Our Kind Of Traitor doesn’t dazzle, nor does it seduce – Susanna White’s John le Carré adaptation merely explores the predictably familiar world of international spies. While that’s not a glowing endorsement, there’s enough technical know-how to guide audiences through a tense-enough tale of Russian mobs, corrupt officials and dirty money. You’ll never be blown away, yet certain segments do raise an eyebrow or two thanks to Stellan Skarsgård’s lovably Soviet Don personality. Ewan McGregor may play the film’s unlikely lead, but it’s Skarsgård who steals every scene through his larger-than-life, bearish mannerisms. Come for the undercover espionage, stay for a jovial Russian man calling his children assholes.
No, I’m serious.
McGregor stars as Perry Makepeace (eye roll for “descriptive” last name), a poetry teacher who becomes embroiled in a Russian mafia subplot. While visiting Morocco with his prestigious lawyer better half, Gail Perkins (Naomie Harris), Perry becomes chummy with a boisterous European man named Dima (Stellan Skarsgård). After some social bantering, Dima reveals that he’s seeking a safe governmental passage to London, and he needs Perry to deliver a data stick full of information that would secure his protection. Perry follows through, but that’s only the beginning. A British Secret Service official – Hector, played by Damian Lewis – wants to help Dima, but needs more incriminating evidence before agreeing to a deal. This brings Perry and Gail to France, where the caring couple find themselves in a situational chess match between Russian gangsters and the British intelligence service.
Our Kind Of Traitor is James Bond by way of The Tourist, with none of Johnny Depp’s intolerable antics or Bond’s licence to kill. The way Susanna White and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle introduce scenes on a sprawling scenic focus tends to highlight the beauty of Europe’s pristine backdrops, before zooming in on a focused conversation between spy and confidant. Or, more appropriately, “unlikely spy and confidant” – because McGregor and Naomie Harris are playing two on-the-rocks civilians. This isn’t American Ultra where McGregor turns out to be a super-badass Jason Bourne clone. Perry Makepeace and Gail Perkins are exactly who they say they are, and both roles are played with ample (albeit committed) humanity that remains in a realm of untrained anxiety (aka the real world).
That said, there’s nothing unexpected that comes from Our Kind Of Traitor. Despite being visually engaging and well-acted, Dima’s push towards sanctuary is stunted by governmental bullshit, and endangered by all the usual suspects. A silly, love-stricken teen exposes what should have been Dima’s secret safe house, unnecessary asides display how evil Dima’s pursuers are, and it all wraps up without any twist. Tensions barely heighten amidst a constant fog of danger, but there’s still enough focused storytelling worth Dima’s hopeful escape plan. Russian mobsters care about their families just like any MI6 agent might – a sympathetic bond that has us rooting for the lives of Dima’s clan.
In mentioning Dima, one must credit Stellan Skarsgård with playing a stone-faced, brash, lovably insane maniac that sets himself apart from the film’s more stoic ensemble cast (a true Bond personality). This is an actor who typically dons a sweater and reading glasses (the Marvel universe), yet here he’s tatted-up, given strangely hair and walks around with a chest-beating bravado like that of a primitive warrior. He’s caring – jokingly insulting his children while still willing to do anything for their safety – and hits upon the unexpected family-man angle with equal intensity to his battleborn readiness. I love this role for Skarsgård, and it seems like he loves it equally as much – it’s the exotic spice this otherwise expected objective needs.
Our Kind Of Traitor is a board game – not some high-powered FPS shooter. Each move is calculated – predictable, but plotted succinctly by screenwriter Hossein Amini. This might not be a show-stopping John le Carré adaptation, but it’s certainly a watchable, taught spy flick that mixes outsider emotions with the stark reality of governmental involvement. Lives hang in the balance, yet decision makers still demand “better intel” – as if a soul can be measured against worthwhile data. Again, there are more thrilling and amplified versions of undercover intrigue, but Our Kind of Traitor earns its ranks through grit, vision, and a safe employment of storytelling that’s worth a very grounded take on an otherwise ridiculous circumstance.