Good Guys Don’t Wear White


The Star Chamber (1983)

Peter Hyams (Outland, 2010, Capricorn One) directed this film, which takes a more “psychological” slant on the vigilante issue. Michael Douglas plays a judge who is tired of seeing criminals walk based on technicalities. His friend Hal Holbrook eventually recruits him to join a clandestine panel of judges who rule on cases outside of the court of law. When a person is rendered “guilty,” a hitman is contacted and the sentence is carried out in a swift and brutal manner.

When a couple of thugs implicated in a child porn ring go free, Douglas is pushed too far and joins the star chamber. After placing a hit on the two men, it is revealed that they had nothing to do with the crime. However, the men are obviously not upstanding citizens, so Douglas has to decide whether the cost of killing possibly innocent men outweighs the value of being able to take out the truly guilty.

Thus, the basic problem of vigilante justice is revealed. The Star Chamber has a great set up, goading the audience into sympathizing with the judges and their frustration over the shortcomings of the system. It then tries to twist the story around to show how taking the law into one’s own hands can go wrong. By avoiding a black and white approach, it remains somewhat realistic and thought provoking.

Unfortunately, things become rushed toward the end, and the film veers off the cliff into ill conceived action movie territory. It’s hard to imagine anyone being satisfied with the ending, and almost seems as if studio execs had stepped in at the last minute and changed the direction of the film.

The Star Chamber is worth watching for any fan of vigilante films or 70s and 80s crime movies in general. The cinematography retains a decent amount of grit, and the cast does what they can with the material. Holbrook is excellent, Douglas is average, Yaphet Kotto is great as usual (but pretty much wasted on a minor part), and Don Calfa (Return of the Living Dead) and Joe Regalbuto (Murphy Brown) are likeably over the top as the “innocent” criminals. James Sikking also turns in a great character role as the father of a young murder victim. There is also a humorous scene-chewing performance by John DiSanti (I think) as Kotto’s partner.

This film was obviously designed to provoke debate, and it probably succeeded in that. However, its flaws were apparent and it tanked at the box office. There is a remake in the works, and depending on who is involved, it might actually fare better than the original. But I’m not getting my hopes up; it will probably be another Hollywood special effects wank job by the time it gets released.


8 Responses to “Good Guys Don’t Wear White”

  1. Dude, what the fuck? You keep pulling these flicks out of your ass, man. I watched this one in college Ethics 301, and while I’m no one special, this is a film I have not heard ANYONE talk about in a long while.

  2. I started thinking about this movie after Edmund made an obscure reference to it at work one day. It played on some cable station a few weeks ago. I’m gradually working my way through the Yaphet Kotto filmography, so…

  3. It wouldn’t surprise me if I mentioned this movie since it has a special spot in my memory of films I saw in the early days of HBO when I was too young for R-rated films along with the likes of Winter Kills, The Stuntman, The Lady in Red, Looking for Mr. Goodbar and Lipstick. It may have moved further into my reference bank since I tried to develop a video trivia game marrying the Star Chamber with judges asking questions in their specific fields.

  4. Wow, that game sounds interesting. How far did you get with that? Did the idea get shot down because the marketing folks thought The Star Chamber was not a big enough hit to warrant a spin off game?

    I think I’ve heard of all those movies you mentioned, but the only one I’ve seen is Lipstick. Very twisted film. I remember they showed it uncut once on network TV. I didn’t see it until much later, and was surprised at how sleazy it was. I guess the networks really needed those ratings…

  5. “Winter Kills” is a gnarly movie. I haven’t seen it in years, but it made my stomach turn, regarding politics, for years after. I think there was some IFC special on ’70s films where “Winter Kills” was briefly discussed. The director and producer were busted for selling weed, I think.

  6. Oh, and “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” is incredible. Damn, Edmund… you hit the nail on the head with that one. None of those “Basic Instinct” or “Fatal Attraction” type of films can keep up with the raw feel of “Mr. Goodbar.” The ’70s were so insane for cinema. Now I want to check out the other films you guys mentioned above.

  7. Why I love IMDB (regarding Winter Kills):

    Author: wsherrett from Portland, Oregon

    Condon wrote a magazine article about this movie production around 1980 that makes it ten times as strange as the story itself. Among other details:

    The movie was financed with money from cocaine dealers.

    When the production went over budget, the executive producer brought in additional “financiers”, then was able to keep the crews working for two weeks – in New York – with no pay. Jeff Bridges and Tony Perkins both offered their salaries as collateral.

    After the film was finished, the studio was purchased by a bigger studio which then ultimately declined to release it. At one point, at a test preview at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, passers by were being offered $1 to watch the movie.

    A few months later, the executive producer was found in a New York hotel room, handcuffed to a bed, with two bullets in his head.

    Was the above comment useful to you?

  8. Hahahahahahaha! Dude, that is too much. The funny thing is, it’s a really good film about political corruption. Maybe too weird for mass consumption, or maybe a bit too TV-ish… probably both. It’s almost like reading a pulp crime novel from the ’40s. It’s not that the writing is that literary or poetic. But the content is raw to the bone. Here’s hoping we get a Blanked As Ordered blog next on “Winter Kills.” Good call, Edmund. Hope you are doing good and getting settled in Chicago.

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