You can cut a movie until it’s faster than light, but no amount of editing will make a movie more intense if the action isn’t in the script. Director John Madden clearly understands this, because his film “The Debt” manages to wring tension out of a sequence that cuts between two people walking at normal speed. In truth, only a third of the movie could be considered a thriller; the rest of it is the kind of period piece family drama that litters Ang Lee’s resume, but the action-to-plot ratio is not what undoes the movie. Rather, it’s the transparency of the payoff. It’s painfully obvious what the movie has planned, and while the ride is perfectly enjoyable, you’ll wish for a prettier sunset once you’ve arrived.
In 1966, three young agents of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad earn great acclaim for succeeding on their mission to bring Nazi war criminal-in-hiding Dieter Vogel, a.k.a. the Butcher of Birkenau, to justice. Flash-forward to 1997, where the daughter of agents Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) and Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson) has written a book about her parents’ courageous story. The only problem is that the story Rachel and Stephan have told everyone is not exactly how things went down, and the two must decide between continuing the charade, which would mean potentially torpedoing their daughter’s career prospects, and coming clean.
You can see why the actors were drawn to the movie, on a number of levels. Oscar nominee John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) is at the helm, and the script was shepherded by It Boy Matthew Vaughn (“Kick-Ass”). The young actors get to play multilingual secret agents in the ‘60s, and the older actors, well, the men get to use accents. Helen Mirren, meanwhile, gets the best of both worlds by speaking Russian and kicking ass. Odds are, though, that the original script that lured the actors in has a much more satisfying ending than the one presented here, which has potential but ultimately reeks of tampering and reshoots.
The casting of the young male leads is curiously backwards. The tall, raven-haired Marton Csokas should grow up to become tall, raven-haired Ciaran Hinds. Instead, he’s played by the less tall, full-faced Tom Wilkinson, while Hinds is played in flashback by the less tall, full-faced Sam Worthington. It creates a visual disconnect at times, which is a shame because the young men deserve better. Jessica Chastain is the lucky one; she becomes Helen Mirren in the end, which means that her back story will be the juiciest, and Chastain makes the most of a role that demands her to be both cruel and empathetic, sometimes within seconds. The movie’s true star, though, is Jesper Christensen, who’s delightfully nasty as the unrepentant Dr. Vogel. Had the rest of the characters been as fully developed as he was, the unsatisfying finale would have been far easier to stomach.
It’s difficult to put down “The Debt,” because the world could use more thrillers like it, or at the very least, thrillers that aim for more than a series of gun fights. The lack of a real mystery at the story’s core, though, is fatal, so it’s to the credit of the cast (despite the miscasting) and direction that they are able to make “The Debt” as entertaining as it is.(3 / 5)