The legal thriller is a well-worn filmic genre. You've got your prosecutor – either well-meaning and seeking justice or just looking to put someone's, anyone's, head on a stake. You've got your defense attorney – either well-meaning and seeking justice or slimy, corrupt, and more often than not still likable. There are star witnesses, shocking reversals, incredibly improbable moments, and a resolution that is neither nice and tidy with a bow on it or one that is open, dark, and attempts to make you think just a little bit more about the world.
Yes, the legal thriller is a well-worn filmic genre. The trick in making a good one is to make the case itself truly compelling, to get great actors, and to give them three-dimensional parts to play. Primal Fear, about to be released on Blu-ray in a “Hard Evidence Edition,” manages to do what it takes to elevate the genre.
Starring Richard Gere, Edward Norton, Laura Linney, Frances McDormand, Andre Braugher, and John Mahoney among others, the film certainly has the cast required to add depth. And the plot, which revolves around the murder of a less than scrupulous priest (this was filmed back before the Catholic Church's semi-recent scandals), remains riveting throughout the two hour and 10 minute runtime.
Gere stars as Martin Vail, a hotshot defender, and Norton plays Aaron Stampler, an altar boy found at the scene and arrested for the murder. While the film has relatively cliché moments, like finding out that Vail had a relationship at one time with the prosecutor, Janet Venable (Linney), the back and forth between Vail and Stampler, and the building of Vail's case more than make up for any plot point weaknesses.
Forgiving the Blu-ray its ridiculous title of “Hard Evidence Edition,” it actually represents a pretty solid release. The quality of the print used is nearly flawless. The colors are muted but the picture is still full of detail. Much of the film is dialogue-based and in 5.1 Dolby TrueHD sounds perfectly fine, with good, even levels, but the music, whether it is part of the score or present in a scene is outstandingly clear and crisp.
The extras on the disc include a commentary track with the director (Gregory Hoblit), one of the writers (Ann Biderman), and producer (Gary Lucchesi) among others. There are also three different behind-the-scenes featurettes. One of them deals with the making of the film in general, and another focuses on the truth behind some of the psychology involved in the film. The third, which focuses on Edward Norton and how he was cast in the piece is by far the most interesting. It gives a little bit of insight into how movies get made that usually isn't included among featurettes. Of course, the inclusion of Norton in interviews and Linney only serves to highlight the lack of Richard Gere interview footage (presumably he declined to participate). Much of the behind the scenes discussion is about Gere, his style, and how he approached the film; to not have him speak and to present other actors feels very odd.
However, while the film was marketed as Gere's, it was Norton's breakout role, and it is he who truly shines in the piece. Looking back at Primal Fear 13 years after its initial release one won't find anything new, different, or genre-breaking about it. It is simply a solid legal thriller which revolves around an interesting case and features great performances.