‘November Man’: Timely spy thriller

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Daily headlines trumpet the massing of Russian troops on the Ukranian border and bellicose quotes from Vladimir Putin, which are evocative of the supposedly thawed out Cold War. Could there be a more propitious time for a film which uses the revival of Russo-American tensions as a narrative spine?

“The November Man” is based on the best seller, “There Are No Spies,” the seventh in Bill Granger’s series. In 2005, Pierce Brosnan ended his run as James Bond. He and his business partner, Beau St. Clair, through their Irish DreamTime production company, purchased the screen rights to the property. The project languished for years until being revived for principal photography last year.

In a prologue, we meet Peter Devereux (Brosnan), a highly-trained C.I.A. agent. He is well-known for his aversion to forming personal relationships, for fear that they might undermine his success. As he glibly tells his protégé, David Mason (Luke Bracey), “If you want a relationship, buy a dog.”

Devereaux is running a pressure-packed operation in Montenegro. Things go awry, when Mason disregards orders and succumbs to an ill-considered impulse. As a consequence, an innocent young bystander is fatally shot by a sniper’s bullet.

Fast forward five years to Lausanne, Switzerland. There, Devereaux runs a small mountain inn and raises his school-age daughter Lucy (Tara Jevrosimovic) as a solo parent.

One day, his quiet modus vivendi is interrupted by a blistering visitor out of his past. It’s Hanley (Bill Smitorvich), a high-ranking C.I.A. official. As Hanley details, the saber-rattling Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski), has been elected President-elect of Russia. He has a dark history stemming from his atrocities during the Second Chechen War.  The U.S. has decided that it is in their strategic interests to expose his venal misdeeds.

A C.I.A. double agent,  Natalia Ulanova (Mediha Musliovic) has infiltrated Federov’s inner circle. She has collected proof of his war crimes in Chechnya. This is deemed invaluable by the C.I.A. However, Natalia will only provide the evidence if the C.I.A. extracts her. Although Natalia has been advised that Devereaux has retired, she nevertheless demands that he be the one to extract her. Why is she so insistent about this?

With K.G.B. officials in hot pursuit, Devereaux and Natalia speed through the streets of Moscow. Overhead, a C.I.A. drone monitors their progress and provide real time updates to Hanley. Before they can escape, Natalia is shot in the head. Who is the assassin? Devereaux and his former trainee, Mason, have a tense and unexpected encounter in the street. Ignoring protocol, neither shoots the other.

Before she was shot, Natalia gives Devereaux the name of Alice Fournier (Olga Kurylenko, coincidentally a Bond girl in “Quantum of Silence” opposite Brosnan’s successor, Daniel Craig). Here, she portrays a social worker in Belgrade, Serbia. She works with some of the girls, who Federov had sold into the sex slave industry during the Chechen conflict. Devereaux is particularly intent on tracking down a woman, named Mira, who Federov had used as his personal sex slave, when she was a 15-year old orphan.

Federov has tasked his top assassin, Alexa (Amila Terzimehic) with terminating Mira before she can divulge any embarrassing secrets. Terzimehic demonstrates exceptional limberness and grace, while exuding memorable screen presence.  In addition, it becomes apparent that there is a mole in the C.I.A. Could it be the agency’s director, Perry Weinstein (Will Patton). It is also unclear what Mason’s agenda is. Another wild card is Denisovic (Dragan Marinkovic), who was previously in the sex trade business with Federov. Is he still collaborating with Federov or has he also been targeted for elimination? Against this backdrop of uncertainty, Devereaux must convince Fournier to divulge Mira’s unknown whereabouts, so he can extract her before she is killed.

I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed “November Man.” I am not generally a fan of Pierce Brosnan. To me, he was an unmitigated disaster as James Bond. If he wasn’t the most egregiously miscast actor to play the role (there is George Lazenby to account for, after all), he is undoubtedly the worst to portray Agent 007 in multiple films. He was far too effete and lacked the requisite physicality to essay the role. I still cringe at the memory of Brosnan in “Die Another Day,” unconvincingly simulating a superannuated surfboy. He was obviously standing in front of a blue screen, not offshore North Korea. (Retrospective note to screenwriters: The Korean peninsula is blocked from oceanic swells by the island of Japan).Yet, here is Brosnan at 61, nine years after his last Bond portrayal, playing a similar spy character with surprising efficacy.

“The November Man” is a taut spy thriller with a surprisingly effective lead performance by an unlikely actor. Director, Roger Donaldson (“No Way Out”) does another good job of bringing the script by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek to the screen.

Production values are solid. The cinematography by Romain Lacoubas and score by Marco Beltrami are both noteworthy. Olga  Korylenko’s looks are initially played down. However, for a pivotal scene, make-up and costume design transform her into a stunning beauty. Locations in the Serbian Danube were well scouted to provide a strong sense of time and place.

“November Man” offers a compelling perspective on East-West geopolitical conflict and spycraft in the 21st century as the Cold War heats up yet again.

*** R (for rape, profanity, sexuality, nudity, graphic violence and brief drug use) 108 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.



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