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Paramount Studios presents
Primal Fear: Hard Evidence Edition (Blu-Ray) (1996)

"There was someone else in that room, Mr. Vail."
- Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton)

Review By: Rich Rosell   
Published: March 09, 2009

Stars: Richard Gere, Edward Norton, Laura Linney
Other Stars: John Mahoney, Maura Tierney, Frances McDormand, Alfre Woodard, Terry O'Quinn, Andre Braugher, Steven Bauer, Joe Spano, Tony Plana, Jon Seda, Stanley Anderson, Brian Reddy, Sigrid K. Zahner
Director: Gregory Hoblit

MPAA Rating: R for brief grisly violence, pervasive strong language, and a sex scene.
Run Time: 02h:10m:27s
Release Date: March 10, 2009
UPC: 097361422145
Genre: suspense thriller

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- B-B-B- B-

DVD Review

Based on William Diehl's novel of the same name, this Gregory Hoblit-directed 1996 courtroom thriller is nowadays best remembered as Edward Norton's big screen debut in a performance that still bubbles with all kinds of fresh-scrubbed charisma. As stammering/stuttering 19-year-old altar boy Aaron Stampler, Norton gets a lot to chew on in a veritable showcase role, playing a blood-soaked character caught while running from the scene of the brutal murder of Chicago's Catholic Archbishop Rushman (Stanley Anderson). Sharky and arrogant big-time defense attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere)—a guy who never met any publicity he didn't like—quickly takes the case pro bono, eventually playing off some deep-seated hunch that Kentucky-born country boy Aaron couldn't have been the killer.

And that professional hunch goes against Vail's typically icy cold veneer, as he's the sort of attorney whose one-for-all mantra is, "I don't have to believe you. I don't care!" He has an ex-cop (Andre Braugher) prowling the streets for another mysterious choir boy, a psychiatrist (Frances McDormand) interviewing Aaron to dig into his past to find out what makes him tick, and a cute assistant (Maura Tierney) who sadly doesn't get to do much but purse her lips and looked concerned. On top of all that is a power-mad state's attorney (John Mahoney) whose fingers are in a lot of pots, and the prosecutor (Laura Linney) for the Stampler case, who just happens to have had a past romantic relationship with Vail that didn't end well—she refers to it as a "one-night stand that lasted six months."

As expected in a story built around a courtroom, there are plenty of scenes filled with shouts of "review of precedent," "objection," and "you're in contempt", as well as the obligatory requests by the no-nonsense judge (Alfre Woodard) for the lawyers to "see my in my chamber now!" That kind of thing is all part of the genre, yet Hoblit manages to stage these sequences in small enough doses so they don't become overlong endurance tests. The legal battle over Stampler is where all the exciting stuff happens, as corruption and home-made porn are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Occasionally the main dramatics get bogged down in needlessly over-explained sidestories, and trimming those dragged-out bits seem like it really could have lightened the overall load here. Yet for all of the Primal Fear narrative weak spots (the sprawling 130 runtime being first on that list), what Hoblit is graced with—in a film featuring a lot of familiar faces—are the performances from Gere and Norton.

It is Gere—portraying Vail with an oily type of unyielding arrogance that isn't necessarily all that appealing—who comes off as a thinly disguised public-opinion version of the real-life Gere, giving his character an often ugly degree of self-decreed importance. But it is Norton, all baby-faced innocence, who will stick in your craw as Aaron Stampler. At the time this was made, he was essentially an unknown, and he shows an innate ability to be able to go dramatically toe-to-toe against the more polished chops of actors like Gere and McDormand.

An interesting casting sidenote is that seemingly all of the television reporters and anchors featured (many of whom "interview" Vail) were, at the time, actually working in Chicago television news; they use their own names, and the stations they worked for. As a lifelong Chicagoan, those type of little details—unimportant in the scheme of things—lends a neat dusting of realism to Hoblit's film.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The 1.85:1 AVC-encoded anamorphic widescreen transfer is certainly a bit understated, with colors that come off somewhat drab and tepid, though I suspect much of that stems from the lack of vibrancy in the original film. Where this BD release gets to show off a little is in facial textures and features, where individual hairs and lines carry far more detail than in the SD re-release; there are inconsistencies, however, as some sequences do appear much more detailed than others.

A little below average for the format, but still visually pleasant more often than not.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
English, French, Spanishyes

Audio Transfer Review: Don't expect much in the way of audio glitz from the Dolby 5.1 TrueHD track and you won't be disappointed. Largely a front-centric blend—not surprising for what is essentially a courtroom thriller—with dialogue processed cleanly, with no evidence of hiss or distortion. The occasional surround cues—such a police helicopter or the opening choir sequence—pop up minimally, with the rear speakers mostly under-utilized.

There are also 5.1 dubs in French and Spanish.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 26 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Gregory Hoblit, Ann Biderman, Gary Lucchesi, Hawk Koch, Deborah Aquilla
Packaging: standard Blu-ray packaging
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: There's a boatload of people participating in the too-crowded commentary track, with director Gregory Hoblit, writer Ann Biderman, producer Gary Lucchesi, executive producer Hawk Koch, and casting director Deborah Aquilla. Hoblit on his own, perhaps with Biderman, would have been plenty, and as it is the presentation alternates from being dry and sometimes repetitive. A case of too many cooks spoiling the you-know-what.

A set of three new anamorphic SD featurettes fare better, beginning with Primal Fear: The Final Verdict (17m:59s). All of the cast and production principles (save for Gere) look back on the film Hoblit refers to as a "little miracle," and the info here will save you the need to sit through the commentary. Primal Fear: Star Witness (17m:56s) examines how Edward Norton got the role, and we learn nuggets such as Leonardo DiCaprio was once up for the role, but he "was too tired." Lastly, Psychology Of Guilt (13m:35s) chats with a judge and a couple of forensic psychologists to discuss how the insanity plea works in real-life cases, and there's an explanation of the McNaughton Rule too.

A single trailer for the feature is included, and the disc is cut into 26 chapters, with optional subtitles in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

Primal Fear does run a little too long, yet without Gere or Norton this would have really been a chore to watch. One can forgive some of the cornball plot conveniences for the sake of watching a couple of talented actors work it, and work it well.

The BD transfer is decent without being exemplary in any way, so I wouldn't classify it as a must-own on this format. But if you haven't seen this one, it's well worth a rental, especially if you find courtroom thrillers fun.


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