There are few movies whose tone, intent, and general content can be easily discerned from the front chosen for the opening title cards. But by the end of the title cards for "The Double," a new spy thriller starring Richard Gere and Topher Grace, you know what kind of movie you're in for: the blocky font flicks by, as if being decoded by some unseen force.; it's such a hackneyed stylish tic for this kind of enterprise, used in everything from direct-to-video thrillers to episodes of "24," that it was effectively lampooned in the Coen Brothers' send up "Burn After Reading" as yet another goofy aspect of the genre (watch them below).
Like everything in "The Double" (any Dostoyevsky reference is purely coincidental), the titles seem outdated and threadbare. It's a Cold War thriller set in the present day and, despite an opening text that suggests there are more Russian operatives in America today than there were in the woe begotten Reagan years, feels like the dusty relic from another era.
The movie starts off with muddily disparate moments – a bunch of Russians violently cross the border (through Mexico? What?) and, just as violently, a senator who has spoken out against Russian infiltration (he's the one we get the aforementioned statistic about the glut of sleeper agents from), is killed in a shadowy alleyway. Even though the senator was being monitored, a figure slinks in and cuts his throat. The CIA quickly identifies the murderer as a dastardly Russian operative named Cassius (due to the way the senator's throat was cut), long thought to be dead. A sternly humorless CIA director (Martin Sheen) recruits former agent Paul Shepherdson (Gere) to find the killer as Shepherdson spent much of the Cold War tracking Cassius and claims that he was responsible for the Russian's death.
Shepherdson is partnered with a plucky young FBI Agent named Ben Geary (Grace), a kind of wide-eyed student of Cold War politics with a keen interest in both Cassius and the man who tracked him for so long; think Clarice Starling without the twang. Shepherdson initially scoffs at the interagency comingling but accepts Geary as his overeager sidekick. He also says a lot of stuff like, "I studied Cassius so long I thought like him," which, especially when there's so little going on in the narrative, should raise some red flags in this type of movie.
While visiting a Russian thug named Brutus (an unconvincing Stephen Moyer), sporting a ton of sub-Viggo Mortensen tattoos and a facial scar so jagged and phony it looks like it came out of a Halloween make-up kit, it's revealed that (minor spoiler alert, especially if you've seen the trailers) Shepherdson is actually Cassius! The fact that this is about thirty minutes into the movie and in the showiest way possible (Gere gets to growl "I'm Cassius!" menacingly while a waterfall of blood pours out of Moyer's neck) does a lot to deflate the tension and suspense from the movie.
For a while, though, this conceit seems like it could be sort of fun, reminiscent of Carl Franklin's underrated crime movie "Out of Time," with Gere villainously sneaking around while Grace, as the straight-laced careerist, is hot on his trail, putting the pieces together with bookish intensity and drive. But this can only be sustained for so long before it becomes baggy and uninteresting, and shortly thereafter the film gets lost in a thorny mess of contrivances, plot points, and double-crosses.
The main reason that "The Double" is such a dud is that co-screenwriters Michael Brandt (making his directorial debut) and Derek Haas, who have written a number of similarly high concept Hollywood hits (including "Wanted" and "2 Fast 2 Furious"), fail to give any reason for all the sly operations and poorly choreographed car chases. There is no bomb threatening to blow Washington D.C. to smithereens or coup looming on the horizons; for some reason the fact that there are a bunch of Russian guys in America is supposed to be enough to give us the heebie-jeebies (it doesn't).
Gere is an outrageously underrated actor who elevates almost everything he is a part of (including, but not limited to, similarly pulpy fare like "Brooklyn's Finest" and "The Mothman Prophecy"), but here he seems strangely hampered. In scenes where he really gets to chew scenery, acting as the oversized bad guy he's supposed to be, he flourishes, and it's delightful to watch an actor as nimble and quick-witted as Gere trying to circumvent Grace's investigation. Like everything else, though, the things that start out enjoyable begin to drag at the movie's midpoint and become almost unbearable by the busy, noisy, utterly meaningless third act. Disappointingly, Grace, who showed some real zip in last summer's unfairly ignored sci-fi reboot "Predators," recedes into the background almost immediately, even when, in a misguided attempt at some further mystery, his background is too called into question.
"The Double" is one of those very-nearly-direct-to-video releases, fleetingly saved by the multi-platform desperation of studios and production companies, and is full of antiquated, simpleminded, xenophobic rah-rah Reagan-era patriotism. If there had been a little more sizzle to the film, with flashes of actual humor or sensationalistic violence, then it might be a halfway watchable romp, satisfactory in bite-size doses (and only in-between 'Bourne' movies). Instead, it's an unconvincing thriller as achingly out-of-time as it is politically and thematically unsound. You can probably stay at home and find a jauntier Cold War action movie on any late night cable channel, and you'll save yourself ten bucks. [D]