Criminal Law (film)

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Criminal Law
Directed byMartin Campbell
Written byMark Kasdan
Produced byHilary Heath
Robert MacLean
Music byJerry Goldsmith
Distributed byHemdale Film Corporation
Release dates
  • September 15, 1988 (1988-09-15) (TIFF)
  • November 11, 1988 (1988-11-11) (Limited)
  • April 28, 1989 (1989-04-28) (United States)
Running time
117 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$5 million[1]
Box office$9,974,446

Criminal Law is a 1988 American legal thriller film directed by Martin Campbell and starring Gary Oldman and Kevin Bacon. It received generally negative reviews.


Gary Oldman plays Ben Chase, a brash young defense attorney whose success is built on his willingness to manipulate the judicial system for the benefit of his clients. In spite of his career success as an attorney, Ben is starting to show signs of serious alcoholism. When he successfully defends Martin Thiel, the scion of a wealthy, prominent family, against a murder charge, the game turns on him.

Martin lures Ben to the scene of another murder and retains Ben to defend him, even before he is charged. Knowing his client is guilty, Ben struggles at last with the reality of his ethics, until he resolves to oppose Martin secretly, hoping he will incriminate himself.

As Martin's ultimate plan unfolds, both he and Ben will be forced to reexamine everything they hold to be true.



Roger Ebert wrote: "Criminal Law is a textbook example of a movie going wrong before our very eyes, because of the curious failure of the filmmakers to realize that you can toy with an audience only so long before the audience grows resentful... It's a shame such good performances were lost by the runaway use of gimmicks."[2]

Variety commended the work of Oldman and Bacon, but criticized the story's "ill-defined pretensions as an essay on the American legal system and a herky-jerky continuity that's fatiguing instead of tingling".[3]

Kevin Thomas felt that Criminal Law "proceeds from one weakness to another", but described Oldman as "electrifying".[4]

Peter Travers was less impressed by Oldman's performance, writing: "Oldman is a powerhouse. Just catch him in Sid and Nancy or Prick Up Your Ears. But what's a British actor doing playing a Harvard attorney in a Boston-based movie shot in Montreal? Flailing about like a drowning man, that's what. Oldman's [accent is] laughably in-and-out." He had additional criticism for the film's "overwrought script" and lack of logic and subtlety.[5]

Slightly more favorable was Linda Rasmussen of AllMovie, who wrote that Oldman "gives an excellent performance", described Bacon as "intriguing and ambiguous", and praised the direction and action sequences. She concluded: "Criminal Law, if not taken very seriously and with more than a grain of salt, can be entertaining, but it fails miserably when compared to accurate, exciting legal thrillers such as Primal Fear.[6]

On Rotten Tomatoes the film has an approval rating of 33% based on reviews from 9 critics, with an average score of 4.6/10.[7]


Canadian serial killer Paul Bernardo, nicknamed “The Schoolgirl Killer” by the press and one of Canada's worst violent offenders, wanted to change his surname and that of his ex-wife and then-accomplice Karla Homolka to Thiel, after the film's primary antagonist.


  1. ^ "AFI|Catalog". Retrieved 15 November 2021.
  2. ^ Ebert, Roger (April 28, 1989). "Criminal Law". Chicago Sun-Times. Chicago, Illinois: Sun-Times Media Group – via
  3. ^ "Criminal Law". 1 January 1988. Retrieved 15 November 2021.
  4. ^ Thomas, Kevin (April 28, 1989). "Movie Reviews: 'Criminal Law' a Waste of its Actors' Talents". The Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, California: Tribune Publishing.
  5. ^ Travers, Peter (April 28, 1989). "Criminal Law". Rolling Stone. New York City: Wenner Media.
  6. ^ Rasmussen, Linda. "Criminal Law (1989)". AllMovie. Retrieved October 21, 2020.
  7. ^ "Criminal Law". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved December 20, 2020.

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