The Quiet American
starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser
2 1/2 stars

review by Stephen Notley

Based on a novel by Graham Greene, starring newly Oscar-nominated Michael Caine, all about choosing sides in the Vietnam War, The Quiet American is one of those pedigree pictures, the kind of movie that gets automatically praised for being deep and meaningful. Except in this case it's kind of dull.

Vietnam is the setting, just as the French are pulling out and the Americans have yet to move in. Caine plays Fowler, a jaded old British journalist who's more interested in smoking opium with his Vietnamese mistress Phoung (Do Thi Hai Yen) than in filing stories. He runs into quiet American Brendan Fraser, an "aid worker", and the two strike up a cordial friendship even as Fraser tries to lay claim to Phoung.

The premise of the movie -- hell, the tagline-- is "In war, the most popular weapon is seduction." At the beginning of The Quiet American, Michael Caine has a little monologue about how the foreign visitor to Vietnam is seduced by the colors, the scents, the sounds. And the movie couldn't be clearer about how Phuong is supposed to stand in for seductive Vietnam, desired by men. 

And yet, the movie is strangely lifeless. I blame director Phillip Noyce, best known for functional but uninspiring fare like Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. Sure, he knows how to relate the events of the story on film, but he's got no style, no distinctive flavor, no particular eye for detail. Caine says the words, but it's like Noyce didn't hear them. Where's the seduction? Where are the vivid colors, the strange sounds, the rough beauty of Vietnam? 

And if you're going to have Phuong stand in as the object of desire, shouldn't you make her desirable? Do Thi Hai Yen is pretty, but she's blank. The movie barely bothers to give her a point of view, or a purpose, or a personality, or really anything that would explain why we in the audience --as well as these two men, and by implication, these world powers-- should be so entranced by her. Frankly, the movie's a little patronizing in how it characterizes Phuong (and by extension, Vietnam) as a pretty, docile little thing who does nothing but bounce politely around between these two men.

With little sense of the carnal, sensual heart of the film, Noyce just points his cameras at his two stars, who rise to the challenge and are watchable on their own terms. Caine always looks like he's about to collapse, but in character. He gives a measured, reliable performance, working his moral dilemmas with slumped shoulders and listless hands, giving us reasons to like him and dislike him in equal measure. Brendan Fraser is more interesting to watch, his fresh-faced football-star good looks and Dudley-Do-Right innocence giving his character a curious credibility, even though he's obviously CIA. Unfortunately, both these guys are in a movie that's blandly superficial and notably lacking in dramatic tension, so they can only go so far. Pedigree aside, there's no pressing reason to rush out and see this movie.