Sep 15, 2011

Movie Review: The Debt (2011)

Movie Review: The Debt (2011)

Note: The Debt contains twists and turns which I won’t spoil here, but might inadvertently hint at in the course of discussing the film.

John Madden’s The Debt has all sorts of classic spy elements in place, including a partial Cold War Berlin setting complete with Wall-crossing and escapes, dangerous undercover assignments, an apparently untrustworthy boss, young agents in love, gadgets, a gunfight and even a Mission: Impossible-style kidnapping plot. It’s also got a cast of excellent older actors (Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciarán Hinds, Jesper Christensen) and very good younger ones (Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas), a talented director and a screenplay pedigree including the writers of the fantastic X-Men: First Class (review here) and the hopefully fantastic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It’s got all the makings of a top-shelf spy movie. But, unfortunately, the whole is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. In Madden’s hands, these elements mostly just sort of sit there on the screen. By breaking up the characters between two actors playing them at different ages, they all end up underdeveloped. And the script crumbles under its own cleverness, telegraphing its surprises with see-through gimmicks and a necessarily awkward structure. Perhaps most of all, The Debt is done in by one particularly perplexing bit of casting.

Chastain, Worthington and Csokas play a team of Mossad agents tasked, in 1966, with identifying a Nazi war criminal named Vogel (Christensen) believed to be living under an assumed name and practicing as a gynecologist in East Berlin. Mirren, Hinds and Wilkinson, respectively, play the same characters in 1997, still dealing with the repercussions of their mission three decades later. That’s kind of confusing, because Hinds looks like the spitting image of an older Csokas, and it’s easy to see Worthington growing into Wilkinson. Yet those obvious pairings are reversed. I was aware of who was supposed to be who, yet still couldn’t help fixating on the miscasting because it was so glaring. Others in the group I saw it with weren’t aware (because it’s not made very clear), and went through most of the movie assuming that Wilkinson was Worthington and vice versa. It’s an easy mistake, and seems to have tripped up other reviewers as well, including Roger Ebert. I just can’t fathom why they were cast as they were. Mirren, at least, is very obviously Chastain, because she is the only woman and none of those plot twists involve sex change operations.

In the Sixties storyline, Chastain is the rookie agent on her first mission, Worthington is the driven but untested idealist and Csokas is the cynical team leader. Christensen, who played the villainous Mr. White in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, gives a very impressive performance here as the monster hiding in plain sight. The movie’s most nail-biting scenes find Chastain submitting to his care, exposing herself (quite literally) to the enemy by sticking her feet in those stirrups so she can covertly snap his picture with a necklace camera in order to confirm that he is who she’s already pretty certain he is. These scenes are squirm-inducingly suspenseful.

The agents’ kidnapping of Vogel is very exciting, and Csokas’ plan incorporates several of Jim Phelps’ favorite ingredients for such a caper, including a drug that simulates the effects of a heart attack and a fake ambulance. (I’m certain that there was at least one episode—and probably more—of Mission: Impossible that actually featured the exact same scenario to extract someone from an Eastern Bloc city.) This leads to what should be an equally exciting attempt to whisk the captive across the Berlin Wall involving trains, cut fences and meticulous timing. Even in the individual sequences, the elements are all there, but something doesn’t quite click and they don’t generate the spine-tingling thrills I normally associate with Wall-crossings. 

The fact that the characters are spread out between two actors means that they’re not in the hands of any single performer long enough to adequately develop them. I didn’t get any sense of continuity from one age to the next, so these people really felt like totally different characters from each other. Mirren gets the most to work with in the modern setting, and therefore succeeds best at portraying character development, but none of her present-day actions satisfactorily explain Chastain’s muddled motivations for falling in love with either—let alone both—of her teammates in the Sixties.

The Debt is not a bad movie at all. It’s slick-looking and boasts moments of genuine suspense, like the aforementioned doctor’s appointments or scenes in which Christensen’s Hannibal Lecter-like Vogel taunts the agents, honing in on their individual insecurities. However it’s not an especially good movie either. While it succeeds in those moments, it fails to generate similar suspense or necessary emotions in other crucial scenes. It just kind of sits there. And when a movie with Cold War-era Wall-crossings, which are like catnip to this spy fan, just sits there, I can’t help but feel slightly disappointed. Perhaps my expectations were set too high based on the cast and writers. I’ll just have to hope that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy delivers the intelligent, adult Cold War thrills I was hoping for from The Debt.

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