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Red Corner

by John Denvir, USF Law School  (November 1997)

Red Corner has a good idea for a film—part Hitchcock adventure thriller and part legal melodrama. But somehow it never comes off.

The "thriller" part works well enough. Richard Gere plays Jack Moore, an American corporate lawyer in Beijing to close a multi-million dollar satellite tv deal. He is all poise and charm, like a bargain basement version of Cary Grant in the beginning of North by Northwest. When asked if he became a lawyer because of all the money, he replies "No, I wanted to be in control." But, of course, like Grant he soon loses control when he wakes up one morning soaked in blood next to a dead young female model he has met the night before.

And that’s where the legal melodrama begins— "accused" Moore enters the Kafkian labyrinths of the Chinese legal system. Unfortunately, the legal melodrama portion of the film just doesn’t work very well. But I think the reason for this failure is interesting because it shows us in a negative way what makes good legal melodramas so engrossing. Red Corner’s depiction of the Chinese legal system lacks all the most effective dramatic gimmicks of the conventional Hollywood trial .

First, in Moore trial we don’t have a crowded courtroom buzzing with anticipation at the big events to transpire. Remember Scout and Jem sneaking into the crowded courthouse in To Kill A Mockingbird. Director Jon Avnet shows us a large empty dreary courtroom with no one in attendance except the defendant, judge, and lawyers. I imagine he does this to dramatize the fact that Chinese trials are not public, but the dramatic consequence is to make the trial look like a routine bureaucratic procedure— ironically much like a routine American trial which Hollywood studiously avoids.

Secondly, we don’t have the advantage of a jury for the camera to shift to for "reaction" shots. In the normal American trial melodrama, the viewer is always interested in whether the jury is getting the same message from the trial as the viewer. Here there’s no jury. Also, there is no chance for the spell-binding final argument to the jury. Remember Al Pacino in And Justice for All or Paul Newman in The Verdict. Here Moore’s lawyer, when she is allowed to argue at all, speaks in respectful tones to a stony-faced judge, a little bit like a bored law student.

We also miss the drama of cross-examination. Remember Jimmy Stewart and George C. Scott grilling opposing witnesses in Anatomy of a Murder. In Red Corner, Gere once in a while shouts out a hostile question to a witness, but after the translation everyone just looks at him like he’s showing the terribly bad form one expects from a Westerner. No tearful confessions from hectored witnesses in Beijing.

Finally, I think the key ideological ingredient in the Hollywood portrayal of the American system of justice is the expectation that justice will be served. That’s why people were so outraged by the O. J. Simpson trial; they had been taught to believe the system worked. The legal melodrama assumes that the whole story will played out before the jury which in its wisdom will decide what is true and grant justice. Remember 12 Angry Men. But here Avnet wishes to show that the corrupt Chinese system is not interested in justice. This may be true as fact, but it makes for poor drama because if the trial is a farce why are we bothering watching it?

The dramatic potential of the American trial raises an interesting question. Do we see so many movies about trials because quest for justice is so central to America’s conception of itself or do we see them because movie directors can’t resist the built-in dramatic structure of the jury trial? Maybe it’s both.

One last point. I don’t have the same concern with legal verisimilitude as my co-webitor Rob Waring (See his review of The People v. Larry Flynt in the PJ ARCHIVE) but I do wonder if Avnet has gone over the line here. He shows the Chinese criminal system to be corrupt, and as well it might be . But I doubt that the actual Chinese system (based on a civil law model) looks very much like what Avnet has portrayed in the film. The film shows us a truncated adverserial model. If I am correct ( and perhaps some reader will correct me), the system the film implicitly condemns is really a product of the director’s imagination.  Is that just?

John DenvirJohn Denvir, who teaches constitutional law at USF Law School, is editor of Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts, available at local bookstores or through amazon.com.


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