One of the absolute best spy thrillers of the past three decades is the Kevin Costner-led No Way Out. Seriously. If you haven’t seen it, or haven’t seen it in a while, go watch it again and marvel at its sharp script, fantastic action set-pieces and electric performances from all involved. Plus Iman! Director Roger Donaldson has returned to the genre on occasion since ’87, but while he’s yet to capture that same magic it hasn’t stopped him from trying.
Which brings us to The November Man.
Peter Devereaux (Pierce Brosnan, himself no stranger to the cinematic spy game) is retired and living the peaceful life of a single parent and shopkeeper when an old friend visits to ask a favor. He needs help with an ex-filtration, and the woman in desperate need of escaping Moscow is someone very close to Peter’s heart and past. He agrees to this [cough] one last job [cough], but the mission goes sideways almost immediately. Forced on the run from both the Russians and the Americans Peter soon realizes he’s stumbled into a history-altering situation.
So as I was saying… maybe you should go watch No Way Out.
In addition to his old boss Hanley (Bill Smitrovich), Peter crosses paths with two increasingly important and far younger souls. Alice (Olga Kurylenko) is a social worker holding a very valuable piece of information that makes her a target for the spy agencies on both sides of the (now rusted) Iron Curtain, and David Mason (Luke Bracey) is an upstart agent who was once Peter’s most accomplished protege. Peter’s forced to protect one against the other, and as the body count rises as fast as the double (and triple) crosses add up everyone’s past and everyone’s loyalty comes into question.
The script by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek (based on a novel by Bill Granger) crafts a world where good and bad are antiquated notions. Americans and Russians are equally to blame for sins old and new, but the power of one man doing the right thing is portrayed as compelling a force as any the opposing nations can bring to bear. Part of that “sure why not have everyone be bad” mentality though is that the there’s no surprises with the characters. Exposition is as omnipresent as the flying lead but nowhere near as fast. We get speeches and rationalizations up the wazoo, all of them meant to create some kind of morally grey zone that never really materializes as instead the line between good and evil is incredibly clear.
Equally antiquated is the film’s stance on a woman’s role in the male-dominated world of spies, intrigue and shoot ’em ups. It’s always good seeing Kurylenko, but it’s unfortunate that the Quantum of Solace veteran is forced back into a “woman in need of rescue” role. Sure it makes a certain kind of sense as she’s working alongside an old school Bond this time, but still… it’s just insulting seeing an otherwise fully-capable character need the constant protection of a man. Worse, the script incorporates past sexual assault atrocities into the story only to turn one of those victims into a romantic interest who is sexualized again as part of a failed ploy.
The script and characters are sadly generic as the spies play their obvious roles and Alice falls into Peter’s arms almost as fast as she comes to trust him — did I mention the film takes place over a couple days? — but at least the action and suspense sequences are crafted well enough to grab and hold attention. There’s nothing showy here, well, unless you count two characters walking slowly away in different directions with an awesome explosion at their backs, but the simple setups are often choreographed with skill and a bit of flair.
The November Man pales beside Donaldson’s and even Brosnan’s best entries in the spy genre, but fans of the players and the game will find a mild enough diversion here.
The Upside: Some well-crafted action/suspense scenes; Pierce Brosnan remains a charismatic performer capable of entertaining expressions (see above pic); Will Patton is still alive
The Downside: Women constantly in need of rescue; sexualization of past sexual assault victim is trivialized; script more interested in getting characters from A to Z than in fleshing out the story; unearned ending
On the Side: Bill Granger wrote thirteen books in “The November Man” series, so if this movie takes off expect a sequel announcement by next week.