A Man, a Plan, a Flimflam

A Man, a Plan, a Flimflam

A Man, a Plan, a Flimflam

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March 30 2001 3:00 AM

A Man, a Plan, a Flimflam

Pierce Brosnan makes a devilish spy in The Tailor of Panama. 

The Tailor of Panama
Directed by John Boorman
Columbia Pictures

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Military leaders can only dream of the sort of coup that director John Boorman pulled off when he cast the villain of John le Carré's The Tailor of Panama—a sinister travesty of a secret agent called Andy Osnard—with the cinema's reigning James Bond, Pierce Brosnan. Osnard could be 007's seedy little brother—a craven opportunist whose runaway libido has resulted in his exile to Panama, where he wants to have the most impact doing the least amount of work. That leads him to Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush), middle-aged English tailor to the wealthy and powerful, a man with a fabricated past and huge debts who can be easily pressured (i.e., both bribed and blackmailed) into passing on secrets about his clients. A fundamentally decent man who only wants to help people, Pendel is the story's protagonist, and Rush has a groggy sweetness that's very appealing. But with Brosnan playing Osnard, it's the bad guy who has a mythic stature, who embodies a rich, imperialist tradition of English male potency—of spies with license to ravish and kill. We know that he's the devil, but we've been programmed to let him seduce us.

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It's fun to imagine that le Carré's novel, an outlandishly cynical black comedy, comes closer to capturing the reality of espionage than his "straight" books do. Le Carré credited Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana for his inspiration (this is "Our Man in Panama"), and Greene's influence helped to spring loose a theme that in other le Carré works remains discreetly coiled: that much of what passes for spying these days is the product of incompetence or outright fraud—a convoluted charade to keep a class of drunken Englishmen profitably employed. Those people are deft at spinning the truth to sway the leaders of the military-industrial complex, who are deft at applying their own self-serving spin; and by the time the information reaches decision-makers, the filigree of fictions has resolved into something frighteningly solid, with a life of its own. The novel lacks the inner drama of Greene or even the momentum of early le Carré, and it goes on too long to sustain its one-joke premise. But it's a helpful appendix to the author's Cold War sagas, and in the hands of director Boorman, it's a terrific movie counter-myth.

Boorman, who co-wrote the screenplay with le Carré and Andrew Davies, has slimmed the story down and hustled it up. The Tailor of Panama opens with Osnard being shipped to Central America against his will, and the relationship with Pendel is on its feet and humming in under 10 minutes—which includes a crawl about the history of the canal. I miss the lushness and lyricism of Boorman's best work—Deliverance, Excalibur, Hopeand Glory—but there's something to be said for his fleetness here, and for the frisky inserts, flash-forwards, and fast-motion scenes of Pendel measuring and cutting. An old master who can learn an exhilarating new syntax from such brash young-'uns as Steven Soderbergh and David O. Russell is the best teacher of all.

It's the right voice for this material, which is closer to Russell's Three Kings (1999) than to George Smiley. The joke at the center of the story is that, contrary to Osnard's assumptions, Harry doesn't have the confidence of the government leaders for whom he makes expensive suits—and there's nothing much going on in Panama anyway—so he invents a scenario that involves a possible sale of the canal to the Japanese and a "silent opposition" led by a despairing alcoholic (Brendan Gleeson) ready to liberate Panama from a new class of crooks. Le Carré's wittiest wrinkle is Osnard's unspoken complicity. He didn't bargain on Pendel lying to him, but he quickly senses that Harry's whoppers will serve his ends as well as the truth will—better, really, since fictional insurgents don't have to be actually paid, and since he knows the United States, in particular, is just itching for an excuse to invade and reclaim the canal. So what begins in the fitting room ends in chaos and carpet-bombing.

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The decision to let Brosnan play Osnard probably kept the Bond producers up a few nights, but letting him do it was the right call. The actor's handicap coming into the Bond series was the look of a fatuous mannequin—great for the hero of Remington Steele, not so great for the brilliant superstud with the license to kill. With his slit eyes and Ken-doll visage, Brosnan can probably never be a heavyweight actor, but sheer will has gotten him at least to middleweight level, and parts like Osnard add layers of guile that round him out and make him seem more dangerous. What Boorman got out of the deal is immeasurable. Watch the way Brosnan's Osnard plays with Rush's Pendel, dominates him, tries to seduce his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis), and even takes him to a gay bar to underscore the erotically charged nature of their relationship. You almost can't believe you've been allowed to watch James Bond with the sleazy fascist S&M dimension unvarnished.

The Tailor of Panama builds to the brink of a war that might have been a cross between Duck Soup (1933) and Three Kings, but the climax is abruptly curtailed—bombardus interruptus. The pandemonium ceases at the point where Boorman could have been Boorman—the cracked nihilist visionary of Hope and Glory, who took his cues from John Betjeman's line in praise of the blitz: "Come bombs and fall on slough …" There's something about this tall tale that needs to be worked out on an epic, military scale, with blood and rubble. I fear that the cozy domestic ending will leave audiences disappointed, convinced that they've seen something smaller and less momentous than they have. Big-studio geopolitical farces that cut deeply into our fantasy lives come around less often than bombings of small Third World countries.  

David Edelstein is the chief film critic for New York magazine and a film critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.