Whatever new miseries it might inflict on the real world, the resurgence in Russian aggression could revive the secret agent genre, which has devolved into over-the-hill action heroes killing people in the cartoonish “Red” and “Expendables” franchises. Now, with a new Cold War in the works, perhaps the spy movie can move beyond mindless mayhem and return to the murkier issues of good and evil and existential angst.
For a moment, “The November Man,” as directed by Roger Donaldson, looks like it might do just that. A loose adaptation of Bill Granger’s 1986 novel “There Are No Spies,” it opens with a prologue which, though thoroughly predictable, does introduce the moral ambiguities of duty and macho one-upmanship — and with minimal collateral damage. Sadly, the film rapidly devolves into an AARP version of a Jason Bourne-like vendetta, only bloodier and less meaningful.
Peter Devereaux, the hardened CIA killer in the problematic operation of the opening, has, as a result of that debacle, renounced his profession and gone into retirement running a bistro on the shores of Lake Geneva. Right — we’ll see how long that lasts. Monickered the November Man because, as a colleague explains, nothing is left alive after he arrives (and not because he is played by the long-in-the-tooth former 007 Pierce Brosnan), Devereaux’s just too good at what he does to remain idle for long. Following some emotional manipulation by ex-crony John Hanley (Bill Smitrovich), he agrees to one last mission: to extract from Moscow an agent with the goods on the Putin-like Kremlin rising star, Lazar Ristovski (Arkady Federov).
Predictably, nothing is as it seems — except the ensuing firefights, car chases, and mounting body count. Betrayed and furious, Devereaux hunts for the guy responsible (hint: he’s the most obnoxious misogynist in the film, a tough contest and a bit hypocritical in a movie with gratuitous trips to strip clubs). Though craggy and world-weary, the old pro is still good for a rampage marked by athletic, inventive carnage and heavy drinking.
Meanwhile, Devereaux’s CIA protégée David Mason (Luke Bracey) adds Oedipal juice when he’s assigned to hunt down his mentor and repeatedly gets taunted and spanked by the old man, a motif that was old back when Charles Bronson played that game in 1972’s “The Mechanic.” And a November/May romance is hinted at when Devereaux must play bodyguard to Alice Fournier (Olga Kurylenko from the 2008 Bond film “Quantum of Solace”), an aid worker for victimized women, who knows something that makes everyone want to kill her, or die trying.
A lot of top-secret dirt gets kicked around in the process, including hints of an apocalyptic collusion between Soviet and US agencies that would be hare-brained and farfetched even by CIA standards. But you will find no insight into the machinery of power, nor little in the way of fresh entertainment in “The November Man.” To see how far we’ve come both in the quality of spy movies and of international intrigue, one need only take a look at Donaldson’s own “No Way Out” (1987), a twisty mystery that practiced the now apparently lost art of combining thrills and that old espionage essential, human intelligence.
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Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.