Archive for October 11, 1996

The Chamber

October 11, 1996

the_chamber_1996_to_the_gas_chamberThe best of the long-goodbye movies (such as Dead Man Walking and Leaving Las Vegas) bring us inside people who know and accept that they’re going to die. The lesser entries, such as this one, just seem pointlessly manipulative. The Chamber is yet another sincere legal drama based on a novel by John Grisham (the Stephen King of the ’90s), and its hero is yet another idealistic boy lawyer (and boy wonder, with Chris O’Donnell in the role). Watching this legal eagle, who’s actually named Adam (ah, Grisham and his Biblical references), I wondered if Grisham had written his 1994 book in a fit of Tom Cruise worship after seeing 1993’s The Firm. Adam has a dead father (there are enough dead dads in the Cruise portfolio to fill a cemetery) and a mission impossible.

That mission, should Adam choose to accept it, is to keep his racist grandfather Sam (Hackman) out of the gas chamber. Sam is on Death Row for a 1967 bombing that killed two little boys. He is also, as we see (vividly) in a flashback, guilty of outright murder — for which, ironically, he was never arrested. After many pulse-pounding scenes of research, Adam uncovers evidence that Sam may not be completely guilty of the crime he’s slated to die for.

As a Death Row drama, The Chamber gets the big “so what?” from anyone who’s seen Dead Man Walking. As a study of racism handed down through generations (Adam argues that Sam was made into what he is), the movie probes no more deeply than did the average ’50s melodrama like Giant. As a screenplay, it’s often muddled and confusing, with dialogue that rings false as loudly as a church bell. (The culprits are William Goldman and “Chris Reese,” a pseudonym for Field of Dreams writer-director Phil Alden Robinson.)

As a showcase for Gene Hackman, though, the movie just might be worth your time. Hackman specializes in finding the decay that powerful men hide behind affable façades. Here he drops the façade — he’s far from likable as this decrepit old cracker — yet he’s still mesmerizing. In his final scenes, Hackman gives us a man crumbling under the weight of decades of hatred and self-hatred. While Sam fights for his life, Hackman fights the script’s sorry attempts to soften him. Watching Hackman behind bars, I remembered that he was once up for the role of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. I began to envision him as Lecter, and meanwhile the movie I was watching went on without me. The Chamber was directed by James Foley, who proved in At Close Range and Glengarry Glen Ross that he knows how to point a camera at great actors. If only he knew how to make a John Grisham story anything more than a pumped-up TV drama (no director ever has) or how to make Chris O’Donnell interesting (no director ever will).

The Long Kiss Goodnight

October 11, 1996

The-Long-Kiss-Goodnight-04Samantha Caine, a happy schoolteacher, wife, and mom, is what used to be called a nice girl. She’s goofy and flighty, her hair spilling over her shoulders in gentle maternal curls. Charly Baltimore, a remorseless government spy, is every inch a bad girl. She drinks, smokes, sleeps around, wears her hair short and blond, kills practically everyone she meets, and — worst of all — she says bad words. Except for the profanity and the dye job, Charly is a female James Bond. Is there any common ground between these women?

There is and there isn’t. The sly joke of The Long Kiss Goodnight, of course, is that Samantha and Charly are the same woman (Geena Davis). Samantha, you see, has had amnesia for eight years and settled into her new domestic identity. Her violent past as Charly the assassin is lost to her. But not for long. The movie, it turns out, has a better joke in store: Charly the pulp-fiction hit-woman is more “real” than the peaceful Samantha, who never really existed.

Samantha/Charly is an intriguing creation, and it’s too bad her creator, Shane Black (who also wrote Lethal Weapon), couldn’t have devised a better story for her. The plot is more of the same government vipers, ticking bombs, and cars bursting in air. Charly is pulled out of retirement when a former enemy spots Samantha on TV (in a Christmas parade, yet) and pays her a visit. Luckily, Charly’s old tricks come back to Samantha when she needs them, and she takes off with cynical detective Mitch (Samuel L. Jackson), who knows her only as “Amnesia Chick.”

Mitch is a solid (if underwritten) role for Jackson, who scores most of the movie’s laughs with his increasing befuddlement at Amnesia Chick. Bits of Charly begin to surface in Samantha, until finally Charly takes over. This vastly increases the amount of Steve Buscemi-type punishment Mitch takes from the villains trying to kill Charly. He also gets a few lumps from Charly herself. “I liked Samantha better,” Mitch gripes.

I liked them both, because Geena Davis is engaging and funny no matter which woman she is. She pulls off some Samantha-to-Charly transitions (and vice versa) that rank among the finer acting moments of the season. She’s chilling when Samantha is with her little daughter and unconsciously lets a little cruel Charly slip out. And Davis’s flashes of soft-hearted Samantha when she’s cold-blooded Charly are wonderful. “Wanna get a dog?” Charly chirps before setting off a huge explosion.

As much as I enjoyed The Long Kiss Goodnight, I can’t help sniffing some traces of sexism. When was the last time a male action hero was torn between family life and killing? Okay, True Lies is the exception. But where is the heroine who can just be a fighter and killer, no questions asked? [EDIT: This was written before TV’s Xena and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, not to mention Kill Bill.] Movies like this and Point of No Return bend over backwards to assure their male audience that it’s all fantasy, that violence is alien to “normal” women. Or maybe this mother-vs.-assassin conflict is a welcome dab of complexity to the familiar kaboom genre. And Geena Davis’s warm, witty performance takes the sexist curse off it. The nice girl and the bad girl, as in real life, can be the same woman.