Crusading lawyer Arthur Kirkland (Al Pacino) keeps beating his head against the system: the defense attorneys and judges with move-’em-in-move-’em-out attitudes; the ethics committee that honors the letter of the law over true justice.
Arthur’s heart breaks for the poor human beings driven crazy by legal foul-ups; his heart breaks for himself. In this crude but sometimes very funny black comedy, the city of Baltimore gets the treatment usually reserved for Sidney Lumet’s New York; the characters, including Arthur, would look at home in Dog Day Afternoon.
Pacino essentially plays his anti-hero from that film. Shabby but noble and principled — an Everyman we can identify with, a little guy taking aim at giants — Arthur spends much of his time pleading with crazy people: a desperate, wrongly imprisoned young man (Thomas Waites) whom Arthur is defending; a lawyer (the great Jeffrey Tambor) who goes berserk after a client he gets off on a technicality goes out and murders two children; a suicidal judge (Jack Warden) who takes Arthur up in a helicopter; and a vicious judge (John Forsythe) who’s tough on criminals but is himself a criminal. In what seems like an afterthought, Arthur falls in love with the lone female member of the ethics committee (Christine Lahti in her movie debut).
The mix of farce and genuinely tragic material keeps the audience ill at ease; as directed by Norman Jewison, each scene has the same flat tone. We’re meant to cheer for Arthur in the closing scene, but his actions just seem self-defeating and, in light of what the movie has shown us, pointless. He’s just joined the crazies.
For all that, the film is entertaining, with a vintage Pacino performance that only occasionally lapses into grandstanding. The production looks and sounds terribly cheesy, though, thanks to Dave Grusin’s awful score and Victor Kemper’s even worse cinematography.