Richard Gere is an actor who continually resists the easy or obvious, and yet he's far better at choosing characters than projects. In "The Double," he plays Paul Shepherdson, a hardened CIA veteran dedicated to the pursuit of a deadly Soviet assassin dubbed Cassisus, an enigmatic figure whose hidden identity is none other than Paul himself.
That clever set-up provides Gere his meatiest role since his abstract performance in "I'm Not There," a character defined by his moral ambiguity and curious circumstances. Unfortunately, the proceedings are staged with the trite, predictable rhythms of garden-variety espionage. Gere acts circles around it as long as he can.
Paired with newbie investigator Ben Geary (Topher Grace), a driven new recruit brandishing a masters' thesis about Paul's career, the older agent spends the movie either in pursuit of himself or some greater menace that only he knows about. As written and directed by Michael Brandt, a screenwriter whose credits include "Wanted" and "3:10 to Yuma" making his directorial debut here, "The Double" suffers from the derivative qualities of an overly familiar cop drama, replete with overstated music cues, boring car chases and routine gunplay.
The clichés fly by: Shadowy Paul is forced out of retirement by former boss Tom Highland (Martin Sheen, in a random, insubstantial turn) and hesitantly teams up with the overly enthusiastic Ben to follow a new trail of murders that suggest Cassius has returned from the grave (Paul claims to have killed him long ago, but only we know the essential conflict of this statement).
An early scene that finds Paul revealing his true self to a man soon to become the latest victim of the Cassius killing spree stands out because it gives Gere the chance to challenge his inherent likability as a charismatic, middle-aged leading man. The effect recalls Angelina Jolie's enticing performance in Philip Noyce's underrated "Salt," where the indestructible (and, let's face it, absurdly attractive) American agent turns out to have Soviet ties. Brand avoids a precise breakdown of Gere's motives and reading his face provides a unique thrill.
Unfortunately, the rest of "The Double" does not. Having laid out the scenario, Brandt drags it through the motions of a tired procedural. Paul/Cassius struggles against the conflict of needing to off his partner while growing close to him at the same time. His sympathy for Ben's upstart suburban life with his wife and newborn child is only revealed later on.
Finally, "The Double" simply arrives at the showdown it has been heading toward at all along. Having weighed down its plot with good ideas in the opening act, it fails to take them anywhere distinctive until the closing scenes. It doesn't help that Grace's blank stare and the cookie-cutter scenarios make Gere protrude from the mess rather than elevate it.
Brandt can't give the material the freshness it demands, but he's no slouch when it comes to ludicrous twists. The script (written by Brandt and Derek Haas) piles up a new series of developments in the frenzied climax, very nearly redeeming the proceedings by casting Ben's motives into doubt as well. It's a silly setup, but "The Double" ends on a marvelously complex note that subverts the inherent patriotism of all CIA thrillers. By then, however, "The Double" has confirmed he potential Gere made apparent much earlier by simply doing what he does best.
criticWIRE grade: C+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Image Entertainment opens "The Double" in New York and Los Angeles this Friday followed by other major cities in early November. Gere and Grace aren't unknown quantities, but they're not major box office draws, either, and the murky plot details mean that the movie is unlikely to do great business.