We greet “The Debt” with a sense of relief, if only because that title could portend some hasty hectoring documentary about Congress figuring out its financial super committee, and thank god this movie is something else.
Here’s what it is: “Shakespeare in Love” director John Madden’s version of the 2007 Israeli spy thriller “Ha-Hov,” and if not the worst offender as colonizing remakes go, nor much to write home about either. Madden’s movie is pedigreed, pulse-quickening and perfectly respectable. It has a good chance for some award consideration.
With Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington as their younger selves, Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds play three retired Mossad agents in the 1990s, haunted by a gone-wrong mission in 1960s East Berlin. For reasons of narrative security, details need not be dwelled on here, except to say that this is also a love story. And a hate story. And that Madden and company do manage at least the minimum required ick factor for any film involving the entrapment of a Nazi gynecologist. Jesper Christensen, as the tokenish villain, helps things along by playing the banality of evil literally.
Overall it reads as a sort of practice run at high seriousness from writers Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, of “Kick-Ass” and “X-Men First Class,” and Peter Straughan, of “The Men Who Stare at Goats.” And in a way it’s OK if they need more practice; here, the script matters mostly for its stewardship of conceptual clarity. A more direct description of moral ambiguity we could not ask for, or want.
If there’s any challenge to be had from “The Debt,” it’s by the actors. They’re why we really watch, to discover what Chastain can do when out from under Terrence Malick (plenty, and “The Help” didn’t quite count); whether Worthington is worthy (let’s say sure); who Csokas is, exactly (the giver of this film’s nerviest performance, in fact); and how the elder trio maintains its poise in fake accents and a corseted flashback-intensive structure.
When less swept up, we may notice this cast not being very Jewish. The film doesn’t mind because its themes are so strenuously universal and pertain to problematic identity anyway. Fair enough, but that willful lack of texture carries over to setting, too: neither the Cold War world nor the dubious 1990s nostalgia for it comes to life very much.
There is a twist — although in this movie’s listless schematic diagram of ethical compromise, it feels more like merely a slight bend — and a protracted geriatric grappling match that would be self-parodic even if something a lot like it hadn’t already been done, for laughs, on “Family Guy.” But that goes again to theme: How very unsettling, this settling of scores.