The romantic action caper is a genre that can seem almost decadent in its clockwork jauntiness — its frantic, overstuffed eagerness to please. The Tourist, starring Angelina Jolie as a hip-swiveling British agent fatale and Johnny Depp as the innocent American math teacher she ropes into posing as her underworld lover, is an attempt to take the stuffing out of the genre. Most of the familiar elements are here: guns, gangsters, surveillance teams, vehicular crack-ups, mistaken identities. The star wattage, in theory, could hardly get much hotter. This time, however, the director is Germany’s Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, doing his first Hollywood production after the art-house smash The Lives of Others (2007), his lacerating tale of political oppression in East Germany.
Henckel von Donnersmarck sets The Tourist in the ornate decaying maze of Venice, where he plays down the ultraviolence and mission-improbable stunt work. When Depp, pursued by the world’s most inept Russian henchmen, scampers across the city’s fragile tiled rooftops, he’s wearing pajamas, and the little leaps he takes are (intentionally) more pedestrian than death-defying. The Tourist has a relaxed, at times ramblingly archaic tone (we’re not talking Hitchcock — we’re talking Silver Streak). It sidesteps the aggressive, wham-bam tone of cheeky-violent romps from The Mexican to Knight and Day. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come up with a whole lot to replace that energy. It’s American cheese with Euro glaze.
You go into a movie like The Tourist hoping for a feast of personality from the stars. What you get, in this case, is a waxworks version of chemistry. As Elise, who is being chased by everyone in the movie because they’re out to capture her lover, the slinky, saucy Jolie turns every scene into a playful series of poses. After a while, though, you wish she’d stop posing. She’s a great image, but in The Tourist she never seems to be a real person. Depp, in longish curls and a beard that make it look like he’s starring in a bad Christopher Columbus biopic, plays the sweet, hapless Frank as a corduroy-jacketed dullard. It’s as if, after so many flamboyant portrayals, the actor was out to challenge himself by going minimal — by creating a romantic hero as ”ordinary” as possible. But did the script, reportedly worked over forever by Henckel von Donnersmarck, Julian Fellowes, and Christopher McQuarrie, have to be so minimal too? ”So that’s how you pick a lock,” observes Frank, after Elise frees him from handcuffs. ”Why do you know how to do that?” That’s about as roused as he gets. If Frank were a truly colorful putz, the portrayal might have gone somewhere, but Depp, for too much of the movie, seems to be amusing himself in a way that only dogs can hear.
The Tourist isn’t a debacle, but it’s a caper that’s fatally low on carbonation. It’s clear that Henckel von Donnersmarck adores his film’s popcorn tropes for the clichés they are. He’s not out to transcend the tropes — he wants to get out of their way. But a filmmaker as gifted as he is should figure out soon that there’s a big difference in Hollywood between playing to crowds and pleasing them. C