Perhaps the one sheet of Pierce Brosnan, a man responsible for one of the best incarnations of iconic spy James Bond, with his game face on, pointing a gun under the cheeky tagline “A Spy Is Never Out Of His Game,” will be enough to convince some filmgoers that watching “The November Man” won’t be a waste of their time. The image of a scantily clad Olga Kurylenko might be a bonus too. On the other hand, those who aren’t entirely convinced by the poster should ignore the familiar axiom of not judging a book by its cover, and walk away, because other than the prospect of watching one of the best 007’s playing the game again, there’s not much of value or substance in this action thriller.
The film begins with the first of many re-used spy genre concepts: a flashback to a tragic event in the field, merely existing to establish our two main characters. Peter Devereaux (Brosnan) is on a mission and he’s got young, earnest agent David Mason (Luke Bracey) under his wing. Mason’s on the rooftop with a sniper rifle and Devereaux gives him clear instructions not to take the shot until he’s told. Things get messy, Mason takes the shot, and an innocent child is killed in the process. Flash forward to the present where Devereaux’s old handler Hanley (Bill Smitrovich) pulls him out of retirement for one last mission. He needs get the name of a Russian citizen who knows some devastatingly important state secrets which could have huge consequences on current Russo-American relations. A few car chases and bullets later, Devereaux is fully back to his old ways, and the clues lead him to Belgrade and Alice (Kurylenko), a social worker who finds herself in need of protection from the Russians. Meanwhile, he becomes a CIA target himself, and guess who gets assigned to take him out?
Such is the plot of Roger Donaldson’s stale, uninspired, worn-out espionage tale. Although in fairness, “The November Man” is an example of a movie that belongs much more to its star than its director. Brosnan, who also co-produced, wanted to make this film, based on Bill Granger’s book “There Are No Spies,” way back in 2005, but it was placed on the back burner. It resurfaced, and while Donaldson is credited with directing, this is branded and packaged in a way that makes the direction an afterthought at best. Adapted for the screen by Michael Finch (whose sole previous writing credit is “Predators”) and Karl Gajdusek (“Oblivion” and the Nicolas Cage bomb “Trespass”), the screenplay is a hodgepodge of familiar, half-measured spy conventions blended together to produce a picture that’s neither refreshing nor nourishing. It’s got a little bit of master vs. apprentice action, some CIA mole talk, a volatile rogue agent pulled from retirement, an unprotected female with secrets of her own and a badass Russian assassin. The fact that the latter is a woman ends up being one of the most original things in the film.
Since “The November Man” is all Brosnan, and is clearly marketed to fans of his ass-kicking, no-shit-taking style, the picture doesn’t completely fall apart with respect to its protagonist. While the rest of the players all do standard work (though the wooden Bracey is a bit of a misfire), Brosnan takes shit from no one in his classy and entertaining fashion. He’s as easy as ever to get behind and rally onwards, as he keeps one step ahead of everyone else, and carefully manipulates his way out of tight spots. One of the most interesting scenes comes a little later in the film, when Devereaux breaks into Mason’s apartment and gives his old student a tricky ultimatum. This darker side of Devereaux, however, is quickly disposed of to make way for the unsung hero and concerned father, snuffing out any possibility of a truly complex protagonist. Fans of Granger’s books will have to be the judges of how well the character has been adapted for the screen, but for those who are introduced to him for the first time, we can’t imagine that Peter Devereaux will make a lasting impression.
“The November Man” has its own twists at the end—one in particular is cleverly hidden until the final moment of revelation—but all the enthusiasm necessary for their dramatic impact has been sucked out long before we get to them. Belgrade’s rustic, old European architecture provides nice exterior shots and gives viewers a chance to watch a story set in unfamiliar territory, but the allure quickly evaporates thanks to the cliché-ridden storyline and purposelessness of the location. And that’s the biggest issue with “The November Man,” there’s always a “but” to every advantage it could hope to have over other films in its genre. For those in need of a genuinely intense and down-to-earth spy film, the recommendation from this year firmly remains Anton Corbijn’s “A Most Wanted Man.” As far as the spy genre goes, Pierce Brosnan’s “The November Man” is more filler than thriller. [C-]