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Rita Kempley - Style section,
"A crackling courtroom drama."
Attorney Martin Vail is a superlawyer who'll represent anyone-as long as they're rich, controversial and high-profile. A gruesome murder catches his attention one day: Archbishop Rushman, one of the city's most respected figures, is found hacked to death. A stuttering altar boy found on the scene with the archbishop's blood all over him is arrested. Vail, who believes he can win anything, decides to represent the kid for nothing.
But as the case unfolds, Vail's opponents seem to proliferate. His client vehemently claims his innocence but is frustratingly uncooperative about sharing personal information. Vail is also facing prosecutor Janet Venable, an ex-lover and former colleague who takes their rivalry seriously.
-- Desson Howe
A Houdini of a Whodunit
By Rita Kempley
"Primal Fear," a crackling courtroom drama with more twists than O.J. had alibis, finds middle-aged himbo Richard Gere at his sexiest and most self-assured as a celebrity lawyer caught up in a mind-boggling whodunit. Sleek and cold as gunmetal in winter, he's unprepared for only one thing: He actually believes his client.
Based on a novel by William Diehl, the crisply written screenplay by Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman handily establishes the many character flaws of criminal defense attorney Martin Vail (Gere). A cynic, a womanizer and the greediest of publicity hounds, Vail simply can't get enough validation, no matter how much ink is spilled on his exploits. We couldn't stand him if we didn't already suspect that he was going to get his.
Director Gregory Hoblit, the Emmy Award-winning writer-director of "NYPD Blue," "L.A. Law" and "Hill Street Blues," is no stranger to either the courtroom or the street. He proves it early on in this well-paced first feature, which opens with the grisly murder-mutilation of a beloved Chicago archbishop and the arrest of a suspect still wet with the cleric's blood.
Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton in his brilliant debut), a stammering Kentucky youth, appears to have been caught red-handed, since TV cameramen were in on the chase. Finding the prospect of a national media frenzy irresistible, Vail sets out for the city's maximum-security prison. "A lot of guys are going to want this one," he tells his assistants (Maura Tierney and Andre Braugher), but he's got an ambulance chaser's knack for getting there first.
Vail doesn't really give a damn about justice-"go to a whorehouse for that"-but a strange thing happens. After spending a little time with Stampler, he becomes convinced of the former altar boy's innocence. The pathetic naif's claims are further strengthened when a prominent psychiatrist (Frances McDormand) begins to suspect that his frequent blackouts involve a multiple-personality disorder.
The state's attorney (John Mahoney), Vail's old boss and a longtime friend of the archbishop, ups the stakes by calling for the death sentence. He also attempts to distract the defense by assigning Vail's former lover and protege, Janet Venable (icy Laura Linney), to prosecute the case. Convinced of Stampler's guilt and still steaming over Vail's past behavior, Venable is determined to best her old mentor. The sexual tension between the two lends sizzle to the proceedings, which are presided over by a no-nonsense judge (wry, authoritative Alfre Woodard).
America's post-O.J. preoccupation with justice and the breakdown of the jury system has obviously influenced "Primal Fear," which is issue-oriented and frequently preoccupied with ferreting out corruption in the courts, the church, the city and state governments. The filmmakers' digressions into public dishonesty, however, are not the whole story but a bucket of red herring.
The real drama is in watching Vail, who fancies himself the ultimate con man, finally wriggling on his own hook.
Primal Fear is rated R for profanity, violence, nudity and sexual scenes.
'Fear,' Then Loathing
By Desson Howe
Before its rather questionable story twist, "Primal Fear" is a promising courtroom thriller. The main plot, in which an arrogant defense lawyer (Richard Gere) takes on a difficult murder case, may be formulaic. But scriptwriters Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman establish intriguing narrative tributaries: The relationships among the characters are richly delineated; many supporting players are just as interesting as the principals; and there's a sense of an entire city (in this movie, Chicago) in fluid operation.
The movie, adapted loosely from William Diehl's bestseller, comes across as a really good TV drama. This telegenic suppleness may have to do with Gregory Hoblit, who makes his directorial debut after nine Emmys producing such TV shows as "Hill Street Blues," "NYPD Blue" and "L.A. Law."
Attorney Martin Vail (Gere), who used to eke out a living in the Chicago district attorney's office, has become a superlawyer who'll represent anyone-as long as they're rich, controversial and high-profile. A gruesome murder catches his attention one day: Archbishop Rushman (Stanley Anderson), one of the city's most respected figures, is found hacked to death in his apartment.
A stuttering altar boy called Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton), found on the scene with the archbishop's blood all over him, is arrested. Vail, who believes he can win anything, decides to represent the kid for nothing.
But as the case unfolds, Vail's opponents seem to proliferate. His client vehemently claims his innocence but is frustratingly uncooperative about sharing personal information. Vail is also facing prosecutor Janet Venable (Laura Linney), an ex-lover and former colleague who takes their rivalry seriously. Chicago Mayor John Shaughnessy (John Mahoney), a friend of the slain archbishop who has battled Vail on other matters, takes a meddlesome interest in the verdict. And Vail's own legal team (Andre Braugher and Maura Tierney) shows signs of mutiny, as evidence continues to point to Stampler's guilt.
But after taking all this time and care to establish itself, "Primal Fear" runs into problems about two-thirds into the film. The special twist-which Paramount Pictures has implored critics not to divulge-redefines the story completely. It also ruins everything. Almost everything we've been introduced to-including Vail's jousty relationship with Venable and his longtime cold war with the mayor-is left high and dry.
There are good performances, however. Gere, who plays Vail with a knowing cockiness (he's scaringly good at this stuff), takes the movie as far as he can. Linney (whose biggest role before this was in the ridiculous "Congo") makes a strong foil. Alfre Woodard is amusing as the formidable, tell-it-like-it-is judge who keeps a stash of booze in her chambers.
But the showstopper is Braugher, who appeared in "Glory" and plays Detective Pembleton in the TV series "Homicide: Life on the Streets." As Tommy Goodman, Vail's right-hand man, he's far too smart to be anyone's assistant, but this doesn't stop him from doing an exemplary job. And as the case gets tougher, Braugher carries the weight in his pained, ironic expressions. In a way, he's the touchstone of the movie: Look at his face and you can see how everything's going. If "Primal Fear" achieves nothing else, it makes a powerful case for him to take the plunge and act full-time on the big screen.
PRIMAL FEAR (R) - Contains nasty violence, some sexual situations, profanity and a nutty second half.