“The November Man” had many of the ingredients necessary to produce a new spy thriller franchise. It has a memorable and catchy title, a well known talented actor attempting to go through a resurgence, a well liked and (at the time) popular novel, and right now is the perfect film climate to release an older man action film with Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington action films winning at the box office (both stars are in their 60s). Pierce Bronson here is looking to do the same as these other actors. Yet with all the proper ingredients, the cooks behind this film still messed up the dinner and forgot to add the rest of the proper seasonings for an entertaining action thriller. The story is messy, convoluted and unsure what it wants to be, while the action scenes lack any tension or excitement. “The November Man” fails on what it sets out to do and the planned sequels (that were announced before the film’s release) look far less appealing now.
“The November Man” follows a former CIA agent that has been brought back into the world of espionage for a very personal mission that involves someone close to him. Not only that, he has square off against his former pupil, and learns about a conspiracy that involves high ranking Russian officials and the CIA.
Right off the bat several problems present itself with the story. Being a novel written at a time of the Cold War between Russian and The United States of America, this very much is a novel of its time. Trying to plant old world politics into the modern age doesn’t always translate well. In the context of the modern political landscape the story doesn’t work, instead the filmmakers could have either set it back during the Cold War (which time period piece thrillers are always appealing) or could have updated some of the story elements. Maybe switched Russian out with a Middle Eastern country instead? “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” ran into some of the same problems but what “November Man” does that “Jack Ryan” does not, is deal it’s plot and story heavy in politics. Sure “Jack Ryan” may have its political elements but it was a more straight forward thriller with its main focus on the character of Jack Ryan. “The November Man” attempts to deal heavily with politics and Russian-NATO relations, yet it’s never feels proper and in turn feels out of date (even with the current situation in Russia). Screenwriters Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek attempt really hard here to develop a smart and involved screenplay but trips up due to its lack of direction and focus and then it’s muddy and sometimes convoluted plotline.
The movie jumps right in establishing the film’s theme of student versus teacher, apprentice versus master. It’s a theme that is intertwined in literature and film for centuries (for film a little less time than that but the point still stands). When the script pulls off the dynamic and builds the theme up really well the payoff is exquisite . Some of the only evidence you need to see this theme work so well in film is Obi Wan and Darth Vader in “Star Wars” and Ra’s Al Ghoul and Bruce Wayne in “Batman Begins”. Yet here the opportunity is missed. From the opening frames it appears to try to set up that dynamic and then forgets about it later then it pops up again. There is no consistent theme for this to work and feels forced rather than natural.
It doesn’t help that the rest of the script is heavily contrived and convoluted. The plot gets sloppy trying to throw out surprises at the audience for the sake of surprising them, but it doesn’t because we’ve seen these types of twists before. The plot of the main antagonist is ludicrous at best and the script will easily loose the viewer. We don’t need everything exampled to us, just give us a clue on what is going on, instead of trying to be appear to be smart by glossing over key details for the viewer.
Of course a poor story can made up with terrific action. Does all of Denzel Washington’s action movies have good stories? No, but the action more than makes up for them, here the action sorely lacks. It does have a few scenes of merit (mostly towards the end) but for the great majority the action feels dull. Director Roger Donaldson seemed to pull out “the typical action scene-beginnings edition” book and tried to copy it. The action lacks any tension or excitement and look pretty generic and derivative, which Donaldson compensates by throwing in a large amounts of blood in the screen.
Finally we have Pierce Bronson returning into a starring action role, no it’s not James Bond, it’s the November Man! Pierce Bronson plays Devereaux, a strong and cold hearted man that is sucked out of retirement (these spies never seem to get good retirement plans). Bronson has never been better at playing the physical side of the character and seems to relish the opportunity to be in full fledge action movie again. However on the acting side of things, he tries too hard. You can tell he is holding back every urge to just crack a smile or show any charm or charisma to avoid any comparisons to James Bond. His character is also unlikeable, when he threatens an innocent women at gunpoint (and knife point) how do you continue to place your faith in him as an protagonist? It wasn’t like the character had no choice it was a way to prove a point to his former pupil that Pierce comes off more like a sadistic 1980s action movie villain rather than a hero. Still this all being said, Bronson is the best performer in the film by far despite the weaknesses in his performance (which should tell you about everyone else’s performance).
“The November Man” had plenty of potential going into it but fails to deliver on it. The studio had clear intentions to turn this into a franchise (with two sequels already in the works) but unless they hire new screenwriters and a different director, I’m not all that interested. Would I give them a shot? Sure as with any movie but certainly not something I would be looking forward to.