Set in two different eras, with two different trios playing the same characters, The Debt is gripping and gritty, a thriller that breeds genuine excitement in both of the time periods in which it is set.
Based on an Israeli film of the same name, The Debt begins in the late 1990s, with the unexpected reunion of three aging, former Mossad officers. Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) is being honored, along with ex-husband Stephen Gold (Tom Wilkinson), after the publication of her book, about their takedown of a Nazi war criminal, Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), a doctor known as the Surgeon of Birkenau.
But their world is shaken at the arrival of David Peretz (Ciaran Hinds), the third member of their team in the capture and death of Vogel. He arrives bearing a news clipping from a small newspaper in the Ukraine, an article claiming to be an interview with Vogel, who is alive and well and telling his own version of Singer's book. What to do?
Even as the trio plots its next move, we head back in time to the 1960s, where the trio -- now played by Marton Czokas, Sam Worthington and the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain -- track, capture and try to escape from East Berlin with Vogel. They've located and identified him; the trick is getting him out of the country.
They've got a plan but plans tend to go awry -- and this one does. The trio also must contend with its own dynamics: the dismissive way Stephen treats Rachel, while David harbors a smoldering crush on her.
John Madden's film, from a script by Matthew Vaughn, is lean and to the point, a solid job of moving the action forward and keeping you in the moment without frills or showiness. The several fight sequences have the power of solid body blows; even the seemingly dainty Mirren proves herself deadly at close range.
But the real action is emotional: the blend of duty, regret, uncertainty, lust and longing that informs the younger trio, the renewed passion that Mirren taps into as an agent forcing herself out of retirement. Chastain and Worthington invest wordless moments with big feelings, even as they convince us of their ability to kill an enemy if necessary.
An added note about Jesper Christensen, who plays Vogel: He's perfect as the serpentine former Nazi now hiding in plain sight as a kindly old OB-GYN. His hooded eyes and thin-lipped smile are always revealing without ever being obvious.
Yet The Debt also investigates the moral complexities of the situation: of a group of agents charged with returning an enemy to justice -- someone who would kill them without hesitation but whom they are instructed not to kill. The immediate, visceral justice of executing this monster -- to, in essence, put themselves on his level -- is hard to resist and fraught with disaster.
The Debt is what you want from an action thriller: a film that appeals to the adrenal gland without bypassing the brain. It's white-knuckle excitement that forces you to think about it afterward.
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