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The Debt

a film by John Madden

The Debt is a taut, albeit a bit contrived thriller that slingshots back and forth between 1965 East Berlin and a Mossad-run mission to extradite an infamous Nazi nicknamed "The Surgeon of Birkenau", and 1997 Israel and the late autumn regrets of the past. The Debt attempts to seem as if to be "carrying the memory, anger and passion of the Holocaust" on its cinematic shoulders, and in some ways, but not in total, it pulls this off. The Debt also has the always scintillating Helen Mirren (owner of the above quote), and if that isn't a saving grace, then I don't know what a saving grace is. But is even the great thespian enough to rescue an otherwise middlebrow film as The Debt? My answer would have to be - sort of.

Directed by John Madden (no not the RV driving football guru, but the rather lackluster director who gave us the equally rather lackluster, inexplicable Oscar winner Shakespeare in Love) The Debt, based on the 2007 Israeli movie of the same name (a film that has never gotten a US release but has played on the Sundance Channel), is the story of a trio of Mossad agents who must infiltrate and capture the aforementioned Nazi war criminal (not so loosely based on real life medical monster Dr. Josef Mengele) and bring him back to Israel to face trial. As this plan goes awry (at several turns and just as a thriller should do) and lies become legend, we get to see these young idealistic agents played by Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington and Jessica Chastain age into the jaded older counterparts played by Tom Wilkinson, Ciarán Hinds and Ms. Mirren respectively.

Unfortunately, no matter how well all of these actors do (it girl Chastain proves why she is in every movie currently in theaters and Worthington proves that despite the silliness that was and is Avatar, he is actually a damn fine actor) the typically lackluster direction of Madden - the filmmaker's innate ability to make even the tensest of situations seem tepid and his characters seem somewhat disinterested in what is going on doth not a great auteur make - tends to make the film lean decidedly toward the mediocre side of life. One can be, and should be quite amazed at the action set pieces spiraled into the film, and as I have said before, the acting is top notch on all behalves (Jesper Christensen's bravura turn as the infamous Nazi is a performance worth noting as well), but the film never quite reaches past what one would, and should call slightly above average at best. [09/14/11]

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