Primal Fear: Paramount Presents (Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray)

An altar boy is accused of murdering a priest, and the truth is buried several layers deep.

March 26, 2024 8 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton

Plot: What’s it about?

Based on the novel by William Diehl, Primal Fear hit screens in the Spring of 1996 and introduced the world to a young, almost unheard of actor. That actor? Edward Norton. The movie followed the story of a young choir boy who was accused of murdering an Archbishop in Chicago. Richard Gere played the lead role of Martin Vail, but it was Norton who stole the show and even ended up with an Academy Award Nomination to his credit. The novel also had a follow-up, Show of Evil, but that hasn’t seen an adaptation to screen. What set this movie apart from other “legal” movies (mainly by John Grisham) is that we knew the main character was scum (Gere). He’s egotistical, suave and good-looking – the hero you love to hate. He takes cases not because he wants to defend them, but because of where and how many times that he can get his name in the paper and photo in magazines. There’s no sense in doing something if you can’t get credit for it, right?

Criminal defense attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) is enamored with the spotlight and this causes him to take cases that consist of mobsters and lowlifes. He’s not viewed too favorably in the eyes of state attorneys and officials. They see him as worse than the thugs he represents. But his eye is caught by a chase caught on camera. The murder suspect is caught fleeing from a gore-soaked church library and he’s found, covered in blood. There are no witnesses, no other suspects and the aggressive prosecutor (Laura Linney) sees this as an open and shut case. Enter Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton), the accused, though his history of blackout spells aren’t helping him remember what really happened. Vail, fighting with the prosecutor (and former flame) gets involved with political powers, ill-gotten evidence and feels this is his case to lose. But with the case becoming unglued, does he have a chance of proving Aaron’s innocence?

What Primal Fear will probably be known for is the casting and, of course, the ending. At the time, Richard Gere was the only well-known major star, but since then Edward Norton, Laura Linney, Maura Tierney and Frances McDormand have all gone onto very successful movie careers. The movie takes place in Chicago, always a favorite when New York or Los Angeles isn’t in the cards. The performances are outstanding and only recently has Richard Gere actually had a better role than the one he played here. This is the kind of timeless, gritty movie that doesn’t really seem to be dated and doesn’t underestimate the audience either. For those who haven’t had a chance to see this gem from the mid 90’s, it’s one of the more underrated films and should the sequel ever hit the screen, I’ll be first in line.

Video: How does it look?

It’s been a long and winding road for this film to end up in 4K. It was one of Paramount’s early DVD’s and even showed up with a non-anamorphic transfer (a travesty at the time, but something we don’t even think of nowadays). It did see a Blu-ray release as well, but now a part of the Paramount Presents line of films, it’s gotten a new 4K image along with a remastered Blu-ray to boot. Originally shot in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, we find the transfer a bit slimmer in the 1.78:1 HEVC 4K format. Admittedly this isn’t the most colorful movie. Courtroom drams rarely are. The perpetual overcast skies of Chicago don’t exactly justify the deep colors your TV is capable of. That’s OK, though as the image has been cleaned up. Dirt and debris have been removed, the clarity has been bumped up a few notches as well. The film seems to retain the more cinematic look that I remember seeing in theaters all those years ago. In short, it’s a nice upgrade and worthy addition to Paramount’s catalog titles.

Audio: How does it sound?

While it might be ripe for a Dolby Atmos trackc, we get the same Dolby TrueHD track found on the Blu-ray. It’s of little consequence, though, as I doubt the atmospheric sound would add too much, if anything, to this film. One that comes to mind is the opening sequence in which we hear the train tracks squealing and the sound fills the room. By and large this is a dialogue-driven movie with vocals sounding clear and natural. There aren’t a lot of moments for the soundtrack to take off, but in the few scenes that the audio does take control, it sounds good. A bump up in sound quality? Yes, but let’s face it ? this isn’t a movie that relies too heavily on audio.

Supplements: What are the extras?

All of the supplements from the previously-released Blu-ray have made the leap to this 4K disc and we even get a new feature to boot.

  • Filmmaker Focus – As is the standard for a Paramount Presents release, we get a new feature with the film’s Executive Producer Hawk Koch. Koch is pretty down-to-Earth and tells of adapting the novel, casting and the like. It’s nice but nothing earth-shattering.
  • Audio Commentary – Director Gregory Hoblit, Writer Ann Biderman, Producer Gary Lucchesi, Executive Producer Hawk Koch, and Casting Director Deborah Aquila. There are a lot of voices on this track, but Hoblit takes the lead and does give a pretty decent track.
  • Primal Fear: The Final Verdict – The obligatory 20 minute “Making of…” featurette has plenty of sound bites from the cast and crew and gives a good, overall look at the making of the film.
  • Primal Fear: Star Witness – This one focuses on the character played by Edward Norton. We get some history of the character as well as Norton’s commitment to the role and so forth.
  • Psychology of Guilt – Without giving anything away, this feature looks at some of the different disorders and mental illnesses portrayed in the film.
  • Theatrical Trailer

The Bottom Line

If legal thrillers are your thing, likely this is near the top of your list. It’s got a good mix of action, drama and even a bit of humor to make for a great viewing. And let’s not forget the tour de force performance by Edward Norton. Paramount’s 4K offering improves the picture quality, gives us a new supplement and makes the old Blu-ray obsolete (and thank you for getting rid of that awful cover art)!

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