A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro
Not all bad movies are so-bad-they’re-good. The majority of them aren’t even so-bad-they’re-painful. The majority are just so-bad-they’re-inert. They sit on the screen flashing pictures at you and expect you to be engaged, and yet there’s nothing there worthy of your attention, let alone the millions spent to put pretty people in front of cameras.
To wit: THE TOURIST (2010). Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie in a mock-Hitchcockian thriller set in mostly in glorious locations in Venice. It is a dog. It doesn’t bark. But it is a dog. It doesn’t work at all.
For the benefit of those few of you will not take my word for this as I proceed, be apprised that this a fully spoiler review. In a paragraph or so I will be ruining the movie’s big closing twist, just so I can then go back through the plot from the beginning and demonstrate how little anything that happens here makes sense in terms of what we find out — or rather, since it’s not all that much of a surprise, confirm — in the last two minutes. Move beyond the next graf break and you have nobody to blame for yourself.
All right? You have lost your last opportunity to bail.
THE TOURIST is about high school math teacher Frank (Johnny Depp), who is traveling alone in Europe following the breakup of his marriage. Supposedly unknown to us until the end of the movie, this is an alias, and he is traveling on a forged identity. He is actually Alexander Pearce, once the accountant for a ruthless billionaire gangster, who stole billions of the gangster’s money and is wanted for Interpol, in particular, because he owes about 740 million in taxes on that money. While on the run, he has had about twenty million dollars worth of plastic surgery and has completely altered his appearance, so he can be anybody. It’s supposed to be a surprise that Frank, who stays in character until the very end, is actually Alexander. Keep that in mind.
Elise (Jolie) is Frank’s girlfriend, a glamorous and apparently independently wealthy woman who, in what is also supposed to be a surprise to us, a disgraced Interpol agent who spent a year undercover with Alexander in more ways than one, and is now deeply in love with him. She has not seen him in two years, has no idea what he looks like, and is now living a plush life of designer clothes and five-star hotels, while her ex-bosses spend millions and millions of dollars following her around waiting for Alexander to make contact.
So a street messenger hands Elise an envelope at the café where she’s eating lunch and, more importantly given the evident deep pleasure Jolie takes in her own presence, being seen. The letter from Alexander tells her to take a certain train for Venice, find a random man of Alexander’s body type, and spend time with him, to fool the cops into thinking that man is him.
Now, we will later learn that Elise has a serious character flaw, lethal to her effectiveness as an undercover policewoman: I.E, by her own admission, she falls in love with any man she spends any time with. This is important. If Pearce is aware of this, and he apparently isn’t, he has just risked setting her up with a vacationing rake salesman from Omaha. But as it happens, as she sashays through the train, smiling slightly at her own awesomeness, making eye contact with a great number of eligible, photogenic men who include a number of Interpol agents tracking her every move, the only guy on the train who not only fits that definition but also has an unoccupied seat opposite his is Frank: Frank, who has unkempt long hair and a mumbly way of speaking and, throughout the entire movie, only says one interesting thing. Frank, who happens to be secretly Alexander, though she doesn’t know it. Frank, who is written as a nigh-total cypher in a way that Hitchcock would not have permitted; he would have demanded that the character be played by Cary Grant and that he had interesting things to say, as was true of Roger Thornhill from NORTH BY NORTHWEST (another average guy on a train who sweeps a lady undercover agent off her feet, in a screen relationship we actually understand).
It’s not clear whether Alexander wanted Elise to pick him or whether it’s an incredible coincidence that he takes advantage of. What is clear is that there’s no chemistry between them, whatsoever. We know that Frank is evidently a well-meaning, somewhat shy guy a little startled to find himself picked up by this incredibly glamorous woman, but alas, he gets all of one good line throughout the entire film, where he tells Elise she’s ravenous and she tells him he probably means ravishing. That is about it, really.
Over at Interpol headquarters, the agents are 100% certain this is Alexander and set up a massive arrest operation at the station in Venice, but discover Frank’s records in time and call off the arrest. Except one of the agents is secretly in the pay of Reginald Shaw (Stephen Berkoff), the evil gangster, who sends his boss the news that Frank is Alexander but not that Frank isn’t Alexander. The revelation that, yes, Frank really is Alexander is the one that’s saved for the end of the film. The false-false identification is there only to summon Shaw, who is as scummy as most villains played by Berkoff, which is to say the kind of guy who kills his underlings with his bare hands for briefly disappointing him. (He does this in front of an innocent tailor fitting him for a suit, which struck me as villainy squared, because now he has to kill that guy too.)
So: after a not-scintillating train ride where Jolie shows too much charisma (of the I-know-I-have-charisma type, the kind that prompted the maxim that nines are tens who know they’re tens), and Depp shows none at all, she thanks the apparent clueless shlub for his time and dumps him cold. He starts fussing about with a tourist map, at which point she pulls up in a launch by a nearby canal and asks him to come with her. So he shrugs, why not, and next thing you know, she’s moving him into her suite of rooms at the Danieli.
More non-badinage ensues. They go to dinner. They are watched at every moment. She goes to bed and summarily tells him to use the couch. He meekly obliges.
This all makes sense if he’s Frank and he has no idea that he’s just being used. But he is Alexander and he knows he is just being used. He told her to just use him, in this way. What he doesn’t do is TELL her, even with a silent signal, that he’s actually Alexander. No story reason is given for this, except keeping the movie going.
Next morning: Elise leaves early in the morning without waking Frank. Frank is awoken by room service. Next thing he knows, thugs sent by Shaw have broken into the room to capture him. Still clad in his pajamas, Frank slips out a window and starts a not-thrilling rooftop chase, with the thugs chasing him. This movie contrives to have a world-famous star chased by assassins across the roofs of Venice and make it dull. That is an impressive technical accomplishment.
Interpol, which is still keeping Elise under surveillance, now has the note from Pearce instructing Elise to find an innocent dupe, and observes that this innocent dupe is being chased by assassins. The head agent is asked whether they should try to rescue the guy. He says no. He wants Pearce so badly that he’s prepared to let an innocent schmuck from Wisconsin die.
Fast-forward past a dull interval where Frank is in the custody of police, fast-forward past the crooked cop turning Frank over to the gangsters for money, fast-forward past Elise somehow — with no explanation given — knowing where this deadly exchange is taking place and showing up on her own boat to rescue him, fast-forward past another car chase, fast-forward Elise dropping Frank off at the airport and instructing him to fly home (whereupon he says that he loves her, this woman ‘Frank’ barely knows who has set him up to be killed, fast-forward past Frank showing up at the fancy dress ball where Elise has gone to meet Pearce to dance an exquisite waltz with her, still without ever once taking the opportunity to quietly let her know that he’s Pearce. She still has no idea.
It all comes down to a scene where the crooks have Elise in an ornate house, threatening to disfigure her with knives if she doesn’t open the safe for them — which she says she can’t — and the cops refuse to order the snipers to take the shot because they want Pearce so much. Then Frank, who has just escaped the cops himself, walks in and tells Shaw that HE is Pearce. It is still, supposedly, ambiguous because to prove it he only gives Shaw information that Elise has given him. However, any viewer paying attention to the law of conservation of characters will note that Pearce has been in proximity to these events since the beginning, and there is no character OTHER than Depp’s who he can be.
Elise still hasn’t figured it out.
Neither has Interpol chief Timothy Dalton, who orders the snipers to take the shot out of sheer concern for the endangered hostages. Pearce leaves a check for the back taxes, and lets Elise know he is secretly Pearce, though somehow she doesn’t slap him. He gets away with Elise on a sailboat. The end.
The fact that there is no chemistry between the leads is a major problem. The fact that the guy getting the girl has no emotional impact is another. But the fact that Depp’s Frank acts in character *as* Frank, throughout, even when nobody’s watching or when he’s in private with the woman Pearce supposedly loves, is fatal. THAT DOESN’T MAKE RETROACTIVE SENSE, at all.
What Hitchcock would have done with it!