Once, many moons ago, Pierce Brosnan traded quips while thwarting terrorists in his debut 007 thriller Goldeneye. Several years later, the distinguished actor settles for the cinematic equivalent of a Golden Parachute, a paycheck role in a burgeoning franchise that may pad Brosnan’s retirement fund but asks very little – in terms of performance – from its rugged, disinterested lead (and even less of its audience).
If you’ve witnessed even one spy thriller, then you’ve seen almost everything director Roger Donaldson attempts in The November Man. Brosnan plays Peter Devereaux, a retired CIA agent previously considered to be the best of the best who – I kid you not – is lured back into the “life” for one last, lethal job. Devereaux ventures to Moscow to escort a former colleague across the border. Guess what? Yep, that’s right. The mission derails, plunging the reluctant Devereaux into a murky geo-political standoff involving a corrupt Russian leader (Lazar Ristovskoi), a beautiful social worker (Olga Kurylenko) assisting sexually-abused survivors of a bloody Chechnyan conflict, and Mason (Luke Bracey) – Devereaux’s best student who now has orders from the CIA to take his former instructor down.
Sounds familiar? That’s because the generic The November Man dabbles in the usual cloak-and-dagger espionage, with cardboard spies transporting dangerous intel as they work their way through a series of telegraphed double-crosses by crooked superiors. Admittedly, it’s getting harder and harder out here for a spy. Decades ago, Brosnan’s former, beloved agent – James Bond – was the biggest game in town. Now, a conventional thriller like The November Man needs to compete against the crowded field of Jason Bourne, Jack Reacher, Daniel Craig’s 007, the still-vibrant Mission: Impossible franchise. Producers can’t even bring Tom Clancy’s famous Jack Ryan back in from the cold. Audiences satiated by outstanding long-form espionage thrillers such Alias and the most recent season of 24 have come to expect a level of quality that The November Man simply doesn’t deliver.
It doesn’t help that Brosnan composes his anti-hero, Peter Devereaux, from the dustiest, most overused spy traits. We’re repeatedly told he’s an expert, instead of cleverly shown why Devereaux has survived so long in this deadly game. He’s supposed to be grieving, angry, and thirsty for blood after an emotional loss in the first act, but the stone-faced Brosnan never gives us a look inside this agent’s soul. A promised sequel, which also will pull from the novels of Bill Granger, may tell us more about this storied spy. After the dull November Man, though, I’m not sure I care to learn.
To be fair, it’s not a total waste. The back-and-forth cat-and-mouse interplay between Brosnan’s old dog and Bracey’s arrogant pup can be entertaining in spots, and older audiences likely will embrace this curmudgeonly agent whenever he puts the know-it-all whippersnapper in his place. Less discerning viewers will realize that Brosnan, the “action star,” brings fewer physical skills to the table. Spotting the stunt double in hand-to-hand combat sequences helps pass the time, but Brosnan’s license to kill has been traded in for a license to lecture, like an experienced professor passing along tricks of the spy trade in between carefully controlled explosions.
The November Man isn’t offensively terrible or insultingly inefficient. You’ve seen worse. It just isn’t good enough to ever separate itself from the routine spy games you can watch elsewhere on any given day of the week.