There are two ways to go with spy movies: the blowing-shit-up route of the James Bond series, or the more cerebral path taken by thrillers like The Manchurian Candidate. Guess which way The Debt, starring Dame Helen Mirren and directed by the guy who made Shakespeare in Love, takes.
The movie starts in 1997, when a book about former Israeli secret agent Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) is published by her daughter, detailing Rachel's most famous assignment. Meanwhile, Rachel's old colleague Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson), who also happens to be the author's father, watches as the third member of their spy trio steps in front of a speeding bus.
Flash back to 1965, when the team was on a mission to bring a notorious Nazi butcher to justice. But something went wrong, and justice ended up being served on the streets of Berlin. Or was it? There are emotional scars (Rachel and Stephan's past is tumultuous) as well as some more visible ones (Rachel's face was slashed during the mission) left from the period.
The Debt bounces between eras, with two sets of actors playing each agent; Avatar's Sam Worthington plays the third agent, David Peretz, during the earlier years. The spies' earlier story is the more interesting of the two. That's probably why so much of the movie takes place in 1965, like the highlight — a 007-worthy set piece where Rachel, Stefan, and David try to smuggle the evil doctor out of Germany.
There's some action here — the younger Rachel (played by The Tree of Life's Jessica Chastain) kicks some serious ass — but The Debt isn't about explosions, gunfights, and car chases. And in that way it comes a lot closer to the lives of real-world spies than the stuff you usually see in movies. But do you really want to watch secret agents prep for their mission by talking about it? And would you rather see them holing up in a crappy apartment with their Nazi prisoner or turbo-skiing down a mountain?
The cast is good, and the everyday mechanics of gathering info can be intriguing. But director John Madden doesn't build much suspense. There's a mystery here — what exactly happened in Berlin, and why did David kill himself 30 years later? — but Madden's flat pacing keeps the focus squarely on the scene at hand, which ends up putting more effort into the romantic triangle brewing among the spies than their actual mission.
Still, as far as thinking-man spy movies go, The Debt has its moments ... at least it does until the ridiculously silly ending.
The truth about what really happened with the mission and Rachel's obligation to it in 1997 makes a nice twist, the secret at the center that ties together the storylines and eras. But leave it to a brainy spy thriller to leave out most of the fun stuff.