When considering The November Man, one has to inescapably recall the onscreen legacy of Pierce Brosnan, which works only in the movie’s favor. The film knows that you know he is James Bond, and like some of the niftier B-thrillers Sean Connery participated in during the 1980s, this unavoidable awareness makes November in August a worthwhile prospect.
From the way his Irish brogue curls softly into English cynicism, mildly amused by all the annoying yanks running around shouting about the CIA’s supposed importance, to that wry smile which follows every bit of spy jargon passing through his lips as if it’s a secret of the universe, this is ultimately about the simple pleasure of revisiting a past brand of Bond.
Except, it’s not James. Playing in many ways closer to Brosnan’s cad in the John le Carré adaptation The Tailor of Panama, the actor enables a superspy more like the rat bastard Fleming always hinted at. This isn’t a superhero; it’s a mean-spirited bloke with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove both to the next generation onscreen in the form of his pernicious protégé (Luke Bracey), as well as the younger audience. Repeatedly referring to his superiors’ upgrade model as a “blunt instrument” (a recurring phrase in the Daniel Craig 007 tenure), he aims to outgun, out-brood, and outdo the other spies of post-9/11 fiction. Hell, he even gets farther with the jaw-dropping Bond girl Olga Kurylenko than that other guy, who let her slip through his fingers due to “feelings” in Quantum of Solace. Brosnan’s first feeling as Peter Devereaux is cool.
It’s a pity the movie isn’t having as much fun as its lead actor is.
Set in the less filmed Serbian city of Belgrade, The November Man picks up on former CIA spy Peter Devereaux after he has been roped out of his charming retirement in Switzerland. Apparently an ex-flame (Medha Musliovic) has uncovered some damning evidence on Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristoviski), an ex-iron man of Russia general that is positioning himself to become the former superpower’s next president. Involving shady dealings during the Second Chechen War, mass murder, political conspiracy, and sex trafficking, it’s a lurid cocktail of scandal that the Russian government would love to see go away.
Ironically enough, so would the CIA, which wants to uncover the intelligence in order to blackmail Federov into becoming their own puppet president, making the secrets gatekeeper Alice Fournier (Kurylenko) a sitting target for both countries. This is where Deveraux comes in after an assassination makes the mission personal. Recognizing Kurylenko’s social worker as bystander in this political contortion, he protects her and the secret, especially from former protégé David Mason (Bracey), who has been given Agency orders to permanently retire his mentor.
Seeking to play things small for a spy movie, The November Man wants to articulate a grounded and believable espionage thriller. The only gadgets in the film are the American drones (which according to press materials were actual drones), and they do well to complement the rather on-the-nose similarities between corrupt soon-to-be Russian leader Federov and his real world counterpart who is currently looking for artificial reasons to escalate violence in the Ukraine. By keeping things as taut and lean as a Bourne movie, director Roger Donaldson aims to recreate the tension of Langley-related scenes from Thirteen Days, though he lands somewhere closer to his lesser The Recruit.
The movie’s breezy and intentionally disorienting pace, along with the Eastern European ambiance of Serbia and the sharpness of the flesh wounds, does a better job etching out the desired gritty edge than the sometime-nasty and brutish screenplay by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek (Predators, Oblivion). Despite its rather sophisticated premise of an intelligence war for the soul of a politician, the R-rating has led to some lazy scripting devices that are more hard to take seriously than hardboiled.
The worst offender is Bill Smitrovich’s John Hanley, Devereaux’s one-time CIA handler who is positioned as a Cold War good old boy, but both in performance and writing he comes off as a caricature of American arrogance, misogyny, and bravado. While Bracey, who will be filling in for Keanu Reeves in next year’s Point Break remake, fairs better as the young gun who wants to both kill and impress Devereaux, the underwritten nature of the character makes one wish this two-hander picture rested solely in Brosnan’s palm.
Whenever Brosnan is onscreen as a crueler and more withdrawn portrait of his famous onscreen persona, the movie crackles with entertainment, suggesting that this is the kind of 007 he always wanted to paint. There are plenty of hints at that iconography, including an ex-Russian lover named Natalia, that allows this to be a spiritual sequel. But he is also far more weary of violence and judgmental of his doling out of it when the time for revenge comes. With smaller stakes, there is a particularly merciless scene where Devereaux visits his protégé’s lover in the night in order to deliver a callous ultimatum that makes the tight scale feel uncomfortably engrossing.
Helping shape this churlish landscape, more successfully than the CIA’s spy games, is Kurylenko’s surprisingly important Alice. The Ukrainian actress is not given an envious foundation of depth to build from, but the ongoing real-life issue of sex trafficking, especially from ex-Soviet nations, allows her to find a tangible resonance in her broadly drawn scenes.
As an espionage mission, The November Man features some unquestionably shaky intelligence that could have used more reconnaissance before execution. Nonetheless, it still makes for a welcomed R-rated spy yarn in the dog days of summer, as well as one that marks the reemergence of Brosnan as a hard-to-kill spook. With a sequel already in the works, it marks the beginning of a new Brosnan-chews-bubble-gum-and-kills-bad-guys series. And as based on one of Bill Granger’s 13 Deveraux Cold War-era novels, there is obviously plenty of source material left to mine. If the next one can keep up with the charm and detached bemusement of its star, it could be a dangerous franchise, indeed.