'The Devil's' in the Details
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Lost somewhere in "The Devil's Double" is a good-to-great film, but it's sabotaged by a weak script and direction that fails to fully realize its challenging subject matter. Once a filmmaker of large promise, Lee Tamahori doesn't flex much emotional or stylistic muscle in this bloody, sexed-up, half-historical, all-hysterical drama.
Search: See photos of Dominic Cooper
That said, Tamahori hasn't lost his considerable talent for kinetic violence. The very air his characters breathe pulses with a lushness of color and suffocating density that signals barely suppressed bloodlust. And the director who made his bones drawing extraordinary portraits of masculinity from actors -- Temuera Harrison ("Once Were Warriors"), Nick Nolte ("Mulholland Falls"), Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin ("The Edge") -- must have had something to do with Dominic Cooper's breakout performances here. Playing Saddam Hussein's mad son Uday and his fiday -- body double and bullet catcher -- Latif Yahia, Cooper alternately smolders in silence and erupts in spasms of raucous lunacy. (All memory of "Mamma Mia!" is exorcized.)
Enjoy "Double" as upscale exploitation flick, a sex-and-violence extravaganza feeding our appetite for perversity among the powerful. But note that even this second-tier Tamahori movie is fueled by an intense fascination with what men will do to find and hold on to a potent sense of self-identity that won't dissolve under pressure.
"The Devil's Double" one-sheet is solid gold, from the enthroned "Scarface"-style gangsta -- big gun erect in each fist, legs spread wide to center-stage his manhood -- to the palatial digs that surround this caricature of machismo. That testosterone-drenched image surely exemplifies what Uday Hussein aspires to. But in Tamahori's eyes -- and daddy Saddam's -- he's less than half a man.
The bucktoothed, falsetto-voiced, drag queen-loving monster unleashes his libido by snatching schoolgirls off the street, raping brides, eviscerating party guests and torturing Olympic athletes. But as an indulgent whore observes, "He's just a child." A baby shark in bling, Uday thrives in spaces saturated in shades of hot gold and orange and red. Even in the luxe, creamy interiors of his palace, the air is thick with golden dust, blinding Uday and his enablers to everything but appetite.
Into this world of smoke and mirrors comes an ex-soldier coerced (his family are hostages) into acting as Uday's double, proof against assassination and stand-in at speeches and ceremonies. Acting dual roles in the same frame-space, Cooper deftly plays both id and superego, child and man. (So flawless is the technical achievement, you'll soon forget that it's Cooper x2 on-screen.)
While Cooper's Uday careens from one atrocity to another, brandishing guns, knives and whips, his Latif acts as conscience, watching in silence, internalizing horror. Indeed, metronomic cuts from Uday's bad behavior to his double's grimaces of self-righteous disapproval get old fast, so we doubly enjoy the movie's strain of perverse hilarity.
Tamahori makes Latif a still point in chaos, the quiet man with scruples. But how to keep the shape of self intact when your mirror image is out and about, committing all manner of evil? Latif's dilemma recalls Edgar Allan Poe's classic doppelganger tale "William Wilson," in which a man's double leads him into debauchery, and finally faces him down in a mirror.
At one point we think we're watching Uday ranting in front of a mirror; turns out it's Latif flawlessly channeling his keeper. "I will never let you go," swears Uday. "I love you too much." Only the equivalent of bloody amputation can make Latif whole again. (The real Latif has attempted suicide several times and spent years in therapy, unable to exorcise the devil inside him.)
Fertile territory, and one wishes that Tamahori had dug into it with the same passion and intelligence he brought to "The Edge." In that film, working from a terrific David Mamet script, the New Zealand director ferociously deconstructed the meaning of masculinity, pitting brute machismo against thinking man. Sadly, that fierce sensibility is MIA when it comes to the dangerous dissolution of self with which Latif is threatened, and which Uday may secretly desire.
Truth is, "The Devil's Double," for all its phallic flash, is a largely impotent exercise. Despite Cooper's bravura performances, it never rises to the level of tragedy, and finally just peters out, dead-ending in cliché. Hard to hear the director who once powered up "Once Were Warriors" diagnose his latest film's lack of spine: "There's not much of a message here other than despots have children that run out of control and we should put them up against the wall and shoot them."
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.