Mainstream moviegoers are doubtless unfamiliar with British actor Gary Oldman's intense performances in the offbeat British films "Sid and Nancy" (in which he played doomed punk rocker Sid Vicious), "Prick Up Your Ears" (as tortured playwright Joe Orton) or "Track 29." All three films played in Salt Lake City but had only limited art house runs.
"Criminal Law" is his first American, wide-release middle-of-the-road movie, but it is an unfortunate choice as an introduction to the general moviegoing public.Oldman's three earlier performances, all giving him wide industry recognition for mesmerizing screen turns as wild-eyed, over-the-edge Brits, are quite different from his role here as an ambitious, somewhat careless American attorney (with an excellent American accent, by the way) who is pushed over the edge by circumstances that tax his conscience.
"Criminal Law" tries a bit of offbeat casting by making Oldman a former prosecutor who has become a defense attorney and, in defending vicious killer Kevin Bacon, becomes Bacon's closest friend.
Oldman convinces the jury to acquit Bacon of a particularly brutal rape/murder charge in the film's opening moments, but afterward Bacon not only confesses to Oldman that he was guilty, he starts killing again and lures Oldman into a web of intrigue.
But Oldman immediately decides to betray Bacon's confidence to trap him, and what ensues is a cat-and-mouse game that ends in tragedy. It also comes very close to amok slasher territory.
"Criminal Law" has nothing new to offer in the way of its basic storyline, but there's always room for a serious movie that questions the modern legal system and expresses concern about guilty criminals being released. Unfortunately, first-time director Martin Campbell goes for sensation and immediately plunges the audience deep into the horror. In the end his heavy-handed direction gives this film a cheap exploitation look that he could have avoided with a more slow-to-build approach.
Screenwriter Mark Kasdan, who co-wrote "Silverado" with his brother, prominent writer-director Lawrence Kasdan, certainly shows none of his brother's talent for clever-yet-realistic dialogue. At one point Oldman and police detective Tess Harper are having milk and cookies in her back yard (!) and she says to him in a maternal tone, "Drink your milk." Later police chief Joe Don Baker tells Oldman he should beware of Bacon: "A crazy killer is crazy and he'll kill you." Huh?
There is also a rough sex romance between Oldman and a victim's roommate (Karen Young) that seems wildly out of place and ill-conceived.
The performances are very good, however, including Bacon as a mama's boy who has a method to his madness. But the actors are hard-pressed to overcome the stilted dialogue, unbelievably stupid situations and ham-fisted direction, and in the end are overwhelmed by it all.
"Criminal Law" is rated R for violence, sex, nudity and profanity.