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Courtroom drama `Red Corner' tries hard but ends up guilty

If good acting and good intentions made for good films, then "Red Corner" would be a great. Unfortunately, this would-be courtroom drama is saddled with a script that makes the later-period "Perry Mason" TV movies seem intelligent by comparison.

If that's not enough, "Red Corner" also spends much of its time trying to figure out whether it wants to be a straightforward courtroom drama or an action film - that is, when it's not taking cheap potshots at the Chinese government.Granted, that government is an easy target, especially when its officials refused to let the movie crew shoot in their country - and later, when some of them made veiled threats toward the movie's star, Richard Gere. But that squabbling is better left to TV tabloid programs than feature filmmaking.

Gere plays Jack Moore, a negotiator for a large U.S. entertainment corporation looking to make in-roads in China. Jack is close to making a deal with Chinese officials to bring in his company's programming, but he gets sidetracked by Hong Ling (Jessey Meng), a beautiful fashion model.

He is awakened the following morning by Chinese police officials, who discover the woman's body, along with a bloody knife that happens to have Jack's fingerprints all over it.

In court, Jack tries to plead innocence, but his court-appointed "defense advocate" Shen Yuelin (Bai Ling) advises against it. ("Leniency for those who confess, severity for those who resist," she tells him.) Making things worse is the fact that the murdered woman's father is a powerful Chinese warlord (Li Chi Yu) who has sworn vengeance on Jack.

However, as the trial unfolds, the skeptical Yuelin uncovers evidence that Jack may have been framed by a German entertainment corporation trying to make a similar deal with the Chinese.

For awhile it appears as if director Jon Avnet ("Up Close and Personal") and screenwriter Robert King ("Clean Slate") might be on to something. But in the film's second half they abandon solid story-telling to inject some action into the mix and dredge up some particularly creaky cliches for its dopey ending.

Frankly, if you're familiar with the old "Perry Mason" formula, you'll know what's coming next, since the real killer is obvious from minute one. So it's to the credit of the actors that they get any mileage out of this lame material.

Gere is better here than he's been in any movie since "Pretty Woman," and Bai Ling, a Chinese actress relegated to minor roles in films such as "The Crow," betters him with what could be a star-making performance. Supporting actors Tsai Chin ("The Joy Luck Club"), James Hong and especially Peter Donat, aren't nearly as lucky, though, since their underwritten roles could have been played by extras.

"Red Corner" is rated R for violence, sex, nudity, some profanity and some brief glimpses at a series of gory photos.