Post-1991 international intrigue tales have drifted with the times and thus treat terrorism out of the Arab Middle East. Cowriter (with co-producer Derek Haas) Michael Brandt’s début as director, The Double, takes place in present-day Washington, D.C. -- though filmed in Detroit -- but, dealing with a newly muscle-flexing Russian Federation, harks back to hot-again Cold War days. Cell phones and computers are kept to a minimum, graininess with long-lens shots used to instill a sense of surveillance, and ambiguity of characters and motivations paramount, as opposed to current clear good guys/bad guys demarcations.
A bold move with its own purposes to be developed later on involves revealing early on that Richard Gere’s retired CIA operative Paul Shepherdson is not what he is built up to be, for he’s the very Eastern Bloc hit man “Cassius” that the Company is tracking. The viewer wonders how long until his outing and how interest can be maintained for most of what remains of the ninety-eight minutes.
For that viewer, however, and (partly) for that double agent’s young partner Ben Geary (Topher Grace), still additional reversal twists are to come. Others, too, are unmasked as infiltrated moles, and a chance Phoenix camera recording recalls a by-now forgotten opening sequence in which two Border Patrol police are gunned down while non-Hispanic illegals enter the country to threaten national security.
A number of genre standbys are resorted to, in meetings on a bridge, a killer James Bond wristwatch (Paul pointedly says he wears none), a backdrop of European capitals, shadows, an incriminating newspaper inexplicably fished from trash, photos tacked on walls, and an unexciting unnecessary car chase preceding confrontation. Not spying in the realistic quiet stealing of secrets, this world lies in the Bond direction of nasty mayhem and is double not only in tried-and-true double agents but in the equally tired two sparring cop-movie buddies. Field-experienced Paul is unwillingly paired with what he derisively labels “librarian” Geary.
Right under the camera eyes of Secret Service, a United States senator gets his throat slit at a strange angle. Analysts and CIA supervisor Tom Highland (Martin Sheen, who has trouble deciding which way to play the character) are sure this is the MO of famous Soviet hatchet man Cassius, quiet these last twenty years since other members of the “Cassius Seven” were killed or caught. The undisputed expert on the legendary assassin, retired Paul gets called in but insists the man is dead and at first refuses to be re-recruited to team up with the FBI’s bright-eyed Geary, who researched his Master’s thesis on Paul and Cassius.
Geary is convinced they are dealing with the original, whose methods and victims had admittedly changed ca 1988, while Paul posits a copycat aping the elusive killer’s methods. Cinema tradition screams that the two come to appreciate, protect and cover for one another, as they investigate through Russian trailer camps and prostitution, illegal labor in shipping warehouses and factories, and a search among skeleton-containers where Paul inexplicably does not react to or report sighting their quarry.
The erroneous assumption would be that the older man must keep his doubleness disguised while putting on a show of doing his job. The sole hint of what truly lies behind his cool urbane façade is a throwaway realized in hindsight, an unnoticeable hesitation when Ben’s wife Natalie (Odette Yustman) asks if he has children.
Eyes do not always observe all they see, as Ben learns from drawing one conclusion from an initial survey of old agency photos, only to reach a different one on closer magnifying-glass examination of them.
There is doubleness, too, diametrically opposite possibilities, in Paul’s “Go home.” Not until his wounded partner hobbles across his lawn does one of those two alternatives win out.
Closer to -- though nowhere near its class -- the milieu of retiring disillusioned Richard Burton of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold than that of retiring Robert Redford in Spy Game, The Double is a good return “to the classic spy thriller” of another time and another world that itself is making a comeback.
(Released by Image Entertainment and rated “PG-13” for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images and language.)