Sometimes a film seems to have everything going for it and still comes up short; such is the case with The Debt. Its credentials are impeccable: a fine cast headed by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Jessica Chastain, just for starters, directed by John Madden, and written by three talented Brits, Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan.
This is a retread of an Israeli film, Ha-Hov, so presumably the English-language team had a solid blueprint to follow. Yet, as we’ve seen time and time again, the strength of —
—the source material has little bearing on the outcome of a remake.
The story has the makings of a first-rate thriller, laced with moral complexity: three Mossad agents (Chastain, Sam Worthington, and Martin Csokas) converge in East Berlin in the mid 1960s to capture a Nazi doctor who performed unspeakable experiments on Jewish victims during World War Two. Their mission: abduct him and bring him back to Israel so he can stand trial. It won’t be easy. Indeed, what takes place affects their lives for the next thirty years. (The story is told in flashback, with Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciarán Hinds playing the characters in the late 1990s.)
The Debt has occasional moments of suspense, but the human element of the story—including a romantic rivalry—plays out in clunky, heavy-handed fashion. By the time we get to the modern-day climax it’s hard to care or even take it seriously, despite a few last-minute surprises.
None of this is the fault of the actors, who do excellent work, especially Chastain, who’s been impressive in The Tree of Life and The Help this year, and Mirren, who handles a difficult role with skill and aplomb. But, sorry to say, The Debt is a misfire.