Published Feb 01, 2003Call it a chick flick for boys - a sensitive man's spy movie (not that the ladies can't enjoy it too). Phillip Noyce's adaptation of Graham Greene's prophetic1955 espionage novel The Quiet American has all the necessary ingredients: a shop-worn anti-hero, an exotic locale full of exotic women, red lantern-ensconced dens of iniquity, plenty of carnage and international intrigue. And don't forget the love triangle, because the sensitive man's spy movie has to be about something more than just politics and ammunition; it needs a little tragically doomed romance as well.
A heavy-lidded Michael Caine is London Times reporter Thomas Fowler, an ex-pat Brit who happily and lazily slums in 1952 Saigon with his beautiful young Vietnamese mistress and a trusty henchman always ready to protect his interests. "I take no action. I have no opinion," he blankly asserts. Fowler believes in the objectivity of the journalist - or at least hides behind it as an idea - and refuses to take sides in the conflict between the ruling French colonialists and a burgeoning Communist insurrection. He's so neutral, in fact, he has only managed to file three stories with his paper in the last year, and they threaten to ship him back to his reviled homeland.
Enter the doughy-faced, titular American Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), a gung-ho idealist on a humanitarian aid mission. Pyle is anxious to see a "Third Force" of government offer an alternative to both French rule and the Red menace. "Sooner or later, Mr. Fowler, one has to take sides if one is to remain human," he counters. Fowler and Pyle strike up a peculiar friendship of convenience that takes an inconvenient turn when Pyle sets his wide eyes on Fowler's one true love. Things get even stickier when Fowler is forced to do a little investigation and realises Pyle may not be as wide-eyed as he seems, neither in love nor war.
Co-scripted by Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons), The Quiet American couldn't be more aptly timed in its sour depiction of American international buggery in the guise of freedom fighting. "We're not colonialists," Pyle ironically contends when Fowler asks what the Yankee stake is in Vietnam's civil war. The movie benefits by its authenticity; it was actually shot in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi - recreated as mid-20th century Saigon - lending it a resonance that no set-bound historical thriller could muster. Noyce, who is enjoying a cinematic one-two punch with the critical success of this movie and his other current release, Rabbit-Proof Fence, is certainly distinguishing himself from past junk like The Saint and Sliver with a heady amount of melancholy style. (Okay, so he has done some good work before, like Dead Calm.) But the real treat here is Golden Globe nominee Caine, who, unlike a complex Indo-Chinese political conflict, just gets better with age. On second thought, call it The Distinguished Englishman.