I've long respected director Martin Campbell as a fine helmer of good, old-fashioned entertainment. His "Goldeneye" is still, in my opinion, the best of the recent James Bond films. "Mask of Zorro" was a well-done swashbucking adventure, with well-timed humor and skillfully handled action. Campbell's directorial efforts even overcame Chris O'Donnell's acting abilities in "Vertical Limit".
In "Beyond Borders", Campbell once again shows his eye for (sometimes too glossy, in this case) visuals (once again working with cinematographer Phil Meheux) and his ability to get good performances. Unfortunately, he finds himself working with shaky material (Campbell was the replacement for Oliver Stone, who chose to do "Alexander" instead). The film focuses on Sarah (Jolie) a high-society wife whose husband (Linus Roache) does not take her commitment to various causes seriously.
When she's confronted at a charity ball by the very Bond-ian Nick Callahan (Clive Owen), an aid worker who accuses the staff of the charity of allowing children to starve, while too little of the actual money actually goes towards helping the people it's meant to. Mere moments later, Sarah has gotten enough money to head out to Ethiopia with supplies and, of course, with the unspoken hope of finding Dr. Nick.
The film is broken into three parts: one with the two in Ethiopia, the other in Cambodia and the third in Chechnya. There's not a great deal of plot, as the film follows its characters to various countries, with the occasional bit filling in information about the nearly non-existent relationship between Sarah and her husband (she even attempts to leave in the middle of the night, only to be confronted by her husband) at various points along the way. The romantic angle between Sarah and Nick is not exactly well-handled (nor does it really fit smoothly in this kind of story) and the chemistry between the two actors is merely average. The lack of a strong focus on plot and/or one element of the film or another also makes the film drag at times.
I think the film's heart is in the right place, but it just runs into problems. The romantic angle would have best simply been left out, as the film's look at the injustices of the world and the struggles of relief workers could have been more developed. Despite the lack of chemistry between the two leads, I liked both performances, but questioned some choices. Jolie (who really does devote a lot of time to humanitarian work) provides an effective (if somewhat overly subdued) performance, yet the effort is somewhat sabotaged by the choice to present her wearing fashionable outfits in these countries and appearing as if not a hair was out-of-place, even in brutal conditions. Owen offers a powerful, compelling performance that's the film's most impressive. Neither Jolie or Owen (or Noah Emmerich and Teri Polo, who are good in small supporting roles) are assisted by the screenplay from Caspian Tredwell-Owen, which can't decide what it wants to be and offers a few mediocre speeches to the actors that they really have to work to save.
Certainly a large-scale film (the Internet Movie Database lists the budget at $35m, but I'd be very surprised if it wasn't more than that), the choices of costume are certainly questionable at times, but Phil Meheux's cinematography often chooses the grit over the gloss and the film's Kenya, England and Canadian locations are visually remarkable. I didn't much care for James Horner's score, but it wasn't too distressing.
Overall, there's a kernel of a very good film lurking somewhere underneath "Beyond Borders". The subject matter is something that should be shown and discussed, and should have made for a film that's more focused and less flat than this one is. While I continue to be a fan of Campbell's earlier work, I can't help but wonder what Oliver Stone would have done with this.
VIDEO: "Beyond Borders" is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen by Paramount Home Video. This is not a presentation without some minor issues, but it often looks quite good. Sharpness and detail are generally excellent, as the picture often appeared crisp and well-defined. Still, some shots looked a little soft at times and shadow detail could be slightly shaky.
The presentation does suffer from a little bit of edge enhancement in a handful of scenes. While not much of a distraction, these few, brief instances where still noticable. No compression artifacts were spotted, though, and the print appeared to be in first-rate condition, with no dirt or other debris. The film's color palette, which varies depending on the location (the last third in Chechnya appears largely steel blue, aside from Jolie's enormous red lips), appeared natural and accurately rendered, with no smearing or other faults.
SOUND: "Beyond Borders" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The film's sound design is generally subtle, but there are instances where the surrounds come into play effectively to present light ambience or discrete sound effects. Scenes in the final third in Chechnya are the most aggressive sound wise, with gunfire and environmental sounds in the surrounds. A rescue attempt and attack in the last part of the film includes some exceptional sound work, as missle hits and the resulting shower of debris are presented in an incredibly convincing manner in the scene. Overall, this is a satisfying effort, although I would have liked to hear a little more background detail in the first 2/3rds of the picture.
EXTRAS: Director Martin Campbell and producer Lloyd Phillips offer an audio commentary for the film. Although the track is a little spotty at times, there are some interesting tidbits offered, as the two discuss shooting on location, working with the actors/extras and point out a few of the instances of CGI work that aren't obvious.
"Behind the Lines" is a 36-minute "Making Of" documentary split into two parts. While omewhat promotional in nature, this is still a satisfying look behind-the-scenes at the production as it ventures from bitterly cold, snowbound Canadian sets to a much hotter climate in Africa. This serves as an interesting look at the travels that the production took to various locations across the world and enlightens about some issues the film attempts to highlight, but problems with the production besides the ever-changing weather conditions are more hinted at then looked into in-depth. Given the amount of travel and the conditions this production had to face, I just think there had to have been problems and challenges that aren't talked about here.
I also would have liked to have heard more about Oliver Stone's departure from the project. The second half of the documentary starts off with an interesting (if rather brief) look at the making of a large camp in the middle of the desert, where there was previously nothing.
Rounding out the DVD are featurettes about Jolie's humanitarian work and the film's screenplay, along with previews for other Paramount titles ("Tupac: Resurrection", "Timeline", the somewhat underrated (in my opinion) John Woo thriller "Paycheck" and finally, "The Perfect Score")
Final Thoughts: "Beyond Borders" attempts to take a look at interesting subject matter and offers fine performances, but the screenplay could have used a few more rewrites. Paramount's DVD edition boasts good audio/video quality and a few informative, enjoyable supplements. A light rental recommendation.
The Film **