Richard Gere has spent so much time creating awareness of his Buddhist faith and the Dalai Lama's exile that he could have been the star of Seven Years in Tibet. It's obviously a political situation based on diversity of faith that means a lot to him, so when word came that Gere was making Red Corner, we had expectations of something profound.
On the basis of its shallowness alone, Red Corner is disappointing. What we have here is standard outsider jeopardy, in a setting that has a fraction of the terror we've seen on screen since Midnight Express. Gere has the opportunity to make a statement about Chinese oppression, and a wide audience until word-of-mouth leaks out, yet settles for an empty soap box.
Gere stars as Jack Moore, a lawyer who deals with introducing Western world entertainment to the Far East. He's the kind of guy who makes Baywatch a worldwide phenomenon and launches a thousand misconceptions about American life. He's just completing a new deal with the Chinese government, which has final authority on societal influences, when the film begins. A night of celebrating leads to a tryst with a runway model. The morning after is a shock when the woman is discovered murdered.
All evidence _ at least the material the court wants to hear _ points to Jack as the killer. Director Jon Avnet and screenwriter Robert King never give us any reason to think otherwise, which would have been a welcomed hint of creative ambition.
We're left to watch Jack stew in his cramped jail cell and be abused by guards while he maintains his innocence. Instant compassion is possible since it's Gere playing the role, but there's nothing deeper in his predicament. Does his Western point of view change due to his situation? No, Jack's still an ugly American saving his own skin. Is there an escalating sense of paranoid fear that is palpable to moviegoers? No, just a series of kangaroo court scenes and a slapdash final confession.
If there is a bright spot in Red Corner, it's the performance that newcomer Bai Ling provides when the script finally allows her to play something more than inscrutable as Jack's defense attorney. Her rebellious court demeanor and growing attraction to Jack are more film conceit than likely under these circumstances, and she often overcomes the bogus feelings with a perfect acting moment.
The scenery, of course, is gorgeous and probably a fresh sight to moviegoers who don't visit art-film theaters for the next Chen Kaige film. We don't get to see too much of it after Jack is captured, however, except for a rooftop chase that seems plugged into the script as a last grasp for action. Much of the crucial dialogue is difficult to understand since Avnet uses overlapping bilingual dialogue, courtroom echoes and translation earphone static to depict Jack's confusion, fueling our own.
So much rich material was ignored by Gere in favor of this typical wronged-man drama. The Dalai Lama angle is ignored, despite the obvious digs at Chinese oppression and the star's real-life interest. The issue of an American possibly corrupting a nation's fiber by importing our entertainment would be a fascinating subject. Instead, Gere painted himself into a Red Corner and, unlike with Jack, there's no escape.
MOVIE REVIEW: C
Director: Jon Avnet
Cast: Richard Gere, Bai Ling, Tsai Chin, Peter Donat
Screenplay: Robert King
Rating: R; violence, profanity, nudity, sexual situations
Running time: 120 min.