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IT'S A TIE score thus far in the Lama Wars. On my card, the score reads: China 1, Hollywood Pretty Boys 1. In other words, if we have to have American heartthrob actors prosecuting the policies of the Chinese government, better to have Richard Gere in "Red Corner," which just opened, than Brad Pitt's erstwhile Nazi grousings in "Seven Years in Tibet" (which, when it's affecting at all, is affecting despite its crusade against China's subjugation of Tibet).

What will happen when Martin Scorsese weighs in with "Kundun" -- the movie China is almost as exercised about as the collapse of the Hong Kong stock market -- is anybody's guess.

Meanwhile, back at "Red Corner," anti-China and pro-Tibetan activist Gere has made a surprising and swift-moving thriller about an American lawyer who's almost ground up in the Chinese legal system when he wakes up from a one-night stand swathed in blood and with his fashion-model companion dead in the next room.

Given the massacre at Tiananmen Square, it comes as a surprise to a lot of us that China has a functioning legal system with any defendant rights at all, even if it's an Orwellian one where one is generally presumed guilty and admission of guilt is the only sure way to legal mercy. That there are, in fact, legal safeguards in Chinese courts is absolutely fascinating to encounter.

Gere plays an entertainment lawyer trying to get a foothold on the potentially huge Chinese market with a TV show called "Beachside" (a clever parody of "Baywatch"). He tweaks the Chinese commissars by reminding them of their strategy to "use the West for Chinese purposes." (If the West reveals itself to the Chinese people to be decadent and swinish, supposedly all the better for Chinese propaganda purposes.)

Later that night, he picks up a beautiful model at a fashion show. He discovers she's also an artist. After a night of champagne and sex, he finds her dead.

His collision with Chinese law is so absorbing and the tempo of the film is so swift that all the conventional thriller stuff -- the "pulse-pounding" chase scene, the confrontation outside the U.S. embassy -- doesn't derail the movie's intelligence (which, however well-moderated, is most definitely there).

What begins as a kind of variant of a Strange Woman in a Strange Town encounter turns into a Man vs. the State wrangle in which the lawyer is tossed around like a beanbag by his Chinese captors and, even worse, is patronized by an unusually slick American embassy operative who has a breezy and non-comforting cliche for every dire and depressing occasion.

It turns out that the lawyer's one-night stand is a Chinese general's daughter and his defense attorney (played by Bai Ling) has put her own life on the line to defend him. A lot of "Rising Sun" gets mixed up with "Casablanca" at the end, but as thrillers go, "Red Corner" tells us something we didn't know and keeps our eyes and brains nicely occupied for a couple of hours while doing it.

There are far worse things to do with one's free time, believe me.

Red Corner

Rating:*** 1/2 Richard Gere plays a lawyer ac cused of murder in contempo rary China. Written by Robert King, directed by Jon Avnet. Rated R, opening today in area theaters.

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