If the uselessly titled new Richard Gere vehicle Primal Fear were a paperback novel bought in haste in an airport terminal, it would probably pass the time it takes to fly over the Midwest agreeably enough. Based on a William Diehl novel that has, no doubt, made that very trip quite a few times, the film has a well-constructed plot, dialogue that doesn't ring too absurd and a neat resolution to a mystery. It's slickly crafted and it has the pleasures of slickness as well as the drawback: Like an airplane book, an hour after you've finished it, it's likely to have slipped out of your consciousness.
Actually, slickness itself is the theme of the story. Gere plays Martin Vail, a snazzy, impeccable, Chicago defense attorney with a passion for being on magazine covers, making money and winning cases--in roughly that order. The guilt or innocence of his clients is somewhere way down on the list, and he sees this as a sign of his professionalism.
When a Catholic archbishop (Stanley Anderson) is gruesomely murdered--in a scene reminiscent of Bruce Dern's death in Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte--the only suspect is a guileless altar boy (Edward Norton) with a sweet face and a stutter. Vail, who at first offers his services pro bono, just for the headline value, finds himself moved by the kid's predicament as well as his extremely unslick manner, and throws himself into the case.
He and his investigators (Andre Braugher and Maura Tierney) root up all sorts of convolutions--sex scandals, shady business dealings, political intrigue--and the script, by Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman, deploys them right on schedule. Gere is also given an actress to melt, of course--Laura Linney as a prosecutor who used to be Vail's main squeeze. She called it off when she saw what a cold-blooded SOB he was; but deep down, you understand, she still feels drawn to him . . .
The plot is no more nor less complex than a good episode of one of the better current legal dramas on TV. Indeed, outside of Gere, Primal Fear is largely the work of a bunch of TV hotshots. The director is Gregory Hoblit, an Emmy collector (for, among other shows, L.A. Law and Hill Street Blues) making his feature debut, and the cast is laden with small-screen biggies--Braugher, John Mahoney and Joe Spano.
The difference is that, on the tube, the glib tidiness with which this sort of story is told is less troubling, because the real reason we watch is to see actors like these get the chance to rattle around in their roles, to ring variations on them as the weeks go by. In the self-contained world of a movie, we hope for something a little less conveniently dovetailing. The much-touted twist at the end of Primal Fear is pretty good--it caught me off guard, anyhow, and it even ties in with the theme. But it's not the sort of twist that haunts you later. It's a formal payoff rather than a dramatic shock.
But, just as you don't expect much out of an airplane paperback, you don't expect a movie like this to strike your soul. Like a Martin Vail-type closing argument, it's superficial--the attractive cast; Hoblit's confident, unhurried direction; the coolly muted cinematography of the great Michael Chapman--without much substance, and, on those terms, it's quite satisfying.
Gere has a hard time with genuine emotion. Usually, he can only manage a few seconds of it per picture, and his best work--in Internal Affairs; in the forgotten Graham Greene adaptation Beyond the Limit; and in Sidney Lumet's Power--remains that in which he is not allowed to show deep feeling.
Martin Vail is just such a role. Gere brings it energy and lots of mischievous smiles, stunningly modeling Betsy Cox's beautiful costumes all the while. He barely breaks a sweat, as if he knows the film's a slam-dunk, and his cocky ease gives him a likability he doesn't have when he's honestly trying to act.
Vail's troubled client is played by Edward Norton, who makes a startling debut in this flashy, showcase part--in their several lengthy scenes together, Norton keeps ushering Gere to the side of the screen, calmly taking over.
Classy though this film is, the rest of the supporting cast is largely thrown away. Steven Bauer figures in a subplot which seems, for all the filmmakers' straining efforts, never to connect with the main story. Actors like Terry O'Quinn, Frances McDormand, Tony Plana and Alfre Woodard are shooed passed the camera without being allowed to do anything memorable--the marvelous Woodard, in particular, is wasted in the uninteresting part of the judge.
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One benefit of Primal Fear is that Linney, a bold and sexy young actress who made a starring debut in last year's misbegotten jungle adventure Congo, here has a role that allows us to connect with her. When Gere/Vail tries out his courtly seductive moves on her, her slow-burn responses seem just right--partly amused, partly turned on, partly disgusted, and not fooled for a minute.
Directed by Gregory Hoblit; with Richard Gere,
Edward Norton, Laura Linney, Steven Bauer, John Mahoney, Alfre Woodard and Stanley Anderson.