It reads like a checklist of all the classic ingredients: a hapless but good-looking hero. A beautiful girl. An exotic locale. Sinister gangsters. Interpol. Trains. Guns. Five-star hotels. Chases by car, foot and boat. THE TOURIST boasts all of these and more, and yet – to my immense disappointment – the classic ingredients don’t add up to a classic dish. There’s something lacking at the core.
Adapted from the 2007 French film ANTHONY ZIMMER, THE TOURIST begins promisingly enough, with a squad of French police and a Scotland Yard agent (Paul Bettany) tailing a beautiful woman named Elise (Angelina Jolie) on a mysterious errand in Paris, watching as she meets a stranger in a cafe and receives instructions to travel to Venice by train. Outwitting and escaping her pursuers, she boards the train, where she meets and flirts with Frank (Johnny Depp), a thoroughly ordinary community college math teacher from America. He resembles her estranged husband, a man who embezzled two billion dollars from a notorious gangster and is wanted across Europe, and she plans to use Frank to distract the Italian police and the gangster’s men while she and her husband make their getaway. Of course, she didn’t count on falling for Frank in the process.
It’s a great setup, not too different from classics like CHARADE or TO CATCH A THIEF, but the film doesn’t do enough with it. Those films thrived on thrills and witty repartee, but the thrills are strangely lacking here: there is only one real action scene of note, and much of the suspense is defused by strange choices made in the script. For instance, a climactic scene with the villain menacing the heroes is robbed of urgency because we know that the police are lurking literally just across the street to shoot the villain in the head; the only question is when they will finally deign to do so. And instead of repartee and banter, we get Depp – who does a 180 from his Captain Jack Sparrow character by weirdly underplaying Frank – mutely tagging along behind this beautiful woman who constantly lies to and uses him. There is no back-and-forth, no verbal badminton.
Over and over, the film makes obvious choices. Paul Bettany’s Scotland Yard agent is frustrated and dyspeptic not because it is interesting, but because it is how the police in these sorts of movies always are. The lizardlike gangster (Steven Berkoff) is British but travels with Russian thugs, not for any readily explicable reason but because Hollywood loves British villains and ethnic mooks. There is a scene in a black-tie ball because these sorts of movies always have a scene in a black-tie ball. And so on, and so forth.
That’s not to say it is all bad, or even unpleasant. Jolie has only rarely looked better than she does here; she wears the evening gowns and opera gloves and diamond-studded chokers as if to the manner born, and Paul Bettany is always an encouraging presence in a film, even when he is not given much to do. Director Florian Maria Georg Christian Graf Henckel von Donnersmark, who brought us the great German drama THE LIVES OF OTHERS, clearly adores the lush classic-Hollywood aesthetic of excess and delights in showing us sun-dappled Tuscan landscapes, five-star hotel rooms, crystal goblets of wine and plates full of gourmet food, picture-perfect marketplaces (with fruit stalls just asking to be knocked over in a chase), a full moon over a Venetian canal at nighttime…the movie is almost exclusively populated by beautiful people and beautiful images.
And so despite the flaws, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t engaged by THE TOURIST – it’s a movie practically tailor-made to entertain almost anyone – and I might have thought better of it if it weren’t for an unfortunate last-act twist ending that exploded the goodwill it had been slowly accruing in me up to that point. That twist was also present in the original French film, but it would have been nice if co-screenwriter Christopher (THE USUAL SUSPECTS) McQuarrie could have ditched it. He, of all people, should know the difference between a twist that adds to a movie and one that betrays it.
Video: THE TOURIST is a gorgeous movie about gorgeous people and the 2.40:1 Blu-Ray transfer absolutely does it justice. From the lavish shots of Venice to the closeups of Jolie in a negligee, this is a disc that will richly reward seeing it on the biggest and sharpest TV you can find.
Audio: The DTS-HD audio track does its job; the dialogue and James Newton Howard’s score are the big stars here, but on the couple occasions when the action does heat up, the crack of bullets and the whir of propellers come through with crystal clarity.
Commentary by director Florian Henckel von Donnersmark – For my money, this is far and away the best supplement on the disc, a surpassingly engaging commentary with a filmmaker who clearly had a lot of fun with this movie and is filled with both effusive praise for his cast and crew as well as interesting technical and professional anecdotes. Honestly, I would rather listen to this again than watch the movie, and it has convinced me that despite my issues with his film, Donnersmark is a director to keep my eye on.
Outtake Reel – A very brief (~2 minutes) collection of pratfalls and actors breaking up into laughter for reasons that must have been hilarious but are not readily apparent to we the viewers. Skippable.
Alternate Animated Title Sequence – A classy and attractive intro in a James Bond vein; Donnersmark explains in the commentary that he prefers to dive straight into the film, which is a shame, because this would have set the tone nicely.
A Gala Affair – A short look at the fancy-dress ball sequence and the clever setwork required to transform a half-finished 16th-century Venetian palazzo into a lavish dance hall.
Bringing Glamour Back – The obligatory press kit making-of piece, with an emphasis on the movie’s exotic and elegant qualities.
Action in Venice – A quickie segment about the filming of the boat chase sequence and the difficulties encountered due to Venice’s draconian laws about boat speed (waves could expose the pillars the city is built on to oxygen, degrading them).
Tourist Destination – A three-minute set of interviews with crew about the enduring appeal of the Serene Republic.
Canal Chats – Cast and crew discuss the city while gliding in a canal boat in this six-minute piece.