×

Film Review: ‘Damascus Cover’

This retrograde espionage thriller is conspicuously short on thrills.

Director:
Daniel Zelik Berk
With:
Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Olivia Thirlby, John Hurt, Jurgen Prochnow, Navid Negahban, Igal Naor, Neta Riskin.
Release Date:
Jul 20, 2018

Rated R  1 hour 33 minutes

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.

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Damascus Cover'

Reviewed online, Houston, July 18, 2018. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 93 MIN.

Production: (U.K.) A Vertical Entertainment (in U.S.) release of a Xeitgeist Entertainment Group and The Exchange presentation in association with Marcys Holdings of a Big Book Media Production. Producers: Hannah Leader, Huw Penallt Jones, Jomon Thomas, Masaaki Tanaka.  Executive producers: Mark Montgomery, Gary Ellis, Phillip B. Goldfine, Enayetvllah Khan, Richard Toussaint, Terence Lim, Manraj S. Sekhon, Min-Li Tan, Ryoko Tanaka, Andrew Loveday, Sean O’Kelly, Tania Sarra.

Crew: Director: Daniel Zelik Berk. Screenplay: Berk, Samantha Newton, based on the novel by Howard Kaplan. Camera (color): Chloe Thomson. Editor: Martin Brinkler. Music: Harry Escott.  

With: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Olivia Thirlby, John Hurt, Jurgen Prochnow, Navid Negahban, Igal Naor, Neta Riskin.

More Film

  • Joe Anthony Russo

    Russo Brothers to Receive Publicists Motion Picture Showman Award

    Hollywood union publicists have selected the Russo Brothers to receive the Motion Picture Showman of the Year Award. Anthony and Joe Russo, who directed “Avengers: Endgame,” will receive the award at the 57th Annual Publicists Awards ceremony on Feb. 7 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. The publicists are part of the Intl. Cinematographers Guild, IATSE [...]

  • Sylvester Stallone on Rambo's Return: A

    Sylvester Stallone on Rambo's Return: 'The Warrior Can Never Find Peace'

    Sylvester Stallone may be 73, but he’s not one to sit back in his twilight years. As his legendary body slows, his output certainly hasn’t. This Friday, “Rambo: Last Blood” hits theaters around the world – 37 years after the debut of “Rambo: First Blood.” Why bring the muscled Vietnam veteran back for a final, [...]

  • VINCENZO-NATALI

    Vincenzo Natali to Open Sitges Pitchbox (EXCLUSIVE)

    Like Ron Perlman in 2018 and Guillermo del Toro the year before, Canadian writer-director Vincenzo Natali, whose new Netflix film, an adaption of Steven King’s “In the Tall Grass” will innaugurate October’s Sitges Film Festival, is lined up to open this year’s Sitges Pitchbox, organized in by Barcelona-based platform Filmarket Hub. The Sitges Pitchbox take [...]

  • "Tezuka's Barbara" in competition at Tokyo

    ‘Tezuka’s Barbara’ and ‘A Beloved Wife’ Head for Tokyo Festival Competition

    Two Japanese films, “Tezuka’s Barbara” and “A Beloved Wife” have been selected for the main competition section of next month’s Tokyo International Film Festival. The festival will reveal the remainder of the competition and the bulk of its other selections later this month. To date the Japanese festival has only revealed its opening film (“Tora-san, [...]

  • Garin Nugroho film "Memories of my

    Indonesia Selects Controversial 'Memories of My Body' as Oscar Contender

    “Memories of My Body,” directed by Garin Nugroho, has been selected to represent Indonesia at the Academy Awards in the international feature film category (previously best foreign-language film). The announcement was made Tuesday by actress Christine Hakim representing the Indonesian Film Selection Committee. The fact-based film depicts the story of a young man from a [...]

  • Benjamin Wallfisch - scoring session, Abbey

    Composer Benjamin Wallfisch Signs With Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency

    Composer Benjamin Wallfisch has signed with the Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency (GSA) for worldwide representation, in partnership with London-based agency COOL Music Ltd. A top composer, whose scoring credits include “It Chapter Two,” Shazam!” Hellboy,” “Hidden Figures” and “Hostile Planet,” among others, Wallfisch has worked on over 75 feature films and is a member of the BAFTA [...]

  • The Moneychanger

    Toronto Film Review: ‘The Moneychanger’

    Uruguayan auteur Federico Veiroj (“The Apostate,” “Belmonte”) broadens his usual intimate dramatic scope to diminishing returns for his fifth feature, “The Moneychanger,” . Adapted from a novella by compatriot Juan Enrique Gruber, the period (mid-1950s to mid-1970s) tale centers on the eponymous character, an amoral currency exchanger, who winds up laundering some of the dirtiest [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content