The week’s best serious acting can be found in Criminal Justice, an agreeably downbeat courtroom drama. Forest Whitaker (Bird), an ex-con trying to go straight in a big-city ghetto, is accused of assaulting a crack-addicted prostitute played by Rosie Perez (Do the Right Thing).
Whitaker claims he’s innocent, but his Legal Aid lawyer (Anthony LaPaglia) thinks the case is hopeless and urges him to cop a plea.
While Whitaker wrestles with his conscience, Perez’s lawyer, played by Dirty Dancing’s Jennifer Grey, is doing everything she can to keep her client off the witness stand, because she knows that Perez, glowering and hooked, will make a lousy impression on a jury.
Unlike most courtroom dramas, Criminal Justice gives equal time to both sides, and the script by director Andy Wolk permits us to hear the way the strategies of both lawyers are hammered out. Wolk’s theme is a trite one — The System Doesn’t Work — but he presents it with conviction and vivid detail.
LaPaglia, who drew raves for his sweet-tempered hood in the recent Alan Alda movie Betsy’s Wedding, proves here that he has range as well as skill. His initial meeting with Whitaker in prison, in which both men size each other up by spitting out hard-boiled dialogue, is a wonderfully intense and exciting scene. Whenever she’s onscreen, Perez holds her own with Whitaker and LaPaglia. In the midst of all this good acting, however, Grey seems out of her league. The youthful petulance she used to good effect in Dirty Dancing has become a brittle shell of sullenness: She never seems to be doing anything more than sneering. A-