The Chamber

on October 11, 1996 by Jean Oppenheimer
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   "The Chamber" begins with a bang: a swirl of action, emotion, nonstop movement and plot that instantly grabs the audience. Then, just as suddenly, the story grinds to a halt and essentially treads water for an hour before receiving a second jumpstart and taking off for a final, gripping 20 minutes.
   Adapted from the best-selling novel by John Grisham, the film concerns Adam Hall (Chris O'Donnell), a passionate young lawyer who goes to Mississippi to try to win clemency for avowed racist and anti-Semite Sam Cayhall (Gene Hackman), who is scheduled to die in the gas chamber for the murders of two Jewish children three decades before. Cayhall is Adam's grandfather, and the young man has taken on the case in the hope of unlocking some of the dark secrets of his family's past.
   Sam won't cooperate with Adam, and the lawyer has few legal tricks up his sleeve, so the plot begins to leak tension at an alarming rate. A piece of evidence that finally revives the plodding plot--information supplied by a retired FBI agent--feels woefully contrived.
   Hackman stands out in almost every film he does, and his Cayhall is no exception. O'Donnell proves persuasive in the early scenes, but his character doesn't change or grow as the story progresses. As Cayhall's tortured, alcoholic daughter, Faye Dunaway looks sensational and turns in a nice, if slightly over-the-top, performance, while Lela Rochon ("Waiting to Exhale") doesn't have enough to do as a gubernatorial aide who helps Adam. Director James Foley ("Glengarry Glen Ross," "Fear") stages scenes for maximum but subtle effect, although three or four crowd scenes suggest an amateur production. Starring Chris O'Donnell, Gene Hackman and Faye Dunaway. Directed by James Foley. Written by William Goldman and Chris Reese. Produced by John Davis, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. A Universal release. Drama/thriller. Rated R for violent images and some language. Running time: 111 min
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