Friday, September 16, 2011

A Debt Replayed

For so many people who claim that remakes are inherently a bad idea, many have no idea what they are talking about. Forget about all the films that are obviously remakes, films sharing their origins' titles of The Fly, Ocean's 11, True Grit or The Thing. Not only are the remakes of these classics all quality films, but some would argue better than the originals. However, remakes aren't always named after their inspirations. Arnold Schwarzeneggar and Jaime Lee Curtis lit up the screen in 1994's spy film True Lies, based on the French comedy La Totale! Classic westerns A Fistful of Dollars and The Magnificent Seven were originally acclaimed filmmaker Akira Kurosawa samurai dramas. And the Martin Scorsese Irish gangster movie The Departed, which won the director his coveted Academy Award, was a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong film Internal Affairs. My point is that people put this catch-all negative statement on remakes when more than half the time they don't know one when it's staring at them from the big screen. For instance, you probably didn't realize that the recent film by John Madden, The Debt, was originally an Israeli film of the same name released in 2007. That film was never released in the United States, making it ripe for Hollywood to pounce on and make into their own. The only question was upon which side of the quality line it would eventually fall: on the side of obvious charlatanism and inferiority, or into the realm of quality film-making no matter the source.

Helen Mirren makes scars sexy
In the 1960's, the Isreaeli intelligence agency Mossad sent a cell of young operatives into Nazi-occupied West Berlin on a secret mission. Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain), David Peretz (Sam Worthington) and Stefan Gold (Marton Csokas) are on the search for Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the legendary "Surgeon of Birkenau", who performed experiments on Jewish prisoners during the Second World War. The mission ended in success, and though Vogel was never properly extracted from the city, Mossad was happy with the man meeting his end in the streets of West Berlin. Thirty years later, the exploits of the cell has been popularized in a book written by Rachel Singer's (Helen Mirren) daughter, and the three live apart from one another as national heroes, never talking about their mission. At least that is until Stefan (Tom Wilkinson) presents Rachel with some disturbing information. A secret they have kept hidden for thirty years has against all odds reared its head, forcing her to confront a truth the three had kept hidden from everyone, even those they loved.

The Debt takes a hard line against its critical dissenters
As you can gather, the cat-and-mouse spy story is the meat and potatoes of the film's level of quality. It is a well-paced, character-driven tale that takes you from beginning to end and beyond, with clues left in plain sight to allow anyone to follow along with ease. Unfortunately, this also cuts both ways, as there are no "OMG" twists to make the relatively slow pace more rewarding to the audience. You can pretty much guess what the big secret is before it hits, making sitting through waiting a bit like waiting for Gallagher to bust out with his watermelon; you know it's coming and making you wait for it is just pissing you off. Still, this is only a minor criticism, as the basics of the story are flawless and well built, creating a largely enjoyable atmosphere for the viewer.

Young Sam Worthington... handsome... pretty, almost
That atmosphere is helped by an acting core that really reach for higher levels with this film, especially the cast of the 1960's. Jessica Chastain has really taken off in her career, appearing in six films released or scheduled for release in 2011. I've seen three now, and between this, The Help and The Tree of Life, I've really become entranced by her talent and awestruck as to how she's come out of seemingly nowhere to become one of Hollywood's most sought-after stars. She's proving herself to be a serious artist, and more roles like this will get her some true recognition in the future, if not sooner. Sam Worthington is a surprise, an acclaimed Australian actor who wowed some with his role in Terminator: Salvation but otherwise hasn't been a major force since breaking through, especially with his somewhat bland performance in Avatar. The Debt allows him to show off in a legitimate acting role and show what his doubters have decried as not being there. And Marton Csokas ties the trio together, his arrogant and serious cell leader playing beautifully off of Worthington's humble and driven operative and Chastain's brilliant but emotionally-starved intelligence officer. And Jesper Christensen is also brilliant with the material he's given, playing smart doctor and smarmy villain with equal precision. He's the unspoken hero of The Debt, at least on the performance side of the equation.

...and Sam Worthington in 30 years? Scary
Unfortunately, I was somewhat underwhelmed with the way the story worked in the current day, and the quality of the story given the actors. Most of the film takes place in the sixties, and that's where the best moments and story sequences take place. In the present day there are some good moments, but in comparison it pales noticeably. Helen Mirren is of course amazing, but that comes as no surprise to anyone who has EVER seen her perform. As someone with a wide range of talents ranging from drama to comedy, Mirren can do just about anything, and look good doing it. Less impressive are Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds as the current day Stefan and David. It's not that they're BAD, only that they don't distinguish themselves from what we usually expect of them. In the current-day storyline, only Mirren stands out, and despite her best efforts, it's not enough that even she can make up.

Future Academy Award winner?
As a modern spy drama, however, The Debt is a great performer that could have been an excellent one but stutters a bit too much at the end. It does work as a character driven thriller, especially with the acting talents of Mirren, Chastain et al. While the theaters are packed with big name films flexing box office muscle, explosions and laughs, The Debt is a world away as a subtle, clever remake that introduces a unique story to an American audience that didn't get the chance to see in the original. As remakes go, it's one of the good ones, coming in at #10 for 2011. Maybe not a must-see for the genre, it's still a "should-see" as it's difficult find a title so well story-driven in this age of CGI, 3D, and action sequences that exist in a realm completely outside the real world.

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