Death Defying Acts

Critics Consensus

Pretty but dull, with unconvincing turns from Zeta-Jones and Pearce. If you want a period magician movie, seek out The Prestige or The Illusionist instead.



Total Count: 38


Audience Score

User Ratings: 4,383
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Movie Info

"Death Defying Acts" is based on the life of Harry Houdini, the fictional tale of how an escapologist fell in love with an Edinburgh woman.


Guy Pearce
as Harry Houdini
Catherine Zeta-Jones
as Mary McGarvie
Timothy Spall
as Mr. Sugarman
Jack Bailey
as Red Haired Pilot
Malcolm Shields
as Leith Romeo
Leni Harper
as Leith Romeo's
Ralph Riach
as Mr. Robertson
Olivia Darnley
as Flower Stall Seller
James Holmes
as Ugly Mug
Anthony O'Donnell
as Oily Librarian
Aaron Brown
as Sugarman's Assistant
Aileen O'Gorman
as Seamstress
Billy McColl
as Usherette
Raymond Griffiths
as Music hall Dwarf
Shaun Mason
as Heckler
Tom Cotcher
as Boxer's Manager
Joanne Cummins
as Houdini Fan 1
Carol Robb
as Houdini Fan 2
Mark Carter
as Reporter 1
MacKay Crawford
as Psychic Reporter
Paul Grunert
as Hotel Manager
Martin Fisher
as Concierge
Emma Humprhies
as Chambermaid
Miles Jupp
as Ventriloquist
Tim Frost
as Tap Dancer
Chloe Mackie
as Psychic Twin
Holly Mackie
as Psychic Twin
David McKail
as Matre d
Maev Alexander
as Autograph Hound
Richard Dean Anderson
as Angel with Red Hair
Rod Arthur
as Police Chief
Alan David
as Professor
Lorraine Hilton
as Professor's Assisstant
Dodger Phillips
as Reporter 2
Campbell Graham
as Reporter 3
Justin Flagg
as Montreal Student
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Critic Reviews for Death Defying Acts

All Critics (38) | Top Critics (13) | Fresh (16) | Rotten (22)

  • It's all a touch undercooked and dull.

    Aug 8, 2008 | Rating: 2/5
  • The movie is over-schematic, slow-moving and over-furnished. It never seems to come alive with any believable interplay of characters; the movie locks itself into a watertight tank of a premise, and the handcuffs won't come off.

    Aug 8, 2008 | Rating: 2/5 | Full Review…
  • Houdini's mission to debunk fake spiritualists is hijacked by this wholly fraudulent love story. There's not a moment in the film that feels honest and uncontrived.

    Aug 8, 2008 | Rating: 2/5 | Full Review…

    Wendy Ide

    Times (UK)
    Top Critic
  • All in all, it's a bit of a snore that falls back on romance when all else fails.

    Aug 8, 2008 | Rating: 2/6 | Full Review…

    Dave Calhoun

    Time Out
    Top Critic
  • Director Gilliam Anderson doesn't distinguish this generic romance from a thousand other costumed bodice rippers -- is a kinky handcuff scene too much to ask?

    Jul 18, 2008 | Rating: C | Full Review…
  • Pearce's boys-adventure take on the vaudeville legend is a hoot, though not nearly as laughable as the dialogue or Zeta-Jones's pitiful attempts at basic emoting.

    Jul 16, 2008 | Rating: 2/6

    David Fear

    Time Out
    Top Critic

Audience Reviews for Death Defying Acts

  • May 15, 2013
    This seemed destined for a main stream release and it has all the features of a generally popular film. For some reason, it never got that full Hollywood treatment so only a few of us got to see this mediocre gem with few shining parts.
    John B Super Reviewer
  • Aug 02, 2012
    Forget Houdini, this film itself is real magic, because it made cultural distinctions disappear into thin air. As if it wasn't difficult enough to tell the difference between the English and Australians, they go off and co-produce a film together, and as if it wasn't difficult enough to tell the difference between the Scottish and Irish (Seriously, where did the distinctly Scottish growl go?), they actually went out and got an Irish to play Scottish. Well, in all fairness, it is Saoirse Ronan, and Scottish really is the closest she's gotten to Irish, yet that didn't stop her from winning at the Irish Film and Television Award. Shoot, she just claimed her fifth IFTA in a row, so I don't know if anything can stop her, except maybe "City of Ember", and even then, she still won Best "Supporting" Actress of 2008 for this film. Either she's the Katharine Hepburn of the IFTAs or Ireland seriously needs to get better performers domestically if they're having to stretch to their Irish talents' international work, in which they don't even stay Irish. Well, outside of the US, I suppose that any country will find it difficult to find a talented performer who isn't working internationally under a different accent, because the modern film industry has more foreigners pretending to be a part of the culture they've been hired into than Texas. Of course, let's not seal up the borders quite yet, because there are plenty of foreigners who do so well at other accents, among other things when it comes to acting, as this film further proves, which isn't to say that the talents behind the world of movie magic can make this film's faults disappear. The film has been deemed dull by many, and quite frankly, I disagree to a certain extent, surprised to find that the film is consistently eventful, if not pretty entertaining, which I suppose leaves this film to stand as a testament to the idea that engagement value and entertainment value don't always go hand-in-hand. Again, the film is lively in both writing and production, but when it comes to atmosphere, while the direction doesn't severely contradict the livliness of the film's production and writing to the point of rendering the final bland middling and bland, Gillian Armstrong doesn't spark up this film as much as he should, for although the film's being produced and structured in a mostly entertaining fashion obviously graces the effort with a certain fair degree of engagement value, Armstrong doesn't draw enough juice from the film's substance to keep engagement value consistent, let alone to deliver on things that he seriously needs to deliver on. One of the most notable aspects that Armstrong slips up on is the key chemistry between Guy Pearce and Catherine Zeta-Jones, for although our leads are strong enough for you to feel some sense of moderate spark, Armstrong doesn't entirely breathe enough romance in the air for you to fully lock into the relationship, let alone its complexities. The film's central relationship is one built on one-sided genuine romantic and one-sided ulterior motivation (And women call us men pigs) that soon finds itself battled back by ensuing emotional attachment (Okay, I guess you gals aren't all that bad), and that is a potentially engrossing relationship that's presented in a workmanlike fashion, though one that doesn't quite bite as deeply as it should, which is something that you can say about a lot of aspects in this film, as Armstrong is clearly comfortable with his own vision to the point to rendering his vision's execution a touch awkward and too workmanlike for the third party, thus leaving such other missteps as more than a couple of cliches to be brought more to attention. Really, there's not much to complain about other than what seems minor, but really, in cases such as these, minor missteps can make quite a bit of difference. The film doesn't transcend terribly far above merely decent, for although the concept and production is so strong, Armstrong's limited oomph and the resulting pronunciation of certain bland faults within this all-too come-and-go runtime of just over 90 minutes doesn't give the final product enough time or opportunity to build extensive impact, thus leaving it to run the risk of falling to the level of its director: workmanlike. However, as I said, the film's ascent to genuinely good, while slight, is still accomplished, for although Armstrong's direction stands to have more punch to it, this is still a strong enough concept and production for the film to reward, especially seeing as how it has enough strengths to back up its promises just a bit more often than not. Haris Zambarloukos' photography isn't radiant, though it is strong, boasting a consistently handsome glow to compliment more than a few moments of clever, slick staging that, of course, feeds what livliness there is in the film. What further sparks a fair degree of livliness in this film is, of course, the production value, for although this recreation of 1920s Britain isn't especially upstanding, it does establish the setting neatly and believably, while capturing the tone and, with the help of the aforementioned fine cinematography and energetic score work by Cezary Skubiszewski, creating a constant charm that keeps the film from descending to dull, a state many unjustly accuse this film of resting upon. Still, the film's fair amount of sprightliness goes not only brought to life by the inspiration in the production, but also the inspiration in Tony Grisoni's and Brian Ward's screenplay, which also isn't especially upstanding, partially because it's consistently tainted with the conventions that, when pronounced by Gillian Armstrong's workmanlike direction, aid in this film's nearly collapsing as generally workmanlike itself, yet remains surprisingly rather tight, with few, if any limp spots and few, if any hurried spots, as well as many high points in dialogue, humor and set piece conception that keep the film spiced up a bit and a fair distance away from limping out in pacing. With all of my complaints about Gillian Armstrong's direction not having enough bite, it definately has ambition that may haze Armstrong's final execution, but breathes into this film quite a bit of additional charm that, when married with the inspiration in the production and writing, keeps the more relatively tamed moments of the film to really win you over, and when it comes to the deeper aspects that Armstrong doesn't quite have the oomph to handle, it's still hard to not find yourself at least a little bit engaged, partially because of the script's, not especially knockout, but decent handling of the tonal shifts and establishments, and partially because of the cast, which obviously has more charmers than dramatics, yet provides a myriad of colorful personalities, whether they be primary, secondary or even tertiary, with the primaries, of course, standing out the most. Young Saoirse Ronan, like she always had before this film and continues to do to this day, steals the show, quite certainly not being presented with enough material to warrant award considerations (Except maybe at the IFTAs, because she's about the best supporting Irsh actress they could find), but still nailing that Scottish accent and incorporating her typical adorable charm to sustain your attention until we finally find that all-too rare occasion in which Ronan is presented with strong acting material to play up fairly decently. Still, as much as it's hard to not love the little rascal, whether when she's delivering charmingly or dramatically, this is grown-up time, and leads Guy Pearce and Catherine Zeta-Jones don't let you forget that, as Zeta-Jones convinces as this sly but struggling con artist, while Pearce charms, if not compels in his charismatic and sometimes dramatically inspired portrayal of the legendary escape artist, and when these two charismas meet, while their sparks go all-but washed out by Armstrong's limited inspiration, they still have enough spark between them, nevertheless, to keep the central relationship going on a workmanlike level, when really, it's the individual sparks within our leads that catch your attention the most. The final product deserves better than what Gillian Armstrong is providing, for although his direction is really never poor, it doesn't really sink its teeth too deeply into you, yet with fine production, writing and acting, the film's own bite is supported just enough to leave an impression, as well as the final product a generally rewarding one. To conclude this act, director Gillian Armstrong takes a much too workmanlike approach, not being firm enough in his bite to really drive home consistent entertainment value, thus tainting such key aspects as the leads' chemistry, pronouncing such subtle but, in the long run, piercing faults as conventions and leaving the overall film to run the risk of collapse into a state of merely workmanlike, yet the final product ultimately escapes from such a fate, shaking loose through fine cinematography and production designs, freeing itself through tight, snappy and altogether fairly strong writing, and finally surfacing as genuinely more compelling than not through a myriad of colorful performances, the most colorful of which being by leads Guy Pearce, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Saoirse Ronan, thus leaving "Death Defying Acts" to stand as a thoroughly entertaining and ultimately satisfying show, even if the magic isn't without a few holes. 3/5 - Good
    Cameron J Super Reviewer
  • Jul 20, 2011
    A fictitious account of Harold Houdini. It focuses on a love he has for a woman that claims to be psychic. Unfortunately the film is void of any real engagement or excitement. Zeta-Jones is fine, but never for a single second did I believe she was going to screw over Houdini. This left me with a rather predictable love story that I was hoping would hurry along. There was never a real sense of wonderment at Houdini's tricks, and the film tried to hard to pull away his showbiz facade. We are left with an interesting and emotionally frail man, but since it isn't juxtaposed against how he was perceived it wasn't particularly interesting. Saoirse Ronan shows why she is becoming a fantastic lead actress, but the majority of this just never peaks that high.
    Luke B Super Reviewer
  • Jun 01, 2011
    Supernatural romantic thriller. The film (a UK-Australian co-production directed by Gillian Armstrong and starring Guy Pearce and Catherine Zeta-Jones) follows the Hungarian-American escapologist Harry Houdini at the height of his career in the 1920s.Despite the beautiful epoque reconstruction and music, this is a silly film, with poor performances and boring screenplay.
    Andre T Super Reviewer

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