December 13, 1999 -- It's another prison story written by Stephen King and directed by Frank Darabont, the same duo who produced the highly-regarded "Shawshank Redemption." This movie, however, is more about the guards than the prisoners.
It is the story of death row guard Paul Edgecomb (played by Tom Hanks, last year's best actor in last year's best movie "Saving Private Ryan"), who is given the task of guarding and executing the huge but innocent John Coffey (magnificently played by Michael Clarke Duncan who has mostly played bouncers in previous movies).
There's a fine ensemble cast of Bonnie Hunt (of "Jerry McGuire") who plays Edgecomb's wife, Jan Edgecomb; David Morse (of "The Negotiator") who plays guard Brutus Howell; James Cromwell of "L.A. Confidential", who plays the warden; Michael Jeter (of "Patch Adams"), who plays prisoner Eduard Delacroix; Doug Hutchison (of "Batman and Robin"), who plays the nasty little guard Percy Wetmore. Sam Rockwell of "A Midsummer Night's Dream, plays prisoner William "Billy the Kid" Wharton. To give you an idea how loaded this cast is, Graham Greene, a fine actor (he had a standout role in "Thunderheart") has an essentially throw-away role as prisoner Arlen Bitterbuck.
The story, done in flashbacks from the present day, takes place in 1935 at a prison in Louisiana. It shows day-to-day life on death row and executions in the electric chair. It shows how a bond develops between some of the prisoners and guards on death row. It also shows how one prisoner, John Coffey, a man of extraordinary powers, changes the lives of those around him.
A large part of the story has to do with the supernatural, or at least the occult, and it seems to me that tends to weaken the story, by introducing what are, essentially, unbelievable elements. Coffey's powers are so profound, they border on being God-like. This has religious implications that the movie does not even begin to address. Is it so hard to write a story about a man who is wrongfully executed without dragging the supernatural into the story? There are plenty of such stories in real life to choose from. For instance, see the documentary "The Farm: Angola, USA."
Even with this shortcoming, it is a moving story, helped by some great performances, primarily by Michael Clarke Duncan as Coffey, Hanks, Hutchison as the guards, and Jeter and Rockwell as prisoners. Hutchison, who plays Wetmore, is especially good at playing a very mean-spirited, vengeful, sadistic character. Rockwell plays a very evil character as well, but one who is more demonstrative and more openly aggressive.
The story comes down to a confrontation between Edgecomb and Coffey over the death penalty. In the end, Coffey lets Edgecomb off the hook in a way. The death penalty has become something peculiar to the U.S. among western industrialized nations. But this movie doesn't deal with most of the real death penalty issues in the criminal justice system. It deals somewhat with the evil that lurks within people, but only tangentially. It gives you a taste of a variety of issues, but in the end doesn't give you much to chew on. This film rates a B.
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