The Best Movie You Never Saw: Internal Affairs
Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.
Raymond Avila (Garcia), a smart, headstrong cop, joins the Internal Affairs division of the L.A.P.D. he must investigate a a police brutality case that leads to one of the police force’s most notorious cops; Dennis Peck, a rogue cop who does what he wants without fear of consequence. Once he catches wind that Avila is on his case, Peck begins to retaliate, digging into Avila’s personal and professional life, leading to both cops unraveling to a brutal showdown.
Screenplay is by Henry Bean (DEEP COVER, THE BELIEVER) with LEAVING LAS VEGAS director Mike Figgis at the helm. The pic stars Andy Garcia as Raymond Avila, Richard Gere as Dennis Peck, Nancy Travis as Raymond’s wife, Kathleen, Laurie Metcalf as Amy Wallace, Avilla’s partner and a supporting cast that includes William Baldwin, Michael Beach, and Xander Berkeley.
Screenwriter Henry Bean was brought in when the producers of INTERNAL AFFAIRS had read up on actual police corruption cases and felt there was a gem of a story in there. Bean worked to craft the story, eventually shaping a tale that fit director Mike Figgis’s style and further altering it to fit the character that Richard Gere would eventually play, Dennis Peck. Figgis took some finagling to get the gig at Paramount, but once locked in he immediately went to work on casting the role of Peck.
Andy Garcia was the hot new thing on the block, coming off THE UNTOUCHABLES and BLACK RAIN and was primed for a leading man role and INTERNAL AFFAIRS was his shot. After looking at contenders like Nick Nolte, Mel Gibson, and Kurt Russell for the villainous role of Peck, Figgis eventually went to Richard Gere, who was having a bit of a down period, still reeling from the flop that was NO MERCY. Eventually, Gere took the role of Dennis Peck, a conniving, womanizing, corrupt, and ruthless cop, which was a big step for the actor.
The film was release on January 12, 1990 and was received well by critics, currently sitting at 88 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. It did fair box office, pulling in $27.7 million overall, but wasn’t the kind of success that leaves the film regarded as a classic. Over the years, INTERNAL AFFAIRS has become one of the more notable films made in the ‘90’s, particularly for Gere’s performance and director Mike Figgis’ filmmaking style that catapults the film from a standard issue cop thriller to a deep, moody, and visceral one.
WHY IT’S GREAT: (Spoiler Warning - Plot details are discussed in detail here)
You probably know director Mike Figgis for his Oscar-nominated pic, LEAVING LAS VEGAS, which ended up netting Nicolas Cage a best actor win. But, Figgis’ first film, 1990’s INTERNAL AFFAIRS, is his most taut and engaging and unlike any he’d make again. Starring Andy Garcia as a newly appointed Internal Affairs officer for the LAPD and Richard Gere as a cop that he begins investigating, the film is essentially an dark indie flick hidden inside a commercial cop thriller.
Garcia, for his first leading man role, is solid as a rock. His Raymond Avila is a tough, smart, and moody cop who beams with a furrowed brow and interrogative stare. His eyes are always at work. At first it’s almost comical, but you realize that it’s his character tic and it works. Beyond that, he’s got charm and humor, where he easily could’ve been straight-laced.
Garcia’s Avila is also flawed, although not as deeply as he could be. His weakness is trust and jealousy, which serves as his Achilles heel. His wife is played by the lovely Nancy Travis (SO I MARRIED AN AXE MURDERER), rocking her trademark long, curly hair and wearing nothing more than skintight dresses throughout, is a strong-willed equal and the couple seem happily married, still wallowing in the honeymoon stage, which ends up being a thorn in Peck’s side.
Peck is a veteran cop who likes working the streets. He’s ultimately found a niche there, where he’s built up a steady network of snitches and connections to low-level criminals that help him make much more than a cop’s salary. By the time we meet him he’s basically a full-blown criminal in a police uniform and nothing’s going to change that. Except his partner, Van Stretch (William Baldwin), who is a walking case of police brutality and substance abuse. After an altercation gets Van Stretch in trouble, he has to contend with INTERNAL AFFAIRS and that means a sit down with his old academy buddy Raymond Avila.
"You know all your friends from the force? You don't have them anymore." - Amy Wallace (Metcalf) to Raymond Avila (Garcia)
Van Stretch is ultimately screwed with his brutality charges against him and Avilla uses that leverage to try and get him to roll over on Peck, who Avila would much rather take down. Peck, after all, does very little to hide his criminal affairs, using intimidation more so than smarts. While you may not think of Richard Gere as intimidating, this is the movie where he proves you wrong. He’s got his signature Gere charm, but behind it is a sort of menacing rage, which he can turn on and off with the flip of a switch. It’s damn near psychotic and a marvel to watch. If anything, it’s a reminder that Gere is capable of much more than just the slightly flawed nice guy roles he usually inhabits. Here, he is a true villain, a bad guy with no redeeming qualities, yet the charm to make you like him regardless. That’s no easy feat to pull off, but Gere nails it.
His ruthless demeanor is put on full display in a scene where his partner, Van Stretch, is shot. It’s revealed that Peck set up the shooting and is staging a crime scene, ultimately wanting his partner’s death to look like it happened “in the line of duty.” When he sees that Van Stretch is still breathing, he wraps his arms around his head, as if comforting him. Instead, Peck chokes the remaining life out of him, telling him to “breathe” all the while. When back-up arrives, it looks like Van Stretch simply died in his arms and Gere never misses a beat, looking like he is genuinely in shock. It’s a great scene that really gets to the heart of the character, which is ice cold and remorseless, willing to do anything in order to continue his way of life.
"How many cops you know, huh? 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?" - Dennis Peck (Gere) to Van Stretch (Baldwin)
Another outstanding performance in this film comes from Laurie Metcalf, who most folks will remember from the TV show Roseanne. Metcalf plays Avila’s partner, Amy Wallace, a smart, no-nonsense detective who also happens to be gay. She’s the straight-laced one to Avila’s more emotionally charged cop, but still playful and vulnerable at the same time. What I love about Metcalf here is that she feels so genuine. You buy that she would be this type of cop and her reactions to the things around her, be it a simple interrogation or responding to a fellow cop being shot, feel real and unrehearsed.
Later in the film, Wallace is shot, and just from the way she is lying on the ground, to her vulnerable state in the ambulance when she asks Avila to hold her hand, make the events feel that much more real and human. I know that sounds crazy when you’re talking about an early ‘90’s cop thriller, but it’s one of those hidden gem performances that rarely, if ever, gets noticed.
"All right. How about this then? Why don't you and Dennis Peck both *pull them out* and I'll decide which one's bigger!" - Amy Wallace (Metcalf) to Raymond Avila (Garcia)
There are a series of exchanges in the film between Avila and Peck, which often result in some form of a physical altercation and verbal fisticuffs. It’s a great back and forth between these two characters that amounts to a rivalry of opposing forces. Avila represents the utmost of the “goody two shoes” cops, being INTERNAL AFFAIRS, while Peck represents the lowest form of a corrupt cop. Their dynamic is simple; good vs. evil, with each of them pushing each other’s weak spots. For Avila it’s his wife. For Peck, it’s his family, which consists of eight kids, two ex-wives, and a new one with a bun in the oven.
In one of the more juicy confrontations between the two, Gere’s Peck confronts Avila in an elevator after spending the day toying with his head, putting on the illusion that he’s having an affair with his wife. What begins as a physical altercation, morphs into the final nail in Avilla’s breakdown, as Peck blusters about how he screwed his wife, leaving him with a pair of her panties to clean up the blood on his face. It’s another show of Peck’s viciousness and a great display of Gere’s ability to turn up the bad guy dial to ten.
"You're so fucking easy, Raymond. Like a big baby with buttons all over. I push the buttons." - Dennis Peck (Gere)to Raymond Avila (Garcia)
The thing about INTERNAL AFFAIRS is that it’s not a tightly woven tale. It’s actually thin as shit. It’s simple and not at all hard to follow, but the sell comes in the form of the actors, who portray these characters with pain, humor, and intensity. For Figgis, the use of various aesthetic techniques (slow mo, black and white, etc.) and a haunting, moody score (of which he helped create) make for a film that is much better than it deserves to be. They often say you can’t make a great movie out of a bad script and that’s mostly true. I wouldn’t say that INTERNAL AFFAIRS has a “bad” script, but it’s not Michael Mann or Elmore Leonard level. It’s simply a workable script that takes off with the direction and performances.
In the end, INTERNAL AFFAIRS is one of those films that leaves you nodding your head in approval when it’s over, both because it exceeded expectations and because it’s genuinely surprising that it’s as entertaining as it is. It really shouldn’t be. Although Andy Garcia and Richard Gere are highly respected actors, you probably wouldn’t think much of the two of them being in a cop thriller today, but back in 1990 they both put on a hell of a show together, even if a lot of it was due to genuine dislike of one another. It served the film well and stands as one of my all-time favorite cop thrillers. For my money, this is Gere’s best work outside his comfort zone and it’s a blast to watch him eat it up.
“This may be pretentious, but this is how we were thinking about it: It probably has more to do with ‘Othello’ than anything else. Dennis is a Iago-like characer who can find those secrets in you and can press that button. In this case, that’s jealousy.” - Richard Gere
INTERNAL AFFAIRS is full of great little scenes. A few punch outs, a few shoot outs, and a terrific finale are just some of the better parts in the film. It’s actually hard to choose, but for the sake of “showing you what I’m talking about” I’m going to include the elavator scene, which really puts Gere’s malevolence on full display.
''I immediately got a buzz from it; it was much more complex psychologically in the key relationships than anything I'd read. There was a lot to get your teeth into, so I went for it.'' – Mike Figgis on Henry Bean’s script for INTERNAL AFFAIRS.
Those that have seen the film will take note that the original trailer is chock full of cut or alternate scenes, including the ending of the trailer that has Garcia tackling Gere out the window. Would be interesting to see those cut sequences...
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