‘Breach’: Souled Out, By Kurt Loder

Chris Cooper plumbs the depths of a notorious American traitor. Also: Nicolas Cage unhappily trapped in the dreadful 'Ghost Rider.'

As Robert Hanssen, the FBI mole who betrayed his country’s most vital intelligence secrets for at least 15 years and is now doing life, straight-up, in a Colorado super-max prison, Chris Cooper delivers one of the most artfully internalized performances of recent years. Given his gaunt physical characteristics, an aspect of deeply creased wariness may come easily enough to this actor. But in painstakingly subtle ways, Cooper also makes us see — or sometimes just feel — what’s going on behind Hanssen’s crumbling tough-guy façade. As Bureau investigators close in on him, the corners of the rogue agent’s mouth sag in anger, or agony, and his eyes — the only real signs of life in his fishbelly face — coldly sweep his surroundings like hooded searchlights. In his unvarying black suits and sweaters, Hanssen looks like a funeral waiting to happen, and whenever he speaks, we’re always aware that there are many other things on his mind. Cooper’s performance is a master class in minimalist emotional projection.

“Breach” picks up Hanssen’s story very near the end, in December of 2000. By this point, the veteran counter-intelligence analyst has sold, first to the Soviet Union and subsequently to Russia, some 6,000 pages of secret documents and 27 discs of highly classified files downloaded from FBI computers. He has compromised untold numbers of operations and many agents, some of whom lost their lives. In return he has received from his foreign masters a total of $600,000 in cash and diamonds; another $800,000 has been deposited in a Moscow bank account for his eventual “retirement.”

But as Christmas draws near, the FBI is onto Hanssen. He has been given a newly invented position in the Bureau’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, and completely cut out of the internal intelligence stream. He is under heavy surveillance, and one of the investigation’s coordinators, Special Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney), decides to ratchet up the scrutiny by slipping in a young FBI trainee named Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) to be Hanssen’s assistant. There is no talk of treason when Burroughs calls O’Neill in for this job. She tells him that Hanssen is being investigated because he is a “sexual deviant.” This bit of indirection is in fact true. Although he is a militant Opus Dei Catholic — a father of six children who attends Mass every day and rages against abortion and homosexuality — Hanssen has also secretly installed a video camera in his bedroom to allow his best friend to watch him having sex with his wife, the equally devout Bonnie (Kathleen Quinlan). In addition, he has posted details of their sex life online, using Bonnie’s real name.

Eric is bucking to become a full-fledged FBI agent, but he finds this assignment dubious. Unpleasant, too. Hanssen is a cold, abrasive man, resentful of his superiors, whom he (understandably) finds incompetent, and suspicious of everyone. On their first meeting in the office, he fixes Eric with an icy stare and says, “Tell me five things about yourself, four of them true.” Thrown for a moment, Eric relates four mild facts about himself and one lie — about his favorite drink. Hanssen immediately nails the lie. Then he makes it clear there’s no co-worker camaraderie in the cards. “Your name is Clerk,” he says. “My name is Sir, or Boss.” He also tells Eric never to enter his office.

Hanssen does begin to take a weird interest in Eric’s spiritual welfare, though. He tells the younger man he should say a rosary’s worth of prayers every day, and he persuades Eric to accompany him to church. Soon he and Bonnie are turning up unannounced at the apartment where Eric lives with his wife, Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas), who is not pleased. Before long, Agent Burroughs has to fill Eric in on the Bureau’s real interest in Hanssen. “He’s a traitor,” she says.

Spy buffs will be gratified to find all the usual espionage tradecraft on display here: the bugs and cameras, the dead drops, the color-coded chalk sticks. And as the noose tightens around Hanssen’s neck, the director, Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass”), builds tension with a steady hand, in scenes of Eric racing the clock to download incriminating evidence off his boss’ Palm Pilot, or desperately improvising delays to keep Hanssen from returning to work early while investigators are taking his car apart.

But more than a tale of betrayal and its techniques, the movie is a story of human darkness. Appropriately, the master cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (“The Silence of the Lambs,” “The Sixth Sense”) brings a wintry chill to the imagery (the picture was largely filmed in wintry Toronto); and the actors carefully dial down their expressive effects. (Laura Linney manages a riveting air of chilly command, though, and Ryan Phillippe does an engaging variation on the introspective straight-arrow he played in “Crash” and “Flags of Our Fathers.”)

The movie has a major flaw, but it’s a flaw that’s common to all accounts of Robert Hanssen’s treachery, and it’s unavoidable. When the film is over, we have no idea who this man is. How do the apparently warring facets of his personality — his religious fanaticism, his squalid sexual obsessions, his bottomless duplicity — fit together? No one knows. And so, like all the books and articles that have been written about Hanssen, the picture is unable to cast any light on these questions. It leaves its subject in darkness, and us in the dark.

“Ghost Rider”: Flame-Out

The best that can be said about this movie, which is quite bad, is that it’s not a complete surprise. Having already underwhelmed us with another B-team Marvel superhero in the Ben Affleck oddity “Daredevil,” director Mark Steven Johnson now attempts to resuscitate an even more obscure figure: the chopper-borne “Devil’s bounty hunter,” Ghost Rider. The problem with both of these characters is that their superpowers lack mythic zing. Daredevil is blind. Ghost Rider bursts into flame. Where can you go with these attributes? Tumbling down a flight of stairs? Into the home heating business?

Apparently (I had to look this up), Ghost Rider started out as a cowboy character named Carter Slade back in 1967. He was retooled as a motorcycle menace called Johnny Blaze in 1972, and went on to have a 10-year run in his own comic book series. If it weren’t so low on the list of things wrong with this movie as to barely justify utterance, I’d suggest that trying to squeeze both of these characters into one film was unwise. Only the most unbalanced fanboy could possibly care. Everyone else will just be confused. I think I get it now, kind of, but it’s still confusing.

Briefly: 150 years ago, the first Ghost Rider was dispatched by the Devil to retrieve a contract signed by a village full of people who’d agreed to sell him their souls. But the fiery cowpoke then took off with the contract, and the Devil’s been looking for it ever since. I should mention here that the Devil — “Mephisto,” he’s called — is played by Peter Fonda in full, fruity Prince of Darkness drag (floor-length evil-master greatcoat, skull-knobbed cane), under a carapace of hairspray so thick it would require hammers of the gods to crack it. Now — which is to say 150 years later — Mephisto is back, and for reasons I won’t go into, because they’re too boring, he has a claim on the soul of Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage), a motorcycle stunt rider with a traveling carnival. (This is a musty concept, but the movie plays the carnival scenes as if they were delirious NASCAR rallies.) Mephisto wants Johnny to find the long-missing contract. But so does Mephisto’s evil son, Blackheart (Wes Bentley), freshly cast out of Heaven with three of his demon cronies and itching for action.

Johnny is a whimsical character. In fact, whimsy is about all there is to him. He loves to watch TV, especially if there’s a show about monkeys on. He loves the Carpenters. (“Shh,” he tells a gabby friend as the soft-rock duo coos in the background, “you’re steppin’ on Karen.”) And while he doesn’t drink, he does like to suck up jellybeans out of a martini glass. These arbitrary quirks don’t rise to the level of funny even if you stack them on top of one another, which the movie does. And Johnny’s offbeat superpower — he turns into a skeleton and erupts in flames whenever there’s evil around — is so haplessly computer-generated, it’s little more than a cartoon.

Why does a skilful actor like Cage, so memorable in underrated films like “Matchstick Men” and “The Weather Man,” lower himself to appear in pop junk like “Ghost Rider”? The director appears to have no facility for guiding actors, and so Cage is reduced to horror-face bellowing in some scenes, and in others to croaking out lines like “I am speaking to the fire element within me.” He’s also been burdened with a ratty black hairpiece that sits on his head like a crow on a phone pole. He deserves so much better.

But where were we? Ah, yes. So it’s Johnny versus Mephisto, and Mephisto’s son, Blackheart, and Blackheart’s nasty friends. Rallying to Johnny’s side is his childhood sweetheart, Roxanne (Eva Mendes), who’s now a TV news babe; his amiable pal Mack (Donal Logue); and a mysterious cowboy named … Carter Slade (Sam Elliott). Much devilment ensues — lots of Johnny tearing around on his flaming bike, lots of sultry mugging from the heavily-powdered Blackheart, occasional cameo campiness from Mephisto. But the action is flat and often awkwardly staged — it’s tumult striving for excitement, and failing.

Apart from the silly story, the movie is oppressive on a couple of other levels. Many of the scenes are lit like a TV sitcom, for one thing — apart from a romantic restaurant interlude that seems to be taking place in an airport departure lounge. (There’s also a sequence in which Johnny is biking his way through a fake foggy bayou that just has to be some sort of Ed Wood tribute.) And the music deserves a special mention of its own — it’s a hideous soufflé of outdated cheese: pummeling synth-rock, sub-Journey arena dreck, a cornily employed ZZ Top tune. Just when you think you can’t watch this movie anymore, you realize you also can’t stand to listen to it anymore. Fortunately, this being the land of the free, you don’t have to do either.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Breach” and “Ghost Rider”.

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