The Austin Chronicle

Murder in the First

Directed by Marc Rocco. Starring Christian Slater, Kevin Bacon, Gary Oldman, Embeth Davidtz, Brad Dourif, William H. Macy.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Jan. 20, 1995

Unsalvageable and inadvertently silly, Murder in the First purports to be “inspired by a true story,” which is apparently industry slang these days for “the real story wasn't quite glitzy enough.” Slater is James Stamphill, a young, unproved San Francisco attorney who is given the hopeless, no-win case of Henri Young, a 28-year-old inmate at Alcatraz accused of murdering another inmate with a spoon in full view of 200 witnesses. When Stamphill begins looking into the facts of the case, he discovers that his barely sane defendant -- whose only previous crime had been stealing $5 from a rural grocery store-cum-post office -- may indeed have been driven to an act of desperation by the intolerable conditions on the “Rock.” Much of the film is given over to a history of Alcatraz via faux newsreel footage and Slater's cloying voiceover. Apparently director Rocco and screenwriter Dan Gordon weren't too sure if today's average moviegoer would remember Alcatraz as anything more than a quaint San Francisco tourist attraction (sort of like Fisherman's Wharf, but with bars on the windows). Stamphill manages, barely, to focus attention on the brutality and inhumanity of the place as it was run under Associate Warden Glenn (Oldman), and, therefore, to put the facility on trial alongside Young, who by this time is nearly catatonic from the unbelievable three years in solitary he's spent there. Slater, as always, is Slater, but Bacon -- all pursed lips, scar tissue, and baleful, tremulous glances -- is so completely over the top that it's hard to know what he was shooting for with this performance. Oldman likewise turns in an evil, spastic performance (as is becoming his specialty, a la The Professional), erasing any hint of subtlety that may have been called for in Gordon's script, Subtlety never enters the picture: from Stamphill's bringing a whore disguised as a court reporter to his virgin charge (in order to coerce a deposition out of the poor guy, no less), to the early scenes of Young in the “Hole,” bearded and insane and howling for freedom like a drunken American tourist in some blighted Rio back alley. Considering the brazen bravura aimed for by the whole mess, perhaps Moida in da Foist (Youse Guys) would've been a more fitting title.

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