There has been a spate of murders in the city which has seen five little old ladies murdered for their handbags, shot down in cold blood by a ruthless petty thief. However, it just so happens a couple of cops are walking the streets in the early morning when they notice a man acting suspiciously, so on the offchance he is a criminal they begin following him, whereupon the man breaks into a run. They give chase, and notice as they arrive at the house he has dived into that he dropped an object in the garbage, trouble is they cannot search it without a warrant and the collection truck is approaching...
They do find a way around it, but this proves problematic when they find a gun with the crim's fingerprints on it that matches the old lady murderer's ballistic results. If you had been watching a thriller involving cops around this era, then you'd understand what the issue was: red tape. Bureaucracy. A justice system that doesn't mete out what it is supposed to, but allows technicalities so the evildoers can get off scot free. All the clichés were here, and you'd know them from a billion Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson flicks and all their ilk where the cop has to turn judge, jury and executioner to see that right prevails.
Except director Peter Hyams was trying something different here in that the law enforcer was not a policeman, but a judge, one Judge Steven Hardin, played by Michael Douglas who was on his most earnest form here as he is frustrated that he must lay down the law when it is obvious the wrong people are allowed to walk the streets by escaping punishment, or worse reoffending. But as he allows the old lady killer to go free since the search for the gun is inadmissable in court, there's another case just as bad which he must preside over, as the police believe they have found a two-man child pornography and murder ring.
The same thing happens again, and for maximum emotive quality the dead boy's father (James Sikking) is so upset that he draws a gun in the courtroom and tries to murder the now-free perps in retaliation. Now, if Hyams had his thriller hat on then all this would have happened in the first twenty minutes and we could have sallied forth into the real action of the story, but it takes half the movie - it's almost two hours long - to reach the main selling point of the movie, something that anyone going to see this would have been well aware of beforehand as it was all over the publicity. That being Hardin's mentor Judge Caulfield (Hal Holbrook) has a little score-settling club for him to join, the Star Chamber of the title, which essentially executes those they decree have gotten away with murder.
The thought of a judge getting tooled up and gunning down the creeps is not a sensible one, but it might have been more amusing than what we got, which was muted for the most part, as if trying to concoct an atmosphere of encroaching menace rather than a white knuckle ride. The rogue judges hire a hitman to do their dirty work, and at first Hardin is only too pleased to be part of this clique, with the movie looking like your typical reactionary Reaganite entertainment, but then a curious thing happens: Hyams has been leading us down the garden path. He's not here to advocate the death penalty for those who might have gotten off too lightly from crimes they may well have carried out, he's here to point out following the law is a lot more preferable to the authorities going mad with power, which was all very well, but didn't help when the arrested characters were so obviously scum and the law was on their side in the first two thirds of the plot. Ending with a left turn into action territory was a desperate aim for an exciting finale too. Music by Michael Small.