Saigon, 1952. London Times' correspondent Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) has carved out an agreeable life for himself. Ostensibly on long-term assignment covering the Vietnamese fight for independence from French colonial rule, he's enjoying the bustling city and carrying on a splendid affair with local beauty Phuong (Hai Yen). Then well-intentioned US aid worker Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) appears on the scene. At first, Fowler is happy to befriend this polite, quiet American and show him around his adopted city. It's not long, though, before Pyle has intentions towards Phuong and his very presence threatens the stability of Fowler's cosy existence.
Graham Greene's novel was a red-hot piece of symbolic political prophecy in the mid-'50s, humanising and foretelling the catastrophic results of the colonial rulers' efforts to retain control of their exotic Asian prize. Not to mention highlighting the blundering interference of the Yanks in the name of liberation. It's a shame, then, that this adaptation is a bit of a yawn.
Which isn't to say there's nothing to like; on the contrary, there's plenty. Caine is good, taking a character easily written off as a dirty old bugger and making him sympathetic and credible, while Brendan Fraser is well cast as "innocent" interloper Pyle. Yen also deserves mention, bringing unspoken depth to her potentially one-dimensional role.
But, God, is Phillip Noyce's movie hard work. In the absence of Greene's narrative voice, the characters spend a lot of time delivering long-winded speeches illustrating how their individual positions mirror the broader issues facing the Vietnamese, the colonial French or the American government, none of which exactly set the screen alight. Surprises are few and far between too, with Pyle's "hidden" motives so obvious to a modern audience that Fraser may as well be wearing a flashing neon sign. Add to this soporific proposition some truly glacial pacing and The Quiet American feels like an overlong history lesson taught by a faintly tedious professor; informative but not much fun.