[Screen It]

(2003) (Angelina Jolie, Clive Owen) (R)

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Drama: A pampered and naïve American living abroad becomes increasingly involved in humanitarian efforts and the renegade doctor who runs relief camps around the world.
It's London 1984 and Sarah Jordan (ANGELINA JOLIE) is an American living a pampered life with her British husband, Elliott Hauser (NOAH EMMERICH). At a swanky reception hosted by Elliot's father, renegade doctor Nick Callahan (CLIVE OWEN) crashes the event, protesting the cut in funds for the relief camps where he works in Africa.

Sarah is so taken with his dramatic plea that she decides to visit his latest camp in Ethiopia. There, she meets Nick's cohorts, including his calmer and more reasonable associate, Henry Bauford (LINUS ROACHE), but has an eye-opening experience regarding the conditions of those in their camp.

Although her stint there is short, she becomes more involved in humanitarian aid via the U.N., but can't forget Nick and his work. That eventually leads to her traveling to other hot spots around the world where Nick and his team are working.

Yet, when his involvement with covert CIA operative Jan Steiger (YORICK VAN WAGENINGEN) seems to have gotten Nick into trouble, Sarah - who's now fallen for him - sets out - with the help of her TV anchor sister, Charlotte (TERI POLO) -- to find him.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
You have to admire those who volunteer their time and often their entire lives to humanitarian causes. That's particularly true when such actions put such people in harm's way, especially in third world countries where wars, famine and unrest don't make the haves particularly welcoming to those who've arrived to help the have-nots.

Such hotspots are present all around the world and several of them appear in director Martin Campbell's latest film, "Beyond Borders." An international drama featuring humanitarian aid amidst such dangers - that apparently also includes melodramatic romance - the film features Angelina Jolie ("Girl, Interrupted" and the "Tomb Raider" films) in the lead role. Thankfully, she's not in kick-butt, globetrotting Lara Croft mode, although the film threatens to become that in the second half.

The interesting side-note, however, is that the long in production film reportedly inspired the actress to accept the honorary role of Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and travel to exotic locales similar to those portrayed in the film. While that's a noble act in and upon itself, it's also obviously a great opportunity for some serious cross-promotion between that work and this release.

Not to mention some thick, gooey, unsavory and ultimately unnecessary and damaging melodrama. Like a humanitarian character in the film who has his initial goal somewhat sidetracked by outside influences, the film loses sight of what it originally appears to be.

And that is being a film about international relief work in places quite desperate for such assistance. Naturally, there are humans and related frailties and passions behind all of that humanitarianism and we obviously expect such fictional characters to grow as the story progresses.

Alas, they head off in a misguided but completely predictable direction. In true movie fashion, since Jolie and Clive Owen's characters don't get along at first, it's inevitable but not at all surprising that they'll soon end up longing for each other.

Taking the easy way out of such matters, screenwriter Caspian Tredwell-Owen (making his feature debut) has Sarah's husband - played by Linus Roache ("Hart's War," "The Wings of the Dove") - have an apparent affair, thus freeing her to sow her third-world wild oats. I'm sure such remote romances happen all of the time - at least in the movies - but the one here does nothing for the film except send it down the wrong and uncomfortably bumpy path.

Had the new route been interesting, moving or at least unpredictable, it might come off as a welcomed detour. Unfortunately it's not, as Jolie's over-acting and reacting, combined with the maudlin melodrama, makes for a progressively deteriorating second half after a decent if somewhat contrived and clichéd first.

Like the director's previous works (including "The Mask of Zorro" and "Goldeneye"), this one looks terrific and features some nice vistas of the various "exotic" locales. There are also a number of memorable and even harrowing scenes, including an unforgettable one featuring a standoff where a baby is given a live grenade with which to play.

I'm glad to report that film doesn't get horribly preachy, despite an early scene suggesting otherwise and the overall effort obviously wearing its misguided socio-political message - of whites being the savior of non-whites -- on its sleeve. Yet, I would have preferred far more of that compared with the botched, unwise and unnecessary romance that takes over.

Part of the problem - beyond the related maudlin elements - is that the chemistry between the leads just isn't there, no matter the standard initial antagonism between them. Jolie embodies the new humanitarian as expected - the naïve American who gets an eye-opening experience - but plays (make that over-plays) just about every element of the character. The result is a maddening and annoying performance.

Owen ("The Bourne Identity," "Gosford Park") is okay as the renegade doctor who clashes with others and bends the rules - and has a hidden, sentimental soft spot for those he treats - but is burdened by too many clichés and the plot headed for disaster. Roache isn't given much to do - which also holds true for Teri Polo ("Domestic Disturbance," "Meet the Parents") as the protagonist's TV anchor sister.

Meanwhile, Noah Emmerich ("Windtalkers," "The Truman Show") appears as the more compassionate and level-headed humanitarian, while Yorick Van Wageningen ("Total Loss," "The Tulse Luper Suitcases: The Moab Story") is appropriately shadowy but mostly underused (as just a plot complication) playing a covert CIA operative.

Despite initially appearing as a message sort of film wrapped in an international drama-cum-occasional thriller, the film unfortunately segues into a poorly constructed version of "Harrison's Flowers" where love sends a woman into a war zone to retrieve her beloved. While that might be as noble as the earlier relief work - at least in concept - it just doesn't work as a moviegoing experience. "Beyond Borders" rates as just a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 16, 2003 / Posted October 24, 2003

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