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Review: Dual storylines in 'The Debt' pay off

| Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011

"The Debt" is the first movie in which Hollywood "It" actor Sam Worthington gets around to showing us what all the fuss was about, pre-"Terminator," pre-"Avatar" and pre-"Clash of the Titans." As a guilt-ridden Holocaust survivor-turned-Mossad agent determined to bring a war criminal to Israeli justice, Worthington suggests vulnerability, compassion and layers of character that none of his action blockbusters allowed him to.

"The Debt," a very good 2007 Israeli thriller with Cold War and Holocaust connections, earns a nerve-wracking and entertaining Hollywood remake.

As in the original film, the new John ("Shakespeare in Love") Madden version has two settings -- Germany in 1965, Israel in 1997. We see Israeli spies attempt to kidnap a man they identified as a Nazi concentration camp doctor in the mid-'60s, and we see the Mossad agents who carried out that mission deal with its consequences 30 years later.

"The Surgeon of Birkenau" (Jesper Christensen) was working under an assumed name as a gynecologist. That's why Rachel (Jessica Chastain) was part of that 1960s team. New to espionage, she had to climb into the stirrups and set the trap for this man they wanted to take back to Israel for trial.

"I want the world to watch," the idealistic David (Worthington) says. "I want them to know what he did."

Stephan (Marton Csokas) is the leader of the team, less interested in ideology than the mission.

We see them prepare for it in a dumpy Berlin apartment and memorize their fake identities. Every time new patient Rachel sees the doctor, his chilly bedside manner includes suspicious questions: "Who recommended me• Where did you come from?"

Chastain, of "The Help" and "The Tree of Life," is superb at suggesting the horror and revulsion she must hide. She has seen the photos of the "Surgeon's" cruel handiwork.

But things went wrong with the kidnapping, as we know from the film's present-day framework. Rachel (Helen Mirren), David (Ciaran Hinds) and Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) have been feted as heroes for decades. Rachel wears a facial scar from that mission, and her daughter has just immortalized her in a book. Madden's film shows us the "official" version of those events, and then spends an hour in a flashback showing what really happened and how the modern-day trio are dealing with that.

Csokas does the best job of back-engineering his performance. He brilliantly mimics the Oscar-winning Wilkinson's intonations and timbre, even as he sings (Stefan bangs at an old piano in the apartment). Worthington and Hinds mesh nicely, too. Mirren and Chastain suggest the same humanity and flintiness.

Christensen suggests cunning, a mastery of the mind games it might take to set him free.

It's a tricky film to maintain suspense in, and Madden and his screenwriters do their best to keep us in the dark. What really dazzles here are the action beats -- the getaway gone wrong, the shocking moments of violence.

This "Debt" isn't better than the original except in one regard -- the Hollywood production values. Having two Oscar winners along with the formidable Hinds and Csokas, the emerging Chastain and "Avatar" star Worthington, finally having a part worthy of a little acting effort, make this "Debt" pay off.

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