Primal Fear offers lots of smart touches and solid performances. But the gap between what this thriller tries to be (a complex portrait of a flawed hero) and what it actually is (a convoluted whodunit) yawns wide.
Directed by Emmy-winning Gregory Hoblit (L.A. Law and NYPD Blue), Fear is about a strutting defense attorney (Gere)—Johnnie Cochran in white-face—who has lost sight of the difference between truth and the illusion he creates in the courtroom. Knowing it'll be a publicity lollapalooza, he defends a young man (Edward Norton, in a riveting debut) charged with murdering Chicago's Roman Catholic archbishop. Although Norton is collared running from the crime scene in blood-spattered clothing, he claims innocence. Soon this shy, stuttering altar boy turns Gere into a believer. Big mistake.
Arrogance is what Gere has always done best and, with his studly swagger, he's darn good. Playing the rival prosecutor who was once his lover, Linney establishes herself as a cracklingly strong presence, a sort of Glenn Close with soft elbows. (R)