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Before the deluge: Caine and Yen (right) in The Quiet American.

Fatal Innocence
By Shawn Stone

The Quiet American
Directed by Phillip Noyce

This adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel about the earliest days of United States intervention in Vietnam couldn’t be more timely. With the current administration ready to project power across the globe in the self-described service of “democracy,” it’s worth looking back on a golden age of American hubris, the mid-20th century. In what was then French Indochina, a young turk from Boston arrives with an anticommunist “how-to” manual and enough optimism and enthusiasm to power an entire Harvard cheerleading squad. Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) wants to cure a common eye disease among the native peoples, and, in particular, save a young woman named Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen) from the clutches of aging, married, opium-smoking Brit journalist Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine). The young American can’t see what’s coming when he tangles with Fowler, who is the personification of wily, desperate—and ultimately, fearlessly moral—Old Europe.

The film takes place in 1950s Saigon, as the French are losing their colonial war against Ho Chi Minh’s communist insurgents. Fowler, the jaded journalist, takes no sides. He has a good life—a job that isn’t very taxing, a wife and home far away (“I like London,” he explains, “right where it is”), and that beautiful young mistress. Pyle’s arrival threatens all of this. He falls in love with Phuong at first sight, and offers her the protection of marriage that Fowler can’t. Meanwhile, Pyle also seems to be something more than just a social worker—after he arrives, strange things begin to happen involving a new, “independent” rebel army, which opposes both the French and the communists.

Most of the attention the film has earned has been directed at Caine’s performance—and rightly so. Unlike, say, The Hours, in which you can appreciate the surface of Nicole Kidman’s turn as Virginia Woolf without having to contemplate what her character really stands for, Caine’s journalist is the true moral center of the film. The dilemma he faces is both personal and political. For while Pyle blithely conflates saving the country with saving the girl, Fowler must separate the two desires and decide the best way to satisfy both. The pain of age and the burden of wisdom are evident in Caine’s every movement; the offhand way in which he seals everyone’s fate—with the opening of a book and a few lines of verse—is poetic and profound.

Australian Phillip Noyce, who helmed a couple of big-budget Hollywood adaptations of technology-obsessed Tom Clancy novels in the ’90s, has successfully reinvented himself as a card-carrying indie filmmaker. Following the equally low-budget and dramatically devastating Rabbit-Proof Fence—which chronicled the official, decades-long racist policies of the Australian government—The Quiet American arrives as the second film in the director’s one-two punch of cinematic anti-imperialism. Both films present stark examples of wrongheaded attempts to refashion the world according to small-minded, blatantly undemocratic ideologies. The scary part, of course, is that the folks behind those ideas in both films are convinced they represent all that is right and good. As previously suggested, nothing could be more timely.

Thug Ugly

Cradle 2 the Grave
Directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak

The soundtrack-intensive Cradle 2 the Grave opens to the dirgey strains of “Go to Sleep,” a rap song by DMX and Eminem. Hunky DMX is the co-star of this slick actioner, along with martial artist Jet Li, yet nothing in the movie begins to approach the disturbing power of its theme song. For the empty-headed Cradle, director Andrzej Bartkowiak—whose previous film, Romeo Must Die, broke Hong Kong phenom Li into the U.S. market—is merely repeating his ultra-stylish, ultra-violent formula of chop-socky gang-banging. As a promo for the soundtrack, Cradle rocks, but as a martial-arts flick, it’s as overloaded and insensible as a Cadillac SUV.

SUVs come to mind because one of the film’s elaborate death matches pits a monster four-wheel vehicle against a sleek, pricey sports car. Another set piece involves an illegal smackdown in a club, during which Taiwanese investigator Su (Li) and a mob of bare-knuckled opponents topple the ring’s fence and trample dozens of onlookers. (This queasy reminder of the recent nightclub tragedies only makes the film’s glorification of thug glamour even more reprehensible.) Su is looking for black diamonds stolen from his government, but that’s just a contrivance to get Li’s character into the country and Li into the movie. In a role that appears to have been grafted on, the nearly silent Su doesn’t do anything other than lend his wushu-style kickboxing to the jacked-up action, mostly because the film’s showcase star, DMX, can’t do wushu.

DMX plays Tony, the mastermind behind a fabulously well-financed thievery ring who steal the black diamonds from a vault using a black-market rocket. Uzis, apparently, are yesterday’s news. The pseudo-spiritualized crew members clasp hands and intone “faith” before every heist, and they only rip off drug dealers, although they’ll do business with the scum of the earth, including a rather amusing Tom Arnold as a wussy black marketeer. Gabrielle Union, whose spunky charm is comparable to Reese Witherspoon’s, is relegated to providing T&A as Tony’s crewmember girlfriend.

Tony and Su team up after Tony’s young daughter is snatched by a sadistic international arms dealer played by Mark Dacascos, the Hawaiian kung fu world champion who proved sensationally cinematic in last year’s martial-arts epic Brotherhood of the Wolf. No such luck here: Dacascos’ scary agility and Li’s amazing acrobatics are consistently short-circuited in favor of gimmicky effects, one of which cribs from old vampire movies. Not content with graphically breaking bones and gouging out eyes, the director adds some digitalized internal carnage as well. Bartkowiak, a prolific Hollywood cinematographer for decades (from Speed to Nuts), knows his stuff, and Cradle’s whiplash pace and big-budget props are almost eye-catching enough to gloss over its offensive concepts, including the script’s enlightened-rap tokenism. The director also comes off as having a real passion for the rap genre, but that’s probably as authentic as DMX’s airborne double-reverse karate kick.

—Ann Morrow


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