First you have Christian Slater and Kevin Bacon in the lead. Then you add in Gary Oldman, R. Lee Ermey, William H. Macy and Brad Dourif, and you suddenly start to realize that if this thing doesn't make good, then it's definitely the crew's fault. But the script is solid, and the direction is really fantastic, along with the camera work. When it all comes together, you're left with a compelling, engaging drama that trades in basic human rights and the morally dubious mentality of "necessary evil".
Bacon plays Henri Young: a man imprisoned for the theft of $5 from a US postal store. Being a government body, and the time period currently around 1938 with the recent addition of Alcatraz and its high running costs, the petty theft becomes escalated, and Young is incarcerated for the maximum sentence in one of the worst holding facilities in the world. He then tries to effect an escape, which through a backstabbing by one of the escapees, leads him to be thrown into the hole. In comes Oldman's Milton Glenn; sadistic head operator of Alcatraz, who then has Henri thrown into isolation for THREE AND A HALF YEARS, and beaten regularly, and kept naked, and only let out for 30 MINUTES A YEAR. On release, within the hour, the broken Henri proceeds to violently attack and kill his betrayer with a spoon while eating in the mess hall. What follows is the courtroom battle that introduces us to Slater's young, idealistic James Stamphill; an up-and-coming attorney who is given the unwinnable case as "experience". But Stamphill switches the case into an indictment of the entire penal system as a whole, blaming the flawed system for Henri's attack.
So you have the basic setup of the underdog versus the giant, with some terrible human rights violations as a fitting source of fuel for the fire. The sequences are well-handled; with lots of silence, dark transitions and some horrific actions and circumstances laid upon our soon-to-be martyr for a cause. The performances all around are fantastic, but special mention goes to Kevin Bacon for giving it his all. His Henri Young is truly a broken man: he walks with a limp due to his Achilles tendon being savagely sliced by the evil "headmaster". He mutters, jumps from subject to subject, and looks and moves like a man who is constantly at war with an uncontrollable id that just seeks some peace. His drive throughout the film is purely one of friendship: he knows he is going to die, he knows that he did something bad (he can't remember the killing), he just doesn't want to be alone for his last few days on this Earth. He himself at one point explodes- when told to think, to remember- with the response "All I've done is think, for the last 3 years! I don't want to think anymore, I can't do it!". Powerful stuff, and I completely understand how he must feel. God knows I think too much.
And the direction is great. We get a great sense of the nature of prison; with most shots framing our players through the bars, and circling constantly with these beautiful long takes, forcing the actors into a box, not of their own free will. There's plenty of great close-ups on the face of the ravaged Henri, whose left eye was scarred and blinded by a beating, and whose facial tics and constant touching of his head with hands give the impression of a man who was forced to disappear into himself forever. Fantastic stuff.
I recommend this for fans of courtroom or prison dramas, of course, but also for those among us who just want a well-made, very human film to fill out 2 hours.