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Review: "The Debt" Doesn't Completey Pay Off

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Three Mossad agents are sent to hunt down a notorious Nazi war criminal. 30 years later, a dark secret from their mission threatens to come to light and they must reunite to put an end to things once and for all. After languishing in limbo for more than a year, the film, starring Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain, Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson, will open Aug. 31.

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Jumping back and forth across three decades and differing versions of the truth, “The Debt” follows three Mossad agents sent to Berlin to capture and bring to justice a Nazi war criminal. Featuring an impressive cast led by Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington, “The Debt” doesn’t quite achieve the heights to which it aspires.

In this remake of the 2007 Israeli thriller "Ha-Hov" adapted by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, three young Mossad agents--Rachel Singer (Mirren/Chastain), Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson/Marton Csokas) and David Peretz (Ciaran Hinds/Worthington)--are sent to Berlin to hunt down a Doctor Bernhardt. A seemingly kindly old gynecologist, Bernhardt in another life was known as Dieter Vogel, a monstrous butcher working in the service of the Third Reich.

Thirty years after the mission, Rachel’s daughter has written a book chronicling her mother’s heroic efforts. But on the same day that Rachel does a reading from the book, she gets word that truth about what she and her comrades did so long ago is in danger of being revealed.

The estranged colleagues are now forced to decide whether to let the truth surface, or go back to Europe and silence things forever. Complicating the negotiations is romantic entanglements that ultimately drove them all apart. Of course, it’s decided that one of them must go back—otherwise the film would’ve been a bout 30 minutes long.

Luckily for director John Madden ("Shakespeare in Love"), he gets his two best performances from Mirren and Chastain, who share the lead role of Rachel, the one who’s ultimately sent back to clean up the mess she and her comrades left behind. Chastain’s Rachel must confront her prey in the most vulnerable way, posing as a gynecological patient, and later is taunted ruthlessly by her prisoner, who first tries to appeal to their shared humanity before attacking her Jewish-ness, and all the while she’s caught between Stephan’s attraction to her and her attraction to David. The face of Mirren as the older Rachel bears all the scars, but physical and emotional, of everything her younger self as endured. She’s world-weary and tortured by the truth to this day, but unsure she wants it put to bed.

Csokas’ Stephan is a spirited and ambitious schemer, brimming with rage and hungry for vengeance—and Rachel, among other women. But Worthington’s David is a little too two-dimensional, you don’t get the sense that there’s an interior life of any complexity.

Unfortunately, Madden can’t quite get a handle on the film’s tension, the pacing of the film feels uneven, and the final act of “The Debt” grows progressively improbable, before turning flat-out unbelievable, in a manner that doesn’t serve the story nearly well enough to justify it.

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