Primal Fear ★★½

People have been telling me for years that this is a superior court drama with terrific acting. The more people who have told me, the less I’ve believed it. Now that I’ve seen Primal Fear, I can see its appeal, especially in the early years of the Law & Order era.

Richard Gere stars as Martin Vail, an arrogant celebrity defense attorney whose only loves greater than the justice system are his part in it and hearing himself talk about his part in it. But when the Archbishop of Chicago is murdered, and a weird choir boy (Edward Norton) is arrested, covered in the Bishop’s blood, Vail is faced with his greatest challenge. As a wise judge (Alfre Woodward) instructs him: it’s time to start representing his client rather than representing himself. That’s kind of on-the-nose writing permeates Primal Fear, which is a self-conscious fantasy of criminal law, full of snappy rejoinders, desperate self-discovery, and the kind of small world persona battles that always happen in movies like this (the prosecutor, Laura Linney, is Vail’s former co-worker and ex-lover, for no reason other than to make the Grinder-like fireworks burn even hotter!).

Director Gregory Hoblit came from TV, producing and directing prestige dramas like Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue (and Cop Rock!), and, does it show — from the slick-but-standard setups down to the soulful cityscape-at-dusk saxophone solos. For all its ordinariness, Primal Fear is well-paced for a predictable procedural that stretches over two hours, and has a fine cast that consistently makes the material seem better than it is. Gere is solid and avoids the sentimentality that makes his earnestness unbearable in other roles, and Linney adds terrific spine to the somewhat condescending role of professional woman barely able to counter Gere's court tactics with all his dreamy flirting muddying the waters. Frances McDormand brings honesty to an improbable role, and the sadly late John Mahoney is his usual charming self even when playing a dirtbag who gives unsolicited speeches extolling his own greatness. Andre Braugher looks so young and baby-faced-cute, you just want to hug him.

The real star of Primal Fear, though, is Ed Norton, in a striking debut that fans have not been shy about raving about in spoilerific terms for over two decades. It’s a promising, showy performance, even if Norton’s natural intelligence betrays the conceit of his character from the start. He’s been arguably better in everything since, but it’s easy to see why this made a splash, even earning him an Oscar nomination.

Primal Fear is good enough for its time — a time from which many of the top courtroom thrillers relied too heavily on the supposed heroics of dashing lawyer-detectives, and “shocking” twists that change everything, and overwrought courtroom confrontations, and exasperated judges demanding conferences in their chambers, and mournful saxophone solos — but few of its peers hold up today, so it’s no slight to say that this slightly-better-than-TV-quality procedural from a time of mediocre-TV-quality is a bit weak and hammy today, but not unpleasantly so.