Got Them Ol' Compromised Mossad Vengeance Blues Again: The Debt 

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The Debt
Directed by John Madden

"There are certain things I wouldn't do for my country," protests Miranda Richardson's IRA honeypot in The Crying Game; Rachel Singer, the Mossad agent played as a young woman by Jessica Chastain in The Debt, seems to have no such reservations, repeatedly climbing up into the stirrups of an East Berlin OB/GYN suspected of being the notorious "Surgeon of Birkenau." She snaps hidden-camera photos of the grandfatherly Mengele stand-in (Jesper Christensen), grimacing through invasive questions and procedures—the tension is almost as palpable as it is totally unfair.

A remake of an Israeli hit released a couple years after Munich, The Debt offers a more modestly scaled take on the earlier film's suspense setpieces with overcoat-weather European backdrop and tense overlayer of conflicted Zionist righteousness—as well as, in the English-language version anyway, gentile actors simulating sweaty Semitic sex appeal. Rachel's fellow-agents, who practice cover stories and hand-to-hand in their flat while waiting for the word to kidnap the war criminal and bring him to Israel for trial, are Sam Worthington, who huskily admits himself to be his family's sole Holocaust survivor, and team leader Martin Csokas, who boasts of his political ambitions. Rachel's motivations are fuzzier—inevitably, it comes down to weighed obligation to her two love interests' priorities, and, later, maternal instinct, as elderly Rachel (an obviously secret-bearing Helen Mirren) deflects her daughter's worshipful questions in framing scenes that see her reunited with her comrades, played now by poor haunted-looking Ciarin Hinds, and Tom Wilkinson, doing his usual sinister gladhandling plot-twist-obfuscation thing.

The dilemma raised by the The Debt's eventual third-act reveal is subtler, actually, than Munich's ambivalence over a Jewish state founded on muscular vengeance—itself a notion that The Debt posits as an ambiguously necessary myth papering over weakness. But despite the quality filmmaking—elegant tracking shots map the apartment's contested terrain, and Thomas Newman's score is like a more elegiac evening news theme—the writing just isn't there. Worthington and Csokas are given their motivations as dialogue, and Herr Doktor goes full Nazi in captivity, his increasingly cartoonish villainy foreshadowing The Debt's laughable thriller payoff.

Opens August 31

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