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CRIMINAL LAW (director: Martin Campbell; screenwriter: Mark Kasdan; cinematographer: Philip Melieux; editor: Chris Wimble; music: Jerry Goldsmith; cast: Gary Oldman (Ben Chase), Kevin Bacon (Martin Thiel), Joe Don Baker (Detective Mesel), Michael Sinelnikoff (Prof. Clemens), Tess Harper (Detective Stillwell), Karen Wooldridge (Claudia), Elizabeth Sheppard (Dr. Thiel), Karen Young (Ellen Faulkner, Victim’s roommate), Terrence La Brosse (Judge); Runtime: 118; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Robert MacLean/Hilary Heath; MGM; 1988)

The pretentious psychological thriller has nothing worth saying about the American criminal justice system.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

British television film director Martin Campbell (“Three For All”/”Golden Eye”/”Vertical Limit”), known for his BBC work of Edge of Darkness, in his feature film debut, is stuck directing this bomb despite showing fine skills for his craft. The pretentious psychological thriller has nothing worth saying about the American criminal justice system, even though it tries to weigh in by telling how the rich can get away with murder–hardly an original thought. The more Mark Kasdan’s weak script tries to explain the psychological make-up of the slimy, ingratiating serial killer, the more dopey it becomes. The pic turns so phony, that its Boston setting doesn’t even resemble Beantown (it was shot in Montreal).

It begins with a quote from Nietzsche: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it in the process that he does not become a monster. When you look into an abyss, an abyss looks into you.”

Successful, arrogant hotshot Boston defense lawyer Ben Chase (Gary Oldman) gets his guilty wealthy clientMartin Thiel (Kevin Bacon) acquitted of raping and brutally murdering a young woman by discrediting an eyewitness with courtroom theatrics, and then gets a guilty-conscience when he learns his former client does the same crime to another woman and is a psychopathic serial killer playing cat-and-mouse minds games with the Harvard educated lawyer. The lawyer consults his scholarly elderly former law professor (Michael Sinelnikoff), on his death-bed, for further mentoring, while being constantly reminded by two of the tough-talking no-nonsense investigating homicide detectives (Joe Don Baker and Tess Harper) that he let a monster loose. What follows is an unconvincing story linking the dark sides of the lawyer and client to each other, plenty of clunky dialogue, and risible pseudo-psychological explanations about how warped is the killer because of his mother complex over her being an abortionist. Elizabeth Shepherd plays the killer’s clueless blindly devoted mother, who has feelings made of ice.

When Chase agrees to be Thiel’s lawyer again, but this time he tries to make up for his previous mistake as he tries to sabotage his client’s case–which, of course, is unethical. The flick in its third act becomes outlandish, as Chase and his spoiled rich boy client interact and try to out manipulate each other.

It’s more pathetic than scary. But if looking for a bright spot, Brit actor Oldman has a great American accent and teaming with Bacon, who is excellent in his subdued bug-house preppie killer performance, showing they could have had something to be proud of if the script wasn’t so faulty and ridiculous.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”