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‘Internal Affairs’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 12, 1990


Mike Figgis
Richard Gere;
Andy Garcia;
Nancy Travis;
Laurie Matcalf;
William Baldwin
sex and violence

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In Mike Figgis's "Internal Affairs," the menace is penny-bright and punishingly glamorous. A chic thriller about cops investigating other cops, it's set in a fantasyland L.A., where the sunlight falls in golden shafts and every waitress is a heartbreak. These are mean streets, but they're sexy and mean. And the evil here is all the more compelling because it has its enticements.

So does the film, and though you'd be kidding yourself to accept it as anything other than flirtatious posturing, the allure of the thing is nearly irresistible. The plot -- in which Avila (Andy Garcia), a detective with Internal Affairs, is drawn into a morass of corruption presided over by a dirty cop named Peck (Richard Gere) -- is little more than a platform for existential arabesques. Mostly, "Internal Affairs" is about atmosphere. It's a study in sexual tension in which Figgis uses the tawny eroticism of the setting and the characters -- the Lycra-tight mini-dresses and denims, the tumbling ringlets of the women and brush-cut machismo of the men -- to intensify the emotions.

The actors, their jawlines bulging from contemplative flexing, confront each other only with their best faces turned to the camera. But because sexual rivalry and one-upmanship is an element in the story, this is more than mere actor's vanity. Gere's Peck is a kind of harem-master with four wives and nine kids, who manipulates men and women alike with a combination of violence and seductive indulgence. Sex for him isn't so much a weapon as an opportunity; it's how he gets to people and dominates them.

When Avila and his partner (Laurie Metcalf) begin their investigation, the target is a confused young cop (William Baldwin) with a violent temper and a substance abuse problem. Quickly, though, the attention turns to Peck, who tries to escape it by threatening Avila's wife (Nancy Travis). These are some of Gere's best moments as an actor. His movements here are delicate and unhurried, and his line readings are nearly whispered in such a way that the character seems threateningly close, as if he's inside your thoughts.

Gere gives Peck a kind of insinuating amorality, but Garcia doesn't come back at him with much. Henry Bean's script is as much to blame in this as the actor, but we learn very little about what drives Avila, or if in fact Peck is right when he suggests that deep down they're the same. And though we keep waiting for the scene in which Avila is tempted, it never comes.

The muscular ripple of Figgis's camera style compensates for a lot, but not for everything. Some scenes, like a big restaurant confrontation between Avila and his wife, are flamboyantly staged, but this doesn't cover up how routinely movie-generated they are. Also, though Peck's operations are hinted at, they're never fully revealed or made even marginally plausible.

These are fatiguing omissions, but Figgis gives his dolled-up universe a high-voltage hum. And at the center of it, Gere is an extraordinarily vivid monster -- the devil as fashion plate.

"Internal Affairs" is rated R for sex and violence.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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