The idea of John Malkovich, with his doily decadence, taking over the role of Tom Ripley — liar, killer, sociopathic imbiber of others’ identities — held out such juicy possibilities that it was a real shock when Ripley’s Game, based on Patricia Highsmith’s third Ripley novel and directed by Liliana Cavani, never made it into theaters. Offhand, I’m not sure I could name a film quite this high-pedigree that has gone straight to tape and DVD. Which raises the question, Could the movie be that bad? Well, no, but I wouldn’t call it good, either. Coming on the debonair heels of Anthony Minghella’s ”The Talented Mr. Ripley,” which unpeeled its hero’s duplicity layer by psychological layer, this de facto sequel, completed in 2002, is a watchable but borderline slapdash footnote.
Ripley is middle-aged now, wealthy and retired from crime, living in a mansion in the fragrant groves of Italy. Swanning about in berets and ascots, Malkovich makes Ripley absurdly cultivated as he does yoga and preens over his perfect souffles; he’s Lecter Lite meets Martha Stewart. Then his old partner shows up, looking for an amateur assassin. Ripley suggests his neighbor (Dougray Scott), a morose picture framer who’s dying of leukemia. He may not know anything about killing, but he’s got nothing to lose.
At this point, film buffs will see the outline of Wim Wenders’ ”The American Friend” (1977), but Wenders, doing a variation on the same novel, made the prospect of an ordinary man-turned-hitman chillingly believable. Cavani stages the interlocked series of murders with a garish yet woefully prosaic, ersatz-Hitchcockian implausibility. Ripley is at the center of it all, but when he claims ”I’m not an assassin,” the irony is reductive: The disappointment of this Ripley is that he’s nothing but an assassin. Gone is the lying, the improvisatory treachery, the desperate genius of a man whose identity is liquid. His game, it turns out, is made of old familiar rules.