For a long time, August was Hollywood’s dumping ground for mediocre to outright crappy movies that didn’t fit properly enough into any other season’s structure. They weren’t spectacular enough for summer, they weren’t high-caliber (aka Oscar-worthy) enough for fall, and they weren’t fun enough for spring. These were movies whose execution (whether in writing, direction, acting or all of the above) failed, but it was better for the production company to get at least a few dollars back on their investment rather than simply keep it locked away on the shelf or buried in direct-to-video obscurity. Over the past few years, though, that seems to have shifted a little, as August has brought out some great films (including this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy or 2011’s The Help), leaving those redheaded stepchildren to scatter and hide among the rest of the year. But as August winds down and we head into Labor Day, a flurry of studios deliver The November Man to the trash heap of summer.
I didn’t know a lot about The November Man going in. I don’t remember seeing any trailers or commercials for it; all I knew was Pierce Brosnan starred and, judging by the poster, it was an action movie (possibly a thriller). It turns out that going in blind may have hurt my enjoyment, as I hardly had any idea of what was going on. The plot is so convoluted, it feels like the writers (Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek) had just played a game of telephone with a classroom of freshman writing majors who each created a scene and then turned it over to Finch and Gajdusek for dialogue. It really makes me wonder if they even read (or understood) Bill Granger’s book, “There Are No Spies,” which the film was based.
From what I gather, Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski) is about to be elected the new president of Russia, but in order to secure the victory, he has decided to have everyone that might stand in his way killed. Natalia Ulanova (Mediha Musliovic) is a CIA operative tasked with retrieving information on this (I think) as well as a past incident that involves sexual relations with girls and the slaughtering of some groups of people (an event that I’m not sure was ever truly explained). Before this happens, CIA Director Hanley (Bill Smitrovich) seeks out Devereaux (Pierce Brosnan), a retired operative who left after a child was inadvertently killed during a failed opp several years earlier, and asks to protect Natalia… I think… this is where the plot gets a bit sketchy.
Who is Devereaux supposed to be protecting her from? The CIA? The Russians? The CIA were minutes away from bringing her in with the relevant intelligence when the Russians made her for her sloppiness in stealing the info, so why would they even go to Devereaux in the first place? His involvement doesn’t seem to have anything to do with what was happening at the time, and only exists for him to find out the name of someone he may need to protect. But then why, when the CIA thought Natalia was compromised, did they kill her? All of this (along with the inconceivable way Devereaux just happens to be in the right place after Natalia is chased through the streets by the Russians and all of the subsequent methods used to outsmart the CIA), seems to be nothing more than a half-assed set-up for some “clever” cat-and-mouse chicanery and halfway decent action sequences.
The acting isn’t much better, as almost everyone seems bored and are simply biding their time until they get paid. Caterina Scorsone tries to add a little bit of juice to her role as CIA operative Celia, but for one reason or another, I just never bought into it. As an arrogant, insecure, ex-drug addicted doctor on Private Practice and Grey’s Anatomy, Scorsone is at the top of her game; as a hard-nosed, no-nonsense CIA operative, not so much. Part of my disbelief may stem from not knowing exactly what her role is. I thought she was a technical analyst or communications expert, but then, out of nowhere, she’s tasked with interrogating an intelligent, cunning suspect.
This is one instance where the film veers off course. The interrogations felt like they were written to be intense and controversial, trying to make the suspect intimidating as he continually spews out derogatory terms toward Celia to shake her (or push to make her emotions get the best of her), but it was so forced and unoriginal, it became shock for shock values sake. Another point in the film that fails to be anything but hollow is the subplot between CIA sharp-shooter, Mason (Luke Bracey) and his neighbor, Sarah (Eliza Taylor). Not only is their chemistry DOA, but the entire thing is ridiculously set-up and ends so abruptly, that it’s not even worth talking about.
The only actor worth his salt in the movie is Will Patton, who, in my experience, always brings his A-game no matter the size of the role or the quality of the picture. Patton seems to be the only one with any sort of passion for his role and plays CIA director Perry Weinstein as if he was in contention for an Academy Award. But even with that ability to overcome the material, Patton is wholly underutilized and used for the sole purpose of providing a weak red herring. I mean, once the red herring is burned, Weinstein is never heard from again.
Then there’s Pierce Brosnan, who squints and scowls his way through the movie doing his best impression of a man who has nothing left to lose. What’s missing is any semblance of chemistry with anyone on screen, the most underwhelming of which is with Mason, his one-time protege and supposedly good friend. The film relentlessly plays up that fact, constantly putting the two of them in situations where they have the opportunity to kill one or the other, but decide not to for whatever the reason (because if they had, the movie would essentially be over). It’s a deliberate attempt to bring redemption to both characters by the end of the movie, but because there is hardly any explanation for why they have so much respect for one another in the first place, the events that take place make even less sense.
On the other end of the spectrum, Brosnan is given a romantic love interest in the form of Alice (Olga Kurylenko), the young woman Brosnan takes upon himself to protect from both the CIA and the Russians (huh?). Protecting her leads to the answers he’s searching for, but their relationship is so weightless, the whole set up is as bland as a piece of stale white bread. Brosnan also tries to convey some emotional depth when he fights to rescue his daughter, a third act spin to the plot that firstly, comes out of nowhere, and secondly, has no dramatic tension because we aren’t introduced to the daughter until over halfway through the film, and even then we only see the daughter for maybe ten seconds in the whole movie. We’re given nothing to care for, and because of this, that entire relationship is an afterthought in an attempt to add something to give Brosnan’s character some humanity.
The only scene I can think of that raised the material to a higher level was one in which Alice confronts the man who raped her when she was a teenager. The way she carries herself as she goes to meet him for the first time in years, and subsequently prepares herself mentally to kill him, is a very intense sequence, and Kurylenko pulls it off perfectly. It’s the one scene in the movie that felt authentic — that is, until Devereaux comes in to stop her from finishing him off, replacing real tension with forced bravado.
On the bright side, the scenery throughout is beautiful.
My Grade: C
Next week, new movies include The Identical and Frontera. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.