"RED CORNER" IS less the movie in which Richard Gere goes to China than the movie in which China comes to Richard Gere. That's a literal as well as metaphorical description -- director Jon Avnet had scores of Chinese actors (appealing Audrey Hepburn-esque co-star Bai Ling prominent among them) and tons of props flown to Los Angeles, where production designer Richard Sylbert constructed a scrupulously accurate Beijing neighborhood on a Culver City studio lot. Through digital effects and computer-generated composite shots, a few key Beijing exteriors are integrated seamlessly into several scenes. Filmgoers outside the Hollywood hype loop (if there are any left) will assume that the filmmakers somehow got permission to shoot in China.
But if the geographical illusion is completely convincing, the narrative illusion is fatally compromised. An intermittently engaging normal-guy-framed-by-police-state thriller (screenwriter Robert King originally meant it to be set in the Soviet Union), "Red Corner" is finally overwhelmed by the persona of its star, who practically oozes caring from every Dalai Lama-kissed crease in his suntanned visage. The more Christlike suffering Gere's character (imprisoned lawyer Jack Moore) must endure, the more the movie's subtext swallows its story, until all that is left is Gere's superior virtue, intermixed with his superior virility -- both of which are greatly appreciated by the evidently underserviced Chinese female population. "Red Corner" is a zone of conundrums where sexual exploitation of the rankest sort mingles with cloying sentimentality, where sophomoric cultural relativism bumps heads with the hoariest stereotyping. In the end, its painstaking attention to detail only underscores its fundamental bogusness; it's a movie where everything is correct and nothing is true.
Hold your fire, Tibet-lovers; I'm not criticizing Gere for his activism, or even for his acting. In fact, in the long list of contemporary American lead actors who excel at playing creepy guys, Gere's air of middle-class implacability has earned him a special place. He doesn't seethe inwardly, like Michael Douglas or Harrison Ford; he doesn't boil over, like Al Pacino or Robert De Niro. He just sits there with a cocksure smirk and those indolent, intelligent eyes. Even his outrage, when it comes, comes from a certainty that the dice rolled his way a long time ago. When Jack shakes his manacled hands at his Chinese captors and roars, "I'm an American citizen!" you believe he's exactly the kind of guy who would use that line.
When we first meet Jack, he's a top-drawer Gere character, a reptilian Western businessman who uses quotations from Chairman Mao to sell the Beijing government a softcore porn-laden satellite TV package. Jack watches wryly as a roomful of smoking, dark-suited apparatchiks comes quiveringly close to collective orgasm over an American T&A show called "Beachside." Throughout the film, in fact, Chinese men's sexuality is portrayed as onanistic and distasteful, in apparent contrast to Jack's full-blooded masculinity.
In short order, Jack's equally unctuous Chinese associate, Lin Dan (Byron Mann), takes him to see "the new China," which mostly means a disco throng dancing to "YMCA" and a lissome fashion model named Hong Ling (Jessey Meng), who takes Jack home for some rudimentary cross-cultural exchange. (In Hong Ling's apartment, Avnet actually treats us to several shots of champagne bottles copiously spewing foam.) To this point, the movie is slick, superficial and energetically paced, with that ominous psychic undertow all good thrillers possess.
We know what's coming, and Jack's arrogance and sense of entitlement are such that we half-believe he deserves his fate. But from the moment Jack is rousted out of bed by the cops and told that Hong Ling lies gutted in the next room, "Red Corner" begins to veer off course. The central plot riddle is garbled and amateurishly handled (I still don't know which of the nefarious Chinese men in suits killed Hong Ling and framed Jack), and the drama of wrongful imprisonment has been handled better in dozens of other films. Perhaps the problem is that Avnet -- best known for "Fried Green Tomatoes" and "Up Close and Personal" -- is more comfortable with sentiment than intrigue, and his attention quickly fastens on the budding relationship between Jack and Shen Yuelin (Bai Ling), the pixieish-yet-tough defense attorney assigned to his case.
Or, just maybe, the film is afflicted by its own bad conscience. After all, it employs an improbable case involving a white man to call attention to the myriad injustices of Chinese jurisprudence, under which thousands of citizens are executed for minor crimes every year. (If a big-shot American businessman really did kill a Chinese club chick, wouldn't the authorities be more likely to hush it up?) As if to justify this, "Red Corner" reverses its polarities, suddenly converting Jack from a schmuck to a saint -- albeit a manly saint who charms every woman from Shen Yuelin to her aged grandma to the grim-faced trial judge (Tsai Chin). He's not a soulless yuppie, it turns out, but a wounded one who lost his wife and child in a taxicab accident and has tried to fill the void with money.
Never in the history of capital-punishment cases has such insouciant billing and cooing transpired between lawyer and client. "You have beautiful hands," Jack twinkles. "Chemistry," Shen Yuelin giggles, "is that the right word? You are a romantic." She tells him that Chinese men -- all 600 million of them -- are threatened by her independence; his glowing approval gives her the strength to stand up to her conformist society.
Gere and Bai Ling are an undeniably skilled duo, and I rode along as they made preposterous sacrifices for each other, outlasted the repeated assaults of kung fu assassins and vainly tried to turn "Red Corner" into "Casablanca." But I left the theater feeling guilty for every time I've looked at an Asian woman on the street -- and believing that the infamous Asian stereotypes of earlier Hollywood (from Frank Capra's underappreciated "The Bitter Tea of General Yen" to "The World of Suzie Wong") were at least more forthright in presenting the tormented mixture of anxiety and desire with which the West regards the East.