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THE STAR CHAMBER

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Michael Douglas, Hal Holbrook, Yaphett Kotto, Sharon Gless
Director: Peter Hyams
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Stereo, Spanish Dolby Stereo
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1, Full Screen 1.33:1
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Features: See Review
Length: 108 Minutes
Release Date: February 1, 2005

"Someone has taken justice and hidden it in the law."

Film ***1/2

Here's a legal thriller with a certain twist, and a premise so unnerving that had John Grisham been writing novels in and around 1983, he'd probably conceive a story just like it. The Star Chamber is extremely well crafted thriller about how difficulties within the law push those who represent it to the breaking point. The film is an early gem in the career of atmospheric director Peter Hyams (2010, The Relic).

The movie begins by establishing a number of instances where various criminals are arrested for crimes clearly committed, only to have the system set them free due to unexpected minor technicalities. The opening of the movie has a hood being pursued, on foot, by two cops on a stakeout. The cops find a gun in the perp's trash, after it is placed in the garbage truck passing through, ensuring a proper search warrant and a clean bust.

The conviction looks promising, but the defense presents some defeating elements that cause the charge to be thrown out. Judge Steven Hardin (Michael Douglas) doesn't want to set the man free, but the vicious cycle known as the criminal justice system won’t allow otherwise. It's a long established fact of his profession that Hardin hates to observe.

Another case comes along that will challenge Hardin's belief in the system. The body of a six year old boy is found mutilated in a park. Later that same evening, two lowlives driving a van are stopped by cops, who then discover a blood-covered child's tennis shoe in the back of the vehicle.

Hardin presides over the case. The father of the murdered boy confronts him, urging him to provide the appropriate sentencing. The evidence pointed against the men seem worthy of conviction, but once again, the case is thrown out in favor of the defense on a minor technicality.

Judge Hardin is understandably infuriated by the result, which leads him to making quite an astounding discovery. His long time mentor, Judge Benjamin Caulfield (Hal Holbrook), is also very fed up of criminals being let go by the system. He then introduces Hardin to a secret group of judges known as the star chamber, where an open seat is available for him.

They meet behind close doors, at night, and essentially retry cases involving high profile criminals. If a unanimous guilty vote is given amongst the judges, an assassin is then dispatched to execute the select convict, or execute justice, as the chamber sees it. Hardin hesitates at first about getting involved, but once he learns the father of the murdered boy has committed suicide, he wastes no time in throwing in his guilty verdict.

Meanwhile, the cop investigating the boy’s murder, Det. Lowes (Yaphet Kotto), gathers information leading to the trail of an entirely group of suspects. Once Hardin receives word that the real killers have been nabbed, he urges Caulfield and the chamber to call the hit off. Finding that they won’t back down, Hardin intends to confront the targets themselves, even if it means exposing the wrong doings of the chamber.

Although the third act switches gears and becomes a chase thriller, The Star Chamber is an all around effective thriller, with a terrific set up and a more than satisfying conclusion. In one of his earliest roles, Michael Douglas makes a convincing everyman caught in a complex web.

The movie really gets its strength from the stylish directing of Peter Hyams, who specializes in genres such as action, sci-fi and suspense. Hyams, who eventually worked as both director and cinematographer on many of his films down the road, has a visual eye that was made for cinema, in particularly that of panoramic widescreen. His use of natural lighting in both day and night shots has become a trademark of his, one that has been criticized by some, but admired by me.

My verdict on The Star Chamber is that of an air-tight thriller with stellar performances, a terrifically developed plot, and outstanding directing on the part of Mr. Hyams. Though the movie has some age to it, it's more than resonant to the current times involving the justice system.

Video ***

The anamorphic presentation (full screen version also included), courtesy of Fox, is a most exceptional offering given the more than twenty year age the movie has to it. I mentioned earlier of director Peter Hyams' visual style, and it is displayed most wonderfully on this disc. Given Hyams' knack for low lighting, it would probably do you better to watch this with the lights turned off, if you can be willing to watch it in such a way. Overall, the picture is crisp enough; give an instance or two of noticeable grain, and a more than pleasant video handling.

Audio ***1/2

I was more than surprised to see that Fox had applied a 5.1 mix to this movie. Most films from the 80s are lucky to be even offered in 2.0 Dolby surround. So Fox deserves a load of congrats for applying the best format around. As a result, the movie sounds quite fantastic. Dialogue is delivered in high-level clarity, numerous chase scenes pay off extremely well, and the surround sound factor does present itself quite a bit in this surprisingly grand presentation.

Features *

Included on the disc is a trailer and teaser trailer for the movie.

Summary:

Masterfully directed by Peter Hyams, The Star Chamber is as an extremely well crafted a thriller as one could ask for, especially one set within the legal justice system. Thanks to a superb job from Fox, this 80s flick looks and sounds a lot better than one would predict.

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