Friday, July 1, 2016

Our Kind of Traitor

As spy stories often do, Our Kind of Traitor opens in Russia. However, for our protagonist things begin far away from Moscow. On vacation with his wife Gail (Naomie Harris), Perry (Ewan McGregor) has a chance encounter with a Russian gangster named Dima (Stellan Skarsgård). One wild night later, Perry is presented with an offer he can't refuse.

With the murder of his business partner and his entire family in the movie's opening scene, Dima is desperate for any help he can get. As unlikely a candidate a college poetry professor is, Perry proves to be Dima's only hope to save himself and his family from meeting the same gruesome fate. Convincing Perry to take a flash drive to MI6 on his return to London proves to be only the first step in getting the professor caught up in the world of the Russian money launderer.

Like many spy novels, Our Kind of Traitor offers various twists and turns including a British agent (Damian Lewis) who lies to get Dima's information for personal reasons leading to further complications. And like many movies adapted from novels, I'm guessing the book was better.

Adapted from John le Carré's 2010 novel, this is one of the least exciting spy thrillers I can remember. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an action extravaganza in comparison. With the entire first hour devoted to set-up, the suspense doesn't start until well into the story. Nor does it last all that long. The sequence of trying to get Dima's family out alive is well choreographed, but afterwards we're left stuck in back in the same slog for an extended epilogue that lacks a satisfying close. At the same time the script somehow also feels rushed as an entire novel is squeezed into less than 2 hours offering limitations to what ground can be covered and which characters get fleshed out.

While not working all that well as a thriller, Our Kind of Traitor boasts an impressive cast that allows it to perform adequately as a drama. It's that talent, and not the story - which could have been easily truncated into an hour episode of any cop drama, which gets you through the film's glacial pacing. McGregor and Skarsgård somehow make the unlikely friendship pay off. I began to appreciate Harris' character more over the course of the film. And Lewis is terrific as the British agent with a personal stake in the game (a subplot which could have been developed far better) and a growing sense of responsibility for what he has roped Perry and his wife into.

At best Our Kind of Traitor is a collection of talented actors creating characters we care about (for the most part). At worst, the film is a ponderous over-bloated tale with a simple set-up it takes far too long to do anything substantial with. Better pacing or a stronger ending could have helped immensely for a film that labors under the limitations of its script.

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