Did he or didn't he? It's an age-old question movies have posed countless times, and it almost always teases the brain. A murder is committed, a suspect is named, and a trial begins. Lawyers argue, strategize, and finagle; a judge mediates and scolds; a jury deliberates. A verdict is reached. All is resolved…or is it? Legal dramas remain fascinating because the law is always open to interpretation and debate, and the tense, unpredictable courtroom atmosphere so often feels like a pressure cooker about to blow its lid. Though the genre still thrives on TV, films of late (save for 2007's 'Michael Clayton') have all but abandoned the halls of justice, preferring to focus on action-oriented investigations instead of static trials. And that's a shame, because a crackerjack courtroom story combined with finely tuned performances can produce a picture just as riveting as a frantic FBI manhunt. Sometimes, even more so.
'Primal Fear' is one such film. The direction may lack style, but the compelling case and characters so consume us, we all but forget the dull visuals. Reminiscent of 'A Few Good Men,' but without any weighty political or military agenda, 'Primal Fear' is an elegantly crafted, nuts-and-bolts whodunit that takes a few spirited stabs at the legal profession. There's no message to take away, no lingering issues to hash out; it's just a damn good story that keeps us crunching on popcorn and gnawing our soda straws throughout its two-hour-plus running time.
When a prominent Catholic archbishop is brutally murdered in his chambers, police grab a fleeing, blood-soaked altar boy and toss him in the slammer for the crime. But before Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton) can wrinkle his prison jumpsuit, nattily attired, high-profile defense attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) swoops into his cell and offers to take his case pro bono. The arrogant, egotistical Martin is a master manipulator – of the truth, the courts, and his opposing attorneys – and his ability to shift any situation to his advantage has helped catapult him to the top of his profession. Addicted to publicity and the luxurious trappings of success, he prefers deal-making and hefty settlements to fighting for altruistic causes, and defends Aaron only to boost his own image and reputation. Yet there's something about this destitute, stuttering, abused altar boy that gets under Martin's skin. When Aaron calmly says he didn't kill the archbishop, Martin believes him, and begins a passionate defense based not just on winning for winning's sake (and its ensuing glory), but to clear an innocent man.
Divulging any more details would ruin this engrossing thriller, which tosses in a couple of terrific twists, yet always plays by the rules. The film's only crimes are a slightly inflated length (due to a slow start) and direction that's just a hair better than any garden variety episode of primetime TV. 'Primal Fear' is director Gregory Hoblit's first theatrical effort, and his inexperience shows, yet his accomplished cast consistently bails him out. At the time of the film's release, few of us had heard of Laura Linney, Edward Norton, Andre Braugher, or Maura Tierney, but all have since become highly respected actors. Add in Gere, John Mahoney, Alfre Woodard, Frances McDormand, Terry O'Quinn, and Steven Bauer, and it's easy to see why 'Primal Fear' works so well. Sure, the story is strong on its own, but these performers really bring it to life.
Of course, without a doubt, the movie's breakout performance comes from Norton, who files a powerful, unforgettable portrayal. His thin frame, baby face, and quiet demeanor at first camouflage his huge talent, but once he lets loose midway through the film, he's an unstoppable force, riveting our attention, impressing us with his range, and deservedly nabbing a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Gere, in a prelude to his turn as shyster Billy Flynn in 'Chicago,' turns in some of his best work, really getting under the lawyer's skin, but Norton's brilliance consistently eclipses him. Caught between them, Linney – who's quite a beautiful presence here – never stands in either actor's shadow. As both Martin's former girlfriend and the prosecuting attorney enduring pressure from a conviction-hungry D.A., she juggles a mix of emotions without ever seeming fragile or weak. Her character may be tough, but she's also intensely feminine, and Linney projects both qualities with deceptive ease.
'Primal Fear' may not stick with you, but Hoblit's film holds up well and is always fun to revisit. Like 'Witness for the Prosecution,' 'The Verdict,' and '12 Angry Men,' it's entertaining, smart, and excellently acted by a stellar cast. It also reminds us just how good courtroom drama can be, and how much we've missed the genre on the big screen. They may not make movies like 'Primal Fear' anymore, but hopefully some day soon they will again.
The 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer errs toward the soft side, but the image quality remains pleasing throughout. This is a solid, but underwhelming presentation; definitely an upgrade from the standard-def DVD, but far from reference material, even for a film of this vintage. Colors look slightly faded, but not drab – more the result of the director's original intention than any age-related deterioration – and black levels remain anchored in the mid-range of the density scale most of the time. Skintones run a bit rosy one moment and a tad pale the next, while close-ups have a natural feel, but only fleetingly provide the detail-rich accents we've come to expect from 1080p.
Though never distracting, grain is evident, particularly during interior scenes, while exteriors – especially those shot in bright sunlight – flaunt a crisper, more vibrant look. Digital noise crops up when light is very low, but any artificial enhancements, such as DNR and edge sharpening, have been carefully and sparingly applied. There are a lot of areas to nitpick in this transfer, but on the whole, it's a good effort, especially when one takes into account the movie's straightforward, just-the-facts-ma'am directorial style. The film itself isn't dull, but the cinematography is, and it keeps this disc from providing a more satisfying visual experience.
I must admit I wasn't expecting much from this Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track. Considering the film's talky nature, I figured there'd be some decent front channel separation (which there is) and well-prioritized, easily comprehendible dialogue (ditto), but not much more. Boy, was I wrong! This is a full-bodied, active mix that often surprises with its clarity and intensity. The opening church choir songs possess marvelous fidelity and resonance, as does James Newton Howard's fitting score, which enjoys an excellent surround presence. During dramatic scenes, the rears kick in much more often than I anticipated, producing both subtle atmospherics and more pronounced effects. (A sequence with circling helicopters involves all the speakers and employs fine directionality.) Bass is impressive, too, with low-end frequencies adding welcome warmth and depth to key moments, and even the subwoofer gets involved on occasion, supplying a few notable rumbles. This track is a nice surprise, and really emphasizes how strong audio can benefit films with few special effects.
First of all, let's just say the Paramount art department really let this disc down by saddling it with some of the most atrocious cover art I've yet seen on the Blu-ray format. Why the movie's original, classy poster couldn't have been imported instead remains a mystery, but this yellowy mess certainly won't do the film any favors on the retail and rental shelves. Yes, it stands out, but not at all in a good way.
Supplements, however, are another story, and 'Primal Fear' contains a fine array of brand-new extras that nicely complement this courtroom drama. Though the packaging claims all video material is in standard definition, the folks at Paramount got it wrong again – everything, even the trailer, is in 1080p.
Edward Norton's electrifying performance helps lift 'Primal Fear' into the upper echelon of courtroom dramas. An absorbing story and top-flight work from a distinguished cast earns the film extra points, but it's Norton who leaves an indelible impression. This welcome Blu-ray release puts the film back on our radar, and hopefully will help revive the flagging courtroom genre. Though the middling video transfer is a bit of a letdown, the disc features excellent audio and some good supplemental material. This is a great rental for those unfamiliar with 'Primal Fear,' a solid upgrade for fans, and easy to recommend overall.