While films like "Cruel Intentions" had their moments, they didn't do much for the acting credibility of star Ryan Philippe. However, when paired with the right director and material, the actor can be surprisingly good, such as in "The I Inside", a small, twisty thriller that - sadly - essentially went direct-to-video. In "Breach", Philippe is working with director Billy Ray, a man who did what George Lucas was not even capable of - getting a great performance out of Hayden Christensen (in Ray's "Shattered Glass".)
Not only does Ray manage to get an ace performance out of Phillipe, he follows up his wonderful "Shattered Glass" with a compelling, intoxicating and downright riveting spy thriller that's one of this year's best films. Philippe stars as Eric O'Neill, an FBI agent-in-training who gets a call one day to see his boss, Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney). His task is to be the desk agent for Agent Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), an expert on Russia who the agency believes may be a sexual deviant. They want O'Neill to take notes on Hanssen and see what is really going on, as they believe Hanssen could be an embarassment.
O'Neill goes about his work, initially irritating Hanssen a great deal, but also coming to understand the older man, who has given years of service in the bureau. As he's finding himself with a greater understanding and respect of the man he's supposed to follow, he presses Burroughs for more information, only to eventually find that Hanssen isn't a deviant - the FBI wants information on him because they know that he's a spy feeding information to the Russians, and the damage his spying has done so far has cost billions and put national safety at risk. It is the worst breach in the history of United States intelligence.
While he's at first unwilling to believe it, the growing pile of facts points to Hanssen's guilt and the whole act that Hanssen has been putting on is just that. O'Neill has been wanting to move up in the FBI and was initially upset about being put into such a low-profile case. Suddenly, he's in the midst of one of the biggest cases in history.
"Breach" does not maintain tension due to fast-paced action; in fact, it doesn't have much in the way of action at all. Instead, the film maintains intensity and tension thanks to its elegance, stellar screenplay that does a marvelous job giving up the details piece-by-piece. We know the end result, but the film's excellent cat-and-mouse game still keeps the interest throughout.
As for the performances, Cooper portrays a manipulative, secretive man in classic fashion, creating a flawless facade that hides the darker surface underneath. Philippe can't match Cooper, but he doesn't need to: he portrays a younger, somewhat naive agent well and is just right for the role. Linney provides a good no-nonsense peformance as O'Neill's superior, and supporting efforts by Caroline Dhavernas ("Wonderfalls", which was sadly cancelled by Fox) and Gary Cole. The film's chilly cinematography (from Tak Fujimoto) is also wonderfully moody, as is Mychael Danna's memorable score.
Overall, "Breach" remains my favorite film so far this year and probably one of the better films I've seen in the last few. It's a riveting, smart and bold thriller that didn't get the treatment that it deserved when it was released early this year.
VIDEO: "Breach" is presented by Universal in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Sadly, the film's transfer was just okay. Sharpness and detail were adequate, as the picture seemed a little soft throughout the show, with some scenes appearing even a bit softer than the rest. The film does show some minor edge enhancement at times, and I was surprised to see some noticable specks and marks on the print during a few scenes - certainly unusual for a new release. Colors are chilly, but that's by intent, and they seem accurately presented here.
SOUND: The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is entirely dialogue-driven, but Mychael Danna's subtle, moody and perfect score does get some nice reinforcement from the surrounds. Audio quality was just fine, with crisp dialogue and no distortion or other issues.
EXTRAS: Commentary from FBI Agent Eric O'Neill and writer/director Billy Ray, 8 deleted scenes and 2 alternate scenes with commentary from writer/director Billy Ray and editor Jeffrey Ford, "Breaching the Truth" featurette, "The Mole" featurette (a feature on Hanssen that originally aired on "Dateline NBC") and short "Anatomy of a Character" featurette.
Final Thoughts: A classy, intelligent and wholly engaging thriller with a great ensemble cast, "Breach" is a great surprise and my favorite film so far this year. The DVD presentation isn't as great as the movie reserves (image quality could be better), but I'm still going to highly recommend it.