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'Chamber': Grisham Rules Again

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 11, 1996

A John Grisham movie is proving as consistently dependable as a Grisham novel. Thatís because, in both cases, we experience the same successful formula over and over again. "The Chamber," the latest in this apparently unending series of screen adaptations, delivers the entertaining goods without fuss or frills. Chris OíDonnell as the lawyer pulls in the young audiences, with his tight-lipped determination to win clemency for a death row criminal. As the client, Gene Hackman, who has made a second career out of playing villains, produces yet another likable cur.

Things get rolling, as they often do, with a horrible tragedy. In Indianola, Miss., 1967, a civil rights lawyer is maimed and his twin sons are killed in a bomb blast. A white supremacist called Sam Cayhall (Hackman) is captured, jailed and tried. After two hung juries, ambitious District Attorney David McCallister (David Marshall Grantóthe asylum director in "Silence of the Lambs") takes the case to trial a third time, secures a death penalty and uses the publicity to get himself elected governor.

Flash forward to the present. Now the oldest inmate awaiting execution in the country, Cayhall readies himself for death in 28 days. Enter an inexperienced attorney, Adam Hall (OíDonnell), who believes he can prove Cayhallís innocence, and who happens to be Cayhallís grandson. Hall (whose father changed his name to duck the family shame, then later committed suicide) wants to reverse a family tradition of bigotry. For Hall, his grandfatherís pardon would be a moral act of closure.

At first, Cayhall has no time for a grandson who uses expressions like "African American." But the young manís persistence gradually wins him over. Hall makes energetic attempts to appeal the death penalty decision, with the help of Nora Stark (Lela Rochon), an aide to Gov. McCallister. His investigations also bring him closer to his Aunt Lee (Faye Dunaway), whose recollections reveal many skeletons in the family closet. He also uncovers what may be a secret brotherhood of bigots who have been pulling strings in Mississippi for years.

But the real engaging stuff in "The Chamber" occurs between the curmudgeonly bigot and the wet-behind-the-ears liberal. Hackman has a field day playing the most endearing hatemonger that ever packed a pipe bomb. "I feel like those white guys that always lose to the Harlem Globetrotters," he says, referring to his perceived lot in life.

"Life would be easier if I could just hate you," says Hall.

"But you cainít ícoz Iím too lovable," teases Cayhall.

Oh, and while weíre on the subject of appealing performances, a quick high five for athlete Bo Jackson, who plays an extraordinarily sensitive prison guard. I kid you not.

THE CHAMBER (R) ó Contains racial epithets, violence and profanity.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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