Like a worrywart parent who fears that video games will turn their child into a sociopath, it’s conceivable that the higher-ups of intelligence agencies might have some concern over how the spy movie genre has influenced their incoming agents. Are they driven to pursue other careers when they find out that being an operative is more about eavesdropping than dropping bodies? Do they instinctively distrust the suits running ops from behind desks, particularly the ones who look like masculine character actors? And do they expect to eventually be betrayed by the organization and country they’ve sworn to serve, just as their silver screen idols always are? Sadly, The November Man, the latest bog standard entry in the spy thriller genre, won’t be changing any of these misconceptions, even if its star has a pedigree in espionage fiction that’s always been amongst the best.
Like the doomed police officer on his final shift before retirement, or the crook-gone-straight pulled in for one last job, The November Man dusts off the oldest, most dangerous chestnut a movie spy ever has to deal with: the return from retirement. Opening with a deadly mission gone wrong before flashing forward five years, the film stars Pierce Brosnan as Peter Devereaux, an ex-operative enjoying civilian life after 30+ years of service in the CIA. A rash of dead operatives close to Russia’s presumed next president is all it takes for Devereaux to get back into the game, taking the lead on a simple exfiltration that turns out to be anything but.
There’s a canny self-awareness to the casting of Brosnan as Devereaux, seeing as both begin the film having enjoyed successful lives after suspending their licenses to kill. Brosnan’s tenure as James Bond might have ended on a sour note that nearly killed the franchise, but his post-Bond career has featured a number of interesting roles for the Irish-American actor as either a co-lead or supporting performer. Stepping into the shoes of Devereaux, who has his own franchise in a series of novels by Bill Granger, you’re quickly reminded both of why Brosnan’s Bond films were so goofy compared to modern standards, and just how long it’s been since he was called upon to be an action movie star.
His handsome-to-the-point-of-being-comic features have given way to a façade that’s more often just plain comic in the context of The November Man, which constantly asks him to glower and squint, either when aiming down the sights of a gun, or giving the death stare to some (soon to be bullet-riddled) schnook. The perma-scowl makes him appear more than somewhat reminiscent of former president George W. Bush, so myopic viewers may take the film’s title to mean they’ve stumbled into a biopic about the 2000/2004 elections. While fellow Irishman Liam Neeson is responsible for kicking off this entire sub-genre of respected older actors becoming action stars, Brosnan and his brogue stand out like a sore thumb at the center of a conspiracy thriller that could have fallen out of a time capsule from the ‘90s.
Once Devereaux’s mission gets complicated by a betrayal and the death of someone close to him, you can set your watch to the measured pace at which The November Man runs every espionage cliché in the playbook. Aside from the use of a spy drone early in the film, there’s nothing modern about the political grounding or filmmaking of The November Man. Arriving at a time when it’s fashionable to have the Russians be the bad guys again, the film is content to lazily mix the paranoid geopolitics of Tom Clancy with the vendetta structure of Robert Ludlum, often playing out as though the script were alternating between pages of the two.
Director Roger Donaldson has no luck salvaging the purely functional dialogue, which awkwardly handles exposition by smuggling it into the film’s many speechifying moments, or just dropping it at your feet apropos of nothing. He’s equally hapless when the action starts up, as the lifeless shootouts standout only for their occasional, completely earnest use of slow motion to signify that what we’re watching is totally awesome. Meanwhile, a heavy reliance on stunt doubles for Brosnan means that his fight scenes are a blurry mess, so the film keeps them to a minimum by having Devereaux resolve most potential scrapes by beaning his opponent in the head with whatever’s handy.
The plot throws in enough players to setup up a couple decent red herrings and twists, but the characters themselves are non-entities. Much of the film is a race around Belgrade to track down a social worker played by Olga Kurylenko, with Devereaux having to outfox both his former CIA protégé (Luke Bracey) and a Russian assassin (Amila Terzimehic) to get to her first. The city looks nice while everyone’s scrambling around, but the surplus of competing interests in the plot’s tangled web means having to watch scene after scene of establishing just how it is every character figures out where to go next.
For The November Man to simply be uninspired would be one thing, but the cyanide capsule hidden in its smirk is a sexist streak that jolts you awake every time it rears its ugly head. The base of the conspiracy involves war refugees sold into sex trafficking and a slimy club owner that looks like a Russian Chad Kroeger, but as Devereaux follows the thread to the heights of power, The November Man finds a way to belittle, abuse, or just kill every major female character. Terzimehic, who’s setup as a major threat, is a complete incompetent in action, and Kurylenko’s backstory is upsetting enough to hear about, let alone have to witness in leering flashback. The women of the film are here to be used as victims or scapegoats, while dudes like Devereaux get all self-righteous and angry about it, despite perpetrating most of the violence against them (in a shockingly miscalculated moment of drama, Devereaux tests his protégé’s loyalties by holding his one-night-stand hostage at knife point, slicing open her femoral artery just so he can prove a point).
As one final example of November Man’s dogged commitment to genre tropes, Devereaux at one point tries to force a confession out of a man by making him play Russian roulette. “Your odds are getting worse,” he growls, after pulling the trigger on an empty chamber for the second time. Of course, in his dedication to sounding intimidating, and the hostage’s terror, neither probably realized that since Devereaux is spinning the chamber between trigger pulls, the odds of landing on the lone bullet remain unchanged with each go. Empty posturing is the only thing the film proves to be a real pro at, so unless what you’re after is a spy thriller that feels more like make-believe than usual, you’ll be left wishing The November Man and its star had stayed in retirement.
Featuring a star and brand of spy action that are both well past their prime, The November Man makes for a dull, regressive espionage thriller.