Grisham programmer, but puts some effort into making his work stylish, with an almost fresh view of the nature of villainy. The second is the high-quality acting of Gene Hackman.

As Sam Cayhall, a Klansman on death row who's represented by his estranged lawyer grandson, Adam (Chris O'Donnell), Hackman delivers a skilled portrayal that somehow comes as a surprise, although it shouldn't. He has been giving humane, complex characterizations in lousy movies for longer than O'Donnell has been alive. Hackman's ability to squeeze life out of a character rivals that of Robert Duvall, though Hackman is the more conventional movie star. His appearance is roughly the same year in, year out; his slick street smarts ooze from every pore. There are very few films featuring Hackman that aren't worth at least a peek because of him. His work in The Conversation stands as one of the greatest performances by a film actor I've ever seen, and if he made nothing but airline commercials the rest of his life, I'd still revere him.

The most obvious benefit gained by casting a caustic, vital actor like Hackman in a pivotal role is that other good actors sometimes rise to their greatest heights acting against one. You can tell from the early scenes that O'Donnell has the appearance of Grisham's stereotypical constant: the idealistic young lawyer. He has the clear-eyed, square-jawed sincerity of a dorky young lawyer, the kind too stupid to be cynical and too pretty to hate for his naivete. Every time his gosh-durn romanticism begins to wear thin, he gets a chance to share the screen with Hackman, matching every shout with the earnest rectitude of a cornered rabbit, and their sparring enlivens everything.

Evaluating Faye Dunaway's performance is trickier. Although she handles her scenes with professionalism, her effectiveness is undercut by her appearance; she looks like a pinched Pekingese, skin clinging to her face like Saran Wrap shrunk over a skeleton.

It's difficult to fault anyone involved in the production for failing to make The Chamber anything more than a run-of-the-mill death-row melodrama. Beginning with I Want to Live! and up to Last Dance, there are inherent limitations to this genre. You can trot out the criminal once a day for confessional conversations through chicken wire as the hero gushes his bleeding-heart lament about capital-punishment advocates; then repeat. Maybe the reason Dead Man Walking seemed to transcend this cliche is because it was less about the execution than the characters coming to terms with their own consciences. It was the most apolitical, moral treatment you could imagine of such a hot-button topic.

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