Who knew Israeli Mossad agents were so touchy on their secret missions? Who knew they’d screw things up by secretly screwing? (Oh, those romantic triangles!) Who knew they used scary straight razors on prisoners instead of safe electric models? And who knew they were such big fans of John Ford’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE/’62? So nu? John Madden, working far off his fach of civilized literary entertainments, really isn’t the helmer for a tricky spy thriller, especially one with parallel timelines. From the mid-’60s, we follow three Mossad agents as they kidnap a Concentration Camp doctor while simultaneously, in the mid-‘90s, we watch how the same agents were treated as heroes for a job no one knew they botched. The agents (Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciarán Hinds) don’t really match up with their younger selves (Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington), but separately the two groups are effective enough, and the situations aren’t without dramatic promise. But the big set pieces, the suspenseful core of the movie, are too messy to follow clearly, never building up the expected suspense. We’re nonplused when we should be biting our nails. And the convenient trick ending is mighty hard to swallow.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: THE DEBT is a remake of a 2007 Israeli pic of the same name (not seen here). Why not check out another LIBERTY VALANCE influenced pic by, of all people, Bernardo Bertolucci, based on a story by, of all people, Jorge Luis Borges! It’s THE SPIDER’S STRATAGEM/’70, a tale of a patriot’s son who returns home to discover that his late father may not have been the great heroic figure everyone always said he was. Bertolucci tips his hand to the Ford pic not only by showing ‘what really happened,’ but also by having Dad’s old compatriots play themselves in the flashbacks. So, just like James Stewart, John Wayne & Co., everyone’s about thirty years too old. Bertolucci, being European, uses this as a Brechtian devise, to distance us; Ford, being American curmudgeon, never acknowledges what he’s up to.