“THE DEBT” My rating: C+ (Opening wide Aug. 31)
114 minutes | MPAA rating: R
It’s got star power out the wazoo, yet “The Debt” feels slight and perfunctory.
It certainly never achieves the depths it is so clearly aiming for; perhaps this remake of a hit Israeli thriller requires an Israeli audience to truly appreciate the morally conflicted situation it presents.
John Madden’s film takes place in two decades separated by 30 years. In the present (actually the mid-1990’s) we have the publication of a book about one of Mossad’s most celebrated operations: the 1966 capture and elimination of German war criminal Dieter Vogel, the notorious “Surgeon of Birkenau” who conducted fiendish “medical” experiments on Jewish prisoners.
The agents who undertook that mission — Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren), her husband Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson) and David Peretz (Ciaran Hinds) — long have been regarded as national heroes.
But the book’s publication opens old wounds, for these three know their story is based on a lie.
Okay, that’s a good premise.
In flashbacks we find the team members — now played, respectively, by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington — in 1966 East Berlin. They’ve
tracked down Vogel (Jesper Christensen), now working in an obstetrics clinic under a phony name.
The sequence in which they capture the war criminal — Rachel poses as a patient, requiring her to quite literally bare herself for this monster’s observation — is suspenseful enough.
When their escape route is cut off the three spies must keep their prisoner in their apartment, where the canny old Nazi begins playing mind games so effectively that the Israelis begin to fall apart.
Of course, it doesn’t help that both Stephan and Gold are falling for Rachel, setting up a love triangle that only complicates things further.
The second half of “The Debt” finds the much older Rachel, desperate to keep secret the truth behind their failed mission, traveling to the Ukraine to follow up on a possible sighting of Vogel. Her plan is to singlehandedly end the story once and for all.
“The Debt” suffers from two essential flaws.
First, the three-way love affair never packs any heat.
Second, the older actors and their younger counterparts seem never to have met. At least they never convince us that these young people and their mature versions are actually the same people.
This is not to say that the performances are not without bright moments.
Chastain shows once again why she’s Hollywood’s current “it” girl (is there a SAG rule that says Chastain must be in every new movie?). Mirren and Wilkinson command their scenes like the old pros they are.
And as the heavy, Christensen very nearly steals the movie. Want to have fun? Play a villain.
On the other hand, Worthington portrays young David as so reticent and quiet that he’s hardly there.
The direction of Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) is competant enough, and in certain scenes genuinely thrilling. But the big payoff never arrives.
| Robert W. Butler