While this American remake of the 2007 Israeli feature film called Ha-Hov will never hold up to the accolades received by its Israeli counterpart (four nominations for Israel’s Academy Awards equivalent), The Debt is nonetheless a taut, suspenseful ride through the doldrums of the late summer movie dead season.
That the film owes a debt to its highly acclaimed Israeli progenitor is no surprise at all as that country is home to the highly secretive Mossad, one of the world’s most effective intelligence and espionage agencies that is also at the core of the film’s plot. But with hopes of making it a bit more relevant to - and subsequently more entertaining for - a world audience, director John Madden and screenwriters Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman have beefed up the original film’s complexity and level of suspense. As a result, The Debt has a much higher I.Q. and a considerably deeper level of character substance. Many will experience a return to some of the 1970s thrillers like Three Days of the Condor or Marathon Man.
At the center of the story is Rachel, played by two actresses, Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain. As the older Rachel, a retired Mossad agent now being venerated by her country for tracking down Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (a marvelously evil Jesper Christensen) in East Berlin, Mirren fearlessly bears the wounds (both literally and emotionally) and the corrosive effects of events she’s suppressed for over 30 years. Mostly disconnected, seemingly bitter, and with a jagged scar across her cheek, Rachel conveys that something’s not quite right. We get a sense that there might be an unseen tarnish beneath her heroic shine.
Through rising actress Jessica Chastain, we meet the younger Rachel who shows us how she got this way. Her story begins back in 1966 where she and two other agents, Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington), undertook the mission of capturing Vogel from his gynecological practice in East Berlin. Their two story’s unfolding concurrently with the action switching back and forth between 1965 and present day (actually 1997), we see that Mirren’s Rachel is actually the unraveling endpoint of Chastain’s. Both actresses stamp the character with a synchronized version of a singular yet complex character. Seeing how effortlessly Mirren and Chastain pass the baton of their Rachel back and forth is a beautiful thing to watch. A fine display of what can happen with two actresses at the top of their games.
The three younger agents in The Debt are tough-as-nails compatriots trained in krav maga, the renowned tactical defense skill that is rooted in hand-to-hand combat and a signature of Mossad. Driven by a strong sense of national pride and patriotism, the agents are hell-bent on protecting and honoring their country by returning Vogel, who was known during the war as the "surgeon of Birkenau" for his ruthless experimental treatments on Jews in the Birkenau death camp, to Israel for trial. Capturing Vogel is only half the battle however, as the trio must then sneak the remorseless doctor past the heavily fortified border that divides East from West Berlin. Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) displays a fine sense of critical pacing as this suspenseful sequence involving the attempted kidnapping of their target plays out as a much-needed counter to the film’s more tedious moments of setup and character development. Complex, thrilling, and just fun to watch, these types of movies don’t get much better than this.
Playing the older Stephan and David are Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds respectively. Although they became instant hometown heroes upon completion of their mission, their involvement in some kind of deception or cover-up is readily evident. The years of secrecy and concealment have clearly taken a toll and all three actors effectively display the physical toll of moral conviction and emotional burden.
Madden makes a great choice to entrust most of the heavy dramatic lifting to Mirren and Chastain. Though most of the film’s screen time is filled by the 1960s section of the story allowing Chastain to show her acting chops, it’s Mirren that not surprisingly rises to the top.
The result is a complex yet approachable nail-biting thriller with its origins rooted in modern-day Israeli filmmaking, but its style borrowed from 1970’s American cinema.
MPAA Rating: R for some violence and language.
Director: John Madden
Writer: Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman
Cast: Helen Mirren; Tom Wilkinson; Jessica Chastain; Ciarán Hinds; Sam Worthington
Genre: Drama | Thriller
Memorable Movie Quote: "Thirty years ago these three dared to confront and unimaginable evil."
Tagline: The Debt
Distributor: Focus Features
Official Site: www.focusfeatures.com/the_debt
Release Date: September 2, 2011
Blu-ray Release Date: No details available
Plot Synopsis: In this espionage thriller, shocking news reaches retired Mossad secret agents Rachel (Academy Award winner Helen Mirren) and Stefan (two-time Academy Award nominee Tom Wilkinson) about their former colleague David (Ciarán Hinds). Back in 1966, the trio (portrayed, respectively, by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, and Sam Worthington) tracked down Nazi war criminal Vogel (Jesper Christensen) in East Berlin. At great risk, and at considerable personal cost, the team’s mission was accomplished – or was it? The suspense builds in and across two different time periods, with startling action and surprising revelations.
No blu-ray/DVD details available