Movie Review: The Debt

“The Debt” is an example of a bungled movie. It has a fascinating premise and (for the most part) a solid cast, yet it stumbles in its execution and what could have been a taught little political thriller is instead an unwieldy clunker that at times borders on self-parody.
Because of my sunny disposition, I’ll first focus on the positive. The movie is told in flashbacks, and flashforwards and maybe even a flash-sideways or two, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

It is the story of three Israeli Mossad agents who in the 1960s travel to East Germany to kidnap a former Nazi surgeon (played with creepy effectiveness by Jesper Christensen) and bring him to trial in Israel.

The kidnapping goes as planned, but extraction proves to be more difficult and the trio is forced to hold their prisoner captive for weeks in a cramped and dingy Berlin apartment. All this sounds pretty fascinating doesn’t it?

Especially when you throw in a complex love triangle that forms between the agents Rachel (Jessica Chastain), David (Sam Worthington) and Stephan (Marton Csokas) who are trapped in this bizarre situation.

Unfortunately the movie lets all the air out of the tension of this ordeal by showing how it was resolved in the first 10 minutes of the film. As we cut to the late 1990s we find middle-aged Rachel (now played by Helen Mirren), David (now played by Ciaran Hinds) and Stephan (now played by Tom Wilkinson) as national heroes who carry some great, unspoken burden.

What I found to be frustrating is that you can see that by simply moving some elements of the story around, perhaps in a more linear fashion, that “The Debt” has the potential to be a very good movie.

I suppose most of the blame for the failure of this movie should be laid at the feet of director John Madden. I consider Madden to be a solid director, best known for helming Academy-Award-winner “Shakespeare in Love,” but here it is clear that his ambition far exceeds his skill level.

Madden retraces his own steps so many times in this movie as scenes are replayed with only the slightest details added on that you begin to feel like you’re trapped in a maze with no cheese.

The other main problem with the film is that large sections of it sag under the weight of the wooden Sam Worthington. The Australian actor, best known for his roles in “Avatar” and “Clash of the Titans,” is so out of place it would be akin to Sylvester Stallone being cast as Oskar Schindler.

When Hinds assumes the same role later in the film, I found myself thinking “Wow, David’s accent just got a whole lot more consistent and he seems to be having some sort of human connection with the people around him. Weird.”

The worst part is that Worthington distracts from yet another eye-catching performance by Chastain. She continues her white-hot meteoric rise here in 2011 that has also included striking turns in “The Tree of Life” and “The Help.”

Finally the whole movie comes down to a geriatric showdown that borders on the ridiculous, evoking more giggles than profound emotion.
“The Debt” plays out as a continual series of misfires that each on their own aren’t particularly lethal, but taken all together serve to bring down a movie with great potential.

“The Debt” is rated R for some violence and language.

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