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‘Murder in the First’ (R)By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 20, 1995
"Murder In the First," which is "inspired" by the real case of Alcatraz prisoner Henri Young, is well-researched entertainment, as opposed to, say, history. But it doesn't really matter that Kevin Bacon's portrayal of Young is three parts Hollywood and one part fact. Or that Christian Slater (who plays Young's lawyer) and Gary Oldman (a sadistic prison warden) are fictional composites of real people.
"Murder," directed by Marc Rocco and written by Dan Gordon, is a reasonably exhilarating hybrid of prison movie and courtroom drama. And most of the good stuff happens between Bacon, convincingly dehumanized from years of solitary confinement, and Slater, boyishly appealing as the public defender who takes on Alcatraz and the government.
The movie starts in 1938, as Bacon and two other convicts unsuccessfully attempt a breakout from Alcatraz, the San Francisco Bay prison no one has ever escaped from. One of them is killed, the second one rats, and Bacon (originally incarcerated for minor thievery) gets the full treatment. Brutalized, then thrown into solitary, his only relief is half an hour of daylight per year. When he's released after three years, Bacon -- now a quivering wreck -- kills the man who betrayed him. Slater, fresh from the bar exam, gets Bacon as his first client.
At first, Bacon is completely uncommunicative, still lost in the protective mental cocoon he wrapped himself in. Persuading the judge (R. Lee Ermey) to grant him an extra week to get through to his client, Slater mounts an ambitious defense: that the Alcatraz system caused Bacon's actions. One of his most significant witnesses -- Slater hopes -- will be Oldman, the warden who ordered Bacon's punishment and who takes pride in his vicious "rehabilitation" methods.
Slater's attempts to connect with Bacon produce funny and touching moments. Blase about his odds of escaping the gas chamber, Bacon takes greater exception to the fact that, while he was imprisoned all those years, Slater never once saw a Joe DiMaggio baseball game. When Slater hires prostitute Kyra Sedgwick to give the virginal Bacon one fleeting moment of joy, the scene evolves poignantly from mischievous to tragic when Bacon becomes too traumatized to consummate the transaction.
Probably unintentionally, Oldman (who looks like Mike "Wayne's World" Myers playing a psycho-warden) is a lot of popcorn-popping fun as the immaculately dressed commandant who kisses his wife and kids tenderly before a regular day of crimes against humanity. In one piece of over-the-top character business, he pounds a mirror into smithereens after he nicks himself shaving. It's after the lengthy trial, the jury's agonized decision and revelations about cruelty at Alcatraz that you realize the awful truth. So many lives could have been saved if only Oldman had used a Remington.
MURDER IN THE FIRST (R) -- Contains brutal violence, profanity and nudity.
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