Review: Death Defying Acts

Gillian Armstrong’s film trades suspense entirely for tawdry period swoonery.

Death Defying Acts
Photo: The Weinstein Company

Gillian Armstrong’s Death Defying Acts tries to ride whatever bandwagon The Illusionist and The Prestige set into motion but trades suspense entirely for tawdry period swoonery. Armstrong wastes no time submitting to cliché, sinking her largely fictionalized Harry Houdini (Guy Pierce) into the waters surrounding some grossly CGIed city while Saoirse Ronan rambles on the soundtrack about sweet lies and trickery. “You play the game or you go under—that’s what Mom always said, and if it wasn’t for her we would have drowned long ago,” the unfortunately named Benji (Ronan) says, explaining the thieving to which she and her mother Mary (an ingratiating Catherine Zeta-Jones) quirkily subject the denizens of Edinburgh, though she could just as easily be talking about Houdini himself, who arrives in their mangy city promising a reward to anyone who can tell him what his mother’s dying words were. “Way out of your depth” is what Houdini’s right-hand Sugarman (Timothy Spall) says to Mary, who predictably goes from bad to good after being gripped by Houdini’s cheekbones and the script’s plethora of execrable swimming idioms. Shrouded in water-logged imagery and Scottish brogues as thick as Cezary Skubiszewski’s music, the film is one-note—a cheap inventory of old-hat period romping that downplays Houdini’s contempt for psychics while saddling him with corny mommy issues.

 Cast: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Guy Pearce, Timothy Spall, Saoirse Ronan  Director: Gillian Armstrong  Screenwriter: Tony Grisoni, Brian Ward  Distributor: The Weinstein Company  Running Time: 97 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2007  Buy: Video

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Previous Story

William Holden: To Live Like a Human Being

Next Story

Benediction and Dissipation: The Edge of Heaven and Babel