"You can be a human being or a killer of human beings, but not both. Sooner or later, one of those will extinguish the other."
So says Peter Devereaux, and he should know. After more than three decades as a top CIA operative, he left a trail of bodies so long it earned him his unofficial codename, from which the movie "The November Man" takes its title. That's because after he comes through a place, one of his grizzled old handlers relates, nothing is left alive.
That analogy doesn't really make any sense -- of course plenty of things are still alive after November; that's how we get spring -- but then neither does much of the rest of the movie. It's a frenetic mish-mash of shootouts and bombastic dialogue, with some damsels in distress and vague geopolitical outcomes in the balance.
Pierce Brosnan optioned the rights to the book series by Bill Granger right around the time he was given the boot as James Bond in 2005. It's too bad they didn't actually make this movie back then, because it would've seemed a lot fresher.
Stop me if this sounds familiar: a past-his-prime spy is forced into taking One Last Job, but things go bad and he is forced to wade through a quagmire of thugs and bosses of uncertain loyalties, all the while sternly lecturing the whippersnappers about what a badass he is, before providing them a demonstration.
Liam Neeson, Kevin Costner and other have already taken their stab at this premise, with varying degrees of success. (Up next: Denzel Washington with this fall's "The Equalizer.") Now it's Brosnan's turn, and while he makes for a nicely creased, convincing geezer spy, the story never becomes coherent enough to land any real emotional punches.
The setup is that someone has a very big secret about Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski), a Russian pol in line to take over the presidency. It seems he was a bad boy during the Chechnyan uprising, executing people and even taking a young girl named Mira as his personal sex slave. So Federov wants to take out anyone who knows anything about it, while the Americans (Will Patton and Bill Smitrovich are the senior spooks on the scene) want to leverage Mira against him.
Trouble is, no one can find her. So they settle for the next best thing, Alice Fournier (Olga Kurylenko), an advocate against sex trafficking who counseled Mira. Devereaux gets brought in to do a simple "exfil" -- that's "sneak somebody out" in spy talk -- of Federov's assistant, who has the goods on him. Alas, nasty things happen, setting off a chain reaction in which everybody is after Alice, and Devereaux becomes the only one she can trust.
There are a couple of X factors, both in the forms of younger, lean and hungry assassins. Alexa (Amila Terzimehić) works for Federov, has the body of a ballet dancer, the beak of a hawk and the stare of a killer. David Mason (Luke Bracey) is a CIA stooge who used to be Devereaux's protégé, until an op went bad and they became antagonists.
Much of the screenplay by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek -- too much, really -- is concerned with a chess match of wits between Devereaux and Mason, with the young guy better at rough-and-tumble skills while the older chap plays the superior long game. It's the old "teacher still has a few lessons to impart to the student" shtick.
But then the movie morphs into a relationship story between Devereaux and Alice, with her bearing a terrible secret (which I figured out around the 45-minute mark). Neither dynamic gets enough air to survive on its own, and both end up suffocating.
Director Roger Donaldson has made some terrific thrillers, including "No Way Out," which ratcheted up the tension inch by inch. But "The November Man" ends up as a lot of gunfights interspersed with confusing dialogue.
Or to put it another way: "You can have a revenge saga or a May/November romance, but not both."