Silver Screen: The November Man **
The pH scale of spy movies extends from your basic Bond formula to the acidic extremes of John le Carre and Graham Greene, who locate their dramas not in gadgetry and gunfights but in twisted motivations, bitter rivalries, and tragic betrayals. Either approach can be compelling, but the new espionage thriller The November Man falters as it tries to split the difference and misses both targets.
The Bond connection is more than just conceptual. The movie stars retired 007 Pierce Brosnan and also prominently features Olga Kurylenko, a former seductress for the tuxedo’s current occupant. The November Man is certainly less affiliated than the semi-unofficial bond installment Never Say Never Again, which brought an aging Sean Connery back to his iconic role— it’s actually based on an entirely separate series of novels by Chicago author Bill Granger. But almost everything about the film seems to invite comparisons to 007, pairing the former leading man with the current, grittier approach to the franchise.
Brosnan stars as Peter Devereaux, a retired spy summoned back into action by his former CIA handler (Bill Smitrovich) to help out a former colleague whose status as a deep-cover agent is about to be blown. The agency is investigating claims that ascendant Russian politician Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski) has personal ties to military atrocities in the first Chechen War. All parties are on the hunt for a firsthand witness, a missing refugee girl last in the care of a beautiful social worker (Kurylenko). Among those searching for the escaped witness is Devereaux’s former trainee Mason (Luke Bracey).
Director Roger Donaldson has plenty of assets, but seems unsure how to use them. The crux of the movie should be the rivalry between the teacher and his estranged pupil, but the focus keeps drifting away from their underdeveloped relationship, and the leads share too little screentime. The prologue scene that explains the tragic history of their falling out is one of the movie’s more intense sequences, but it’s too rushed to build major tension, and Donaldson plunges forward from there without ever setting his feet. It’s as though he’s afraid he’ll lose the audience’s attention if he lingers too long on any moment of drama and instead races toward yet another plot twist or pedestrian gunfight.
That would be fine if The November Man only aspired to the status of a superspy shoot ‘em up, but the script has pretension toward geopolitical intrigue and examinations of the murky moral quandaries of diplomacy and subterfuge. The movie never has time to ponder the existential dilemmas of the betrayer and the betrayed because it would interrupt the mounting body count.
Brosnan is still in fine form. He didn’t participate in a particularly strong era of Bond movies, but he made a fine 007 and has kept up his edge as a cold-blooded killer in later fare like the le Carre adaptation The Tailor of Panama and Richard Shepard’s darkly funny The Matador. Trouble is, he too blatantly outclasses counterpart Bracey, and the mismatch throws off what little balance the movie might have had. Watching their handful of scenes together is a bit like sitting through a woefully lopsided tennis match— it doesn’t even look like that much fun for the winner. Donaldson also squanders the fascinating Amila Terzimehic as a ruthless assassin whose air of mystery is far more interesting than almost any other element of the film. To put it in nerd terms, she’s the movie’s Boba Fett; to put it in terms for very young nerds, she’s the movie’s Darth Maul.
It’s strange Donaldson would bungle the student-versus-master conflict, considering he already covered that territory in another unmemorable thriller, 2003’s Colin Farrell/Al Pacino showdown The Recruit. This kind of unadventurous genre exercise shouldn’t present such a challenge— all the intel has been declassified, and somebody else has already drawn the map.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.