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Saturday, January 28, 2012

THE DOUBLE -- DVD review by porfle

Sometimes you like to sit down to a long, complicated game of chess.  Other times, you just want to play a little air hockey.  Compared to the drawn-out chess games of a Le Carre' spy thriller such as TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, director Michael Brandt's THE DOUBLE (2011) is the equivalent of a few brisk rounds of air hockey--breathless and exciting, without the need to expend too many grey cells in order to appreciate it.

Playing the role of retired CIA agent Paul Sheperdson, Richard Gere shows what a deceptively subtle yet effective actor he's become over the years, especially now that he's no longer perceived mainly as an ambulatory fashion ad (although he stills look better than I do on his worst days).  He's fun to watch here, using his understated skill to fully inhabit his character without having to overdo anything.  Matching him all the way is former sitcom star Topher Grace ("That 70s Show") whose talents as a dramatic actor are fully realized as young FBI agent Ben Geary.

With the apparent reappearance of long-sought Soviet superspy "Cassius" in the USA--and his suspected assassination of a senator--Sheperdson is called back into service to resume the hunt for him while unwillingly saddled with the callow Geary as his partner.  Naturally, they form a grudging respect for each other while seeking out the elusive Cassius, with Sheperdson becoming fearful that Geary, who has a wife and two kids, is unaware of the threat their ruthless quarry poses to himself and his family. 

Their search is an exciting one which begins with a prison visit to former Russian spy "Brutus" (Stephen Moyer, "True Blood"), who then stages a frantic escape attempt, and leads a Cassius associate named Bozlovski (the imposing Tamer Hassan, KICK-ASS, FREERUNNER) whom they suspect of actually being the mysterious spy himself.  Former boxer Hassan is an imposing and very physical actor who gives Shepherdson and Geary's attempts to capture Bozlovski a generous measure of hard-hitting excitement. 

While simpler than your usual spy thriller, THE DOUBLE does have its share of big plot twists, one of which is revealed right there in the trailer.  I'm giving it away in this paragraph (if you don't want to know, skip ahead) since writers Brandt and Derek Haas originally intended for it to be known from the start that Shepherdson himself is, in fact, Cassius, and has been working as a double agent all along.  This amps up the tension between him and Geary and enriches his character by having him develop an attachment to the eager young agent and his family.  What we don't yet know, however, is why Cassius is now acting on his own and what his secret agenda is.

But there are more surprises ahead which keep the story interesting enough while the action moves things along.  The finale, which takes place in a warehouse district on the Potomac River (with Detroit standing in for Washington, D.C.), allows director Brandt to stage a good old-fashioned car chase between Gere and Hassan that's like something out of the gritty 70s.  It's a cracking good sequence (which the editors of QUANTUM OF SOLACE would do well to study) that ends in a spectacular car crash stunt before proceeding to the final good spy/bad spy showdown and a parting plot twist that'll have the less prescient among us doing a mental doubletake.

The supporting cast is top-notch, including Martin Sheen as CIA director Tom Highland and Chris Marquette in an amusing turn as an FBI office drone eager to get points by helping Geary on the case.  Odette Yustman (AND SOON THE DARKNESS, OPERATION ENDGAME) is winsome as Geary's unsuspecting wife Natalie, who helps to spark Shepherdson's humanity during a cozy family dinner.  As the unpredictable Brutus, Stephen Moyer is all raw nerves and kinetic desperation.

Brandt and Haas, who also scripted 3:10 TO YUMA, WANTED, and 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS, have fashioned a Lite version of the old Cold War tales updated to modern times and adjusted to appeal to shorter attention spans.  That's not always a bad thing (remember my clever "air-hockey" metaphor), and, in this case, results in a breezier than usual dash through spy-thriller territory.  The film itself lacks that "A-list" look but is stylishly directed and nicely photographed.  John Debney's musical score benefits from the participation of Rush lead guitarist Alex Lifeson, whose own composition "Don't Look Back" graces the closing credits crawl. 

The DVD from Image Entertainment is in 2.35:1 widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound and subtitles in English and Spanish.  Extras include trailer, behind-the-scenes featurette, and an engaging commentary track with Brandt and Haas.

Lean, fast-moving, and fun, THE DOUBLE isn't the kind of spy thriller that involves the viewer on a deeper level like one of Le Carre's torturously taut epics, nor is it anywhere near as memorable.  But it is entertaining, and sometimes that's all a movie really needs to be.

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