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The Star Chamber
1983 - R - 109 Mins.
Director: Peter Hyams
Producer: Frank Yablans
Written By: Roderick Taylor
Starring: Michael Douglas, Hal Holbrook, Yaphet Kotto, Sharon Gless, James Sikking
Review by: John Ulmer
Put yourself in this position: You're a 30-something judge with a wife and kids whose job is to send people to jail. But when small technicalities get in the way of justice, you have to compromise your morals and let rapists and murderers on the loose--just because the police may have performed a search without a warrant, or taken garbage out of a truck before the lever was pressed and it was dumped into the back with everyone else's trash, thereby becoming "trash" and not the garbage of a certain individual.

You'd probably feel pretty depressed knowing that confessed criminals are being let loose because of a small error in their arrest procedure, right?

Well, that's how Michael Douglas feels in "The Star Chamber," a film about an underground society of judges who are able to convict felons based solely upon what they did--and not on whether they were unjustly apprehended at the time of their arrest.

After having to let two child murderers go free on a slight technicality, Stephen Hardin (Douglas) decides to join an underground community of judges who take matters into their own hands when bad guys are let free--by hiring hitmen to assassinate them. If you think this sounds improbable, you're right. If you think it sounds morally wrong, you're partially right.

The movie knows that audiences would immediately interpret this as sick, or twisted, so Peter Hyams--the director--uses some of the oldest cliches in the book to make us empathize with Stephen. First, we see him let a murderer go after the police who arrested him acted wrongly in the arrest procedure. Then we see the two child murderers let loose on a similar technicality. I'd buy this if it seemed real--but the script is all one big contrivance. It doesn't feel real; it makes the viewer feel manipulated.

Now, I like films that provide deep characters that we learn to feel attached to. I think that's why character-driven films such as "Fargo" and "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" succeed. And I don't feel personally insulted when a film tries to make us empathize with its characters by having them go through certain events. But this just feels fake, and I didn't buy the trial scenes for a minute. Too quick, too stupid, too darn silly.

Would two similar cases appear in front of a judge within a few days? This is the type of trial case that makes the news and is a one-in-a-million-type ordeal--you'd see it advertised everywhere in big bold print--yet the movie approaches it as if it's an everyday event in the life of a judge. Stephen's older mentor tells him that he's had to do the same type of thing an uncountable number of times. Really? Name a few cases.

The entire notion of an underground band of judges who rule out their own personal judgments sounds like a cross between a John Grisham novel and one by Stephen King. I believe that Grisham could handle this with a bit of credibility--but the film approaches the matters as King approaches material: It doesn't make much sense to begin with, and really withers away in the second half. (I loved "The Running Man" novel up until the last hundred pages.)

Alas, "The Star Chamber" is directed with lack of feeling and emotion. If it had setup characters we could care for in more believable situations, then perhaps I would have felt that Stephen's adventures with the underground community of redneck judges would actually mean something. But after all, what does one expect from a film directd by Peter Hyams? Not much.

I hope this idea gets re-done a few years from now. It's an intriguing premise. Too bad it had to be ruined by such a terrible director in such a terrible film.
Movie Guru Rating
Disappointing.  Had the right ingredients and should have been better. Disappointing.  Had the right ingredients and should have been better.
  2 out of 5 stars

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