It is easy to see why “The Debt” was pulled from its originally scheduled release date on the eve of last year’s Academy Awards nominations.
Director John Madden’s motion picture is not exactly an Oscar-caliber drama. In light of that, it is a crowd-pleasing thriller. Madden’s loss is the audience’s gain. In other words, “The Debt” is far too much fun to ever have been recognized by the Academy, taking moviegoers on a timeless trek that is as emotionally engaging as it is exciting.
“The Debt’s” story begins in 1997 as retired Mossad secret agents Rachel (Helen Mirren) and Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) learn shocking news about their former colleague David (Ciaran Hinds) upon the release of Rachel’s daughter’s nonfiction book about the trio’s secret mission more than 30 years earlier that left them venerated by Israel.
From there, the story rewinds to the time during which said secret mission took place. (The younger versions of Rachel, Stephan and David are played by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington, respectively.) The trio track down Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen – the feared Surgeon of Birkenau – in East Berlin in an attempt to bring him to justice.
While Rachel found herself grappling with romantic feelings during the mission, the net around Vogel was tightened by using her as bait. That mission is supposed to conclude with bringing Vogel back to Israel alive but the Surgeon of Birkenau proves to be even more crafty than his reputation suggests, compelling Rachel to take matters into her own hands.
Both time periods in “The Debt” feature plenty of action and gripping drama but it is the scenes set between 1965 and 1966 that offer the greatest suspense. Those scenes also give the actors the best opportunity to exercise their talents – none more than Chastain, whose serious performance here is the polar opposite of her comedic one in “The Help” demonstrating that she really is capable of it all.
That is not to underestimate Mirren’s performance in the scenes during which she shines – especially in the final quarter of the film. However, all of that is consequence to what the former story accomplishes. Having said that, “The Debt” does not quite posses the depth that one might expect from a movie of its stature. It is far too melodramatic to be taken completely seriously.
Then again, what “The Debt” lacks in substance it makes up for in organic thrills. It is impossible to not have a good time while watching Madden’s movie as it is – at the very least – an entertaining and emotionally enriching experience. Pile on Chastain’s second-best performance of the year and you have got a solid precursor to the approaching awards season.
“The Debt” (R – 114 minutes) is now playing at movie theaters throughout the Valley. Visit FirstLook.com for specific showtimes.
Listen to Joseph J. Airdo’s “Movie Maverick” radio segment, every Friday morning at 8:30 a.m. during “The Daily Blender with Jeffry O’Brien” on KBSZ – NBC 1260 AM and 96.1 FM.