Eric D. Snider October 18, 2012
Our previous James Bond, Mr. Pierce Brosnan, liked to amuse himself between 007 projects by playing roles that weren’t much different from the suave secret agent. Maybe it helped him stay in character. Or maybe debonair men performing detective work were just what he was best cut out for. He did start as Remington Steele, after all. You find what works, and you stick with it.
At any rate, he played two of his most Bond-like non-Bond characters in “The Thomas Crown Affair” (a dashing, high society art thief) and “The Tailor of Panama” (a libidinous British intelligence agent). The former got plenty of attention; the latter, not so much. Based on a John le Carré novel and directed by John Boorman (“Deliverance,” “Excalibur”), “Tailor” got a midsize release in the spring of 2001. It earned mostly lukewarm-to-positive reviews but only made $14 million at the U.S. box office. Admit it: You haven’t given the film a moment’s thought since then, and possibly not even then.
Me, I loved it! And… I also have not thought about it very much since then. Time for a revisit.
What I said then: “‘The Tailor of Panama’ is the first film to be shot on location in that country, and what a grand portrait it paints! Lush landscapes, charming locals and corruption as far as the eye can see. The post-Noriega Panama is, in this droll spy film, a place of crumbling morals and even worse social strata: Everyone is either dirt poor or filthy rich… The title character, Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush), whose client list includes every wealthy man in Panama City… is approached by Andy Osnard (Pierce Brosnan), a British spy seeking personal gain. There’s little real trouble at this point, now that Noriega is out of the picture, so Andy creates some with Harry’s help… Part of the fun of this film is not knowing exactly how much Harry is making up and how much is real. At the same time, we’re never entirely sure what to make of Andy… It’s a good, old-fashioned espionage caper film with one significant difference: Where the thrill usually comes from seeing everything unravel at the end, here we witnessed the, uh, raveling in the first place… Andrew Davies, adapting John le Carré’s novel, writes whip-smart characters and dialogue…. What a thoroughly enjoyable little film.” Grade: A [Here's the whole review.]
I could see grade inflation wafting off that review even before I rewatched the movie. What I wrote is positive, for sure, but there’s no way it adds up to an “A.” That’s one of the reasons many critics dislike rating systems, be they letter grades, stars, scores or something gimmicky like bags of popcorn or whatever. How do you distill a 600 word review into a single letter or number? And what if your philosophy changes over time? What if your criteria for what constitutes an “A” have shifted? These are the questions that torment movie critics and make them so grumpy all the time.
The re-viewing: It’s apparent that I’m smarter now than I was in 2001. (Fatter, too, but that’s not relevant here.) Upon first viewing, I thought that “part of the fun of this film is not knowing exactly how much Harry is making up, and how much is real.” On second viewing, it’s clear — and should have been clear the first time, because the movie does not intend to keep it a secret — that we DO know how much Harry is making up. There is no mystery there.
Of the Brosnan character, I wrote, “We’re never entirely sure what to make of Andy. We know he’s a scoundrel — sort of a James Bond type, but more vulgar — but what depths his dishonesty goes to we don’t fully grasp until the end.” First of all, “sort of a James Bond type, but more vulgar” doesn’t begin to describe him. He is outrageously crass, coarse and boorish; he drops the c-word, paws at Jamie Lee Curtis and is generally a loathsome cad. As for his dishonesty, from the very beginning we have no reason to think he’s the least bit trustworthy or professional. Lots of fun as a character, yes, but awful as a person.
I also misapprehended the status of the Panama Canal on first viewing, though in my defense, the status of the Panama Canal is complicated. The United States turned control of it over to Panama on Dec. 31, 1999, and the movie is set shortly after that. (My review said it was set when the canal was still under American control.) But part of the arrangement, which becomes an important factor in the movie, is that even though the Panamanians were in charge of it, the U.S. retained the right to intervene militarily if the canal was ever threatened.
This plays into a facet of the movie that went entirely unnoticed by me the first time: its satirization of government intelligence-gathering operations. Andy’s desire to get back into London’s good graces by providing juicy intel, coupled with Harry’s desire to pay off his debts by giving Andy what he wants, results in the manufacture of intel that is indeed very juicy but also completely false. Without becoming an all-out satire (like, say, “Dr. Strangelove”), the film shows how easy it is for faulty intel to balloon into something with disastrous consequences — something that resonates much more deeply now than it did in mid-2001. When you get right down to it, gathering intel really means taking somebody’s word for it.
Brosnan is enjoyable to watch as a slimy, self-serving spy, but Rush’s hapless, well-intentioned tailor-turned-informant is a true gem. I love his cheerful courtly treatment of his fancy clients — all “Yes, sir” and “Very good, sir” and “I don’t mind telling you, sir” — mingled with his less polite thoughts and sometimes frenzied actions. I sympathize with him as he slips further and further into trouble. I watch him and think, Ah, you poor dope. I hope this turns out OK for you.
Trivia notes: Who’s that as Geoffrey Rush’s son? Why, it’s Daniel Radcliffe, who by year’s end would be famous for playing Harry Potter! This was his first film. He doesn’t really do anything. Oh, and the man playing Harry’s deceased Uncle Benny is screenwriter/playwright Harold Pinter. Harold Pinter and Harry Potter, both in one film. What if Pinter had written one of the “Potter” screenplays? Some literary satirist/nerd should get on that.
Do I still love this movie? I do, and what’s interesting is that I love it for different (better) reasons than I did before. The political angles were a mystery to me then, contributing to the impression that the movie was more of a puzzle than it really is. Now I see the nuances better, and I enjoy the film on a deeper level. It’s also just a cracking good story with well-drawn characters. The conclusion is slightly unsatisfying — it deviates from the book’s ending, which I suspect is more fitting to the story — but I can overlook that in light of everything else. It’s time for “The Tailor of Panama” to stage a comeback! Grade: A-
“The Tailor of Panama” is currently on Netflix Instant, by the way. You should check it out.
Categories: ColumnsTags: Andrew Davies, Brendan gleeson, Daniel radcliffe, Eric's Re-Views, Geoffrey rush, Harold Pinter, Jamie lee curtis, John Boorman, John le carre, Pierce Brosnan, The Tailor of Panama