Monday, July 30, 2007

"Criminal Law"

USA Release: April 28, 1989
Starring: Gary Oldman and Kevin Bacon
Directed by: Martin Campbell

Now's a good time to talk about "Criminal Law" because Encore Mystery will be showing it on August 26th.

Another movie starring Gary Oldman and Kevin Bacon and once again Kevin Bacon steals the show even though Gary Oldman's character, Ben Chase, is definitely the lead character in this one. Ben Chase is a defense attorney who used to work for the District Attorney's office. Ben successfully defends Martin Thiel, played by Kevin Bacon, in a murder trial. After the trial, Ben realizes that Martin is really guilty of the rape and murder for which he was acquitted and that Martin is not only lacking in remorse, he has done it again and he plans to continue brutally raping and murdering women.

The movie is the story of Ben Chase's efforts to stop Martin Thiel and it's a fairly good story. The main plot is well developed and keeps the viewer involved and interested throughout the film. I've read a lot of criticism about the screenplay, saying that it was not well developed, that it had too many plot holes, that the characters were not developed well enough and, in the case of Ben Chase, I would have to say that the last criticism is true. As for the rest of the complaints about the script, frankly, I didn't have a problem with it. I liked the story and didn't have any problems following it. There were a couple of slow spots but they were pretty short and did not detract from my enjoyment at all.

But this is not my favorite Oldman film and I have to say the directing is what spoiled it for me. Oldman's character goes from a thoughtful, methodical courtroom attorney to a screaming lunatic with little provocation. His go-for-broke performances in this film are not always appropriate to the scene and judging by the interaction in one scene between Ben Chase and his love interest, Ellen Faulkner, played by Karen Young, those go-for-broke performances were directed. If they weren't, they should have been toned down by the director. They spoiled the tone of the film and were a little bit irritating.

One scene in particular irritated the heck out of me. Ben Chase finds the body of a recently murdered woman in a wooded park, at night, in the rain. Now, just the description of that scene makes me think gloomy and frightening. I don't even need to see it on screen to conjure up those feelings. But gloomy and frightening did not happen on screen. The scene looked wet and miserable, not gloomy. It took forever for Ben to find the body, slogging through the rain, stopping along the way to tie his shoelace, which breaks. Ok, just what did that add to the scene? Irritation, yes, but not gloom - not apprehension. He gets slapped in the face by wet tree branches but he's more irritated than frightened. I can see myself slogging through a park on a dark, rainy night, getting slapped in the face by tree branches and being scared out of my pants. But Ben Chase wasn't scared therefore, the viewer wasn't scared. Ben was just fine; wet and uncomfortable, puzzled about why his client, Martin Thiel asked him to meet in the park on a night like that, a little irritated but emotionally stable, until he found the body. And then he completely lost his mind. He screamed, he froze in terror, he ran, he fell, ran some more, screaming all the way, and finally made his way to the nearest house where he was nearly incoherent because he was so totally panicked out of his mind.

Is this how a person in the 'real world' would act? Probably. I've got a big picture of myself going completely bat-shit if I were to stumble across a dead body on a bright sunny day in Downtown Fort Worth. But "Criminal Law" is a movie and I expect a certain mood to be set and maintained in a movie. It helps draw the viewer in and involve him in what's happening on the screen. That did not happen in this scene.

If the mood had been set, if there had been an ominous or frightening tone leading to the finding of the body, Ben Chase's reaction would have been perfect. The viewer might have felt like screaming, running and babbling in terror, too, and would, at the very least, have experienced empathy with the character of Ben Chase. Instead, we are left staring at this fool on the screen who is totally over reacting. Or over acting. I've often read comments about Gary Oldman's tendency to over act. Frankly, anytime I've ever seen a performance where he could have been accused of over acting it's always been more about the direction of the entire scene than about his performance.

And this is why Kevin Bacon stole this show. Poor direction. Oldman did have some very good scenes in this film. He was cute, he was likeable, he was troubled, he was dedicated and determined to bring the murderer to justice. And there were some suspenseful scenes that he pulled off with typical Oldman perfection. After all, this is Gary Oldman we're talking about. He always manages to give the viewers their money's worth - and then some.

For my money, the film is worth watching just for the final scene with Oldman and Bacon. They were both brilliant. Bacon shows me just how and why three college kids decided he was "the center of the entertainment universe" in this scene. And Oldman plays to his charcter so beautifully that any flat feelings you were left with from previous scenes completely dissipate.

I won't go into great depth on Kevin Bacon's performance but he was great. His portrayal of a psychotic serial killer is so real. His character, Martin Thiel, feels that he is doing the work of an avenging angel. Bacon pulls the viewers into the psyche of his character and takes us on a sick tour of his motivation and objective. In the final scene we feel pity for Martin instead of horror.

As I mentioned earlier, this is not my favorite Oldman film but it is by no means a bad film. Especially for fans of Gary Oldman and Kevin Bacon, this one is absolutely worth catching.


Huey said...

Now I have to see this one, Dudette. I want to see what you consider your least favorite Oldman movie. I didn't think you had one of those. LOL!

The Willow said...

Well, this isn't my least favorite Oldman movie - that would be "Sin," as you well know. :-D It's just not one of my favorites. I still think it's worth seeing - and I think you will love Kevin Bacon in it. Tell me what you think about it after you've seen it.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like an interesting match: Oldman and Bacon. That could yield some intriguing friction. Didn't know this film. By the way love the image in your sidebar of Gary 'Vlad' Oldman, licking the bloody blade in a scene in Dracula. His portrayal of the good count was memorably tongue in cheek and larger than life. You can't beat a sense of the ridiculous in a fine actor,

Richard James

The Willow said...

Ah, Richard James! I'm so sorry it took me so long to come back and publish your comment. I've been fighting the rottenest cold - the absolute rottenest - and haven't had the energy to even log on for weeks.

I hope you get a chance to see "Criminal Law." I think you'll enjoy the pair of them - Bacon and Oldman. They have some great scenes together in this one.

And oh yes, we will talk about "Bram Stoker's Dracula" very soon. That's one of my favorite Oldman films and for just the reasons you mention. You could just see the imp in his eyes in some scenes.