Like a magician performing one too many tricks, “The Double” overplays its deception while spinning a mildly diverting yarn about a vet CIA spook and the younger FBI agent working alongside him. That nothing is quite as it seems is par for the course in this brand of spy thriller, and a mediocre script by debuting director Michael Brandt and co-writer Derek Haas does little to freshen up the genre. Mismatched against brawnier early fall fare, the pic will earn most of its coin in vid-drop spots.
Topical relevancy often serves spy movies well, but the focus here on Russian espionage gives the pic a dated feel. The action begins, rather muddily, with a pair of seemingly unrelated episodes — the border crossing of a group of Russians and the alleyway assassination of a U.S. senator. CIA director Tom Highland (Martin Sheen, back in “West Wing” mode, only in a far darker role) immediately spots the work of notorious Russian spy Cassius in the way the senator’s throat has been slit, and brings in retired CIA operations ace Paul Shepherdson (Richard Gere) to look into the case. Paul, however, is dismissive of the director’s hunch, insisting he killed Cassius several years ago.
Meanwhile FBI cub Ben Geary (Topher Grace), a veritable student of Cassius since his college days, is certain the Russian superspy is back in the game. True to formula, Paul and Ben are paired, and naturally take an immediate dislike to one other, with Paul dubbing Ben “a librarian.”
In what at first seems like a perverse turn, auds are led to believe that Paul, who displays an uncanny ability to eliminate opponents with Cassius’ supposedly unique methods, is not whom he appears to be. But this skill might just as easily be the byproduct of Paul having pursued his prey so long that he’s come to absorb his nemesis’ tricks of the trade.
Clunky flashbacks fill in certain details regarding Paul’s history with Tom, including a period in Paris in the ’80s when Paul offered his services to the CIA. But in the present, surveillance video indicates that those Russians at the border are in the U.S. on some kind of mission, suggesting that Cassius, if he’s still alive, may be up to something big. After a second field op leaves a wake of corpses with the same mark as the senator, Ben grows suspicious of his partner. At the same time, Paul warns Ben’s wife Natalie (Odette Yustman) that she should tell him he’s dangerously in over his head, and to back away from the case.
While there’s the sense that this old guy/young guy spy angle has been done better by films like “Spy Game” a decade ago, Gere, never looking tougher or handsomer, and Grace, adding some action skills to his relatively cerebral persona, invigorate the proceedings in roles that would seem to benefit the actors’ career arcs. Yet both ultimately struggle with third-act twists that stretch credibility past the breaking point.
Brandt’s direction misses many opportunities to provide visual texture and touches that could underline the movie’s themes of deception and uncertainty, even as the script pushes more and more toward implausibility. A car chase late in the film seems a weak way to inject excitement that would have been better served up via clever storytelling, which, alas, is lacking.
Much of the film rests on Gere’s and Grace’s confident shoulders, which are almost strong enough to send the pic over. Supporting roles are unmemorable, except for Sheen’sworld-weary CIA exec.
Jeffrey L. Kimball’s versatile cinematography delivers ominous moods in both inky-black nighttime and intensely bright daytime settings, and Giles Masters’ reality-based production design is solid.