Film Review: Damascus Cover

This well-worn road to Damascus will not convert anybody.
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Touted as a potential future James Bond on various occasions over the last decade, Jonathan Rhys Meyers appears to have made his audition reel in Damascus Cover, a lumbering old-school spy thriller by Israeli writer-director Daniel Zelik Berk. Based on a 1977 novel by Howard Kaplan, but with a plot updated to the end of the Cold War, Berk's debut cinematic feature is overstuffed with groaningly familiar espionage tropes. Even with its modestly starry cast, including a final screen credit for the late John Hurt, audiences are unlikely to be either shaken or stirred when Vertical Entertainment opens the film in theatres on July 20.

Rhys Meyers stars as Ari Ben-Zion, an undercover Israeli spy living under a fake German identity in late 1980s Berlin. Just as the Berlin Wall falls, he botches his mission to bring back a treacherous double agent alive. Recalled to Tel Aviv under a dark cloud, Ari's professional competence and psychological welfare come into question.

Eager to prove himself to his wily Mossad boss Miki (Hurt), Ari volunteers for a dangerous job behind enemy lines, with the aim of smuggling a chemical-weapons scientist and his family out of Syria. Arriving in Damascus, he poses as a German carpet importer with neo-Nazi sympathies, which brings him into contact with suave former Nazi Franz Ludin (Jürgen Prochnow). He also encounters flirtatious American photojournalist Kim (Olivia Thirlby), who seems instantly keen on dragging Ari into her dark room and seeing what develops.

Betraying its 1970s source material with every creaky line and clunky plot twist, Damascus Cover is a pedestrian effort across the board. Berk appears to be taking style and mood cues from the Jason Bourne films, which were equally conservative prospects at heart, but he plainly lacks the directing panache and generous budget required to glam up this dowdy old potboiler into a sexy modern spy thriller. The action scenes are threadbare, relying on stagey hand-to-hand combat and scrappy gunfights, while the stilted romance between Ari and Kim feels wholly implausible and low on sizzle. The Nazi subplot, central to Kaplan's book, also melts away into insignificance here.

In its favor, Damascus Cover is handsomely shot in summery colors by cinematographer Chloë Thomson, who makes resourceful use of aerial drone footage of Berlin, Tel Aviv and Casablanca, which stands in for Damascus. Hurt strikes a reliably elegiac note in a whiskery supporting role that, as with most of his autumnal work, elevates mediocre material by a few notches. And Rhys Meyers looks male-model sexy in a series of sharp fitted suits, although his bloodless, stiff performance mostly consists of pulling variations on Derek Zoolander's signature Blue Steel look. Thirlby is the only real firecracker here, bringing a compellingly nervy ambiguity to a character whose divided loyalties are thuddingly foreshadowed right from her first scene.

Damascus Cover ends on a lightly cynical twist intended to critique the morally dubious backstage deal-making behind superpower spy games. Sadly, Berk’s stale screenplay simply lacks the heft or depth to lift it above third-hand homage to earlier, better, smarter films. On the strength of this flimsy star vehicle, Rhys Meyers will not be sipping dry martinis in a tuxedo anytime soon.--The Hollywood Reporter