Am I going to have to give four stars to a forgotten legal thriller from the 80s?
(We don't give stars at This, or Work but if we did . . . )
Criminal Law had been dancing on the edge of my awareness for months. I'm not sure why, other than the the "late-80s/early-90s sex-thriller" is one of my favorite genres, and I’m always looking for excuses to go back through that catalogue. And in this case, there are two consistently excellent yet consistently undervalued actors (Kevin Bacon and Gary Oldman; even though Oldman just won the Oscar, you know in a couple years he'll be doing straight to Redbox horror movies again; this later part of his career has been all over the place). And It's got a director of sturdy but unremarkable action dramas (Martin Campbell's high watermark may just be Casino Royale). What could they have been up to back in '88?
And I guess that's almost what you'd call Criminal Law: sturdy. It checks all the the 80s/erotic/attorney thriller boxes. If that's what you're looking for, you'll log off Amazon Prime a satisfied customer. But the script and those two actors kick it well above sturdy. It's downright remarkable!
So, Oldman's a slimy defense attorney. He gets Bacon’s rich guy off on a rape charge, only to then suspect him in a series of new murders. Bacon tries to put Oldman on retainer as the police close in, and Oldman agrees, hoping to find real evidence and be able to turn in the apple-cheeked serial killer.
This is a terrible plan, and to Criminal Law's credit, it knows it's a terrible plan. The movie cannily lets the increasingly absurd stakes and layers of unlikely mystery pile up until we're right in the middle of a debate on the nature of justice and morality, using the abortion issue as the battleground.
Should I have spoiled the abortion connection? I doubt anyone's going to go off and stream this so, sure: When he was a kid, Bacon, already a few feet too loose, walks in on his mother (a secret abortionist, during a time before it was legal) disposing of a fetus - and in C-Law’s feverish thriller logic, this is all the stimulus his psychotic mind needs to start murdering women who get abortions. He sees himself as some kind of avenging angel.
Meanwhile, Oldman is trying on his own avenger costume trying to take down Bacon. From one point of view, the two actors could be seen to be playing the other's type; isn’t Bacon the natural good guy, and Gary Oldman a clear villain? But the script actually needs an All-American douche as the killer and an edgy maniac as the lawyer. "The Law" needs to reach beyond itself for justice. The dudes are 100% to-type here.
I liked the symmetry, too, of the lead cop assisting Oldman and Oldman's girlfriend/co-sleuth both having short blonde hair. Further duality of law and justice.
Oh, and this must have been part of the first wave of American movies shot in Canada (I don't have the dates on that, just the vague awareness that we started going up north for tax breaks at some point during the Me Decade). There's lots of tight shots of buildings without surrounding context, meaning to seem"American" without evoking any place in particular. That part was fine; I don't know how much better Criminal Law would be if it's rain-soaked streets could evoke the real Boston. I had a real 4-star time with it.