“No, no, no,” Pierce Brosnan memorably tutted while taking the reins as 007 and tossing Xenia Onatopp off his crotch in 1995’s GoldenEye. “No more foreplay.” Two decades later, playing an older, sadder, and wiser secret agent in The November Man, Brosnan’s command might well be shortened to, “No more play.” Hardly the sentiment on which to build a potential action franchise, but director Roger Donaldson determinately dispatches with any notions of frivolity from the outset. Brosnan’s Peter Devereaux is a retired C.I.A. spy who long ago threw in the moral towel and walked away from the agency, perhaps thinking he could at least salvage for himself an acceptable perpetual buzz from 18-year-old single-malt.
Via flashback, the movie posits as his apparent tipping point a botched assassination mission that ended when Devereaux’s young-buck apprentice, David Mason (Luke Bracey), impetuously took his shot early and ended up causing the death of a child bystander. Closer to the present, Devereaux gets recruited back into the game by a former colleague and black-ops veteran. His mission is to try to rescue a Russian double agent who’s smuggling evidence that the country’s forthcoming likely president was also running a girl-trafficking ring on the side. Lo and behold, he runs into Mason again during the course of the mission. And they’re clearly not working on the same side.
Donaldson embellishes an already overly plotty scenario with hollowly attractive genre superfluities like leather jacket-wearing hitmen and the way their inevitable clouds of cranial blood dissipate into thin air, or the hotel-room warm-ups of a taciturn assassin who can bend her leg behind her head at a 210-degree angle. And Olga Kurylenko—as the woman who may know the whereabouts of a girl seemingly every soldier of fortune, aspiring politician, and Chechen titty-bar impresario in Eastern Europe deigns to locate—wrestles valiantly with a role that’s both underwritten and overexposed. (Literally so, in a scene that would’ve ranked among the most leftfield Showgirls tributes of all time had Kurylenko painted her own nails instead of opting for crimson press-ons, and had she properly blushed her areolae.)
But at the heart of The November Man is the untenable, violent father-son relationship Devereaux and Mason smolder their way through. The elder mentor stresses to his charge the consequence of allowing sentimental human attachments to get in the way of the work, assuring him that you can be either a human or a killer of humans, but not both at the same time. It is, of course, a hypocritical homily on every level, one believed by neither Devereaux (whose ire against Mason was, after all, ignited by the death of that little boy five years back) nor Donaldson, whose lack of any levity whatsoever insists on the sympathetic pull of his doomed characters. Well, with the possible exception of Mason’s girlfriend, who gets seriously roughed up by Devereaux in the name of a teachable moment, and who, in a nauseating moment of sociopathic symmetry between the film’s maker and its main character, is whisked away, never to be heard from again.