Review: The Debt Spies Equally on the Past and Present

There’s a slight detail that illustrates the difference between the original 2007 film, The Debt, and John Madden’s remake. We learn early on in both films that our female lead was scarred on the cheek in the line of duty; in the first film, it’s a low scar along the jawline, while in this one, it’s a prominent, jagged thing in the middle of her face. Madden’s version maintains all the literal and figurative scars left on these characters, but everything here is made at least one degree more obvious, even as the screenplay tries mightily to hide its secrets.

The timeline jumps between 1965 East Berlin and 1997 Tel Aviv. During the former period, young Mossad agents Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephen (Marton Csokas), and David (Sam Worthington) are sent in to extract Dieter Vogel, the legendary “Surgeon of Birkenau,” so that he may stand trial in Israel for his crimes. Thirty years later, Rachel (Helen Mirren), Stephen (Tom Wilkinson), and David (Ciarán Hinds) are still being celebrated for their accomplishments -- Rachel’s daughter has recently released a book all about the mission -- but it turns out that the truth about the past might catch up to them yet…

The first film was forthright about this new development, but since screenwriters Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class), Jane Goldman (same), and Peter Straughan (the upcoming Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) have decided to play coy, there is little sense in my spoiling this film’s particular unfurling. Rachel is called upon to serve her country once again, while we discover what was asked of her before. She was specifically brought on in order to get the team closer to Vogel (Jesper Christensen) in his new guise as a gynecologist. As such, her initial encounters with him are uniquely invasive, uneasy, and tense, and her knack for sewing, not to mention her feminine wiles in general, will come in handy later on.

Chastain, as vulnerable here as she was vibrant in The Help, conveys her rookie’s determination to bring justice upon one of her nation’s most-sought terrorists and reluctance to actually face him head-on, while Mirren matches well Chastain’s sense of shame and drive in Rachel’s older years. Both Csokas and Wilkinson play Stephen as a bit of a hothead, eager to order without ever getting his hands quite as dirty as anyone else, while Hinds is only briefly allowed to complement Worthington’s steely-eyed Holocaust survivor torn between doing the right thing for his country and avenging his loved ones in person. As for Christensen, he’s eerily paternalistic whenever Rachel’s in the stirrups, but once captured, the obligatory romantic tension between his three guardians only fuels his Lecter-like exchanges with each of them.

The most satisfying addition to the original’s intrigue is a set piece in which our three agents try to flee the country with their newly kidnapped target. We already know that they will fail, but the suspense remains in discovering just how the plan will come apart. After that, they and we are confined to a leaky, drab apartment for an undetermined amount of time, as tempers run high and orders remain elusive. The film’s overall tension eases a bit from there, as Rachel leaves her family in a last-ditch effort to tie up loose ends and an increasing amount of flashbacks proceed to pad out the second half (what one might call “the Haggis approach”). The climax that does arise from her journey strains credibility -- again, I’d say more if it wouldn’t say too much -- though one cannot fault the ending for deviating from that of its predecessor.

Setting aside the screenplay’s stall tactics, The Debt still boasts sure-handed direction, adult-appealing moral dilemmas, a uniformly solid ensemble, and at least one crackerjack escape sequence. It may not match the efficiency of the original or rival the likes of the similarly minded Munich, but in the dog days of summer, it’s an acceptable reprieve from the usual brain-cell assassination attempts.

Grade: B-