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The Debt

Starring Helen Mirren, Ciarán Hinds, Jessica Chastain, and Sam Worthington

A spy thriller with all the action and double the deceit. John Madden does not try to produce films on an assembly line. Blue blood that he is, he mixes up a well-balanced body of work on the stage, on the screen and on television. After his acclaimed “Shakespeare in Love” and “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” where was there to go? To a spy thriller, apparently. Granted, this is no average spy thriller. It features a sophisticated blend of “krav maga” self-defense, the official bone breaker of the legendary Israeli Mossad super-spies, and, the best of all, the escaped Nazi war criminal. This particular war criminal is not your average storm trooper. This is Doktor Bernhardt, the Surgeon of Birkenau. The man who forged new medical technologies such as mixing and matching body parts and injecting blinding solutions into children’s eyes. A real piece of work. The character is adapted from SS Captain Josef Mengele, head doctor at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Having established himself as a war hero and party stalwart, his power within the camp was absolute. Apparently driven mad by the situation, he performed sadistic medical “operations” on imprisoned victims. In real life, the Mossad tried to get the “Angel of Death” and failed. He died swimming in the Atlantic Ocean by his tiny country bungalow. Thus, the set-up is perfect. The Hannibal Lecter of WWII vs. clean-cut-kid Mossad agents Rachel, Stephen and David. After starting with a slam-bam opening of the three as 60-somethings, the film makes remarkable use of flashbacks to take them back to their stalking of the dreaded criminal. Flashbacks must be handled with care. They come with the risk of looking artificial and out of place. Director Madden and writers Matthew Vaughn, Peter Straughan and Jane Goldman (Vaughn also co-produced) handle the flashbacks carefully and the result is great. Excellent filmmaking, considering the genre is nearly worn to the bone. The movie is set half in 1965 Berlin and half in Tel Aviv and Ukraine in 1997. The 1965 Berlin setting allows the filmmakers to exploit one of the most colorful and dangerous periods in the city’s history. This was the time of the cold war and the Berlin wall, and the action is set right at the wall. The result is lethal tension against the film noir backdrop of the slutty streets and crack shot Ruskies with the good guys in their sights. The big-name stars Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds play the aging spies in their 60s. Two have adapted to the trauma of their grappling with the despicable Nazi, the pressure on the third turned out to be too much. The once gold standard spy has been reduced to a quivering ball of flesh by his interaction the evil genius of the deranged killer. Something is terribly wrong and the impact could be dreadful blow to Israel at a time when the country can hardly stand another blow. Having acknowledged that Mirren, et al, do their usual stunning job as aging spooks, the heavy lifting in the show is done by the spies in their prime, Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington. Chastain, as the young Rachel, combines lighting fast “krav maga” moves with a simmering sexuality that adds up to a 10/10 female secret agent. She has it her way, all the way. You gotta love it. As coldly competent (and dreadfully sexy) as the young agents are, the older, craftier and slimier psycho-doctor has a bushel of tricks up his sleeve. The three will find his sadistic hatred of the Jews every bit the match for their physical superiority and their painstaking rehearsed spy choreography. The result is a very entertaining film with a twisty and poignant ending. Powerful fear and loathing largely undiluted with cheap car chases, gunfire, explosions or boring martial arts. Solid lensmanship by DP Ben Davis (Vaughn collaborator on mega-hit thriller “Layer Cake”). Great sound track by solid gold film composer Thomas Newman (son of “Godfather of Film Music” Alfred Newman) who has racked up kudos with the best of them for films such as “Shawshank Redemption” and “Road to Perdition.” He knows how to string out an audience. Courtesy Ron Wilkinson, Monsters and Critics Official Trailer
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Directed by: 
John Madden
Running Time: 
Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Jesper Christensen
Screenplay by: 
Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, Peter Straughan

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