It's easy to see why Pierce Brosnan took the role of the duplicitous, predatory MI6 agent in "The Tailor of Panama." This guy is the anti-Bond, and infinitely more interesting as a character than the cinema idol version of 007.
Andy Osnard is similarly handsome, worldly, cocky and domineering. But he's also dark and flawed, ruthless, mean and corrupt. He's blackmailer, a cheat, a self-serving rogue and a disgrace as a spy -- which is why he's been drummed out of a prestigious position and dumped into a bottom-rung embassy assignment in Central America.
But Osnard has no intention of taking this lying down. Within 24 hours of his arrival, he's planted the seeds of a fictitious rebel uprising in a complex ruse make himself look like a master espionage agent underestimated by the home office.
His plan relies on a secret source named Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush), a petty ex-con from England who moved to Panama and reinvented himself as a high-end tailor to government fat cats. Osnard knows all about his past and blackmails Harry into passing along the kind of secrets he overhears every day from powerful men who barely notice he's in the room.
But Harry is a sniveling sycophant with a starving ego -- and pathological liar. By feeding Osnard the kind information he wants to hear, Harry gets to feel important. So he fabricates stories of a growing underground dissident group called the Silent Opposition and their plans for revolution. Does Osnard realize this group is a total fiction? Perhaps. It's likely he doesn't care, as long as the information serves his purpose -- which may be motivated more by his own greed than by a desire to show up his superiors.
Adapted by John le Carré from his own novel and directed by John Boorman ("The General," "Point Blank," "Deliverance"), "The Tailor of Panama" depicts in pulpy detail a murky world of guile and Machiavellian counterintelligence -- a "Casablanca without heroes," as Harry so vividly describes it.
After a choppy establishing act that leaves the audience with some catching up to do, Boorman envelops the viewer in this world so effectively that, even sitting in an air-conditioned theater, you can almost feel the heat and humidity of Panama City on your skin. And Boorman culls dense, sweltering performances from everyone in his gifted cast that fit right into this environment.
Digging in to this meatier, clearly more stimulating spy role, Brosnan plays Osnard with a voracious malevolence. This dirty dealer has no qualms about threatening to depth-charge Harry's marriage or expose his criminal history to keep the loquacious lubber in check. In seducing a beautiful, icy embassy official (the accomplished and under-appreciated Catherine McCormack) and attempting to seduce Harry's wife (Jamie Lee Curtis), Osnard also shows a much cruder charm than that other secret agent Brosnan has been known to play. (In fact, except for being crooked to the core, Andy Osnard is a lot like the more menacing 007 of Ian Fleming's novels.)
As the craven blowhard Harry Pendel, Rush personifies the tenuous, goosey countenance of a man who clings to his ephemeral delusions of prestige-by-association. The yarns he spins for Osnard are a feeble attempt to ingratiate himself with someone he perceives as important. (These two men share an interesting kinship of personal failure.)
Another fantastic performance comes from Brendan Gleeson (star of Boorman's "The General"), as a drunkard former guerilla hero, inadvertently chosen by Harry to be framed as the leader of this concocted rebel force. It's already too late when Harry realizes his ego has put lives in danger and created the catalyst for an explosive international incident that could lead to the kind of invasion that deposed Manuel Noriega in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, it begins to look like Osnard may have planned something this vast and treacherous all along. And he's not the only one.
Toward the end of the film, Boorman seems to lose his tenacity, opting for a contrived, abrupt, toothless finale, flailing with loose ends, that smacks of a possible studio-imposed reshoot. But until those unfortunate last few minutes, "The Tailor of Panama" is a swarthy, seething, intelligent, magnificently crafted thriller (peppered with some delicious dark comedy) good enough to overlook -- although not forgive -- the film's obtrusive shortcomings.
Run time: 109 mins
In Theaters: Friday 30th March 2001
Box Office USA: $13.1M
Distributed by: Columbia Pictures
Production compaines: Columbia Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 77%
Fresh: 89 Rotten: 27
IMDB: 6.1 / 10
Director: John Boorman
Starring: Pierce Brosnan as Andrew " Andy " Osnard, Geoffrey Rush as Harold " Harry " Pendel, Jamie Lee Curtis as Louisa Pendel, Leonor Varela as Marta, Brendan Gleeson as Michelangelo " Mickie " Abraxas, Harold Pinter as Uncle Benny, Catherine McCormack as Francesca Deane, Daniel Radcliffe as Mark Pendel, Lola Boorman as Sarah Pendel, Mark Margolis as Rafi Domingo
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