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Helen Mirren in 'The Debt': movie review

Helen Mirren, in 'The Debt,' plays a Mossad agent who helps kidnap a Nazi war criminal and discovers the dangers of deception.

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The Mossad trio has been holed up in a run-down East Berlin apartment, waiting for their moment to strike and smuggle Vogel to Israel to face trial. The extended sequence in which they carry out their mission, along with its inevitable foul-up, has an immediacy lacking in the rest of the film. Madden isn’t a whiz at melodrama but he pushes the right buttons here and gets the job done. What lifts the sequence above the usual run is its core of conscience: Vogel isn’t simply a bad guy, he is, in the movie’s terms, the bad guy. As both an individual and as a symbol, he must pay for his crimes.

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But what really happened to Vogel? The film, written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan, offers up a few fancy twists on its way to an extended sequence back in 1997 when Rachel, confronted with secrets long buried, must relive the horror of her mission and rectify its wrongs. Even though Mirren is powerful in the role, she is put through a series of paces that lack the dramatic conviction of the flashbacks. The staging of her final confrontation is confusing just when it needs to be crystal clear.

It is probably inevitable that the character who emerges with the most comprehensiveness and credibility is Vogel. The worst human beings, alas, are often more inherently dramatic than the best. When Vogel, tied up in that decaying East Berlin apartment, works his mind games on Rachel and David, “The Debt” turns into an infernal chess game – with most of the prime pieces on Vogel’s side. Christensen is best known to movie audiences as the bad guy in “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace.” It took me a moment to remember that I had also seen, and greatly admired him, in Jan Troell’s “Everlasting Moments,” where he played a man of almost supernal grace. What a marvelous actor.

“The Debt” asks us whether we should lie in order to prop up a greater good. This is, in a sense, an unanswerable question, and the filmmakers don’t seem overly invested in answering it anyway. Although they might have wished for something less conventional, it’s the thrills that make this movie. Grade: B (Rated R for some violence and language.)

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