If you're in the mood for a tense, chilling mystery, by all means pass on Primal Fear. What's with thrillers today? The majority of them, including The Juror, Before and After, Eye for an Eye, Jade, Unforgettable and Copycat, are sodden bores. This one sounded promising: Richard Gere as a hotshot lawyer with a Johnnie Cochran-size ego and a case that juggles religion, pornography and murder. William Diehl's 1993 best seller had a crass kick — irrational but irresistible. Onscreen it's just irrational.
Diehl's page-turner bobs up bloated and lifeless on the watch of distinguished, multi-Emmy-winning television director Gregory Hoblit (Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, NYPD Blue), who is making his feature debut. Hoblit and screenwriters Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman have tamed the vulgar beast that lurked inside Diehl's novel. If you still can't figure out who done it and why after 15 minutes, turn in your credentials as a sleuth.
Admittedly, the premise is a grabber. The archbishop of Chicago is found naked, dismembered, stabbed 78 times and dead. Who's the sick twist who did it? It looks bad for altar boy Aaron Stampler, cunningly played by newcomer Edward Norton. The cops find Aaron nearby covered with blood and holding a knife. Enter Martin Vail (Gere), a criminal defense lawyer with a nose for any case that will earn him headlines and sound bites. Martin couldn't find a better lost cause than Aaron, a gentle boy with a keen mind and a hillbilly accent that charms psychiatrist Molly Arrington, played by Frances McDormand, who is wonderful as the pregnant cop in Fargo and who is squandered here.
Shy Aaron is tentative about opening up, which doesn't faze Martin. If the facts need stretching, he's ready. As in the O.J. Simpson case, the process begins by attacking the victim. It's just Martin's luck to be stuck running a smear campaign against an archbishop. In digging for dark secrets that involve church and state, Martin uncovers the existence of two young friends of Aaron's who may know more than they're telling.
Telling is something this review won't do more of to protect whatever shocks await you, no matter how feeble. But can we discuss these cardboard characters? Gere is always more interesting when he plays a snake — remember his bad cop in Internal Affairs? But Martin's rampaging ego and courtroom manipulation turn out be a cover for the softie who selflessly longs to see a boy go free. How darling.
Even more cornball are Martin's courtroom battles with prosecutor Janet Venable (Laura Linney), a leggy blonde who — you guessed it — just happens to be Martin's former squeeze. They trade insults, but it's not just collars Martin and Janet are hot under when they shout, "Objection, your honor!" You can feel the sexual tension. You can also feel Gere and Linney dying inside as they trudge dutifully through the tacky clichTs of legal eagles in love.
Other actors trapped in this numbing stew include John Mahoney as Janet's smirky boss, Andre Braugher (brilliant on TV's Homicide) as Martin's investigator and Alfre Woodard as the judge. This gifted actress is asked to do little more than look stern when Martin and Janet pull their flirty shenanigans in court.
As for the alleged shocker of a climax, James Newton Howard pumps up his score, Hoblit picks up the pace, and the actors gesticulate like crazy. And for what? You'd get more of a jolt from Angela Lansbury on Murder, She Wrote and more intellectual stimulation from a cozy game of Clue.