Essentially a standard issue murder mystery set in anything but a standard courtroom, "Red Corner" is a somewhat entertaining variation on this genre. Most audiences are used to the "rules" of courtroom procedure and the standard plots set in such locales. By upsetting these rules and turning them on their head, however, director Jon Avnet ("Risky Business," "Fried Green Tomatoes," and "Up Close and Personal") and screenwriter Robert King have fashioned a legal thriller that will keep you in the dark about the guilty suspect(s) right until the end. While there's never really much doubt about what will happen to Richard Gere's character by the film's conclusion, or the motivation behind the murder, there is the mystery of who did it.
Still, the film could have used more red herrings (such as making Gere a true suspect in our eyes) to flesh out the mystery element a bit more. After a few items are discovered relating to the case, part of our interest diminishes since they (the film makers) let Gere off the hook too quickly. Then again, the murder mystery plot is simply a backdrop for examining what the film has on trial -- and that's the Chinese societal and legal system. Since we know that Gere's innocent, the thrill of the film is to see whether the truth will get through the archaic -- and as we see it -- unfair legal process. That part of the film is highly effective and there's no question as to Gere's involvement in this film regarding that and other issues. A long time supporter of the exiled Dali Lama, Gere is an active critic in trying to expose China's faults, and hopes to instigate changes there. While this film is an okay dramatic piece, I don't think it will sweep in any radical changes in China, especially since it will probably never make it to their theaters.
Speaking of China, it's quite a surprise to find that the film was actually shot in Southern California and not on the streets of Beijing. While they filmed a few guerilla style shots in Tiananmen Square, most of the film was shot inside an elaborate mockup of a Beijing neighborhood. Two-time Academy Award winning production designer Richard Sylbert (who won for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," and "Dick Tracy") has created such a realistic set that it will not be surprise to see him nominated again for his work in this film. Mixed with the camera work of director of photography Karl Walter Lindenlaub, the sets of "Red Corner" are unbelievably good and this cinematic "trickery" is amazing to behold.
The performances are okay, with Bai Ling (in her first starring role in an American film) being the best as she brings an intensity and honesty to her role that seem true. Then there's Richard Gere. While many have criticized his acting style as wooden and expressionless, I've always liked him as an actor. Perhaps it's his cocky on screen charisma, but I've never minded what others often call his limited acting skills. He's pretty much the same in this film as in others, though, except that he gets roughed up a bit and is forced to wear the same outfit throughout most of it (being in prison and all).
He and Bai Ling unfortunately have to deliver some stilted dialogue that doesn't always ring true and often seems misplaced or forced in several of their scenes. Some lines about Jack's family being killed in a car wreck seem thrown in just for the sympathy vote -- and it works -- but they seem out of place. Additionally, at times the film does feel a bit preachy regarding China and their ways. While it's certainly the film makers' right to produce whatever type of film they want and use it a pulpit for whatever they want to say, here that message also feels a bit stilted. How you'll view the movie probably depends for the most part on how you feel about Gere and/or his politics. If you don't like him, you'll probably feel the same about this movie as much of its success rides on his performance. On the other hand, if you do like him -- as we do -- then you will probably find that the movie comes off as passable, but not great entertainment. We found it that way and thus give "Red Corner" a 5 out of 10.