Arts and Culture

‘The Debt,’ remake of an Israeli Mossad thriller, far surpasses the original

Academy Award-winner Helen Mirren stars as retired secret agent Rachel Singer in John Madden’s espionage thriller "The Debt." Laurie Sparham/Focus Features)




A taut, beautifully crafted thriller with an Israeli accent, “The Debt” is easily and best appreciated as edge-of-your-seat entertainment.

At the same time, though, the English-language remake of the 2007 Israeli film “Ha-Hov” echoes a question raised far more egregiously by “Inglourious Basterds” but otherwise rarely discussed since “Marathon Man” (1976), “The Boys From Brazil” (1978) and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981): When is it acceptable and thought-provoking to cast Nazis as movie villains, and when is it an exploitative affront to history?

On that score, “The Debt” earns far better marks, surprisingly, than “Ha-Hov.”

It’s a matter of both integrity and structure, admittedly. The new film downplays a theme that the Israeli movie put front and center and then abandoned in pursuit of thrills, chills and spills.

“Ha-Hov” questioned Israel’s need for military heroes, primarily in the Jewish state’s insecure early years but also in the present. “The Debt” is less interested in national identity than the personal consequences of keeping a secret. Actually, the new film is concerned above all with intelligently keeping the audience guessing what will happen next.

“The Debt” opened Wednesday.

The remake retains the central plot of the original, but withholds a key revelation until much later. Since “Ha-Hov” was unseen in this country outside of a handful of Jewish film festivals, few moviegoers will know the secret at the core of the story. I certainly won’t spoil it for you.

Both movies begin in the mid-1960s with the triumphant return of a trio of young Mossad agents from a secret overseas mission. Their accomplishment was killing “the Surgeon of Birkenau,” an infamous Nazi (obviously inspired by Josef Mengele) living comfortably in East Berlin under an assumed name.

Leap forward 30 years, and the three legendary figures (played by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds) are compelled to revisit the pivotal event that shaped their lives and careers. The bulk of “The Debt,” consequently, consists of an extended flashback in which we see the German operation in its entirety.

Director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) stages and paces the set pieces and action sequences with crackling, convincing verve. Alas, the Mossad agents (played in their 20-something versions by gorgeous thespians Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas) strain credibility with their callowness and immaturity. They are well trained, up to a point, but lack discipline.

While the Holocaust provides the agents with intense personal motivation to repay the Nazi doctor, it also serves as an emotional Achilles heel that their cunning quarry exploits.

It’s for the viewer to decide if the doctor’s nasty taunt that Jews went to the gas chambers like docile sheep instead of fighting back against their outnumbered (but well-armed) captors accurately reflects Nazi attitudes, is intended to provoke the agents into a mistake or is a gambit by the screenwriters to raise the audience’s hackles.

Less effective is the decision to ratchet the tension in the Mossad operatives’ Berlin apartment into a contorted triangle that nudges the movie out of the satisfying terrain of nail-biting political thriller and into romantic melodrama.

That’s a minor quibble, in the big picture. “The Debt” is a splendidly executed suspense yarn that, unlike most Hollywood action flicks that presume the theater is filled with dolts, makes a determined effort to challenge the audience to deduce and decipher its central mysteries.

They are good ones, too: What is the debt, who owes it and to whom?

Be advised, though, if you go to “The Debt” expecting to see Jewish warriors taking revenge and eradicating evil, catharsis is not on the bill.

Michael Fox is a film critic in San Francisco.