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Universal // R // July 13, 2004
List Price: $27.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 29, 2004 | E-mail the Author
The cover art of Tempo promises desire! Seduction! Betrayal! That's really all the plot summary anyone should need, but since the bylaws of DVD reviewerdom demand that I crank out a longer synopsis, I guess I should rattle off a little more than that. The movie stars Hugh Dancy as Jack, a young man with an eye on establishing his own restaurant in France. In the meantime, he's content staying in a luxurious Parisian apartment with Sarah (Melanie Griffith), a considerably older antiques smuggler with whom he's carrying on a torrid affair. She's given an assignment from wealthy art collector Walter Shrenger (Malcom McDowell) to watch over the transport of a piece he and his wife have had their eye on for the past decade. Walter wants to deal directly with Sarah, cutting out her usual middleman George Maldondo (Art Malik), and he further insists that Sarah not bring her partner Jack in on this. Sarah cobbles together a cover story for her lover and trots off to Munich, leaving Jack alone in Paris. He meets-cute with Jenny Travile (Rachael Leigh Cook), an American who was booted out of school and dumped in Europe by her rich parents a week earlier. Jenny's having a tough time adjusting to life in France, although she's holed up in a pretty nice apartment and has earned the trust of her employers at a Parisian jewelry store. Jack immediately falls for Jenny, and after misinterpreting a phone call George leaves on Sarah's answering machine, he goes ahead and reaches for the brass ring. Meanwhile, Sarah's not having such a great time. The piece is swiped out from under her nose, with murder and extortion following in its wake. Sarah needs to come up with $80,000 fast, and...hey, her boytoy's new fling does work in a jewelry store... Since Tempo kicks off with an out-of-sequence high-speed car chase, obviously things don't go entirely according to plan.

From the first frame of the car chase that opens the movie, Tempo attempts to be hip and stylized. The frenzied, choppy editing, out-of-sync audio, and slowed-down dialogue in those early moments defuses whatever excitement it was trying to build. Between that and the TBS Original Movie-grade opening titles, Tempo seemed to be setting me up for 83 minutes of mediocrity. In that sense, Tempo doesn't disappoint, though it manages to do so in pretty much every other respect. The flipside of the keepcase boasts that Tempo is "a sexy thriller in the vein of Wild Things!". Let's dissect that piece by piece. The "sexy" elements are pretty tame, especially by comparison. The love scenes, especially the first one that's permeated with some of the cheesiest music ever composed, are virtually indistinguishable from any of the hundreds of faceless erotic thrillers that pop up on Cinemax in the wee hours of the morning, the primary differences being the complete lack of nudity and an even more haggard blonde taking the place of Shannon Tweed. The sum total of the "sexy" scenes doesn't amount to the length of a standard commercial break. Tempo is pretty light on thrills too, limited largely to a single car chase, the bulk of which is played twice. Various threats and some sporadic gunplay don't build much in the way of tension or suspense. The Wild Things comparison Universal's marketing team whipped up is baseless. Wild Things is campy, sleaze-tinged fun. Tempo is an unremarkable made-for-cable-style erotic thriller with sparse eroticism or thrills.

I think the reason the movie's titled Tempo is because director Eric Styles can't resist fiddling with the speed, frequently cranking footage up or slowing it down. I guess he felt obligated to try to do something moderately interesting visually since some of the dialogue is hopeless. A sample exchange: "Who am I speaking to?" "To whom are you talking? I don't know. Santa Claus?" Clever! Another: "It's so silly. A little piece of metal needs a babysitter to travel. No offense." "No. The government of origin doesn't feel that it's a silly little piece of metal, and they will stop at nothing to get it and confiscate it." Oh, nevermind. I had a witty retort all typed up, but I must have misheard that line initially. Now I get it: the government of origin is going to get it and then confiscate it. Come on, Tempo has several credited writers. Lines like this filtered from multiple screenwriters to the producers to the actors to the director. At any point in the process, did anyone stop and ponder, "golly, this really isn't very good"? The cast of characters are strangely-shaped puzzle pieces that really don't fit together. I don't get why Sarah needed to be hired at all since Walter clearly has competent, ruthless people on his payroll. Petty jealousy doesn't seem like enough of a motivating factor for George to go to the lengths that he does, and some backstory to explain the bizarre relationship he and Sarah have would've been welcome. Tempo can't rest on the essentials of the plot as a crutch. A movie with art smuggling and a jewelry heist shouldn't be this boring, and both elements are largely glossed over. C'mon, you're supposed to be a thriller. Play up the thrills! I was also disappointed how far in advance the twist at the end was telegraphed.

Melanie Griffith had been acting for around three decades prior to the filming of Tempo, with well over fifty credits in her filmography. How someone could have that much experience and glean so little from it is almost inconceivable, but Griffith's flat, stilted line readings sound like someone sucked the helium out of a balloon and whispered a lousy Marilyn Monroe impression for mystery dinner theater in Scranton. Tempo is almost like two different movies piecemealed together: one where her character is blissfully absent, and another where Griffith is a gaping maw of ineptitude, sucking every erg of energy out of the film. I promise I don't have some sort of irrational hatred for Griffith -- I'm a card-carrying fan of Cherry 2000, after all -- but she's flat-out horrible here. Tempo probably wouldn't have been considerably better if someone else had been cast in her role, but her presence certainly doesn't help things any. Her character is such a dimwit too. She's paid an obscene sum of money to babysit a small package on a train, and she falls asleep with the package exposed in her hand. She's supposed to be a professional, someone who rakes in enough coin to revel in this lavish lifestyle in Paris? Yikes. I liked the scenes that paired just Rachael Leigh Cook and Hugh Dancy. They keep a cute, playful banter going, and they have enough palpable chemistry that I can buy their characters falling so madly in love within the space of a couple of days. The way they mix in a bit of awkwardness in with the passion makes it all seem really genuine. It's jarring when you have these two actors, whose performances are so warm and natural, and then cut to the cold artificiality Griffith brings. Another questionable choice is Art Malik who hams it up as the villainous scorned lover, and his performance seems out of place with the tone of the rest of the movie.

It's been an arduous journey for Tempo, which bypassed theaters entirely and was originally slated to go straight to video back in June 2003. For whatever reason, the DVD didn't materialize in the U.S., although it did hit stores in Canada. The movie had a run on Encore's Mystery Channel this past January, despite the fact that there isn't much mystery to be had. Thirteen months after its initial release date, the promised DVD did eventually wind up on video store shelves, and it really wasn't worth the wait. Tempo made its domestic debut on cable, and that's where it belongs. Fans of the talent involved may opt for a rental or keep their eyes on the TV listings for the likes of Showtime Too, but I wouldn't recommend Tempo as a purchase.

Video: The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation looks great. It's crisp and detailed, sporting solid black levels and a nicely saturated color palette. The source material is in immaculate condition, without a single nick or fleck popping up for the duration. A handful of shots do look noticeably softer than the rest of the movie, but that's almost certainly not a fault of the transfer, nor is the occasional film grain or the stylized grittiness of the opening sequence. There are also a couple of exceedingly minor authoring hiccups, but nothing worth spelling out, and certainly nothing that should dissuade anyone from renting this disc.

Audio: The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, encoded at a bitrate of 448Kbps, is about as unimpressive as the movie itself. Pretty much everything is anchored front and center. There's little noticeable directionality, and even during the presumably climactic car chase, the rears never really draw attention to themselves. The score chirps from the surrounds, but there's hardly any other activity to speak of for the entire length of the movie. Dialogue generally comes through flawlessly, though some scattered moments sound a bit edgy. There are no fundamental problems with the soundtrack, but a newly-produced movie with the "thriller" label slapped on it ought to serve up a more exciting mix than this. There are no alternate soundtracks or closed captions, although subtitles in English, French, and Spanish have been provided.

Supplements: The only extras are a minute-long full-frame trailer and recommendations for other Universal Home Video releases. The DVD includes a set of static 16x9 menus, and the movie has been divided into eighteen chapter stops. No inserts or liner notes have been tucked into the keepcase, which uses those mildly annoying side-clips Universal has adopted recently.

Conclusion: If Tempo ditched the Melanie Griffith vertex of the love triangle and focused solely on its remaining two leads, this would probably be a fairly positive review. Despite its small army of credited screenwriters, Tempo feels like a rough draft; it shows some promise but is in dire need of a drastic overhaul. Visual flourishes are gingerly tossed in to add some energy where the script is lacking, but those attempts fall flat too. I wouldn't recommend Tempo as anything more than a rental.
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