Case Number 04270


New Line // 2002 // 110 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // April 20th, 2004

The Charge

Older. Wiser. More Talented.

Opening Statement

Filmmakers have shown an affinity for Patricia Highsmith's mystery novels for over half a century. Her first book, Strangers on a Train (1950), was masterfully adapted by Alfred Hitchcock from a screenplay co-written by Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep). While Hitchcock's adaptation is the most celebrated, nearly all of Highsmith's books have found their way to the silver screen, usually in small European productions. In particular, her Ripley novels have proven ripe source material for filmmakers seeking the intersection between complex characterization and plots that keep butts in seats.

From 1955 to 1992, Highsmith wrote five thrillers about a charming sociopath and serial murderer named Tom Ripley. The first novel in the series, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), has seen two screen adaptations: René Clément's Plein Soleil in 1960, and Anthony Minghella's 1999 box office hit starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jude Law. Ripley's Game, from director Liliana Cavani (The Night Porter), is the second film version of the third novel in the series; the first being Wim Wenders' Der Amerikanische Freund (1977), starring Dennis Hopper.

(For those with a love of all things Ripley, White on White -- director Roger Spottiswoode's [And the Band Played On, Tomorrow Never Dies] adaptation of Ripley Underground -- is currently in post-production.)

Facts of the Case

Tom Ripley (John Malkovich, Dangerous Liaisons, Being John Malkovich) is spending his middle age in quiet comfort with his lover, Luisa (Chiara Caselli, Fish Soup), in a posh Italian villa paid for by the spoils of his criminal youth. His peace is interrupted by the arrival of Reeves (Ray Winstone, Sexy Beast, Cold Mountain), his cockney cohort in a counterfeit art scam in Berlin three years earlier. Reeves is having trouble with a crime boss and wants to hire his former partner for a hit. Ripley has no problem with murder, per se, but finds Reeves a dullard and doesn't want to renew their association.

His mind is changed, however, when he overhears one Jonathan Trevanny (Dougray Scott, Mission: Impossible II, Enigma) accuse him, at a dinner party, of being a tasteless nouveau riche. Ripley decides it would be entertaining to manipulate Trevanny &8212; a poor British picture framer with terminal leukemia -- into doing the hit for Reeves. Let the game begin.

The Evidence

If Thomas Harris (Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs) created his sophisticated serial killer, Hannibal Lecter, from whole cloth, it's an amazing coincidence. It seems far more likely Harris had some knowledge of Patricia Highsmith's work and that Lecter is, to a certain extent, the progeny of Tom Ripley. Pop culture's favorite cannibal isn't, by any means, a rip-off -- the influence of the art/science of criminal profiling has provided him a unique texture -- but that air of calm self-assurance, aggressive intelligence, and love for the finer things in life that draws our sympathies despite the character's horrifying amorality may have been inherited directly from Mr. Ripley. Like Hannibal the cannibal, Highsmith's character is oddly magnetic.

The problem with Ripley's Game, though, is it lacks the disconcerting suspense of the first entry in the series. The Talented Mr. Ripley is a bildungsroman of sorts, the story of Tom Ripley's entry into adulthood and his realization that obtaining everything he desires is a simple thing so long as he's willing to put aside morality -- his victims and opponents will always be at a disadvantage since they place limitations on their own behavior. Ripley's fumbling toward this epiphany makes for an edge-of-the-seat experience, as we're never sure he can pull off his absurd and elaborate schemes. But the middle-aged Tom Ripley has a confidence born of experience. He's never desperate or surprised, because he knows plans don't come off without hitches. The challenge of unpredictable variables, as a matter of fact, is what makes a grift fun.

In one of the film's key sequences, Ripley explains to Trevanny that he no longer has a conscience. The conversation is earnest and matter-of-fact. There's no sense that Ripley's claim is a dodge, a self-deception meant to numb the regret of previous sins. John Malkovich's performance is restrained, witty, charming, stylish, and seductive. His demeanor might be described as viciously comic, or perhaps comically vicious. The consummate professional, Malkovich ingratiates himself to us despite our best instincts; we know he's a dangerous cad, yet we can't help liking him, or at least enjoying his company. The problem is, despite how well-drawn and well-acted he is, this older Ripley is so poised and emotionally detached he's better suited to being a secondary character (like Lecter) than the star of the show.

The film begs to be told from Trevanny's point-of-view. Dougray Scott gives a wonderfully conflicted and emotional performance as a dying man forced to choose between his moral standards and providing materially for his wife and child -- it's too bad we're not made to share his pain. Ultimately, the story is about Ripley using Trevanny's hard circumstances to reinvent the man in his own image. And what could be more evil than enticing an innocent man to consciously choose evil? The tale's delightful twist is that Ripley destroys Trevanny's soul as revenge for a rather innocuous social faux pas.

Overall, Ripley's Game on DVD is not quite up to New Line's usually impeccable standards, but it is a modestly budgeted film that didn't receive a wide theatrical release in the U.S. The transfer accurately renders the muted color palette intended by Cavani, and it sports strong detail. The source print was less than pristine, however, and isolated shots have a patina of coarse grain.

We are given a surprising number of audio choices, and both the Dolby 5.1 and DTS options make good use of surrounds to deliver a detailed ambient space and a beefy score, though nothing in the way of directional panning. The stereo surround track is also impressive. The clarity of dialogue suffers in a few spots (mostly near the beginning of the film) on all three audio tracks, leading me to believe it's a source limitation and not a mastering issue.

The only extras are a trailer and some DVD-ROM features.

There's no doubt the DVD is mediocre, but it's not a deal-breaker. You shouldn't let it scare you away from a decent little film.

Closing Statement

Despite the lack of thrilling payoffs and wrenching suspense, the quality of Ripley's Game's story easily makes it worth checking out. The thriller is a notoriously difficult genre; very few of them satisfy. Liliana Cavani serves up a solid one here by staying faithful to Patricia Highsmith's source material, and maintaining a laser focus on the characters rather than turns of plot.

The Verdict

Tom Ripley's guilty as sin. As for Ripley's Game, it's such a good time I'm letting it go with time served on bad behavior.

Review content copyright © 2004 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Video: 83
Audio: 87
Extras: 10
Acting: 92
Story: 88
Judgment: 85

Perp Profile
Studio: New Line
Video Formats:
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)

* English
* Spanish

Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated R

Distinguishing Marks
* Trailer
* DVD-ROM and Online Features

* IMDb

* Official Site