AMERICA'S "most reluctant sex symbol" is turning over a new figleaf. Richard Gere does not take off his pants in his latest movie, "Power," focusing our attention instead on his acting skills.

Gere, graying at the temples and wrinkled in the brow, plays a media-savvy sharpshooter who manipulates the political process with his target marketing. He's actually quite good as this slick technocrat, which is more than can be said for the movie. It's a clumsy, laughable alarm-ringer from Sidney Lumet, who looks at the power-lunchers and the new right, and shakes his head rather audibly.

Gere grooms and prepackages political candidates, from a Latin American socialist to a New Mexico millionaire. He's supposed to be a campaign genius, but the ads he puts together are obviously inferior to his opponents', judging by the examples we're shown. His credibility's blown.

"Power" also features the fading Julie Christie, in a stiff and regal performance as a British reporter, with Gene Hackman running amok as the media mentor who's at loggerheads with protege Gere.

They are locked into sets of antiseptic blue and grey, steel and cathode ray, with wood furnishings reserved for the two liberal candidates portrayed. The cinematographer seems to be shooting a space movie, with everything distorted, fisheyed, looming and shot from the ground up. You keep expecting Gere to show up in a space suit.

And how about Kate Capshaw's power suit -- a distracting green satin creation that makes her look like a balloon drape from "Gone With the Wind." She plays the aide-de- camp and lover to her boss, Gere, but their relationship in and out of bed (off-screen) is strictly business. Capshaw, obliged to wear that skirt twice, nonetheless makes an excellent sycophant and system sellout.

On the other hand, Gere and Christie are about to have their consciousness raised, which the screenwriter is signaling like crazy from the minute Gere says to a potential Latin dictator, "My job is to get you in. Once you're there, you can do whatever your conscience tells you to."

Power to the people is the moral of the story, and that's no big surprise considering Lumet's public service filmography. But his lack of subtlety also signals a lack of faith in the intelligence of the people he hopes to awaken with the devil's own tools.