Friday, October 24, 2003
"Beyond Borders" spans as many eras and exotic locales as a James Bond marathon on TNT. But it's more like a travelogue taken during the very periods you WOULDN'T want to go to these beautiful places: Ethiopia in 1984, Cambodia in 1989 and Chechnya in 1995.
If the filmmakers had thrown in Somalia in 1993 and Iraq this month they'd have a royal flush.
At its best, "Beyond Borders" is an ambitious epic with three or four extended scenes of genuine tension. A deadly showdown with a squad of Khmer Rouge soldiers who interrogate relief camp workers offers one of the most excruciating moments of the year.
At its worst, the film comes across like a vanity project for an A-list actress wanting to do something "serious." At one point, star Angelina Jolie begins a sentence by saying, "I know this sounds like Little Miss Bleeding Heart ..." Often her actions confirm that self-assessment.
Mainly, the movie is an uneven drama with a somewhat implausible love story at its core.
Jolie stars as Sarah Jordan, a pampered newlywed who just "married a very English Englishman."
While at a fund-raising ball honoring her father-in-law she is introduced to Dr. Nick Callahan (Clive Owen) -- after he crashes the snooty affair to unleash a scathing plea for further famine relief assistance on behalf of his camp in Ethiopia.
Sarah is moved by his brash efforts, so she heads to Africa for a stint. There she learns of the political compromises and deal-making that the physician makes in order to keep his work funded.
When she returns a few years later to help Nick and his crew in Cambodia it becomes apparent that her starry-eyed feelings for the man are mutual.
Perhaps the strongest ingredient in "Beyond Borders" is that it doesn't pull any punches. Director Martin Campbell -- best known for crafting polished action flicks such as "Vertical Limit" and "The Mask of Zorro" -- rarely withdraws from the inherent horror of these environments. (The depiction of starvation during the Ethiopian portion is especially hard to handle.)
Helping the cause is first-time screenwriter Caspian Tredwell-Owen, whose dialogue cuts deep once Nick takes charge in the film's jarring London opening. This is a perfect example of how profanity can be used like a weapon. Any attempt at toning down the language to secure a PG-13 rating would have diminished the impact of a scene such as this.
By comparison, the love story isn't quite so authentic.
There is a certain "Dr. Zhivago"-type sheen to the romantic angle, magnified by the time lag between meetings. It doesn't help that when Sarah goes off on these globetrotting trysts that the viewer is left asking questions like, "What about her own children?"
While it's a movie maxim that the best-looking people in a hostile locale always hook up sooner or later, it somehow diminishes the work that these characters are doing. By the end of the picture it isn't even clear if Sarah is interested in humanitarian issues or simply obsessive about a man that is always just out of reach.
With a plot that blends "Tears of the Sun" with a Live Aid retrospective, "Beyond Borders" is one strange endeavor. Angelina Jolie plays a pampered socialite who joins a Doctors Without Borders physician (Clive Owen) on various efforts to keep his missions funded. The tense action scenes work better than the implausible romance.
It's too bad, because there is real conviction in Owen's performance. The British actor has thrived playing no-nonsense sorts in films such as "Gosford Park" and "Croupier." Here he brings his icy stare and combative persona to good use as a doctor who often makes poor decisions for what he believes are justifiable reasons.
On the flip side is Jolie, who is simply wrong for the role. Perhaps portraying Lara Croft in the two "Tomb Raider" ventures has made the actress seem physically superhuman. The part of Sarah calls for someone who can project vulnerability, which is a difficult task these days for the menacing Jolie.
This is one vanity project where the cause would have been much better served with a lesser-known actress as its spokesperson.