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Saturday, March 25, 2000

'THE GREEN MILE'

The straight and narrow path


I used to think that Harrison Ford was bound to end up in the White House (with Steven Spielberg as Secretary of State) sooner or later, but after seeing "The Green Mile," it looks like Tom Hanks will beat him to it. This is because Harrison is, deep down, an action star and people would perhaps feel a little uncomfortable if an action star had his finger near The Button all the time -- what if he felt like flexing his joints? On the other hand, Tom is someone you can rely on. Plus, he's essentially what Vickie Johnson in ninth grade called "true blue husband material," and unlikely to surprise us with acts of naughtiness in the Oval Office. Fidelity, leadership and mowing the lawn on Saturdays: This is essentially what Tom Hanks is all about.

"The Green Mile" highlights all that's wonderful about Tom then multiplies it by about 50 which, in effect, makes him too darn wonderful for words. The question is: What is such a man doing as a death row prison guard in a Lousiana penitentiary? Even though the year is 1935 and jobs are hard to get, couldn't a man of his caliber fit in somewhere else? The answer, as the movie will inform you, is because his work is horrific. It consists mainly of inducting new inmates to the cell block and waiting for the moment when the Governor issues a D.O.E. (Date of Execution). When the day comes, he and the other guards will lead the doomed man to the electric chair, and supervise the entire execution which we find out takes long, long minutes to finish.

Frank Darabont, director of the acclaimed "Shawshank Redemption," hopes to repeat the magic he had going therewith another prison movie, based on yet another Stephen King novel. Clearly, this is a moviemaker with an obsessive partiality for padded cells and heavy locks. This time though, his expertise extends to a Depression-Era electric chair, and some very graphic scenes on just what happens when someone is strapped into it. "The Green Mile" is the freaky combination of the charms of Tom Hanks and closeups of people getting electrocuted. I don't know about you but after this, it was hard for me to even pronounce the word "crispy."

Tom Hanks plays Paul Edgecomb, a prison guard officer on "E Block" -- death row. Green linoleum covers the floor that leads from the cell to the execution chamber and for this reason, the walk to death is called the "green mile." The inmates however, seem altogether too sweet to warrant such a penalty, especially a Cajun guy called Dell (Michael Jeter) who keeps a pet mouse by the name of Mr. Jingles and teaches it endearing little tricks. Life on E Block would be relatively peaceful if not for two things: Paul's painful urinary tract infection and prison guard Percy, a sleazebag who can't be fired because he's the governor's nephew.

The arrival of new inmate John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) throws everyone, since Coffey is over 2 meters, built like a submarine and accused of the rape and murder of two small girls. Paul finds this hard to believe. Coffey has a childlike innocence and is well behaved, plus he's blessed with the ability to see the innate evil or goodness in others. Then Coffey cures Paul's infection just by touching him and Paul's doubt turns to conviction. There is no way this emissary from God could have stooped to such a heinous act. Still, as a mere prison official, there's nothing Paul can do about it, not even when Coffey's D.O.E. finally arrives.

On one level, "The Green Mile" is true blue depressive material. If you saw this with a date, it would probably take about 50 beers and a tab or two of ecstasy to steer things back on a romantic track. On the other hand, if you were a warden in a correctional institute, or a problem kid or teenage delinquent, this is a film that would speak volumes. For one thing, you'd start to think twice before planning armed robbery -- more than anything else, "The Green Mile" is a lesson in that old adage, "crime doesn't pay," with a vengeance. In fact, it could almost be the kind of fairy tale that parents pulled out when their kids misbehaved: "If you're not good, this is what can happen to you." Once upon a time, executions were public affairs for this very purpose. Now, I guess, we have Frank Darabont to tell us what it's like.

"The Green Mile" opens today, at Nihon Gekijo in Yurakucho and others.


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