With the recent release of the magnificent "Rabbit-Proof Fence," director Philip Noyce found his filmmaking roots, and returned to past glories. Now, with "The Quiet American" (IMDb listing), Noyce brings his previous experience to bear and crafts another high-quality suspense story with a thoughtful historical subtext.
The setting is Saigon, 1952. London Times reporter Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) has become drunk on the exotic beauty and decadence of the war-torn city, which is witnessing almost daily political upheavals. Fowler has a mistress, Phuong (newcomer Do Thi Hai Yen), whom he loves dearly, but cannot marry. Enter American medical director Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), who has come to the land to help the needy, but soon develops feelings for Phuong, along with a friendship with Fowler. As the two quietly compete for Phuong's heart, Fowler begins to investigate the emergence of a new leader in Vietnam, who is showing persuasive and treacherous ties to Pyle.
"The Quiet American" is a combination of soap opera and intrigue. It's a story about the turmoil in the land and in the heart. Based on the allegorical book by Graham Greene, "American" has all these political and mournfully romantic aspirations, and they're often mixed clumsily. One minute it's a meditation on the violence in Vietnam, the next, a struggle for a young woman's affection. While on separate levels both portions work, together they don't blend properly. However, Noyce has a great eye for location, history and casting, with his newfound attempts at storytelling keeping the interest in the film at a very high level. The picture is never dragged down by the elements that don't work.
It's about one hour into the picture when Noyce shelves the soap opera, and charges full steam into thriller territory. The adjustment succeeds because the characters did little to convince me of their passions behind their romantic entanglements, but sold me completely when it came down to murder. The tighter focus allows the film to open up, and erase all the nagging self-consciousness that juggling the storylines brought before.
In one of his more complex roles in recent years, Michael Caine is splendid as Fowler. A solemn force of heartache and weariness, Caine aces his role entirely. He's a pleasure to watch. Brendan Fraser also does a fine job with his complicated role. Having suffered through all the "Mummy" and "Monkeybone" pictures, it's a treat to see the actor actually pull something off that requires more than screaming and goofy faces. When actually challenged, Fraser can do wonderful things within his acting range. "The Quiet American" is solid proof of that.
Filmfodder Grade: B