The only thing twofold in The Double is the amount of rehashed spy-movie clichés. Only a full-on spoof could have been lazier when it came to such a hackneyed plot.
With monstrous duds like this one, there’s no one culprit to point our fingers at. It just fails across the board. But, usually when that’s the case, it means that there is just one place to direct the blame: the director. For this one, that means first-time helmer Michael Brandt, directing from his own script co-written with his frequent collaborator Derek Haas. The two have written decent actioners – Wanted, 3:10 to Yuma, 2 Fast 2 Furious – which leads me to believe that this tension-less bore owes its failings more to Brandt’s inabilities to truly take a script and run it all the way through the finish line on his own. Or perhaps their previous projects have benefited greatly from having third-party creative minds gloss over the inadequacies in their scripts.
The Double wants to be clever, intriguing, and suspenseful. It fails on all three levels. Brandt may have some more chops yet to be seen, but he set himself up for a rough go with this one by making his debut a thriller that requires a deft attention to pacing and the crucial ability to shoot a car chase. Seriously, I’ve seen episodes of Burn Notice that were staged more excitingly than this. And what is “this” exactly? Okay, so, Richard Gere plays Paul Shepardson, a retired CIA operative who used to track one of the most notorious Cold War-era Russian spies known as Cassius. When a senator gets killed, young FBI hotshot Ben Geary (Topher Grace) is convinced that this is the work of Cassius, even though he’s supposedly been dead for years. Naturally, Shepardson reluctantly gets pulled out of retirement and teamed up with Geary to solve the mystery. And here’s the thing: the “mystery” gets revealed at the first act turn. Yes, Paul Shepardson IS Cassius! Dun-dun-dun. Honestly, I have no idea why Brandt and Haas decided to structure their film this way because it took all the life out of it. I guess the notion is that since Gere is the star here, and Grace is one of the most irritating and unlikeable actors to achieve mediocre fame in quite a while, Shepardson will be the main character with whom we connect most, making it one of those root-for-the-bad-guy flicks. That’s fine when done well, like in Payback, but it’s just so boring, soulless, and ultimately not entertaining in The Double.
Remember when I blamed it all on Brandt as the director? Well, that’s technically true because had it been piloted by someone else, there’s no way they would’ve actually shot this script. Brandt the Director should’ve sent Brandt the Screenwriter back to do several more drafts before rolling any cameras. It’s just completely mindless. First off, we have totally irrelevant bad guys in the Russians. These Russians are doing absolutely nothing. Seriously. We see them come over across the Mexican border to infiltrate the country and, I guess, do some crime? It’s never clear quite what they’re up to, plus, this is 2011! This isn’t some period piece set in 1985 or anything (although there are a couple completely pointless flashbacks to that era that are so laughably short that it wouldn’t surprise me if they were kept in the final cut only because they needed the extra footage to keep it feature length) so with all of our current political and military climate providing plenty of possible plot lines and protagonists, why Russians as the villains?
But whatever. I’d buy this if it were done well. It’s just not. And it comes down to these ridiculously poorly written characters. The plot is so thin, the twists so obvious, the clues so apparent that there’s no doubt in our mind as to what we’re watching, which means that these supposedly professional intelligence agents should be light-years ahead of us. Instead they’re trying to catch up the whole time, which doesn’t fit at all for these experts. The central conceit sucks any organic tension out of the film like a vacuum, leaving the tired cat-and-mouse of Shepardson trying to convince Geary to quit the case, going so far as to visit Geary’s wife (Odette Annable) numerous times to have her convince him, as the only thing left to enthrall us. What a boring idea for a movie and so completely illogical: Geary is a Cassius expert-slash-FBI-agent, so why would he ever quit the case? Even more, why would Shepardson, if he is supposedly this CIA spy who trailed Cassius his entire career, want to just give up the case either? It makes no sense whatsoever.
And that’s the backbone of the movie. So we see Shepardson and Geary essentially tracking Shepardson himself, but since Shepardson is himself, he can kinda lead the investigation off track, or do something stupid that somehow gets Geary to move in the wrong direction despite feeling like he might be getting somewhere. Case in point, the absurd scene where Geary and Shepardson go to have a little chat with a Russian mobster, played by Stephen Moyer, who is locked up in what seems to be a local jail doubling as a maximum security prison. No, it’s more like a local hospital, that’s how lax the security is in this clink. But that’s not the worst part of the scene. It’s Stephen Moyer’s acting and face makeup. I have no idea if he has any real talent since I only know him from True Blood, but regardless the only thing he can do is grossly overact. Even in what could be a fun role as a Soviet gangster with a wicked(ly fake) scar on his face, Moyer takes it well over the top, which, with Brandt’s stunningly drab camera capturing the performance, feels completely out of place and lame. It’s like watching that guy at a party who’s like, “Dude, I do a mean Russian accent,” but comes off like a drunken, incoherent cross between Peter Storemare from Armageddon and Borat. And then at some point, just when Moyer might be giving us some good information that might lead us to Cassius, Shepardson jumps in and convinces Geary that he’s lying and they leave. But not before having given him a shitty clock radio as a reward for almost spilling the beans about his comrades, which he then uses to break out of this supposedly high security prison by swallowing batteries. Where were the guards? Who knows. And who’s waiting for him in the friggin’ loading dock from which he escapes — honestly, they might have shot this scene in a Vons parking lot somewhere in North Hollywood — but Richard Cassius Gere Shepardson who slices his throat with his patented wristwatch-razorwire. How did he get away from Geary so quickly when they drove together in the same car to the prison? No clue. And then not until the next day (seriously the sense of time in this film is so beyond off) does the Russian’s body get found (even though he was killed just outside in the garage after escaping from prison during which plenty of officials were chasing him) and Geary gets called to the case. It’s maddening. It’s so stupid. So insanely stupid.
Moyer isn’t the only actor going for Razzie infamy. Topher Grace is awful. He’s always the same exact guy – which isn’t uncommon for many actors – but he’s just so unlikeable. He’s that creepy annoying kid from high school who seems normal on the surface but there’s something just off about him. Something just not right. He’s so smarmy and smug. And so completely unbelievable as an FBI agent out in the field. Seriously, seeing him run after a perp in some industrial field carrying a gun just doesn’t work at all. I kept waiting for Ashton Kutcher to pop out of nowhere to confirm that the only thing that Grace can pull off is being a smug, smarmy high schooler in the 1970s. To be fair, though, Gere just sucks here, too. Usually, I like him even though we haven’t seen him much lately. If his performance in The Double is any indication, there’s a reason why he hasn’t been above movie titles on the marquees lately. Not quite yet in Val Kilmer territory yet but not too far off either. He’s just not nearly nuanced and deep enough to pull off this role where we know more about him than the other characters. He’s too flat, hitting the same notes in every scene no matter who he’s talking to. Then again, the abysmal writing doesn’t give him a whole lot to work with. Shepardson should be charming, convincing, scary. After all, he is a Russian superspy who has been living a double life in America for decades, a personality that would require some social massaging, not bringing too much attention to one’s self, you know, the usual when it comes to an intelligence agent who’s been doing this sort of thing for most of his adult life. Instead, Brandt and Haas write him as being completely tone-deaf, boring, out of control, and constantly acting all erratic – like creepily visiting Geary’s wife several times, who only seems to exist just so that Shepardson can continue to creep her out so eventually Geary finally suspects him as being Cassius. He’s just also miscast here. He’s no action star whatsoever, never has been, so to see him kicking and punching and slitting people’s throats with his watch (seriously one of the lamest murder weapons ever), it’s eye-rollingly dumb. Yes, he pulls a razorwire out of his watch, like those retractable cords that janitors keep on their keys tethered to their belts, and uses that to slice his victims necks, all in exactly the same unique way apparently that no one else has ever done in the history of man because whenever a dead body shows up anywhere on the planet with that signature gaping neck wound, it’s Cassius. It’s not a copy-cat. It’s not anything else. It’s a fifty-something, aging, long-since-thought-dead Russian assassin. Did I mention how stupid this movie was?
Another random plot point is that apparently Geary’s wife works at a book store, which seems to be the case just so that Brandt and Haas can have this ridiculously faux-suspenseful scene (because there is no actual suspense due to the inherent structure of the film, you see, they have to throw in these meaningless fake ones) where she’s on one of those tall ladders restocking books, but instead of moving the ladder closer to where the book needs to go, she just stretches way too far, and you just know that she’s going to fall. But, whew, Shepardson creepily appears out of nowhere at just the right moment to hold up the ladder before she could tumble. But there’s just no reason for this scene to exist. One, we never knew her profession before this moment. Two, she’s barely even a one-dimensional character at this point so even if her life were in danger, we don’t care. Three, it’s needlessly suspenseful for zero reason. A wobbly ladder is what they’re using as the scare device in a Russian spy thriller? Come on. It’s only there to satisfy the weak plot point that requires Gere to be all creepy and do his whole “YOUR HUSBAND IS IN DANGER!” bit. Again.
Then there’s the moment when Geary starts to think that Shepardson is Cassius so instead of talking to his superiors (apparently he’s a kid out of college who just got called up to the field for the first time ever but he’s totally autonomous with no superior to talk to other than Shepardson) he brings his buddy onto the case who wants so badly to be on the case, too, and also has some odd connection with telephone signals because Geary’s phone always rings whenever he comes by. So let me get this straight: FBI Agent Geary has reason to believe that his own partner is a double agent and he doesn’t even bother checking in with his own boss? I mean, we do find out why he doesn’t later on and I won’t ruin it for you but seriously, you won’t be all that surprised nor will you care. The problem is that it all needs to make sense in the direction we think we’re going in before the twist hits, otherwise it’s not surprising. We know something is seriously not right when characters don’t do the first, most obvious thing we expect them to do in a given situation. Instead, we spend the whole time waiting for that shoe to drop since it’s clear that we’re not in a normal reality here. Just garbage.
The Double offers nothing new to the genre and doesn’t even make for an hour and a half of mildly entertaining division. Even with the star wattage of Martin Sheen, Richard Gere, Topher Grace, and those A-list screenwriters behind the scene, The Double is a made-for-USA Network TV movie at best. And even then, that’s rather unfair to USA movies.