(SPOILERS) Martin Campbell directed a trio of bawdy big screen British sex comedies more than a decade before he made Criminal Law. Obviously, they weren’t his ticket to Hollywood. Rather, it was his work on the Beeb’s extraordinary Edge of Darkness, still unequalled in his filmography (including his own, pared-down movie version). Criminal Law, then, represents something of a reintroduction to the cinematic arena, but it would be another half decade before he really found his footing in the medium.
This isn’t especially anyone’s finest hour. Mark Kasdan was previously credited on brother Lawrence’s Silverado, but Criminal Law remains his only other (produced) screenplay credit. Gary Oldman, sporting a supremely yuppie look, all ‘80s power suits and slicked-back hair, touches down for one of his rare Hollywood lead roles. Even rarer to find him as the good guy in a mainstream thriller. Perhaps it was this picture that put him off such forays, as he doesn’t seem to have much to dig into, other than engaging in hyperbolic histrionics.
Kevin Bacon is Martin Thiel, the serial killer Oldman’s Ben Chase gets acquitted in the opening sequence, and he fares better, embracing the chance to break bad in a role, but the character lacks substance, the parallels between killer and defence attorney are rather trite, and the Thiel’s motivation really is the stuff of preposterous shlock (he’s killing his mother’s patients, who administered abortions on them; somehow, the police never discovered the link).
The movie’s moral line grows tedious very quickly. Yes, Chase got a bad guy off; give him a break, someone, since he’s now putting everything on the line in rather haphazard fashion to make things work. The main problem here is that there’s insufficient connecting tissue to create something suspenseful. Chase has to go looking for trouble in rain swept parks (there’s a lot of rain in this) or underlit buildings. If Thiel had been better conceived, waging a one-step-ahead cat-and-mouse game, the movie might have passed muster, but instead he’s called upon to be a careless psycho, one who helpfully wraps things up by arriving at the courthouse firing shots.
Campbell brings along his Edge of Darkness lucky charm Joe Don Baker as a detective (they’d reunite again on Goldeneye), but the part doesn’t amount to much. Tess Harper wears a pair of flinty eyes as the lead detective, while Karen Young makes an impression in the underserved girlfriend part. The best scenes are entirely tangential, though. Chase goes to consult with his dying mentor, Professor Clemens (Michael Sinelnikoff), who provides philosophical, quotation-laced advice to his young protégé. It’s the only part of the movie that justifies the opening’s rather pretentious, and hackneyed, use of Nietzsche’s “If you gaze long enough into an abyss…”
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