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Internal Affairs [1990] (DVD)

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Genre: Crime & Thriller - Thriller / Theatrical Release: 1990 / Suitable for 18 years and over / Director: Mike Figgis / Actors: Richard Gere, Andy Garcia, Laurie Metcalf, Nancy Travis, Richard Bradford ... / DVD released 2001-03-05 at Paramount Home Entertainment / Features of the DVD: Anamorphic, Dubbed, PAL, Widescreen

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      04.02.2010 14:06
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      Richard Gere at his best.

      Being the world's second most famous Buddhist (we can't forget the Dalai Lama) has certainly done Richard Gere no harm over the years. I suppose it beats being the world's second most famous Scientologist, at least in the credibility stakes. The chilled-out Gere has matured seamlessly over the years and seems more than able to maintain his aloof silver-haired Hollywood venerability despite a surprisingly lengthy string of clunkers on his movie CV. I've always liked the guy ever since seeing him on the big screen (seemingly) decades ago in An Officer and a Gentleman. It was a surprise, however, when his subsequent 1980s film career turned out to be about as memorable as that of Molly Ringwald (though I quite liked her too).

      Just as well then that a new decade brought a new lease of life to our hero. In 1990 Pretty Woman saw Gere strutting his smoothie stuff once again in a role that certainly pushed him out to front and centre on the Hollywood parade ground, but it was in a film released just months before the above, Mike Figgis's dark cat-and-mouse cop thriller Internal Affairs, that Gere finally delivered a performance that although conforming somewhat to type displayed a pleasingly gritty and satisfying edge. Internal Affairs was completely obscured by the hype surrounding its successor, and that was a pity. It was a film that deserved to be much better regarded, not least because it was (and remains) in my view one of the best of its type.

      Andy Garcia plays Sgt. Raymond Avilla, a clean-cut and eager young buck whose first assignment on his first day at LAPD Internal Affairs Division is to interview an old Academy colleague, Patrolman Van Stretch (William Baldwin), who has been reported for using excessive force during an arrest. Stretch proves to be a coked-up young cop with problems, but one whose considerable private expenditure can't be accounted for. He's clearly up to no good. But he's a simple soul who obviously hasn't the brains to work scams on his own so Avilla and colleague Sgt. Amy Wallace (Laurie Metcalf) switch their attention to Stretch's patrol partner Dennis Peck (Gere), a Svengali-like charmer who is rather protective of his young colleague.

      But as Avilla and Wallace dig deeper into Peck's affairs they slowly build a picture of a cop who controls a whole network of shady operations and who despite his lowly rank exerts an influence on his colleagues and several ex-wives that is absolute. Peck is also a man who doesn't take kindly to being investigated, so when he learns that IAD are on his tail he fights back with cool, calculated ferocity. Avilla soon realises that he has an adversary to be reckoned with and as the battle of wits between good cop and bad cop intensifies, it all becomes very ugly and very personal.

      The story in Internal Affairs doesn't really differ much from a host of other good guy / bad guy thrillers from before or since; in fact a very similar film was released at the very same time, Sidney Lumet's gritty and overblown Q&A, and now I think about it, Michael Mann's Heat from a few years later was not dissimilar in terms of location and mood. Predictable setup aside, the main strength of Internal Affairs is in how the leads are so well drawn and are allowed to simmer for a while before revealing their wilder sides, keeping us guessing about so much in the process. The fact too that they clash so jarringly just adds to the power of the piece: Garcia's tightly suppressed Hispanic machismo waiting impatiently to explode at the instigation of the louche and creepy Gere's subtle promptings.

      Garcia's character, Raymond Avilla, is oddly buttoned-up throughout (with the occasional and memorable exception), his partner doing most of the talking as he looks on thoughtfully and inscrutably. He's clearly a sober and ambitious young cop who is determined to advance himself by the book, dotting the 'i's and crossing the 't's as he goes. He even drives a Toyota for God's sake. Though why he would be married to frizzy glamourpuss Kathleen (Nancy Travis), a faux arty type who works in an avant-garde gallery, hob-nobs with other arty types and wears skin-tight dresses all the time, is another matter. Perhaps Toyotas were avant-garde, or catnip to arty types. Art aside, the poise and focus that Ray Avilla displays early-on steadily unravels when he gets to grips with Dennis Peck, and this unravelling is the real meat of the movie.

      Richard Gere positively purrs throughout, revelling in a role that was surely written with him in mind; the opportunity to be seen to be irresistible to the opposite sex, hard as nails, and bad in a sexily psychotic way must have been too good to turn down. Peck is a piece of work, but like his adversary Avilla, his development, or perhaps degeneration, is slow and subtle, allowing us to ponder the possibilities. The lead protagonists are opposites of a sort but not to such an extent that we fail to really notice their quirks or their periodic behavioural jumps from bad to worse to even worse still. As the battle of wits progresses, such jumps are at times surprising and occasionally shocking. This brutish game of cat and mouse is never less than gripping throughout.

      Despite the two secondary characters, Amy Wallace and Kathleen Avilla, having much less to do than the guys out front, their roles are interesting, plausible and, most importantly, to the point. Wallace and Ray Avilla work well together and their close relationship is touching at times, though platonic, Wallace being a "dyke" (Laurie Metcalfe was then best known for playing the mildly dippy Jackie Harris in Roseanne, a show that was topping the U.S. TV ratings at the time). Kathleen Avilla is little more than eye candy throughout but even she is central to the plot, being the unwitting focus of Dennis Peck's darkly ingenious machinations, much to hubby Ray's confusion and misery.

      The strength of the drama was due in no small measure to a taut script that ensured that events moved along at a brisk pace and that no character was surplus to requirements. A good script must also have been useful to director Figgis, undoubtedly nervous at directing his first Hollywood feature. The film runs in at a spare 1 hr 45 mins (a full hour less than the above-mentioned Heat), and the fact that all is tied up satisfyingly in that time is testament to slick direction, and perhaps a lesson to others of a more indulgent bent. Figgis also contributed to the music score, a selection of dark ambient segments that subtly colour and intensify the drama. Oddly enough the score at times contrasts rather strangely with the perpetually sunny LA exteriors in which much of the film unfolds, exteriors that switch instantaneously from gaudy to grim in unique LA fashion, though the night-time scenes of cruising (and menacing) cop-cars and distant sirens do enough to keep things honest, and convincing.

      If the film has a downside then it's probably in how the two lead characters are sometimes just a tad overdrawn. Let's just say that Dennis Peck is a little too slickly evil at times and that no short-in-stature LA street cop, however confident, could surely be quite so successful with the opposite sex. The way in which Ray Avilla occasionally gives way to clichéd Hispanic 'mad boxer' urges is also a little hard to believe, though such displays seem on first viewing to fit the flow of the piece, so perhaps I'm nit-picking. Actually I AM nit-picking for form's sake because neither of the above examples, for me at least, diminish this film in any way, but rather just add to its impact. It's all fiction, after all.

      Internal Affairs is one of those films that is probably routinely bypassed in the DVD aisles, real or cyber, simply because it has the look of a bland and formulaic star-vehicle, a cop-themed one at that, and also because nobody seems to have said much about it since its release twenty years ago. In fact the film is an absolute cracker that grips and surprises from start to finish. There is a fair deal of violence, though nothing out of the ordinary, and the film contains several 'scenes of a sexual nature', though again nothing too fruity. The 18 certificate is, I suppose, probably about right. I'll give the film four stars because it's excellent without being brilliant, and that is as good a recommendation as it needs.

      The DVD

      The DVD contains just the feature itself with no extras. There is, however, much appropriate subtitling and enough Dolby Digitality to satisfy even the keenest of ears.

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