'The Devil's Double'

A rocket-powered thriller that could, by dint of sheer sensationalism, break the Iraq movie curse.

The life story of Latif Yahia, body double to Saddam Hussein’s diabolically unhinged son Uday, makes for slick action-movie fodder in “The Devil’s Double,” a rocket-powered thriller rife with scenery chewing and fast-and-loose revisionism that could, by dint of sheer sensationalism, break the Iraq movie curse and rack up some serious B.O. around the world. More “Scarface” than “House of Saddam,” director Lee Tamahori’s gangster-style treatment veritably blisters with tension as reluctant decoy Latif comes to fill the void of Uday’s nonexistent conscience, playing front-row witness to the tyrant’s insatiable cruelty. Biggest setback Stateside could be the ratings board.

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for character actor Dominic Cooper (usually relegated to dreamy supporting parts), “Double” allows the Brit thesp to tackle two juicy, red-meat roles, playing opposite ends of the moral spectrum as both Latif and Uday — often in the same shot. In fact, “Double’s” seamless split-screen work makes “The Social Network’s” high-tech twinning effects look as old-fashioned as Friendster.

Within its opening minutes, Michael Thomas’ script lays everything out, cutting from a montage of real-world atrocity (front-line footage depicting corpses and other casualties of war) to an attack in which Iraq Army Lt. Latif narrowly escapes with his life. Called to Baghdad by former classmate Uday, the decorated officer comes face-to-face with Uday’s favorite mistresses, Sarrab (alluring French actress Ludivine Sagnier), and judging by the look she throws Latif, we know exactly where “Double” is headed before Uday even enters the room.

Uday’s proposal is simple: He needs a “fiday” (a lookalike who can stand in for him in public), and Latif can either accept the job or see his family executed for his insubordination. Even when faced with this impossible choice, Latif resists. Did he really have such reservations? Though the film was inspired by Yahia’s true experiences, Thomas and Tamahori treat “Double” as a dramatic retelling untethered to reality. For the sake of a good yarn, they prefer to think of Latif as a righteous soul, forced to “extinguish” himself (as he puts it) and mirror this monster feared by the Iraqi people.

“Double” panders to the basest tendencies in the makeover sequence that follows, depicting Latif’s transformation with the same sordid approach seen in many an episode of “Nip/Tuck.” Uday watches with mad-scientist zeal as Latif is stripped down, sized up and reshaped through plastic surgery to reflect his new boss.

The film shows a crass, party-boy interest in Uday’s attitude and lifestyle, ranging from an unnecessarily explicit series of torture videos (including a power drill to the ear sure to inflame the MPAA) to uncomfortable scenes of kidnap, rape and murder. “It’s all worse than we could possibly portray,” Tamahori said by way of defense at pic’s Sundance premiere, though one wonders whether auds really needed to have their faces rubbed in such vile behavior. “Double” further emasculates Uday by injecting suggestions of homosexuality and incest.

Looking on with disapproval, Latif remains upstanding through it all, and though it’s easy to feel manipulated by the polar differences between Cooper’s two characters, that dichotomy makes for great drama. Watching the swift, svelte energy with which Tamahori hurls us forward, it’s easy to see the qualities that earned him the gig directing “Die Another Day,” especially in the music choices, which favor electronic and rock over the typical regional sounds used to situate Middle Eastern fare.

Tamahori clearly wants the experience to feel extreme, intercutting blocks of vintage news footage from Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and the eventual American reaction to situate the Malta-based shoot and ground Uday’s increasingly demented behavior. Whether brandishing a gold-plated assault rifle or snorting cocaine off the end of his knife, Uday easily could have lapsed into caricature, and one suspects that an entirely different, more satirical film might have resulted from the same script — one closer in tone to “Dr. Strangelove” than “Dr. No.”

That potential tongue-in-cheek quality might explain pic’s preposterous ending, which indulges in a radical historical rewrite, or the implication that Uday’s staff (including Raad Rawi as his security chief) might not have his best interests in mind. At any rate, someone else can come back and do a proper documentary later. Tamahori aims to entertain auds, and he does so with expert attention to all the crafts, especially the hair and makeup team that helps us distinguish between these evil twins.

The Devil's Double

Belgium

Production

A Corsan presentation of a Corsan, Corrino, Staccato production in association with FIP Malta, Tulchin Entertainment, Foreign Media, Film Finance VI. (International sales: Corsan World Sales, Antwerp.) Produced by Paul Breuls, Michael John Fedun, Emjay Rechsteiner, Catherine Vandeleene. Executive producers, Harris Tulchin, Arjen Terpstra. Co-executive producers, Harm Mulder, Sjef Scholte. Directed by Lee Tamahori. Screenplay, Michael Thomas, based on the life story of Latif Yahia.

Crew

Camera (widescreen, 35mm/video), Sam McCurdy; editor, Luis Carballar; music, Christian Henson; music supervisor, Mark Lo; production designer, Paul Kirby; art director, Charlo Dalli; set decorator, Caroline Smith; costume designer, Anna Sheppard; sound (Dolby Digital), Tim Fraser; sound designer, Stefan Henrix; supervising sound editor, Henrix; re-recording mixer, Martin Jensen; special effects supervisor, Michael Dawson; visual effects supervisor, Simon Giles; visual effects, Peerless Camera Co.; stunt coordinator, Lubomir Misak; hair/makeup/prosthetics designer, Jan Sewell; line producer, Guy Tannahill; assistant director, Matthew Penry-Davey; casting, Amy Hubbard, John Hubbard. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 22, 2011. (Also in Berlin Film Festival -- Panorama.) Running time: 109 MIN.

With

Uday Hussein/Latif Yahia - Dominic Cooper
Sarrab - Ludivine Sagnier
Ali - Mimoun Oaissa
Munem - Raad Rawi
Saddam Hussein/Faoaz - Philip Quast
Yassem - Khalid Laith
(English dialogue)

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