[Screen It]

(1999) (Tom Hanks, David Morse) (R)

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Drama: A death row prison guard must contend with various convicts under his watch including a giant of a man with a special gift.
Paul Edgecomb (DABBS GREER) is an old man living in a nursing home whose frequent disappearances and melancholy ways cause his friend, Elaine Connelly (EVE BRENT), to question his behavior. Although initially reluctant, Edgecomb eventually recounts his stint -- some six decades earlier -- as the head guard on Cold Mountain Penitentiary's death row.

Back in 1935 Paul Edgecomb (TOM HANKS) presides over cell block E, also known as the "green mile" for the green linoleum flooring leading from the jail cells to the electric chair where the prisoners will eventually be executed.

They include Arlen Bitterbuck (GRAHAM GREENE), an American Indian and Eduard "Del" Delacroix (MICHAEL JETER), a Cajun man who develops a special friendship with a mouse nicknamed Mr. Jingles. Things change, however, for Edgecomb and his fellow guards, Brutus "Brutal" Howell (DAVID MORSE), Dean Stanton (BARRY PEPPER) and Harry Terwilliger (JEFFREY DeMUNN) upon the arrival of two inmates.

The first, "Wild Bill" Wharton (SAM ROCKWELL), is a persistent troublemaker who agitates the guard team's lone man out, Percy Wetmore (DOUG HUTCHISON), a sadistic brat who gets away with his errant behavior due to his familial ties to the Governor. The other inmate, John Coffey (MICHAEL CLARKE DUNCAN), is a towering specimen of a man whose physically intimidating appearance contradicts his polite and nearly childlike demeanor, including being afraid of the dark.

Despite the rules set forth by Warden Hal Moores (JAMES CROMWELL) -- who's preoccupied with his wife, Melinda (PATRICIA CLARKSON), and her terminal illness -- to carry out every execution, Coffey's behavior causes Edgecomb to question the giant's conviction for apparently killing two girls. It's a later revelation concerning a special gift that Coffey possesses that makes the guard ponder whether he can be responsible for putting the inmate to death.

As the date of Coffey's execution draws near, Edgecomb, with the help of his loving wife, Jan (BONNIE HUNT), must do some deep soul searching while contending with Coffey, Percy and life and death on the Green Mile.

OUR TAKE: 9 out of 10
Artists are an interesting breed of people. While some seemingly don't mind churning out "art" that's essentially the same thing time and again -- so much the better to grab the profits as long as the audience continues to crave it -- others hate the thought of being pigeonholed in any given creative arena.

Although novelist Stephen King would seem to some to fall into the former group, he's also branched out and away from the horror/supernatural genre for which he's best known. In fact, and despite the success of his core novels, many haven't turned into good movies for a wide variety of reasons.

Some of his best adaptations, however, have originated with his more "normal" works, such as the novellas, "The Body" and "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" that hit the big screen as "Stand By Me" and "The Shawshank Redemption."

The latter, quite simply one of the best films of the decade, was adapted and directed by Frank Darabont and received seven Oscar nominations (only being bested by the Tom Hanks juggernaut, "Forrest Gump"). Now Hanks joins Darabont and King for "The Green Mile."

Based on King's best-selling, six-installment serial of the same name, this is easily one of the better films -- if not the best -- of the year. Due to the success of their last collaboration and now this film, and notwithstanding the artists' wishes and goals -- I doubt many viewers would complain if Darabont and King became pigeonholed into making such outstanding period prison pictures for some time to come.

That's because like "Shawshank," this is one of those films that simply clicks from start to finish as it whisks viewers away into another world and time, just like the best novels manage to do. Featuring an intriguing, moving and even funny, multilayered script from King and Darabont, tremendous performances from Hanks and the rest of the great acting ensemble, and a masterful directorial touch by Darabont, this is movie making at its finest. Don't be surprised when this film receives plenty of Oscar nominations in early 2000.

Of course it all begins with King's serialized novel that was released in six monthly installments during 1996. The quintessential page turner, the story deals with a death row guard and a special prisoner, a physically imposing man whose appearance contradicts his gentle demeanor and reported murderous behavior. Darabont's script captures all of that and then some, turning what could have been a simple race against the executioner's clock into something far more.

Multilayered themes of death, hope and sacrifice pervade the story, creating a compelling, complex and ultimately moving experience. Although this film has a supernatural element to it -- unlike "Shawshank" that was grounded in reality -- it's doubtful many viewers will have a hard time accepting what transpires.

It obviously doesn't hurt to have the film fronted by two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks ("Forrest Gump," "Philadelphia"). Certainly no one could have predicted that the star of TV's "Bosom Buddies" and films such as "Bachelor Party" would go on to become one of the biggest and most respected actors working today, yet Hanks has easily become this generation's Jimmy Stewart.

Here he brings that dignified everyman quality to this role in a way that Stewart similarly did throughout his career. Not your stereotypical, hard-nosed or sadistic prison guard, Hanks' character is a far more dimensional and thus intriguing creation, and the gifted actor does nothing short of perfectly playing him.

The same holds true for most of the rest of the cast. Michael Clarke Duncan ("Armageddon," "Bulworth) is absolutely terrific as the physically intimidating prisoner whose special gift turns him into a troubled and far more complex character than he initially appears to be. Duncan's great performance should earn him a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

The other supporting performers, including, but not limited to the likes of David Morse ("Crazy in Alabama," "The Rock") as Edgecomb's right-hand man, Bonnie Hunt ("Jerry Maguire," "Jumanji") as the loving wife and Michael Jeter ("Air Bud," TV's "Evening Shade") as another death row inmate who befriends a small prison mouse (that nearly steals the show whenever it appears), are all as equally strong.

One of the film's minor flaws may be in its portrayal of the villains embodied by Sam Rockwell ("Safe Men," "Lawn Dogs") and Doug Hutchison ("A Time to Kill," a recurring character on TV's "The X- Files"). Although they never move much beyond being two-dimensional characters, many such people in real life come across the same way. While some may complain about that, I never found any of it to be troublesome.

Nor did I find the film's length -- clocking in at more than three hours -- to be a problem. Although some may balk at the length or argue that certain scenes could have been edited down, not once did I ever find the film boring or feel like it was dragging. As far as three hour plus films go, this one flew by for me, much like an engrossing novel. In addition, while a chunk of the story does become somewhat predictable, the ending certainly isn't and plays out in a fashion that most probably won't expect.

A poignant and moving experience, this film greatly benefits from a superb cast and their great performances, a tremendous story and script by King and Darabont, and proves that as far as prison movies are concerned, no one makes them any better than writer/director Frank Darabont. One of the best films you'll see this or any year, "The Green Mile" is one of those "must see" events and a film that people will be talking about for quite some time. We give this highly recommended film a 9 out of 10.

Reviewed November 22, 1999 / Posted December 10, 1999

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