If anyone was born to play Tom Ripley, it's John Malkovich; the aloofness, erudite manner, cool charisma and chilly superciliousness of his screen persona make the actor a perfect fit for the cultured killer. Malkovich's elegantly malicious performance gives "Ripley's Game" a magnetic center.

If anyone was born to play Tom Ripley, it’s John Malkovich; the aloofness, erudite manner, cool charisma and chilly superciliousness of his screen persona make the actor a perfect fit for the cultured killer. Malkovich’s elegantly malicious performance gives “Ripley’s Game” a magnetic center, complemented by Liliana Cavani’s efficient direction and an enjoyable retro feel that recalls the British Cold War thrillers of the 1960s. Despite some pedestrian plotting and a final act that could be tighter, this is suspenseful adult entertainment that should find a receptive audience. Fine Line has scheduled domestic release for April.

Adapted by screenwriter Charles McKeown and Cavani, this is the fourth time author Patricia Highsmith’s antihero has hit the screen. It follows Rene Clement’s “Plein Soleil” in 1961 and Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley” in 1999 — both based on the novel of that title — and Wim Wenders’ “The American Friend” in 1977, also drawn from “Ripley’s Game,” with Dennis Hopper in the lead and Bruno Ganz as the innocent pawn he transforms into a hired killer.

Wenders used the material to explore his own themes — a loner’s existential journey in search of himself, friendship and a meaning to his life, the Americanization of Europe. By contrast, Cavani’s is a more straightforward rendition of Highsmith’s novel, picking up on Ripley as a man far more settled and sure of himself than when he first appeared, having greedily soaked up culture and wealth and cast off the troublesome baggage of conscience.

Chief departure from the book is relocation of the principal setting from Fountainbleu, France, to Italy’s Veneto region and a time shift from the 1950s to the present. Action starts, however, in Berlin, where Ripley walks away from a business deal gone sour, taking $3 million worth of Renaissance forgeries while parting ways with his thuggish British partner, Reeves (Ray Winstone).

Three years later, he is living in luxury in a sumptuously restored Palladian villa in northeast Italy with his beautiful harpsichordist wife, Luisa (Chiara Caselli). At a village party given by British picture framer Jonathan Trevanny (Dougray Scott), Ripley overhears the host make a disparaging remark about his ostentatious taste. Since no simple form of revenge will do, Ripley seizes an opportunity presented by Reeves, who resurfaces needing an unknown face to erase a Russian mobster encroaching on his Berlin nightclub turf. Knowing Trevanny is terminally ill with leukemia and financially vulnerable, Ripley suggests Reeves approach him.

Playing on Trevanny’s need to provide financial security for his wife (Lena Headey) and son (Sam Blitz), and dangling consultation with a Berlin specialist as further bait, Reeves corners the reluctant man into the job. When Reeves then pressures Trevanny into a second hit, Ripley’s annoyance that the pact was extended prompts him to board the Berlin-Dusseldorf Express where the murder is to take place and assume control of the situation.

One of the most vivid sequences from Highsmith’s novel, this multiple murder by garrote in the train bathroom is sharply done, giving the thriller a suspenseful centerpiece laced with black humor.

Things go wrong when one of the victims turns out to be not quite dead and Reeves’ attempt to make the killings look like a gang war between Russians and Ukrainians fails to convince either side. They come after Reeves, who turns to unsympathetic Ripley for help. This leads the Mafiosi back to Italy, where Ripley and Trevanny hunker down in the villa to wait for the assailants, an unexpected bond slowly crystallizing between them.

While Malkovich could be accused of being far too Malkovich, the actor dominates every scene with his deliciously sinister portrayal of a man of mordant wit and supreme manipulative power, able to remain cool in even the most extreme circumstances.

Scott is simply no match for the more seasoned thesp, not helped by the script’s sketchy psychological grounding for Trevanny’s transition. The sense of Trevanny as a plaything for Ripley’s diabolical amusement could have been more strongly developed, and Scott conveys the confused emotions, moral ambiguity and sense of entrapment of an innocent family man steered down a criminal path in fairly obvious terms.

Caselli provides sexy, feline grace as Ripley’s complicit wife, while Headey shapes a warm, intuitive character out of Trevanny’s increasingly alarmed spouse. By contrast, Winstone — so good in films like “Sexy Beast” and “Last Orders” — is underused in a role without much definition.

Director Cavani’s depiction of the dark relationship between the Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling characters in “The Night Porter” has vague echoes in the tormentor-victim setup here, underscored as in Highsmith’s novel with the faintest trace of homoerotic tension. Absent since 1993’s undistinguished drama about a deaf-mute couple, “Where Are You? I’m Here,” Cavani handles the action, atmosphere and tension with assurance, faltering only in a closing act that seems to fumble for a suitable ending.

Veteran Italian d.p. Alfio Contini’s drained, brownish colors and smoothly agile, classical camerawork contribute to the thriller’s ’60s feel, an aspect further enhanced by the choice of locations and interiors in both Germany and Italy with very few obvious contemporary indicators. Good understated use is made of Ennio Morricone’s obsessive, quietly insidious score.

Ripley's Game

Italy-U.K.

Production

A Fine Line Features release of a Baby Films, Cattleya, Mr. Mudd production. Produced by Ileen Maisel, Simon Bosanquet, Riccardo Tozzi. Executive producers, Rolf Mittweg, Camela Galano, Marco Chimenz, Russell Smith, Mark Ordesky. Directed by Liliana Cavani. Screenplay, Charles McKeown, Cavani, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith.

Crew

Camera (color), Alfio Contini; editor, Jon Harris; music, Ennio Morricone; production designer, Francesco Frigeri; set decorator, Verde Visconti; costume designer, Fotini Dimou; sound (Dolby Digital), John Rodda, Brian Simmons; visual consultant, Verde Visconti; assistant director, Fabrizio Castellani; casting, Mary Selway. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (non-competing), Sept. 2, 2002. Running time: 110 MIN.

With

Tom Ripley - John Malkovich Jonathan Trevanny - Dougray Scott Reeves - Ray Winstone Sarah Trevanny - Lena Headey Luisa Ripley - Chiara Caselli

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