Starring: Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, Do Thi Hai Yen, Tzi Ma, Rade Serbedzija
Rated R for Images of Violence and Some Language
"The Quiet American" is really two movies in one, and all the better for it. The love triangle and the film noir mystery are inextricably linked; they feed off each other and the synergy between them gives the film its power. This isn't a groundbreaking or "important" film by any means, but it's quite well done.
Thomas Fowler (Caine) is a journalist for a London newspaper working in Vietnam. It is 1952 and the French are battling the communists for control of the country. Although he is married, he has a lover named Phuong (Yen) who lives with him. He would very much like to marry her, but his Catholic wife back home refuses to divorce him because she is Catholic. One day he meets a charming American named Alden Pyle (Fraser) who has just come to Vietnam bringing medical aid. He and Thomas become fast friends, but when he meets Phuong, Thomas is instantly smitten. Thomas correctly sees Alden as a threat since the American can offer her something he can't: a future. Meanwhile, Thomas is sniffing out a story involving an army general, which leads him to believe that Alden may not be who he says he is.
"The Quiet American" is what "Shanghai," the 2010 bomb that no one saw (for good reason), should have been. This is not an ambitious picture; in fact, apart from a few shocking instances of violence, it's a subtle motion picture. This isn't so much a criticism as it is a descriptor. There will always be a place for cerebral dramas for adults, provided they are done will.
The performances are strong, which helps the film considerably. Had the two leads been boring, this would have been almost unwatchable. Fortunately, we have acting titan Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser (who is capable of far more than fighting mummies all day long) in the lead roles. As Thomas, Caine is playing a romantic lead, something that he rarely gets these days. Although far too old to start a family with Phuong, he does love her with perhaps a bit of possessiveness. Brendan Fraser has little trouble playing the WASPy nerd with a secret. Caine overpowers him in terms of range and presence, but considering that this is Michael Caine we're talking about, the fact that Fraser holds his own is impressive in and of itself. Their relationship is interesting. Both of them want Phuong and while they are not above playing slightly dirty to get her, they're far too mature to be petty about it. They can still be friends.
The problem with the film is that emotionally, this is as romantic as a dead fish. Much of that has to do with the fact that Phuong never becomes a character. She's presented as a prize for Thomas and Alden. Her character is less important than the ideal that she is in the eyes of the two men. She's a fantasy; a living, breathing fantasy, but a fantasy nonetheless. By portraying her this way. director Phillip Noyce robs the film of a significant emotional charge.
Still, that was probably a conscious creative decision since the film isn't a love story. It's more about the relationship between Thomas and Alden, and the two of them revealing themselves to the other. On that level, I recommend "The Quiet American."