The November Man


Director: Roger Donaldson
Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Olga Kurylenko, Luke Bracey
Review: 2.5 stars (of five)

The November Man clearly has a noble goal—to be a James Bond film for grownups—and on an emotional level, on a shut-up-and-go-with-it level, it succeeds quite entertainingly.  Unfortunately, if you slow down to consider its story, you realize that the plot is shot through with confusion, omission and implausibility.  It’s a shame, because this could have been an excellent movie, one that succeeded by feeling more real, and more emotionally accessible, than a Bond or Jason Bourne flick, yet more adrenaline-based than a cerebral John Le Carre story.

Instead, it floats in between, and is likely to disappoint unless, like me, you happen to key into a certain flavor its offering and abandon your better judgment to forgive the movie its sins.

Nov01On the up side, both the film’s former James Bond and its former Bond Girl are compelling and well-paired.  Early in the film, Olga Kurylenko seems like decoration—she’s a bystander in the situation that has Brosnan out for blood, and it seems her role will be window dressing and a reason for Brosnan to say things the audience needs to hear.  But after a few scenes of that, the filmmakers definitely develop her story and give her not only things to do within the plot, but motivations and decisions that come from who she is, not just who Brosnan’s story needs her to be.

For Brosnan, the movie must represent a chance to somewhat revisit the world of James Bond, but to abandon the gadgets and swagger in favor of a world-weary emotional honesty.  His Peter Deveraux would deny it, but he wears his heart on his sleeve.  He cares about people, and has an interior life and emotional connections, that Bond would never permit.  This, despite lecturing a young protégé, Mason (Luke Bracey), to never allow himself such entanglements.

The film builds on this emotional core with its three key characters.  Besides Brosnan, we have Bracey, the young agent who severely disappoints Brosnan in a flashback sequence, and becomes the key field agent tasked to bring his mentor in when Brosnan seems to go rogue.  Bracey has conflicted loyalties, between his friendship with Brosnan and his loyalty to the CIA.  Brosnan, taunting him in their adversarial relationship, also seems intent on educating the younger man, whose skills include manning  a sniper’s rifel to take out the guilty and the innocent at long range.  Brosnan tells him in a highly charged scene that he can’t be both “human and a killer of humans,” and encourages Mason to let the man win out over the murderer.

Nov03There seems to be a lot more to be said about the relationship between Deveraux and Mason, their feelings toward each other and their motivations throughout their adversarial relationship.  The attentive viewer can infer a lot, but as you will see in the itemized list below, there’s a lot of inferring to do with this movie, and at a certain point, you wish they’d bother to make up the story themselves.

Meanwhile, Kurylenko’s Alice Fournier initially falls into the film because she’s the last known contact with a missing Chechen refugee, Mira, whose testimony can bring down a heavyweight Russian politician.  Brosnan rescues her, but she goes from being cute bystander to not only an active player in the story, but a character with her own motivations, who makes decisions that seem based entirely in who she is, not in who the Movie About Pierce Brosnan needs her to be.  This is such a rare thing, I can’t think offhand of a similar instance, other than the slicker version that she portrayed against Daniel Craig’s Bond in Quantum of Solace.

On the downside, moments of dialogue are extremely flat, and certain characterizations and plot beats feel routine.  It must be hard making a thriller and saying, “We don’t want to make just any old thriller–but if we don’t have the babe who uses sex as a weapon, and the cool badguy/goodguy faceoff, and these other couple of things, it’s not really a spy thriller at all, is it?”  And too often, the film goes too much with the familiar, even as other moments, such as Brosnan and Bracey facing off as Brosnan threatens Bracey’s new girl, feel alive and new.

But what the hell is GOING ON?

Also to the film’s detriment, there’s a lot left unexplained.

  • Brosnan is pulled out of retirement by his old boss to help a CIA asset in the Russian government “come in from the cold.”  By the time the plot is fully explained, one realizes that there’s no comprehensible reason Brosnan was sent in, making the entire plot fall apart.
  • The movie’s maguffin is a Chechen refugee named Mira Filipova, whom we see in teenage photos and encounter in the present day, having made a transformation that cries out for explanation.  There’s a lot of backstory missing.
  • Similarly, we find out that Brosnan’s retired CIA agent has an elaborate secret life that he managed to keep from the agency—even as the agency collected a large number of presumably routine surveillance photos of him.  I’m willing to buy that Brosnan’s uber-competence allowed him to pull the wool over his superiors’ eyes, but a little effort at explanation would’ve been nice.
  • The story revolves around the pursuit of the missing Mira, because she has serious blackmail leverage over a Russian politician expected to be the country’s next president.  Yet we find out that the CIA leader who most wants this information, and this leverage for American advantage, already knows the secret.  So that’s kind of hard to reconcile with the cascade of corpses that ensue from the CIA’s pursuit of either Deveraux or Mira.
  • The full mystery of the film also relies on us believing that a CIA operation, or a solo rogue CIA agent, performed a terrorist action to start a Russian war, based on a desire to … give the Russians a chance to seize Chechen oil and strengthen their economy?  Is that a gung-ho American thing to have wanted?

That’s a lot of significant WTF for a movie that’s not quite two hours long.  This film feels like something that came in at 150 minutes on the first cut, and then got slashed down to make sure viewers didn’t nod off, leaving a lot of motivation and backstory under some eager editor’s feet.  That said, a Director’s Cut might flesh out the mysteries of the Mira character’s life, Brosnan’s backstory and his relationship with Bracey, but there’s no amount of bonus blibbity-blab that’s going to make sense of the essential plot, which is unforgivably broken.

Nov04And it’s a shame that it’s unforgivable.  Because as I sat in my seat in the theater, I wanted to give this movie four stars.  As I thought about some of the unexplained backstory, I said, “well, three, or three and a half, stars.”  By the time I was leaving the theater and pondering the actual plot, I had to say, “two stars.”  That I give it three here is a mark of my personal hunger for a more emotionally compelling spy thriller, my affection for a James Bond whose films never quite lived up to his potential, and the presence of the actress who played my favorite Bond Girl.  If these things don’t resonate with you, I cannot imagine you’d enjoy this film much at all.