REVIEW: The Double Chokes on Cold-War Tropes, Gere-Grace Mismatch
The Double shows its cards right away, when the screen fills with a cable news show on which a congressman insists "Russia's back!," noting that the country has reignited its nuclear program, its president is openly hostile toward the U.S. and it has more covert agents inside our borders than ever before. Russia's back, baby!
And what a relief that is, at least in terms of spy thrillers -- things seemed so much simpler in the Cold War days, when it was a straightforward matter of superpower versus superpower, a grand schism of ideology, and all an actor needed to do to play a bad guy was affect an accent and an air of stoicism. The Double, which marks the directorial debut of Michael Brandt, a screenwriter on Wanted and 3:10 to Yuma, revels in Iron Curtain kitsch while indulging in gruesomely clichéd set-ups involving sleeper agents, code-named assassin cells and a weary former CIA agent being lured out of retirement and forced to partner with an FBI eager beaver.
That CIA agent is Paul Shepherdson (Richard Gere), who lives alone and makes time to take in the occasional neighborhood Little League game. (When he tells the mother of one of the players this as they sit together in the stands, she's charmed, and doesn't seem at all like she's going to check the sex-offender registry as soon as she gets home.) He's reluctantly summoned back into the fold by his former boss (Martin Sheen, who deserves to have been given more to do), who believes the recent murder of a senator shows the signature of "Cassius" -- the name the CIA gave to a top Soviet assassin who was the only member of a group of seven agents to never have been caught. There's been no sign of Cassius for years, and Paul, who lead the efforts to catch the other six killers, insists it's a copycat case and that his old nemesis is dead. Nevertheless, he's teamed with Ben Geary (Topher Grace), an FBI up-and-comer who wrote his master's thesis at Harvard on Paul's tracking of Cassius, and who's convinced the assassin has reemerged.
Paul, it goes without saying, doesn't immediately take to being paired with this snot-nosed kid. He doesn't actually speak the words "snot-nosed kid," but he does bark, "Where were you when the wall came down?", to which Ben genially answers that he was watching it in TV instead of pointing out that he was likely in elementary school. Gere has never been an overly expressive actor, and his initial dislike of Ben and gradual softening to him blend into a general air of bemusement, as if he's always mildly surprised to find himself sharing a screen with Grace. There's reason to that -- Grace is sorely miscast here, as any sort of authority to be reckoned with and as a loving family man and father of two. I don't dislike him as an actor, but his vague smarminess undercuts any expertise or likability he's supposed to possess. You don't want Paul to learn to respect Ben, you want him to ditch the guy and stop taking his calls.
Despite the absence of chemistry between the film's two leads, The Double does contain some delightfully over-the-top twists that make no sense but are great fun to consider. One early reveal involves the identity of the double agent the title refers to, and adds some serious complications to the mission at hand. The implausibilities pile on as the story goes along -- the film sandwiches in flashbacks to 1988, in which everyone looks exactly the same but are shot through a filter, and then jumps back into the present day investigation, in which Paul and Ben interrogate another survivor from the group of assassins, played by Stephen Moyer. Why does Moyer sound like Yakov Smirnoff while Cassius speaks perfect American English? How is Paul able to identify a generic-looking suede coat as Russian-made at a single glance? What does the shady informant/dealer of goods from the homeland sell that he couldn't put on display at a specialty store -- pirated Russian soap operas? Unpasteurized dairy products?
If you're going to find The Double tolerable, it's best to let these and the many other questions that arise slide. Despite similarities, this film is several rungs down the ladder from Salt and lacks the charisma of a lead like Angelina Jolie to pull you past nagging silliness. The Double does manage a few nicely done setpieces, including a highlight involving a prison breakout and another moment in flashback that appears to borrow from the training sequence in Shiri. But the film provides no real thought on the complications of life as a double agent, on national loyalty and sacrifice or even the standard sad assassin angst. The only emotion it provokes is Cold War nostalgia -- in Russia, direct-to-DVD movie comes to you.
Follow Alison Willmore on Twitter.
Follow Movieline on Twitter.