"Panama?" says the suave-looking spy.
"Panama!" says his important-looking boss.
"I hate this movie already," whispered the friend sitting next to me at a preview of "The Tailor of Panama."
I knew what she meant. The movie's first words sounded like an extract from a Screenwriting 101 textbook. It's fine to start a picture with bits of short, snappy dialogue. But this seemed so self-conscious that you could almost hear the writers - Andrew Davies, director John Boorman, and John le Carre, whose novel inspired the film - chuckling over their cleverness.
Fortunately, "The Tailor of Panama" improves after this, helped by a talented cast.
Pierce Brosnan plays the spy, who's sent to Panama as a punishment, since it's considered an obscure outpost where little of interest happens. Geoffrey Rush (see interview, page 18) plays the title character, a con artist who uses his profession - tailor to the rich and famous - as a front for more slippery activities.
Seasoned professionals like Jamie Lee Curtis and Brendon Gleeson flesh out the secondary roles. And colorful Panama offers a pleasant background for the story's mixture of suspense, irony, and comedy.
Most of the performers handle their parts capably, carrying out the story's intriguing premise: that obscure little Panama isn't so obscure now that the United States has turned the Panama Canal over to the Panamanian government. Boorman throws in touches of offbeat filmmaking - condensed action, unconventional editing - that suggest a mood of unpredictable fun. This proves to be a momentary sideshow, though, and soon the picture starts seeming less like an unpredictable thrill ride than a warmed-over rehash of old James Bond adventures. It strains too hard to seem smart and savvy, and Brosnan's monotonously urbane performance hardly helps.
In the end, this picture isn't likely to enhance the reputation of director Boorman, whose up-and-down career ranges from the heights of "Hope and Glory" to the depths of "Beyond Rangoon."
"The Tailor of Panama" will probably find its biggest fans in Rush and Brosnan admirers. The rest of us can wait for the next genuine James Bond epic.
Rated R; contains violence and vulgarity.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor