Ending doesn't fully repay 'The Debt'

Ciaran Hinds, left, and Helen Mirren must face the past in "The Debt."

I hate to see a film snatch defeat from the jaws of victory (and hate having to say it), but John Madden's "The Debt" is a lamentable case in point: It is three-fourths of a brilliant spy thriller, cruelly sabotaged -- like its heroes' mission -- by a botched endgame.

This isn't Helen Mirren's fault, nor that of Tom Wilkinson or Ciaran Hinds. They play Rachel, Stephan and David, three retired Mossad agents who were sent to East Berlin in 1966 to find and kidnap Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel -- the notorious "Surgeon of Birkenau" -- and bring him back to Israel for trial.

By 1997, when "The Debt" opens, the trio has long been revered by their countrymen for the mission's heroic success. Rachel and Stephan were married and divorced in the interim, but their adoring daughter has just written a best-selling book celebrating her parents' exploits.

So why does Rachel look so sour, and Stephan so dour, about the new shower of adulation?

The answer lies in three different time frames of a complex plot that first thickens with a suicide in the present. That shocking event kicks us back to the past for a detailed replay of the mission itself (with the young trio played by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington). We learn that Vogel, the monstrous pervert who performed hideous experiments on Jews during World War II, has reinvented himself as the respectable gynecologist, Dr. Bernhardt. Rachel poses as a patient to gain access and subdue him long enough for Stefan and David, posing as medics, to smuggle him through the Wall and into West Berlin.

That assignment involves the most grotesque gynecological exams on record -- an incredibly creepy set of cat-and-mouse conversations between the canny criminal and the agent-patient -- in her worst nightmare of a position.

Tense isn't the word for those scenes. Excruciatingly suspenseful, and brilliantly acted, is what they are. Equally smooth is the split-second timing of roaring trains pegged to cover up the sight and sound of the agents' getaway. But something about the mission is not quite accomplished. And 30 years later, Rachel and Stefan suddenly find themselves faced with a theme and variation on the same assignment -- with plenty of 30-year-old secrets to be revealed in the process.

Screenwriters Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman based their script on an acclaimed Israeli film called "Ha-Hov" (2007) -- which I'd like to have seen for comparison purposes. It is stylishly handled, in this incarnation, by director Madden, best known for his Oscar-winning "Shakespeare in Love" (1993). Mr. Madden's visuals are virtuosic, full of intense close-ups and ominous slow pans that maximize every suspenseful moment. Violence is rare but bloody and riveting when it comes, and he deftly negotiates the back-and-forth interweaving of the time periods.

What most excels and propels the film, however, is the set of fine performances. Ms. Mirren, with her disturbingly disfigured cheek and Israeli accent, inhabits her role convincingly, as always. Mr. Wilkinson as her jealous, wheelchair-bound ex-husband stays enigmatic and properly ambiguous throughout. And one couldn't ask for a greater epitome of evil than Jesper Christensen's Vogel, master of insidious mind games as well as sadistic experiments. "You Jews never knew how to kill, only to die," he taunts his captors.

But best of all -- a real discovery -- is Jessica Chastain as young Rachel, and not just because she looks and acts uncannily like a young Ms. Mirren. Stressed but powerful, emotionally strong but romantically vulnerable, she is an excellent talent to watch in the future. Mr. Csokas and Mr. Worthington give her strong support -- even as they give each other strong competition for her affections.

Thomas Newman's taut, minimalist Glass-Adams-type music is another plus, coupled with superb sound effects that magnify drips of water and make even the opening of a car door sound full of menace.

But, oh -- that final act. Just when we're ready to have things neatly wrapped up, Mr. Madden and the script take Ms. Mirren to the Ukraine -- defying credibility and otherwise mucking up what was an A-1 thriller to that point.

"Truth is a luxury," somebody says -- especially in a world of agreed-upon lies. This isn't a bad "Debt." But it has a few trysts and twists too many.

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