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“The Debt” – Early Review (POSITIVE)

August 31, 2011

I was worried about this movie. It was supposed to be in theaters last December, then pushed back to the spring, and then finally the end of the summer season. When a studio (or studios) does this, it’s pretty much set in stone that the movie is a problem. But, in the case of John Madden’s “The Debt”, that’s not the issue here. It was a surprisingly good thriller. The acting is strong, by a well-structured cast, I wasn’t even expecting Matt Vaughn (director of “X-Men First Class” & “Kick-Ass”) who co-wrote the film, with writing partner Jane Goldman. [John] Madden, who hasn’t made a ‘good’ movie since the 1998 Oscar favorite, “Shakespeare in Love”, really makes a strong return, with this extremely intense espionage thriller.

The movie starts out in 1997, when a retired Mossad agent, Rachel (Mirren) learns of shocking news about a past mission from the mid 60′s she experienced with her other fellow agents, her ex-husband (Tom Wilkinson), and her other ‘man of a certain interest’, David (Ciarán Hinds). All three have been praised for 30 years by their home country of Israel, because of the mission that they undertook, when the trio (portrayed, respectively, by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, and Sam Worthington) tracked down Nazi war criminal, Doktor Bernhardt Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), in East Berlin. At great risk, and at considerable personal cost, the team’s mission was accomplished, but was it a real accomplishment?

The story is well drawn out, as the suspense builds in and across two different time periods. The action is startling at times, utilized by some creative sound work that will surely make the audience feel nerving, and the revelation that no one will see coming is a refreshing surprise. The movie is an espionage thriller, yes, but it’s also a psychological thriller. As the movie’s main focus is in 1966 East Germany, we follow the younger versions of our Mossad heroes. When they capture Vogel, they must hold him in a dank apartment, after a screw-up occurred the night they were supposed to transport him to central. The psychological aspect comes into play, well crafted I must say, when each agent has his or her one-on-one time with Vogel. Jessica Chastain, shines the most in this film as young Rachel. Her communication with actor Jesper Christensen is spooky and downright chilling. Jesper’s character, Vogel, taunts the Jewish agents the way he knows best, by bringing out the vicious Nazi monster that he was well known for to taunt them to a point where they will loose control. The confrontation between Vogel & Sam Worthington’s David will leave the audience in gasps.

The acting was superb all around. I love Jessica Chastain’s work, she was excellent in “Tree of Life”, and she’s remarkable in this film. Either movie, she will garner her first Oscar nomination, I can see it. Sam Worthington, I’ll say this, I’m not a big fan of him. He wasn’t great in “Terminator Salvation” and he didn’t really wow me in “Avatar”, so I wasn’t expecting much from him. After seeing this movie, if I had the chance to meet him in person, I’d ask, “Why were you hiding your acting abilities Sam!?” Naw, I wouldn’t be like that, but he was amazing in this movie! What an accomplishment by Sam, this was the first time that an actor I really didn’t care for surprised the hell out of me. Marton Csokas, I’ve seen in some movies here and there, here he was really good. The older versions of the agents are done by some of the most talented actors you could ever ask for, Helen Mirren can still own the screen, I’ll see anything Tom Wilkinson is in, and Ciarán Hinds, while his role is minimal, he still embodies a lost soul with some of the best dramtic performance I’ve seen in recent memory. John Madden did an excellent job casting the right people to play the younger and older agents.

While the story, the characters, and the general direction of the movie was well done, I have to say sadly that the movie lost me quite a bit at the end. Without giving too much away, when the grown-up Rachel is off on her last mission, you think that it will end in a certain way, and that certain way you’re lend to believe would’ve been the perfect ending, and in some ways they still do that ending, but the issue for me was in between that. It’s when we get that surprise visitor. I sat there saying to myself, “Really movie? You’re actually gonna do the Hollywood ending?” I don’t want to spoil it, but it was a disappointment for me that the filmmakers decided to go in that route.

Now, I am happy for John Madden, I think he’s a fantastic director, who’s made a few poor choice (“Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” & “Killshot”), but has the ability to bounce back, and this is a great start for a comeback. I hope to see more from him. I’d recommend this movie all the way, and who knows you might like the ending more than me or you might agree, either way I don’t think the ending ruins the film completely it’s just a disappointing final 2 minutes. As a whole you’ve got an intense psychological spy thriller that will keep you engaged from beginning to end, with characters that will make you feel unease, and refreshing to have a film with a cool revelation.

GRADE: B+

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