Dead Again (1991) / Thriller-Mystery
MPAA Rated: R for language and violence
Running Time: 107 min.
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Andy Garcia, Derek Jacobi, Wayne Knight, Robin Williams, Hannah Schygulla, Gregor Hesse
Small role: Campbell Scott
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay: Scott Frank
Review published November 18, 2014
Dead Again is a tale of love in two eras, or one love that never dies, even though its participants are doomed. Most of the film is set in the modern day, where a Los Angeles P.I. named Mike Church (Branagh, The Gingerbread Man) ends up taking care of an amnesiac he has nicknamed named Grace (Thompson, The Remains of the Day) until someone either claims her, or her memory comes back. A busybody antiques dealer (Jacobi, Gladiator) and part-time hypnotist offers to assist with unlocking her nightmares and memory, only to find that the things she is talking about happened 50 years before in a past life to a married couple, Roman and Margaret Strauss (also played by Branagh and Thompson, respectively), with the former world-famous composer executed for the murder of the latter. And the thought is that they are fated to do the same to each other in this lifetime.
Kenneth Branagh's film's this quite nifty mystery/suspense genre exploration from Scott Frank (Malice, Get Shorty) and makes a fun diversion, even if all of the parts don't add up in hindsight. There are probably a dozen things that don't make sense in the end, most of which would constitute spoilers if I were to even allude to them, so I'll refrain, except in a couple of areas. For one, there really is no explanation on the Earth-shatteringly remarkable fact that Mike and Grace look exactly like Roman and Margaret Strauss. Perhaps Frank's original story would have suggested that the parts all be played by different actors in different eras, but Branagh opts to cast himself and then wife Thompson in both roles, upping the implausibility factor exponentially.
Casting problems are a major issue in the film altogether, with Andy Garcia (Black Rain) seemingly out of place as a 1940s beat reporter; he may look dreamy, but in that early 1990s kind of way. Robin Williams' (Cadillac Man) is utterly unconvincing as a shamed psychologist who is now in the grocery store business who imparts knowledge to Mike on what to do about his client/patient -- advice that only a crazy man would probably give. And what's with Wayne Knight (Dirty Dancing), who plays Mike's best friend, and his whistles when he speaks? That his character serves up the most contrived ways to push the mystery forward is but one of the problems with his role.
I will admit here that I've seen Dead Again about a dozen times over the years, initially loving it for its Hitchcockian homage and twisty storyline. Over the years, the film's many flaws have only intensified, to the point where I feel its entertainment value comes mostly through the first-time watch, where all of the flaws can be ignored while enrapt in the mystery at hand. When you know what there is to know on a re-watch, you can see all of the ways Branagh forced illogical nonsense into the film to throw audiences. On the positive side, you can also sense that he's having a lot of fun with the admittedly absorbing tale that leaves the ultimate question on reincarnation mostly unanswered after taking us through a progressively silly, and quite bloody climax. Branagh uses high camp to try to power through the most inane of plot developments, and while it keeps the tone fun, the darker elements suffer.
Dead Again is a clever film, I'll give it that, but once you've seen how the tricks were pulled out of the sleeve, the flavor is lost.
©2014 Vince Leo