Sunday, September 03, 2006

Cast In Gold

PRIMAL FEAR is the type of slick thriller Paramount used to do very well. It's intelligently produced and directed for adult audiences, and it's cast with a handful of smart, skilled actors who are allowed to do their thing. What's interesting about PRIMAL FEAR's casting is that so many of the actors are now quite familiar, but were less so at the time. I wasn't surprised to learn that the casting directors were nominated for an award for their excellent work on this film.

PRIMAL FEAR is also Edward Norton's first movie, for which he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. I saw it when it was released theatrically in 1996, basically because I'm a sucker for overwrought courtroom dramas. I just love the format, and this picture is based on a novel by William Diehl. I have read several Diehl novels, but I didn't read this one until after I saw the film adaptation, and I'm glad that screenwriters Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman and director Gregory Hoblit were quite faithful to Diehl's vision. This thriller tosses one implausibility after another into the mix, until you're forced to sit back in awe at the absurdity of it all.

I'm not particularly a Richard Gere fan, but he can be quite good in the right role. Here, he's perfectly cast as Martin Vail, an arrogant, publicity-seeking Chicago defense attorney who takes a case involving Aaron Stampler (Norton), a fresh-faced 19-year-old Kentucky altar boy, accused of stabbing an archbishop 78 times. Since clergymen in movies like this are always involved in sordid affairs, it's no surprise to see the screenplay introduce elements of pornography, corruption, organized crime and multiple personality disorder, to name just a few. Hoblit isn't afraid to splash some blood during his filming of the murder, although it plays less gory than what you can see on many prime-time TV crime dramas.

In addition to Gere and Norton, who plays off the elder actor amazingly well, showing not even a hint of nervousness or hesitation in the central role in a major Hollywood movie, PRIMAL FEAR's cast includes Alfre Woodard as the judge, John Mahoney (whom you called when you needed a white-haired, middle-aged Irish authority figure and John Spencer is booked) from FRASIER as the D.A., KINSEY's Laura Linney (who had not been seen much), Maura Tierney (later on NEWSRADIO), Frances McDormand (the same year she was in LONE STAR and FARGO), Andre Braugher of HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET (which nobody was watching), Terry O'Quinn (LOST), Jon Seda (also on HOMICIDE), Joe Spano (HILL STREET BLUES) and Steven Bauer (SCARFACE). And, yes, I realize that is probably the longest sentence I have ever written. It's fun to spot these faces, and it's fun to watch them work. Hoblit effectively carries over the twist ending of Diehl's novel, and I surely didn't see it coming.

Hoblit, an Emmy-winning director with credits on groundbreaking crime series such as L.A. LAW and NYPD BLUE making his feature debut here, should know better than to let the courtroom histrionics get out of hand, but maybe that's why we like films like this. After seeing the Simpson trial tediously unfold before us on Court TV, we now know fiction is much more exciting (if not necessarily more interesting) than the real thing. Hoblit went on to make other good dramas, including FALLEN and FREQUENCY. What I would love to see is NYPD 2069, the Steven Bochco pilot he directed a few years ago about a cop who is cryogenically frozen and awakens three generations later to fight crime in the future! C'mon, YouTube, get on the ball!

Diehl wrote two sequels to PRIMAL FEAR that continued the relationship between Martin Vail and Aaron Stampler. It would be neat to see Gere and Norton back together in another movie. PRIMAL FEAR did okay at the box office, but I wouldn't expect to see a followup anytime soon.

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