Late August/early September is known as a dumping ground for Hollywood a block of weekends for movies that don't fit into studios' strategical timeline. This could be for quality reasons ("when else are we going to put out this crappy movie?") or in the case of The Debt the movie might be too straightforward for its own good.
Oscar-winning director John Madden's (Shakespeare in Love) espionage thriller walks the fine line between action entertainment and award-season bait—leaving it in the unmarketable limbo known as "solid adult entertainment." The film a remake of a 2007 Israeli drama of the same name starts in 1997 centering on former-Mossad agent Rachel (Helen Mirren) and her two former teammates David (Ciaran Hinds) and Rachel's ex-husband Stephan (Tom Wilkinson). The trio cross paths once again with the publishing of a book written by Rachel and Stephen's daughter recounting the team's daring (and semi-successful) mission to kidnap and incarcerate a Nazi war criminal in 1965. It's with this solidifying of fame that the true events of their mission begin to trickle out.
The movie quickly flashes back to 1965 picking up with Rachel David and Stephen (now played by rising starlett Jessica Chastain Avatar's Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas) at the start of their mission. Like any group of gorgeous people forced to live in confined spaces romance begins to blossom with Rachel warming to the introverted David and Stephen waiting for the opportune moment to sweep her off her feet. While the trio prepares for the kidnapping—with your standard array of sleuthing calculated scheduling and intel-gathering—their relationships complicate giving The Debt a bit more depth than your run-of-the-mill Mission: Impossible-style spy movie. When it comes time to bag the Nazi everything seems to have fallen into place.
But unlike the stories told by their '90s counterparts the three agents find themselves in a stickier situation than expected. WIth one misstep the tension between the triangle boils and Madden to play games with our expectations. The script by Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class writers Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman twists and turns bouncing back and forth between Mirren and Chastain's Rachel with ease. The spectacle in The Debt isn't delivered by elaborate set pieces but rather by the two actresses' performances. The duo without sharing a single scene click and unfold a complete arc beginning with Rachel's pride-filled aspirations to her chaotic downfall to Mirren's newfound mission to cover up the truth. Even when the movie dawdles (and it does around the hour mark) Mirren and Chastain keep us on board.
The other members of the ensemble don't have too much meat to chew on but Worthington impresses nonetheless tackling a character that's a complete 180 from his usual action-oriented muscle roles. His young David gives weight to the mission inhabiting a sense of devotion that explodes when he finally engages their Nazi hostage in a battle of words. Csoaks as young Stephen is just the slick realist prick the movie needs to make the team's downfall frighteningly disastrous and in turn the events of the present that much more dire.
The Debt doesn't have the expansive harrowing scope of Steven Spielberg's serious spy movie Munich but for a movie that doesn't really have a place on the Hollywood slate it delivers a square serving of drama and sharp performances. It tells its story and does so with the right amount of flair.
At the end of the summer that's a welcome surprise.
Built from comic book auteur Frank Miller’s (Sin City) rock solid foundations 300 is based on his vision on the 1962 film The 300 Spartans filtered through the same tough-as-nails pulp sensibility that populates most of his comics work. Leaving such leaden wannabe sword-and-sandal epics like Troy and Alexander in the historical dust 300 reworks the real-life legendary tale of the Battle of Thermopylae in which a battalion of 300 elite Spartan soldiers heroically hold the line to protect ancient Greece from the invading Persian hordes. The story focuses on the Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) who must not only lead his small cadre of troops--each one honored since childhood into a razor-sharp battle-relishing warrior—into a battle they are unlikely to survive but he must also fight for the fate of Greece and its democratic ideals. As the bizarre seemingly endless marauding legions of the tyrant Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) descend upon the Hot Gates—a narrow passageway into Greece that Leonidas’ miniscule band can most ably defend—the soldiers take up arms without the usual post-modern anti-war hand-wringing that most war epics indulge in. These soldiers are both bred for battle and fighting a good fight and the film focuses squarely on the highly charged action. Meanwhile in a new plotline created specifically for the movie his equally noble and faithful queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) takes up arms in a more symbolic way as she also tries to keep democracy alive by taking on the political warlords of Sparta to secure relief for her husband’s troops. Butler has become a familiar and welcome on-screen presence in such films as The Phantom of the Opera and Reign of Fire but there has been little on his mainstream movie resume to suggest the kind of bravura fire he brings to the role of Leonidas. This is the stuff of an actor announcing himself to the audience in a major way akin to Daniel Craig’s star-making turn as James Bond. In a big bold performance that could have gone awry in any number of ways Butler plays even the highest pitched notes like a concerto perfectly capturing the king’s bravado bombast cunning compassion and passion each step of the way. Headey is his ideal match imbuing the queen with more steel and nobility in a handful of scenes than most actresses can summon to carry entire films. Fans of Lost and Brazilian cinema will be hard-pressed to even recognize Santoro whose earnest pretty handsomeness is radically transformed into Xerxes’ exotic borderline freakish form personifying a terrifying yet seductive force of corruption and evil that spreads like a cancer across the earth. And don’t forget to add in the most impressive array of rock-hard abs on cinematic display since well ever (think Brad Pitt in Troy times 300). Even bolstered by canny casting choices and their washboard stomachs helmer Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) is the true undisputable star of 300 establishing himself firmly as a director whose work demands to be watched. With a kinetic sensibility that’s akin to Quentin Tarantino and John Woo and using CGI technology to its utmost effects both subtle and dynamic Snyder creates a compelling fully formed world that the audience is eager to explore. Snyder doesn’t literally match Miller’s signature artwork as meticulously as director Robert Rodriguez did with Sin City. Instead Snyder captures Miller’s essence be it raw brutality majestic size and scope the exotic and otherworldly carnal physicality or hideous deformity--even seemingly antiquated and potentially off-putting techniques like the repeated use of slow-motion are put to fresh effect making every blow and cut seem crucial. Yet even in the visual glorification of some of the most bloody and violent conflicts ever put to film Snyder infuses the tale—which ultimately is one big glorious testosterone-soaked fight sequence—with the sense of honor and sacrifice which characterizes the most noble of war efforts. Yes war can be hell but this is a case where some like it hot.