Enigmatic and deliberate Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy makes no reservations while unraveling its heady spy story for better or worse. The film based on the bestselling novel by John Le Carre is purposefully perplexing effectively mirroring the central character George Smiley's (Gary Oldman) own mind-bending investigation of the British MI6's mole problem. But the slow burn pacing clinical shooting style and air of intrigue only go so far—Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy sports an incredible cast that can't dramatically translate the movie's impenetrable narrative. Almost from the get go the movie collapses under its own weight.
After a botched mission in Hungary that saw his colleague Jim (Mark Strong) gunned down in the streets Smiley and his boss Control (John Hurt) are released from the "Circus" (codename for England's Secret Intelligence Service). But soon after Smiley is brought back on board as an impartial observer tasked to uncover the possible infiltration of the organization. The former agent already dealing with the crippling of his own marriage attempts to sift through the history and current goings on of the Circus narrowing his hunt down to four colleagues: Percy aka "Tinker" (Toby Jones) Bill aka "Tailor" (Colin Firth) Roy aka "Soldier" (Ciaran Hinds) and Toy aka "Poor Man" (David Dencik). Working with Peter (Benedict Cumberbatch) a conflicted younger member of the service and Ricki (Tom Hardy) a rogue agent who has information of his own Smiley slowly uncovers the muddled truth—occasionally breaking in to his own work place and crossing his own friends to do so.
Describing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as dense doesn't seem complicated enough. The first hour of the monster mystery moves at a sloth's pace trickling out information like the tedious drips of a leaky faucet. The talent on display is undeniable but the characters Smiley included are so cold that a connection can never be made. TTSS sporadically jumps around from past to present timelines without any indication: a tactic that proves especially confusing when scenes play out in reoccurring locations. It's not until halfway through that the movie decides to kick into high gear Smiley's search for a culprit finally becoming clear enough to thrill. A film that takes its time is one thing but Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does so without any edge or hook.
What the movie lacks in coherency it makes up for in style and thespian gravitas. Director Tomas Alfredson has assembled some of the finest British performers working today and they turn the script's inaccessible spy jargon into poetry. Firth stands out as the group's suave slimeball a departure from his usual nice guy roles. Hardy assures us he's the next big thing once again as the agency's resident moppet a lover who breaks down after a romantic fling uncovers horrifying truth. Oldman is given the most difficult task of the bunch turning the reserved contemplative Smiley into a real human. He half succeeds—his observational slant in the beginning feels like an extension of the movie's bigger problems but once gets going in the second half of the film he's quite a bit of fun.
Alfredson constructs Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy like a cinematic architect each frame dripping with perfectly kitschy '70s production design and camera angles that make the spine tingle. He creates paranoia through framing similar to the Coppola's terrifying The Conversation but unlike that film TTSS doesn't have the characters or story to match. The movie strives to withhold information and succeeds—too much so. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy wants us to solve a mystery with George Smiley but it never clues us in to exactly why we should want to.
Based on a graphic novel the violent tale revolves around Wes (James McAvoy) a meek 25 year-old office worker who hates his life. His boss berates him and he can’t even summon the balls to tell his slutty girlfriend to stop sleeping with his best buddy. But his world is suddenly rocked when Fox (Angelina Jolie)--a mysterious tattooed woman with a gun and a red sports car--takes him on the ride of his life. She takes him straight to The Fraternity a centuries old legendary group of hired assassins who live--and die--by their code: Kill one to save a thousand. Seems Wes’ long-lost father was a member who has just been whacked and he is now summoned to join up and unleash the inner killer in his genes. After a rigorous training regimen in which he is almost beaten to a pulp he emerges as the organization’s new golden boy and finds self-esteem in his new exciting alternative lifestyle. However the group’s enigmatic leader Sloan (Morgan Freeman) may have other plans in store for Wes that he isn’t quite sharing at the moment. McAvoy simply rocks as the most unexpected action star of the summer and that includes a season so far that has given us the quirky offbeat castings of Robert Downey Jr. and Edward Norton in Marvel comic book franchises. McAvoy (Atonement) has buffed up for the part but still looks like the average Joe exactly why the audience has a rooting interest as he becomes a fish-out-of-water in a group of hit men (and women). You’re with him all the way. This unusual choice is exactly what sets the film apart and makes it a complete original in an over-worn genre. Jolie on the other hand is absolutely who you would expect to play the heavily tatted Fox. Guns blazing feet slamming the pedal gorgeous and talented at taking guys out (of life) Jolie’s a card-carrying member of a club previously thought only open to men. She exudes cool and has never looked hotter. Freeman is at his best. He commands the screen adding his usual stoic presence to the proceedings with a nice twist that lets him show a creepier side than we usually get. Other members of the “club” are competently played by ever-reliable Terence Stamp German-born bad guy Thomas Kretschmann and rapper Common who shows he can keep up with the big boys--acting and other-wise. Hiring the Russian director Timur Bekmambetov for a summer action flick like this might have seemed an odd choice but anyone who’s seen his Hollywood-style homebaked hits Night Watch and Day Watch would know this is a visual stylist with no current equal in the action genre. His English-language debut is vibrant and pulsating alive in every way and thankfully more comprehensible story-wise than his previous work if no less fantastic. You still have to completely suspend belief for complete enjoyment but it’s all worth it. Bekmambetov seems incapable of staging anything in an ordinary way taking routine set-ups and turning them into violent bruising works-of-art. There’s not a single uninteresting shot in the entire movie which moves like the speeding train we see in one of the film’s most imposing sequences. Scene for scene this may be the most visually inventive trail blazing film of its kind in light years. Bring on the sequel.
The opening recap won’t be of much help to anyone who has not seen Night Watch Bekmambetov’s Matrix-indebted saga of ancient foes whose uneasy truce in modern-day Moscow is always one skirmish away from being broken. So first watch Night Watch or you might wonder why boozy seer Anton Gorodetsky (Konstantin Khabensky) desperately wants to mend fences with his estranged young son Yegor (Dima Martynov). Day Watch picks up where Night Watch left off with tensions on the rise between the two fractions of supernatural beings the Light Others and the bloodsucking Dark Others. Only Yegor—under the wing of warmongering Dark Other leader Zavulon (Viktor Verzhbitsky)—is now truly a bad seed. That certainly puts daddy dearest in a bad spot. Unfortunately Anton’s decision to cover up a crime committed by Yegor opens the door for Zavulon to frame him for the murder of a Dark Other. Worse Zavulon is counting down the days until Yegor’s birthday when the boy’s powers will be strong enough to allow the Dark Others to finally vanquish their long-time enemy. And let’s not forget both sides want to get their hands on the Chalk of Fate which lets the user rectify his past mistakes. Unfortunately the introduction of this plain-looking writing utensil leaves you with the unpleasant feeling history will be rewritten to negate the events chronicled in both films. Such a plot device seems lazy and too convenient especially for a franchise that’s just as convoluted and mythology driven as The Matrix trilogy. Even though Anton’s finally found his place among the Light Others the charmingly unkempt Konstantin Khabensky wisely retains the grumpy disposition hangdog expression and fatalistic wit that made his late-to-the-game psychic such an reluctant hero in Night Watch. But he also digs deeper emotionally to disclose the devastating sadness and regret that Anton harbors toward his son and the terrible fate he’s consigned him to out of a long-ago act of selfishness. In an attempt to prevent the Dark Others from capturing him Anton is forced to swap bodies with his former partner the shape-shifting Olga (Galina Tyunina). With her shoulders slouched and a cigarette dangling from the side of her mouth Tyunina is the unexpected source of much of Day Watch’s humor as she hilariously captures Anton’s disheveled demeanor without a hint of over exaggeration. And while posing as Olga Anton inadvertently reveals his love for Svetlana (Mariya Poroshina). With the curse that hovered over Svetlana lifted in Night Watch Proshina now exudes a confidence and cheerfulness that grows stronger as her powers as a Great Light Other develop. As her Dark Other counterpart Yegor Dima Martynov comes across as more of a petulant teenage pissed off with his father than the harbinger of death and destruction. That would be OK if Yegor had any redeeming qualities that made him worth saving but it’s clear he’s happy being a naughty boy. Unfortunately like Tomas Wooller in last year’s superfluous Omen remake Martynov sadly gives evil a bad name. Fulfilling the promise of a trilogy may prove problematic for director Timur Bekmambetov. He wraps up the near-apocalyptic proceedings in such a logical—though unsatisfying—fashion that would make a third installment unnecessary. Then again he could employ the Chalk of Fate to undo such a mistake. Even if he telegraphs his ending in the opening scene Bekmambetov still manages to concoct a visually stunning and symbolically rich sequel that is vastly superior to Night Watch. Everything’s executed on a giddily grander scale whether it’s the centuries-spanning confrontations between the bitter rivals the special effects that are more imaginative than anything offered in most U.S. blockbusters or the relationships that develop between all concerned. And the climatic confrontation finds Bekmambetov gleefully going all Roland Emmerich on Moscow. The humor is broader but on occasion it’s disruptive. Hopping on an Iraq-bound plane is nothing more than an excuse for Anton and Olga to engage in some amusing banter. At 140 minutes the excising of such extraneous scenes would make Day Watch easier to follow. But Bekmambetov’s more interested in fooling around with the subtitles—twisting them into all sorts of shapes such as blood splatter—than he is in making the film more coherent. Too bad he doesn’t pay as much attention to the bigger picture as he does to the little details. After all that has gone before it’s hard not to walk away wondering why Bekmambetov drew us into a conflict between centuries-old enemies only to pull the wool over our eyes.