Film and TV

Reviews for the Easily Distracted:
The Debt

Title: The Debt

You Seem Kind Of Bummed. What's The Matter? Oh, I was just hoping I'd be able to review Shark Night 3-D.

What On Earth For? If you have to ask, you'll never understand.

Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: Three East German Trabants out of five.

Brief Plot Synopsis: Three Mossad agents are forced to deal with the aftermath of a botched mission that took place 30 years ago on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Wait A Minute, Did You Just Imply You'd Rather See A Bunch Of No-Name Dipshits Getting Eaten By CGI Sharks Than Helen Mirren In An Espionage Thriller? As John Saxon said in Enter the Dragon: A man's strength flows from his appetites. I have a very large appetite for bikini-clad sharkbait.

Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: Three young agents, Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Martin Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington), are sent behind the Iron Curtain to apprehend one Dr. Bernhardt (Jesper Christensen), whom the Mossad believe to be former Nazi doctor Dieter Vogel, the "Surgeon of Birkenau." Their mission to bring him back alive fails, but the three return to Israel to much acclaim. Fast forward 30 years, when the three are forced to deal with the consequences of what happened back in 1965. The truth of which is somewhat different from the version they've described all these years.

"Critical" Analysis: Your knee-jerk impulse is going to be to compare The Debt to Munich, because both are about Mossad agents sent undercover to capture/kill enemies of the state. That's really where the similarity ends. The latter was a somewhat successful attempt to present a commentary on the escalation of violence and the circular nature of revenge. The Debt is less cerebral, relying primarily on a single plot twist that's not very hard to see coming.

But I'm a sucker for Cold War set pieces, and director John Madden (no, not that one) captures a divided Berlin and the attendant paranoia quite well. The three leads aren't embarrassing (though it's a near thing with Worthington), and Chastain, who's in approximately 700 movies this year (The Help, Tree of Life and Texas Killing Fields among them), is the best of the bunch.

It's when the film shifts to the present day that things start to go off the rails. Without going into too much detail, the adult David (Ciarán Hinds) is far too shell-shocked than the situation really calls for, and the final intrigue, which calls for Helen Mirren to fall back on three decades-old skills, is abruptly done (and the 60-ish Rachel sure seems comfortable sliding back into undercover work after having spent the last 30 years on book tours).

But it was the ending I had the biggest problem with. Nothing sinks a halfway decent espionage thriller like forcing a resolution when a more ambiguous finale would've served much better. Considering the film -- a remake of the Israeli film HaChov -- is populated largely by Brits and crewed by Hungarians and Israelis, it's odd they chose to wrap things up in the neat fashion American audiences insist upon.

Did I say the ending was my biggest problem? I had two others. The first is the idea that a former Nazi -- fictional, yes, but obviously meant to be on par with Mengele or Eichmann -- would be hiding out in Germany. Worse than that, in Soviet-occupied Germany. Operation Paperclip aside, the Soviets would've taken none too kindly to someone of Vogel's notoriety had they come across him.

And on a side note, if all Nazis really were as the movies portray them, we'd all be speaking German. Vogel is brilliant, a master of psychological manipulation, and inhumanly strong for an old dude. Luckily most of the inner circle were more Heinrich Himmler than Otto Skorzeny.

The second problem is the casting. Not the performances, which are generally decent (and I will single out Christensen for high praise. Expect a Best Supporting Actor nod for him). No, it's the disconnect between the young and old versions of the male leads.

Recall that Martin Csokas plays 1965 Stephan, while Tom Wilkinson plays the 1997 version. Sam Worthington is the young David, and Ciaran Hinds is the older version.

Here's Csokas (1965 Stephan):                    And here's Hinds (1997 David):


 It's pretty damn confusing, and I actually pay attention while watching movies.

The Debt isn't a great movie, merely a sort of good one. Does well out of the gate, but just can't seem to finish strong.

See It/Rent It/Skip It: Rent it, or wait for On Demand. Or maybe just check out Munich, which is a flawed but superior Mossad film.

And there's always Shark Night. If you see it, let me know how it was.

The Debt opened in theaters last Wednesday. But really, who goes to the movies in the middle of the week? Losers, that's who. Losers and Nazis.

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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar