Based on the novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith, Ripley's Game re-introduces us to the character of Tom Ripley. Viewers may know him from the excellent film The Talented Mr. Ripley (also based on one of Highsmith's novels), with Matt Damon in the title role. But this is not a sequel, per se; you don't have to know who Ripley is... the opening scene of Ripley's Game does a brilliant job of capturing the essence of the character.
Here, Ripley is portrayed by John Malkovich, and the story takes place in the present day (the date is left unstated, but cell phones are always a tipoff). This is an older Ripley, not the young, insecure fellow we met in The Talented Mr. Ripley; here we see Ripley as a confident, mature man of the world. One thing hasn't changed, though: Ripley is still a classic sociopath, blithely self-centered, unconcerned with trifles of "right" and "wrong," and only paying attention to the things that give him pleasure, whether it's listening to beautiful music, looking at famous artworks, cooking a fine meal, or playing sadistic mind games with other people.
Ripley's Game is not just a character study, though: first and foremost it's a crime thriller, with a unique twist. As the story opens, Ripley is approached by an old associate who wants someone to kill off a few of his business competitors, who happen to be bosses of organized crime. Rather than do it himself, Ripley decides to act as puppet master and ensnare his innocent neighbor, Jonathan Trevanny, who made the fatal mistake of getting on Ripley's bad side. The story moves along steadily, with a growing sense of doom hanging over Trevanny's head as events snowball and seem to slip out of his control.
The viewer is drawn into this sordid tale, and in a sense invited to become complicit in it. Who is the protagonist here, and who is the antagonist? There are certainly no clear "good guys" and "bad guys." Ripley certainly comes across as a sinister figure and Trevanny as a hapless innocent, but then again, Ripley only sets the pieces on the board; Trevanny is the one who chooses to act on what's presented to him. Trevanny acts for what he believes are good reasons, but in the end, we see everything fall apart; in a sense, it's a cautionary tale about the consequences of acting against our better instincts. But what of Ripley, who has no such better instincts? What do we want to happen to him? He's intriguing in the way a venomous snake is interesting: oddly fascinating, but certainly not safe to be around.
The film version of Ripley's Game is quite faithful to the book; in fact, I'd say that the changes are improvements. The story is tightened up and some overly complex situations (like the manner in which Trevanny is drawn into the plot) are simplified, allowing the film to focus on the key elements of the story and to move smoothly forward from start to finish. The opening scene is not drawn from the book, but in fact it's a lot more effective than the book's opening; it sets the edgy tone for the rest of the film, and it serves to dramatically introduce the character of Ripley to viewers who haven't seen or read any of his previous exploits.
Ripley's Game appears in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, with anamorphic enhancement. It's an attractive transfer that offers an enjoyable viewing experience overall; colors and contrast are handled well throughout the film, and edge enhancement is minimal. However, there's a slight softness and occasional shimmer in the image that comes from a constant low level of noise, so the transfer stays at the "very good" level rather than moving up to "outstanding."
Three soundtrack options are provided: the default Dolby 5.1, a DTS 5.1, and a Dolby 2.0. Ripley's Game is a shining example of how surround sound can enhance the viewing experience of any movie, even one that's not full of car chases and special effects. The use of the surround channels in the DTS track is exceptional: music is smoothly wrapped around the viewer to create a general immersive atmosphere, and the use of localized sound effects is extensive, from the sound of footsteps in a crowded room to background noise at a party.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack also handles the surround quite well, though the DTS does win out by its overall richer sound. The Dolby 2.0 track is acceptable but it feels much flatter and lacks the richness and excellent surround of the other tracks.
The one thing that doesn't always come off so well is the clarity of the dialogue. On several occasions the dialogue has a slightly harsh, distorted quality to it. Fortunately, this doesn't happen with all the dialogue. All in all, the soundtrack for Ripley's Game still deserves a high mark, with the outstanding "you are there" atmosphere created by the soundtrack making up for the occasional imperfections in the dialogue.
English and Spanish subtitles are provided as an option.
There's not much here by way of bonus content. We get a theatrical trailer for Ripley's Game and a selection of trailers for other New Line films, and that's it. There is a link for DVD-ROM/web content, but that's really not the same thing as providing actual special features that are accessible to all viewers.
A crime thriller with a decidedly non-traditional assortment of characters, Ripley's Game is a film that's well worth seeing. It's a well-made film that provides an entertaining plot, and that also offers an unsettling thematic undercurrent about the way people deal with the practical applications of "right" and "wrong." Recommended.