BELIEVABILITY in "The Green Mile" may stretch to the bursting point.
And the prison guards in this death row movie might seem friendlier than a cluster of Hilton concierges.
But thanks to brilliant storytelling, built around the great, pounding heart of a prisoner called John Coffey, that rubbery skin never breaks.
It doesn't break because you don't want it to. That's the hokum, that's the magic of writer-director Frank Darabont's movie, adapted from Stephen King's six-part, serialized novel.
When nursing home resident Paul Edgecomb (Dabbs Greer) watches Fred Astaire singing "Cheek to Cheek" in a rerun movie one day, he dissolves into tears. Prompted by fellow resident Elaine, (Eve Brent), he recounts the most bittersweet episode of his life, when he was a prison guard in Louisiana.
In Edgecomb's story, we return to the 1930s, where death row inmates spend their final months or years awaiting execution at the Cold Mountain Penitentiary. Every prisoner has his final morning, when he must walk the green linoleum floor (hence the title) leading to the electric chair. When that day comes, head guard Edgecomb (now played by Tom Hanks) and his detail are there to make sure things go as smoothly and calmly as possible.
The execution is a gruesome, antiquated procedure, as the inmate sits on a chair known as "Old Sparky," attended by tight-lipped officials and the friends and family of the murdered. Edgecomb and his men, including Brutus "Brutal" Howell (David Morse) and Dean Stanton (Barry Pepper), take great pride in their humane professionalism.
It's never easy to say goodbye to a prisoner, no matter how hideous his crime. But in 1935, Edgecomb faces the most excruciating ordeal of his career when John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), a seven-foot-tall African American, enters the compound.
The enormous, muscular Coffey -- sentenced to death for the murder of two young girls -- would be intimidating if he wasn't so gentle, respectful of white folks and terrified of the dark. Edgecomb has a growing conviction that Coffey may not be guilty of that horrendous crime.
But in the meantime, he has other more pressing concerns, including Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison), a sadistic new guard who uses his family connection to the governor to ignore Edgecomb's authority, and William "Wild Bill" Wharton (Sam Rockwell), a demented killer whose Bubba charms belie an actively evil soul.
Edgecomb is also preoccupied with other prisoners ahead of Coffey in the death queue, such as Arlen Bitterbuck (Graham Greene), a quiet man who seeks spiritual solace before his death; and Eduard "Del" Delacroix (Michael Jeter), a charming man who befriends a willful little mouse he dubs Mr. Jingles. But Coffey's time will come, as it surely must.
Darabont, who also adapted King's "The Shawshank Redemption" for the screen, pumps these and other fascinating elements into that ever-expanding balloon. From its deceptively easygoing beginning to the heart-wrenching finale, "The Green Mile" keeps you wonderfully high above the cynical ground.
Darabont has also selected a superb cast to maintain this affecting buoyancy. Hanks is very engaging as Edgecomb, whose dawning conscience -- particularly regarding Coffey -- informs the entire drama. Morse brings a deep-seated integrity to Brutus, whose gentle wisdom controls his temptation to pummel Wetmore into pulp. As Wetmore and "Wild Bill," Hutchison and Rockwell are so infuriating, so blissfully hateful, you may find your fingernails boring holes into your palms. And then there's Duncan, whose presence is literally and figuratively, the biggest thing in the movie. I'd tell you more but that would be letting the enjoyable helium out of the balloon.
THE GREEN MILE (R, 182 minutes) -- Contains occasional disturbing violence and obscenity. Area theaters.