A friend turns to me an hour into the stimulating espionage thriller The Debt during a scene when retired Mossad secret agent Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) deplanes in the Ukraine only thinking of her intended target.
“It’s Jason Bourne’s grandma,” he tells me, as Mirren bobs and weaves like a spy 30 years too late for the start of the Cold War. I’d join in with a couple of old-lady jokes if I wasn’t so convinced Mirren could probably Krav Maga my ass into couscous.
All teasing aside, Mirren proves she is one tough homemade cookie as she continues to explore more vivacious supporting characters. It was only a year ago in the action comedy Red when she showed us how trigger-happy she could be as a contract killer behind a semiautomatic. In The Debt, which is based on the 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov, Mirren loses the smirk and gets serious when a dark secret from her paramilitary past is dug up after the death of a colleague.
The film shifts back in time to a young Rachel (Jessica Chastain) and her male cohorts (Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas) hunting down a merciless Nazi monster (Jesper Christensen) in East Berlin in 1965, and director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) allows the leisurely-paced narrative to unfold naturally when their mission goes awry.
Chastin carries most of the film’s emotional weight, even though a melodramatic love triangle doesn’t do the script any favors. Her interaction with Christensen in their handful of unnerving encounters sets the tone, which is elevated by some dank-looking cinematography and grim location choices, especially in the flashbacks.
Unpredictable throughout, The Debt may harp on the fine line between fact and fiction a bit much, but with Mirren on board, there’s little chance the film isn’t going to reach its final destination without some style, class, and riveting insight.
Dir. John Madden; writ. Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan; feat. Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington, Tom Wilkinson, Ciarán Hinds, Jesper Christensen (R)