Spy action movies are some of the best because they almost always exist in a world where clandestine organizations and people with guns can pretty much do anything they want without incurring any kind of insurance fees or murder charges or what-have-you. And it’s always on foreign soil, so what does the Agency care? It’s this kind of blatant disregard for property and a sense that the squabbles of these men are all anyone cares about that make movies like The November Man enjoyable. It certainly isn’t the storyline, which may as well have been taken verbatim from a pamphlet called “Writing Spy Movies and YOU.” But, when you have a former James Bond running rampant in the streets of Belgrade trying to get revenge on people he thought he trusted, there’s bound to be something there for someone.
Veteran action director Roger Donaldson, of movies like The Bank Job, The Recruit, and Dante’s Peak, directed this adaptation of Bill Granger’s book There Are No Spies, with a screenplay written by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek who had previously written Predators and Oblivion, respectively. Having no prior familiarity with the book, I went into the movie hoping for something like John le Carre with action, or even something like the better Jack Ryan movie adaptations. In reality, what we get is a paint-by-numbers, over-complicated double cross game in which every twist is spotted a mile away. But, what the movie lacks in narrative originality, it makes up for in brutality in action.
We begin with veteran CIA agent Peter Devereaux (Brosnan) in the middle of a mission with his protege David Mason (Luke Bracey). They’re meant to draw out an assassin by having Devereaux pose as an American diplomat while Mason sets up to snipe him. An unforeseen, but preventable, problem occurs and while the mission succeeds, there is a terrible price paid. Five years later, Devereaux is retired in Switzerland when he’s visited by his old handler, Hanley (Bill Smitrovich) who convinces the super-spy to come out of hiding in order to extract an operative from Russia. She’s been undercover with a Russian presidential hopeful named Federov and she has evidence that the man of the people is guilty of horrible war crimes, including kidnapping and sexual abuse and torture. Not a nice guy. Adding another layer to this, the operative was Devereaux’s lover whom he personally recruited to go spy for the Agency in Moscow.
The extraction does not go as Peter had anticipated and not only did the woman not know he was coming, but the CIA itself has sent people to kill her, not the Russians at all. And who do you suppose is the sniper called in for this mission? If you said his former underling Mason, you are correct. He’s successful and this sends Devereaux into a spiral to figure out why the CIA wanted his woman killed, and what the name of one of the war criminal’s captive young girls has to do with anything. Eventually, everyone is trying to get the last person who saw the young woman alive, her former case worker (Olga Kurylenko), and that includes Devereaux, the CIA, and a ruthless female assassin who’s been hired to kill anyone from Federov’s past. Are you confused yet?
I will say, this movie was very hard to follow and yet also completely predictable. The What and Who were always right on the surface while the Why and How were buried within six layers of sped-through dialogue and things you have to figure out yourself. It also contains a weird father-son/former-friend narrative between Brosnan and Bracey’s characters. In the first scene, Bracey is chastised for not following orders, but when they meet later, Brosnan makes fun of him for being too by-the-book and is constantly testing his ability to think on his own. So which is it?
As I said, the violence in the movie much more brutal than you’d expect. While there’s a little bit of bad language (I maybe only heard around 10 F-bomb dropped in the 108 minute film), there is a whole lot of blood. Characters throats are cut, femoral arteries are sliced, random CIA ops are riddled with bullets, many people’s faces get bashed by various implements and people are sniped through the head in slow motion. This is partially why I mentioned that up top about how agents apparently have to answer to no one; Devereaux doesn’t just incapacitate the CIA agents hunting him down, he frigging murders them in the head. Is that meant to make us think he’s unhinged and got nothing to lose? Maybe, but then his movie-long talk about being either a human or a killer of humans and not both goes kind of out the window.
Ultimately, The November Man is a dumb but entertaining enough spy yarn and will give people who think Brosnan got short-changed a lot with his 007 films a chance to see him in action again. He is good at pointing a gun and looking dashing. Olga Kurylenko is quite good, getting to do quite a bit and giving a much better performance than she has any right to give. See the movie, if you’re inclined to do so, for them and for a bit of violent action cheese. But, Clancy meets le Carre this ain’t.