Film Review: The November Man

More than a decade after his 007 days, Pierce Brosnan is back in secret-agent mode, as a more down-to-earth but no less deadly ex-spy who gets forced back into the game.

The November Man’s Peter Deveraux (Pierce Brosnan) is the kind of spy we’ve seen a lot of lately in films. He’s pushing 60, done with the spy game, semi-estranged from his fractured family, focused on finally being there for his only daughter—and just when he thought he was out, his old life drags him back in. For Liam Neeson in Taken, it was personal. With Kevin Costner in 3 Days to Kill, it was because he was the only man who could do the job. For Brosnan’s Devereaux, it’s both.

That relatively complex motivation is just one of reasons that The November Man rises right to the top of its little subgenre. What sustains it up there is a more intricately woven, better-engineered plot that unfolds with enough mysteries, twists and revelations to keep us intrigued for a very fast-moving almost-two hours.

After kicking things off with a flashback to a counter-assassination mission that goes tragically wrong—the incident that presumably spurred Deveraux’s retirement—the film quickly segues to the comeback mission Deveraux couldn’t refuse: helping his fellow spy and former lover Natalia (Mediha Musliovic) get out of Moscow with career-killing dirt on Russia’s next president, Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski). When this mission goes sideways too, Deveraux is left alone, twisting in the wind and suddenly being hunted by his own people. It’s the first of several what-the-hell-just-happened moments that come at us, out of the blue, each time escalating the action—and the odds.

On the run from a kill squad led by his own protégé Dave Madison (newcomer Luke Bracey), Devereaux is, first and foremost, just trying to stay alive. But of course, he’s also after the truth behind what’s really going on. Keeping us guessing along with him—but never for too long—the film gradually teases out its main plot elements, as represented by its main characters: the in-hiding, initially unseen Mira, a former Chechnyan refugee who, years earlier, witnessed Federov’s mass-murderous war crimes against her countrymen (including her own family); the icily efficient assassin Alexa (Amila Terzimehic), who is methodically killing off key people from Federov’s past; and poor, dedicated social worker Alice (Olga Kurylenko), who helped Mira start a new life in a new country, and has faithfully kept in touch with her—which is what now makes Alice a person of interest, to everybody. It’s not giving away too much to confirm that these elements will converge. The suspense is in waiting for that convergence to arrive. The surprise is what happens when it does.

Meanwhile, on a parallel track that is also destined to intersect, there is the complicated cat-and-mouse interaction between Deveraux and Madison, driven by a love-hate dynamic that has them fully prepared to kill each other—although neither of them can ever quite pull the trigger. Add to that a deep vein of double-dealing CIA office politics with global implications, and you’ve got quite a lot going on for a film that’s being marketed as your basic slam-bang, spy-vs.-spy action thriller. But it’s that, too.

Said action is as it should be in such a film: fast, frequent, violent, bloody. And yet, except for a couple of high-flying John Woo-style moves that seem jarringly out of place, the physical confrontations are unusually well-staged; they’re precisely choreographed in terms of cause and effect. That’s especially true in the close-combat scenes, in which we take note of seemingly each blow—and the specific toll it takes. Such attention to detail makes for a very convincing slam-bang spy thriller.

Convincing too are the performances, which eschew scene-stealing opportunities (even the often, er, vivid Will Patton goes for world-wearily modulated here) in favor of on-point, in-the-moment role-playing that is as much about reacting as about acting, as much about the right body language as about the right subtly inflected line reading. Nobody’s getting Oscar-nominated here. But then, these aren’t the types of characters who lend themselves to that.

Which isn’t to say that the actors don’t bring them fully alive. (Bill Smitrovich is especially memorable as a salty old sexist whose penchant for insulting female co-workers doesn’t help him once his company loyalty is called into question.) Nor is it fair to suggest that these characters don’t develop along the way. Yes, that development tends to be on the fly, as these people, and their relationships, go through some radical changes. But that’s pretty much the nature of the genre, where character development can be no more (nor less) than a plot device. Which is why we’re only mildly (but very pleasantly) surprised when Kurylenko’s Alice turns out to be not just the pretty tagalong who found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. That gives her an edge on a lot of “Bond girls”—including the one she played in Quantum of Solace.

Neither as big as a Bond film, nor as bracing as the early Jason Bourne movies, The November Man actually stacks up pretty well against the more recent Bourne installments—or really, any other recent entry in this genre. It is what it is: an unusually resonant, well-textured thriller that you can still eat plenty of popcorn to.

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