By Edwin Jahiel

PRIMAL FEAR (1996) ** 1/4
Directed by Gregory Hoblit. Written by Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman, from the novel by William Diehl. Photography, Michael Chapman. Editing, David Rosenbloom. Production design, Jeannine Oppewall. Producer, GaryLucchesi. Music, James Newton Howard. Cast : Richard Gere (Martin Vail), Laura Linney (Janet Venable), Andre Braugher (Tommy Goodman), John Mahoney (John Shaughnessy), Alfre Woodard (Judge Miriam Shoat), Frances McDormand (Dr. Molly Arrington), Steven Bauer (Joey Pinero), Stanley Anderson (Archbishop Rushman), Edward Norton (Aaron Stampler), et al. . A Paramount release. 131 minutes. Rated R (graphic violence, sex, language).

Alas poor Archbishop Rushman! Chicago knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite resources, of most excellent connections. But the Primate never had a chance to become a Prince of the Church. Someone gorily slashed him to death.

Into the fray steps Martin Vail (Gere), a prosecutor turned opportunistic super-lawyer. Clever, cool, calculating, chic Vail--currently the cover boy of a glossy magazine--has attained fame and fortune. To get more media attention, he takes on "pro bono" (free services for the public good) the defense of Rushman's suspected murderer.

Blood-covered Aaron Stampler (Norton), fleeing the scene of the crime, is caught after a chase on foot. Everything points to him, everything that is, except motive. Aaron, from rural Kentucky, may or may not be innocent but he certainly looks like an innocent, a simple-minded young man. He was devoted to the Archbishop who had rescued him from the big city's mean streets and made him an altar boy. Aaron tells Vail that he didn't do it, that he was at the prelate's place, that a third party did it. But he, Aaron, did not get a look at the murderer because he "lost time," which is how he describes his frequent blackouts, some of which Vail witnesses.

The script, co-written by Oscar-winner ("Save the Tiger") Steve Shagan, is convoluted. It involves Chicago politics, financial schemes, the Rushman Fund, Church-owned land, prosecuting attorney Janet Venable (Linney) who had been Vail's lover, her boss the State's Attorney, influential figures, an honest Alderman, an underworld figure, and more...

Everyone wants to direct movies these days, even the clergy. "Primal Fear" is the first feature by TV's nine-Emmy winner Gregory Hoblit who some years ago was taken off the film "Sea of Love." Growing up in Berkeley, Hoblit did the usual Sixties thing, an irony as his father was an FBI man. He made his name mostly with series like "Hill Street Blues," "LA Law," "NYPD Blue."

The influence of the jazzy, fast-cut, elliptical, multi-imaged TV style of such programs is evident in "Primal Fear." This does not hurt. What does is the murky tangle resulting from the subplots, allusions and implications. It is common for television series to place in certain episodes additional characters who may get developed in future segments. But in a single big-screen, detection-and-courtroom movie this clutter can distract and make the picture less interesting than Inspector Morse or Hercule Poirot whodunits.

There are also contradictions, loose ends that dangle yet cannot be revealed without giving away too much. It doesn't help either that Vail and Venable are now conveniently on opposite sides; that the resumption of their affair is telegraphed with semaphores; that we get no information about, or a sense of those two, their earlier relationship, their private lives. The duo may be adequate to the task of their current legalisms, but they remain unidimensional.

What you get is only what you see, and that is pretty interesting: Vail's and his staff's procedures, the strangeness of Aaron, the lawyer-client relationship. Best of all is the acting by Norton and Gere. Edward Norton, in his film debut as the inarticulate, timid, bewildered and pathetic Aaron gives a rich, original performance with unexpected turns. His phone must be ringing with offers. Already we can expect to see him in Woody Allen and Milos Forman movies.

Norton steals the show, but Richard Gere is quite good doing his specialty, the man you cannot warm up to. His career is a puzzle. He's had some triumphs, like "Days of Heaven," "An Officer and a Gentleman," and many duds, like "Breathless" and "King David." Later two good films went unnoticed: "Miles from Home" by Richard Pearce (("A Family Thing"), and the flawed, nasty but effective "Internal Affairs" by Mike Figgis ("Leaving La Vegas").

The hit "Pretty Woman" was Gere's box-office comeback. Yet after it, Akira Kurosawa's excellent "Rhapsody in August" played only briefly in art houses and was under-appreciated. So was Gere's against-type sensitive performance as a Japanese-American. Five failures or mediocrities followed, the last one being "First Knight."

Now "Primal Fear" (an irrelevant, forgettable title), does a repair job on the Gere image. It also boosts the talented Andre Braugher of TV's "Homicide" fame. (He was still an unknown when Hoblit directed him in the Spielberg-produced 1993 pilot "Class of '61"). As the investigator who works for Vail, he has some good moments and one wonderful short scene testifying on the stand with ironic answers.

The movie is essentially old wine in new bottles, even though the product placement is not for wine but for Bud Light beer. Still, it is helped by surprises and revelations, a peculiar Jekyll and Hyde reprise, Oscar-winning ("Raging Bull") cinematographer Chapman, designer Oppewall, and an unobtrusive score. As courtroom drama, it breaks no new ground, but as momentary entertainment it is OK.

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