While too conventional and unexceptional to wow or deeply move us, the Nazi-hunter drama “The Debt” qualifies as a worthy thriller.
Working with a solid story and stellar actors, director John Madden delivers satisfying action and tension. Psychological texture, albeit in smaller doses, keeps the picture from succumbing to genre cliches and provides enough substance and seriousness to qualify it as a film right for fall.
Set in two decades and in several countries, the drama centers on three Israelis — Rachel (played by Jessica Chastain as a young woman and by Helen Mirren three decades later), Stefan (Marton Csokas, Tom Wilkinson later), and David (Sam Worthington, Ciaran Hinds later) — who, in 1965, are Mossad agents working together in East Berlin to capture a Nazi war criminal (Jesper Christensen).
Following a harrowing struggle that explains the older Rachel’s facial scar, we see a bloodied young Rachel gunning down this “surgeon of Birkenau.” The three agents become national heroes.
Unease surrounds that picture, however, as is evidenced by the disquiet exhibited by Rachel, Stefan and David in 1997, when a book is published about the events.
A 1960s sequence reveals that the trio’s actions were physically and morally messier than what official versions indicate. For decades, the three have struggled to live with their compromises.
The movie is based on an Israeli film, “Ha-Hov,” but its screenplay by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan suggests a Hollywood formula flick more than a story about Israeli dilemmas and history.
Potentially compelling themes, such as the difference between revenge and justice, are addressed only lightly. A romantic triangle that develops among the young agents nearly sinks the movie, as does a Ukraine mission that leads to a tediously routine, credibility-defying climax.
That said, though, the film still has plenty going for it, and, as thriller entertainment, it fares brightly.
Madden, whose credits include “Shakespeare in Love” and “Mrs. Brown,” builds suspense efficiently, stages action well, and creates absorbing atmospheres. A train-station getaway attempt is gripping. The apartment where the holed-up agents become entangled is uncomfortably claustrophobic. The screenwriters nicely keep the twists to a minimum; the biggie’s a good one.
If one of its frustrations is its use of genre contrivances over character-focused material, the film doesn’t entirely blow it. Scenes in which the agents take turns feeding their captive, each displaying a different view of how much humanity should be shown to a Nazi torturer, are consistently intriguing.
Bringing this material to life, all of the actors impress, with Chastain standing out. Echoing her turn in “The Help,” the multifaceted actress is touching in what is a problematically conceived female role.
Mirren, meanwhile, carries the day as the film’s hardened but redemptive emotional center.
Starring Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington
Written by Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, Peter Straughan
Directed by John Madden
Running time 1 hour 44 minutes