3.5 stars. Rated R, for violence, rape, profanity, sexuality and brief drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.29.14
I always enjoy a well-crafted spy thriller, and this one’s a romp.
Australian director Roger Donaldson knows the territory, having delivered a twisty espionage thriller back in 1987, with his adaptation of Kenneth Fearing’s No Way Out. It remains one of star Kevin Costner’s best early films, thanks in great part to its didn’t-see-that-coming finale.
Donaldson’s handling of The November Man is cut from similar cloth, with scripters Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek delivering an engaging spin on a cherry-picked entry in the late journalist-turned-novelist Bill Granger’s 13-book Devereaux series, which began with 1979’s The November Man and concluded with 1993’s Burning the Apostle. This film’s title notwithstanding, however, it’s based not on Granger’s first Deveraux book, but on the seventh, There Are No Spies.
That said, Finch and Gajdusek’s screenplay more honestly is “flavored” by Granger’s book, with numerous changes obviously intended to satisfy action-oriented audiences. The result is reasonably entertaining in a fast-paced “airplane movie” sort of way, with star Pierce Brosnan ideally cast as a cynical, world-weary spy dragged out of semi-retirement to fix another mess involving the CIA, a corrupt Russian presidential candidate, a lethal assassin, and a possible traitor within the CIA’s highest echelons.
Although obviously aiming for the cerebral atmosphere of 1960s cold-war movie classics such as The Ipcress File and The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, Donaldson doesn’t hit that target too often; he more frequently mines the who-can-be-trusted territory of 1975’s Three Days of the Condor, with a strong nod toward the mentor/protégé relationship at the heart of 2001’s Spy Game.
And heck, we’ve got a cast that include a former James Bond (Brosnan) and a former Bond babe (Olga Kurylenko, from Quantum of Solace). How can it miss?
Mostly, it doesn’t. With a few stiff caveats.
Devereaux and junior partner David Mason (Australian up-and-comer Luke Bracey) are introduced in a 2008 prologue, working a mission that goes pear-shaped when the younger operative fails to heed his mentor’s stern instructions. The anguish and disappointment are clear on Devereaux’s face; the kid has blown it, obviously dashing the older agent’s faith in him.
Flash-forward to the current day (more or less), as Devereaux’s now-quiet life is interrupted by longtime colleague John Hanley (Bill Smitrovich), a CIA senior officer who arrives with the news that Natalia Ulanova (Mediha Musliovic), an asset clandestinely placed within the Russian government, has essential information relating to Russian presidential candidate Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski).
Apparently, Federov’s past is far from squeaky-clean, and those with any knowledge of his unsavory doings have been turning up dead. The likely culprit is cold-blooded Russian assassin Alexa (Amila Terzimehic), presumably acting on Federov’s orders.
Ulanova has information about an as-yet untraced witness to Federov’s earlier atrocities, but she won’t reveal anything until she’s pulled out of the field. The kicker, which Hanley knows full well: Devereaux and Ulanova are former lovers, which absolutely prompts our hero to re-enter the game.
The labyrinthine details expand to include the ages-old conflict between Russia and Chechnya, along with refugee sex slaves and an internecine struggle between the CIA “old guard” — another of Devereaux’s old friends and comrades, the Langley-based Perry Weinstein (Will Patton) — and the “new guard,” as personified by junior agent/analyst Celia (Caterina Scorsone), who has little use or patience for some of the “dinosaurs” roaming the office.
I know; it sounds rather complicated ... and, at times, the detail dump is a bit overwhelming. But the essential bits and pieces sort themselves out reasonably well, particularly once various relationships take center stage.
First and foremost is the ongoing cat-and-mouse antics between Devereaux and Mason, the latter having become one of Weinstein’s prized assets. Circumstances immediately place Devereaux and Mason on opposing sides, although neither is comfortable with this turn of events. Bracey adequately sketches his character’s ongoing confusion, frustration and mounting anger regarding his former mentor: on the one hand wanting to “show up” Devereaux once and for all, on the other hand clearly not quite up to the task.
Brosnan, for his part, remains ultra-cool and capable, easily “playing” his former protégé to unclear ends.
The key to the unfolding puzzle is a former sex slave named Mira Filipova, one of many clients granted aid by Serbian social worker Alice (Kurylenko). But Mira has gone off the grid, leaving everybody — Mason, Alexa and others — with only Alice to find, interrogate and (likely) kill. Devereaux reaches her first, but only barely; from then on, it’s hell-for-leather as he tries to keep Alice alive, long enough to track down Mira.
Kurylenko and Brosnan persuasively sell the resulting arms-length relationship: the frightened Alice wanting to trust Devereaux, the latter grimly insisting that she shouldn’t count on him. (The primary reason: folks within his orbit tend not to live long.) We’re led to believe that Devereaux’s protective guidance will last only until Mira is found, but Brosnan’s often tormented gaze suggests otherwise; might Devereaux have had enough of cold-blooded murder?
And that, sadly, points to this film’s core problem: selling the duality of Devereaux’s character. We’re told, at one point, that his CIA code name — November Man — reflects his bleak and ruthless nature, and that he’s like the onset of winter, when everything dies. Certainly, during the course of this story, Devereaux has no trouble point-blank shooting a variety of low-level Russian, Serbian and CIA thugs.
But this callous attitude works against the rugged charm you get when hiring Brosnan in the first place, not to mention his career good-guy status: sometimes flawed, but always on the side of the angels. Brosnan simply doesn’t play this role with the ferocity that Granger’s character possesses on the printed page, and that becomes a problem, more than once.
Most particularly when the plot expands to include Sarah (Eliza Taylor), the cutie-pie who lives across from Mason when he’s at home, and whose cat rather mysteriously keeps popping up in his apartment, thereby thrusting these two attractive young actors together. Those who remember Costner’s steamy encounters with Sean Young in No Way Out won’t be surprised by this film’s inclusion of a similarly erotic sex scene.
The eyebrow-raiser is what happens next, which damn near hurls this film off the rails: a frankly unforgiveable act of violence that cannot be excused by any plot circumstances.
The film also feels a bit out of synch with truly contemporary technology, most notably with respect to the flip-phones everybody wields. Rumors suggest a long-gestating development period, with script re-writes, which also might explain the sometimes clumsy transitions in narrative and tone. Despite the 2014 release date, I get the impression that much (most? all?) of this film’s principal photography took place several years ago.
That aside, Donaldson and editor John Gilbert keep things moving at a good clip, with momentum compensating for some of the wilder leaps of logic. Cinematographer Romain Lacourbas makes ample use of Serbia’s Belgrade setting, highlighting landmarks such as the White Palace and Serbian Parliament Building; stunt coordinator Mark Mottram choreographs several hell-for-leather vehicular chases through the city’s narrow streets.
The supporting cast is solid. Will Patton personifies suspicion as Weinstein; the actor simply can’t help it, and he plays the role with oily arrogance. Ristovski is suitably smarmy as the deeply corrupt Federov, and Scorsone — recognized from TV’s Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice — gets some choice scenes as the often aggrieved Celia, overlooked at one’s peril.
Terzimehic, a Bosnian actress and dancer, is a fascinating choice as the ruthless Alexa. She’s also a rhythmic gymnastics champion, as her movements — and notably one quiet exercise routine — amply demonstrate. She doesn’t need to say much, or demonstrate anything in the way of actual acting chops; her very presence radiates menace.
I’m not sure this film can withstand post-mortem water-cooler chats, with some characters’ first-act behavior rather at odds with third-act revelations, no matter how well Finch and Gajdusek attempt to paper over the inconsistencies. But Donaldson excels at delivering a well-paced ride, while Brosnan, Bracey and Kurylenko make the character angst go down fairly smoothly.