Richard Gere's hairstyling provides the most immediate distraction in Primal Fear. The first thing you notice about Gere's character, a rabid Chicago defense attorney named Martin Vail, is that the top of his head resembles nothing so much as a skunk impersonating an Elvis wig: These are the white-streaked locks of a showboater. Just as Gere's clothes made the man he portrayed in American Gigolo, so does Gere's hair here amount to an excellent prop, something the actor uses to convey his character, that of a flamboyant fellow who may or may not be a shyster. Vail doesn't have any of the easily wounded idealism that John Grisham's lawyers invariably radiate. Instead, Gere taps into the charismatic-weasel mode he brought to full force as a corrupt cop in the underrated Internal Affairs.
Based on one of William Diehl's best-selling novels featuring the vituperative Vail, Primal Fear allows our protagonist to put himself in a fine pickle. A prominent Catholic cleric (Stanley Anderson) is found murdered an archbishop in bloody underwear and the headline-grabbing Vail, spotting the story on the evening news, jumps at the chance to defend the young man arrested for the crime. Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton) is a pathologically shy, stuttering kid, one of many indigent unfortunates whom the archbishop had taken into his parish and helped. Aaron says he's innocent, and at first, Vail doesn't care whether he is or not all he knows is that this case will get tons of media attention and bring more business to his law practice.
Gere is at his best early on in Primal Fear, when his thin nostrils smell a ripe, juicy case. Then he discovers that the prosecuting attorney he'll be facing is his former lover Janet Venable (Congo's Laura Linney); that the late, much-admired archbishop was involved in some sexual hanky-panky the disclosure of which will only make Vail look like an impious creep; and that he's come to believe that Aaron really didn't do it. Vail finds himself drawn in, making an emotional investment he hadn't counted on.
Moral and legal ambiguities are familiar items for director Gregory Hoblit. This is Hoblit's feature-film debut, but he's spent regular stints producing and directing some of the best television dramas ever, including Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and L.A. Law. Working with Steven Bochco on those shows, Hoblit summoned up a world of doubt and despair new to the small screen, qualities he tries to bring to the big-screen-thriller structure of Primal Fear.
In making his jump to features, Hoblit has brought along a bunch of worthy TV actors, including Andre Braugher, so striking as the brooding police detective Frank Pembleton on Homicide: Life on the Street. For Primal Fear, Braugher has allowed a fresh patch of hair to sprout on his skull (Pembleton's chrome dome is a visual symbol of his throbbing intelligence) and hides behind big horn-rims as Tommy Goodman, a plodding investigator for Vail's law firm. Maura Tierney, currently doing a romantic cha-cha with Dave Foley on the funny sitcom NewsRadio, plays Vail's dour assistant, and John Mahoney (the grumpy dad on Frasier) is Primal's grumpy state's attorney.
But in a remarkable lapse, Hoblit fails to give these actors much to do their characters remain one-note players. Only Norton gives a performance that's fully the equal of Gere's he's as slyly self-effacing as Gere is slyly ostentatious. Linney, however, barely exists except as a faintly bitter foil to Gere, and the director even wastes Fargo's Frances McDormand, portraying the psychiatrist who examines Aaron. Hoblit seems so anxious to pare down the drama to a twosome Vail and his woeful client that he leaves everyone else standing around looking for a good line to deliver. (The only exception is Alfre Woodard, who makes off with every scene she's in as a judge who likes to bring a nice little glass of booze into the courtroom with her.)
If it seems as though I'm pussyfooting around the action, it's because, midway through, the movie springs a revelation on us that's set up as one of those surprises a mannerly critic isn't supposed to give away. I couldn't believe how lame it was the old ''I hit my head and had amnesia'' cliché has more dramatic vigor. If you don't buy this twist, you're really going to feel yanked around by Primal Fear.