Paramount // 2003 // 126 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // April 19th, 2004
In a place she didn't belong. Among people she never knew. She found a way to make a difference.
Finally, Angelina Jolie dares to ask the cinematic question: Which came first -- the socially conscious epic romance or the adopted Cambodian baby?
Beyond Borders is basically told in three acts. Act One, which begins in 1984, finds Sarah (Angelina Jolie, The Bone Collector, Life or Something Like It) and new husband Henry dancing the night away to some over-polished Clash covers at the annual UN benefit. Before they have a chance to truly decide if they should stay or if they should go, the philanthropic good times are broken up by Dr. Nick Callahan (Clive Owen, Croupier, The Bourne Identity), who is so smolderingly British that the entire celebration comes to a halt in order to hear his accent. Dr. Nick angrily indicts the UN and its organizations for their ineffectiveness and lack of sympathy for starving Third World countries, then drives his point home by feeding a banana to a black child.
Sarah is hooked. Through her glassy-eyed expressions of anguish and guilt, it is apparent that Dr. Nick's intensely British banana display has struck a chord deep within the most charitable parts of her libido, and there is simply no turning back. She promptly leaves the comfort of her brand new, less-smoldering-but-still-British husband and buys a few trucks full of food to meet Dr. Nick in Ethiopia. Upon arriving, Sarah becomes glassy-eyed with anguish and guilt as she discovers that there are starving people there! Some of them are children! Dr. Nick, who has long known about the starving people problem, has no patience for Sarah -- he's rude and insulting toward her, but he's just so serious and passionate that she doesn't mind. After a short time, Sarah's vacation days presumably run out and she returns to her husband back home.
Act Two, beginning back in London, 1989, finds Sarah with both a four-year-old child and a job at the UN. One of her former chums from Ethiopia shows up, asking her to flex some of her UN muscle to get a package through to the relief effort in Cambodia and teasing her with stories of Dr. Nick's brooding Britishness. Since Sarah's marriage is struggling and her husband is out of work, she tells her pal she'll do him one better -- she'll take the package to Southeast Asia herself.
Off to Cambodia! Upon Sarah's arrival there, I was starting to think that perhaps now she was Beyond Borders, but at this point it was still too soon to be certain. Cambodia reunites Sarah with the tortured and soulful Dr. Nick, who, it turns out, has been allowing weapons to be illegally smuggled in with medical supplies in exchange for funding. As angry as this makes Sarah (she even allows a third expression to briefly creep across her swollen lips), it's not long before she's glassy-eyed again, as a humanitarian-doctor-versus-Khmer-Rouge battle royal (let's not get started on the none-too-subtle baby-playing-with-a-hand-grenade plot device) leads to tragic results. Both Sarah and Dr. Nick are so shaken by the day's events that they are compelled to confess their love for one another and participate in the traditional Cambodian humping ritual. End of Act Two.
Finally, Act Three commences with Sarah circa 1993, back with her husband and two children (that's right, two -- because when you're in love with/sleeping with another man, it makes sense to continue building the family you will eventually tear apart), and now the head spokesperson for the UNHCR. Concurrent to these new responsibilities, Sarah fills her time trying to locate the whereabouts of her beloved Brit (I mean, her other beloved Brit), Dr. Nick. Using her sister's news crew contacts, she is able to track Dr. Nick to Chechnya, where he is being held captive; though the reason for his captivity is not totally clear, one can deduce it's most likely his hunky rebelliousness. Once again, Sarah abandons her family (don't worry, she leaves a note -- a note) and hops a plane to that war-torn den of romance and intrigue, Chechnya. At this point, there is no doubt that she is, in fact, Beyond Borders, but many questions remain: Will she find Dr. Nick in time? Will the country's bitter cold cause her glassy eyes to freeze over? Will Sarah and Dr. Nick survive to exploit the suffering of yet another country in the interest of the socially relevant bump 'n' grind?
At the time of its theatrical release last fall, Beyond Borders drew some heat for utilizing the backdrop of starvation, disease, and death as an excuse for delivering what is, essentially, a clichéd love story. The heat was well deserved.
There is a reason why few filmmakers have made the choice to set their epic romances within the concentration camps of WWII. I doubt that we will see many love stories placed in the World Trade Center on a certain day in September 2001. Human tragedy and romance are not a terribly appropriate dramatic combination, unless the tragedy is the romance (something like Romeo and Juliet comes to mind). Titanic was almost able to accomplish this juxtaposition successfully, but James Cameron wove the love story and the impeding disaster together fairly ingeniously. Most attempts, including this film, come off more like Pearl Harbor -- completely vapid, with the romance at a total right angle to the subject matter. I have no objection to a film set among the starving children of Ethiopia, or amid the gunfire and mine fields of a Chechnyan war zone, as long as that's what the film is about. Don't use these locations or their specific plights as the McGuffin to hook up your two hot stars.
That Beyond Borders is so recklessly willing to exploit various forms of human suffering should be a good indication of its total lack of any real moral compass. Questions of morality are raised and quickly dropped, or else not even raised in the first place. Why even address the issue of Dr. Nick's weapons smuggling -- the simultaneous importing of tools of healing and tools of destruction -- if the filmmakers aren't prepared to confront it in any real way? Sure, there are a couple of throwaway lines where Dr. Nick admits he "thinks about it every day," but does that really do the issue justice? And, for that matter, why even include this morally sticky plot device if it's simply dropped two scenes later? The film also has seemingly zero interest in examining the behavior of Sarah within her marriage; between regularly abandoning her family and cheating on her husband, how are we meant to sympathize with her character? I'm not attacking the film based on a difference of morality -- many a fine film has been made out of the same plot elements -- but Beyond Borders doesn't even take time to consider these issues. And why not? Wouldn't allowing Sarah this kind of inner conflict have made for an infinitely more interesting character? More than once, the film introduces significant moral questions and is either too lazy or too distracted to attend to them.
Angelina Jolie, who is capable of turning in an interesting performance (Playing By Heart) -- or, at least, of overacting enough to give the appearance of an interesting performance (Girl, Interrupted) -- is dead on arrival here. Her character is poorly wigged and even more thinly written, bouncing from vacuous guilt to staunch political involvement without any purpose to the emotional shift. The film's idea of character development consists of having people make decisions in the interest of driving the plot: Sarah decides to help out UNHCR; Sarah decides to go home; Sarah decides she's in love with Dr. Nick; Sarah decides to cheat on her husband. What's missing from Jolie -- and from every character in the film -- is any depiction or development of the emotional logic behind these decisions. We're meant to believe that both Sarah and Dr. Nick have been forever transformed as a result of their love for one another and the magnitude of their Third World experiences. In reality, they've just done more stuff.
What makes this movie so inexcusable is the fact that it was made by competent people. When eight out of ten straight-to-video movies suck, we're not surprised -- they seldom even stood a chance to begin with. Here, however, is a film with major studio participation and a great big budget (though money alone does not a good movie make, it certainly grants the filmmakers a great deal of freedom to get just what they want). It has two talented actors in the lead roles. The director, Martin Campbell, is capable of making dramatically straightforward, good-looking studio pictures (GoldenEye, The Mask of Zorro). Yet every aspect of the film falls flat; like Lawrence Kasdan's Dreamcatcher, Beyond Borders has a decent pedigree but is completely awash in terrible ideas and poor execution. It has an almost bewildering ability to outdo its own badness every fifteen minutes.
The disc is fine, I guess, in that it can't really be faulted technically for the dramatic content within. Beyond Borders is presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer of 2.35:1, which makes the most of the film's many scenic compositions. The varying color palettes used in each individual sequence/location are well represented, aggravating as they may be. The disc's audio is satisfying as well; the Dolby Digital 5.1 track delivers a good, strong mix with some nifty separation effects. At times, the score can become a bit too obtrusive and overwhelm some of the dialogue, though whether that's the fault of the audio track or simply the film's sound mix isn't clear. (I have another theory that suggests that the score was actually just source music captured live -- the Ethiopian government is big on pumping chamber music into their cities via loudspeaker -- but I just can't prove it.)
The extras, while fairly plentiful, are altogether useless -- at least, to me, someone who didn't enjoy the film nearly enough to be at all concerned with the effort that went into creating it. There is a making-of featurette, which is inexplicably broken into two parts. Each segment runs just under 20 minutes, with the second part beginning immediately and without any kind of credits. Why the two weren't simply combined into one seamless feature makes no sense, and the disc doesn't even begin to rectify the issue by providing a "Play All" option. The segments deal primarily with the film's various locations, the production design, and the overall look of the film (though not really discussing why director Campbell chose to steal a page from Janusz Kaminski's Saving Private Ryan photography, bleaching out the Chechnya sequence with self-consciously pretentious results). At one point, producer Dan Halstead lets it known that the film was originally intended as a vehicle for Kevin Costner, who may have felt right at home in a misfire of this proportion.
There is a brief, unsettlingly self-congratulatory feature about the film's star, given the cringe-inducing title Angelina: Goodwill Ambassador. Jolie discusses the history of the relief organization UNHCR and her involvement in it. Other representatives from the organization are also interviewed, basically discussing how what a humanitarian Jolie is and how important her stardom is to their cause. Apparently not included in this featurette is the sequence where she turns water into wine and walks on water. They must be saving that for the Super Deluxe edition.
The creators of the film are given their respective platforms to speak about the film, and I kept hoping they would somehow use the opportunity to defend their actions or make some sense out of what it was they intended to do (they do neither). The screenwriter, Caspian Tredwell-Owen (take that, "Woody Allen"), is featured in a brief interview segment where he discusses what inspired him to tackle the previously untapped topic of love amid the humanitarian effort. He almost sounds sincere, leaving one to wonder how the finished product became such a bastardization of what he describes in the interview. Also included is a commentary track by Martin Campbell and producer Lloyd Phillips, which proves to be about as disturbing as it is informative. When not gushing about what they perceive to be the strengths of the film, the duo reveals the methods that they used to simulate the effects of the real-life horrors of starvation and disease. One boy, they assure us, isn't undernourished -- they were just really lucky to find someone so skinny. Other images are obtained by taking perfectly healthy actors, then making them digitally skeletal with the aid of computer effects. While I would suggest that either of these options is infinitely better than capturing and exploiting footage of actual starving children for commercial purposes, there is something about the way Campbell goes on about the uses of "movie magic" to simulate an ongoing tragedy that, to me, trivializes the problem.
Also featured on the disc are bonus trailers for Tupac: Resurrection, Paycheck, and Timeline -- apparently included to remind viewers that Paramount did, in fact, release worse films in 2003 than Beyond Borders.
Have I mentioned this film is a mess?
In my first review (Prey For Rock And Roll), I showed remarkable self-restraint and uncharacteristic good judgment by resisting the temptation to use the film's title against it in some mildly clever, embarrassingly quotable riposte. I think now the time has come. I am ready.
The Quote: Beyond Borders is Beyond Bad.
Aaaah -- that felt good.
I need a shower.
The Court finds all involved parties guilty of social irresponsibility and cinematic negligence, sentencing them to 500 hours of community service free of romantic subplots. Furthermore, the Court places Angelina Jolie on adoption probation, and sees fit to recommend that she throw on some khaki shorts, braid the hair, and grab a couple of hand cannons for mandatory participation in Lara Croft and the Landmines d'Amour. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 126 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary by Director Martin Campbell and Producer Lloyd Phillips
* Featurette: The Making of Beyond Borders, Part 1
* Featurette: The Making of Beyond Borders, Part 2
* A Conversation with Screenwriter Caspian Tredwell-Owen
* Featurette: Angelina: Goodwill Ambassador
* Bonus Trailers
* Official Site