Its population is estimated at 1.2 billion, but China only sounds like a large and powerful country. In fact this would-be colossus is no match at all for Richard Gere when he gets his dander up. Or so "Red Corner" would have you believe.
Directed by Jon Avnet, no friend of subtlety, "Red Corner" is a sluggish and uninteresting melodrama that is further hampered by the delusion that it is saying Something Significant. But its one-man-against-the-system story is hackneyed and the points it thinks it's making about the state of justice in China are hampered by an attitude that verges on the xenophobic.
Gere plays Jack Moore, a top attorney and negotiator for an American firm eager to get the rights to beam trash TV into China via satellite. He wears glasses to show he's smart and knows just the right quote from Chairman Mao to throw into conversation when things get sticky.
What Moore apparently doesn't do is watch his own product, or else he'd know that he's being set up when a sultry Beijing fashion model starts eyeing him seductively. But, like too many men, he assumes he's irresistible and spirits the woman off to his hotel room for a night of genteel debauchery.
That doesn't seem like such a good idea the next morning, when a hung-over Moore awakens to discover that the woman has been murdered and his bloody fingerprints are on everything but the remote control. Making things worse, she turns out to be the daughter of a powerful Chinese general. And is he ever in a bad mood.
In fact the Chinese that "Accused Moore," as everyone takes to calling him, comes into contact with are among the most sinister and unsmiling group of Asians to emerge from Hollywood since the "Beasts From the East" movies of World War II. And the justice system and prisons they work for make traditional Hollywood penitentiaries seem like spa vacations by comparison.
Instead of being read his rights, Moore is informed he has no rights and that the easy-to-remember motto of the country's judicial system is "Leniency for those who confess, severity for those who resist." Moral education of criminals is the aim in China, and judges tend to get mightily offended if the accused is not properly repentant.
Moore's typically Western response is to get arrogant and pushy, which just steps on their last nerve as far as the Chinese are concerned. They beat him unmercifully, wash his dinner plate in the nearest latrine and break his glasses, which he doesn't seem to miss and looks better without anyway.
While no one is suggesting that Chinese justice would pass muster before an international tribunal at The Hague, presenting the situation in such a heavy-handed and obvious manner does not create dramatic interest. And as the aggrieved Moore, who spends much of his time losing his patience and screaming things like "Do you have any idea what I've been through?," Gere contributes no more than a rigid and graceless performance.
Naturally, Moore's only line of defense is a woman just as attractive as the one who was murdered in his hotel room but much more resistant to his charms. Shen Yuelin (Bai Ling) quizzes Accused Moore closely about his one-night stand with the general's daughter ("Is this the typical duration of your relationships?") and tells him that, big as China is, she's yet to run across "a man not threatened by a woman's intelligence."
Still, as Shen Yuelin gradually comes to believe in Moore's innocence, the two of them end up making a heck of a team. She maneuvers behind the scenes and he simultaneously hijacks China's legal system and outwits the entire Beijing police department. All that remains are a spate of final courtroom surprises that fans of the exploits of Perry Mason will find familiar.
For the script by Robert King, whose previous credits include the best-forgotten "Speechless," never strays from the generic. Inspired by an incident King witnessed in Italy that first got changed to Russia before ending up in China, the peripatetic "Red Corner" takes a sledgehammer approach to what may well be a serious problem. You just wouldn't know it from this film.
* MPAA rating: R, for some violence and a scene of sexuality. Times guidelines: continual graphic prison beatings.
Richard Gere: Jack Moore
Bai Ling: Shen Yuelin
Bradley Whitford: Bob Ghery
Byron Mann: Lin Dan
Tsai Chin: Chairman Xu
Released by MGM Pictures. Director Jon Avnet. Producers Jordan Kerner, Charles Mulvehill, Rosalie Swedlin. Executive producers Wolfgang Petersen, Gail Katz. Screenplay Robert King. Cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub. Editor Peter E. Berger. Costumes Albert Wolsky. Music Thomas Newman. Production design Richard Sylbert. Running time: 1 hours, 59 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.