Sunday, September 4, 2011

Reel To Reel: The Debt

Payback is a... well, you know what.

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson
Rated: R
Red Flags: Bloody violence, sexual situations, a throwaway sex scene in a newspaper office

The Debt is an espionage-action film that drags more than thrills and nearly forgets its marquee star. It spends too much time leading up to something we likely will figure out before the end of the first two reels and wastes too much time waddling around details of a mission that's either marginally successful or stuck in neutral.

Mirren plays Rachel Singer, a retired Israeli Mossad agent who has been glorified with her two colleagues for capturing and killing a Nazi war criminal working as a doctor in 1960's East Berlin. That has been the official line for three decades, and it's also the one coming out in a book written by her daughter. We know right away that's not really the truth, but it takes about an hour or so for our suspicious to be confirmed. The film flashes back to Singer's younger self as a rookie agent teamed up with Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) in a ratty apartment. They practice their martial arts training and occasionally some piano, eating rotten food while awaiting orders from Tel Aviv.

The agents get the green light, capture the notorious Dr. Vogel (Jesper Christensen), and pack him up for shipment back to Israel only to see the plan go sideways. They are left with a cantankerous old Nazi in their apartment and no way to get rid of him, except by killing him. However, killing is off the table because the idea of Israeli justice for Nazis is to make them stand trial, not hunt them down and exterminate them as Hitler's gang did to six million Jews.

Moral dilemmas really mess up good covert work, and the film has no problem demonstrating this as it transitions from action thriller to psychological thriller. But this is where the film drags. This is where I wanted to get to Helen Mirren's wrinkled, scarred self and see how the woman who played Queen Elizabeth II a few years ago cleans things up. She does, sort of, in a way that's more exploitative and shocking than satisfying. I heard one woman say on her way out of the theater, "Just another carefree romp on a Saturday afternoon." Of course she was exaggerating, but not by much.

The Debt is a remake of a 1997 Israeli film which I have not seen, so I can't tell you whether Hollywood jiggered with the pieces. I can tell you it would have benefited from some more cuts here and there, and not to Helen Mirren's face.

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