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Film in review – “November Man”

The_November_Man_posterThis spy thriller is kind of in the genre of John le Carre’s literary potboilers: the viewer has to try to piece together a plot from the seemingly disconnected actions of the characters, and the viewer’s chase to guess the end-game parallels the characters chasing each other on the screen. Viewers who long for clarity and straightforwardness will naturally be frustrated, but part of the point is that that’s the way it is in the shadowy world of espionage: few things are clear. And even fewer are pure.

Pierce Brosnan plays Devereaux, a supposedly retired CIA operative whose “nom de guerre” was “November Man,” because after he went through the landscape, everything was dead. Devereaux himself states that a bullet travels at 1400 feet per second, and, particularly in the case of a head shot, death is not only instantaneous, but painless. Ostensibly, that was supposed to comfort the young woman he was trying to protect at the time. But somehow “this won’t hurt a bit” has never been very reassuring.

Olga Kurylenko plays Alice, a convincing Russian expatriate (she’s native Ukrainian) whom everybody is after at once: the CIA and also the Russians, who are apparently systematically trying to eliminate anyone who had any prior history with their new president-in-waiting, because apparently he’s had some unfortunate proclivities in his past, including capturing young teenage girls as a soldier and abusing them until he wanted a new plaything. (Vladimir Putin is a comparative choirboy.) Oh, and the Russians are also accused of using operatives disguised as Chechen terrorists to precipitate the conflict that has now resulted in Russia taking over the Chechen oil fields, all with the complicity and cooperation of the CIA, no less.

Yes, there’s someone dirty inside Langley, and Devereaux is challenged to find that out at the same time he’s trying to help Alice run from several sets of attackers, including his former protégé at the CIA, Mason (Luke Bracey). Their gamesmanship is definitely part of the play here, and at one point Devereaux chides Mason, after an unguarded dalliance with his across-the-hall apartment neighbor, about needing to decide whether he’s a human being or a killer of human beings; you can’t be both. And maybe he’s preaching to himself there, as well.

Yes, we have gratuitous violence, with hapless henchmen dropping like, well, somebody got the drop on them. We also have some gratuitous sex and nudity, which is actually kind of unusual these days in action films. We’re definitely traversing on the seamier side of living, despite the high-tech weaponry and space age gizmos: this is an underworld where mean people play for keeps. There is rarely any quarter asked, even more rarely granted.

Sure, Pierce Brosnan is a little long in the tooth to still be so invincible, still (though we veteran moviegoers still appreciate his tongue-in-cheek James Bond portrayals). But here he’s not entirely a sympathetic character, which makes his insouciance more palatable. The real difficulty is that it’s difficult to find anyone to root for in this film, what with the brazenly cynical pronouncement from within the bowels of the CIA that what we’d really like to do is unite the Europeans against the Muslims. Just what we need: another Crusade. As if we didn’t learn our lessons from the last time we cloaked naked political ambition in the supposedly holy vestments of religious fervor. Those of us who actually attempt to represent Christianity to a skeptical culture will quickly find abhorrent the inference that it’s all about “us against the heathen.” Haven’t we learned anything in 1,000 years?

Well, at the very least, we’ve learned how to make snappy movies. “November Man” is one of them. Just don’t expect either clarity or purity.


Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.