Ripley Under Ground (2005)
(Premiere Date: November 06, 2005 [AFI Film Festival])
(Sneak Preview Date: November 21, 2005)

I'll show YOU who's talented!!!

A Suspiciously Delicious, Tapered Caper!

The Mysterious Yearning Secretive Sad Lonely Troubled Confused Loving Musical Gifted Intelligent Beautiful Tender Sensitive Haunted Passionate Talented Mister Critic
J.C. Maçek III
The World's Greatest Critic!

This isn't the first time you've heard the name "Tom Ripley", I'm sure. It's not as if his character has been a terribly well kept secret, especially since 1999's technical, yet flawed translation of The Talented Mr. Ripley became a moderate success, and slapped a few sticky brand names all over Patricia Highsmith's best known character. The ticklish truth is that Ripley himself is no stranger to the big screen, and hasn't yet been captured by any one actor, at least not to the satisfaction of his creator. Enter producer Stephen Ujlaki whose efforts to bring Ripley Under Ground to the old Silver were most certainly a labor of love, carrying him through fifteen years, millions of dollars, almost as many actors and a veritable cold war between the studio-states. He also has one thing that scarcely any other film maker can claim: The approval of the incredibly selective and careful Patricia Highsmith herself.

I've always felt that The Talented Mr. Ripley began as a sort of personalized version of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and then (as the boat-ride ends) becomes something vastly different, flipping us from the story of a somehow sympathetic, yet self-centered little con-man into that of the American Psycho in Europe. He becomes whom he must become to survive and says what he must say to get what he feels he deserves. He never loses us, however, even at his most nefarious, simply because Highsmith puts us in on Tom's joke. Ripley makes us all his coconspirators, like a masked Richard III, pulling the wool over everyone else's eyes, but freely showing us the entire picture to our guilty delight.
The Axe Head flies off... and he never loses his cool!

Barry Pepper is Tom Ripley. I mean it... he IS! You can forget the rest!

In the Ujlaki-produced adaptation to Ripley's first sequel, Ripley Under Ground, we find a maturing Tom, comfortably enjoying the European class he has so successfully insinuated himself into. He continues to use his seductive ways and his considerable acting talent to move all his selected pieces across his continental chess-board until each pawn is in perfect order... well, most of the time.

Tom Ripley (perfectly portrayed in a varied and nuanced performance by Barry Pepper) is still dutifully working the system to increase his comfort zone as a part of the roiling London art world. Tom has this funny, stylish way about him, exuding the charisma that keeps him in the good graces of his circle, while occasionally turning his back to pick a pick a pocket, kidnap a cat or lock a competitor in a washroom... all in a day's work! Tom is currently a player in the entourage of up-and-coming contemporary artist Derwatt (Douglas Henshall), the typical rebellious bad boy of the canvass. When his hard drinking and heady emotions lead him to his accidental death, the entourage sees their future fragmenting... until Mr. Ripley again shows his Talent.

Soon, Tom is attaching and pulling the strings of Derwatt's manager Jeff (an understated, yet still hilarious Alan Cumming) as he continues to promote the now-reclusive Derwatt in money-making show after money making show. When the art runs out, Derwatt's surviving girlfriend Cynthia (glowing-with-sex Claire Forlani) uses her feminine wiles to push Ian Hart's Bernard into continuing the Derwatt legacy for every shilling it's worth.

And behind them all is innocent Tom Ripley controlling the whole program as the fitting puppet master. He plants the seeds, and lets his seduced players reap what he has sown. He's still a mystery man, 'natch, and his motivations and actions are always in motion as well as question. His goals... aren't. The joy in Ripley is that he is that dark side that doesn't feel dark. He's the villain that feels like the hero, the monster in geek's clothing. Yet again, we root for him, and not just because Highsmith says we're supposed to. We're taken in by this con man, and are happy for the ride. Sure we know he's evil! Hell, if we know the character already we know he's a multiple murderer. He's at once loveable and unknowingly wicked, charming to the point that we forget we're in boiling water, and he's holding the matches.

Of course, what would a Ripley novel be without the snags that put Tom in the peril that, from a moral standpoint, he deserves? We've got our Dickie Greenleaf(s)... where would we be without our Marge Sherwood(s)? Enter American Art collector Murchison (Willem Dafoe), who takes one look at the "Bernard Forgeries" and begins his warpath. Enter Inspector Webster of Scotland Yard (Tom Wilkinson), who is always on the cusp of finding out everything about Tom and exchanging Tom's expansive world for a 6 X 10. Then, of course, enter Tom's new love interest, Heloise (Jacinda Barrett) who is in a running competition with her bank account in the race for Tom's affections. Forget what you think pop culture has told you about Tom, and be ready for a heady surprise as somewhere along the patch he meets his match!

The fun of Ripley, a fun that few others have captured from Highsmith's prose, is that his capers are hilarious. In the case of Ujlaki's film incredibly funny. In a brief synopsis, this might sound like an absolute thriller on the screen, but under the capable direction of Roger Spottiswoode, the humor overtakes the tension and allows the audience to forget their morality and simply laugh like Hyenas. Amazingly because of the capable Pepper and the vision of Spottiswoode, the most horribly things are made incredibly funny. Just when our morality catches up with us, the scene gets even more horrible and even funnier. And that escalates, moment by moment, masking horror with comedy and frustrating the viewer with every deadpan look of irritation Tom gives. You have to see this to believe how humorous the darkness can get. Ripley's charm and danger come together as the audience sees him in a shocking scenario, witnesses his quick mind reacting to it, and then thinking... "I can see doing that!" What keeps it all fresh is the fact that Ripley is always at the end of his rope, always two steps from being caught, and always escaping at the last minute. He lives a life of near-farcical cliffhangers, so close, never falling, almost charmed, almost accidentally successful, always fast thinking. The few times he almost loses us, he seduces us right back in. I haven't laughed this hard or this often in a theatre in a long time.

Set in the "modern" world of right this minute (the novel is 35 years old), the style and fashion of Ripley is of-the-now and easily identified with. However, one must ask, does Ripley really work in this modern world of cell phones, internet, instant background checks and, most of all, DNA evidence? Cumming's character Jeff, often loudly decries the modern world, possibly channeling the writers (William Blake Herron and Donald E. Westlake) in their balance of caper-chase with post-modern connectivity. Could Ripley really, and believably, pull off these skin-of-his-teeth successes today? Highsmith was ironically funny and shocking yet somehow still credible. Is this?

Further, this story has been restructured to be allowed to stand alone, without the prequels or sequels (some changes might make purists uncomfortable, but give it a chance). In this respect the character of Tom Ripley does come across as complete and rich, but elsewhere, some characters feel a bit one-note, and undercooked. Perhaps that's the point. Perhaps they come across as single-layered pawns as they should, and in many cases that leads to final-act surprises. Still, like many adaptations there is that feeling of missing pieces; that which was in the novel, but not quite fleshed out on screen; the things that wrap themselves up too neatly. When the surprises don't work, the comedy tends to distract us from them.

For better or for worse, this is how it comes across, but make no mistake, the overall whole is a smart thrill ride that breaks down threshold after threshold, carrying the viewer with it right up to the very surprising, and not at all predictable or pat ending. The actors are very well cast for their roles, and put in the right amount of comical twists for their serious situations. Farce never becomes camp under the brave tutelage of Spottiswoode, and in spite of the changes, this is the sort of comedy that Highsmith might have loved... very British, very ironic, not always subtle. Barry Pepper is especially to be commended for his impeccable performance. His deep seduction, coupled with "aw shucks" innocence turns like a Rubik's Cube and offers a different side, or set of sides, to each character he plays. He alternately channels Carey Grant and Johnny Depp, with just a smattering of the great screen villains... and we never stop rooting for him. He goes beyond his role as the chess master among pawns. His Ripley is really a virus that practically infects the others to his own ends. If this film doesn't make him a star, I'm starting a food fight at the Golden Globes, I... I mean it man! This kid is fantastic and deserves recognition for his years of hard work!

So should Stephen Ujlaki, whose decade and a half of work has brought forth a hilarious and fascinating anti-mystery, told from the inside out. Sound like praise worthy of a Highsmith story? It is. This is most assuredly not a sequel to the film The Talented Mr. Ripley, or Purple Noon. It's not a prequel to Ripley's Game or The American Friend. Ripley Under Ground is a great film on its own merits, and while it can stand alone, let's hope it doesn't. Go see it when it comes out, show Hollywood that independent films of great quality can work, and work very well for us. If you don't laugh like mad, I'll send you an autographed photo of me that you can tape to your dart board. But again... I get to pick the pose.

Four Stars out of Five for Ripley Under Ground, the most fun you may ever have being the bad guy! But this bad guy is oh, so good. It takes great talent to film a story in which the antagonist is the protagonist. Many have tried, few have succeeded. Here, Ujlaki and Spottiswoode fall neatly into the "Success" category, against odds that no bookie would take. In that respect, these guys have quite truly pulled a Tom Ripley. Watch this space for a literary review of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley Under Ground! Purist though I am, nothing's going to stop me from loving the funny and rewarding film. Nothing except, perhaps, the film version of Ripley Under Water actually taking place in Space with our boy Tom's great nemesis being portrayed as a robot. Hey, modernization is one thing, but even Brother Kneumsi has his limits, am I right? So, if the spring rolls around and you feel manipulated by yours truly, take heart: I will be seeing you in the next reel, and you can take it up with me there. My buddy Tom does a hell of an impression of me though, so check "my" fingernails.

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Ripley Under Ground (2005) reviewed by J.C. Maçek III
who is responsible for his own opinions
but only half responsible for the payments on his brand new, mint condition blood red 2005 Chrysler PT Cruiser.
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