Pierce Brosnan is a spy brought out of retirement for a mission that goes wrong in The November Man! Does it return Brosnan to his best Bond days or leave us wanting more? 411's Jeremy Thomas checks in with his full review!
Directed by: Roger Donaldson Written by: Michael Finch & Karl Gajdusek
• Pierce Brosnan - Peter Devereaux
• Luke Bracey - David Mason
• Olga Kurylenko - Alice Fournier
• Bill Smitrovich - Hanley
• Amila Terzimehic - Alexa
• Lazar Ristovski - Arkady Fedorov
• Will Patton - Perry Weinstein
• Mediha Musliovic - Natalia Ulanova
Running Time: 108 minutes
Rated R for strong violence including a sexual assault, language, sexuality/nudity and brief drug use
It's been a while since we've seen Pierce Brosnan in full-on spy mode. It's been twelve years since the distinguished actor's last Bond film Die Another Day and seven since playing an unhinged assassin in The Matador. In that time he's taken his career in a non-espionage direction with roles like a potentially dirty ex-Prime Minister in The Ghost Writer, a centaur in the Percy Jackson films and a widower in Love Is All You Need. There's always been a sense that there's still a spy lurking underneath though, as if he might trot up on horse legs and ask for a martini (shaken, not stirred of course). And that's exactly why the role of ex-CIA agent Peter Devereaux in The November Man seemed like such a perfect fit for him; the 007 and Remington Steele star is so strongly associated with the genre that even at his farthest distance from thrillers, it's hard not to think of him as the perfect spy. Brosnan slips comfortably into the lead role of this first in what Relativity Media hopes is a successful new franchise for them--a sequel has already begun development--but everything else around him fails to coalesce.
The film, based off the seventh book in novelist Bill Granger's series about the titular spy, sees Peter--nicknamed The November Man by his superiors, "because after you passed through, nothing lived"--enjoying a life of retirement in Switzerland after a last mission with his impulsive protégé David Mason (Bracey) results in the death of an innocent bystander. It isn't long before his former Langley boss (Smitrovich) comes calling, asking for him to come out of retirement for one last mission: extract a former flame (Musliovic) from inside Russia so that she can deliver the name of a girl with information that will bring down a fast-rising Russian politician. Lured back by his personal connection, the mission soon goes horribly wrong and Peter realizes that things aren't what they seem. Now branded a traitor, he has a team of CIA agents--including Mason--on his trail while he looks for the girl in question, which brings him to Belgrade and social worker Alice (Kurylenko), who is in turn being hunted down by the Russians and the CIA for that very same information.
It's a boilerplate of a plot, to be sure; just the basic plot summary reads like a cut and paste of elements from every other espionage thriller ever written. And that rings true for most of the film; there's very little in Michael Finch & Karl Gajdusek's script that has an original ring to it. The whole thing is overly familiar--not exactly the fault of Granger, who wrote the book back in 1987 when these plot elements were at least a little fresher. The film takes Devereaux from Russia (which, of course, is topical again by happenstance) to Belgrade and into strip clubs, classy restaurants, train tunnels, parking garages and just about every other location on the Spy Movie Checklist. And all the plot twists are there as well: false identities, untrustworthy CIA men, evil Russian generals and especially the old mentor/young protégé dynamic that allows them to banter about how the old guy doesn't have it anymore and the young guy still has something to learn. It's all incredibly familiar, investing the movie with a heavy "been there, done that" feel.
Of course, a familiar plot is fine as long as the rest of it works. Unfortunately it doesn't here. For starters, the script makes it very obvious that we're starting midway through Peter's story. By choosing the seventh book, we are lost in terms of character context. For the most part this isn't a problem because Brosnan can breeze his way through a role like this and hook us in with that steely spy charm he has. But without time to get attached to him, it's easy to be repelled by elements of his characterization. Peter is not a particularly good man in the film; in the morally muddled plot he finds himself on a mission of revenge and when he brutalizes an innocent woman for no other reason than to get at Mason, you have to wonder why we're supposed to root for him. The early goings-on in the plot are far too muddled and unclear for us to truly get the stakes and there is a strong sense that if we knew a little more about him, we might understand why we should cheer for him over his hot-headed pursuer and his possibly-corrupt bosses.
Another problem with the film's familiarity is that the plot twists come far too easily. A mysterious young girl's identity is telegraphed very early on and it loses a lot of impact when the big reveal comes. Similarly, the film tries to obscure the truth of who is behind the entire plot but if you pay any amount of attention it will be pretty clear from early on. The actors do all that they can to make it work; in particular, Kurylenko shows fire and vulnerability as Alice and Bracey matches up well with Brosnan. But it's all in service of a tedious script that can't seem to be bothered to paint outside the lines of the genre.
Roger Donaldson is no stranger to espionage films. The director has previously helmed Kevin Costner's wonderfully twisty No Way Out, Al Pacino and Colin Farrell's underrated The Recruit and thematically similar films like The Bank Job, White Sands and Thirteen Days. He brings a nice little grounded aesthetic here that does a lot to save the film, with some impressively-staged action scenes and a particular love of hitting people in the face with heavy objects that leave cringe-worthy thuds. Donaldson really catches his stride in the final act, which puts everything together nicely, but he fails to correctly capture the character beats early on and we have trouble caring about what happens to them. When a certain character tries to get revenge on a former abuser, there are moments where it looks like we're going to get a show of character strength but it all falls apart in slavish service to the plot. Donaldson was clearly the right choice for a film like this and he does what he can, but like Peter and Mason early in the film he's stuck on one side of a stand-off with the plot, neither quite able to pull the trigger but both clearly wanting to have their way. The result leaves both director and story distinctly unsatisfied, and they take the viewer inescapably down that road as well.
The 411: Pierce Brosnan brings his A game as an old spy brought in from the cold, but he isn't able to elevate The November Man above the level of mediocrity. Michael Finch & Karl Gajdusek's script is too worn and familiar, leaving the plot twists obvious and telegraphed while Roger Donaldson struggles to assemble it all into something enjoyable. Supporting characters fall short despite good work from Olga Kurylenko, Luke Bracey and the rest while the action scenes are solid but hollow within the context of the plot. Another film with Brosnan's Peter Devereaux is already on the way, but this one doesn't give us a lot of reasons to look forward to it.