Whatever else the contemporary thriller accomplishes, the form strongly establishes the Central Intelligence Agency as major villains in the world of espionage and counterespionage. Over the decades, films as different as "Gorky Park," "Zero Dark Thirty," and most recently, "A Most Wanted Man," to cite only a few examples, paint the Agency as thugs, torturers, assassins, and even traitors. To its credit, "The November Man" continues that tradition.
The movie begins with an action scene that introduces the two major characters, their motivations, and in effect, the meaning of all the events that will follow. In one of those familiar pairings of the tutor and the tyro, a senior agent, Devereaux (Pierce Brosnan) instructs his younger assistant, Mason (Luke Bracey) in the procedures of finding and shooting a potential assassin. The plan works imperfectly, as Mason takes too long to identify his quarry, reacts too slowly, and causes what the military euphemistically calls collateral damage, an occurrence that shapes the rest of the plot.
The picture opens again five years later, with Devereaux, now retired in Switzerland, called upon by an old friend and comrade, Hanley (Bill Smitrovich), to travel to Moscow. Hanley needs him to extract Natalia (Mediha Musliovic), a spy with vital information about the next Russian president. In Moscow, everything goes wrong -- a puzzled and desperate Devereaux finds himself the target of both the Russians and the CIA, which leads to the usual car chase and shootouts, followed by a catastrophic explosion and a number of deaths.
Although the story of Devereaux's attempts to discover the source of the apparent plot against him dominates the action, a number of other initially unrelated threads run through his quest. A vicious, coldblooded Russian assassin, Alexa (Amila Terzimehic), journeys to Belgrade, Serbia, the movie's central location, then proceeds to knock off a series of victims. Alice Fournier (Olga Kurylenko), a young woman who advises refugees from Russia, turns out to be Alexa's prime quarry and a vital cog in the complicated mechanism of the plot.
Adding more substance to those subjects, Mason and Devereaux engage in a running cat-and-mouse game, with Devereaux constantly outwitting the best efforts of a whole platoon of agents to capture or preferably, kill him. An internal battle within the Agency complicates matters further, as various individuals jockey for position and accuse each other of betrayal.
The confusing layers of deception turn some portion of the action thriller into something of a mystery story, puzzling both the audience and Devereaux himself. The solution to the puzzle not only creates more surprises but also suggests a quite plausible scenario entirely relevant to the contemporary geopolitical situation.
Although it never abdicates its mission as a thriller, "The November Man" adds more complexity to its relatively familiar action sequences of automobile pursuits and crashes, explosions and stunts, and numerous gun battles. In the process, Devereaux faces the loss of one woman and attempts to save another, while contending with his own former organization, a band of Russian security agents, and the relentless female assassin.
Employing a mostly foreign cast and filmed beautifully in Eastern Europe, the movie displays a slick and not entirely implausible surface. Unusually for a slam-bang action thriller, the historical references and the surprising political motivation behind all the action and all the plots actually make a good deal of quite depressing sense. In light of recent developments in the Middle East, the arguments of the chief villain should strike a responsive chord in some sensibilities.
One of those actors who achieved a smooth transition from television to the big screen -- his first big hit was the TV series "Remington Steele" -- Pierce Brosnan accounts for much of the picture's success. In "The November Man" he departs from the character he's played in the past, the suave, handsome, dashing leading man with a touch of irony in the James Bond pictures or the remake of "The Thomas Crown Affair." In the role of Devereaux, perhaps drawing on his work as a nasty character in a forgotten little flick called "The Matador," he displays a dark side -- the charm turned into bitterness, the irony into cynicism, the chiseled good looks grizzled and lined by time, that subtle thief of youth: he makes a very good good/bad guy.