By Ryan Wilson

Some movies just borrow too much from their forefathers. That was my first thought when watching The Tourist, the latest romantic thriller starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. There’s always that fine line between paying homage to older suspenseful films and stealing their premises.

In the case of The Tourist, it is basically an American copy of the 2005 French film titled Anthony Zimmer, which follows a career criminal trying to reunite with his lover after going into hiding for a lengthy period of time. But even the original borrowed heavily from Alfred Hitchcock, making the new American version feel warmed over at best.

Cribbing from Hitchcock, the script feels one part North by Northwest and another part Strangers on a Train. With the former we get an elaborate charade involving mistaken identities, while with the latter we witness what danger can develop between two people with wildly different personalities.

When Jolie chooses to sit next to Depp on the train, the possibilities feel promising. She's trying to shift focus off of herself so that she can meet her lover, while Depp, the tourist of our title, is looking to liven-up his identity. He's a math teacher from Wisconsin who reads mystery novels rather than taking risks himself. Or so it would seem.

Depp and Jolie know their parts, and play them well when they’re not together. Jolie’s job is simply to look elegant and mysterious as she sashays through the streets of Paris and the aqueducts of Venice. She's our Ingrid Bergman in this scenario, austere yet weary of her role as the unattainable bait for the authorities. There’s a worldliness to her movements, yet behind her eyes we can see she’s trapped and yearning for a way out.

Depp's role feels custom-made for someone like Cary Grant. Grant was always good at playing the average guy who could surprise you with decisive action when the time came. Think Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest. Depp, of course, also has quite a range as an actor. He’s surprisingly excellent at playing a soft-spoken, frumpy Midwesterner early in the story.

The two main players are in place a third of the way through the film. Unfortunately, the script gives them little to do with each other. When Jolie takes Depp to an expensive dinner at a hotel in Venice, it’s an opportunity for these characters to expand. Instead they contract. They don’t speak about anything relevant or even specific. It’s just about the gloomiest romantic evening you can imagine, which would be fine if the script didn’t demand that these two people connect and later rely on each other.

It’s the laziest of Hollywood devices to think that an audience will believe two people have chemistry simply because they’re attractive. As a result, when Jolie and Depp do kiss on a balcony, it feels hollow and obligatory.

I was actually grateful when the script forced the two leads apart so that we might see them separated from such forced emotion. But by then the film also begins to follow the joyless formula of these sort of yarns. The usual questions arise: What side is she really on? Is he who he says he is?

As Hitchcock knew, any formula can work if you make the story large enough, if the action and intrigue overwhelm these questions. Remember the plane attack in the cornfield or scaling up Mt. Rushmore for a climax? But don’t expect anything visually impressive with The Tourist, which is ironic considering the film’s title. We’ve some impressive settings in the film, but what happens within them is underwhelming.

Even the antagonist is a disappointment. He’s so starkly drawn as a bad guy by actor Steven Berkoff that he begins to resemble a Bond villain. Probably because Berkoff played a Bond villain way back in the Roger Moore-era Octopussy. Meanwhile Paul Bettany is wasted as a unethical British agent. He predictably holds a secret crush on Jolie, which predictably influences his judgment.

There’s nothing novel in The Tourist, which might have been refreshing if those involved with making it wanted to get back to basics and make a old-fashioned romantic thriller. Instead they've stripped the genre down so much that nothing of interest remains.

I liken the experience of watching the movie to Johnny Depp’s character smoking his artificial cigarette. For most the film he longingly watches others inhaling the real thing. The Tourist is like that artificial cigarette; there’s nothing addictive about it, and the experience only leaves vapors in its wake.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2010