666Exploring the dark flip-side to the same coin, Mike ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ Figgis’s sophomore feature is a stunning psychosexual crime thriller that is an early pioneer of both the docu-drama approach with its style, and the corrupt-cop-who-gets-results theme that, now, in an age of The Shield and Training Day, or Scorsese’s rip-off of the seminal Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, The Departed, audiences are more than familiar with. Boasting career-high performances from its two leads, Richard Gere and Andy Garcia, it posited Gere’s charming-but-ruthless street cop against Garcia’s relentless-but-volatile IA investigator, playing out as an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse as the two dance around one another, doing whatever it takes to win and, in the process, proving that they’re more alike than either would ever admit.
It’s one of those rare, great, head-to-head thrillers and Figgis’s clinically efficient study of these two opposing forces is a simmering stew of unyielding psychological tension that recalls classic cinematic face-offs like Olivier and Caine in Sleuth. Although steeped in palpable menace, and boasting a brooding, ever-building atmosphere, the narrative still feels like an authentic police investigation, with Figgis’s tempered direction and restrained choice of score allowing the thrills to be more naturally derived, and thus more effective. The film was further bolstered not only by the chemistry between the cast members, but also the unexpected animosity between Gere and Garcia, which unfortunately – but fortuitously – only echoed the sentiments of their respective characters, inadvertently lending the picture yet more clout.
“You know all your friends on the force? Well you don’t have them anymore.”
Raymond Avila has just joined the Internal Affairs Division of the LAPD, and his first assignment is to investigate an old friend from the Academy, Van Stretch, who has been pulled in for his third warning on use of excessive force. Checking bank records and background into Stretch, Avila discovers that the patrolman is living well beyond his means; spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year more than he earns. Avila suspects influence from Stretch’s partner, Dennis Peck, one of the highest regarded beat cops in the department, and he subsequently starts to mount a case against him, but he finds resistance from those above him, who view Peck’s results as being worth the price of a few bent rules here and there. Of course Peck isn’t going to take it lying down, and starts to make things personal, insinuating himself into Avila’s household and manipulating his wife, sparking off a dangerous psychological fuse which threatens to consume the obsessive young Internal Affairs agent.
It’s strange to think that the man who wrote and directed the Award-winning Leaving Las Vegas some 18 years ago (which earned an Oscar for Nicholas Cage, as well as Nominations for Elisabeth Shue, the Screenplay and the Film itself) has actually done very little since. Indeed, that film was supposed to be his farewell to Hollywood; a tribute, of sorts, to his disenchantment with the film industry – and everything he’s done since has been with regard to pioneering alternative filming techniques and cutting-edge technology. But before he became so disillusioned he kick-started his career with a couple of impressive crime thrillers: his debut, an homage to Get Carter – the capable Brit thriller Stormy Monday – and Internal Affairs, the first of two films he would do with star Richard Gere.
Gere had made something of a name for himself over the years since he made his debut, striking out in Malick’s ethereal Days of Heaven, but finding almost every one of his more daring performances overshadowed by his more commercial fares – for every American Gigolo, there was an Officer and a Gentleman looming over it, and Infernal Affairs suffered much the same fate, giving way to the commercial success of his other 1990 movie, Pretty Woman. Indeed it’s ironic that the ostensible benefit to his rise to stardom off the back of Pretty Woman would damage the credibility of many of his later, more serious vehicles, including his second film with Figgis, Mr. Jones, which, whilst being an honest reflection on manic depression, was instead promoted as a romance more in the vein of Pretty Woman.
Whilst everybody remembers his pairing with Julia Roberts, Gere has been capable of much more powerful work – most recently in the fantastic character study, Arbitrage – and Infernal Affairs marks on of those undeniable high points in his work, even if it was never suitably rewarded in terms of Box Office receipts.
“How many cops do you know who’ve got nothing? Divorced, alcoholic, kids won’t talk to them anymore, can’t get it up. Sitting there in their little apartments, alone in the dark, playing lollipop with a service revolver?”
Oozing charm, Gere’s Peck is a powerfully seductive manipulator of all around him. Initially it seems as though he is only helping those around him – trying to keep his partner, Van Stretch from losing his wife and job, and even planting a weapon on a suspect in order to help a newbie avoid an investigation into a wrongful shooting – but, before long, he starts calling in favours; his understated menace bubbling through to the surface as he blackmails and threatens his way through friends and foes alike. Along the way we get to see his true nature, whether it’s the seduction moves he puts upon somebody else’s wife whilst they’re hiring him to kill their parents, or during the horrific ambush sequence.
It’s a great, scene-stealing role, setting the mould for Vic Mackey in The Shield, or Denzel Washington’s character in Training Day, and Gere totally embraces the part; simply becoming the character as he relishes every single power-play and manipulation. Seemingly unflappable, he maintains cool control throughout, all the while systematically pushing the buttons of all those that get in his way.
His primary opponent was Andy Garcia’s dogged investigator, Raymond Avila. Garcia was something of a rising star at the time, and his own performance here would also be overshadowed by another release in the same year, Godfather Part III, a film which, despite earning him his only Academy Award nomination, was also somewhat derided as being inferior to both of its classic predecessors. Having made a name for himself with solid supporting turns in both The Untouchables and Black Rain, Internal Affairs offered him a much more prominent role, which allowed him to develop a character beyond just the charmer-with-a-fiery-temperament that he was known for.
Of course Avila, ultimately, was a victim to that same temperament, with the increasingly personal aspects of the investigation taking its toll on his home life, as Gere’s Peck mentally tortures his emotionally vulnerable opponent and pushes him to breaking point. On one fateful day of shooting, commitment to the part, or sheer overzealousness, would see Gere actually make contact with Garcia during a physical confrontation between their two characters (you can see it for yourself in the elevator sequence), something which would unfortunately lead the two to not only avoid one another during the film’s promotional tour and after-wrap party, but also never reunite on screen again.
In terms of the movie itself, the off-screen animosity between Gere and Garcia only benefited their characters, giving them a genuine, palpable sense of unbridled hatred for one another.
Supporting the two, Figgis managed to draw out surprisingly strong dramatic turns from numerous familiar faces, many of whom are more well known for considerably more lightweight material. Take, for example, Roseanne mainstay Laurie Metcalfe, who is great as Avila’s police partner, and shares fantastic chemistry with Garcia. Similarly William Baldwin does some of his truly rare best work here as the drug-addled Van Stretch – one can almost see why he got the chance to shine (even though he didn’t) in Backdraft the following year. Indeed it’s only perhaps Nancy Travis – most famous for her Three Men and a Baby / Little Lady contributions – who doesn’t rise to the more dramatic challenge, struggling to fully convince as Avila’s frustrated wife, who has seemingly no understanding towards her husband’s tough new assignment.
Figgis gained an early reputation for drawing out stellar performances from the most unlikely corners, and he certainly gets the most out of his cast here, but his adept handling of the material is even more impressive, allowing Internal Affairs to develop with brilliantly efficient pacing in such a manner that you could easily believe that this was the course of a genuine police investigation. Indeed Figgis reels in any standard directorial flourishes, and keeps his score almost non-existent (using a latino-edged percussion to undercut a few moments, but leaving most of the punch until the final act), instead showing his ‘style’ through clinical editing, and bursts of unexpected violence.
Notwithstanding a flurry of well-staged physical confrontations and police operations – which even throw in a little slo-mo to heighten the impact – Figgis is largely prepared to wait patiently during his investigative narrative, plotting out surveillance sequences in meticulous fashion, whilst always using them to further character development. Unafraid of more experimental flourishes, he’s far from a dry director, prepared to mess with our minds during the more intense, borderline-hallucinogenic psychological moments which adopt blue monochrome flash imagery.
It’s the battle of wits between the two lead characters that drives the piece, however. Their parallel arcs are brilliantly exposed, mirroring one another in many ways, whilst differing in others. We get to see Avila’s naturally intuitive interrogation technique; unafraid to be direct and emphatic when necessary, but also prepared to play his hunches to great effect. Peck is far more underhand, and often more physical, resorting to slaps, shoves or grabs to emphasise his true nature, whilst always prepared to smooth things over with a trademark smile and kind words, as if that makes everything better.
As the stakes are raised, the two become yet more alike, one newbie officer caught in the crossfire even commenting to Avila that his somewhat underhand manipulations are the kind of thing that Peck would come up with. Both are clearly prepared to do whatever it takes, and both also resort to physical violence when pushed towards it – particularly by the people closest to them.
In many ways Internal Affairs would work brilliantly as a stage play; the sharp dialogue and numerous confrontations almost all happening in close quarters, with minimal players; Figgis ensures that his characters do as much damage with their words – in particular Peck’s mindgames – as they do with fists and firearms.
“You can trust me... I’m a cop.”
The bottom lineYou can easily see why this film was passed over in the shadow of the lead actors’ respective bigger features. Ask anybody to name just any three Richard Gere movies, and you can guarantee that Pretty Woman will be one of them, almost as much as you could guarantee that Internal Affairs wouldn’t even be on the list. As it turns out, this film marks a career high for both Gere and Garcia, as well as a rare early classic from Figgis. If you’ve never heard of it, then take that as a blessing because now you get to watch this little gem for the very first time. Trust me, you won’t regret it.
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