The Tailor of Panama (2001)

D: John Boorman
S: Pierce Brosnan, Geoffrey Rush

Pleasingly sardonic espionage drama based on the novel by John Le Caré (but bearing a more than passing resemblance to Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana). Amoral spy Pierce Brosnan (The Thomas Crown Affair) finds himself assigned to contemporary Panama as punishment for many indiscretions in more high profile postings. He quickly sizes up the situation: a dead revolution, big business running riot, a virgin government struggling to get organised in the wake of a power shift. Like Clint Eastwood's man with no name in A Fistful of Dollars, this character sees opportunity where others see strife (or, in this case, relative peace). He recruits local tailor Geoffrey Rush (Quills) (himself a man with a shady past) to scope out the action, or invent some. An unspoken understanding between the men evolves into a complex plot about a pending rebirth of subversive activity led by broken, overweight Brendan Gleeson (The General), a revolutionary a long way from his former glory. Meanwhile Brosnan plans to make as much money from the rising panic as he can before clearing out while Rush has to cope with the threat of his past (and his present) destroying his happy and respectable life with wife Jamie Lee Curtis. When Brosnan even begins to move on her, another set of conflicts begins to emerge, and the situation could well explode for real with devastating results.

Though operating in a purely commercial mode, director John Boorman (The General) is well able to extract drama from almost every moment of screen time here. Claustrophobic scenes of confrontation and intrigue staged in cramped dressing rooms, dialogue in which the spoken and the unspoken operate in a dialectic, vicious, bloody flashbacks interrupting scenes of calm to hint at the flames which burn under the surface, neat, focused swipes at the spy genre and the politics of contemporary capitalism: all good, all pretty much on target. The narrative goes into an out-of-control spiral in the final reel, granted, and not every character is explained equally or adequately, but The Tailor of Panama is a nice, solid spy movie of a kind almost forgotten these days.

On another level though, this is clearly a pretty sharp dig at the kind of spy movie which has continued to prosper; specifically those featuring the dapper superspy currently played by Brosnan himself -- James Bond. It is all the more remarkable that Brosnan has appeared in this movie at this time given that circumstance, and the film is all the better for it. Though Bond movies are fun in their own way, they trivialise a genre which has the ability to raise interesting questions about morality, ethics, and politics. His character here is no admirable playboy and doesn't so much serve the British Empire as plan to set up one of his own with the spoils of war. Playboy maybe, eager to take whatever he can get at parties or in boudoirs with whomever he can manipulate or purchase for his pleasure. He is also deeply cynical in a way James Bond sometimes was in print but only rarely on screen. Brosnan clearly enjoys playing this dark side while still turning on the charm, and the film backs him up all the way in exploring the depths of contempt for other people shown by this man and his ilk.

It may be polemical overkill in that respect, and Brosnan's character does turn out to be more interesting than Rush's (through no fault of the actor). The film doesn't quite perform as smoothly as narrative entertainment as it does as satire, so in drawing attention to deficiencies in the genre, Boorman and co-writers Le Caré and Andrew Davies have partly failed to make an entirely workable genre film.

Still though, it only seems to come apart in the final twenty minutes or so, and the overall impression one takes away is pretty good. It looks beautiful: with production design by Derek Wallace, art direction by Sarah Hauldren and Irene O'Brian, and costume design by Maeve Paterson. It is all crisply photographed by Philipe Rousselot and scored quite stylishly by Shaun Davey. It is a classy production (partly made in Ireland) a well crafted bit of contemporary moviemaking which doesn't quite produce a classic of the genre, but makes worthwhile viewing.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.