The Debt Blu-ray ReviewDecember 07, 2011
The Debt is one of the better spy thrillers to be made in recent years. Granted, it's not a high-octane actioner like the Bourne or Bond films, but despite its lack of explosions and over-choreographed, almost Rube Goldberg-like stunt scenes, but it has it where it counts: Intrigue, tension, and suspense.
The film follows Rachel, Stephan, and David, three Mossad agents who have been assigned to infiltrate Soviet-controlled East Berlin in 1965 to track down suspected Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen) and return him to Israel to stand trial.
For thirty years, the trio has been hailed as national heroes after killing Vogel when he attempted to escape. However, when they find that a secret about the mission may soon be revealed, they are forced to face the implications of their actions - both in terms of what it will mean for the nation they fought to protect and for their own peace of mind.
Split between the three main characters' younger and older days, the film manages to weave multiple story threads together with key aspects of characterization to create a strikingly lifelike and heartfelt portrayal not only of the ease with which we make difficult decisions when we're young but also the agony of dealing with the repercussions of those actions years later.
The script, written by co-producer Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan (based upon the 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov) does a brilliant job of jumping back and forth between the primary action of 1965 and the more reflective mood of 1995. It's a screenplay that comes across as what one might imagine a cinematographer or director's dream script: light on dialogue but heavy on emotion and action. It's a screenplay that says little but speaks volumes.
Director John Madden also deserves a heaping helping of the praise for this film, beautifully balancing stories of the younger characters and their older counterparts. There is a bare minimum of inter-cutting between the 60's and the 90's. It seems to me that the temptation for most directors would be to constantly move back and forth to keep both threads alive.
Indeed, Madden handles his duties at the helm of this picture with a kind of subtlety that emphasizes story and characters over action scenes. Actually, it's this more muted approach that lends more credibility to the events of the story and also adds a considerable amount of tension and suspense to a film that's already something of a nail-biter.
The cast also deserves its fair share of kudos. Many of the performances in this movie are fantastic, both from the younger actors and the older, more established Hollywood names.
For the 60's portion of the movie, Jessica Chastain takes the reins on the character of Rachel, and she does an excellent job of presenting the character as having conflicting emotions both about the mission at hand as well Rachel's feelings for her fellow agents - the outgoing and driven Stephan and the more introverted David, both of whom clearly harbor feelings for Rachel.
Academy Award-winner Helen Mirren plays Rachel in the later years of her life and puts forth the kind of brilliant performance that's come to be expected of the actress. Each time the film flashes forward to the 90's time frame, Mirren immediately dominates the screen while maintaining many of the traits and mannerisms of Chastain.
Tom Wilkinson plays the older Stephan and delivers the kind of performances he's become known for. He infuses the character with intrigue, and despite Stephan's less-than-moral demeanor, Wilkinson leaves the audience with hope for the character's redemption.
In the 60's time period, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas portray the younger David and Stephan, respectively, relatively well.
Worthington (as he always does) has trouble hiding his native accent, despite this being his best effort thus far, while Hinds is almost too arrogant for the audience to care for the younger Stephan. Having said that, each actor has his moments in the role and deliver perfectly believable and memorable performances.
The best performance in the movie comes from Christensen in the role of Vogel. He plays this character in a number of different lights; one moment you'll absolutely hate him, and the next you'll pity his predicament.
And despite the constant see-sawing of Christensen's performance, it never takes you out of the movie. Indeed, in an odd way, it's his complex performance that grounds the film.
Focus Features and Universal combine to bring The Debt to Blu-ray with a 1080p MPEG AVC-encode that looks absolutely fantastic and helps enhance the mood of the film. The movie is set in primarily dark spaces, and blacks have been rendered magnificently; as best as I could tell, there were no instances of crushed blacks.
Textures come across as very lifelike, and colors (despite being mainly blacks, grays, and browns) are vibrant. Skin tones tend to come somewhat orange at certain points, but apart from that there are no glaring visual imperfections to speak of.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is equally good. Dialogue is crisp and clear, and the more action-oriented scenes pop to life without becoming overwhelming. The mix of the final confrontation of the film seems a bit out-of-balance, but it's a minor blemish on an otherwise perfect mix.
Beyond the Feature
The Debt comes with only a handful of supplementary materials, the best of which is the feature-length commentary with director Madden and producer Kris Thykier. The commentary is informative, if a little bit dry, and leans more toward the technical aspect of filmmaking.
Also, Madden and Thykier have a nasty habit that is sure to drag down ANY audio commentary track: They frequently find themselves simply narrating what's happening on the screen. It's not quite Jon-Favraeu-Iron Man 2 bad, but there's a lot of moments during the commentary where Madden and Thykier are literally breaking down the plot.
It's by no means a TERRIBLE commentary, but it's difficult to listen to after a while.
As for the rest of the special features:
The Debt is one of the better spy thrillers to come around in several years, and it's also a nice reminder that the term "spy thriller" doesn't have to be synonymous with James Bond chasing a guy across 30-foot-high scaffolding equipment, and it doesn't have to automatically mean Jason Bourne wreaking havoc in a Mini Cooper. It is a film that relies on the fundamentals that all great thrillers (spy and otherwise) should rely on: Tension and suspense.
And while the Blu-ray release may be light on bonus features, the movie itself and its presentation make it worth checking out.
- Jason Jarman
Shop for The Debt on Blu-ray for a discounted price at Amazon.com (December 6, 2011 release date).
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