Thursday, September 21, 2006

"I accuse Alcatraz of crimes against humanity!"

Kevin Bacon has had an interesting career. He was cutting the rug in Footloose, experienced life after death in Flatliners, was chased by huge, underground worm/snake things in Tremors, and even had a few ‘problems’ during Apollo 13. Some of you may even recall not seeing him in the horrible, awful, complete waste of time called Hollow Man. Despite that most recent flop, one just has to watch Murder in the First to instantly recognize how talented Mr. Bacon really is. He didn’t win the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1995, the year it was released, but he should have. In fact, he didn’t even garner a nomination, but I guess 1995 was a busy year; Braveheart cleaned up.

Inspired by true events, Murder in the First retells the story of inmate #244, Henry Young (Bacon), a resident of Alcatraz in 1938. The film begins with a brief history of Young’s incarceration in solitary confinement for an attempted escape. When he is finally released from solitary, three years later, and re-enters the general population of Alcatraz his first act is murder; brutally killing the fellow inmate that sold out Young during the escape. A na├»ve public defender named James Stamphill (Christian Slater) is assigned the impossible task of defending Young in a case that appears un-defendable. After learning of Young’s horrific experiences at the hands of the Alcatraz Assistant Warden (Gary Oldman), Stamphill turns the trial into an attack on Alcatraz itself.

Murder in the First manages to do several things right. The story is compelling and instantly interesting. From the opening credits we are pulled into Henry’s life and made witness to his torturous circumstances. Stamphill’s narration during these vivid opening scenes are all the more intriguing as we learn of Stamphill’s education and career; there is an enormous contrast between these two lives. The acting is incredible. Kevin Bacon gives the best performance of his life, depicting the broken and bitterly sad Henry Young. Gary Oldman is wonderful as usual. And although his part is considerably smaller the few scenes he is in are chilling and mesmerizing in the way we’ve come to appreciate Oldman.

On the other hand, there are a couple of blemishes in the acting department. Christian Slayter is not one of my favourite actors and Murder in the First is just another example of his forced acting style. It can’t be easy playing the straight-laced lawyer amongst such diverse characters as Bacon’s Henry Young and Oldman’s Warden Glenn, but Slayter appears to try very hard to claim the spotlight in each scene. For the most part he does ok, but during one particularly dramatic courtroom scene, reminiscent of A Few Good Men’s “you can’t handle the truth” moment, Slayter tries too hard to reach an explosive peak only to have the scene end rather abruptly and unfinished. Fortunately the film doesn’t suffer too much from this, but it does seem to keep a great film from being spectacular.

The DVD is a bare bones release. Warner Bros. did at least provide an Anamorphic video transfer which is important given the content being portrayed. I think some of the impact of the visuals would be reduced in a non-anamorphic image as the aspect ratio on a wide screen TV would skew the characters dramatically. Basically everything looks like it would in real life, not stretched or squished. Aside from the pretty picture, however, the rest of the DVD doesn’t really measure up. A Dolby Digital Stereo audio track is provided, which I guess is sufficient given that 99% of the film is dialogue driven. But it’s not like the studio didn’t have room on the disc for more audio quality; aside from the film itself there are no special features to speak of. Not even a trailer. To be fair, the flip side of the disc contains a 1.33:1 Full Frame version of the film, but anyone who’s anyone knows that Full Frame is the 8th deadly sin; avoid at all costs. Overall, the DVD itself isn’t anything to shout about.

If you enjoy a good courtroom flick or you want to rid yourself of those horrible Kevin Bacon ‘Hollowman’ nightmares, then Murder in the First is a must see for you. Even a passing interest in Alcatraz should compel you to watch the trial that brought the institution to the ground. While not as dramatic and engaging as The Shawshank Redemption or as exciting and compelling as A Few Good Men, Murder in the First is certainly an interesting film, and definitely the best performance you may ever see from Kevin Bacon.

Murder in the First gets 7 ½ straight razors (out of 10).
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