Perhaps more than any other genre, the thriller is ruled by the clock, whose every unrelenting tick brings us nearer to potential disaster. Sad to say, director Sydney Pollack ("Tootsie," "Out of Africa") and a team of no fewer than five writers have thrown this simple rule out the window. Instead of moving forward, the movie exhausts us with excursions backward and to the side, intent on unloading a dump truck's worth of insight into the history and present political posture of the fictional African land of Matobo. The result is a cross between Hitchcock at low ebb and a State Department white paper. Thrilling it's not.
As a student of film, Pollack should be the last to make this mistake, especially in a movie that combines the U.N. setting of "North by Northwest" and the plot of "The Man Who Knew Too Much," which also concerns an attempt on the life of a Third World fat cat on a junket. In the latter film, Hitchcock never bothers to tell us a thing about the assassins' motives, and the movie is the stronger for it. Pollack, by contrast, seems less interested in suspense than in imparting a lesson, at once earnest and trite, on the conflicts that bedevil sub-Saharan Africa. By the time he's subjected us to a sketch of the feuds between factions within the Matoban opposition movement, it's clear he doesn't know when to stop.
The brisk treatment this story demands is further forestalled by the presence of Sean Penn, who plays the federal agent put in charge of protecting both Zuwanie, the visiting dictator (Earl Cameron), and Kidman. Naturally, it wouldn't do for him to spend his time merely running down deserted corridors or jumping in and out of squad cars, for that would rule out the quotient of soulful emoting required in a Sean Penn role. Consequently, a tragic back story has been concocted for his character, the ins and outs of which he details at some length in one of the movie's many unfortunate sidesteps. There's not much to quarrel with when it comes to Penn's technique here, except that it's out of place. He makes us long for someone like Sinatra, who would snarl his lines and fire off a few well-aimed rounds with a minimum of fuss.
At least we get the whole of Penn's tragedy in a single, pity-purging rush. Kidman's, on the other hand, comes out in dribs and drabs that are supposed to give her character a possibly sinister mystery. She, it turns out, is herself a refugee from Matobo, with personal reasons (tragic, of course) for wanting dictator Zuwanie out of the way. Suspicious of these coincidences, Penn puts the CIA on the case, and before long a photograph emerges proving Kidman's links to the Matoban insurgents.
She's torn, it seems, between idealistic commitment to diplomacy and the notion that only guns can set her homeland to rights. Is she in on the plot? Every quarter-hour the fax machine buzzes with new evidence photographs, notebooks, letters but even the glitzy production values and more-than-competent performances cannot lend much suspense to this shambling archival enterprise.
When Pollack shoves all this murk aside, he can deliver the goods, as he showed in many sequences of "Three Days of the Condor" (1975), a serviceable thriller whose austere 1970s pacing now gives it the air of a classic. At one point in "The Interpreter," three federal agents fly into a panic when they realize that the three subjects they're tailing all have mysteriously converged on the same bus. It's a fine scene of barely contained chaos, bristling with the promise of unforeseen revelations. But once it's over, we're thrust into another round of Penn and Kidman's inconclusive tussling over the latest dispatch from the fax machine.
Playing an exiled white African, Kidman is working hard to inherit Meryl Streep's mantle as archpurveyor of offbeat accents. If she succeeds, that unfortunately may be the chief legacy of "The Interpreter." (PG-13) **1/2 S
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