THE NOVEMBER MAN * * 1 / 2
Starring Pierce Brosnan, Luke Bracey, Olga Kurylenko, Will Patton and Bill Smitrovich. Screenplay by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek. Directed by Roger Donaldson.
There’s a part of me that’s always felt a little bit sorry for Pierce Brosnan, and it has nothing to do with his singing voice. The one-time Remington Steele’s ascension to 007’s throne was such a fait accompli for so long, as rotten luck would have it by the time Brosnan was finally handed his license to kill, the James Bond franchise was in the midst of a creatively infuriating (and bafflingly lucrative) identity crisis.
Those movies have aged horribly, but Pierce didn’t make such a bad Bond — rather intriguingly playing up the character’s cruelty whenever he got the chance. He seemed a bit adrift though, and who could blame him? In one of the films he cold-bloodedly shoots Sophie Marceau in the face while also having to pal around with a nuclear physicist who’s played by Denise Richards and named Christmas just for the sake of a terrible pun. In the follow-up he’s captured, tortured and helpless, but still ends up driving an invisible car around an ice fortress at the end. There was really no way for any actor to straddle that kind of tonal schizophrenia, and my heart went out to Brosnan whenever reading gossipy stories about him butting heads with his producers and all but begging Quentin Tarantino to direct a Bond picture.
Though he never really got a fair shake at the part, he’s made hay out of playing with riffs and echoes of 007 in everything from John Boorman’s delightful, sadly underseen The Tailor Of Panama to Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer. Brosnan wears the iconic baggage well, and continues to do so in The November Man, a throwback-y, meat and potatoes potboiler that manages to get the job done with a minimum of fuss, even if a scant couple hours after seeing the film it’s already kinda receding from my memory.
In keeping with the Neeson-ization of contemporary action cinema, Brosnan plays a sixty-something badass with a certain set of skills killing the shit out of everybody in Europe. His wannabe retired CIA spook Peter Devereaux is the hero of a series of Reagan-era paperbacks by former Chicago Daily News reporter Bill Granger that probably did bang-up business at airports and with your uncles.
Based on a 1987 book and updated ever-so-slightly to reflect our modern problems, The November Man finds Devereaux dragged back into the thick of an Agency mess involving a Putin-eque Russian politician with more than a few foul skeletons in his closet. (Alternate Title: I Know What You Did In Chechnya.) Double-crosses ensue, and Brosnan quickly finds himself on the run from his former employers, including an estranged protégé (charmless Australian hunk Luke Bracey) and a couple of suspiciously hammy old character actors (Will Patton and Crime Story’s great Bill Smitrovich) who used to be his buddies.
Clocking in at a brisk 108 minutes, it’s a chase picture directed with lean efficiency by Roger Donaldson, one of those journeyman filmmakers whose movies are only ever as good at their screenplays, but he’s managed to make a lot of not-bad thrillers over a thirty-five year career. (And he also made Cocktail.) Donaldson knows the nuts and bolts of his craft and, perhaps more importantly, knows when to stay out of the way.
What’s bracing about The November Man is its nastiness. The vicious kills, casual misogyny and malevolently rapey atmosphere were par for the course in Hollywood genre flicks a quarter-century ago when the novel was written. (Perhaps not coincidentally, it was published the same year Donaldson made his best movie – the awesomely lurid No Way Out.) But in this simpering age when even The Expendables shoot to wound for a PG-13, the violence in this picture feels like a splash of battery acid.
This is an ugly business and it leaves a mark. Donaldson helms most sequences as bruising, close-quarter fisticuffs that end as abruptly as they began. (You know the movie isn’t shitting around when a child wanders into the crossfire before the opening credits.) The stunts are mostly analog, favoring shovels to the face instead of CGI. Indeed, the most lamentable moment tosses in slo-mo heroics that anachronistically clang against the rest of the picture’s retro, quick-and-dirty aesthetic.
Brosnan does a fine job driving the train here — exhausted-looking and pissy, more exhaling his dialogue than actually articulating it. The movie fetishizes his character’s hyper-competence, but even though he always knows exactly what to do, we can see in his haunted eyes that he’s always acutely aware of the cost. (Devereaux pulls one particular act of staggering sadism that will probably take the lead in any discussion of the film’s rather, um, problematic gender politics.)
Given the actor’s hands-on role in the production of The November Man, it’s hard not to feel sorry all over again about what could’ve been for 007. If Pierce Brosnan had gotten his druthers, we might have seen James Bond for the miserable son of a bitch he really is.