"Star Chamber" does justice to law and order. It's an absorbing, if overblown, thriller with Michael Douglas as a thinking man's Dirty Harry, a judge who joins a secret society to plug the loopholes in the legal system.
Douglas, as Judge Hardin, is forced to throw two good busts out of court on technicalities -- in one case, a scum bag killed five old ladies for their Social Security checks; in the other, two creeps were accused of torturing, molesting and murdering an eight-year- old boy. The idealistic young Hardin, egged on by his mentor, Judge Caulfield (Hal Holbrook), becomes a sort of preppie vigilante. He joins the Star Chamber, named for a 15th-century English court that was a law unto itself.
In this modern chamber, when its nine members feel that justice has been perverted, they take the law into their own hands -- down to meting out the death penalty. Eventually, Hardin's life and the lives of two innocent men are endangered by his work with these underground lawmen.
"Star Chamber," in a class with "The Verdict," fumbles at times but definitely has audience appeal. It explores some hot issues -- victims and their rights, and a system that fails them.
Some folks might feel uncomfortable with the heavy-handed approach sometimes reflected in the dialogue of screenwriters Roderick Taylor and Peter Hyams, who also directed. Others will revel in its law-and- order leanings. The ending is another matter: It's abrupt and unfulfilling, particularly after the build-up.
"Star Chamber," which would have benefited from tighter editing, runs around two hours. Minus 30 minutes, it would have been a taut, firm, ripping-good mystery, sparked with terrific performances by the police officers -- the guys who grub in the gutter and come up with the garbage, while the judges slurp champagne at clubby parties.
Yaphet Kotto, as L.A.P.D. Detective Harry Lowes, and Larry Hankin, as his partner, pull the bench out from under the rest of the players. Show-stealing is their only crime -- they add the necessary guts and good humor to bring the "Star Chamber" down to earth. STAR CHAMBER -- At area theaters.