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MOVIE REVIEW

The Debt

‘The Debt’ pays off with action more than big message

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / August 30, 2011

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"The Debt,’’ an English-language remake of a 2007 Israeli hit, is being sold as a straight-up “Mission Impossible’’ thriller about three Mossad agents bringing a Nazi war criminal to justice. In fact it’s a lot pulpier and more dramatically interesting than that, but you can’t explain why without giving away the twist that resets the story’s priorities halfway through. Suddenly a movie about heroes has become a film about humans, and the stark narrative field of black and white has become infiltrated by shades of gray. The film’s a potboiler but a gripping one, and it leaves you chewing on both its nuances and implausibilities.

Plus, there’s the fun of watching three of Great Britain’s finest actors play older versions of an American, a Brit, and a Hungarian Kiwi. “The Debt’’ shuttles busily back and forth between 1966 East Berlin and 1997 Tel Aviv. In the former, the undercover Mossad team of Stephan (Marton Csokas), David (Sam Worthington), and Rachel (Jessica Chastain) schemes to trap Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the one-time “Surgeon of Birkenau’’ now passing as an anonymous German gynecologist.

In the 1997 sequences, the three are still grappling with the aftermath of that mission - the deceptions and lurching emotions only they know. Celebrated as national icons, they’re damaged, battle-scarred, small. Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) is now an agency muckety-muck desperate to cover his past. Rachel (Helen Mirren) has divorced him and lives mostly for their daughter (Romi Aboulafia), who has just written a book about her famous warrior mom. David (Ciarán Hinds) has fallen off the grid until he returns, early on, to set the final game going.

What the hell happened in East Berlin? Directed with creamy stodginess by John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love’’), “The Debt’’ winds its way through past and present toward that central riddle, which it solves at the midpoint only to drop the floor from beneath its characters. Until then, the film has given good spy-thriller payback, with a white-knuckle scene in a heavily guarded East German railway station and a swoony romantic triangle between loner David, naive Rachel, and manipulative Stephan.

The addition of a Nazi prisoner hogtied on their apartment floor only tightens the pressure, and Vogel’s needling exploitation of the team’s insecurities is a neat inversion of Stockholm Syndrome. “The Debt’’ acts like it’s about weighty historical matters, but it’s a genre drama at heart, and at its most profound (which is not very) it ponders the lies we commit to and live with in the name of national honor.

Mirren’s Rachel emerges as the heroine of the 1997 sequences, both in the character’s moral struggle and in an unfortunately silly climax set in a Ukrainian mental hospital. There, Rachel must look evil in the face one more time while calling on her old spy skills, and if our credulity is stretched, by that point we’re hooked. Mirren exudes class even with a bogus facial scar, and this is the first movie I’ve seen in which Worthington’s blankness makes dramatic sense. Chastain, who’s in everything from “The Tree of Life’’ to “The Help’’ this summer, gives a tremulous, unconvincing performance, but she’s so visually striking you may be inclined to forgive her.

As you may be inclined to forgive the movie, which rockets along with expert speed and flatters us with intimations of depth and meaning that aren’t really there. “The Debt’’ is an airport paperback disguised as a hardcover; as such, it’s a darn good read.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com and followed on Twitter: @tyburr.

THE DEBT Directed by: John Madden

Written by: Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, Peter Straughan, based on a screenplay by Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum

Starring: Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Ciarán Hinds, Tom Wilkinson, Marton Csokas

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 113 minutes

Rated: R (some violence and language)

In German, Ukrainian, and English, with subtitles

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