What makes a bad guy terrifying? Is it flashy weaponry, or henchmen crouching in the shadows with triggers cocked, or evil schemes more tangled than the plot of “Chinatown”? Such gimmicks are handy, even deserving of some nail biting, but they aren’t terrifying. What elevates a villain from alarming to unsettling is the knack for sniffing out the demons lurking in “good men” and knowing, instinctively, how to coax them out of hiding. Richard Gere, the Iago-esque crook of “Internal Affairs,” shows true villainy done right. He’s the evildoer who knows your dark heart better than you do.
Gere, never a particularly expressive actor, turns in the cutthroat performance that outshines every other and propels Mike Figgis’ somewhat derivative cop thriller all the way to its climax. The unassuming menace and energy are Gere’s alone, but Figgis abets the actor by presenting him as a regular L.A.P.D. patrolman in the beginning of “Internal Affairs.” Dennis even looks the part of sage mentor/father figure to the younger officers, like his trigger-happy partner, Van Stretch (William Baldwin), and Dorian Fletcher (Michael Beach), a by-the-book cop working his way up. It helps that Dennis is a family man: he’s working on his fourth marriage and has eight kids, including one on the way, that he talks about often. How good a cover children make for crookedness, because who doesn’t trust a devoted, doting father with a cheerful photo scrapbook in his wallet? The people in “Internal Affairs” who make this mistake only make it once, some because they don’t live to be fooled again.
While Raymond Avila (Andy Garcia), new to L.A.P.D.’s Internal Affairs Division, doesn’t immediately peg Dennis as a criminal mastermind at their first meeting, he has his suspicions. So does his Amy (Laurie Metcalfe), who’s quick to remind Raymond of his place: “You know all your friends from the force? You don’t have them anymore.” Raymond has a hard time with that; he likes to think he can balance his past with his bright future. The detectives’ investigation of Van’s latest excessive force charge leads them to wonder how Van and Dennis, living on LAPD salaries, can afford $400,000 homes. Not even Amy, sharp as she is, understands how far he’ll go to push people to their breaking points. For Raymond, that proves as simple as probing the tension between Raymond and his wife Kathleen (Nancy Travis). Dennis makes plain the delight he takes in his mission: “You’re so fucking easy, Raymond. Like a big baby with buttons all over. I push the buttons.” Dennis’ ability to find and exploit people’s weaknesses is impressive; Gere’s ability to make a man like that seem both normal and scary as hell is astounding.
This performance aside, “Internal Affairs” doesn’t win any points for originality. Crooked cop stories have been around just about as long as good and evil has been around, it seems, and Henry Bean’s script contains few attempts to revamp the old concept. Garcia’s character lacks any kind of real history to explain his dramatic switch from straight man to raving, jealous monster (Garcia’s acting may be to blame there), while Kathleen comes off as that old standard, the Long-Suffering Cop’s Wife. But there’s something fascinating about the way Bean provides us with a “hero” and a “villain” who turn out to be very similar. Dorian sees it: “You’re just like Peck,” he tells Raymond, and he’s correct. Raymond can profile and manipulate people to do his bidding, even if Garcia doesn’t quite sell that aspect of the character. Perhaps it’s that Garcia or anyone else in “Internal Affairs” can’t compete with Gere, whose performance as Dennis Peck should be considered the Acting 101 standard for crooked cops.
Just as Gere creates a formidable evildoer, cinematographer John A. Alonzo crafts a nebulous environment fit for him to operate in. Alonzo’s camera takes in the underbelly of L.A. — the dirty, forgotten back alleys, the foreboding nooks under bridges and overpasses — and gives it a hazy, almost noirish beauty. His L.A. is a place where the lights twinkle, but they never show the Dennis Pecks waiting in the shadows to, much like Iago, “poison the delight” of unsuspecting men.