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Review: “Internal Affairs” (1990)

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.

Grade: B

One to Watch: “Amelia”

There are times when a movie opens and you don’t expect much fanfare (this happened with “Brothers Bloom”). And then there are times a movie hits theaters and if you pull apart the fabric folds of the universe, hold them up to your ear and listen very, very carefully, you hear the words “Oscar … Oscar … Oscar.”

(Note to all physicists and aeronautical engineers and astronmers: I apologize for this gross perversion of several renowned theories about the universe, including — I think — string theory.)

Denial is futile; it’s clear Mira Nair’s biopic “Amelia” aims for (and probably will be) the second kind of movie. But I have to say that I … don’t care. There is no actress better suited for this epic a role than Hillary Swank. Lightweight romantic comedy and Lifetime films she cannot manage and buxom vixens she cannot play, but a role like this? Where she’s given room to breathe and express and perform? You doubt she can do amazing things as Amelia Earhart, just go back and revisit “Boys Don’t Cry.” Richard Gere I have less faith in, but Swank? I have no doubts she’ll deserve every nomination she gets.

And, really, isn’t it time we applauded her efforts to live down “The Reaping”?


Quick Picks: “Nick and Norah,” “Nights in Rodanthe”

“Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” (Michael Cera, Kat Dennings, Ari Graynor, Alexis Dziena)

“I will not be a goody bag at your pity party,” Norah (a quirk-perfect Dennings) curtly informs heartsick Nick (the awkwardly hilarious Cera) in the self-consciously hip but pithy “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” and so begins one of the most smart, sweet and satisfying big-screen teen couplings to date. The meet cute unfolds thusly: Newly dumped by his sexpot ex Tris (Dziena), Nick and his queercore band The Jerk-Offs set out for a gig at a dive Big Apple bar. He meets Norah, who’s babysitting her perpetually smashed pal (Graynor), and various hijinks – some funny, a few contrived, one disgusting – ensue. But the disconnected plot matters little: the dialogue is snappy yet believable (take that, “Juno”), the soundtrack is indie perfection and the chemistry crackles between Cera, Jedi master of the bashful zinger, and a sarcastic, smokin’ Dennings. Here’s a pity party worth crashing.

Grade: B-

“Nights in Rodanthe” (Diane Lane, Richard Gere, Viola Davis)

Nothing ruins a pair of subtle but heart-wrenching performances – here delivered by Lane, faultlessly vulnerable as always, and a surprisingly poignant Gere – like schmaltz. And too many scenes in “Nights in Rodanthe” are littered with big, steaming piles of the stuff. That’s hardly surprising – nobody does gag-me melodrama like Nicholas Sparks – but it’s disheartening to those of us itching for a fresh Lane-Gere romance. (Remember “Unfaithful”? Chemistry doesn’t get hotter.) Still, these big-screen vets manage to develop characters that transcend the so-bad-Hallmark-wouldn’t-print-it dialogue. Lane is Adrienne Willis, a wife and mother with a crumbling marriage who escapes to Outer Banks, N.C., to tend to a friend’s (Davis) seaside inn. She finds a kindred spirit in the visibly damaged Dr. Paul Flanner (Gere), and the two stumble into a tentative, life-changing mid-life romance. The manipulative ending’s over-the-top horrible, but it doesn’t get better than Gere and Lane. Prepare to watch your heart melt into your popcorn.

Grade: C+