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‘Criminal Law’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 28, 1989


Martin Campbell
Gary Oldman;
Kevin Bacon;
Karen Young;
Tess Harper;
Joe Don Baker
younger teens

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As Ben Chase, the cocky defense attorney in "Criminal Law," Gary Oldman exudes the brash self-assurance of a man who knows he's a winner and can't contain his own pleasure with himself. After obtaining a not guilty verdict for a client accused of murdering a young woman, he grins as if the judgment were never in doubt: How could they resist me? How could I lose? His smirk is his seal of self-approval.

Luxuriant arrogance is usually a turnoff in a movie character. But Ben's immodesty has such bracing exuberance that it almost seems like generosity. The surprise, though, is that Oldman doesn't indulge himself; even though the performance is a tour de force, he doesn't showboat. He's sharing himself with us, inviting us to his party. Every move he makes says, Come and feast your eyes on me!

"Criminal Law" is a psychological thriller about a lawyer whose client pulls him into his atrocious crimes, and in its opening moments, it creates an atmosphere of genuine creepiness and malice. The client is Martin, an icy blue blood, played by Kevin Bacon, who, after his acquittal for the first murder, arranges for his counselor to meet him one rainy night in a park, where the unsuspecting attorney stumbles over the naked body of his latest victim, still in flames from the blowtorching he's given her.

Ben's horror is deeply personal. He knows it is because of his skill as a defender that this woman is dead, and the complicity he feels in Martin's crimes throws him into a kind of moral Twilight Zone. Caught between his professional obligation to protect his client and his responsibility to the rest of society, Ben chooses a dangerous middle path, and, in his attempts to trick Martin into unmasking himself, he embroils himself even further in the killer's game.

The uneasy relationship between these two men is the core of the film, and in their scenes together it's hard to determine just who is manipulating whom. When these characters are playing their slippery game of who's on top, the movie rises to a jittery high. Though Mark Kasdan's script doesn't develop the doppelga nger aspects of the relationship, the actors are skillful enough and, with their boyish, slightly debauched handsomeness, look enough alike at least to suggest a deeper psychological dimension. Martin is a monster, but Bacon gives his depravity such an aristocratic polish -- and draws such real pain out of the character -- that he almost becomes a figure of pity, a mere boy disfigured by cruel pressures.

Martin Campbell, a British television director making his feature debut, knows how to generate tension, especially in the early going, and throughout the film his work is never less than swift and efficient. And if he and Kasdan had been able to build on the shifting psychological currents between these two characters, the picture might have amounted to something more than a passably engaging murder mystery. By comparison, the rapport between Oldman and Karen Young, who's appealing but negligible as the murdered woman's roommate, hardly registers (they have one extremely peculiar love-making scene). And as a tough-talking police detective, Tess Harper is saddled with the film's most egregious cliche's.

As it is, the two stars provide almost all the excitement, but as the material unravels and the action becomes less and less plausible, we almost lose interest in them as well. Before it ends, though, some fairly outrageous touches are added, and the movie itself enters a ticklish area. More can't be revealed here without spoiling the mystery, but timing a film's release to exploit the current Supreme Court debate is in itself morally dubious. Monsters of all kinds are afoot, some of them even at movie companies.

"Criminal Law" is rated R and contains adult material not suitable for younger teens.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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