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Keep It a Secret

STX Entertainment
 111 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Billy Ray 
Starring: Julia Roberts, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman
Secret in Their Eyes

There are few sure things in moviemaking, but one of the most reliable indicators of quality, or, in this case, lack thereof, is that a U.S. remake of a good foreign film is likely to disappoint or, worse, be a disaster. For every The Departed or The Magnificent Seven, there are dozens of films like The Vanishing or Nine. For whatever reason, even if the original talent is involved in the American version (as with George Sluizer, who directed both versions of The Vanishing), American filmmakers don’t seem to understand what made the original film so special and tinker it sometimes beyond recognition.


The most recent case in point is Secret in Their Eyes, a remake of the Argentinian Best Foreign Film Oscar winner, The Secret in Their Eyes. Writer/director Billy Ray, who should know his way around a script, is blessed with megastars Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman and the very talented Chiwetel Ejiofor, but he turns a classic tale of unrequited love into a routine potboiler. In fact, it’s the casting of Roberts, along with the resulting rewriting of her role, that is the worst problem in the American Secret.


The Argentinian version was set in the mid-1970’s, a time when Argentina was ruled by a ruthless military dictatorship, and police departments were thoroughly corrupt. An investigation into the brutal rape and murder of a young woman is derailed by a higher up in the department, who, for personal reasons, orders the killer released, much to the chagrin of the investigating detective. Nearly 25 years later, the now-retired detective looks into the case again as research for a book he’s writing, and he makes a stunning discovery.


The American version also has dual time lines, this time set 13 years apart. In 2002, Ray Karsten (Ejiofor) and Jess Cobb (Roberts) are part of an FBI task force investigating possible post-9/11 terrorist activity at a Los Angeles mosque. While staking out the mosque, task force members discover the raped and murdered body of Jess’s teenage daughter in an abandoned van across the street from the mosque.


Ray investigates the case and locates a suspect, a petty criminal named Marzin (Joe Cole). Unfortunately, Marzin is being used as an informant trying to infiltrate the mosque by one of the other task force members, Reg Siefert (Michael Kelly). Siefert actually brought Marzin to a company picnic a few months earlier, where Marzin saw Jess’s daughter.


Ray is able to get Marzin to incriminate himself, with the help of assistant DA Claire Sloan (Kidman), who turns on her sex appeal to provoke Marzin. Still, Claire’s boss (Alfred Molina) refuses to prosecute, primarily because he feels Marzin is more useful as an undercover informant. Naturally, once free, Marzin disappears for over a decade.


After Marzin is released, Ray leaves the FBI and becomes a private investigator. In his spare time, he still looks into the case and finally, 13 years later, he spots a mug shot of a recently released con he believes to be Marzin. He returns to Los Angeles and seeks Claire’s and Jess’s help in locating and arresting the man. Claire, now the district attorney, wonders whether Ray’s obsession with the case has clouded his judgment.


The Argentinian version of Secret, although it worked well as a police thriller, was primarily a story of the unrequited love of a detective in love with a prosecutor with whom he could never have a future. He emphasizes with the dead woman’s husband, who continues to grieve for her months after her death, and reopens the cold case, leading to the arrest. However, by taking a minor character (the husband) and replacing him with Julia Roberts, director Ray makes a major error. Now, the motivation for pursuing the case is the far more understandable dedication of a police detective to his partner. Ray Karsten still carries a torch for Claire, but it’s more of a minor distraction.


Having one of the task force members as the mother of the victim makes the entire premise of the remake far less credible. A district attorney might well still believe that pursuing terrorists was more important than getting justice for a member of his unit, but the script doesn’t provide anything that makes that decision plausible. Instead, he merely mouths a couple of flag-waving homilies. In addition, Jess almost becomes a ghost in the squad room, as the other members carry on as if she wasn’t there.


Absent the doomed love story and with only a tenuously credible backstory, Secret in Their Eyes becomes a standard cop thriller. Ray Karsten does some improbable but accurate detective work to find Marzin at a Dodgers baseball game (the setting was a soccer match in the original), and there’s a routine chase that’s a far cry from the fantastic set piect in the original. The remake also adds another major shootout that isn’t all that interesting either. The action in Secret isn’t bad; it’s merely routine, like most of the rest of the movie.


The remake even manages to bungle the brilliant twist ending from the original movie. The essence of the ending remains the same, but the details are subtly different, with two characters acting in a slightly more conventional way than did their counterparts in the original. Again, the result isn’t bad; it simply lacks the intensity of the original’s ending.


In fact, despite the fact that Ray Karsten and Jess still display a tremendous amount of intensity in their performances, Secret itself never feels that compelling a story. Instead, it squanders three terrific actors in what essentially becomes a slick TV-movie. Despite the language barrier, those watching the original will find it far easier to identify with those characters than with mega-stars Roberts and Kidman. Secret in Their Eyes should have remained a secret project that never got off the drawing board.  

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Secret in Their Eyes (2015) on IMDb