We take a closer look at ''Primal Fear,'' ''American Gigolo,'' and ''Internal Affairs''

By Bruce Fretts
Updated October 18, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

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Richard Gere’s film highlights

With his expert turn as a silver-tongued lawyer in Primal Fear, Richard Gere proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he can act. It’s hardly his first strong performance — he’s also done stellar work in such films as American Gigolo, Breathless, and Internal Affairs. But for more than 20 years, Gere has been a punching bag for critics, even though his movies are often hits (Pretty Woman, An Officer and a Gentleman).

Granted, Gere has provided plenty of fodder for naysayers. He’s the king of curious career choices — playing a half-Japanese man in Akira Kurosawa’s 1991 Rhapsody in August and costarring with Kim Basinger in not one but two turgid thrillers, 1986’s No Mercy and 1992’s Final Analysis. Meanwhile, his marriage to Cindy Crawford turned him into a tabloid laughingstock. And he didn’t help his case when he urged a billion viewers on Oscar night to send psychic messages to Chinese dictator Deng Xiaoping to free Tibet.

As an actor, Gere doesn’t have much range. He’s lost in period pieces, whether in the title role of 1985’s Bible bomb King David or as Lancelot in 1995’s medieval dud First Knight. But given a certain kind of part — vain, arrogant, and contemporary — he can be mighty effective.

After appearing in small films like Days of Heaven and Bloodbrothers, Gere first defined his persona in Paul Schra der’s sleek American Gigolo. Taking a role John Travolta turned down, Gere gave a seductively low-key performance as Julian Kay, a high-priced prostitute who gets mixed up with a sexually frustrated senator’s wife (Lauren Hutton) — and framed for an S&M murder. One of his best films, American Gigolo made Gere a bona fide star, but one who may have intimidated some moviegoers. Exuding a supermodel’s aura of superiority, Gere was more aware of his own sex appeal than any actor since Rock Hudson. And his full-frontal nude scenes were probably threatening to some straight males; it was okay when Alan Bates and Oliver Reed bared all in Women in Love, but not someone this handsome.

Gere strutted his stuff even more aggressively as drifter Jesse Lujack in Breathless, Jim McBride’s guilty-pleasure remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s new-wave groundbreaker. Critics compared it unfavorably with the original, yet on its own it has just one major flaw: Eurobabe Valerie Kaprisky’s limp, apparently phonetic performance as the French architecture student with whom Lujack goes on the lam. But as the Jerry Lee Lewis-obsessed cop killer, Gere makes a high-energy exhibitionist. He’s a real a-hole, but you can’t take your eyes off him.

Gere’s career went into decline with stinkers like Beyond the Limit, The Cotton Club, and Power, but then he came roaring back with 1990’s Pretty Woman, a romantic comedy so heartless and soulless you’re amazed to remember it wasn’t actually released in the Reagan era. (In a role reversal, this time Gere was the john.) The same year, Gere made a more interesting film about seamy criminal activity in L.A., Internal Affairs.

Hypnotically directed by Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas), Affairs casts Gere as Dennis Peck, a corrupt LAPD officer who makes Mark Fuhrman look like Desmond Tutu. Enter Andy Garcia as a cop trying to bring Peck down. As the vile, virile Peck (he has eight kids!), Gere is the essence of insinuating evil. And as he proved in 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman, he looks great in a uniform.

Returning to his American Gigolo roots, Gere stars as a different kind of high-priced whore in Primal Fear — an unscrupulous defense attorney. Gere’s Martin Vail takes the headline-grabbing case of a shy altar boy (Edward Norton, in an astonishingly polished debut) accused of butchering Chicago’s archbishop. Primal provides Gere with his sharpest leading lady (Congo‘s Laura Linney) and his finest supporting cast (Frasier‘s John Mahoney, Homicide‘s Andre Braugher). And as directed by NYPD Blue‘s Gregory Hoblit, it fits perfectly on the small screen. But it’s Gere’s showy yet mature work that holds the movie together. Despite a few far-fetched plot contrivances, Primal is the most riveting courtroom drama since 1982’s The Verdict; it puts all those Grisham flicks to shame. So let’s send a psychic message to Richard Gere: Make more movies like Primal Fear.
Primal Fear: A-
American Gigolo: B+
Breathless: B
Internal Affairs: B+

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