"The Green Mile," a highly anticipated Oscar-hopeful starring perennial decent guy Tom Hanks and based on Stephen King's serialized best seller, is spiked with several elaborate special-effects sequences, some unbearably gruesome and some downright magical. But none are as impressive as the flesh-and-blood spectacle of watching the enormous John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan of Armageddon) make his arrival on death row in 1935 at Cold Mountain Penitentiary in Louisiana.
Coffey, convicted of the brutal rape and murder of young twin sisters, is a Mount Rushmore of a man, standing a full head and shoulders over his captors, with a neck larger than the average adult thigh and a fleshy, massive hand that resembles a threat when he extends it in friendship to head guard Paul Edgecomb (Hanks). The illiterate giant comes off as powerful enough to do any damage he so desires and dumb enough not to realize the meaning of his own strength.
Nothing is ever quite what it seems in King's fiction, and that holds true here, in director-writer Frank Darabont's second consecutive adaptation of a prison period piece by the novelist, following 1994's acclaimed "The Shawshank Redemption." Pure evil lurks in the hearts of ordinary people, and so does pure goodness: In this case, the slow-witted, childlike JC (get the religious reference?) is nothing short of a healer, with supernatural powers.
Darabont's moving, emotionally complex film is a sprawling work that only sags when it turns its attention to a comic-relief subplot involving Mr. Jingles, a talented mouse eventually beloved by nearly everyone on E Block. "The Green Mile," with a running time of more than three hours, otherwise is a thrilling voyage of discovery.
Coffey joins two other men bound for a date with the prison's barely functional electric chair. Del (Michael Jeter), a fun-loving Creole and Arlen (Graham Greene), a sad-eyed Native American genuinely pained over the sins that led to his incarceration. Their number is increased to four with the addition of nutcase "Wild Bill" Wharton, a self-styled outlaw responsible for murdering three people during a bank robbery.
Edgecomb keeps the peace with the help of tough but just buddy Brutus (David Morse), sensitive rookie Dean (Barry Pepper of "Saving Private Ryan"), by-the-books guard Harry (Jeffrey DeMunn) and shrimpy sadist Percy (the amazing Doug Hutchison). The potential claustrophobia of the setting is offset by scenes of domestic tranquility, with Edgecomb relying on his sympathetic wife (Bonnie Hunt) for moral support and physical encouragement.
Death by electrocution is an ugly way to go, and the camera doesn't blink during the first, routine execution or a second one that goes horribly awry. On the other hand, Darabont doesn't hold back when it comes to extolling the values of compassion, kindness and forgiveness, and gazing in awe at a series of imaginatively photographed miracles. And the green mile, the long, lime-colored final path prisoners walk prior to their executions, becomes a place of redemption.
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