It's a good story with a grand villain and a fine portrait by Richard Gere of the loneliness of the long-distance defense attorney.
You won't find "Primal Fear" on the "recommended" list of the Catholic Church. The film's premise is a karate chop to the gut of churchly piety, but it's a bold premise strengthened by good acting and crisp dialogue. It even offers a breath-catching moment that draws a collective gasp from the audience--suspense, the old-fashioned way.
The opening scenes are Paramount's entry in this year's sweepstakes of graphic gore--unnecessary, as always, and never carrying the wallop of a good line or image. Surely there's a better way to establish a crime than showing a victim with 78 stab wounds and a six-digit number carved on his chest.
Martin Vale (Richard Gere) is a defense attorney whose adrenaline rushes at the first news of an indefensible criminal. Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton) is a 19-year-old suspect in the grizzly, hands-over-the-eyes murder of Chicago's Archbishop. Altar boy, soft-spoken southern lad with a disarming stutter, covered with the Archbishop's blood, Aaron is an irresistible magnet for Martin, who can hardly get to him fast enough.
"I'm your mother, your father, your priest," Martin tells the boy. "I don't want you talking to anyone but me." He doesn't, and thereby hangs the tale. Martin's courtroom opponent in this game he loves is Janet Venable (Laura Linney), his former lover and colleague in the prosecutor's office. She is nearly his equal in courtroom strategy, certainly his peer in conversational poison darts.
Martin, who professes not to care a whit whether a client is innocent or guilty, now has one with no prior record and no apparent motive--a situation that is a serious challenge to his cynicism. In spite of himself, he begins to dig down through the layers to determine whether his client is innocent or whether he is evil wrapped in the body of a boy scout. When this movie drags, we know it is marching toward something big, even with weights on its feet.
The trial unfolds as the now standard media circus. Boom mikes, anchors, and reporters stake out the courthouse. Sound familiar? But Martin, it turns out, has a little more soul than Johnnie Cochran. Richard Gere is unexpectedly effective in making a very interesting character of the cynic we thought we had figured out.
Laura Linney is very good as the fast-talking but vulnerable prosecutor. Andre Braugher is sharp and funny as Tommy, Martin's lead investigator. Alfre Woodard lends her dignity to the role of the judge, who has become jaded now that her intelligence has been confirmed by power. Edward Norton, in his first movie role, is simply terrific as the suspect.
The audience gasps and groans in the grip of a good old-fashioned courtroom melodrama that is based not so much on the rules of evidence as on the new rules of celebrity. It's a good story with a grand villain and a fine portrait by Richard Gere of the loneliness of the long-distance defense attorney.
Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 499
Studio : Paramount
Rating : R
Running Time: 2h10m
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