Watch Criminal Law | Prime Video
Criminal Law – 1988

Director Martin Campbell
Screenplay Mark Kasdan
Starring Gary Oldman, Kevin Bacon, Karen Young, Tess Harper, Joe Don Baker, Michael Sinelnikoff

There is a sheen over the films of my late teens that shine like no other time in history. I worked at a video store and new talent, whether by actors or directors stood out. Criminal Law was one such find. I had never heard of Gary Oldman before. After this film, I never would forget him. I watched it at least 10 times, renting it, then buying it eventually on vhs. This was my movie I would show to friends whom I had some idea it would impress. No one seemed to like it as much as I did, but that was okay.

I forgot about this film by the time DVD came out and I didn’t find it right away. The years went by and it just faded. Then last night I saw it was on Hulu. This was my chance to connect with my early cinefile genius.

Sad to say, this film is not as good as I remembered it. What stood out before, Oldman’s assured, manic performance, is still fun. His accent is curious. Sometimes he’s got a deep voice, other times the same old voice to which I have become accustomed. He’s got that mixture of arrogance, wild hair and no real clue as to what is happening. This is essential to move a plot forward that has such a contrivance as this.

The plot has Olman as Ben Chase, a lawyer in the midst of a trial with his client Martin Theil (Bacon). Martin is on trial for murder. Through legal jiu-jitsu, Chase gets his client freed. Things are great, and he’s noticed by the big leagues. His glory is short lived.

He gets a call from Martin, who asks him to meet. Ben arrives in the midst of a rainstorm, then he comes across the naked corpse of another young woman. It’s clear what is happening, but Ben does not rat out Martin. Instead, he has other plans…

The plans he comes up with is ludicrous. He thinks he can trap him while maintaining him as a client. He even ropes in the friend (Young) of the woman Martin just killed as a partner in this effort. Things get weird, though, and Ben gets a little bit eccentric along the way. If they had pushed this a little farther, the film might’ve been even more entertaining.

Bacon, as an out and out antagonist, is thrilling. His eyes hold no remorse, only conviction that his is a path worth taking. The romance, as he plays it, is to get his lawyer to completely understand why he does what he does. There is a reason behind it all.

There are some interesting avenues to this not entirely sensible plot. Ben’s conversations with his mentor, Professor Clemtes (Sinelnikoff) have the feel of a real relationship. Their conversations are the easiest thing in the film, well played and authentically written.

The Thiel manor is something that would have been better had it been more fully developed. It’s an interesting location and it feels like there are some secrets that would have been more interesting had they chosen to pursue something in that arena.

The plot feels a little undercooked after seeing it this many years later. There are some interesting subplots, but Campbell pushes through to an inevitable end, never stopping long enough to stare into the abyss.

All in all, it’s entertaining, if a little straining in credibility. The imagery Campbell provides is more than enough to make up for the jarring pace. It is still enjoyable, even if it doesn’t explore the world with which we’re presented.

Which brings us back to Oldman. This film is truly an opportunity that Campbell doesn’t waste in showing off his up and coming star. We see someone who is unafraid to take chances. We see glimpses of the Oldman we will get used to in the ’90’s, especially in the solo racquetball scene and the incredibly scary sex scene. This film made impression enough on me that I started following Oldman, there and then, and I have never regretted it.

(*** out of *****)

From the original Ebert review:

“The movie explains this process with a generous serving of Freudian cliches… but the psychology is essentially just to throw us off the trail. ” (**)

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