In the narration that opens The Quiet American, a fine adaptation of Graham Greene's prescient 1955 book, British correspondent Michael Caine confesses his love for Vietnam, an exotic country that "promises everything in exchange for your soul." Being a Greene hero, Caine would give his soul away with pleasure if he could continue to bask in the country's lush, opiate sensuality, but once political realities drag him reluctantly into the daylight, his conscience won't allow it. Director Phillip Noyce's film lacks the overwhelming passion and immediacy of the last Greene novel adaptation, Neil Jordan's The End Of The Affair, but it captures the same mood of wry cynicism and heady romance, set against a tumultuous backdrop that presses insistently to the fore. In a remarkably supple and understated performance, Caine buries his ego in a character who desperately wants to remain passive in a changing world, and who treats his heroic instincts like a creeping plague that's slowly taking over his body. A lazy reporter and an even bigger scoundrel, Caine is stationed in Saigon to cover the Communist insurgency against the French colonialists, but he prefers to spend time with Vietnamese mistress Do Thi Hai Yen while his marriage rots in faraway London. His attitude changes when the title character, an aw-shucks American aide played by the perfectly cast Brendan Fraser, stakes a stronger claim on Caine's girlfriend and involves himself with a rogue Vietnamese warlord (Quang Hai) who may be responsible for recent massacres. The two men engage in a friendly rivalry that seethes with tension under the surface, with Fraser less naïve than he appears and Caine nobler than even he seems ready to acknowledge. Greene's warning about American intervention overseas would hang like a curse in the years that followed the book's publication; released in the current climate, Noyce's version plays like a newly potent critique of American foreign policy, as the country pushes again to the brink of war. For this reason, the sheepish distributor (Miramax) shelved the film for a year after Sept. 11, acquiescing to worries about any sentiments being deemed "anti-American." If anything, Noyce shortchanges the politics in favor of a romantic triangle that isn't nearly as involving, mainly because the Vietnamese mistress, pinned under a territorial battle that's meant to mirror the fight over Indochina, winds up serving the allegory all too well. But under the gaze of ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle (In The Mood For Love), who draws out the rich colors and sensuality of Saigon's nightlife, Caine reveals the subtle torment of a man who clings to a love affair that's crumbling at his feet. Even as The Quiet American loses focus and urgency, Caine's performance keeps the doomed spirit of Greene's hero intact.
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