Although this is arguably a respectable contemporary thriller, it pales in every department to Wenders' eccentric masterpiece. Presented with a rather straight-forward story-line, it lacks the across-the-board tautness and rich ambiguity that make 'American Friend' so compelling. While Malkovich's sophisticated, dead-pan jocularity may feel closer to Highsmith's literary Ripley, it ultimately proves far less fascinating than Hopper's edgy grin and saw-toothed neuroses. Dougray Scott never begins to approach the subtlety of Bruno Ganz's grudging attraction to Ripley in the earlier film. 'Ripley's Game' is attractively composed and photographed but simply doesn't satisfy like "Friend's" hot primary palette and ominous framing.
*****Slight Spoilers Beyond this Point*****
There's a less-effective sense of place in the new film's Italian setting, nothing as visually emphatic as the waterfront and under-river tunnel of 'Friend's" Munich. Also, some details seem inconsistent. Cavani situates Jonathan and his family in an affluence unlikely for a financially-strapped picture framer, no matter how wealthy his friends and associates might be. Jonathan's first "test" murder occurs in a public aquarium, and I hoped (fervently, but in vain) for the bullet to smash the fish-tank glass and create a deluge to rival the frantic rush through the Paris metro, the locale Wenders chose for this scene. The train episode is very reminiscent of that filmed twenty odd years ago, but in terms of tension and surprise, it never leaves the station. In "Ripley's Game", Tom selects Jonathan as his "protege" after overhearing him bluntly disparage Ripley in public as tastelessly nouveau-rich. The anti-hero of "The American Friend" makes the decision based solely on Jonathan's withering tone when saying, "I've heard about you" as they are introduced. Forgive my own snobbishness when I suggest that the subtler, more rarefied slight establishes Tom's revenge as far more demented and chilling.
Wenders personalized Highsmith's tale, larding it through with psychological uncertainty and disquieting editing. He allowed his passion for the material to make it his own, molding it into a vibrantly convoluted and unique experience. The re-make, by comparison, feels abbreviated and pedestrian. Had Wenders never made his film, "Ripley's Game" would rank higher in general satisfaction. Unfortunately, the second adaptation cannot escape the shadow of the first and ends up being secondary.