Opened: October 31, 1997 | Rated: R
Moved up from a Thanksgiving weekend release to cash in on the U.S. visit of Chinese President Jiang Zemin, "Red Corner" stars Richard Gere as an entertainment lawyer framed for murder and put on trial in the guilty-until-proven-innocent courts of communist China.
In Beijing to close a billion-dollar deal for episodes of "Baywatch" and other such American shash, he meets a Chinese fashion model on a night out and takes her to bed. When he wakes up the next morning, she's dead and he's covered in blood.
Arrested for murder and told a guilty plea will beget leniency, he is virtually abandon by his business colleges and even by the U.S. embassy, on the grounds that standing up for him wouldn't be good for foreign relations.
Directed by Jon Avnet ("Up Close and Personal"), "Red Corner" balances the inevitable political overtones within a fairly novel approach to courtroom drama, but an attack of Generic Third Act Syndrome wipes out any points won for originality in the early going.
The film gets off to a good start. Despite front-loading the story with Asian grandma philosophy and other Eastern civilization movie clichés, Avnet uses the penal culture shock to build a sense of claustrophobia and disorientation.
When Jack Moore (Gere) is thrown in jail, the screen breathes with his overwhelming frustration at the bureaucracy that virtually forbids him to consult with anyone about the charges against him.
Moore is a talented lawyer and tries to defend himself, but in the Chinese courts he is in way over his head as he insists on his innocence and demands his rights be recognized. His life is therefore put in the hands of court appointed defense advocate (Bai Ling), who all but refuses to plead him innocent until evidence mounts that he was framed.
A conspiracy is afoot, probably involving a rival telecom company and the Chinese media ministry. But the movie is two-thirds over before Moore even starts to wonder who set him up.
The wheels in his head start spinning only after two attempts on his life, one of which leads to an exciting escape and foot chase through the slums of Beijing in which our hero reaches the safety of the U.S. embassy.
The whodunit element of "Red Corner" isn't terribly well handled. Crucial evidence conveniently turns up just in the nick of time and, like an episode of Perry Mason, conspirators become accommodatingly loquacious in the last reel, striking a blow to the movie's credibility.
Yet it remains fairly satisfying until the third act, when in an unbelievable fit of integrity Moore voluntarily walks out of the embassy and returns to his seemingly doomed trial because he doesn't want his lawyer to become a victim of her government's wrath.
He goes back to jail, and back on trial, attempting to defend himself so she won't be in danger. But, of course, in her own fit of integrity she refuses to drop the case.
This American lawyer and his Chinese advocate have a push me-pull you relationship, and Gere and Ling play off each other well as their characters argue their way to a cultural middle ground in and out of court.
The courtroom scenes are the best part of "Red Corner." The tension and frustration Avnet tries to carry throughout the picture are accented here with long passages of untranslated Chinese designed to put the audience in the hero's bewildered shoes.
But the instant Moore leaves the embassy, the movie starts a downhill slide in to the land of the gimmick. The last reel is so predictable that experienced movie-goers will be able to recite whole passages of dialogue along with the characters.
"Red Corner" boasts strong performances from both Ling and Gere, who seems to have become more talented with age, and Avnet has the audience on a string for much of the picture.
But like so many other disappointments this year ("Mimic", "Conspiracy Theory", "Kiss the Girls"), the wholly unoriginal conclusion of "Red Corner" sinks what for 90 minutes had looked like a movie worth recommending.