Skip to main content

Who gave you the crusade franchise? Tell me that.

The Star Chamber

(SPOILERS) Peter Hyams’ conspiracy thriller might simply have offered sauce too weak to satisfy, reining in the vast machinations of an all-powerful hidden government found commonly during ’70s fare and substituting it with a more ’80s brand that failed to include that decade’s requisite facile resolution. There’s a good enough idea here – instead of Charles Bronson, it’s the upper echelons of the legal system resorting to vigilante justice – but The Star Chamber suffers from a failure of nerve, repenting its premise just as it’s about to dig into the ramifications.

It seems that was largely down to director Peter Hyams, whose ’80s run comprises a string of impressively “not quite there” pictures. He opted to revise Roderick Taylor’s screenplay: “I said to Sherry Lansing, who was the head of Twentieth Century-Fox and is a woman I will love till the day I die, ‘I'll make this movie but I gotta re-write it from page one. I have to change it from a Donald Trump Republican script to a left-wing, anti-vigilante movie.’ My idea was to whip everyone up into a vigilante frame of mind and then pull the rug out from under them, and tell them that they're wrong”. Which is fine enough, if obvious, and ultimately the movie’s weakness, as the shift in perspective of Michael Douglas’ Superior Court Judge Steven Hardin is too easy, too inevitable.

The early section of The Star Chamber offers a convincing selection of technical breaches, whereby Hardin is compelled to dismiss cases on the basis that the method of search, seizure or arrest was flawed or could be disputed. One of these, in particular, involves particularly grisly child murder and pornography, and Hardin is both chagrined at having to throw the case out and repudiated by the victim’s father (Hyams regular James Sikking, who can also be seen in Capricorn One, Outland and Narrow Margin).

Hardin is already under consideration by his mentor, Judge Caulfield (Hal Holbrook) for admission to the clandestine Star Chamber, a group of judges taking matters into their own hands (well, those of a hitman who carries out their dirty work, at any rate). Their title is taken from a court reputedly established under Henry VII, meting out justice where other courts were unable to, and one might reasonably regard the premise itself as a pulled punch; shadowy upper echelons are more commonly considered unanswerable. Added to which, a keen interest in genuine justice and moral rectitude isn’t generally part of their repertoire (or, if legit, coercion into toeing the line where necessary might be expected).

An out-and-out right-wing approach, if more familiar, might at least have exerted more nuance, if you’re willing to read between the lines (ie Dirty Harry being at once grimly cathartic and a vilification of the character). Hardin, though, finds himself crossing the line from upholding the law to breaking it very easily – all it takes is Sikking committing suicide – but almost immediately recants when he learns the duo identified as responsible (Joe Regalbuto and Kubrick-alike Don Calda) didn’t actually do it, and attempts to have the hit cancelled, meeting a brick wall when he takes this to his fellow chamber members.

I’d have been more impressed had Hardin doubled down, but Hyams instead pursues a third-act thrill ride as Hardin visits a derelict warehouse straight out of Blade Runner – also a PCP lab – and is threatened by the duo he’s attempting to warn. Hyams makes this section a tense, edge-of-the-seat experience, and it’s a reminder of the limits of a proficient journeyman who fails to recognise their limitations as a writer. It’s a nice touch that the hitman (Keith Buckley) dispenses with the PCP fiends and is about to do the same to Hardin before Detective Lowes (Yaphet Kotto intervenes), but if this had been made half a decade earlier, you can bet the final shot of the movie (Hardin and Lowes listening in on a Chamber meeting) would not have offered such a neat “order restored” promise.

In which regard, Douglas was still in the nascent in movies at this stage, having left The Streets of San Francisco and scored hits in supporting roles in Coma and The China Syndrome – both conspiracy thrillers, notably – but eliciting less luck with his stabs at leading man duties (Romancing the Stone would change all that the following year). The earnest fellow isn’t a type that really fits him – he naturally hints at duplicitous, flawed or untrustworthy – but he’s well supported by Holbrook (no stranger to conspiracy fare as a one-time Deep Throat). Kotto’s great in an underserviced cop role (his conversation with Douglas at a diner is a highlight). Sharon Gless was a surprise to see, not just for a movie role but also a girlfriend (well, wife) one. Jack Kehoe (Jerry Geisler) is a defence attorney who does his job too well.

Adding to the somewhat-at-odds, ’70s-refitted-for-the-’80s vibe is Michael Small’s score, evoking his earlier work on The Parallax View and Marathon Man. Richard N Hannah is credited as cinematographer but Hyams is all over the movie’s look (and there was a lawsuit, it seems, identifying this as a union violation). No doubt Arnie would claim it’s much too dark, but I think it looks great. The Star Chamber isn’t a great movie, though. It’s an engaging enough way to pass the time, but probably exactly the kind of competently unremarkable fare most characterise of Hyams’ oeuvre.

Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.