A trio of Mossad agents are haunted by what they owe their country and one another in John Madden’s polished but conventional period thriller “The Debt.” Based on a 2007 Israeli film about the hunting of a fictional Nazi known as the “surgeon of Birkenau,” the remake ups the adrenaline factor, and features strong perfs across the board, yet feels bogged down by a weighty love triangle and a subject that merits more than the old-school good vs. evil approach. Topliners Sam Worthington and Helen Mirren should help this Miramax release repay its debts without really making a killing.
Though English substitutes here for Hebrew, the basic premise of writer-director Assaf Bernstein’s original version remains intact: In 1997, retired Mossad operative Rachel Singer (Mirren) is the subject of a biography about her legendary slaying of Vogel (Jesper Christensen), a Nazi doctor she and two other agents tracked down and shot in East Berlin 30 years prior. When fellow spy and ex-hubby Stefan (Tom Wilkinson) shows up to explain that the third member of their squad, David (Ciaran Hinds), just committed suicide and that a man in the Ukraine is claiming to be the dead Vogel, something about Rachel’s famous story just doesn’t jive.
Using several lengthy flashbacks to explain what really happened back in 1966, scribe duo Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman (“Kick-Ass”), joined by Peter Straughan (“The Men Who Stare at Goats”), initially weave a solid story out of the days leading up to the abduction of Vogel, emphasizing the difficulty in operating behind Communist lines and providing plenty of gritty details. But as past leads to present, and the mystery behind Vogel’s alleged re-appearance is revealed, the narrative begins to peter out, culminating in a Ukraine-set denouement that feels particularly contrived given the ages of the characters involved.
With engaging turns from Worthington (as young David), Jessica Chastain (as young Rachel) and Marton Csokas (as young Stefan), the flashbacks kick off by depicting the trio concocting ways to apprehend Vogel at an East Berlin clinic, where he works as a gynecologist. This warrants several squeamish, not especially subtle scenes where Rachel (whose parents died in the Holocaust) is forced to have her organs probed by the monstrous war criminal as a means for her to get closer to him.
When the crew finally nabs Vogel, efforts to smuggle him back to Israel fall apart. The four remain cloistered together in a gloomy apartment and, as can happen when three Jewish assassins are stuck too long indoors with a Nazi, things don’t end well. It doesn’t help either that a fairly overcooked menage a trois has developed, with Rachel passing from David’s to Stefan’s arms, as revenge fantasies turn into sexual ones.
Between the love affair and the fact that Vogel is never a very nuanced villain (he has neither the sadistic cunning of Laurence Olivier in “Marathon Man” nor the malicious charm of Christoph Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds”), there’s nothing here that feels particularly original beyond the structure itself, which skillfully keeps one guessing until late in the game. Coming off the practically unseen “Killshot,” Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) navigates the various locations and time periods with fluidity, pulling off a few nail-biting suspense sequences, including a standoff at a guarded subway station that serves as the pic’s action centerpiece.
While the flashback scenes are generally more compelling than the rest, Mirren, Wilkinson and Hinds convincingly portray older characters who have lived for too long with their own regrets. It’s unfortunate then that they’re thrown into a third act that opts for pure genre conventions over historical or emotional complexity, and often strains for credibility.
Pro tech package features lensing by Ben Davis (“Tamara Drewe”) that makes strong use of light and shadow to reflect the story’s slow unraveling of the truth. Production design by Jim Clay (“Match Point”), most notably the shuttered East Berlin apartment recreated at Ealing Studios, conveys life behind the Iron Curtain in a riveting manner.