The Green Mile
Rating -

Drama (US); 1999; Rated R; 190 Minutes

Tom Hanks: Paul Edgecomb
David Morse: Brutus "Brutal" Howell
Bonnie Hunt: Jan Edgecomb
Michael Clarke Duncan: John Coffey
James Cromwell: Warden Hal Moores
Michael Jeter: Eduard Delacroix
Graham Greene: Arlen Bitterbuck
Doug Hutchison: Percy Wetmore
Sam Rockwell: William "Wild Bill" Wharton
Barry Pepper: Dean Stanton

Produced by Frank Darabont and David Valdes; Directed and screenwritten by Frank Darabont; based on the novel by Stephen King

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Written by DAVID KEYES

Rushing straight out of the pages of a Stephen King saga comes the long-anticipated film adaptation of "The Green Mile." From director Frank Darabont, the man behind another prison drama adaptation called "The Shawshank Redemption" (which is, ironically, also written by King), here is a project not that far-stretched from the territory previously explored by the man behind the camera. Rather than a study of human life after decades inside Shawshank Prison, however, this complex story revolves around the unfortunate inmates of death row, who are destined to walk the emblematic "green mile" to meet their fates in the electric chair (appropriately nicknamed "Ol' Sparky"). The guards of this block of inmates seldom tantalize their prey (as was the situation in "Shawshank"), and instead develop relationships with each of them that seemingly resemble those you'd have with lifelong friends. But the guards accept the fate of these felons, and know that, at one time or another, each will be walking down the hall to face their doom.

If only there was a death row for movies....

Here, we have a film that approaches greatness in a few scenes, and utter disappointment in most of the others. Darabont, who has waited five long years before returning to the director's chair, shares parallels with his previous hit at the most inopportune times; several comparisons between the two films is inevitable. But most who see this as a step down from his previous hit will immediately excuse the fall from greatness, too (after all, lightning never strikes twice in the same place). As such, one can expect this project to bring in countless moviegoers looking for a great movie during Oscar season. But like "The Thin Red Line," a film that received a picture nomination last year simply because, I gather, Terrence Malick's name was attached to it, this is something that may be nominated for all the wrong reasons. Being too long and unsteadily paced is only the beginning--the flaws of "The Green Mile" run so deep that you can almost see the scars.

There is, for instance, the paint-by-number performance from Tom Hanks, who has seen three Oscar nominations this decade along with two wins. Because of some strong campaigning and rave reviews from major critics, this will undoubtedly ensure Hanks for a fourth Oscar nod. But his role as a prison guard with compassion for the destined inmates is far below the merit of "Philadelphia" and "Saving Private Ryan"; his lack of focus and emotional distance weakens some of the story's most important threads. By the time he realizes that one of his prisoners is blessed with a life-changing gift, we have almost completely lost interest in him.

In the story, Hanks' character Paul Edgecomb comes across an intriguing new inmate--John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), an individual roughly the size of a wrestler, with a heart just about as big as a boulder. Coffey intrigues Edgecomb, especially considering the crime he has been convicted of (more on that later). The first sight of his tremendous size almost stuns the guards on the mile, but then, after a brief introduction, they discover this monstrosity is nothing more than a gentle giant.

"Do you have any questions?", Edgecomb politely asks.

"Do you leave the light on after bedtime?", Coffey mutters. "Sometimes I get scared."

The movie isn't about criminals or guards, but a spiritual significance that divides and unites them. Paul's four comrades--Harry Terwilliger (Jeffrey DeMunn), Dean Stanton (Barry Pepper), Brutus Howell (David Morse) and Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchinson)--offer a significant dramatic richness to the story, and have fun in checking up on the inmates, either as friends or as villains. But to be expected, the movie, like the book, presents us with characters that are more intriguing and strategically acted when they are placed behind bars.

Coffey is only the beginning--another notable soul is the one belonging to Eduard Delacroix, who is on death row for reasons I care not to share. Based on descriptions, one would immediately jump to the conclusion that this is a soul beyond redemption. Actually, he is quite subtle for someone ready to die for a heinous crime--he even befriends a mouse in the movie named Mr. Jingles, which has additional fun stirring up the others of the cell block.

To be expected, though, every character study comes straight back to John Coffey, who is so well acted by Michael Clarke Duncan that, yes, he deserves an Oscar nomination more than the headliner. We grow easily fond of his cuddly stature and sweet disposition; there comes a time, however, when we must question our judgment of him. This part arrives when the movie, heavyset on flashbacks, reveals the crime Coffey has been convicted of, which involves townsfolk discovering two dead girls in his arms, his hands soaked in their blood. At the scene of the crime, Coffey announces "I tried to take it back," which acts only as a confession in the eyes of those who convicted him. Later, when a discovery of supernatural proportions is revealed in his hands, those words take on a completely new meaning.

King's novel, which was released in six parts, is a fascinating period piece about characters who are redeemed for their decisions and ways of life, and the translation to screen is, at least, mildly successful because it stays true to the story, and draws on some strong dramatic tension. However, much of success could have been achieved in a shorter running time. At 190 minutes, "The Green Mile" is like watching an astounding drama on the slow-motion button; because of it, the story slags, certain characters are overexplored, situations become routine, pacing is poor, and, maybe most importantly, the film's underlying theme is overly-imbeded by a horde of plot twists. Films in epic scale gain their length because they require a substantial amount of time to develop several characters, guide them into the story, and treat them as equals. Films like "Titanic" are epic because the number of characters is far higher than that of your typical drama film. "The Green Mile" is undeserving of the time it is given, because it isn't epic by a long shot.

But at least the movie is good to look at. David Tattersall's cinematography is extraordinarily effective, shooting from sharp viewpoints that seem difficult to handle, but always ensure we have the best angle possible. No doubt, his work on "The Green Mile" and "Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace" should anchor a lengthy career in the movie business.

In short, however, not all the effective details can begin to save the film from a length that discredits much of the emotional charge. "The Green Mile" is that rare film that enchants us visually and spiritually, but gets so wrapped up in those virtues that it loses track of time.

1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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