Peter Hyams' stylish thriller "The Star Chamber," opening today at area theaters, is the most sophisticated and intriguing of the vigilante melodramas that have accumulated, in mostly sickening profusion, since Charles Bronson in "Death Wish."
Michael Douglas plays the unorthodox protagonist, a young criminal court judge from Los Angeles named Steven Hardin. The robes have not been resting easily upon his shoulders, since Hardin is tormented by the thought that he's been obliged to free a number of dangerous felons on legal technicalities. In one particularly shocking case, depicted in detail, the apparent miscarriage of justice spurs a victim to seek vengeance in Hardin's courtroom and the distraught avenger (very well played by James Sikking) ends up jail, serving time for attempted murder and enhancing the judge's guilt by declining to understand his position.
Eventually, some fresh outrages prompt Hardin to seek out his mentor, Hal Holbrook as an older colleague named Benjamin Caulfield, who has been making veiled references to direct action whenever Hardin goes into his hand-wringing lamentation.
Composed of nine judges, the secret group meets periodically to pass judgment on sociopaths who seem to have escaped conviction on mere legal technicalities. There's an opening on this court of clandestine resort--owing to a suicide, a conceptual miscalculation, since this also would seem to act as a powerful disincentive when recruiting someone as squeamish as Hardin. Nevertheless, Caulfield nominates him and Hardin grimly joins the deliberations, depicted with a formal austerity that suggests a process of deliberation seldom takes place in the star chamber. The crunch comes when Hardin discovers that the chamber evidently erred in a particular case and has no intention of rectifying the mistake. Appalled at this coldbloodedness, he looks for a way out of his compromising situation, but there's really no honorable way out for hizzoner. He makes a choice, but one of the fascinating aspects of the movie is that it still leaves him looking wormy-souled and ineffectual.
Since the notion of a star chamber is understood to be a provocative exaggeration, the movie can be enjoyed not for its inherent plausibility but for its effectively contrived suspense and suggestibility. In addition, it's a beautifully composed and tautly engineered production, a model of trim and attractive genre moviemaking. This movie looks marvelous. Hyams and his cinematographer, Richard Hannah, seem to be experimenting with some form of enhanced lighting that gives the color images extraordinary vividness, a very fine grain combined with a sharp, hard-edged focus that produces a far more expressive three-dimensional illusion than 3-D. The effect is especially breathtaking.
Whatever the technical secret or innovation, something very photogenic and also expressively powerful is on display in the imagery of "The Star Chamber," along with solid and distinctive performances by several good character actors, notably Holbrook as the judge, Sikking as the hapless avenger, Yaphet Kotto and John DiSanti as homicide detectives, Jack Kehoe as a defense attorney and DeWayne Jessie as a nervous car robber. The material springs critical, dramatic and philosophical leaks, but the movie has a look, a pulse, a top-flight cast and a theme toxic enough to get under your skin and demand some scratching. THE STAR CHAMBER
Directed by Peter Hyams; story by Roderick Taylor; screenplay by Roderick Taylor and Peter Hyams; director of photography, Richard Hannah; production designer, Bill Malley; edited by Jim Mitchell; music composed and conducted by Michael Small; produced by Frank Yablans. Released by 20th Century-Fox. Rated R. THE CAST Steven Hardin . . . . Michael Douglas Benjamin Caulfield . . . .Hal Holbrook Detective Harry Lowes . . . . Yaphet Kotto Emily Hardin . . . . Sharon Gless Dr. Harold Lewin . . . . James B. Sikking