OUR KIND OF TRAITOR (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Language throughout, some Sexuality, Nudity and brief Drug Use

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Directed by: Susanna White

Written by: Hossein Amini

(based on the novel OUR KIND OF TRAITOR by John Le Carre)

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgard, Damian Lewis, Naomie Harris, Khalid Abdalla, Velibor Topic, Alicia Von Rittberg & Mark Gatiss

From 2011 onwards, there has been a recent trend of cinematic adaptations from John Le Carre’s novels. OUR KIND OF TRAITOR has been in development since midway through 2014. After the positive reception of tense thriller A MOST WANTED MAN and award-winning miniseries THE NIGHT MANAGER, OUR KIND OF TRAITOR opened to not much reception from audiences and critics alike. This movie’s reviews seemed to be underwhelming and it has all but been forgotten within the space of a few months. Having finally seen the film for myself, I found it to be the weakest Le Carre movie to come out of the 2010’s. However, OUR KIND OF TRAITOR is an enjoyable dose of suspense and entertainment.

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While on vacation in Morocco, troubled couple Perry MacKendrick (Ewan McGregor) and Gail (Naomie Harris) are attempting to repair their severely damaged marriage. A dinner conversation in a fancy restaurant goes south and Perry soon finds himself left without a companion for the night…until boisterous stranger Dima (Stellan Skarsgard) offers him a drink. Perry and Dima soon become best pals, while a reluctant Gail takes a liking to Dima’s wife and children. However, not everything is as it seems when Dima asks Perry to deliver a USB drive to his government. It turns out that Dima is actually a Russian gangster who fears for his life and wants asylum in the United Kingdom. When hot-headed MI6 agent Hector (Damian Lewis) discovers this, he decides to milk Dima’s desperate situation for everything that it’s worth in order to get information and a possible promotion at his job. Perry and Gail soon find themselves caught in the middle of an intricate cat-and-mouse game between a reforming Russian gangster and an arrogant secret agent driven by questionable motives.

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Much like Le Carre’s other spy stories, OUR KIND OF TRAITOR tackles espionage through many conversations and various characters’ interactions. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t some action and tense surprises to be had though, because this is easily the most action-packed Le Carre adaptation of the 2010’s so far. Bullets, beatings, and explosions make their way into the proceedings and cause a bigger impact with their presence due to the script’s less-is-more approach. The film is shot with slick cinematography and an eye for style, making what may have been mundane dialogue-filled moments into scenes that are visually stimulating to look at.

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The characters and performances are a mixed bag. Stellan Skarsgard is phenomenal as titular traitor Dima. Skarsgard injects a loud personality into the charismatic Russian gangster, who seems very much like a good guy doing what is best for his family. Dima’s personality offers a stark contrast to his crimes that we’re told about, but are never fully shown on-screen. Dima is more than likable as a result and also puts the viewer through a sea of conflicting emotions. Ewan McGregor stars as Dima’s new best friend and only hope, Perry. We are given tiny tidbits that suggest that this character has deep flaws, but these aren’t explored much. Instead, he’s just a Good Samaritan…and comes off as a bland cardboard protagonist as a result. Yes, you can argue that his character is just a hero and we should be rooting for him simply because of that. However, Ewan McGregor isn’t given much to work with as Perry is a boring. His scenes with Dima are fun, but his moments with other characters fall emotionally flat.

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Damien Lewis is criminally underused as potentially shady MI6 agent Hector. This character is prominently featured in the film’s trailer, poster and DVD cover. However, he only has a couple of stand-out scenes and is sadly wasted away in a corrupt bureaucracy subplot, echoing THE NIGHT MANAGER’s weaker points and outright repeating a few of that story’s plot twists. This is really a shame too. Lewis delivers a great performance as the impossible-to-predict secret agent and seemed like he was building towards becoming a more intense presence in the story’s grand scheme. Instead, he’s wasting away behind a desk and debating ethics. Yes, this is the more realistic approach to spy stories that Le Carre is known for, but it’s disappointing nonetheless. Still, Lewis, McGregor and Skarsgard put in good performances…even if two of the characters are poorly written. The same cannot be said for Naomie Harris as Gail, who’s just an aggravating character being brought to life by a rather lifeless performance.

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For all of its faults, OUR KIND OF TRAITOR remains an entertaining, suspenseful spy thriller. If you’ve liked Le Carre’s other recent adaptations, then you’ll probably enjoy this film. The performances are mostly solid, even if the characters don’t allow the cast to work with much. The visual style and spurts of intense action keep the dialogue-driven plot interesting. However, don’t go into this film expecting something along the same lines as A MOST WANTED MAN (my favorite Le Carre adaptation thus far) or THE NIGHT MANAGER. Instead, just go in craving a fun movie in the vein of Le Carre’s more realistic espionage stories and you’ll likely leave satisfied.

Grade: B

THE NIGHT MANAGER (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 6 hours 1 minute

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Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie, Olivia Colman, Tom Hollander, Elizabeth Debicki, Alistair Petrie, Natasha Little, Douglas Hodge, David Harewood & Tobias Menzies

John Le Carre is known for writing realistic, down-to-earth versions of 007 material. As opposed to explosions and gun fights, you’re more likely to watch people have intense conversations, sneak around, and occasionally murder in a Le Carre adaptation. This British author has found unexpected modern resurgence with the critically acclaimed TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, brilliantly executed A MOST WANTED MAN, and upcoming OUR KIND OF TRAITOR. One of Le Carre’s novels has recently taken a turn to the smaller screen with BBC’s THE NIGHT MANAGER. If you’re into Le Carre’s espionage stories and talky thrillers, you’ll likely enjoy this miniseries. If you’re not into either of those things, this six-hour slow burn might bore you.

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Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) is a former British soldier turned hotel manager. After one particularly stressful night, Pine finds himself in possession of sensitive documents that detail illegal arms dealings. With evidence of enough illegal weaponry to start a war and a desire to stop these international criminals, Pine finds himself recruited by bureaucratic Angela Burr (Olivia Colman). Pine’s top-secret mission is to change his identity, infiltrate a group of arms dealers, and expose them for everything they’re worth. This assignment puts Pine headlong into the path of “worst man in the world” Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), Roper’s attractive girlfriend Jed (Elizabeth Debicki), and his loyal assistant Corkoran (Tom Hollander). A game of cat-and-mouse ensues as Pine attempts to gather evidence, expose secrets, and maintain his cover.

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A film adaptation of THE NIGHT MANAGER has tentatively been in production for two decades, with one version featuring a far younger Hugh Laurie in the role of Pine. Various writers and directors came to the conclusion that there was simply too much material to squeeze into a single film, which made a miniseries format much more alluring. I personally think that this novel could have been tidily compacted into one tense three-hour movie, but this longer small-screen NIGHT MANAGER is allowed much more time to develop its characters within its six episodes. This extra time also allows for subplots to receive more attention that might have otherwise been excised entirely in a big screen version.

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NIGHT MANAGER’s episodes frequently cut between Pine and Roper’s cat-and-mouse game and much quieter scenes of Angela Burr’s struggles to keep the operation afloat, in spite of corrupt higher-ups in Roper’s pocket. Herein comes a pacing struggle, because Burr’s storyline only starts getting interesting during the final two episodes. Nearly everything in the latter storyline feels slightly like filler and noticeably detracts a bit from the far more intense (and interesting) battle of wills/wits between Hiddleston’s Pine and Laurie’s Roper. This may have been the way that John le Carre’s novel played out, but what is written on the page doesn’t always translate well to the screen. That might be the case here.

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Uneven pacing aside, THE NIGHT MANAGER is compelling if only to watch Tom Hiddleston play a character unlike any he’s ever touched before and to see Hugh Laurie portray a truly despicable villain. Hiddleston’s Jonathan Pine may seem like a stereotypical English gentlemen, but an inner darkness begins to reveal itself as the episodes go on. One shouldn’t mistake Pine’s politeness for weakness, because this man is a well-dressed 007 type that isn’t above committing violent acts in the name of revenge and the greater good. A cunning oppositional force comes in Laurie’s Richard Roper. Roper is a believable villain in that he rarely gets his hands dirty, but is more than willing to pay other “lower” people to do that for him. Roper is an intelligent businessman who happens to be in the business of death and destruction, which makes him extremely dangerous. The calm way in which Laurie’s baddie dolls out threats makes him even more intimidating, because we know that he absolutely means and will commit to every word he says.

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Elizabeth Debicki is convincing as Roper’s naïve wife and unconvincing as a forced love interest for Pine. Their romantic affair feels like an afterthought, when it should have been treated as a major plot development. If less time had been spent on the U.K. political subplot, then that might have been an option. As much as I’m ragging on her far less interesting and filler-filled storyline, Olivia Colman is serviceable enough as Agent Burr (Pine’s boss). The real scene-stealer of the supporting cast comes in Tom Hollander as Corkoran (a.k.a. Corky). Corky is such a wicked scumbag and doesn’t bother to hide it. His confrontations with Hiddleston are among the best moments in the entire miniseries. He’s a perfect sidekick to Hugh Laurie’s already diabolical antagonist.

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NIGHT MANAGER’s production values are stellar across the board. From theme credits that intersperse weapons alongside wine glasses and chandeliers to the eloquently expensive look of every frame, it’s clear that there was a big budget behind this miniseries. The story spans across many countries, allowing for glamorous shots and detailed locations. NIGHT MANAGER isn’t all glam and glitz though, because the series is remarkably tense, even in moments that don’t particularly seem exciting. I didn’t realize how wrapped up I was in this story until we are given a suspenseful sequence in which Pine is faced with a matter of seconds to grab some key info…or be caught by Roper and his dangerous friends.

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THE NIGHT MANAGER is a realistic James Bond story, complete with style, suspense, and a cat-stroking villain to boot (minus the cat). Hiddleston and Laurie’s tense battle of wits/wills makes this miniseries worth watching, even if Olivia Colman and her generic U.K. subplot feel like they belong in a different series altogether. Hollander’s Corky also sticks out as one of the miniseries greatest highlights. THE NIGHT MANAGER will likely satisfy viewers who can find a tense conversation to be equally as thrilling as an explosive shootout.

Grade: B+

A MOST WANTED MAN (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: R for Language

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Directed by: Anton Corbijn

Written by: Andrew Bovell

(based on the novel A MOST WANTED MAN by John le Carre)

Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Derya Alabora, Daniel Bruhl

How far are you willing to go to ensure that the world is a safer place? This difficult question has been tackled many times in plenty of dramas and thrillers. A MOST WANTED MAN (based on the John le Carre novel) is a crucially relevant spy story that leaves the viewer wanting to have a serious discussion afterwards. The film also serves as a farewell to one of the most remarkable actors of this generation: Philip Seymour Hoffman. Though I cannot predict the possibilities of any Oscar nods (it does deserve some sort of recognition come awards season), this brooding thriller is a remarkably subtle piece of work that packs a huge punch in making the viewer question what the outcome will be and keeping the more probing scenes in their thoughts for some time after.

A MOST WANTED MAN, Philip Seymour Hoffman, 2014. ph: Kerry Brown/©Roadside Attractions/courtesy

Hamburg is the German city where the September 11 attacks were planned and this has kept authorities on high alert. Gunter (Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last leading role) is the head of a private team that does things German law cannot. Upon the arrival of an illegal Chechen-Russian immigrant, Gunter’s team takes an interest in the mysterious man. His name is Issa Karpov and his family has known ties to jihadists. It’s up in the air as to whether this new visitor comes in peace or is secretly activating terrorist plans. Gunter is highly suspicious and goes to lengths in order to discover what Issa is up to and possibly use those around him to uncover a bigger terrorist at work. This involves a lawyer (Rachel McAdams), a banker (Willem Dafoe), and an American agent (Robin Wright) being manipulated for the greater good, but will Gunter be successful in his pursuit and at what cost?

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A MOST WANTED MAN can be broken down into a single sentence. It’s a film about people using each other in different ways. Those hoping for a spy thriller packed with car chases, gun fights, and explosions would do well in sticking to JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT. WANTED MAN is subtle and comprised almost entirely of conversations. It’s story of talking heads where decisions have lives hanging in the balance. The film is beautifully constructed in the writing, the acting, and just about everything else you can think of. When a story is so intense that a man sitting at a table signing documents has you on the edge of your seat, then you know that there’s something special about it. One thing that may slightly throw off viewers is that characters are juggled and there are a handful of them to keep track of. It may almost be like a chore in remembering who’s who and how they’re connected to one another, but it becomes easier after the first third and very rewarding in the final act.

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Hoffman delivers a brilliant final performance as a complex character. It’s not easy to feel for Gunter. Despite his mission being about saving people’s lives, he comes off as heartless and his methods are questionable. However, I actually cared for him by the end of the film as little touches reveal that he does have humanity, but it’s hidden down deep inside of him. Robin Wright and Daniel Bruhl have rather thankless parts, almost the length of a brief cameo. Both their characters do serve different purposes and it was nice to see talent even in the tiniest of roles. Grigoriy Dobrygin is a Russian newcomer, but makes a big impression as Issa. The man keeps you on edge wondering where his loyalties lie in a performance that is an integral piece of the story working as well as it does. Willem Dafoe is excellent as a banker with his own set of personal problems. It is in Rachel McAdams that I had seen a faulty performance. She’s not awful, but her German accent randomly turns itself on and off. This wasn’t a not a huge distraction, but it’s a crack in a damn near flawless film.

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When watching A MOST WANTED MAN, I felt that there were only two possible ways this movie could have ended and that might detract from my overall enjoyment of it. However, the film took some twists and two possibilities quickly turned into four. Then a fifth option that I didn’t even consider or see coming hit the screen in an emotionally devastating conclusion. Few endings have left me speechless and this is one of them. I hesitate to even mention the movie that this ending vaguely reminded me of, because it might be too much of a spoiler. So I will say that it left me with a whole lot of mentally digest. I was provoked. It got a reaction out of me. I’ll be pondering over it for days and loving every second of it.

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After finishing A MOST WANTED MAN, I felt like I had just read a fantastic novel and wanted it to continue. The movie picked touchy subject matter and brought it to the screen in a very compelling way. It’s a mystery that will lead to plenty of interesting conversations from those who have watched it. Philip Seymour Hoffman has gone out on a fine note and the movie is amazing on its own. A couple of cracks come in Rachel McAdams magical accent and the juggling of characters that takes a little while to get used to. The film never once did anything I expected it to. It was completely unpredictable every step of the way. Don’t go in expecting action and stalking scenes. Walk in expecting a movie full of probing matters and conversations, a film filled with ethical dilemmas and complicated characters, and a mystery that will hook you and leave you in shock. I loved this film!

Grade: A

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