Set during the weeks following the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, “Damascus Cover” is, in the strictest sense of the term, a period piece. But Daniel Zelik Berk’s low-key drama actually plays like a throwback to an earlier era — specifically, the mid-to-late 1960s, the heyday of Cold War thrillers in which grim, unglamorous and very un-Bondian secret agents dodged bullets and endured betrayals while playing spy games for mortal stakes. Indeed, this film may have a slight nostalgic appeal for anyone who fondly recalls such ‘60s cloak-and-dagger fare as “Funeral in Berlin” (which “Damascus Cover” periodically recalls), “The Quiller Memorandum” and “The Deadly Affair.” Unfortunately, Berk’s movie is too plodding and predictable to generate anything more than a modest level of suspense; worse, it lacks enough excitement to qualify even as instantly forgettable popcorn entertainment.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers makes a game attempt to be a dour and determined spy guy as Ari Ben-Sion, a German-born Israeli secret agent who’s recalled to Tel Aviv for debriefing in the wake of a botched effort to retrieve a turncoat in 1989 Berlin. There are understandable concerns that his personal demons may be getting the better of him — he’s beset by guilt for reasons the movie only gradually reveals — but never mind: Cynical Mossad spymaster Miki (John Hurt) is willing to risk placing Ari in charge of a mission to smuggle a Jewish chemical weapons scientist and his family out of Syria. At least, that what Miki tells Ari the mission is all about.
Before leaving Israel, Ari makes the acquaintance of Kim Johnson (Olivia Thirlby), a USA Today photojournalist working on a series of stories about life in the Middle East. After his arrival in Damascus — well, OK, in Casablanca, which the producers cast in the role of Damascus — Ari once again runs into the flirtatious young woman. He accepts this reunion as a fortuitous coincidence. At this point, you might start to wonder whether Ari is sharp enough to carry out his assigned task.
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Things go smoothly at first, however, as Ari pretends to be Hans Hoffmann, a German carpet dealer in the market for Syrian-made product, and worms his way into the good graces of Franz Ludin (Jurgen Prochnow), a well-to-do former Nazi officer. Yael (Neta Riskin), Ludin’s maid, is related to the chemical weapons scientist and, arguably more important, the trigger for the only moment of comic relief in the film. When Ludin walks in on their conversation, Ari pivots by pretending to be making a drunken, assaultive pass at the maid. Yael plays along by slapping Ari, and Ludin winds up telling his guest to hit the road. Ari affects the sheepish expression and body language of an embarrassed oaf as he meekly walks out the door. All that’s missing is the jeering “womp-womp” of a trombone on the soundtrack.
That’s it for the laughs and, unfortunately, there isn’t much to be excited by throughout the rest of “Damascus Cover.” Working from a novel by Howard Kaplan, Berk and co-scripter Samantha Newton methodically but unimaginatively shuffle clichés and contrivances like so many pieces on a chessboard, repeatedly suggesting that Ari is little more than a pawn being played. Occasional shootouts and fistfights indicate that, in addition to sampling ‘60s spy movies, Berk likely sought inspiration from the more recent Jason Bourne thrillers. But Ari simply isn’t a sufficiently compelling character, and Meyers plays him far too stiffly, for the movie to catch fire.
Thirlby spends much of the movie looking distractingly like Anne Hathaway’s younger sister — not that there’s anything wrong with that — while Prochnow dutifully provides hints of menace beneath bonhomie in his handful of scenes. But John Hurt is the one who makes the most memorable impression, albeit for reasons more affecting than his effective portrayal of the world-weary Miki. Hurt passed away in early 2017, and this film, which is dedicated to his memory, is his last screen acting credit.