The John Grisham film festival continues with "The Chamber", the fifth screen adaptation of his writings in three years, an intelligently proficient movie that works more effectively as a family drama than a legal thriller. James Foley's pic boasts a brilliant turn from Gene Hackman as a death row inmate and a substantial performance from Chris O'Donnell as the idealistic lawyer who defends him.

The John Grisham film festival continues with “The Chamber”, the fifth screen adaptation of his writings in three years, an intelligently proficient movie that works more effectively as a family drama than a legal thriller. While lacking the surface glitz, attention-grabbing plot and mega-star power of previous Grisham-based films, James Foley’s pic still boasts a brilliant turn from Gene Hackman as a death row inmate and a substantial performance from Chris O’Donnell as the idealistic lawyer who defends him. “The Chamber” may not break the magic $ 100 million barrier, as did the recent “A Time to Kill” and most Grisham movies, and it opens Oct. 11 against heavy competition, but it will certainly pull in many of the fans who have flocked to previous Grisham pics.

Adapted for the screen by William Goldman and Chris Reese, “The Chamber” is framed as a thriller, but it’s basically a three-generational family drama set mostly in prison. This makes the film refreshingly quiet and intimate, but perhaps a tad too static and bleak for a potential blockbuster. Question is, can a character-driven melodrama be as popular as Grisham’s other potboilers, which he himself has described as “simple formulas of innocent people caught up in a conspiracy”?

Picture poses another query; Can handsome Chris O’Donnell carry a movie? O’Donnell plays Adam Hall, a committed 26-year-old lawyer who, in an effort to confront secrets of his family’s dark past, decides to represent his grandfather , Klansman Sam Cayhall (Hackman). After spending a decade on Mississippi’s death row, Sam is only 28 days away from his impending execution in “the chamber.” A brief flashback reveals Sam’s racist crime in 1967, when a bomb he planted caused the death of two Jewish boys, sons of a civil rights worker.

Despite changes in name, as soon as they meet in prison, Sam recognizes Adam as his grandson. Relentlessly tough, Sam is at first sneeringly dismissive toward the educated rookie. Sam refuses to forgive Adam’s father for taking his own life, which to him signaled weakness and failure. That Adam’s father committed suicide out of guilt over his inadvertently causing the shooting of a black man by Sam is disregarded, as is the fact that Sam’s daughter, Lee (Faye Dunaway), has turned into a troubled alcoholic, also as a result of witnessing that murder.

Though solid, the rather simple plot lacks the twists and turns and rich gallery of secondary characters of “The Firm” and “The Client.” Here Adam is contrasted with McCallister (David Marshall Grant), Mississippi’s ambitious governor. McCallister resurrected the prosecution of Sam’s vicious crimes after two hung juries and won a conviction as the state’s D.A., in a successful bid to further his political career. And Adam is assisted by Nora Stark (Lela Rochon), the governor’s legal aide, who becomes riskily embroiled in his bold efforts to disclose the truth.

As the days and hours tick away, Adam uses various legal strategies to win clemency for his grandfather, but he loses each of his desperate battles in the higher courts. Still, secret digging into the commission report confirms that Sam was not alone, and a fierce race begins to unravel the identity of the mysterious figure who may have been directly responsible for the kids’ deaths. Grisham is obviously intrigued by conspiracies, but here implications about government involvement in Sam’s crime are left hanging.

Helmer Foley can’t really sustain the momentum of a movie that is more dependent on character than plot (the storyline has only two or three revelations, all occurring in the second half). Result is an intermittently engaging movie that has many powerful moments but drags in its midsection. Still, unlike “A Time to Kill,” which conveniently avoided a discussion of its most important issue — taking the law into one’s hands — “The Chamber” is more well rounded and slightly more substantial than other Grisham outings.

What’s missing in terms of thrills and suspense is more than made up for by the intimacy of character interaction and superlative acting. With a nod to “Dead Man Walking,” pic beautifully conveys the gradual repentance of a man who had shut out his family. Attempt to explain monstrous Sam as a victim of a family with a long KKK history is not exactly convincing, but at least pic doesn’t go for the facile, fake endings of other Grisham movies.

In what is easily his most brilliant work since his Oscar-winning turn in “Unforgiven,” Hackman dominates every scene he’s in. Having shed 30 pounds, he looks disheveled and sports a credible Southern drawl, all of which adds to a riveting, highly modulated performance that relies on the actor’s noted changeable voice.

Following half-a-dozen supporting roles, O’Donnell impressively assumes center stage, rendering a resonant performance that solidly holds the narrative together. The thought of Dunaway playing yet another tortured belle might give prospective viewers pause, but the veteran delivers a touching, understated turn that fits in with the other perfs; her rapprochement scene with her father, after decades of silence, is heartbreaking.

Tech credits are fine, without calling too much attention to themselves. For the record, with an efficient running time of 111 minutes, “The Chamber” is the shortest Grisham-based pic.

The Chamber

Production

A Universal release of an Imagine Entertainment presentation of a Brian Grazer/Davis Entertainment production. Produced by John Davis, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard. Executive producers, David Friendly, Ric Kidney, Karen Kehela. Directed by James Foley. Screenplay, William Goldman, Chris Reese, based on the novel by John Grisham.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe Color, Panavision widescreen), Ian Baker; editor, Mark Warner, music, Carter Burwell; production design, David Brisbin; art direction, Mark Worthington; set decoration, Lisa Fischer; costume design, Tracy Tynan; sound (DTS Stereo), Jose Antonio Garcia; special effects coordinator, Burt Dalton; visual effects supervisor, Peter Montgomery; associate producer, Karen Snow; assistant director; Denis L. Stewart; casting, Mali Finn. Reviewed at Universal Studios, Universal City, Sept. 30, 1996. MPAA Rating R. Running time: III MIN.

With

Adam Hall - Chris O'Donnell
Sam Cayhall - Gene Hackman
Lee Bowen - Faye Dunaway
E. Garner Goodman - Robert Prosky
Rollie Wedge - Raymond Barry
Sgt. Packer - Bo Jackson
Nora Stark - Lela Rochon
Gov. McCallister - David Marshall Grant

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