Movie Reviews : 'Criminal Law' a Waste of Its Actors' Talents

"Criminal Law" (citywide) is a doggedly routine thriller that doesn't deserve the vital presence of Gary Oldman, not to mention that of Kevin Bacon and Tess Harper. Ever since Oldman first attracted attention in "Sid and Nancy," the young British actor has been a brash, distinctive force on the screen. As a hotshot Boston attorney successfully defending Bacon's rich aristocrat for murder, Oldman is once again electrifying, but he and the capable, rather than inspired, British TV director, Martin Campbell, are short-circuited at every turn by Martin Kasdan's trite plotting and often pretentious dialogue.

In a bravura display of courtroom maneuvers, Oldman successfully defends Bacon on a charge of an exceptionally brutal murder of a young woman. Too flush with lucrative success to examine his conscience about the possibility that Bacon might well have been guilty, Oldman agrees to meet his client at a park during a rainstorm, only to stumble over the still-burning corpse of a second young woman. Certain details convince Oldman that Bacon is in fact her murderer, perhaps even a budding serial rapist-killer, whom he vows to nail.

Why isn't Oldman, who reports his discovery of the smoldering body to the police, ever for an instant under suspicion himself, especially considering that the investigating detective (Joe Don Baker) loathes him and that Baker's partner (Harper) has become disillusioned with him? The innocent man turning detective to save his own skin was a favorite Hitchcock device, and it could have given Oldman's quest much-needed dimension and urgency.

Unfortunately, "Criminal Law" proceeds from one weakness to another. Bacon's perpetual smirk, coupled with the icy demeanor of his dominating mother (Elizabeth Sheppard), telegraphs the plot needlessly from Day One. And why should the roommate (Karen Young) of the woman murdered in the park so speedily begin an affair with Oldman, whom she has angrily blamed for he friend's death? At one point writer Kasdan actually resorts, Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew-style, to the discovery of a secret tunnel to further a plot with even more holes than have already been related.

Kasdan points up the chasm between law and justice--hardly news--overlaid with Freudian notions of behavior and Nietzschean considerations of the nature of evil. (Not once but twice Oldman has conversations with his tiresomely sage old professor.) Yet we know absolutely no more about Oldman's background at the end of the film than at the beginning; Oldman's excellent American accent sounds as if it might be meant to be smoothed-over Boston blue-collar Irish.

The film also could have benefited from Oldman and Bacon spending more time together, from them having developed a kind of friendship. As it is, Bacon has a decidedly supporting role, one that requires him only to sound the same note of clever craziness over and over. Baker is straitjacketed in a standard tough, angry cop role, but Harper's detective is actually the film's best-written part, that of a smart, sensible professional. She's the kind of cop you want when you're in trouble, and Harper plays her beautifully.

"Criminal Law" (rated R for sex and graphic depictions of the result of extreme violence against women) is the latest in the unending parade of films in which Canadian cities stand in for American ones and here Montreal and Quebec City are ineffective stand-ins for Boston. Seeming neither truly American or truly Canadian in flavor "Criminal Law" is in trouble right from the start.

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