BY JOE TYRRELL
As a star vehicle, "The Tourist" aims for high-octane excitement but settles for comfortable luxury.
With Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp providing the scenery, Venice and Paris are mere backdrops for another retelling of the classic tale of regular guy lured into danger by mysterious dame.
We meet the woman first, as Jolie's fashionably dressed Elise Clifton-Ward struts through suitably chic Parisian locations, lingering just long enough at a café to receive a conspiratorial note from her presumed lover.
The hapless bicycle courier who delivers it is immediately arrested by a multi-national gang of cops/spies/revenue agents/whatever who have been tailing Elise.
The term "tailing" has never been more appropriate, because they have been using their high-tech surveillance equipment to zoom in on her derrière as their van follows about 30 feet behind her.
Of course, the stranger is Depp, so we expect a slightly irregular guy. That's not the first impression he makes as Frank, a weedy math teacher from Wisconsin reading a spy novel on a train leaving Paris.
The only offbeat touch is Frank's surname, Tupelo, a very weak signal that something is up. (Fun fact: white settlers in Mississippi called Tupelos black gum trees, and originally named their town Gum Pond.) Nevertheless, Elise sits down by him and this train has left the station.
A half century and more has passed since Alfred Hitchcock — with writers like John Michael Hayes and Ernest Lehman — took this potboiler plot and polished it to a high gloss in "To Catch a Thief," "North by Northwest" and other cinema classics.
But "The Tourist" has a somewhat less exalted background, drawing from Jérôme Salle's 2005 film "Anthony Zimmer." So "The Tourist" is more like a second-generation Hitchcock copy.
Still, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck would seem to have the background for this material. He made "The Lives of Others," one of the great movies of the past decade, about a surveillance operation by the Stasi, the East German secret police, and its impacts on both the watched and the watchers.
The team spying on Elise, led by Paul Bettany as some British finance cop, seems creepily Stasi-like. Their high-powered weapons and pervasive bugs and cameras are undermined by an inability to do simple things, like get a picture of her larcenous lover.
This unseen mastermind has stolen billions from a respectably murderous British gangster (Steven Berkoff), who employs Russian muscle just to maintain movie stereotypes.
Classic and more recent clichés mount up as Depp and Jolie exchange smoldering glances. Or at least, glances. While Angelina is a throwback to screen queens of the past — Sophia Loren or Claudia Cardinale, plus an artificial veneer — Depp makes a very post-modern Cary Grant.
"The Tourist" is at its sharpest playing off this dissonance, with Jolie at times the resourceful heroine and Depp the jeune garçon in distress. They are bolstered by high-priced bit players Timothy Dalton and Rufus Sewell, who each pack their tongues in cheeks.
The checklist of any caper film includes at least a couple of plot twists. One is merely routine. Another has some critics in high dudgeon, but you will probably see it coming, as long as you're not lost in Depp's soulful eyes or Jolie's improbable cheekbones.
"The Tourist" is to Hitchcock what tourism is to travel. But even rushing through a lines of plot checkpoints, you will return home with memories of scenic vistas, not to mention close-up views of two modern monuments, Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp.