Blu-ray Review: Primal Fear -- Hard Evidence Edition (1996)

Initially character acting was my gateway drug into the world of film and my appreciation for a performer's gift that seduced me into scholarly study of the craft. When I was a girl-- while other kids dreamed of becoming teachers and firemen-- there was an earnest period (following my brief determination to become the first female president of the United States) when I desperately wanted to become an actor.

Although a short-lived stint in Community Theater and taking part in school musicals helped cure me of any All About Eve pretensions, to me there was no greater thrill than watching a performer hold the audience captive with each subtle word, nuance, look, and movement captured in a motion picture.

In fact and despite my love of excellent writing, deft editing, classy choreography, and a pitch perfect score—to this day, I still feel that it's the performers that make or break material. For in the wrong hands, even O’Neill, Mamet, Miller, and Shakespeare can sound like a television movie of the week and in the same turn, a cheesy B-movie can move into the realm of art because the actor cast in the part refuses to give in and instead takes us with them on their journey.

As a kid, I had this experience of being figuratively swept away by the grandeur found in Nicholas Cage’s operatic performance in Moonstruck, Robert Downey Jr.’s transformation into Chaplin, Marisa Tomei’s comedic mastery in My Cousin Vinny, Kevin Spacey’s dazzling magic trick of conversational gymnastics in The Usual Suspects and of course, Edward Norton's riveting debut in Primal Fear.

To me, watching Edward Norton in Primal Fear is an experience I can only liken to seeing James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause for the first time. Although Norton reveals on Paramount Home Entertainment's brand-new Blu-ray Hard Evidence Edition of the movie, his belief that what “people seem to enjoy the most [about the movie and his character] is the sucker punch,” packed by Norton in the film's ending (when he uses his lawyer's ego against him in a way that still kills us just like seeing the face of Keyser Soze appearing out of the fax machine at the end of The Usual Suspects) but yet to just call his work gimmick-based will not do.

Unlike the countless “gotcha” endings that populated Hollywood movies post-M. Night Shyamalan and before the millennium hit, Primal Fear isn't just effective as one of those popular twist- based works. In fact, while watching the movie again more than a decade after it first screened in theaters-- my intellect got the better of me and logically I realized there’s an entire host of plot holes that are never resolve. And although perhaps all the pieces of the puzzle came together back in the original cut which was well over three hours long, in the end-- and much like a couple of the problems involved in Christopher Nolan's Memento-- we realize we could care less.

Featuring one of Richard Gere's most underrated and naturalistic performances (that now seems like it was the perfect segue for his foray into the musical Chicago), he plays off of the celebrity persona we've built up for him since we first fell head over heels with the man whose looks only improved with age right along with that Debra Winger’s Paula in An Officer and a Gentleman.

Much like Tom Cruise in Valkyrie and Collateral, Russell Crowe in American Gangster or Leonardo DiCaprio in Body of Lies today-- in the 90s it seemed nearly impossible to watch Gere and forget his movie star status, especially in the years that followed his mega blockbuster as the unlikely Prince Charming to Julia Roberts’ hooker with the heart of gold in Pretty Woman.

However, Primal Fear works this angle to masterful effect as we buy right into the idea that Richard Gere is the handsome, incredibly vain, morally questionable, fame and fortune seeking high powered criminal defense attorney Martin Vail. Letting endless quips about his lack of concern regarding his client’s guilt or innocence and his profession overall roll off of his tongue easily when lubricated by a cool drink to a reporter writing a piece on him (that he insists must be a “cover story”), shortly into the film he drops everything to go after her the most salacious case in town following the brutal stabbing of a revered Catholic archbishop.

Although the meek but blood-soaked altar boy Aaron Stampler is caught fleeing the scene of the crime and should be a slam-dunk for the D.A.'s office, determined for headlines and -- all the sweeter -- a chance to get back at his old employer when he worked for the prosecution, Vail throws his hat in the ring. The fact that the woman who used to sit “second chair” to him-- Janet Venable (Laura Linney in one of her earliest performances)-- has now landed his old gig as the lead prosecuting attorney makes Vail far more interested as well as we ascertain that he's hoping to reignite some sparks of what he considered a relationship and the much younger Janet instead called “a one night stand that lasted six months.”

Despite their brief scenes together away from the courtroom, the two generate some tangible sparks as Gere’s oft-repeated pickup line of “Wanna dance? All you have to do is turn around,” becomes a double entendre but it’s the courtroom where Linney (cast by director Gregory Hoblit due to her ability to command a theatrical stage) shows us what she is capable of and would continue to do in her future Oscar nominated career for films like You Can Count on Me and The Savages.

However, aside from Janet’s noble attempts to prosecute swiftly with a left hook, it’s advantage Martin Vail right from the start as he manages to land a few of the earliest punches when he informs his stuttering client to plead the fifth even when it comes down to responding to his understanding of the charges and bringing in a noted psychologist Frances McDormand for analysis.

Initially going with Aaron’s insistence that there was someone else in the archbishop’s room on the day of the murder, soon Vail has staff working overtime when seedy details concerning the archbishop are revealed along with suspicion that possibly Aaron’s mental state is questionable at best.

And although it's hard to believe that there are still people who haven’t witnessed Norton's extraordinary Golden Globe winning and Oscar nominated work in a star making role which was so impressive that-- based on his screen tests alone before even a frame of Primal Fear was shot he secured roles in Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You and Milos Forman’s The People Vs. Larry Flynt-- l'm stopping my summary of the movie right there so as to avoid plot spoilers.

This is especially important since there could be no greater impact or recommendation of the movie than just strongly urging you to experience it for yourself in the hopes that in doing so, you’ll offer film buffs in Generation Y the chance to become inspired into the study of film as in the extraordinary Primal Fear, you're able to witness the idea of how words on a page are just that until they come to life by the ideal person for the job.

In his consistently classy and humble, gratitude filled interview featured in a Blu-ray segment devoted to the actor entitled “Primal Fear: Star Witness -- Casting Edward Norton,” he credits everyone involved in the projects and other various featurettes he shares his believe that he still feels extremely fortunate that he was “in the right place, at the right time” and with the right “idea of how to approach” the role of Aaron Stampler in the film based on the book by William Diehl.

In this crisply transferred Blu-ray, the filmmakers recount the entire process of the exhaustive search for just the right Aaron which consisted of nationwide cattle calls of more than 2,000 actors along with interest from major stars including Leonardo DiCaprio who ultimately turned it down since he was worn out from his breakneck schedule following his own Oscar nominated breakthrough performance in Lasse Hallstrom’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

The Blu-ray boasts candid behind-the-scenes memories about not just Norton but the entire film that struggled with plotting issues and also with Hoblit’s insistence on the hiring of Laura Linney (with whom he’d worked before and his determination that along with including Norton, it was okay not to have A-list talent in every major role), as well as new insights from Hoblit (who also directed Fracture), Gere, Linney co-screenwriter Ann Biderman, and producers Howard W. Koch Jr., Gary Lucchesi, casting director Deborah Aquila and others.

In fact, the featurettes included on the Blu-ray of Primal Fear are incredibly fascinating and even more refreshingly, they don’t feel like mandatory electronic press kit "plug the movie" snippets, since once you see the film, your inquiring mind won’t rest until you go further into “the case.”

Although the picture quality is a vast improvement over the DVD format, the sound mixing on the Blu-ray is a downright mess for viewers without a great, state-of-the-art surround sound set-up. Using just an HDMI cord for both audio and video—while for most Blu-rays I’ve discovered that I’m still able to get an excellent and natural soundtrack just on the traditional plug and play option-- sadly, Fear had me reaching for the remote constantly as the volume on my HDTV had to climb well into the level of 50 and 60 to make out the dialogue before the overly loud soundtrack nearly blasted me out of my chair.

Quite an irritating distraction that takes away from this exceptional film’s impact when viewed at home to say the least and while I can’t judge whether or not this is also a problem on the DVD format of this brand new Hard Evidence Edition—be warned for Blu-rays, you may need to seriously adjust your sound settings on both the player and television to make it through the 130 minute running time without wearing out your remote.

However, I’m hopeful that—especially since the film refuses to age and still grabs your interest today no matter how many times you’ve seen it (much like Usual Suspects which was released just one year earlier)—eventually Paramount will release another edition of it perhaps for its fifteenth or twentieth anniversary and remedy the sound problem. Likewise, I’m also keeping my fingers crossed that if Hoblit’s extra 50 minutes of footage is lying around somewhere, it will also be served up as well so we can finally get a better explanation about some of the characters who are mentioned and/or appear only briefly and the question of just why a thorough background check on Aaron Stampler was never conducted.

However, sound issues aside—Primal Fear: Hard Evidence Edition is of the utmost interest for not just Norton, Gere, Linney, and Hoblit fans but movie lovers as well who get a certain rush whenever confronted by genius personified as Norton asserts himself with the ease of a pro in his first filmed role before he’d continue to stun in movies like American History X, Fight Club, The Illusionist, and Down in the Valley.