Spring Movie Preview -- From Mark Wahlberg's ''Fear'' to Jackie Chan's ''Rumble in the Bronx,'' a look at upcoming films

By Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
Updated February 23, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

Whoever first blathered that nonsense about crime not paying was egregiously out of touch with Hollywood, where the gravest misdeeds can result in killer box office receipts. The basic premise is simple: Start with a body, end with the bad guy getting his due. After all, good should always triumph. Or should it?

This season’s crime-and-punishment films make no such promises. In Primal Fear (April 3), Richard Gere and Laura Linney play ex-lovers who duke it out in court — she’s the prosecutor, and he’s defending an altar boy (Edward Norton) accused of murdering an impious archbishop. Says Linney of the relentlessly contentious duo, ”They’re not people you necessarily want to have dinner with. Well, dinner might be fun, but definitely not a weekend.”

Blink during Primal Fear and you may miss Frances McDormand, who plays Norton’s psychiatrist and admits she didn’t overdo it preparing for the part: ”I kind of just learned my lines and went to work.” She had a good excuse, though: She’d just finished the Coen brothers’ Fargo (March 8), a black comedy that recalls the first McDormand/ Coen collaboration, Blood Simple. In Fargo, McDormand (who’s married to director Joel Coen) plays a pregnant Minnesota cop tracking two thugs who have been hired by a car salesman to kidnap his wife. The part is heroic but unglamorous — ”With her uniform,” McDormand asserts, ”she looks like a huge turd with an earflapped cap on.”

Equally determined but more sartorially refined are the cops in Mulholland Falls (late April), a film about the ’50s L.A. crime busters known as the Hat Squad, played by Nick Nolte, Chazz Palminteri, Chris Penn, and Michael Madsen. ”The film starts off with the murder of a woman who’s been thrown from an airplane,” says Madsen. ”She’s in one piece, but she’s kind of pressed into the ground like a thumbtack.” The team chase her killers, but always in the fedoras that earned them their nickname.

An active imagination is required to enjoy spring’s other felonious offerings: In John Dahl’s Unforgettable (Feb. 23), which reunites him with Last Seduction diva Linda Fiorentino, Ray Liotta plays a tormented doctor who steals his murdered wife’s spinal fluid and injects himself with it, believing that he’ll be able to relive her last moments and unmask her killer — with the help of brilliant neurobiologist Fiorentino. Speaking of unlikely casting, Sharon Stone plays a contrite convicted killer on death row in Last Dance (May 3), costarring Rob Morrow as the attorney who tries to save her.

The action’s taken to a level of 30,000 feet in Executive Decision (March 15), a thriller starring Kurt Russell and Steven Seagal as good guys battling a 747 hijacker. And the political arena is fraught with malevolence in both Shadow Conspiracy (April 19), in which Charlie Sheen plays a presidential adviser (now, that’s scary) who’s both accused of murder and targeted for it, and City Hall (Feb. 16), a thriller about New York City corruption starring Al Pacino as the mayor and John Cusack as his deputy. Cusack’s on-screen romance with lawyer Bridget Fonda was filmed but didn’t make the final cut. Now ”it’s more of a professional relationship,” Cusack says.