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Glenn Erickson

Blu-Ray Review: Primal Fear

The 1990s saw an upsurge in courtroom thrillers, several created directly from pre-sold novels by John Grisham. They tended to be upscale versions of the old TV show Perry Mason, with fancier legal references in the scriptwriting, high production values and a dash of sex and violence. Simple murders invariably pointed to larger conspiracies, while brash, sexy lawyers found time for romance between court sessions. The popular subgenre proved a perfect no-strain vehicle for stars like Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts and Matthew McConaughey.

Among the top contenders was adapted from William Diehl’s book Primal Fear, which works a new twist on a familiar scenario: a big-name attorney goes out on a limb to defend a murder suspect caught practically red-handed. Director Gregory Hoblit cut his teeth making old Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law TV shows, but both he and producer Gary Lucchesi had a tough time finding the right actor for a key role. Their search eventually led to Edward Norton, an almost unknown talent who proved to be one of the biggest acting discoveries of the decade. Paramount’s new Blu-ray disc presents Primal Fear in eye-popping HD, with extras that document its career-making casting coup.

Steve Shagan
and Ann Biderman’s screenplay takes full advantage of the lurid possibilities in Diehl’s novel. A popular Chicago Archbishop is brutally murdered. An altar boy named Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton) is captured fleeing the scene drenched in blood; he’s one of a group of street kids taken in and reformed by the Archbishop. Showboat attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) takes on the boy’s defense as a personal challenge. But he also wants to counter accusations that he’s a mouthpiece for criminals; he’s just earned a half-million dollars cutting a settlement deal for Pinero (Steven Bauer), a notorious gangster. Thorny issues pile up almost immediately. The prosecutor is Janet Venable (Laura Linney), Martin’s ex-lover and a bitter rival. Venable is under pressure from D.A. Shaughnessy (John Mahoney), who may have his own reasons for wanting the Archbishop killed.

Aaron is a meek, confused kid from Kentucky with a bad stutter. He claims that he blacked out just before the killing, when he saw a “mystery man” in the victim’s bedroom. Martin believes his client but lacks a viable defense. Then he discovers a compromising videotape in the Archbishop’s closet. Much to Vail’s distress, the shocking video provides the motivation the prosecution needs to convict Aaron — who the press has already dubbed, “The Butcher Boy.”

Richard Gere’s Martin Vail asks potential clients, “Have you been saving up for a rainy day? Guess what? … it’s raining!” Vail is a realistic, conflicted version of Billy Flynn, the high-priced shyster Gere played in 2002′s Chicago. A suave court magician who courts publicity and big paychecks, Martin chafes at the idea that he’s lost the respect of Janet Venable, who was also a former colleague. He takes the pro bono Aaron Stampler case to polish his image, but persists at it to vindicate his approach to the law. What starts as a familiar examination of a cynical lawyer finishes as a superior courtroom melodrama.

The mystery spins off in several directions simultaneously. Vail must track down a tough street kid caught searching for something in Aaron Stampler’s room, and learn about scandalous activities between the Archbishop and members of his handpicked youth choir. The D.A. Shaughnessy may have targeted the gangster Pinero for helping to derail a $60 million redevelopment deal — a scheme also opposed by the slain Archbishop. Martin Vail wades through these complications looking for an elusive “third man” at the murder scene. But the mystery behind the Archbishop’s murder peels apart in levels, not unlike the clever Agatha Christie / Billy Wilder courtroom classic Witness for the Prosecution.

Primal Fear provides a fine acting workout for Richard Gere, playing a cynic who may be trying to atone for his lifestyle. The first words heard behind the titles are Martin Vail recalling advice from his law professor: “From this day forward, when your mother tells you she loves you — get a second opinion.” Laura Linney (The Truman Show) gets a meaty role, as does the underappreciated John Mahoney. Alfre Woodard has some good scenes as a judge unimpressed by Vail’s courtroom tricks, and Frances McDormand looks concerned and sincere as a psychologist who evaluates Aaron. But the movie is primarily known as the debut showcase for the 6th-billed Edward Norton. Previously seen only in a teaching video for students learning English, Norton became an instant hot actor. He landed two desirable roles sight unseen, solely on the evidence of his Primal Fear audition tape!

Aaron Stampler is one of those showoff roles that allows an actor to juggle more than one personality at a time — think Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve or Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects. Edward Norton pulls it off with style to spare, helped by the fact that we aren’t expecting Aaron to develop as a character — after all, he’s in a jail cell, away from the real action in the story. Stampler may be a “trick” part, but it slotted Norton firmly on the fast track to stardom.


Paramount’s Hard Evidence Edition Blu-ray of Primal Fear is a sparkling HD copy of a handsomely produced show. For a movie with a lot of characters talking in small rooms, we remember a great many impressive exterior scenes. Even a trucking helicopter shot following Richard Gere’s car will have you picking out minute details on the street.

The comprehensive selection of special features is from a previous standard DVD edition. Director Hoblit, writer Ann Biderman, producers Gary Lucchesi & Hawk Koch and casting director Deborah Aquila contribute to a commentary, while three featurettes examine different aspects of the filming. Actual judges and attorneys contribute to a piece on the use of the insanity defense, which is rare, and is rarely successful. We also learn that professional faith in multiple personality disorders is dwindling — a trend doubtlessly encouraged by movies like Primal Fear. Another featurette covers the phenomenon of Edward Norton in full detail, including glimpses of his famous, still impressive audition tape. A theatrical trailer rounds out the package.

Glenn Erickson
reviews online at DVD Savant


Categories: DVD

Tags: Blu-ray reviews, Edward norton, Primal fear