(Warner Brothers) Leonardo di Caprio, Russell Crowe, Mark Strong, Golshifteh Farahani, Oscar Isaac, Simon McBurney, Ali Suliman, Alon Aboutboul. Directed by Ridley Scott
Living on the front lines of the War on Terror is like sleeping with a time bomb. You never know when, or if, it is going to go off.
Roger Ferris (di Caprio) is an American field operative of the CIA assigned to the Middle East division. He is fluent in Arabic, whip-smart and streetwise. He has been assigned by his boss, Ed Hoffman (Crowe) to apprehend one of the major players in Jihadist terrorism, Al-Saleem (Aboutboul) and he has a golden opportunity to take a step closer to that goal – a suicide bomber wants to defect. The fact that he’s even met with Americans is a death sentence for him and he knows it. The nervous terrorist wants asylum in exchange for his information which concerns a training facility the jihadists use. Ferris offers it to him but Hoffman vetoes it; the information they’d receive from following his inevitable murderers would be far more valuable than the intelligence the man has given them. Thoroughly upset, Ferris turns the man loose and heads up a surveillance team on the man. Predictably, their contact is killed and the terrorists are able to get away.
Angry at the waste of a potential informant, Ferris decides to attack the training facility to see if there’s information he can glean to salvage the debacle. He and his partner get in there and manage to retrieve some documents that the terrorists are in the process of burning, knowing that the Americans likely knew about the training camp and might soon be there. Ferris escapes after a running gun battle with the terrorists chasing his SUV, but his partner dies in the process and Ferris is badly injured.
Recovering from his injuries, Ferris learns that the seized documents yielded the location of a safe house for the terrorist organization in Amman, Jordan. Knowing that Ferris is his best man, Hoffman sends him to the American embassy where the CIA station chief is a bumbling idiot who takes umbrage at being shuffled off to the side in lieu of Ferris. The Jordan station doesn’t have the manpower to keep the safe house under constant surveillance so Ferris knows he’ll have to go to the Jordanian Head of State Security, Hani Salaam (Strong), an urbane and sophisticated man who understands the realities of espionage in the 21st century and senses a kindred spirit in Ferris.
The first day things go straight to hell. On the orders of Hoffman, one of the CIA flunkies spooks one of the terrorist informants, leading to a chase down the back alleys of Amman. The informant gets away and Ferris is bitten by a rabid dog. He is taken to a Jordanian clinic where he is ministered to by a comely nurse named Aisha (Farahani), who strikes up a friendship with Ferris that leads to deeper feelings.
In the meantime, the relationship with Hani is deteriorating as Ferris is constantly having the legs cut out from under him on operations by Hoffman, who is under political pressure to get results. Eventually, things get so bad that the safe house is abandoned and burned and Hani orders Ferris out of the country.
Back in the states, Ferris concocts a plan to set up a fictitious terrorist cell in order to flush out Al-Saleem, using an innocent architect (Suliman) as bait. The trap is set, but will the terrorist take the bait? And can Ferris trust his own superiors not to stab him in the back?
Ridley Scott is an A-list director with Oscar winners and classics to his credit. Here he’s more or less attempting a John Le Carre-style spy thriller modernized and set in the War on Terror. Unfortunately, the spy game has changed a great deal since the Cold War and while Ferris gets beat up an awful lot, we never get a sense that he’s in constant jeopardy. Just about everything comes at him head-on rather from left field.
Di Caprio is also an A-lister and has shown that he has the acting chops to handle anything, but I got a strange sense of detatchment from watching his performance here. He does a lot of yelling and a lot of swearing but he doesn’t seem emotionally involved, at least to me. Crowe – who gained 50 pounds for his role – has less to do but makes his bureaucratic spook more harrowing, someone who is playing a game in which human lives are collateral damage. He is charming, which makes the role all the more chilling.
Surprisingly, Mark Strong gives the most memorable performance for my money. Well-dressed, impeccably mannered and polite, he could have stepped out of a James Bond movie, but rather than making him a caricature, Strong instead imbues him with a certain street smarts that gives him the air of a cobra, biding its time before striking with terrifying speed and ferocity.
The romance between Aisha and Ferris is essentially a vehicle to give Ferris a personal stake in the denouement, but Farahani manages to give her character charm and likability, enough that we want to spend more time with her. Some of the best scenes in the movie explore the cultural difficulties in carrying on a romance with a Westerner for someone in her character’s position in life, but unfortunately those scenes are rare here.
Some of this is standard spy 101, but overall the acting is good enough, the actors charming enough to make this worth seeing, particularly as it’s on cable pretty regularly at the moment. I get the feeling that Scott wanted to illustrate the difficulties of doing fieldwork in the War on Terror when there are political concerns that keep the front line personnel from carrying out their tasks. This isn’t a bad movie, but I think there was a better one in the subtexts.
WHY RENT THIS: Scott is one of the finest directors at setting tension on film today. Di Caprio is solid in the lead and he gets able support from Crowe, Strong and Farahani.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There are some missed opportunities here as the film often takes the easy way out in terms of plot by using standard Hollywood devices.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a surfeit of violence and bad language, also a fairly graphic scene of torture; add it all up and it means put the kids to bed before putting this on the DVD player.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes set in Manchester and Munich was actually filmed in the United States. The only location filming done on this movie which was set in places throughout the world were the United States and Morocco.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition includes an interactive track that allows viewers to see behind-the-scenes features concurrently with watching the movie by pressing a button on their remotes; it is much like the New Line Infinifilm feature that used to be on DVDs back when they actually had special features.
FINAL RATING: 6/10