A spy thriller about a legendary Soviet agent who seems to have returned from the dead, the American who supposedly killed him brought out of retirement to track him down, and the young CIA analyst he’s forced to team up with, “The Double” emerges as a genre potboiler so absurd in its premises and convolutions that it winds up being unintentionally funny. It has the added misfortune of appearing in the same season as the remake of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” the classic John le Carre tale that shows how this sort of thing should be done.
Richard Gere stars as Paul Shepherdson, the retired guy whose old colleague Tom Highland (Martin Sheen), now chief CIA honcho, lures him back with reports that his old nemesis, the master assassin Cassius whom Paul had long assumed he’d killed, was apparently behind the murder of a right-wing senator. Paul is doubtful, especially because the analysis comes from green agency newbie Ben Geary (Topher Grace). But he agrees to partner with the neophyte, and inevitably the old loner develops a fondness for the younger man, along with his wife and kid.
Like “Vertigo,” “The Double” offers a big reveal less than an hour in. But unlike Hitchcock’s, this revelation has little punch, and fails to generate the suspense it’s meant to. Perhaps to compensate, the screenplay by director Michael Brandt and Derek Haas serves up a second big twist in the last reel, but this one is so preposterous that it can’t be taken seriously even in the spy genre, which necessarily trades in the farfetched.
And that’s not the only part of the narrative that will leave you scratching your head. The picture opens, for example, with a sequence showing the massacre of most of a group crossing the border between Mexico and the US. Those who are not killed, we understand, are Russian agents being brought into the country for the nefarious plot that the presumed Cassius has in hand. Fine—but why slaughter all the rest? If it’s to catch the eye of American intelligence officials, one might point out that there are far more subtle ways of doing that. But of course, that wouldn’t have provided the movie with a splashy opening. One might also wonder about an elaborate car chase toward the close. It seems tacked on to little purpose. But once again, the last reel would have been tame without it, so maybe that’s enough of a raison d’etre.
Gere gets through this nonsense with his usual smooth charm, but even he stumbles in the numerous expository flashbacks that Brandt uses as a crutch to explain the implausible plot. Grace doesn’t fare as well. He’s an amiable fellow who hasn’t yet been employed on the big screen as effectively as he was on the small one, and this won’t prove a breakthrough for him. The only other person of note here is Sheen, who coasts through his part by reprising his Josh Bartlett shtick. Technically the picture is okay without being outstanding in any respect.
“The Double” is pulp, which can be fun. But there’s good pulp and bad pulp. And Gere has appeared in enough of the former (“Primal Fear”) and of the latter (“Final Analysis,” “Red Corner”) to know the difference. This definitely falls into the second category.