Film Reviews

Divided Borders

Brutality and romance make odd bedfellows in Beyond Borders

Given the way the United Nations has been taking a beating in the American media over the past year or so, it may not be a bad thing that the new movie Beyond Borders is at heart a two-hour infomercial for Kofi Annan's organization. As a call to action, the production has already worked on at least one person: star Angelina Jolie, who went directly from shooting the film to signing on as a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. But for the story to melt the hearts of many other Americans, people will actually have to come out in droves to see it, and that may be a trickier proposition.

In theory, Beyond Borders has everything it takes to be a hit. A female lead who's a huge star, a male lead (Croupier's Clive Owen) with a cult following, gorgeous locations, a soundtrack that conveniently tells you when you're supposed to cry, a socially relevant plot, and equal doses of action (for the guys) and doomed romance (for the gals). Balancing the ingredients is tougher than it looks, though -- no one's nailed it quite like James Cameron did with Titanic. Women who like epic romances may flinch at the number of times infants are thrown in harm's way, and men who like action movies may find more crying than they're comfortable with.

The degree to which the movie hammers its point home -- there are poor people all over the world in need of help, which is sad -- can perhaps be attributed to Oliver Stone's attachment to the project for five years prior to bailing to make an Alexander the Great movie before Baz Luhrman can complete his own version. In Stone's place, we get Martin Campbell, whose great strength is in skillfully crafting straightforward action sequences, as seen in the likes of Vertical Limit and Goldeneye. No surprise, then, that Beyond Borders comes most to life not when depicting the starving masses but when Owen has to face down a deranged pack of Khmer Rouge intent on having his head or when Jolie must escape a Chechnyan battlefield.

Being British, it's also likely that Campbell had something to do with the film's running subplot, which more or less symbolizes the struggle within English manhood between primness and machismo. Jolie's Sarah Jordan, an American art gallery employee, is happily married to Henry Bauford (Linus Roache), the fortunate son of a wealthy socialite. Henry is every bit the traditional Brit: friendly but distant, terrified of seeming improper, and opining that his wife's decision to go visit an Ethiopian refugee camp isn't a very "grown-up" thing to do. On the other hand, we have Nick Callahan (Owen), a roughneck who storms a charity event being held by Henry's dad, says "bollocks" a lot to prove that he's serious, and insists that the rich benefactors in attendance know nothing about the real conditions facing poor people in the world. A tear streams from Sarah's eye, and we know romance must be in the cards somewhere down the line.

From there, Sarah goes off to join the U.N. and help out Callahan's hands-on efforts, first in Ethiopia (Namibia in reality), then five years later in Cambodia (Thailand) and six years after that in Chechnya (Canada). Along the way her hairstyle changes, and hubby Henry cheats on her, which clears the path for her to get busy with Nick without totally losing audience sympathy. Nick, being the type of guy who swears a lot, gains several character-enhancing scars along the way while Sarah never loses her perfect complexion or sullies her immaculate high-fashion clothes -- the stylish fur hat she wears to Chechnya is particularly and hilariously conspicuous.

Director Campbell spares no expense in showing us the savageness of these strange foreign lands -- the Ethiopians look like full-on horror movie creations, possibly digitally enhanced in some cases. Unlike the too-healthy actors one often sees in Hollywood movies about the Holocaust, these starvation victims are literally naught but skin and bones. In Cambodia, the natives get to eat, but they also lose limbs as a result of walking across minefields. Once we get to Chechnya, though, Campbell's having too much fun blowing stuff up to show us more victims. Screenwriter Caspian Tredwell-Owen actually went to Kosovo as part of his research, which presumably informs this latter part of the movie.

It's not a bad film exactly, just a confused one, too violent to be a straight romance and too focused on aid relief to be an ass-kicking action flick. One assumes its makers were hoping to appeal to both crowds, but it's more likely they'll end up alienating everyone.

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Luke Y. Thompson
Contact: Luke Y. Thompson