December 22, 2006 10:12am EST
The Good Shepherd is billed as the story of how the CIA began but it is really the fictional story of Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) and his involvement in the first covert wing of the CIA. The story moves back and forth in time from when Edward is a literature student at Yale and a member of the secretive Skull and Bones club through the days following the Bay of Pigs in the early ‘60s. Edward is recruited into intelligence work at the beginning of World War II and learns the dark art of spying and espionage from the British. Meanwhile his personal life takes a back seat to his service for his country including alienating his wife Margaret “Clover” Wilson (Angelina Jolie) and their son. He is never home enough to effectively deal with the family problems his absence creates. By the end of the film as the twin disasters of the Bay of Pigs and his broken family unfold--and blame must be assigned--Edward ends up being a metaphor for the modern US intelligence service. Damon who has made a franchise out of playing the spy/assassin Bourne plays a very different kind of spy in The Good Shepherd. Wilson is a boring controlled buttoned down spy who is unfortunately more like the real thing than what we see in the movies. Damon does an excellent job however especially in those moments when he realizes he has screwed up. The actor stays controlled but finds a way to let the audience glimpse the pain of a man who has spent his life keeping his emotions and thoughts under wraps. Jolie is almost too luminous for the part of Edward's hapless wife. She is a bright spot in the movie as she transforms from the sexy/feisty Clover to the medicated/angry Margaret. Newcomer Eddie Redmayne also does a good job as the grown up Edward Wilson Jr. The rest of the cast is peppered with excellent performances from top-flight actors including William Hurt as a menacing intelligence heavy; Michael Gambon (Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series) as a British intelligence officer who’s fed up—and even De Niro himself as a general who’s the driving force behind the CIA’s beginning. De Niro captures the nature of the gray-flannelled spy but seems to get bogged down with material unable to craft a tight compelling film. The Good Shepherd is long and feels long with some of the transitions too abrupt. The subdued colors evoke the period of the film as well as play into the monotony that is intelligence work. But the problem with monotony is that it’s boring and boring is not something a movie should be. There are some incredibly intriguing scenes however and the film will certainly speak to any of those with genuine interests in the hardcore spy genre--obviously De Niro being one of them--but like its subject matter Shepherd will probably be too elusive for the casual viewer. De Niro seems much more comfortable in the details but less interested in keeping the story gripping. Ironically this is the exact opposite of the main character Edward Wilson who keeps his eye on the big picture but misses the small moments he should have noticed.
A dead body with a smashed-in face and cut-off hands is uncovered at a Montreal construction site. The local authorities are all over it but police inspector Hugo Leclair (Tcheky Karyo) thinks it might be bigger than just a random murder and decides to bring in his good friend Special Agent Illeana Scott (Angelina Jolie) an FBI profiler who relies on her intuition rather than conventional crime-solving techniques. She proves it by immediately lying in the victim's grave to get a "sense" of what happened to him. (Wow we've never seen that before.) The Montreal detectives on the case Paquette (Olivier Martinez) and Duval (Jean-Hugues Anglade) are skeptical of her ways especially Paquette who thinks she's just plain nuts (we're with ya Paquette) and resents her involvement. The investigative team catches a lucky break when witness James Costa (Ethan Hawke) pops up claiming he stumbled upon the killer mid-murder (but not in time to save the victim) and can identify him. With Costa's help Illeana gets a clearer picture of her "profile " discovering he is a chameleon-like serial killer who "life-jacks" his victims assuming their lives and identities. At first she's hot on his tracks but the usually detached Illeana is thrown for a loop when an unexpected attraction develops between her and James. She suddenly feels like she is losing her touch; and surrounded by what could be a bevy of potential suspects things get chillingly personal.
Jolie has done this before sort of in the 1999 The Bone Collector in which she played a homicide detective who works with a quadriplegic partner to catch a serial killer so inhabiting Agent Scott is not new territory for her. Neither is acting in the steamy love scene she gets to share with Hawke which as we all know is something Jolie can do well. What is surprising for a movie of this type however is the fact the uptight emotionless FBI profiler actually gets to have sex which brings out Scott's more human qualities. The ultra-smooth Hawke whom we haven't seen since his Oscar-nominated turn in the 2001 Training Day also does some intriguing things with his character who may or may not be the bad guy (see below). The rest of the cast however falls into conventional psycho thriller compartments--the good cop (Anglade) the bad cop (Martinez) the concerned confidante (Karyo) and the person who provides key information about the serial killer's background (his mother played by Gena Rowlands)--without shedding anything new on the proceedings.
If you've seen one big-budget psychological serial killer movie you've seen them all. You know that the one guy they want you to think is the killer really isn't. You know that the other more unlikely guy probably is. You know somehow the hero--a smart cop FBI agent etc.--will eventually find his or her life in mortal danger. And finally you know the killer rarely dies on the first attempt; he always comes back. What you hope is that at some point the filmmaker will throw a wrench in the works. Something you couldn't predict even if given all the clues. Taking Lives director D.J. Caruso tries his best to do this. Through his camerawork he sets up Illeana's hyper-sensitive skills of observation as she notices everything around her only to see those skills fail on her later--and aided by composer Phillip Glass' haunting musical score the film reaches the predictable high points fulfilling its thriller quota. Montreal also provides a change of pace from the usual grimy Big Apple or other such gritty American locales prominently feature in such films. But what keeps Taking Lives in the running is its curveball at the end. If you don't mind wading through the rest of the movie's obviousness the wait is worth it.