"Karmically, self-defense is quite cool." - Cozy Carlisle
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Writer: Scott Frank
Principal cast members:
This seldom-seen work from the library of acclaimed British director, Kenneth Branagh, is utterly unique among his body of work as both an actor and director. It is also a fascinating murder mystery, filmed in the noir style of a 1930-40s era thriller. Though set in modern times in full color, there is a nostalgic tone to many of the scenes that recalls Bogart and Bacall and the assorted side characters, if you can picture Wayne Knight as Peter Lorre.
The story is centered on Mike Church, a private detective in Los Angeles who was raised in a Catholic orphanage. He is called upon by the nuns to help track down the identity of a young woman with amnesia. The deeper Church delves into her history, the more he keeps finding himself enmeshed in a 50 year old murder story involving a famous conductor and his wife. As bits and pieces of the story are unveiled to him, the truth proves to be even more shocking and unexpected than we can imagine.
As always when reviewing a thriller, it is impossible to go into too much detail on the plot without spoiling things for the audience. For me personally, I have never been a big fan of thrillers and mysteries, but Dead Again is a movie that has immense appeal for a number of reasons. As such, even watching it with the eyes of a jaded writer, there were moments that literally had me jumping from my seat in surprise. We're not talking about 'monster in the closet' type moments of surprise here, either. With a word of dialogue, Branagh electrifies in one scene. In another, the mere sight of the living room in Grace's apartment can elicit chills of horror. It is a superb piece of storytelling that can throw such unexpected twists without gimmicks.
The acting in this story is some of the best you will find in the genre. Branagh, as always, delivers an utterly wonderful and believable performance both as the modern detective and as the flashback conductor accused of murdering his wife. He does this with an absolutely perfect American accent much like his then-wife, Emma Thompson, in the role of Grace and as the conductor's wife.
Part of the beauty of the story is that we are led to believe that Mike Church and Grace are the reincarnation of the conductor and his wife. But the implications in both that life and this are filled with twists and turns. Helping Mike to sort it out are a couple of interesting supporting characters in the form of Pete Dugan, played by Wayne Knight, and a defrocked psychotherapist named Cozy Carlisle played by Robin Williams.
Knight, best known as Newman in the series 'Seinfeld' is outstanding as Mike's lowlife friend who helps to dig up details about the past and help him understand who Grace might be. Williams role is a cameo, but in a rapid exchange with Church, he sets up many of the ensuing plot points. It is not a comedic role, though Williams naturally elicits a smile or two.
More central to the plot are the roles of Gray Baker, played by Andy Garcia, and the role of Franklyn Madsen, played by veteran Branagh collaborator, Derek Jacobi. Garcia's Baker is a tinseltown reporter who worked during the famous murder trial of conductor Roman Strauss. He appears in the present as an aging retiree whose life of smoking has destroyed his larynx. His recollections help Church reconstruct Grace's memory, but also start him reconstructing the memory of someone else he might have been long ago.
Jacobi appears as a hypnotist who wants to help Grace recover her past. Jacobi, a superb actor whose stage history in Britain is legendary, is brilliant here revealing hints about everyone's past, including his own, in an utterly seamless way. Jacobi has demonstrated great chemistry with Branagh and Thompson in the past in several Shakespearean productions and reprises that here.
Dead Again is not what you expect from a stylish, noir thriller. From beginning to end, there are twists and turns that complicate the story, yet thrill and entertain the viewer. To see a complex story played out with such effortless perfection by actors whose skills far outmatch the screenplay is an added treat.
Coolness factor: 7
Overall entertainment: 7