Wednesday, August 27, 2014

In Theaters: THE NOVEMBER MAN (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Roger Donaldson. Written by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek. Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Luke Bracey, Olga Kurylenko, Bill Smitrovich, Will Patton, Caterina Scorsone, Amila Terzemehic, Lazar Ristovski, Mediha Musliovic, Patrick Kennedy, Eliza Taylor, Tara Jevrosimovic. (R, 109 mins)

Pierce Brosnan has dual purposes with THE NOVEMBER MAN: 1) to remind everyone that yes, he was once James Bond, and 2) to hitch a ride on the "aging action guy" bandwagon with his own Liam Neeson-esque action vehicle. The now 61-year-old Brosnan played 007 in four films: GOLDENEYE (1995), TOMORROW NEVER DIES (1997), THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH (1999), and DIE ANOTHER DAY (2002).  All were huge hits and Brosnan was a popular 007 at the time, but in the years since his departure from the role, his stock among fans has plummeted. There was a time many years ago that George Lazenby was everyone's least favorite Bond, at least until some point in the 1980s when those who dismissed his lone Bond outing, 1969's ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, finally got around to actually watching it and found it was one of the best films in the series and easily ranked alongside the best of the undisputed greatest of all Bonds, Sean Connery. And when Brosnan was firmly ensconced in the role, Bond fans usually never passed up an opportunity to bash the short-lived Timothy Dalton era (1987's THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS and 1989's LICENCE TO KILL). But once Daniel Craig took over with 2006's CASINO ROYALE, there seemed to be a resurgence of interest in the Dalton films, especially LICENCE TO KILL, which was the most violent 007 film up to that time, with Dalton's Bond uncharacteristically cold, unsympathetic, and hell-bent on revenge. In the late '80s, Dalton was criticized for many of the same reasons Craig would be praised two decades later.

So now, all these years later, with one-and-done Lazenby having earned everyone's respect, fans finally showing appreciation for Dalton's tenure, and we all seem to be cool with the relative lightheartedness of the Roger Moore years, Brosnan has become the odd man out and the Bond that people now suddenly don't like. None of his films are anyone's idea of an essential Bond, though GOLDENEYE is very good and comes the closest. The negativity toward Brosnan probably stems from DIE ANOTHER DAY supplanting 1979's MOONRAKER as the world's least-favorite Bond film, with its terrible CGI, the invisible car, and the Madonna cameo. DIE ANOTHER DAY is terrible, but it's not Brosnan's fault. He was always a good mix of Connery and Moore, playing it mostly straight but able to deliver a corny, smutty double entendre with the panache of Moore at his most winkingly self-aware ("I thought Christmas only came once a year," Brosnan's 007 smirks before another round with Denise Richards' sexy nuclear physicist Dr. Christmas Jones in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH). I'm not sure why we have to have a worst Bond or why it's Brosnan's turn to hold the dishonor--all of the Bond actors had their stumbles. Have you seen 1967's YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE lately? Connery isn't even hiding his utter boredom with the entire project and it's without question his worst performance as 007. And sure, Moore scraped bottom with MOONRAKER but you can't dismiss THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977) or FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (1981).  The point is, the idea of Brosnan in another spy thriller is a great idea. Yes, there's the 007 connection,  but it's something that fits him well and he's good at it.

By that same token, it's impossible to not draw comparisons, but THE NOVEMBER MAN starts out by working hard to distance Brosnan from his 007 years. Based on the 1987 novel There Are No Spies, the seventh book in the "November Man' spy series by Bill Granger, THE NOVEMBER MAN opens with CIA killing machine Peter Devereaux (Brosnan) and his youthful protege David Mason (Luke Bracey) botching a job in Montenegro where Devereaux goes incognito as the US Ambassador to thwart an assassination attempt but failing to stop a stray bullet that manages to kill a small child. Five years later, Devereaux is in self-imposed exile in Switzerland but is Pulled Back Into The Game for One Last Job by gruff CIA chief Hanley (an enjoyably scenery-chewing turn by veteran character actor Bill Smitrovich). Devereaux's old Russian flame Natalia (Medina Musliovic) is a double agent working undercover for the CIA to dig up info on Gen. Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski), an infamous figure in the second Chechen War who's gunning to be Russia's next president. Natalia has information that ties Federov to human rights atrocities and child prostitution, and Devereaux is supposed to extract her and get her over the border into Finland. The job goes to shit when Federov figures out what Natalia's been up to and sends the military after her, but they're intercepted by none other than Simon, who has orders from Hanley's Langley-based boss Weinstein (Will Patton) to kill Natalia. He does, which starts a game of cat-and-mouse between teacher and pupil, with Devereaux on the run with human rights worker Alice Fournier (QUANTUM OF SOLACE Bond girl Olga Kurylenko)--whose name came up in some of Natalia's files--with the CIA, Mason, and lethal Russian assassin Alexa (Amila Terzimehic) in hot pursuit.

THE NOVEMBER MAN gets off to a relentlessly fast-paced start, with one exciting chase sequence after another. Journeyman director Roger Donaldson, who's done everything from crackling thrillers (1987's NO WAY OUT) to the worst blockbuster hit of the 1980s (1988's COCKTAIL) and everything in between (1995's SPECIES, 2000's THIRTEEN DAYS, and 2005's THE WORLD'S FASTEST INDIAN), and previously worked with Brosnan on the 1997 volcano disaster movie DANTE'S PEAK, stages the action in an admirably coherent way, with nothing in the way of quick cuts and shaky-cam. Unlike the 007 films, THE NOVEMBER MAN is action of the hard-R variety, with bone crushing fights and copious amounts of blood and splatter. In a way, with its extreme violence and glimpses of the seamier side of Eastern Europe (this was shot in Belgrade), it brings to mind a very high-end Millennium/NuImage production that follows the Cannon ethos of the late '80s. Indeed, if Brosnan had hypothetically teamed up with Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus to make his own knockoff 007 movie 25 years ago before he got the actual gig, modern technology aside, it probably would've come out looking a lot like THE NOVEMBER MAN, give or take a J. Lee Thompson, a Herbert Lom, or a Yehuda Efroni. Sure, it's routine and of course, it's got "Badasses walking away from explosions" if you're playing the action cliche drinking game, but for a good while, it's perfectly entertaining escapism. But about 3/4 of the way in, things starts falling apart. Plot conveniences abound, twists emerge out of nowhere, characters start knowing things they can't possibly know, behaving in contradictory fashion, and in one case, disappearing completely, and one new character is so arbitrarily and haphazardly shoehorned in for the climax that they practically scream "Hastily added during reshoots." And just when things should really get cooking, the film becomes hopelessly muddled and confusing and it feels like cuts have been made at random. Scenes seem to be missing. Devereaux addresses someone by another name at one crucial moment and, the way it's presented, he has no way of knowing that information. It's a shame, because for about 75 minutes, THE NOVEMBER MAN was looking like the kind of no-bullshit, throwback action flick that we don't see nearly enough of on the big screen these days.

Co-producer Brosnan, who bought the rights to the book after he was dismissed as 007 and first tried to put the project together back in 2006, carries the film like the old pro that he is, relishing a chance to engage in some mean, gritty action. He's quite believable as the cynical, weathered, seen-it-all type and he and Bracey (who has the Keanu Reeves role in the forthcoming POINT BREAK remake) play the bickering, back-and-forth ballbusting well, particularly when the experienced Devereaux gets the edge on Mason time and again. It's unfortunate that the last section of the film plays out in such a choppy and sloppy fashion. It's doubtful Granger's novel was written that way or that the script, credited to Michael Finch (PREDATORS) and Karl Gajdusek (OBLIVION), was constructed in that fashion. No, the late implosion of THE NOVEMBER MAN reeks of distributor interference and too many cooks in the kitchen and, as is usually the case in such situations, a perfectly good thing was spoiled.

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