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Movie Review: The Debt (2011)

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Another remake! Wait. You haven’t seen this movie before I promise. The Debt is a remake based on the screenplay of a little-known (at least to me) 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov. John Madden’s film presents a fictional Mossad showdown between three Nazi hunters and one surgeon Dr. Dieter Vogel, AKA the Surgeon of Birkenau, based on the real and infamous Dr. Mengele. While Israel can’t bring back the lives lost in the Holocaust they can hunt down and put on trial men like Vogel who escaped the dragnets and fates of other Nazi officials.

According to the film, a Mossad cell is formed made up of two men and one woman who follow orders from above. It is really a labor of love. They are human and make mistakes, lots of them: the Bonnie and Clyde gang of espionage. The screw-up, the lie, and the cover up converge in spine-tingling suspense that bring this thriller to a rapid boil.

The action takes place in the agents’ hideout and on the streets of East Berlin. Enter Rachel the redhead, and the two men are smitten, it’s love at first fight. We watch the trio train, throw punches and each other inside their tiny leaky apartment waiting for the “green light” to begin a super-secret mission to capture Dr. Vogel and bring him to Israel to stand trial. In the meantime David dances with the devil. But David is especially vulnerable when discussions veer into tender territory that pushes this tough guy to a breaking point that eventually unravels the mission; thereby creating “the debt.” I left this film thinking, “Damn, that was a good movie.”

This crowd pleaser has something for everybody including spy girl Jessica Chastain. She plays the 25-year-old version of Rachel Singer sharing the role with evergreen Helen Mirren who plays the mature and retired Mossad agent. In the opening scenes we watch Mirren, whose daughter has written a book in the present (well 1997 present) about the hunt and capture of Dr. Vogel, read a few pages from Chapter 11 at the book’s launch. From that reading the flashbacks begin in earnest for Singer but we don’t know exactly why she is looking back. When we are taken to the 1967 mission we find two men Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) waiting for Agent Singer (Jessica Chastain) a talented translator new to the field.

Enter Rachel the red head and the two men are smitten, its love at first fight. We watch the trio train, throw punches and each other inside their tiny leaky apartment waiting for the “green light” to begin a super-secret mission to capture Dr. Vogel and bring him to Israel to stand trial. In the meantime David dances with the devil. But David is especially vulnerable when discussions veer into tender territory that pushes this tough guy to a breaking point that eventually unravels the mission; thereby creating “the debt.” I left this film thinking. “Damn, that was a good movie.”

Fits and starts mark the first hours of the agents’ mission and it has a messy ending to boot. I wouldn’t erase or change a word of the screenplay because as written and directed it yields a taut, adrenaline pumping matrix. Since the story is fiction we know that some embellishment went on and that the trio did not return to a hero’s welcome in Israel as the film pretends. On the other hand–hats off to director John Madden for making not the best Jewish film of the year but one of the best films of the year using flashbacks and flash-forwards that are seamless yet provocative–drawing the viewer in and onto the edge of their seat. These agents are given a license to thrill as well as kill boredom.The Debt is more than a thriller because the audience gets an emotional stake in the outcome with close-ups and intimate moments between the three agents and their war criminal that amount to great story telling. John Madden has a long-awaited 104-minute hit on his hands and one that I applaud and would watch again and again. I give it 4-1/2 stars.

About Heloise

  • Bariwex

    I just saw The Debt this evening. The biggest question I walked away with was why was there no Hebrew spoken in the movie?? There was German with subtitles and Russian with subtitles, but these Israelis never spoke a word of Hebrew! Otherwise, I thought it was a wonderful thrilling movie and really enjoyed the cast. Helen Mirren was fabulous.

  • Rich

    I liked the movie as well, but I’m sure glad I read the review AFTER seeing it. Do you really need to give away a key plot point that does not get revealed until two thirds of the way into the film? At least say SPOILER ALERT.

  • Cronauer

    I wish I could share your appraisal of the film. I felt it had good moments, but the pacing felt off and a number of moments felt very much out of character.

  • Heloise

    I don’t think it was a spoiler. I could not guess the plot twist and so much more happens than what I wrote like the first five seconds only we don’t know why.

  • Heloise

    As for Hebrew the original was in Hebrew and I read that the debt was much better. Besides it’s a hard language.