'The Double': Retro Thriller Never Thaws
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
A globe-trotting techno-thriller where a CIA man tracks a Soviet killer, with said CIA man played by Richard Gere under the orders of Martin Sheen, "The Double" is remarkably retro in its plot, tone and casting. In fact, it's so resolutely retro that the only thing that kept me from thinking I had stumbled across a lost B-movie from 1988 was the presence of the thoroughly modern Topher Grace as an FBI agent and the fact that the cellphones were smaller than compact cars. "The Double" is less bad than it is simply musty, a vacuum-packed piece of content that, when opened, gives off the unmistakable whiff of being past some indefinable cultural sell-by date.
Directed by Michael Brandt -- and co-written by Brandt and Derek Haas, whose previous collaborations on "Wanted," "2 Fast 2 Furious" and "3:10 to Yuma" suggest an affinity for characters with overcomplicated allegiances -- "The Double" relies on not one, but two twists. One of these is given away wholesale in the film's trailer -- thanks, as ever, marketing department -- but we'll endeavor to avoid discussing either. Decades ago, a group of Soviet killers nicknamed the Cassius 7, after the group who conspired to kill Caesar, was deployed throughout the world. One man, CIA expert Paul Shepherdson (Gere) found and killed six of the group, while never bringing the leader and trainer, known only as Cassius, to justice. Shepherdson's retired now, but a senator killed in the here-and-now with Cassius' signature past M.O. makes CIA director Highland (Sheen) bring him back in.
Paul has his reasons for thinking the hunt for Cassius is over and fruitless, but FBI data wonk Ben Geary (Grace), who wrote his graduate thesis on Cassius, thinks otherwise. This raises several questions: With the Cold War a long-bygone memory, if Cassius is active, why? What's his target? Why is Paul so sure Cassius is dead or disappeared? And why is Ben so sure Cassius is back?
As a director, Brandt is perfectly adequate: The action looks as if it was shot by talented amateurs who considered "Mercury Rising" or "The Jackal" the highest possible watermark in action direction. Gere looks agreeably silvery and rugged at 62, even if the flashbacks to '88 have him wearing so much eye makeup he looks more like David Bowie in the '70s. While Grace is young and unseasoned, it works with the character -- less a cop than a number-cruncher with a gun, not a dangerous man but a family man. Sheen pumps out exposition in plummy tones as required. Stephen Moyer has a bit part as a Russian killer, bringing the unwatchable hamminess he's perfected as vampire Bill on "True Blood" to the big screen with a bad makeup scar and a worse accent.
But again, the tone and themes of the film make it feel like something pulled out of Tom Clancy's unfinished-works trunk and given a quick brush-off to remove the dust. Brandt and Haas try mightily to make us think the Russian nature of the threat and the villains are relevant in our post-9/11 world -- with early exposition telling us there are more Russian covert agents in the U.S. now than during the Cold War, a statistic that, for all I know, could be either true or utter hogwash -- but it's got the same fruitless, futile air as when The Gap tries to bring back bell-bottoms every few years. Worse, the film looks cheap. The cost-saving expediency of shooting Detroit as Washington, D.C., doesn't help, while cinematographer Jeffrey Kimball, with his '80s-specific shooting style, also keeps the film feeling mired in the past.
Again, "The Double" has not one but two twists: The first, revealed early, is simply ludicrous, while the second, held back until later in the game, is completely bonkers. With multiple sets of double and triple agents revealed by the script and direction as if many sets of invisible hands were pulling apart a set of Russian dolls, "The Double" grows smaller and smaller with each revelation until it disappears from both sight and memory.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com,
Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was
also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now
lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.