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Red Corner

Review by Carrie Gorringe
Posted 31 October 1997

rredcorn.gif (14481 bytes)   Directed by Jon Avnet

Starring Richard Gere, Bai Ling,
Bradley Whitford, Byron Mann, Tsai Chin,
James Hong, Roger Yuan, and Robert Stanton

Screenplay by Robert King

See Dick. See Dick play Jack Moore, an American lawyer who cannot figure out why, after a general’s daughter was found dead in his luxury hotel suite, the American Constitution does not apply to judicial proceedings in Beijing. Scream, Jack, scream. See the evil and ruthless Chinese officials repeat over and over that justice is for those who repent and harsh reprisals for those who insist upon proclaiming their innocence. See the evil Chinese officials show a tape of public executions in an attempt to get Jack to change his mind. See them wash out Jack’s food bowl in the toilet and deprive him of sleep. See Jack’s legal representation (Bai Ling) refuse to believe that Jack is innocent. See Jack’s Chinese contacts suddenly develop a bad case of cold feet where Jack is concerned. See the ineffectual and gutless American embassy representatives not want to rock the boat on the eve of vital Sino-American trade talks. See the nasty Chinese judge (Tsai Chin) refuse to see reason on allowing American judicial procedure in a Chinese courtroom. See Jack look buff and psychologically fit after weeks of nutritional and sensory deprivation. See the plot against Jack by high-ranking Chinese officials who are involved in the murder. See Jack flee from a motorcade after an assassination attempt. Run, Jack, run, to the American embassy. Run away, Jack, from the American embassy and common sense in order to help your Chinese attorney who needs you. Keep running, Jack, and soon everyone but the nasty judge and the audience will care what happens to you.

Red Corner is ineluctable proof of the premise that the first casualties of ideological rigidity, however well-intentioned its underpinnings, are logic and reason. Richard Gere is so justly concerned about the menacing nature of the Chinese hierarchy that he has fallen off the entertainment deep end. Red Corner has all the subtlety of nails sliding down a blackboard, as its insistence upon dividing individuals into such extremes of caricatured good-versus-evil behavior so aptly demonstrates. Gere himself is unbearably flinty in his portrayal of martyrdom; it is so one-dimensional, in fact, that Demi Moore may find herself with some really stiff competition (or, competition for the award for emotional stiffness, if you prefer) if Gere doesn’t turn back the clock to some of the more nuanced work he did some twenty years ago in films such as Days of Heaven. Those actors stuck with the thankless task of portraying the Chinese officials alternately glower and bellow with what one has to presume are appropriate levels of menace, but they convey less an air of danger than a badly-felt need for a tea break. Only Bai Ling survives the onslaught of earnestly bad acting that surrounds her, but even she can’t hold up this film’s rickety structure for very long.

Moreover, the script has the bad taste to attempt to counteract the maladroitness of characterization by giving Jack Moore a deliberately maudlin past, one so pathetic as to conjure up a conception of D.W. Griffith’s Victorian melodramas as souls of veritable restraint by comparison. We are supposed to sympathize with Moore’s plight. Instead, he seems more like just another naf abroad, whining as soon as his slightly louche conduct has unintended consequences and then demanding to be treated according to American legal standards (you would think that a lawyer, of all people, would have known something about the legal system in a country he planned to visit). Moreover, what was wrong with operating with a little discretion in a foreign country, instead of allowing his "if-it-feels-good-do-it" mentality to place himself at risk? But, of course, Moore was a victim of circumstance before he ever got on that intercontinental flight, so he feels entitled to transcend any sort of law and the film tacitly, and incredibly, agrees with him, to the detriment of all plausibility. At one point in the trial, Moore angrily demands of the judge who wants to place him in contempt of court, "Are you going to shoot me twice?" After having endured nearly ninety minutes of a ludicrously convoluted plot line, it took considerable willpower not to suggest that many of us in the audience would have been happy to settle for just one, well-aimed, shot. Perhaps all concerned with this miserable enterprise should have heeded the words of Mark Twain, who once suggested that people can stand up to hostility, but they can’t tolerate being laughed at for one minute. As a satire, Red Corner might have been more effective in finding its mark, and at least it wouldn’t have taken so many careers with it for so little result.

Red Corner has the dubious honor of being able to overcome ideological objections along most of the political spectrum; only extremists at either end will find any semblance of legitimacy in this bizarre exercise in Hollywood agit-prop, and it’s unlikely that Avnet and Gere intended to preach to the converted, so this film will go down as – well, it will just simply go down in box-office flames. This fate is especially inexplicable in the case of director Avnet, who was able to flesh out the idiosyncrasies of plot and characters in Fried Green Tomatoes into well-crafted revelations concerning cultural behavior in the South of the 1940s, and the consequences for the present that resulted from it. His success rate here in cultural explication is non-existent. As noted in the review of Seven Years in Tibet, Gere is to be commended for his long-term support of Tibet, however bizarre the manifestation of that support has been at times. With Red Corner, he has demonstrated that he is one of the few Hollywood types who has been willing to put his money where his mouth is; nevertheless, it is very bad form for your feet to follow your money.


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