Picks and Pans Review: Murder in the First

updated 02/06/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/06/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

Kevin Bacon, Christian Slater, Gary Oldman

Following a failed escape attempt from Alcatraz in 1938, convicted robber Henri Young spent a devastating three years in solitary confinement in the lower, dungeonlike cells of that notorious prison. According to regulations, Young should have spent no more than 19 days. Back among his fellow prisoners, he promptly murdered the stool pigeon who had tipped off the authorities about the escape plot. Young's defense: Alcatraz had rendered him subhuman. Bacon, an underrated, boyish actor who has proved surprisingly adept at playing hardened creeps, was a good casting idea for this miserable man, but the performance is a miss. Too bad. Bacon limps, he contorts his limbs, one eye is half shut with scarring, the words dribble out in tormented syntax. But these badges of suffering feel like mere accessories not connected to the inner man. Why not a prosthetic cauliflower ear too?

This probably isn't Bacon's fault. The cast, as directed by Mark Rocco, isn't much better than so-so. That includes both Oldman, doing a banality-of-evil number as the poker-faced loony who runs the prison, and Slater, whose unvaried performance as Bacon's eager-puppy lawyer unintentionally suggests the banality of good. It doesn't help things that Christopher Young's score, which employs a lot of brooding, weepy strings, smacks at times of a stern hymn (can't an audience be trusted to sympathize with a person without having to be reminded of Jesus?) or that Bacon's last scene, which feels tacked on, is almost preposterously triumphant. It isn't Sylvester Stallone as Lazarus, but it's close. (R)

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