Monday, September 1, 2014

The November Man [2014]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O) (2 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune/Variety (A. Barker) review (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (J. Hassenger) review

The November Man [2014] (directed by Roger Donaldson, screenplay by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek, based on the novel by Bill Granger [IMDb]) makes for a potentially very interesting post-Bond spy-thriller for ex-Bond actor Pierce Brosnan who not only stars in the current film but was also one of its producers.

As I watched the film, the question that I kept asking myself was why?  Why did Pierce Brosnan clearly want to do this film?  To be sure, I found the film to be neither "great" (I've generally found the James Bond movies, including the latest, starring Daniel Craig, Skyfall [2012] far more entertaining) nor certainly "awful" (as I found the latest "Jack Ryan" movie Shadow Recruit [2014] to be).  It just seemed to me that Brosnan was trying to remind us of something that generally isn't present in either the James Bond [IMDb] or Jack Ryan [IMDb] franchises: the spy "game" is an ugly business -- people, including innocents, do die and even the assassins doing the killing live terrible, incomplete lives, in which they are constantly looking over their backs.

Interestingly, I haven't yet found in interview where talking about the current film Brosnan opines as much, even if in the film's dialogue itself it is clear that this very ugly side to the "spy game" is very much at the film's center.  In the film, Brosnan plays a veteran Cold-War trained CIA assassin named Devereaux ("French" meaning roughly "(of) those who devour ..."), who among other things is tasked with mentoring a younger, post-9/11 CIA recruit named Mason (played by Luke Bracey).  And it's clear that Devereaux is conflicted in this task.  Throughout much of the movie Mason appears to have "a complex," believing that Devereaux doesn't think that he's up to the job.  Instead, Devereaux appears to be trying to dissuade Mason from pursuing this line of work to begin with: "You can either be a man or a killer but not both," Devereaux tells Mason at one point, "because one will eventually extinguish (devour...) the other."

For a reviewer with my line of work, I'm a Catholic priest after all, one can not but take note of (and even _applaud_) that kind of introspection regarding pursuing, after all, a "career path" IN ASSASSINATION. 

But how does the rest of the movie play out?  Here IMHO it's a rather a mixed bag:

The film is certainly current, set largely in the Serbian capital of Belgrade (the original novel was set in Berlin) involves intrigues surrounding both the post-Cold War Balkan and Chechen conflicts.  There's a Russian general named Arkady Federov (played by Lazar Riskovwki) who's now looking to run for Russian President.  Since he was involved in various massacres in Chechnya, he's looking to eliminate anyone-and-everyone who might embarrass him when he makes his run for the Presidency.  Then there's a worker at the UN Refugee office in Belgrade going by the name of Alice Fournier (played by Olga Kurylenko) who knows "a thing or two" about Federov's sordid past.  So much of the film plays around protecting her from all sorts of shady people who appear to want to put a bullet in her head.

But the film's use of technology seems kinda silly.  As in the laugh-out-loud ridiculous scenes in the recent Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit [2014 the CIA is portrayed driving around a "discrete" NYPD-style "surveillance van" through the streets of Moscow in the case here even followed "at rooftop level" by a 3-4 foot CIA operated unmanned aerial drone.  Come-on, these things eventually have to land _somewhere_, and after 2 maybe 3 uses, the Russian FSB would certainly be there waiting for it (and for the "nice CIA folks" "handling" the goofy machine).

Then it would be hard to imagine that the authorities in either Moscow or Belgrade would be able to "keep quiet" the various gratuitous open air shootings / high speed chases portrayed in the film.  This deficiency in the film is not exactly "uncommon" in the genre.  One thinks here of not only various crowded street shoot-outs in the various James Bond [IMDb] films (Venice seemed to be a particularly popular venue for those sorts of things in the Bond films) but also of the Bourne movies (particularly The Bourne Ultimatum [2007] that featured an extended and very complicated sequence in and around London's Waterloo Stationq which if it had occurred in reality would probably have been impossible for the authorities to expunge from public memory). 

Yet, Cold War intrigues and War on Terror intrigues have taken place all across Europe ranging from terrorist bombings / anti-terrorist bombings to political / espionage / counter-espionage assassinations to "renderings" ("trade speak" for abductions of terrorist / espionage suspects).  These have had to have led to a psychic toll on Europeans and contributed to their cynicism with regards to viewing the United States.  I've wondered in fact if various right-wing or otherwise "anti-government" "militia groups" across the Western United States with their talk of "black helicopters," "abductions" and "secret bases" have more in common to various left-wing or otherwise anti-American groups in Europe, with their own lore of "CIA renderings" and other "unsolved crimes" than one would initially think ... So while these often crazy shootouts portrayed in these films on the streets of European cities may be exaggerations, they MAY actually express a reality that the average American could only imagine on the pages of a spy-novel or on the screen of a film like this one.

All this again brings me back to my original question: Why did Brosnan _choose_ to make a film like this?  Was it simply because it seemed like a "cool project" to work on, or to perhaps return a sense of "reality" to the James Bond genre of spy-thrillers ... a reminder that the "License to Kill" business is not exactly a pretty (or moral...) one. 

In any case, this is something that wouldn't be bad for viewers of this film (and the next spy-thriller) to consider as they watch buildings blowup and the bodies of "evil henchmen" or even "passerbys" be shot-up or otherwise mangled in various terrible ways.... "License to Kill" is a sordid business indeed.

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