Inspired by a true story. A petty criminal sent to Alcatraz in the 1930s is caught attempting to make an escape
Like most longstanding film genres, the prison movie has a number of rules that filmmakers ignore at their peril. The central protagonist, if not necessarily innocent, should at least be a decent sort. The prison itself must resemble Hell on earth. And if the governor can embody all that is rotten and sadistic in the world then so much the better.
It is a set of regulations that Murder In The First doesn't so much embrace as eat whole. Certainly, the film's central nice-guy incarcaree Henri Young (Bacon) doesn't deserve to be shipped off to Alcatraz for stealing a measly five bucks. Nor is the film lacking in demented governors, with no less a career-loony than Gary Oldman presiding over the dungeons. Furthermore, when Bacon is locked in solitary confinement for seven years, goes completely round the bend, then kills a fellow inmate, the scene in set for the kind of liberal/authoritarian showdown that used to be meat and drink for the likes of James Stewart or Gregory Peck.
Sadly, it doesn't get Jimmy or Greg. It gets Christian Slater. Now, given the right action/comedy material, Mr. Slater is just the ticket. But, cast as a crusading lawyer determined to both free Bacon and bring down Alcatraz, the actor isn't so much out of his depth as still trying to blow up the water wings.
Yet despite Slater's amateur dramatics and director Marc Rocco's ridiculously overcooked camerawork, the excellent work put in by Oldman and a charged Bacon give the film an undeniable core.
Out from the flotsam of prison movie cliches emerges a flawed but stirring movie. The fact that it's based on a true story, for once, makes quite a difference.