Bumped nearly a year and helmed by serially plagued Shakespeare in Love director John Madden—whose Killshot was notoriously shelved for years then unceremoniously dumped—The Debt, a remake of a 2007 Israeli film, should be cinema non grata. Instead, improbably, it’s a basically solid, if impersonal and mechanical, Mossad thriller, offering another round of ass-kicking Jews in what amounts to Munich-lite.
Helen Mirren headlines a cast of obvious Gentiles as Rachel Singer, a retired agent famous, along with sensitive David (Ciarán Hinds) and dickish Stefan (Tom Wilkinson), for killing a noted Nazi war criminal. When rumor spreads that their victim is actually still alive and in hiding, it’s time to spring into action—by which I mean heading back to the 1960s for an epic flashback. There, we see the young versions of Rachel (Jessica Chastain), David (Sam Worthington) and Stefan (Marton Csokas) successfully capture Nazi doctor Dieter (Jesper Christensen) only to find themselves stuck in a Berlin apartment, waiting and waiting for the chance to wisp him out of the country for trial.
The kidnapping itself is admittedly taught, but the film’s most tense and fascinating stretch remains its mid-section, which details their relationship with Dieter, who turns out to either not be quite the monster of legend or perhaps super-extra-mega-cunning. The longer they’re stuck with him, the more their feelings become queered. This section is reminiscent, and not always favorably, of the very first stretch of Breaking Bad episodes—still, no matter how masterful it’s become at plotting, arguably the show’s apex .
As soon as it’s time to return to the film’s latter day period, what looks like an examination of the perils of even righteous vengeance settles into good old fashioned fogie fighting, abandoning the moral gray zone to wrap things up neatly albeit bloodily. Any film boasting both the expressive Mirren and the mono-expressive Worthington will have trouble finding an actorly middle ground, but no one tries very hard, nor is given the opportunity. (Mirren, stuck in bookends, has to largely settle for physical work.) The exception is Chastain who, as in Tree of Life, works best when she has no lines, conveying much with her preternaturally open, sincere face. When she’s on screen, The Debt is briefly better than merely functional.