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Non-Review Review: The Tourist

In theory, The Tourist should be great fun. After all, the last time we had a high-octane romantic adventure thriller, we ended up with the genuinely entertaining Knight and Day. And, if anything, Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie should represent a large step-up from Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t quite deliver. Mistaking twists for plot and assuming that strong leads can make up for underwritten roles, the film flails around rather randomly, alternating between a genuinely exciting little European thriller and fairly paint-by-numbers twist-a-minute adventure, it never manages to set a particular tone, and leaves its two actors struggling to stay afloat amid the rather wonderful Venetian scenery.

Tour of duty?

The movie is directed by Florian Henckel von Doonersmarck, which is now officially on my shortlist of “most awesome sounding names ever.” It starts out as one thing, as we’re asked to follow an international criminal setting up a gullible American tourist by making various law enforcement officials (and British gangsters) assume he’s actually a criminal mastermind. As the characters get in over their heads, and find themselves under fire from all directions, the two seem to fall in love with one another – which makes things even more complicated.

Well, at least we’re told that they fall in love. Because Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp spend the entire film without a hint of chemistry. Both are solidly entertaining in their own right (although Jolie’s British accent is just a bit grating), but you put them together… and nothing happens. It’s a shame, because that’s the fundamental principle of any caper movie like this – you need leads that just click automatically, and work really well together. Unfortunately, despite their strengths, Depp and Jolie don’t work well together.

Partners in time?

I suspect the script is a problem. I won’t spoil the film by describing the ending, which is so absolutely insane and illogical (and so thoroughly undermines everything that came before) that it makes Salt look like a coherently-plotted masterpiece, but will say that the entire movie is based around the premise that anything and everything can be sacrificed in service of a good twist. So you’re never really certain about were the characters – the sexy fugitive and her American mark – stand with one another. The sand beneath their feet is constantly shifting and what we assume to be fairly basic truths (about their characters) become lies. And the revelation that these aspects of themselves are lies doesn’t serve to generate drama, it’s used as a deus ex machina to resolve the plot and send us on our merry way.

You might argue, and you’d be entirely right, that a good thriller can play with a central character’s identity and still be a solid piece of entertainment. The Usual Suspects comes to mind, as does Memento. However, this doesn’t really work with romantic films, because watching two people fall in love isn’t interesting if they aren’t the two people who end up together at the end of the film. Love, especially on film, is about honesty with somebody else – letting them know who you truly are (perhaps not literally, but emotionally and figuratively). Unless the uncertainty of the relationship is the entire point of the twist or the film (like in True Lies), it’s a risky gambit to base an entire central romance on lies.

I have difficulty following the movie's train of thought...

There are other problems as well. The most obvious is that the film substitutes a twist for character growth or development. Watching two people fall in love is fascinating, because it usually involves one or the other coming to some deep realisation, or taking a chance or a risk. That doesn’t really happen here. We think at one point that one of the characters might have grown, but instead it’s revealed that this is part of the twist. I hope I’m not being irritatingly vague.

It’s a shame, because some of the movie works quite well. Venice looks absolutely stunning, especially when shot from a height during the daylight hours. The action scenes are impressive, and it’s always entertaining to watch Depp play a character who is out of his depth in dealing with the situation presenting itself. As a Wisconsin maths teacher, coming under fire from Russian gangsters, there’s something quite charming about his bumbling routine.

Out of his Deppth?

That said, I’m not entirely sure what to make of the movie’s portrayal of Americans abroad. On one hand, Depp’s character seems almost a parody of the stereotypical American tourist that we see in fiction all the time. If he weren’t being chased across rooftops by deadly assassins, he’d probably be standing around in shorts with his camera. He’s so utterly unaware of what’s going on that there’s a recurring joke where the character confuses Spanish for Italian. When confronted with the Italian authorities, Depp is very quick to insist that this can’t be right.

“I’m an American,” he insists repeatedly, “I have rights.” The obvious implications seem to be that either he has more rights by virtue of being American (hence mentioning his nationality was important), or that the rest of the world is completely unaware of concepts like due process (and he has to remind them). At one point, while the Italian authorities are investigating his attempted murder, Frank seems to demand that they step aside and let the Americans run the show… because clearly these local law enforcement officers can’t be trusted. I’d almost read it as something of a bitter commentary on that oh-so-common (and completely unfair) portrayal of American tourists who can’t grasp that nations and authorities exist outside their own borders…


… at least until Frank is proven entirely right. Not only do the Italian authorities prove to be inept past the point of a joke, they are corrupt as well. The British InterPol agent assigned to track him down isn’t corrupt, but he’s indifferent to any risk to the subject of his investigation, even a hapless American tourist. Despite how wonderfully scenic Venice might look, Europe doesn’t come out of this picture looking especially good. Of course, it’s par for the course in any thriller that law enforcement is ineffectual, but it does seem a bit much when an American tourist is repeatedly subjected to the corruption and incompetence of European law enforcement (to the point where it seems like Frank is waiting for a starring role on Banged Up Abroad).

Still, it’s a nice cast assembled for the film, even if they have little to do. Stephen Berkoff is one of those actors who never really got the screentime that he deserved. Paul Bettany does the best he can with an underwritten role. Timothy Dalton steals every scene he’s in – but he’s only in a small handful. The two leads do a decent job, but they never seem to play particularly well off one another.

It’s a shame. The Tourist could have been fun. Instead, it’s just a disappointing adventure which is never as smart as it likes to think it is.

2 Responses

  1. I find Angelina much more interesting than Depp here. He just seems turgid, but you’re right the script is wrought with issues and they don’t work together at all.

    • Yep. It’s a waste, because it had a great set-up for an old-school comedy action adventure star vehicle.

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