Late August/early September is known as a dumping ground for Hollywood, a block of weekends for movies that don't fit into studios' strategical timeline. This could be for quality reasons (''when else are we going to put out this crappy movie?'') or, in the case of The Debt, the movie might be too straightforward for its own good.
Oscar-winning director John Madden's (Shakespeare in Love) espionage thriller walks the fine line between action entertainment and award-season baitleaving it in the unmarketable limbo known as ''solid, adult entertainment.'' The film, a remake of a 2007 Israeli drama of the same name, starts in 1997, centering on former-Mossad agent Rachel (Helen Mirren) and her two former teammates, David (Ciaran Hinds) and Rachel's ex-husband Stephan (Tom Wilkinson). The trio cross paths once again with the publishing of a book, written by Rachel and Stephen's daughter, recounting the team's daring (and semi-successful) mission to kidnap and incarcerate a Nazi war criminal in 1965. It's with this solidifying of fame that the true events of their mission begin to trickle out.
The movie quickly flashes back to 1965, picking up with Rachel, David and Stephen (now played by rising starlett Jessica Chastain, Avatar's Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas) at the start of their mission. Like any group of gorgeous people forced to live in confined spaces, romance begins to blossom, with Rachel warming to the introverted David and Stephen waiting for the opportune moment to sweep her off her feet. While the trio prepares for the kidnappingwith your standard array of sleuthing, calculated scheduling and intel-gatheringtheir relationships complicate, giving The Debt a bit more depth than your run-of-the-mill, Mission: Impossible-style spy movie. When it comes time to bag the Nazi, everything seems to have fallen into place.
But unlike the stories told by their '90s counterparts, the three agents find themselves in a stickier situation than expected. WIth one misstep, the tension between the triangle boils and Madden to play games with our expectations. The script, by Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class writers Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman twists and turns, bouncing back and forth between Mirren and Chastain's Rachel with ease. The spectacle in The Debt isn't delivered by elaborate set pieces, but rather by the two actresses' performances. The duo, without sharing a single scene, click and unfold a complete arc, beginning with Rachel's pride-filled aspirations, to her chaotic downfall to Mirren's newfound mission to cover up the truth. Even when the movie dawdles (and it does around the hour mark), Mirren and Chastain keep us on board.
The other members of the ensemble don't have too much meat to chew on, but Worthington impresses nonetheless, tackling a character that's a complete 180 from his usual action-oriented muscle roles. His young David gives weight to the mission, inhabiting a sense of devotion that explodes when he finally engages their Nazi hostage in a battle of words. Csoaks, as young Stephen, is just the slick, realist prick the movie needs to make the team's downfall frighteningly disastrous, and in turn, the events of the present that much more dire.
The Debt doesn't have the expansive, harrowing scope of Steven Spielberg's serious spy movie Munich, but for a movie that doesn't really have a place on the Hollywood slate, it delivers a square serving of drama and sharp performances. It tells its story and does so with the right amount of flair.
At the end of the summer, that's a welcome surprise.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 1/2 stars.