Palatable: Criminal Law

Criminal Law (1988)
Directed by Martin Campbell
Written by Mark Kasdan
Produced by Robert K. MacLean, Hilary Heath, Ken Gord, Derek Gibson, John Daly
Starring Gary Oldman, Kevin Bacon, Karen Young, Tess Harper, Elizabeth Shepherd, Joe Don Baker, Michael Sinelnikoff, Sean McCann
Scruples are foisted upon rather than acquired by a complete, cocksure criminal defense attorney (Oldman) after the wealthy, pyromaniacal serial rapist and murderer (Bacon) for whom he's wrested an acquittal resolves to retain his services in exchange for extravagant remuneration and an unbidden firsthand exhibition of his malefactions. Notwithstanding its universal critical scorn, Oldman's performance is actually fine, albeit marred by a nebulously unconvincing pan-Atlantic accent. Neither are his co-stars at all deficient; as the demented recidivist, Bacon's frightful, gazing conviction occasionally dwarfs Oldman's own presence: both sustain an absorbing naturalistic tension whether delivering dialogue elegant or bromidicly ostentatious. Accomplished action director Campbell triggers some efficacious shocks with taut cuts, clamant foley and tight close-ups and zooms, but this flick's proficiently depicted morbidity and violence hardly composes its most intriguing scenes. A curious contradistinction between the counselor's most dramatic exchanges with two detectives of his reluctant connivance (Harper, Baker) and a victim's acquaintance (Young) with whom he's romantically involved, and those allusive with an avuncular law professor (Sinelnikoff), his brooding client and his frigid mother (Shepherd) divulge the pathologic key to both the murders and their motive, impel narrative and characters alike, and reflect the duplicities immanent of the culprit, his counsel and jurisprudence itself. Alas, the novel story is burdened with implausibility: Young and Oldman produce terrific chemistry together, but the amorous aspect of their relationship is as absurd as a gaping hole in an otherwise tidy plot: the most fledgling investigator would have solved this case within minutes of the aforementioned key's inculpative disclosure; one can only assume that Mitchell's trenchancy's been much reduced by crapulence. Campbell's slick direction is buttressed by the alternating grime and floridity of Curtis Schnell's sensational production design, best evidenced in a wooden, subterranean bedchamber of a nautical theme. Its many flaws don't overcome this prepossessing (if occasionally preposterous) crime drama's strengths, chief among them an antagonist whose personal depth and deplorably thoughtful proposal of retributive incendiarism and murder as both a perquisite and moral obligation have few cinematic similitudes.

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