film review: The Quiet American ***

The Quiet American doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but the acting within hits several dramatic notes and the film’s cinematography births an eerie tonal fog that drifts throughout the foreign setting.

Michael Caine (The Cider House Rules) stars as Thomas Fowler, a
British journalist stationed in Vietnam in the ’50s. Although his job is to transmit articles from Saigon to The London Times, he ends up spending much of his time with a young Vietnamese girl, Phuong. He falls in love with her, despite an age gap of at least 30 years, and life is good until Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) enters the picture.

Pyle poses as an American aid worker, but Fowler eventually discovers that this man is not who he claims to be. Similar elements of mystery add to the dramatic and romantic motifs of The Quiet American, lending a spooky and heavy urgency. When wartime explosions intermix with romance and character-driven drama, the plot becomes unpredictable and, for the most part, entertaining.

Casting Brendan Fraser (The Mummy) in a film that so heavily relies on its characters was a daring move, but it works. Fraser’s performance as the likeable Pyle is one of his best yet, drawing a line in the sand between the actor’s dimwitted crap like Dudley Do-Right and the talent he displayed in Gods and Monsters. Caine gives another great performance as the multi-layered Fowler, a part that, like Jack Nicholson’s About Schmidt character, required an actor of mass experience to flesh out.

The Quiet American is a political-minded film, much like director Philip Noyce’s other 2002 release, the stirring Australian drama Rabbit-Proof Fence. The Quiet American doesn’t fit into one genre, but this proves to be an asset rather than a weakness. It’s too character-driven to be a war film and too romantic for thriller status, nor is the romance there to sedate Meg Ryan fans.

Fowler’s love for Phuong is tested when Pyle declares his feelings for her. The two men battle literally and professionally over the Vietnamese vixen. Against the backdrop of an impending war, the story is ebbed along by unnecessary narration from Caine. It is not unfair to suspect that the narration was added at the insistence of studio execs, thinking American audiences would be too dumb to follow the plot.

The acting and tone of the film, as well as its political messages, are executed with precision by Noyce, who has bloomed into a significant filmmaker after a decade of helming dull action duds like The Saint and Blind Fury. The film’s plot is well crafted, but fluctuates choppily between scenes of brilliance and excess plot structure; plenty of shots could have been shortened or removed.

Caine, Fraser and Noyce put their heads together for a methodical film that, minus a few concluding twists and turns, is made entertaining only by the acting and realistic scenery (it was shot predominately in Vietnam). Fans of traditional, old school filmmaking and serious characters will enjoy The Quiet American. Viewers lured in by the “thriller” label will walk out unsatisfied, especially if a theatre employee interrupts their nap.

Shawn Wines can be reached at