2010 has been a year glutted with mediocre spy fare. “The Tourist” joins the dubious ranks of “Red,” “Knight and Day,” and “Killers”—and that it might be the best of the lot isn’t saying much. Anchored by arguably the strongest cast, including stars Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, “The Tourist” moves at a more relaxed pace than its blockbuster brethren. Then again, “Red” was plenty slow, but still wound up nigh incomprehensible.
I understood “The Tourist,” which is a complement, unfortunately. The Venetian caper keeps its audience in the loop, with a story thankfully straightforward enough to follow. Jolie plays Elise Clifton-Ward, the squeeze of a master criminal who's lifted two billion pounds from a no-nonsense English gangster (Steven Berkoff). In order to keep the identity of her mysterious lover secret, she employs the aid of an unwitting proxy, American tourist and self described “math teacher,” Frank Tupelo (Depp).
Maybe the most impressive part of Depp’s performance is that it feels like the first human character he’s portrayed in years. Leapfrogging from roles like Willy Wonka to Sweeney Todd to John Dillinger, surely nobody doubts Depp’s ability to consistently transform himself. After watching him ham it up as Jack Sparrow in three consecutive “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies however, I was surprised by how charming the man can be without his usual flamboyancy. He’s hardly brilliant in “The Tourist,” but by scaling back the theatrics and focusing instead on playing an actual person, he reminded me of something I had since forgotten—I actually really like Johnny Depp.
Jolie is less interesting as his seductive captor. The actress has recently whittled herself down to little more than a skeleton with full lips; her sharp inset cheekbones and sickly pipe-cleaner legs make many a male head turn in “The Tourist.” Thanks but no thanks, the double-digit weight doesn't do much for me. Jolie is playing beautiful, elegant, and sexy, but she just looks malnourished.
Her physical appearance doesn't detract from the performance, however, and her chemistry with Depp is what makes “The Tourist” sail, though the plot is eventually blown in an unexpected and unwelcome direction, after which the film struggles to stay afloat. The silly twist undoes a lot of the goodwill the film has going for it, and its final minutes feel as though they’re unraveling rather than unifying what came before.
Directed by German filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (“The Lives of Others”), “The Tourist” is a decidedly marginal success, but a success nonetheless. It makes a few interesting decisions to distinguish itself from its middling colleagues—unlike “Knight and Day,” von Donnersmarck casts Jolie, his female lead, as the savvy spy and Depp as the smitten Joe Average instead of subjecting them to more conventional gender roles.
This review may be full of half-compliments, but “The Tourist” is played so down the middle that there’s next to nothing to say about it to begin with. It was admittedly a pleasant surprise keeping in mind the critical reaming it received via Rotten Tomatoes. In competition with any of the other mediocre to outright terrible espionage films mentioned above, I would recommend “The Tourist” without hesitation—taken alone, it receives a significantly less enthusiastic endorsement.
There is, however, one 2010 spy flick to which “The Tourist” doesn’t hold a candle (and coincidentally, another film about traveling abroad): Anton Corbijn’s “The American,” which arrives on home video December 28th. Until then, I suppose we’ll have to make due with von Donnersmarck’s sometimes compelling, occasionally painful action/romance. I suppose you could also rent “Knight and Day” or “Killers” if you’re a real glutton for punishment.