It’s hard to believe Roger Donaldson has never directed a James Bond movie. His filmography—heavy on spies (The Recruit); pulp politics (No Way Out, Thirteen Days); and thievery (The Bank Job), with occasional forays into further-flung genres (Species, Cadillac Man)—reads very much like the resume of a man who would be hired as a Bond caretaker, particularly for one of the series’ ’90s-era entries starring Pierce Brosnan. Donaldson, with Brosnan himself in tow, gets an off-brand shot at the series in the form of The November Man. The two, who also worked together on the volcano action film Dante’s Peak, even recruit a former Bond girl to join them.
Brosnan plays Peter Devereaux, a CIA operative introduced mentoring and lecturing David (Luke Bracey), a younger agent. After an early altercation, Devereaux establishes his authority by hoisting his own bullet-ridden body up from the ground with the sole purpose of admonishing his charge for not following orders. The movie then jumps ahead five years, finding Devereaux semi-retired and estranged from David. But international and personal events conspire to bring the older agent back into the spy game, as they usually do in movies based on a series of airport novels. Soon he and social worker Alice (Olga Kurylenko, from Quantum Of Solace) are on the run from David and the CIA, as well as an unstoppable assassin (Amila Terzimehic).
This is a lower-level assignment than 007 usually receives, but it’s hard not to think of that iconic spy anyway; at this point, Brosnan has riffed on his most famous role at least as many times as he played it. For its first half, November Man proceeds like a less splashy version of one of Timothy Dalton’s Bond movies—more grounded than the Brosnan installments, but not as commanding as the Daniel Craig ones. That’s not to say the film works as a serious espionage yarn; it does feature a scene where two different characters walk in opposite directions from the same explosion. But Donaldson at least knows how to go through these motions. His style, probably a little too rote to be called classicism, keeps the camera moving around, often a step ahead of his characters, guiding them through the action scenes. The movie uses one particular action-flick trope—the pursued hiding around a corner to clock the always-unsuspecting pursuer—over and over, yet it never really loses its punch because of the way Donaldson establishes the camera’s momentum.
When The November Man goes beyond basic cat-and-mouse, though, it gets muddled about what kind of serious real-world stuff it wants to tackle: the psychology of secret agents or the mechanics of geopolitics. In regards to the former, the film sets up the relationship between Devereaux and David with maximum mentor-protégé drama and minimal actual characterization. Devereaux’s mid-movie description of David as “probably the best friend I ever had” sounds like it’s supposed to evoke a weary, remorseful gravitas; instead, it amounts to darkly comic implication. How bad must Devereaux’s childhood have been for him to consider an assassin whose company he barely seemed to tolerate his best friend?
Too frequently, the movie also treats its female characters as props to be shuffled in and out of danger as the screenplay requires—a nasty tendency that undermines its ongoing (and murkily argued) debate about whether a successful agent can maintain his humanity. Eventually, relationships are pushed aside in favor of resolving wan international conspiracies. When The November Man stays pulpy, its cheesier aspects—like a low-rent supporting cast and a gratuitous sex scene—seem like par for the course. When it turns more serious, so do its failings.