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by: Michael Dequina

In my six years of attending press screenings, the film that has received by far the largest ovation at the film's end was The Shawshank Redemption, Frank Darabont's 1994 adaptation of Stephen King's prison-set novella. Exquisitely written, directed, and acted, the film was one of the most soul-stirring and moving motion pictures to emerge from this decade, going on to earn seven Academy Award nominations. While the film ended up not winning a single statue (a heinous snub if there ever were one), the film's esteem has only grown through time, becoming on video the hit the film never was at the box office.

With such a tough act to follow, it perhaps is no surprise that only now has Darabont come out with his next film, which, as it happens, is also an adaptation of a Stephen King prison story. The Green Mile shares a number of other qualities with Shawshank, but one of them is not its astounding excellence; not many will label the new film as the instant classic its predecessor was. But freed from the inevitable comparison, on its own terms The Green Mile is a very poignant and well-told tale, albeit one not without its flaws.

As in Shawshank, the film is set in the past (here, 1935) and focuses on an unlikely friendship that develops behind prison walls. However, the relationship here is between one Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks), the head guard of a stretch of Death Row called "the green mile"; and John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), a an inmate convicted for the grisly murder of two young girls. Bulky and seven feet tall, Coffey certainly looks like the type who could commit such a despicable crime, but his gentle demeanor is a complete contradiction--as are the miraculous powers he appears to possess.

This element of the fantastic is a fairly outlandish twist for a story set on Death Row, but the turn is completely believable because Darabont takes the time to strongly anchor his characters in reality. However, he takes a bit too much time; while getting to know and spending the time with such colorful folk as Paul's guard cohorts and Coffey's fellow inmates is rewarding, it could have been just as so in less the time.

The same can be said of the entirety of The Green Mile. Execs at Warner Bros. made a big deal about how they did not feel the need to cut down the film after it received remarkably high marks at its first test screening; even so, some trimming is clearly in order. Granted, the three-hour-plus film, bookended by scenes with an aged Paul (Dabbs Greer) in the present day, consistently holds the interest and has an unquestionably powerful emotional payoff. But none of the film's virtues would have been diminished with some careful pruning of the runtime. In fact, a shorter, less leisurely paced version would just bring its strengths into clearer view.

And what strengths they are, particularly in the acting department. Hanks has become such a reliable dramatic performer over the years that a good performance from him is hardly a surprise; needless to say, there are no shocks here, and his trademark everyman quality makes him an instantly likable and relatable lead. More impressive, however, is the much-buzzed-about work by Duncan, perhaps heretofore best known for his supporting role in Armageddon. Not much is learned, if anything at all, about Coffey's past, but that Coffey is made into a believable human being rather than a walking dramatic construct has a lot to do with Duncan's vivid performance. Just as good as the two leads are the supporting players, all of whom shine. Bonnie Hunt acquits herself well in an uncharacteristically serious role as Paul's devoted wife; newcomer Doug Hutchison is chilling as sadistic guard Percy Wetmore, as is Sam Rockwell as psychotic inmate Wild Bill; and Michael Jeter is touching as inmate Del, who takes in a pet mouse. Gary Sinise also has a nice cameo as Coffey's public defender.

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