Saturday 1 August 2020

Movie Review: The Star Chamber (1983)

A drama and thriller, The Star Chamber explores the broken justice system from the vantage point of the judge's chair.

In Los Angeles, relatively young Superior Court Judge Steven Hardin (Michael Douglas) starts to get disillusioned with loopholes in the law allowing seemingly guilty defendants to walk free from his courtroom. First an alleged serial murderer is released due to an illegal garbage truck search, then accused child pornographers walk away because of an unlawful traffic stop. 

Dr. Harold Lewin (James Sikking) is the father of one of the victims of the pornography ring, and his trauma haunts Hardin. Meanwhile Detective Harry Lowes (Yaphet Kotto) and his police officers are exposed to the anguish of stumbling upon young murder victims compounded by the court's revolving door. 

Hardin is invited by his mentor Judge Benjamin Caulfield (Hal Holbrook) to join a secret chamber of nine judges who review cases where the law's technicalities interfere with the quest justice. The judges then render their own sentence and dole out vigilante justice through contract killers. Hardin reluctantly joins the group, but is quickly exposed to the pitfalls of the extrajudicial experiment.

The tension between the technicalities of the law, the desire for justice, and society's craving for retribution is fertile territory for compelling drama. While 1973's Magnum Force introduced a vigilante ring of disgruntled police officers, The Star Chamber elevates the rage all the way to the guardians of justice. Individual privacy protections are appropriated in the courtroom into fig leaves allowing criminals to escape their due punishment, and although repetitive and somewhat obvious, the visceral exasperation jumps off the screen. 

Director and co-writer Peter Hyams develops the idea into a decent film, although the plot eventually tries to have it all ways and ends up stranded in routine thriller territory. The stronger first half features courtroom jousts where clever defence lawyers exploit loopholes. Victims' families, the media, police officers, prosecutors and Hardin himself are left to ponder the efficacy of a system where essential evidence is thrown out for the flimsiest of reasons, and even confessions count for nothing.

Once Hardin joins the chamber of august judges, Hyams loses his way. The extrajudicial procedures are presented with incomplete blandness and no second-guessing or genuine debate. The Star Chamber then takes a couple of questionable turns. The gap from sentencing to execution is left unexplained, and after all the effort to fan the flames of rage, Hyams is quick to u-turn his protagonist and throws Hardin into an undignified street level cat-and-mouse game. Other missteps include an early suicide left dangling, an underused role for Sharon Gless as Mrs. Hardin, and a quite useless parkade car chase.

The film looks sleek and glossy, the world of judges presented with ostentatious grandeur while the alleged criminals, whether convicted or not, live on the greasy edge. The gathering of judges carries weight, but some of it is dropped.

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