All that's Grisham isn't gold, as The Chamber's spectacular bellyflop at the US box office proves. Honest John has made a fortune peddling variations on his idealistic-lawyer plot, and movies based on his potboiling best-sellers (The Firm, The Client, The Pelican Brief, A Time To Kill) have generally done very nicely. But now America has said "Enough, already".
The Chamber has big names, but it needs bigger ones. More specifically, Chris O'Donnell just doesn't cut it. He may look good in a Batcodpiece, and those baby-blue eyes may slay the odd female heart, but as an actor he's insipid and unconvincing. O'Donnell's Adam Hall - - whose family history turns out to be spattered with innocent blood - - is so lightweight you keep expecting him to float off into the Mississippi sunset...
However, not even an actor with the presence of, say, Sean Penn could have done anything with this one-dimensional role - and certainly not with a script that gives him such ludicrous lines. ("Are you hiding anything from me?" asks Hall of his long-lost gramps, when it's obvious from Hackman's shifty gaze that this man is hiding absolutely everything.) Did director James Foley (he of Glengarry Glen Ross) really think cute little Chris could hold his own against the legendary Mr Hackman?
Mind you, did Grisham really think audiences would feel sorry for a KKK member who admits to helping plant a bomb that blew two little children to smithereens? We want this guy to be executed, and Chris' in-court argument that Hackman didn't act alone, or that he's the twisted product of a racist upbringing, holds no water at all.
Yet Foley keeps on pouring the liquid in. Hackman plays his frowny character as a strangely sympathetic, even politically sensitive, racist. For the most part he's sad and thoughtful, and, even on the rare occasions when he's spouting nastiness, it's clear you're not supposed to hate him - rather the bigoted environment that created him. At the end, he even shows some remorse - a bid by Foley to end the film on a (implausibly) positive note.
In the similarly themed Mississippi Burning, Hackman gave a barnstorming performance, but here he's so laid back you wonder if he hasn't already been gassed. Add to that O'Donnell, who sits there with the usual vacant look, and you have a stuffed bird of a movie: William Goldman was really tempting fate when he okayed the line "You couldn't save a turkey from Thanksgiving..."