Droid’s Birthday Series: The Star Chamber (1983)
Hey, wouldn’t you know it, it’s my birthday again! And I’m still doing my birthday series!
I know what you’ve all been thinking… Why hasn’t Droid finished his Birthday review series!? It’s the hot question, and the blogosphere is a frenzy of activity. Everyone’s dying to know the answer. Well, it’s really quite simple. I ran headlong into a film that I had no interest in reviewing. I fell asleep on my first attempt at watching it. Then months later I tried again, and through sheer will and determination I made it all the way through. Only when it came time to write the review, I stared intently at a blank Word document. Inspiration did not come. I abandoned it. Guilty as charged your honour. ‘The Star Chamber’ made me do it.
Judge Steven Hardin (Michael Douglas, disinterested) is fed up with the legal system. A pair of men are on trial for the rape and murder of a young boy. The prosecution has an open and shut case, and all signs point to conviction. But the defence has an ace up their sleeve. During the investigation, the police had turned a blind eye to proper procedure, and when presented with the facts, certain pieces of key evidence are deemed inadmissible. Through gritted teeth Hardin throws the case out. In retaliation, the murdered boy’s father tries to shoot the defendants. When the father commits suicide in jail, Hardin’s had enough.
Hardin’s friend and mentor Judge Caulfied (Hal Holbrook, sleepwalking) approaches him and regales him with a fanciful tale of a “star chamber”. A secret, shadowy gathering of judges who re-try the cases that “fall through the cracks”. The cases that were failed by the justice system, such as that of the murdered boy. Although reluctant, Hardin presents his case and the verdict is unanimous. Guilty! Sentence? Death! Anonymously, a hitman is hired, with the job of informing the defendants with the revised verdict.
But wait, Detective Harry Lowes (Yaphet Kotto, wasted) informs Hardin that the defendants were actually innocent (of that particular crime), and there’s conclusive evidence that proves it. Despite Hardin’s pleas for clemency, the star chamber say “Eh, these things happen. The hitman’s on his way. They weren’t nice guys anyway.” This all leads to one of those generic empty warehouse finales where the hitman stalks the hero and your humble reviewer (Droid, bored) is thoroughly underwhelmed.
There is, ever so briefly, an interesting film here. The police’s investigative bungling, the machinations of the court, where justice isn’t (it seems) served. Hardin’s growing frustration with the legal system, and his struggles with his conscience keeping him up at night. He doesn’t like what the law has become, where guilty men can walk free on a technicality. These are interesting themes and the film sets up the situation well. But enter Holbrook’s Judge Caulfield and the whole film deflates into a tedious, slowly paced, poorly plotted generic thriller.
You can also see the Michael Douglas deflate before your eyes. During the opening scenes, you can tell he’s committed. He’s interested in the material and he’s got something to work with. But Holbrook shows up, pin in hand, and bursts the bubble. It’s a shame. The fault lies mainly with screenwriter Roderick Taylor (who dabbled with similar vigilante revenge fantasy drivel with ‘The Brave One’, with similar results) and director Peter Hyams. The usually reliable Hyam’s in particular seems to have been utterly uninspired by the material, and he’s made a slow, laborious slog of a film.
Because the film’s plot chooses to adhere to generic thriller requirements, the developments later in the story also undercut the interesting aspects of the opening twenty minutes. What’s the film trying to say? In the opening scenes, it’s lamenting the failing legal system. But as the film’s story plays out, the message is that vigilantism isn’t the answer. No, these are not mutually exclusive, but in the revelation that the defendants were in fact innocent, the strength of the opening argument is undercut. Ignoring the events that lead to the case’s dismissal, the simple fact is, justice was served. The men were innocent of the child’s murder. Whatever anger or frustration the film has managed to generate from the effective opening scenes is swept away in a flurry of genre conventions.
I’d really like to talk in detail about the actors’ performances, but they’re universally so forgettable that I cannot muster the words, or the inclination. I consider this to be a travesty when I take into account the fact that the film is populated with memorable actors such as Kotto, Holbrook and Douglas.
Even the look of the film is unattractively dull, with Hyams delivering a film of muted, slightly murky visuals. He paces the film like a man who must plod through six miles of knee deep mud to deliver bad news. I don’t know if a quicker pace, and more energy behind the camera, would have changed a lot, but at the very least it would have mercifully made the film shorter.
There’s not much more to say about ‘The Star Chamber’. It’s clearly not a film I would recommend to anyone but my worst enemy, and it’s a justifiably forgotten entry on the CV’s of all involved. I find ‘The Star Chamber’ guilty of a number of offences. The most serious of which is the heinous, indefensible waste of Yaphet Kotto. I hereby sentence it to spend an eternity gathering dust on the bottom shelf of the thriller section in an abandoned Blockbuster, before sometime in the future when the apes take over it is discovered and makes earth’s new overlords very, very bored.
For Droids a jolly good fellow!
2012 – ?
2010 – ?
1983 – The Star Chamber
1982 – ?
1981 – ?
1980 – ?
1979 – ?
1978 – ?