Here's what an R rating gets you these days: a few splattery head shots, some glimpses of cable TV–style background nudity, a couple kids and families popped by assassins, a brace of fucks, in dialogue, and one un-bracing fuck, in bed, mostly clothed. During its longueurs, this engagingly grim spy-versus-spymasters time-passer offers the chance to contemplate what an R-rated spy thriller even means anymore: Why is the violence here, which looks miserably messy, less appropriate to children than that of The Expendables 3, which looks like a jolly good lark?
Not that the grimness is always edifying. The antiheroic hitman spy played by Pierce Brosnan grinds through his world like a first-person-shooter video-game badass, dropping everyone his gun ever points at. Since the movie's going all-in on such fantasy, I have to ask: Why include the flashback backstory of a Russian general popping the heroine's parents and siblings and then raping her for most of her teen years?
The November Man isn't exposing atrocities; it's using them as justification for the usual heroics — and rubbing your nose in them. Here's the movie for you if you've ever wanted to sit through an impressionistic montage — hairy chest exposed, belt slowly unbuckled — suggesting what it would feel like to be raped by a war criminal.
Still, as far as escapist fluff laced with totally unnecessary real-world horror goes, The November Man isn't wretched. You can follow the action, mostly, and much of it is street-level brutal. I liked the moments where some wily character, chased by the less wily, turns a corner, grabs a shovel or a barrel or something, and then cold-cocks the sprinting pursuer. As is customary these days, there's still too many scenes of spies looking at computers and tracking each other, or spies typing in passwords and waiting for access, but those are almost made up for by the memorable old-school stuntwork: Mooks get chucked over balconies and seem to fall into actual physical space.
Brosnan's sleek charms have always been most appealing when roughed up a little. Here he's playing Devereaux, a darker international mystery man, possibly a riff on Daniel Craig's bruiser Bond. He's got something like an American accent, and he's apparently devoted to his daughter, but he's otherwise trait-less — he's like one of those guys Tom Cruise plays whom you can't imagine finding anything in life worth savoring outside the movie's adventure. What do these guys do when they aren't running?
Devereaux's in Belgrade tracing a case that links his own agency, the CIA, to terrorist acts in Chechnya, but the details in a picture like this don't really matter — instead, check out Brosnan's wispy curls of gray chest hair, or the way Devereaux takes the time midchase to telephone and ridicule the younger spy in pursuit, his former mentee, Mason (Luke Bracey). Like all recent action films with a too-old-for-this-shit hero, The November Man pairs its craggily familiar lead with a dashing young man who must be taught, shown up and reluctantly fathered. Right on schedule, Bracey's beta spy (should we call him the May Man?) learns lessons and respect through gunplay. Brosnan's best, darkest moment: Proving a point by holding a gun to the head of Mason's entirely innocent girlfriend.
Sadly, Devereaux is in mourning rather than lover-man mode. There's no telling how many more globetrotting espionage flicks the studios will hire Brosnan for, and it's a shame he doesn't get to romance anyone here. At this point in history, couldn't the studios just admit it when the male hero's real love interest is the other guy?
Here's how women fare in this one: Two are used as victims/pawns to motivate the hero; one gets threatened by the hero to motivate the beta hero; one is inspired by past victimization to take ill-advised action she must later be saved from; one is a Russian assassin killer; and one, a CIA operative, gets outfoxed in interrogations by a guy who calls her “Tits.” See, the movie really is old-fashioned!
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