"The Debt" is a semi-star studded remake of a 2007 Israeli film that translates to the same name in English. On paper, a John Madden ("Mrs. Brown" and "Shakespeare in Love") directed film, working from a Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman penned script should be reason enough to stir the average viewer's interest, the casting of Helen Mirren, Ciraran Hinds, and Tom Wilkinson as one half of the tale's cast is the extra incentive to bring any on the fence over. Unfortunately, "The Debt" is more recent John Madden and not the director of 15 years ago, and the second "half" of the story relies on Sam Worthington to turn in what is supposed to be a nuanced performance, setting the film down a path of being able to aspire to mediocrity at best.
Jumping between 1997 and 1966, "The Debt" relays the tale of a trio of Mossad agents, Rachel Singer (Mirren in 1997, Jessica Chastain in 1966), David (Worthington in 1966, Hinds in 1997) and Stefan (Marton Csokas in 1966, Wilkinson in 1997) sent to bring infamous Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (a sinister Jesper Christensen) to trial in Israel. Like the film itself, on paper the mission sounds straightforward, but unforeseen circumstances outside the control of the group as well as inside, threaten the mission and very possibly the lives of the trio. In 1997, the trio is reunited (in a way) through the publication of Rachel's daughter's book chronicling the 1966 mission. Through events that I won't spoil, Rachel seeks out answers to present day events as well a those she thought she put long behind her, but like the striking scar on her face, will never be out of sight or mind.
"The Debt" should work solely via the relative "simplicity" of the story it has to tell, but Madden's direction hamstrings the film via an uneven pace culminating in the story absolutely falling apart at the seams into clichéd mess that retroactively gives the buildup a bad aftertaste. First and foremost, Csokas and Worthington add nothing to the film despite having crucial lead roles, leaving the 1966 portion of the story to be carried by Chastain and Christensen, the latter familiar to those as the sinister Mr. White in the new Bond films and the former cementing a tremendous year in acting following excellent work in "Tree of Life" and "The Help." Worthington in particular flops like a fish, struggling with an accent rather than focus on turning in a convincing performance; while his work isn't as static or one-dimensional as his big action fare, it's not in the league the story demands.
On the flipside, the older trio of actors are riveting as expected on-screen, but their story is largely filler and an excuse for flashbacks. A newcomer to the work of Mirren wouldn't see what the big fuss is over the actress, who plays the character as written, but isn't given much else to do. While "The Debt" has its share of edge-of-your-seat moments, in particular a train station game of cat and mouse as well as Rachel's first meeting with Vogel incognito as a patient for the doctor currently acting as a practicing gynecologist, the sum of the film adds up far below it's potential. Coming into the end of 2011, "The Debt" should have had some awards season buzz, instead it's a disappointing but still worth watching product that just barely escapes rental-only territory.
The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is a healthy looking visual presentation presenting the "flashback" sequences with a nice level of grain/noise that is consistent but never visually unsettling. Colors are cold and workmanlike throughout and contrast is spot on, providing proper detail as necessary. A mild amount of edge-enhancement graces a thankfully DNR free transfer.
The Dolby Digital English 5.1 audio track is solid on both the dramatic and suspense level, offering balanced clear dialogue and appropriate use of surrounds for the film's more tense and/or action filled moments. French and Spanish 5.1 tracks are included a well as English SDH, Spanish and, French subtitles.
A feature length commentary from Madden and producer Kris Thykier is a rather mellow listen. The remaining extras are a trio of very brief promotional featurettes titled "A Look Inside The Debt," "Every Secret Has a Price: Helen Mirren in the Debt," and "The Berlin Affair: The Triangle at the Center of The Debt"
"The Debt" sums up John Madden's recent career output: headline names attached to flashy, above-average filler. Chastain and Christensen are the big draws in an overly long, relatively dull thriller that has just enough character development and mystery to lead viewers to a workable but lazy ending. Recommended.