“You on one side, me on the other, it's perfect.”
Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti, and Tom Wilkinson star in this espionage comedy about two agents in a unique relationship amid a huge corporate espionage scheme.
The plot setup is simple enough. Two business executives, played by Giamatti and Wilkinson, escalate their bitter rivalry with their own business espionage team which includes British spy veteran Ray Koval, played by Owen, and U.S. espionage veteran Claire Stenwick, played by Roberts.
All four principal actors have a common goal of getting ahead in life, but at a very high level. They all seek advantages dependent on their intellect and placement in life. Privileged information becomes the main catalyst for action while each action creates an engaging story with meaning.
Roberts has the pole position between the two lead roles, which Owen completely accepts, making his performance even better. Owen breaks the male spy mold with a unique performance marked by will, self-sacrifice, and those selfish impulses lurking in everyone’s psyche. It's ironic that this role, as well as his role in The International, provides strong contrast to his potential role as the suave but often stereotypical James Bond.
Ray and Claire have considerable skills, but not in a way most audiences would imagine. The amazingly beautiful Claire does not create a diversion using her sexuality. Ray does not have an extended fight scene. Yet, these characters still have amazing appeal especially with an excellent supporting cast filled with great character from each corporate espionage team.
One side boasts Denis O’Hara, who plays team leader Duke Monahan, and Kathleen Chalfant as Pam Frailes, while the other has Thomas McCarthy as Jeff Bauer and Wayne Duvall as Ned Guston. Ukranian actor Oleg Shtefanko (a.k.a. Oleg Stefan) also makes a memorable impression as Boris Fetyov.
Director/screenwriter Tony Gilroy creates a maturely planned “people chase” where the stars balance a formidable acting challenge and filmmakers balance an intelligent plot with logic and interest. Remember this is corporate espionage, people. No big car chase scene and the players don’t have guns… most aren’t even physically threatening. It’s a refreshing cinematic change though it’s completely logical to consider at some point someone would have pulled a knife or reacted violently with so much at stake, which makes the plot feel a bit staged and rigid.
Filmmakers keep the audience one step ahead of the characters through flashbacks and special reveals. The film is a great mental and logical workout until a few hiccups at the end, which contains some closure issues. The dialogue concentrates on the power, knowledge, and opportunity of each character. No stereotypes or blatant physical comedy, just some bits of dry humor, confrontational situations, and mental awareness.
The great musical score by James Newton Howard has jazzy, upbeat rhythms with no booming overtures. Every note subtly blends with the plot, enhancing each character move and corresponding reaction.
Editor John Gilroy accompanies his brother Tony on the DVD commentary – the obvious choice among the basic DVD features which also include English, Spanish, and French subtitles and audio options in Dolby Digital 5.1. The sibling team adequately describes their reasoning for the multiple square screen transitions, but leaves audience still wondering how Ray left a room without any visible repercussions after a sticky situation near the end. A previous scene, inside a vehicle where Duke and a colleague question Ray’s motives, sets up a potentially volatile situation that’s simply defused and abandoned.
The espionage elements are great as filmmakers take a chance with the less marketable challenge of presenting general audiences with a weaponless spy movie. No guns, but plenty of brains… if audiences are willing to use them. It’s mind-boggling that two-hour cinematic mental challenges now almost seem taboo.
The dialogue-heavy plot is smart and engaging as filmmakers prompt special segments to the audience as they swift through and ponder key events in a cliché-free experience. This high quality film definitely merits one minimum repeat viewing as the title becomes a command, even a state where audiences can enjoy delving into a world only read about in newspapers.
It’s disappointing that no one is even considering this film in pre-Oscar talk. Highly recommended and rated PG-13 for language and some sexual content. Also available in a considerably expanded Blu-ray version, which features BD Live, an online expansion option featuring additional related content and interactive activities.