Film and TV

Spies Unlike Us

Talk about an unholy union of souls! The latest project from director John Boorman (Deliverance, The General) seeks to be many things -- spy thriller and black comedy among them -- but at its core it's a bizarre buddy movie. Behold Pierce Brosnan as a spy who lit out from the heat; he's a womanizing grifter banished from London to Panama City. Attending him upon arrival is Geoffrey Rush as a chronic liar and ex-con, dolled up in the guise of a hoity-toity tailor. To comprehend their combined depth of character, merely wait until they occupy the same frame, then squint and cross your eyes. This might sound far-fetched, but as the two men blur together, you may catch glimpses of Jerry Lewis.

There are plenty of good things to say about The Tailor of Panama: It is inventive, revisionist and occasionally surprising, but funny it is pretty much not. Based on the book of the same name by renowned espionage novelist John Le Carré, the story is laced with dubious universal truths (chicks dig bad boys; military leaders are nuts; Latin Americans constantly celebrate carnaval) but flounders nonsensically through its moral issues without achieving a satisfying balance. Here we have a world in which infidelity is heinous and unpardonable, while kindling professional distrust and engendering civil war are all in a day's work. Perhaps it's best to keep those eyes crossed.

As shifty, ultra-randy British intelligence officer Andy Osnard, Brosnan swaggers through Tailor in what at first appears to be a full reversal of his streamlined James Bond image. Upon closer examination, however, you'll observe what is basically a matured Remington Steele burdened with a boner and a bellyful of vodka. He's arguably closer in spirit to Ian Fleming's original stud than to the Bond of latter-day cinema. Virile and rude, his smarm outweighs his charm ("I could fuck that," he muses, scoping local delicacies) as he tools around in a mere Toyota, scouring this "nasty web of money lobbying, drug trafficking and corruption" for cash and kicks.

Of course, he's also a professional, which is why he descends upon the titular tailor, one Harry Pendel (Rush), who's been craftily covering his checkered past with a fictional future. As a master of fabrication as well as fabric, Harry has gotten himself involved with both Noriega and members of the silent opposition against him, who still bear the scars of the old regime's goon squads. Wearing them outwardly is freedom fighter Marta (French-Chilean actress Leonor Varela, who played Cleopatra in the recent ABC miniseries), who poses as Harry's assistant in his classy tailor shop. More psychologically damaged is Mickie (Brendan Gleeson of Boorman's The General), a would-be hero with a tragic streak.

Catalyzing these characters is Andy, who hastily sets himself up with British Ambassador Maltby (John Fortune) and subordinate officers Nigel (Martin Savage, who debuted as George Grossmith in Topsy-Turvy) and Francesca (Catherine McCormack of Braveheart). Andy also gradually blackmails Harry to garner information from his ludicrously loving wife, Louisa (Jamie Lee Curtis), who, while defending the newly transferred canal from Washington's "bunch of rabid, right-wing senators," has somehow managed to finagle her way into the top ranks of Panamanian politics. Because she's too uptight to succumb to more than a hasty grope from Andy's tactless advances, the spy seeks other means to get himself both shaken and stirred, including a preposterous tryst with the initially icy Francesca. (Not that their coupling isn't uniquely zesty; apparently the actors had met only briefly prior to performing their literal and metaphorical tango.)

Strangely, however, the strongest -- and most coyly underplayed -- notes of sexual tension come from Andy and Harry, who sort out their needs and differences in peculiarly intimate settings. Once Andy breaks the ice with liberal doses of phallic humor (which the script generously echoes in case we miss them the first time), the two men carry out their clandestine meetings in the unlikeliest of places. Two of the more jarring and amusing scenes have them jiggling together on a bordello's vibrating bed and dancing in a gay bar. It's as if Boorman and Le Carré are trying to get something off their chests -- Andy and Harry are co-dependent sides of the same coin, in essence the feral and the familial -- but their duality merely wafts through and disappears like equatorial mist.

There are other suggestive bits woven in, which, though interesting, tend to be eclipsed by the hope and glory of this first major film to be shot in Panama (except for the copious interiors filmed in Ireland). For instance, Harold Pinter appears as Harry's dead uncle, representing the tailor's largely unheeded conscience and common sense, but the celebrated playwright's appearances are sparse and strangely pedestrian, nothing to get worked up about. Likewise, Daniel Radcliffe (the boy who will play Harry Potter) appears as Harry's inconsequential son. To similar effect, the director's own progeny, Lola Boorman, steps in for no apparent reason as Harry's young daughter. Oh well, at least it beats being raped in Dad's film, as was Katrine Boorman in Excalibur.

This is a white person's movie set against a brown backdrop, but all the talent rises to the occasion to present a world in flux, as many nations cluster around Panama's vital waterway. The movie zigs and zags about to suggest great cultural complexity, sometimes leaving Brosnan out for a few scenes at a time. When he is on screen, deadpanning lines about "dark and lonely work, like oral sex, but somebody has to do it," his dry wit nicely complements the humid air. The main complaint is addressed to his counterpart; although it's probably illegal to say so, Rush grows wearisome, as he hogs the camera and brays about the integrity of his craftsmanship, or whatever.

Still, what's most unnerving about The Tailor of Panama is the film's overall tone, which wavers uncomfortably between modest thrills and modest farce. There's virtually no action and nary a cloak nor dagger in sight, and yet the package is labeled "spy thriller." It's curiously light fare for Le Carré -- and for Boorman -- scraping for tension rather than drowning us in it.

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Gregory Weinkauf