16 August 2003 | cariart
Michael Caine Superb in Vietnamese Drama...
THE QUIET AMERICAN, Phillip Noyce's adaptation of the Graham Greene novel, is among that small subgenre of films (THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY, UNDER FIRE, SALVADOR) where journalists, writing in war-torn countries, discover conspiracies that undermine everything they've come to accept as true. These films are inevitably controversial, as they deal with actual places and historical events, and they demand an open mind, as they often portray governments in a less-than-flattering light. While the revelations of the stories aren't always entirely true, each film of this group are well-crafted, and certainly thought-provoking.
The film is told as a flashback, as the corpse of murdered American Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) is found, floating in the Mekong, in 1952. During the French police investigation, the story unfolds...
Thomas Fowler (Oscar-nominated Michael Caine) is a veteran British journalist ("I prefer reporter," he jokes), writing in Saigon as the French fought the Communists in Indochina. Jaded and complacent, he only sporadically submits an article, devoting his time to a mildly hedonistic lifestyle, and his beloved mistress, beautiful young Phuong (portrayed by the stunning, if not overly talented Vietnamese actress, Do Thi Hai Yen). When young Pyle arrives, purportedly joining the American mission to treat eye disease among the Vietnamese, the older man is immediately impressed by his quiet, respectful, almost naive innocence. Introducing the American to Phuong, Pyle is immediately attracted to her, and, upon discovering Fowler already has a wife, in England, he begins wooing the girl, much to the chagrin of the reporter.
As his paper is threatening to return Fowler to England, taking him away from Phuong, he announces he is involved in a major story in the north, and leaves to investigate reports of Communist activities. What he finds is a massacre, with responsibility denied by both sides. Joined by Pyle ("I didn't want to propose to Phuong behind your back"), the pair barely make it back alive. Although the 'official' story blames the Communists for the deaths, Fowler doesn't believe it, and begins investigating in earnest.
A new military leader emerges, General Thé, opposed to both the French and the Communists, and Caine suspects his forces as the true perpetrators of the massacre. Visiting the elusive general's headquarters, he finds Pyle running a clinic, and the General apoplectic when he asks who is providing the arms and funds for his army. Again, with Pyle's assistance, he barely escapes with his life...and a growing suspicion that the United States is taking a less than neutral role in the intrigue...
While the film's climax will come as a surprise to no one, and the 'love triangle' lacks much spark (other than from Caine, who is totally believable when he confesses that without Phuong he would "start to die"), the film is engrossing, throughout. Brendan Fraser, as the enigmatic title character, does a very credible job in a complex role, after a somewhat shaky first meeting with Caine. The lack of chemistry between him and Hai Yen could easily be explained away as a natural reticence from her character towards any man saying "I love you", in a society where sexual favors are easily purchased. She seems far more comfortable and believable in her scenes with Caine, despite their major age difference.
Ultimately, the film is a triumph for Michael Caine, who again proves why he is one of the finest actors of his generation. As a man who goes from indifferent complacency to active participant by the film's climax, he is never less than superb.
This is certainly one of the better films of 2002!