The perils of doing an English remake of a film that succeeded in another language are even more evident than usual in “Secret in Their Eyes.” Juan Jose Campanella’s Argentine-Spanish original of 2009 won an Oscar as best foreign film, but Billy Ray’s retooling of it will hardly cop any awards.
The major problem with this “Secret” is that it’s been transformed from a haunting tale of a country struggling to come to terms with its dark past into a dully conventional FBI-style thriller. Campanella’s film concerned a couple of investigators reunited after many years to reopen a case in which a young woman was brutally murdered. They had identified the killer, but he was part of the repressive government that ruled Argentina in the late 1970s, and so was untouchable. Now the duo gradually ferret out the truth of the matter, which involves the husband of the murder victim.
Writer-director Ray has struggled to come up with a plausible U.S.-set scenario that might approximate the Argentine one. In his version, the murdered woman is Carolyn (Zoe Graham), the vivacious young daughter of L.A. detective Jess Cobb (Julia Roberts). The killing, occurring in the aftermath of 9/11, sends Jess’ colleague Ray Kasten (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an FBI man assigned to the office of L.A. DA Martin Morales (Alfred Molina), on a desperate mission to track down the perpetrator. Assisted by gruffly humorous cop Bumpy Willis (Dean Norris) and just-hired Assistant D.A. Claire Sloan (Nicole Kidman), Kasten does in fact find the killer—a weird young guy named Marzin (Joe Cole). But it turns out that the man is a confidential information for another L.A. detective, Reg Siefert (Michael Kelly), reporting on the interior workings of a local mosque, and Morales refuses to prosecute such an important source, so the man vanishes unpunished. Now, after thirteen years of searching, Kasten has identified him as an ex-con named Beckwith (also played by Cole), and enlists Bumpy and Claire, now the D.A., to capture him and finally bring an end to Jess’ grief at knowing her daughter’s murderer remains at large.
Quite frankly the replacement of Argentina’s “dirty war,” in which thousands of people were “disappeared” by a military junta, with American xenophobia in the early twenty-first century is more than a stretch; indeed it’s rather tasteless. But apart from that, Ray’s transformation of a grieving husband unconnected to the investigators into a colleague tormented by the death of a daughter has an aura of coincidence that cheapens the scenario. The rationale that Ray has devised to preserve the original’s big set-piece—the soccer stadium chase, which is here switched to Dodgers’ Stadium—is also rather lame. And one might add that the script totally excises the explanation for the title, which in this version is utterly meaningless.
Nevertheless it has to be admitted that the picture is well mounted, boasting a first-rate cast. Ejiofor gets top billing, and rightfully so; but though he brings all his intensity and charisma to the role, Kasten remains a basically stock character—the guy determined to right a wrong from long ago. Kidman is silkily beautiful as Claire, for all the supposed passage of years looking as gorgeous in the chronologically later scenes as she does in the supposedly earlier ones. Roberts, by contrast, abandons every vestige of glamour as a woman robbed of his reason for living. She actually does some real acting as the stricken Jess, and frankly the effort is more than the material deserves. Among the supporting players, Molina offers standard-issue bluster and Kelly equally familiar obtuseness, but Norris brings a touch of welcome geniality to the proceedings as the goofy sidekick, even if the part isn’t as saucily written as it was in the original. The real eye-catcher among the secondary cast is Cole, who not only differentiates nicely between the aspects of his double role but manages a real sense of menace. If this movie had been as good a piece of pulp as “Primal Fear,” it might have done for him what that equally lurid flick did for Edward Norton.
But “Secret in Their Eyes” is nowhere near as enjoyable as that Richard Gere potboiler was. Dour, drab and lacking the powerful subtext of its Argentine model, it comes across as little more than a police procedural of the sort you can find any night on the tube.