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MOVIE REVIEW

Spielberg's latest is a provocative, probing thriller

Simply stated, ''Munich" is Steven Spielberg's return to seriousness and his finest film in years. You can take it as both a stunningly well-made international thriller and a drama of deepening moral quicksand. Take it as historical fact, however, at your peril.

I can live with that. The movie has been adapted by playwright Tony Kushner (''Angels in America") and screenwriter Eric Roth (''Ali," ''Forrest Gump") from ''Vengeance," the 1984 George Jonas book that has already been the source of a solid 1986 HBO movie ''Sword of Gideon." Jonas's claims have since been disputed -- Aaron J. Klein's just-published ''Striking Back" is a good read for those who want the facts -- and the filmmakers sensibly buy a little insurance with an opening ''inspired by true events" title card.

More to the point, ''Munich" unfolds within a cinematic reality that may be the only world Spielberg really knows. On those terms, though, the movie is a fascinating provocation -- an inquiry into the spiritual costs of revenge.

The subject is the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by the Palestinian Black September terrorist group at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich and, more pertinently, the Israeli response: a top-secret assassination campaign, authorized by Prime Minister Golda Meir and carried out by the security agency Mossad, aimed at wiping out those who had planned the attack.

This is the genre of ''Topaz" and ''Day of the Jackal" -- big cast, lots of European capitals, whispers in alleyways alternating with sudden death -- except that Spielberg doesn't play it that way. He dispenses with the cliches of datelines (no ''Saturday, June 15, Brussels") and casts for effectiveness rather than star-power. Eric Bana is the big name here, and if you're saying ''Who?" that's the point. (He was Hector in ''Troy" and the Hulk in ''Hulk.")

Bana plays Avner, the handsome yet somehow unformed young agent assigned to lead the Israeli executioners. He gets a nod from the Prime Minister (Lynn Cohen), kisses his pregnant wife (Ayelet Zurer, ''Nina's Tragedies") goodbye, and delivers himself into the hands of his Mossad keeper, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush). ''You're ordinary," Ephraim says, explaining why Avner has been chosen. ''You're not a Sabra Charles Bronson."

The instructions are simple enough: Mossad provides the targets, Avner's team dispatches them. Keep to Europe. No bellhops or civilians, please. If you're caught, we never heard of you.

So it begins -- and slowly, by small steps, becomes impassably murky. The first hits go off with reasonable efficiency, and Spielberg indulges himself with nods to a few classic movies: The spilled milk and blood of one killing echoes ''The Manchurian Candidate," a bit of suspense involving the young daughter of the second target has roots in Hitchcock's ''Sabotage."

Both director and movie are biding their time, letting us come to know Avner's anonymous men. Daniel Craig plays the group's impulsive hard-liner, a strapping Israeli itching for reprisal, and if the actor who'll be the next James Bond is good, he's upstaged by Ciaran Hinds as Carl, the cleanup man who looks like a depressed insurance executive. There's a sweet-faced bomb expert named Robert (French actor-director Mathieu Kassovitz, unrecognizable under a ragged beard) and a thoughtful muscleman (Hanns Zischler). They all hash out the fine details and broader implications of their work as Avner cooks dinner.

Because he's working outside of Israel -- and because he officially doesn't exist -- Avner finds himself having to cut deals and rely on local contacts, and this is where the rug starts slipping out from under his feet. Louis (Mathieu Almaric), a sleek Frenchman of uncertain politics, provides the team with backup and the whereabouts of their targets, but whose side is he on? Is he selling out Avner too? Is Mossad certain about the guilt of the condemned Palestinians, or is Ephraim using the team for a larger housecleaning? Does that matter? Should it matter?

As ''Munich" progresses, what remains of certainty vanishes, replaced by a thousand conflicting agendas. Those who live in this international no man's land have every allegiance and none, and the only constant is paranoia. A drunk on the corner may be CIA, or KGB. The hottie at the bar may be a hit woman. The only safe place to sleep is the floor of your closet.

Three scenes illustrate Avner's deepening distress and show Spielberg working at the top of his game. A visit to Louis's father (Michael Lonsdale), a former French Resistance fighter turned avuncular anarchist, is deceptively bucolic -- a Renoir-esque picnic beneath which lurks the new world disorder. When Avner's men take it upon themselves to avenge the murder of one of their number, the hit takes place in daylight, on a pleasantly appointed houseboat, and the victim dies awfully, prosaically, and at great length. There are body parts and a lot of blood in ''Munich," and they don't bring anybody back to life.

The most astonishing moment comes when the team finds itself catastrophically double-booked in a Greek safe house with a group of Palestinian terrorists. The Israelis pass themselves off as various Euro leftists and argue over what music to play on the radio (they settle, gratifyingly, on Al Green), then Avner has a long, late-night conversation with one of the Palestinians (Omar Metwally). The two argue with nonlethal contentiousness, and the next day everyone goes out to kill each other again.

This sequence has already led some commentators to accuse Spielberg and his writers of ''moral equivalency," of implying that the Israeli hit squad and the Munich terrorists are two sides of the same coin. The filmmakers do no such thing. Spielberg cuts back to the Olympics massacre throughout the film, reminding us of its shame and horror, and reminding us, too, exactly who the victims were.

Instead, ''Munich" dwells on the violence that feeds the cycle of violence. It wonders how long righteous anger can be sustained before it tumbles into bloody-mindedness, and how long you can demonize someone before you yourself acquire monstrous aspects. It insists on a problematic common humanity -- not the notion that everyone has their reasons but that everyone thinks they're right and that such a stalemate can never be broken by killing people.

These aren't original ideas, perhaps, but they're still worth putting forth. Sadly, Spielberg loses his grip toward the end of ''Munich." He makes the decision to intercut between a scene of love and a harrowing vision of death, and you end up recoiling from the artsy kitsch. This is a gifted director overreaching and trying to be something he's not -- Francis Ford Coppola in the final moments of ''The Godfather," basically -- and you're reminded once again of Spielberg's strange inability to end his movies well.

''Munich" does close with an image that suddenly, breathtakingly makes the film's concerns topical to American audiences, but I'm betting that's Kushner's work, not Spielberg's. The director can work wonders within his celluloid universe, but when the time comes to hand us back to reality, he stumbles. With this movie, that hurts.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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