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Review: ‘The Debt’

Hunting Nazis

Above: Jessica Chastain stars as a Mossad agent in "The Debt."

"The Debt" (opened August 31 throughout San Diego) is a remake of the Israeli thriller "Ha-Hov" from 2007.

"Ha-Hov" is a thriller about Mossad (Israel's Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations) agents on a mission. The storyline was split between the actual mission in the 1960s and then a more contemporary second tier to the story taking place 3 decades later as some new information about the mission comes to light.

Producer Matthew Vaughn (who also directed "Kick-Ass" and "X-Men: First Class") and director John Madden ("Shakespeare in Love") take on the English language remake and ramp up some of the action. The story is essentially the same. Three young Mossad agents -- David (Sam Worthington), Stephan (Marton Csokas), and Rachel (Jessica Chastain) -- are sent to East Berlin to track down Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen) infamously known as the Surgeon of Birkenau. Their mission is to bring him back alive but when he tries to escape, Rachel kills him. The three are welcomed home as heroes and the story is turned into a book by Rachel's daughter in 1997, 30 years after events had occurred. In the later timeline, Rachel is played by Helen Mirren, David by Ciaran Hinds, and Stephan by Tom Wilkinson. The three agents, now older, have grown apart because of secrets they have been harboring about their mission.

Ciaran Hinds and Helen Mirren reconnect 30 years after completing a Mossad mission in East Berlin in "The Debt."

Focus Features

Above: Ciaran Hinds and Helen Mirren reconnect 30 years after completing a Mossad mission in East Berlin in "The Debt."

In the past, Hollywood's favored way of dealing with the Holocaust was to provide a sympathetic portrait of Jews by emphasizing how they were victimized by the Nazis during the war. So films from "The Diary of Anne Frank" (1959) and "Judgment at Nuremberg" (1961) to "Schindler's List" (1993) and "Bent" (1997) focused mainly on stories about how Jews suffered. This is also the image most documentaries (such as "Shoah") presented as well. This is a perfectly valid perspective to take and many of these films were powerful works. But the rarer film is one showing Jews fighting back as in "Uprising" (a 2001 film about the Warsaw Ghetto) and "Defiance" (a 2009 film about Jewish resistance fighters). Not exactly fitting into this category but also choosing to present Jewish characters that take violent action against their aggressors are "Munich" (about 1972 Olympics) and "Inglorious Basterds" (where history is rewritten and Hitler is killed).

"The Debt" takes a similar tack but with one additional twist. It presents Jewish characters actively seeking justice as well as revenge on a Nazi doctor but then it structures its story with such an emphasis on the thriller elements that the story almost becomes completely removed from any historical context. These agents could have almost been after anyone. Almost.

I did not see the original Israeli film so I don't know if the tone, structure, or focus differs markedly from the English language remake. The scenes in the Israeli trailer look almost identical to the remake but those might just be superficial similarities. The English "The Debt" plays primarily as a thriller and secondarily as a dramatic love story in which the 3 agents become romantically and sexually entangled. Then, in the background and at appropriate intervals, the film reminds us what the mission of these agents is. But whatever Holocaust themes arise they are placed in the shadow of the thriller elements, which are what's really driving this plot.

Helen Mirren in "The Debt."

Focus Features

Above: Helen Mirren in "The Debt."

Madden, whose past work reveals more romantic drama than action, takes us through the action in a workman-like fashion. He displays no real flair or particular passion for the material. The result is that Madden makes the film feel longer than its two-hour run time. The fractured narrative provides a certain level of intrigue but Madden doesn't play it out in the most effective way. At times the cutting back and forth between time periods feels forced rather than flowing naturally from the story. Madden does show a flair for occasional tension. The scenes of the young Rachel allowing Dr. Vogel to give her an examination in his office conveys both a sense of tension and a sense of the extremes Rachel is willing to go through to do her job.

The strength of the film really lies in the performances of the two women: Chastain and Mirren. Chastain recently dazzled us with her poetic work in "The Tree of Life." Here she delivers a much more active performance yet she still relies on subtle skill to convey the emotional life of her character. Mirren takes on the older Rachel with equal effectiveness. Both women are far more believable than the male counterparts. In them we see the struggle between a desire for justice and a thirst for revenge, and the toll keeping a secret can take on a person.

Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington and Jessica Chastain as the young Mossad agents in "The Debt."

Focus Features

Above: Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington and Jessica Chastain as the young Mossad agents in "The Debt."

Unfortunately the male casting proves seriously flawed. It's hard to buy that Worthington's David grows into Hinds and Csokas's Stephan into Wilkinson. The older male casting seems backwards and I had to keep reminding myself that Wilkinson wasn't David and Hinds wasn't Stephan. The casting seems wrong both for physical and emotional reasons. Before the characters were identified I thought, "Wow, Hinds and Csokas look so much alike and have a shared emotional darkness too that it's great casting." So I was shocked to find out that they weren't in fact playing the same character. Too bad because the quartet of actors are all good performers but they are just mismatched in the film.

"The Debt" (rated R for some violence and language) is a serviceable thriller raised a few notches by Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain.

Companion viewing: "The Boys From Brazil," "Walk on Water," "Ha-Hov"

Here is the trailer for "Ha-Hov" but be forewarned it contains some spoilers, things the English language version does not reveal until the end of the film.

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