by Kathie Smith
The November Man never puts much stock in originality. A last gasp for summer movies as we roll into Labor Day weekend, this spy versus spy action movie uses tried-and-true material from start to finish. A quick inventory reveals a blueprint so standard it feels rote—a retired ace CIA agent, an ambitious protégé eager to prove himself, a volatile multinational political storm brewing in a newsworthy part of the world, and a beautiful woman caught in the crossfire. Surprisingly however, this driving-with-your-eyes-closed narrative maintains a velocity that easily distracts from its lack of creativity, to the point of genuine entertainment.
Director: Roger Donaldson
Producers: Sriram Das, Beau St. Clair
Writers: Michael Finch, Karl Gajdusek, Bill Granger (book)
Cinematographer: Romain Lacourbas
Editor: John Gilbert
Music: Marco Beltrami
Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Luke Bracey, Olga Kurylenko, Bill Smitrovich, Amila Terzimehic, Lazar Ristovski, Mediha Musliovic, Will Patton
US Theatrical Release: August 27, 2014
US Distributor: Relativity Media
November Man opens in Montenegro 2008 as seasoned agent Peter Devereaux (Pierce Brosnan) and new recruit David Mason (Luke Bracey) are working on a threat to an American ambassador. Mason takes his perch above a public square and Devereaux brazenly impersonates the ambassador in order to draw out the assassin. When he does, Mason hits his mark but neglects collateral damage, defying orders to hold his fire and accidentally killing a young child. This opening sequence is meant to give us some insight to these personalities: Devereaux a fearless and conscientious professional, and Mason a young buck who shoots first and thinks later.
Flash forward five years and Devereaux is enjoying a quiet and posh life of retirement in Switzerland when his former superior requests his help in getting a CIA spy with information out of Russia. As it turns out, this spy, Natalia, is Devereaux’s secret lover, and, assuming she is in danger, Devereaux can’t refuse the post-retirement assignment. In Moscow, however, things go very wrong. Devereaux arrives just at the right moment to intercept Natalia, but so is another CIA team who takes an order to kill Natalia from a Moscow rooftop. You certainly don’t need three guesses to know who the sharpshooter is, and, even in the thick of the car chases and shootouts, you won’t have a hard time earmarking the double crosser.
The propulsion for the narrative, which November Man eventually gets around to, comes from the dirty deeds of a Russian military general, Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski), poised to be the next president. Federov is not only guilty of unconscionable rape and pillage as a military leader but also of puppeteering rising tensions between Russia and the Ukraine resulting in war. The key witness to Federov’s maneuverings is a young woman he kept as a sex slave and who has since escaped as a war refugee and disappeared. Federov wants her killed and the CIA wants her testimony, but the only person who seems to have any information is Alice (Olga Kurylenko) a social worker in Belgrade. Seeking revenge for the woman he loved, Devereaux joins in the chase, helping Alice dodge the bullies of the CIA and a lithe and limber Russian killer who can do the splits while unpacking her clothes.
It’s unfortunate that such a brainless film is one of the first to make use of the Russian-Ukrainian malaise, but director Roger Donaldson keeps the pace swift and, to his credit, gives very little time to ruminate on the cardboard characters and wasted plot. Brosnan is back in Bond mode although a little more grizzled and a little more slack around the jaw line, but that doesn’t stop him from being able to lay waste to a half dozen Russian bodyguards or sustain being hit by a pipe a couple times. Bracey, on the other hand, has the good looks but not the charisma, looking and acting every bit a lead character in a video game—Sam Fisher in Splinter Cell, Cole McGrath in Infamous, Isaac Clarke in Dead Space, or Nathan Drake in Uncharted, take your pick. Most of the twists and turns you can see from a mile away if you are paying attention, and even if you are not, there’s not too much complexity being dished out between the villains and the heroes.
Donaldson is no stranger to fare that ranks higher on the poplar scale than the critical, with a resume that includes No Way Out (1987), Cocktail (1988), The Recruit (2000), The Bank Job (2008), and, my personal favorite, Species (1995). He has a knack for pushing films straight down the middle of the road, which, in terms of being distracted for 108 minutes, works to his favor with The November Man. As prosaic as this movie may be, Donaldson fortunately stops short of the heavy handedness that can easily bog down an action film’s high tempo. The meaning of the title is only revealed near the end of the film (and, of course, the trailer) and then it vanishes like a puff of smoke. The disclosure does not have the implied gravity that it should, but Donaldson also doesn’t use it as a clever punch line over and over again.
As far as summer movies go, The November Man is not such a bad way to day adieu to 2014. Considering the summer’s other heavy hitters (Godzilla, Transformers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Guardians of the Galaxy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and X-Men: Day of Future Past, all movies that coast on franchise regurgitation), The November Man doesn’t pretend to be any more than it is: Brosnan and action. Adventurous film-goers might want to steer clear, but if you enjoy the thrill of a cat-and-mouse chase and a happy ending that delivers a cinematic clear conscience, you could do a lot worse than The November Man.