From the first trailer (which started playing in theaters ages ago), I’ve always thought that ‘The Debt’ looked terribly boring. Aside from two unfittingly fantastic moments of classic, intense espionage action, it is. The reason the movie fails is due to its one unpredictable and brilliant twist, a twist that occurs too early in the film and leaves it nowhere to go but downhill.
Much like in Steven Spielberg’s ‘Munich’, the Jewish central characters of ‘The Debt’ are on a secret mission. Here, they’re trying to bring down an evil genetic scientist who mutilated countless Jews in concentration camps during World War II. Their impossible task is to find him, kidnap him, and somehow get him out of locked-down mid-’60s East Germany. When our secret agents heroes find and attempt to extract the doctor, the film works. Everything else, not so much.
There’s a clichéd love triangle, a typical racist Nazi spouting the usual Jewish stereotypes, et cetera. The two undercover spy moments are fantastic, and the second-act twist is unpredictable and somewhat shocking. Unfortunately, everything else fails horribly.
After the big reveal, the screenplay doesn’t know where to go. It almost feels like the writers said: “Hey, we’ve got Helen Mirren in our film and we haven’t even used her. How about we pull a ‘RED‘ and give her character some action? It seemed to work in that movie.”
‘The Debt’ isn’t terrible until the last third. What the writers do with story and what they make Mirren do is just plain laughable. When the climax to your film is a geriatric knife fight, you’ve got a problem. Ridiculous scenes like that only work in kids films, like ‘Up‘.
The only actor who truly shines is Jessica Chastain. She took us all by surprise in ‘The Tree of Life‘ and played the most likable character in ‘The Help‘. As the young version of our central character in ‘The Debt’, she again acts circles around her co-stars. (If you like Chastain as much as I do, get ready to love her again in ‘Take Shelter’.)
On this long Labor Day weekend, do yourself a favor and steer clear of ‘The Debt’. You’re better than that.