If you didn't get enough of Dominic Cooper and his Errol Flynn mustache in Captain America (playing the minor role of gung-ho inventor Howard Stark), the Brit actor offers audiences a meatier, more sinister mustache-twirling performance as the infamously twisted Uday "son of Saddam" Hussein in the fast-paced, blood-soaked The Devil's Double.
In a feat of impressive thespian derring-do, Cooper also plays Latif Yahia, the former Iraqi officer who lived to write a book based on his time serving as Uday's body double (i.e. moving target) during the few years leading up to and including Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the first Gulf War.
While Yahia's story provides the film's main characters and narrative arc (with some drama-enhancing reordering of events), Michael Thomas's punchy screenplay re-imagines Saddam Hussein's "court" behind the scenes as a powerful crime syndicate. Uday is cast as the overlooked, substance-abusing older son of the boss. Yahia becomes a sympathetic figure resembling an undercover agent dangerously trapped in a covert operation that's escalating out of control.
Saddam (Philip Quast), circa late 1980s, comes across as an irked father. The creative approach to this particular subject matter may be a turn-off to some, but the filmmakers certainly make it work as vigorous storytelling.
New Zealand-born director Lee Tamahori ( Once Were Warriors, Die Another Day) avoids biopic tropes, filling the screen with the jolts of a violent thriller and exploiting the few comic possibilities - mainly, the bumbling encounters of Saddam and Uday's doubles during photo ops, and leisure activities of the Iraqi inner circle.
In an early scene, Latif (Cooper) waits in palatial quarters, wearing fatigues, uneasy about why he's been summoned. He catches his reflection in an ornate, golden full-length mirror, and in walks Uday (also Cooper), all buddy-buddy, recalling their days as schoolmates and how so many had remarked on their uncanny resemblance. "I would give my last drop of blood to Iraq, but not this," Latif says when asked to become Uday's fiday (roughly translated as "bullet-catcher"). "You are asking me to extinguish myself."
But his family is threatened, and there is no choice. Latif reluctantly becomes Uday's "brother," given access to his wardrobe and luxurious digs, as well as an impromptu screening of the Iraq Olympic Committee's torture of supposedly dissident athletes - lest he consider straying.
Latif soon realizes Uday isn't just a playboy with a bad temper, but a sociopath who cruises for underage schoolgirls to liquor up and rape. And that's just one of his odious hobbies. Cooper portrays Latif's simmering outrage with great subtlety. He is constantly looking for a way out, without betraying his true feelings, fulfilling his duties without losing his moral centre.
But Latif is eventually pushed to the brink, inspired in part by the fictional character of Sarrab (Ludivine Sagnier), Uday's mistress. Like Latif, she is playing a part. Their attraction adds an element of danger to the proceedings, not to mention some sexy scenes. But Latif hardly needs further reason to escape his seriously dead-end gig.
Despite modern technology, an actor playing two roles in a film still feels a bit like a parlour trick. Armie Hammer pulled it off in his much-praised performance as the Winklevoss brothers in The Social Network - but they are identical twins. Compared to the complex Latif, Cooper's Uday feels like an over-the-top caricature, especially when they share the screen.
Although The Devil's Double lacks political insight into the times it portrays, it does fashion riveting entertainment from a truly horrifying real-life story.
The Devil's Double
- Directed by Lee Tamahori
- Screenplay by Michael Thomas
- Starring Dominic Cooper, Ludivine Sagnier, Raad Rawi and Philip Quast
- Classification: 18A
Special to The Globe and Mail