A bloodless attempt to reinvigorate the B-noir thriller, updated and shot in color for contemporary tastes, Kenneth Branagh’s Dead Again (1991) is a would-be homage with an utterly flawed psychological/supernatural twist. Scott Frank's screenplay falls miserably short of its aspirations. After a sneak preview in which audiences were thoroughly baffled by the shenanigans of a botched reincarnation, bad karma, fate vs. destiny and selective amnesia, the film was recut and reedited with all sequences taking place in the past desaturated to B&W to delineate the action between past and present narratives.
Composer Patrick Doyle – a Branagh favorite – lends his musical styling herein, but the orchestral offerings are so garish and over the top they all but dwarf the tepid dumb show on the screen. From a technical aspect, the film is on more solid ground. Branagh’s fascination with long takes yields some brief, albeit rather impressive camera work, including a 360 rotating shot inside the Laughing Duke pawn shop. If only Scott Frank’s screenplay had risen to the challenge of making us either laugh or gasp we might have had a very good thriller. As it stands, we merely, and very rarely, cringe.
The film stars Branagh and then wife, Emma Thompson in dual roles. He plays fast talking private investigator, Mike Church in the present and cultured, though temperamental pianist and composer, Roman Strauss in the past. She is the mysterious amnesiac that Mike nicknames Grace, and also Margaret Strauss, Roman’s wife during the flashback sequences.
In the first of these flashbacks that opens the story, Roman is convicted of Margaret’s brutal homicide. As he sits on death row, Roman is interviewed by hard-living newspaper reporter, Gray Baker (Andy Garcia) who writes a series of lurid articles following the trial to its inevitable conclusion. From here, the story flashes forward into the present. The Strauss mansion is now a Catholic monastery where Grace has been taken after having been found wandering the streets without the capability to speak.
The curiously unhelpful priest, Father Timothy (Richard Easton) contacts Mike to take Grace into police custody where she will be safe and out of his hair. However, after realizing just how awful the precinct can be, Mike takes pity on Grace, moving her into his apartment. Intrigued to solve the mystery of this woman’s real name and whereabouts, Mike contacts newspaper columnist Pete Dugan (Wayne Knight) who takes some pictures of Grace and places an item in the paper about her discovery.
However, almost from the moment the article appears in print, charlatans interested in Mike's potential reward begin to crop up. Eventually, Mike and Grace are introduced to clairvoyant pawn broker, Franklyn Madson (Derek Jacobi) who promises that he can release Grace from her self-imposed silence with regression therapy. This seemingly impossible feat he does indeed accomplish, though his motives are far from selfless.
Gradually, the two opposing narratives of Roman and Margaret and Grace and Mike begin to converge and then, startlingly enough, run a parallel course. As ruined psychotherapist turned frozen produce grocery clerk, Cozy Carlisle (Robin Williams) tells Mike, “It’s all part of the karma payment plan. Sin now. Pay forever.”
Dead Again is a thriller dead in the water before it even enters its second act. I cannot decide which is more pedestrian: the screenplay or Matthew F. Leonetti's cinematography - neither recapturing the moody look or feel of a classic B-noir thriller. True enough – Scott Franks’ narrative is so full of holes and red herrings that it makes an episode of the Twilight Zone seem coherent by comparison, but Leonetti’s camera work is run of the mill to boring at best; even taking on something of the flavor of a Remington Steele (apologies to NBC - I like that show) television episode instead of a full blown cinema/noir experience. Occasionally, there are some inspired visual touches – but overall this is a rather bland attempt to revisit the genre. The B&W sequences are either under or over exposed, presumably to add a vintage quality to their appearance. The contemporary sequences have no visual flair.
And then there is the acting to consider. Branagh is a very poor excuse for the classic American gumshoe. His Mike is like a carefree adolescent out on a lark; a sort of devil-may-care Hardy boy who cannot decide whether we wants to solve a crime or simply bed the mysterious woman currently occupying a space on his couch. Emma Thompson is terrible as the amnesiac. Someone ought to have explained to her that her character has forgotten her past - not her marbles. Worse, the supposed groundswell of romantic chemistry that is supposed to make us care about Mike and Grace as a couple just isn't there. It's only superficially present in the Roman/Margaret flashbacks, yet there too seems unnaturally stiff and blunted.
Derek Jacobi is too ethereal and flighty as the villain of the piece; played strictly for comedy until the last act when he inexplicable switches over to utter insanity. The supposed hint of homo eroticism between P.I. Gray Baker and Roman is ill conceived and badly played out. Furthermore, it undercuts Roman's innocence of the crime of killing his wife - a woman he genuinely loved. I can't say I was a fan of Andy Garcia's turn as Baker either - looking more silly than sly and simply skulking around for a good story rather than clues during the flashback sequences. In the final analysis, Dead Again is a film that ought to remain buried.
Paramount Home Video’s DVD delivers an adequate image retaining all of the aforementioned visual characteristics discussed in this review. Colors in the contemporary sequences are nicely contrasted, though not quite as punchy as one might expect. The B&W sequences have a harsher patina of grain – either intentionally or perhaps just slightly more exaggerated as digital grit than expected. The audio is a 5.1 Dolby Digital remastering effort. The sonic characteristic is oddly strident with a decided lack of bass tonality. Extras include an audio commentary and theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)