The plot of THE DEBT is, quite simply, laughable. The idea of three government agents failing to kill a Nazi doctor, lying about their failure to the public, and then setting out to actually find and kill the doctor 30 years later before the media finds out gets my vote for most farfetched and uninteresting plot of the year. THE DEBT was originally an Israeli film made in 2007 that received some acclaim. Focus and Miramax then decided to remake this film for American audiences and went about hiring John Madden (SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE) to direct and Matthew Vaughn (KICK ASS, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS) to co-write the screenplay. Vaughn’s involvement was mainly why I became interested in seeing the film and it didn’t hurt that Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson were cast to star in the movie either. However, no matter how much talent you throw onto a weak plot, its still a weak plot and the remake of THE DEBT was unable to shake its narrative and conceptual problems to become a great spy movie.

THE DEBT is about 3 Mossad (Israel’s intelligence agency) agents (the younger versions of the agents are played by Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, and Marton Csokas) who in 1965 captured an infamous Nazi doctor (Jesper Christensen) who performed experiments on humans in German concentration camps. The doctor escaped from the agents, but in order to save face, the agents reported him dead and they became national celebrities for their deed. However, 30 some years later, its learned that the Nazi doctor has turned up alive somewhere in Europe. The agents, now retired (the older agents are played by Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds, and Tom Wilkinson), decide to hunt him down and kill him before news of the doctor reaches Israeli media and their lies have been exposed.

The film’s biggest problem is that one story (the one set in the 1960s) is far more engaging than the other story (the one set in the 1990s). Complicating this is the fact that the stronger actors are featured in the later, weaker story whereas the weaker actors are in the earlier, stronger story. I was a huge fan of Steven Spielberg’s MUNICH. After all, no one likes Nazis and if there is anyone in the world who is entitled to find and capture them, it’s the Israelis. Throw in a plot full of intrigue, suspense, and action, and you have a winning formula. THE DEBT should have been that film and the portion of it that’s set in the 1960s is certainly it. We watch the three agents carefully plan out their strategy to capture the Nazi doctor and smuggle him to Israel. The filmmakers also throw in an interesting love triangle between the agents that adds even more tension to the successful completion of their task. If it wasn’t for the poor casting choice of Sam Worthington, the 1960s narrative would have been enough to make for a good film.

Unfortunately, what bogs THE DEBT down and ruins its pacing is the storyline that takes place later in the 1990s. This narrative is so heavy-handed that any enjoyment and thrill you get from the earlier story is crushed when the story switches to the present. Not even the great talents displayed by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciaran Hinds can save this plotline. This story spends the majority of its time with the retired agents discussing and dealing with the lie they have been living with all these years and its probable repercussions. When the story finally decides to move forward and we see Helen Mirren going to Europe to find the Nazi and kill him, we’re exasperated enough to just have the film be finally over. Besides, having an old lady like Helen Mirren, who’s been out of the spying business for decades, track down and kill an elderly and sick Nazi in a hospital looks pathetic and its impossible to generate any suspense out of two geriatrics duking it out. I also couldn’t figure out how, given the reporter’s discovery that the Nazi is still alive, these agents finding and killing the Nazi would prevent the Israeli media from finding out the real truth. What’s more, the film doesn’t spend enough time building for the audience the importance to Israel of what these agents had supposedly done for their country. Yes, we see Mirren’s daughter get up and discuss the book she’s written about her mom and how Israel is indebted to her, but that’s it. Therefore, we can’t really appreciate the magnitude of what it would mean if Israel discovered the truth about these agents.

Overall, THE DEBT contains a pretty impressive cast. Helen Mirren never disappoints and she’s earned a nice fan following over the years among older audiences. Although she gives a good performance, her talents are overshadowed by the poor storyline. The same can be said of Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds. What’s worse for them is that their roles are much smaller in the film and they don’t do a whole lot. At least we get to see Mirren go out and kick some ass whereas Wilkinson is stuck in a wheelchair and spends most of his time grimacing while Hinds is mostly seen in brief flashbacks. The talents of these actors are unfortunately squandered by the lame plot.

As for the younger cast, they have the advantage of being in the better storyline. I was disappointed, as usual, by Sam Worthington’s emotionless delivery, but he wasn’t bad enough to take too much away from the strength of the plot. Of the three agents, I was mostly impressed by Marton Csokas. He displays a raw intensity that’s inspired by his Jewish nationalism, his love for the female agent, and his jealousy that she’s with the other agent. However, if there is one performance to single out in this movie that would easily be Jesper Christensen. He owns this movie as he effortlessly steals the spotlight in every scene that he is in. In fact, the main reason why I think the 1960s plotline works is because of his scenes. In particular, his interactions with his captors is extremely engaging and he does such a fine job of evoking both sympathy and racist hatred. The only other time I have seen Christensen is in the most recent James Bond films and after seeing him here, I wish he had been the main villain in the Bond films.

Overall, THE DEBT doesn’t reach the heights of other similar films like MUNICH, MARATHON MAN, or THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL. This film had an opportunity to explore interesting and controversial topics such as violence, revenge, and Jewish identity (which are all explored masterfully in MUNICH). I wish the film dealt with the morality and legality of finding these Nazis and basically smuggling them back to Israel without regard to international law. And what about the issue of these agents lying to their country about what they had done? The agents “resolve” this problem by going out and killing the Nazi without really facing their country and their families. I would also like to believe that if the filmmakers had just spent 5 minutes thinking about the plausibility of their climax, they would have realized how horrible it was. I refuse to believe an 80 or 90 year old man could inflict serious harm on Helen Mirren, even if she is herself old and has been out of the secret agent business for many years. This film would have been a much stronger film if it had remained entirely in the past and it didn’t cast Sam Worthington to play one of the agents.

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