Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Tourist review

Upon arriving at the cinema I had to decide between watching The Tourist, starring Depp and Jolie, and Faster – an action movie starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Billy Bob Thornton. Amongst all those big names Thornton is the only one I actually don't like. For that reason and others I decided to go for the Tourist.

The movie was quite watchable. I was happy to see Paul Bettany, who I rather like, and it was interesting to me to see him with Rufus Sewell again. Johnny Depp was convincing as an awkward schoolteacher out of his depth and Angelina Jolie played her part well. There were a couple of action scenes that, while not particularly gripping, worked. The plot was reasonably interesting and I have no complaints with the pacing.

However, the movie does have one big problem. First of all, this is not an action or comedy movie, it is described as a drama (I would say suspense, although that's probably a given). That means the pay-off for watching is really all in the ending. To put it bluntly, in this kind of movie we are expecting a twist at the end. Perhaps we shouldn't, I don't know of any rule that says a drama has to have a surprise ending, but the fact is it needs a bang at the end and that usually means a twist. This is where the movie fizzles out.

The problem is everyone saw the twist coming. I saw it coming but dismissed it as too far fetched. There's a bit of a contradiction there; if the twist ending makes perfect sense it risks being too predictable, telegraphed even. However a twist with no hints that it is coming usually has no impact because it feels divorced from the story. The real art is to write a twist ending that does tie in with the whole story, answer all the questions and shed new light on events we took for granted, without being obvious and predictable. This usually means that it cannot be straight-forwards, however if it is too convoluted it risks being contrived and unbelievable – especially since the more convoluted the writer tries to make it generally the more plot holes and logical shortcomings it ends up with.

Take the end of The Usual Suspects. The beauty of it was that there were no hints so the end was not predictable, yet it was completely intertwined with the entire movie, and it achieved this without feeling forced. The twist at the end was so integral to the whole movie that it made us question everything we had just seen – how much of it was true, how much was subtly altered, and how much was outright fabrication?

Most of the time movies and TV shows err on the side of being too predictable or too contrived. This is just conjecture, but I suspect the predictable ones were written with the final twist in mind from the start while the contrived ones are more concerned with the drama inherit in the mystery and the end is written later to try to tie things together (this I believe is more often seen in TV series that are less about the plot and more about putting the characters in to new situations every week). To be honest I cannot decide which category the Tourist falls in to. It is predictable partly because we are expecting a twist and the plot is not particularly complex so there aren't many possible outcomes, and the actual end is not so hard to imagine that it never occurs to us or so hard to believe that we dismiss it as soon as it occurs to us.

Now I've just contradicted myself, if you recall several paragraphs ago I said that I saw it coming but dismissed it as being too far fetched. Well, yes and no. It feels far-fetched during the movie if you make certain assumptions, which I did, but even so it was so obviously the “best” ending that I halfway expected them to do it anyway. Which they did. So I was not surprised. Other people did not make the same assumptions I did and were fully expecting it the entire time.

But the end wasn't just predictable, it was also disappointing. You see, the entire movie built this image of Alexander Pearce as a genius who had formulated and elaborate yet brilliant plan, that he was the puppet master and he was pulling everyone's strings. So when it turns out that that wasn't the case at all, that he had no idea what he was doing and it all worked out by luck, it's quite a let-down.

I will admit that the end makes sense (mostly) and does not, once you've thought about it a little bit, feel too contrived. It all hinges on the assumption that Alexander did not expect Elise to pick him on the train and that he didn't know how to react or adapt his plan once she did, and that he didn't expect Shaw to find them. Interpol does come across as slightly incompetent, but that is clearly established at the start of the movie anyway.

This does however mean that there was a lot of luck involved, but more importantly begs the question: just what was his original plan anyway? It's never explained. It might be that we are expected to believe that he did want her to pick him on the train and his plan was basically similar to the final result except for the presence of Shaw, but I cannot accept that as it is never explained how he knew she would pick him and his behavior makes it seem much more likely that he was caught by surprise and didn't know how to react. I'm not even going to bother discussing the decoy used to try to divert our attention from “Frank”.

To me it just comes down to poor execution of what probably sounded on paper like a cool twist, but in execution is too predictable and has too little impact on the story as a whole. The movie was watchable, but the end is so weak you'll walk out feeling disappointed. And as a personal note, I don't really see why a criminal getting away with millions of pounds is supposed to be a happy ending. He knew Shaw was a crook when he worked for him, that makes him a criminal. The fact that the money was taken from a criminal does not mean that it's OK for him to walk off with it; that money was dirty from the start and he has no more right to it than Shaw did. I guess that makes it a “Heist” movie.

Overall I give it a 6 out of 10 - not bad, but not a must-see either.

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