Roman Polanski's "Frantic" is taut, intelligent filmmaking, and highly accomplished in a way that doesn't substitute flash for coherence or the pleasures of a well-told story. In other words, it's everything that "Lethal Weapon" and a half dozen other recent Hollywood thrillers weren't.
"Frantic" begins with the arrival of an American surgeon and his wife in Paris to attend a medical convention and to have a kind of second honeymoon. Harrison Ford and Betty Buckley are the Walkers, Richard and Sondra, and immediately we sense their joshing, ticklish rapport. They don't have much time together on screen, but they make being married look like great fun, sort of like William Powell and Myrna Loy did in the "Thin Man" movies. Just as they've gotten into their room, though, they discover that Sondra has picked up the wrong suitcase at the airport, an innocent mistake, but one that ultimately plunges them into a thicket of slimeballs, with near-tragic results.
The suitcase is what Hitchcock would have called the McGuffin -- it's the one thing, perhaps insignificant in itself, that sets everything else in motion. In fact, here there's a McGuffin inside the McGuffin, and the real owners, a group of Arab terrorists, want it back badly enough to kidnap Sondra and hold her for ransom, forcing Dr. Walker to search the city, engineering her rescue.
That's the plot line and, in drawing it out, Polanski, who's working here from a script he wrote with his longtime partner Gerard Brach, shows an enormous flair for the sheer mechanics of storytelling. The result is that the movie works very effectively as a simple, entertaining suspense film. But there's another dimension as well, in which the movie becomes the story of a vacationer's nightmare trip into foreign territory -- it's like a travel story by Kafka.
There's something deeply, darkly funny about this, too, and Polanski manages to convey both the comedy and the horror without exactly going for laughs. Ford's performance is a great advantage in this regard. There's a naturally ironic, self-mocking quality to Ford's work as an actor. He isn't an actor of any real depth -- "The Mosquito Coast" helped prove that -- but he's turned into an enormously likable star performer. Ford lends the same kind of largeness of personality to his characters that the movie stars of the past did, but at the same time he signals us that there's something hilarious about his being a star -- that if he's a star something must have gone horribly wrong.
This is the perfect note to strike for his character here. Without it, he might have seemed too dull, too squarely wholesome. And this is important because Michele (Emmanuelle Seigner), the courier who was paid to carry the suitcase into the country, is a lanky stunner. And if Ford didn't play his end of it just right (or if Polanski hadn't been as skillful in setting up the relationship between the doctor and his wife), Walker's ability to resist her, once he's enlisted her to help find his wife, might have played like a missed opportunity for romance; it might have been a letdown.
But it's not. Seigner, who has made only a couple of brief appearances in earlier films, doesn't try to soften Michele's mercenary amorality. This is a tough lady, and that's how she plays her. And at first she's anything but ingratiating. It's hard to figure out exactly why we change our minds about her, but we do. (Maybe it's that she responds to the same things in Walker that we do. Or that, in her own way, she has a kind of integrity.) In any case, Seigner is more than merely fashion-model beautiful; she has some talent, too, and by the end we've begun to feel a little torn about what Walker should do about her.
Polanski ends the relationship -- and the movie -- without really resolving it. When it's over, it's over, and that's that. The denouement is rather dispirited and unimaginative, and though this sort of thing is an almost expected feature in genre pieces, it's still a disappointment. (Also, isn't it about time to declare a moratorium on Arab heavies?)
The comparisons to Hitchcock are inevitable, and undeniably this is the kind of story that Hitchcock might have told well. But to say that it's Hitchcockian is giving Polanski too little credit. It's Polanski's personality that we feel behind the images here. And part of the message we feel he's trying to send us here is that he's not a monster. Polanski has a reputation for unnerving violence, but in "Frantic" he's on his best behavior; you can sense him trying to be a good boy. There's nothing soft about this movie, though, and the director hasn't completely submerged his darker impulses, as he did, for example, in "Tess." What "Frantic" signals is a return to form for the turbulent Pole. It's not great, but it's good enough to be excited about, both for itself and the promise it holds out for the future.
Frantic, at area theaters, is rated R and contains some violence and suggestive material.