MANY FILMS fall short of their potential because they try to be all things to all people; such attempts inspire affection, but not admiration. The creators of Beyond the Limit have stumbled upon a still more devastating combination; theirs is a movie that isn't anything to anybody, and it's a film you can really love to hate.
It didn't have to be that way. Based on a Graham Greene novel, The Honourary Consul, the film has the requisite political intrigue, exotic locale and torrid sex to endear it to countless moviegoers. What's more, Beyond the Limit has Richard Gere and Michael Caine, two tried and tested actors, to carry things alone. But from this mass of potential, director John MacKenzie has crafted a remarkable vacuum.
The story begins harmlessly enough, spotlighting the young doctor Eduardo Plarr (Richard Gere), as he struts his way through a small Argentine town near the Paraguay border. The handsome drifter, Plarr is half English, half Paraguyan and not quite anything. Although he'd rather keep to himself, he gets thrown into an inadvertant friendship with the English consul Charlie Fortnum (Michael Caine), and entangled by the demands of two old friends, now Paraguayan revolutionaries, who pressure him to help them kidnap a visiting American dignitary. Playing on Parr's apparent feeling for his father, a political prisoner in Paraguay, the two convince him to use his connections to determine the visiting official's schedule.
While his friends play politics, Plarr for some reason plays the gigolo; he begins an affair with Fortnum's wife (Elpidia Carrillo), an unusual Indian girl who first caught his eye when he saw her working in the town brothel. The uncharacteristic obsession doesn't add much depth to Plarr, who seems as reluctant and detached from this involvement as from all the others.
The sex scenes typify the vacility. Imagine an illicit afternoon rendezvous in a sleepy Argentine town. The afternoon sun filters lazily into the bedroom where the two lovers embrace. Take away the ambiance. Take away the romance. Leave the grunts.
One could argue that the vapidity is studied, that it serves a greater artistic end, that it underscores Plarr's sense of emptiness and search for identity. But after about 20 minutes, one is hard-pressed to care. Although Plarr goes through the proper noble motions--tending sick peasant children, standing up to the police chief after the hospital is raided and displaying proper filial devotion to his absent father--he nevertheless comes off as a filial playboy. When the police commissioner questions Parr about a "crime of passion," he responds, "Passion? I'm English." Try maladjusted.
If the film has a saving grace, it's Michael Caine. As Fortnum, Caine plays Plarr's antithesis--a diplomatic has-been who is vocal, inefficient, frumpy and, more often than not, drunk. Fortnum's expressiveness is near-heroic beside the doctor's iron mask, but the endearing consul can't carry the film alone. Like the proverbial tree in the forest, Fortnum's sentiments flag for want of a receiver among the other characters.
Carrillo might have helped these things along, but the screenwriters follow the "women should be seen and not heard" school of filmmaking. Perhaps she was hushed up lest her authentic accent draw attention to Gere's flat American tones, made all the more irritating by his self-consciously correct pronunciation throughout of the word "Paraguay."
Beyond the Limit is billed as a political thriller, but the politics are superficial and the thrill nonexistent. The vast spaces unoccupied by content are filled with choppy, television-like filming and a heavy-handed musical score. Seldom has so much meant so little to so many.