Give Russian President Vladimir Putin credit for this much: A quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, he’s brought Russians back into spy thrillers. The November Man, which opens in theatres on Wednesday, covers similar ground to the recent film A Most Wanted Man, starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, and next month’s The Equalizer, with Denzel Washington.
While the latter two movies reflect contemporary political realities, The November Man, directed by Roger Donaldson (No Way Out), seems to have been pried, barely defrosted, directly from the Cold War freezer. The story is adapted and updated from one of Bill Granger’s 1980s spy novels about Peter Devereaux, a ruthless CIA agent known as “the November Man” because (as a character in the movie explains), after he passed through, nothing was left alive.
An introductory sequence, set in 2008, sees Devereaux in Montenegro, impersonating a diplomat to flush out an assassin, when his trigger-happy young partner, David Mason (Luke Bracey), causes a civilian’s death. Afterward, Devereaux retires, and the two men are set up as future antagonists.
Five years later, Devereaux gets called out of retirement in Switzerland for the usual “one last job,” to extract an endangered source in Moscow – his former lover who has incriminating info on a potential future Russian leader, Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski). But the operation is botched by the CIA, and Devereaux’s ex is killed, by none other than his former young partner Mason.
Devereaux, now turned rogue and nasty, tracks down another woman who may lead to information about Federov’s past, a pouty and stylish relief worker, Alice Fournier (Olga Kurylenko), who deals with teen girls who were sexually trafficked from war zones. That we have in The November Man both a former Bond, in Brosnan, and a former Bond girl, in Kurylenko, emphasizes the movie’s second-hand feeling.
Beautiful, mysterious and damaged Alice soon becomes the target of everyone’s interest, including a slinky Russian assassin (Amila Terzimehic) who does ballet splits before each kill, and a bumbling New York Times stringer determined to get the dirt on Federov. Most dangerous is Devereaux’s former protégé, Mason, targeting both Devereaux and Alice. He employs the latest in tracking and assassination technology, as well as cruel jibes about Devereaux’s advancing years.
The November Man is one of those thrillers that grows progressively more incoherent, and it simply isn’t fast enough to glide over its gaping narrative holes. What interest the film offers, apart from Kurylenko’s costume changes, is Brosnan’s performance. The character he plays makes no sense (a sociopathic, noble, vicious, honourable, ultra-professional drunk), but Brosnan struts, steams and blows his top impressively when people around him screw up. The screenwriters must have been peeing themselves.