When a movie with recognizable stars gets a buried release or a direct-to-DVD berth, I’m inclined to wonder what, exactly, holds it back, given how many other crummy movies go out on 2,000 screens. The Double, for example, stars Richard Gere and Topher Grace as a retired CIA operative and a fresh-faced FBI agent, respectively, on the trail of a Soviet assassin code-named “Cassius”. This sounds like the type of movie that will play the multiplexes until multiplexes cease to exist, yet The Double is getting the kind of small release that smacks of contractual obligation—and would raise suspicion, if the movie wasn’t already flying, spy-like, under the radar.
As it happens, The Double isn’t much worse than any number of theatrical releases that have escaped, and in some cases made some money. It is, however, very bad—a lurid serial-killer/revenge movie dressed up as cat-and-mouse espionage. A lot of bad scripts showcase characters who sound like screenwriters attempting to imitate real-life professionals. The characters in The Double sound like teenagers attempting to imitate a bad script.
Their clumsy tough-talk and some stilted exposition render the movie deeply unconvincing, even at a movie level, about the practices of CIA and FBI. This is ironic, because Agent Ben Geary (Grace) is introduced as a man with no field experience but exhaustive research on his target, while Paul Shepherdson (Gere) is presented as the world-weary counterpoint who knows the field all too well. The movie, though, feels neither experienced nor researched, only reviving a Cold War world of Russian spies and double agents that would’ve felt dated even during Gere’s early-‘90s heyday.
Worse than the movie’s mustiness or silliness, though, is its approach to twist-dependent material: it reveals a major twist early on (and telegraphing it well before then), trades suspense for cheap irony during much of the first half, then holds back additional secrets for use in further, even more ridiculous twists. The result is a story seen from two limited points of view, Geary’s and Shepherdson’s, and an effect like pulling an ugly, worn rug out from underneath a tired audience.
Director Michael Brandt and his co-screenwriter Derek Haas have authored Hollywood pulp like 2 Fast 2 Furious and Wanted. The Double is just as ludicrous as those movies, but without another director to blame for its utter nonsense. Its central mystery is not how Cassius will be apprehended, or even how it was made and barely released, but how names like Gere and Grace got caught up in a low-rent, lower-intelligence thriller.
For Gere, it’s vaguely understandable; he’s reached an age where leading roles are increasingly scarce, and this kind of junk has happened to actors far better than him. (Righteous Kill, the cop thriller that The Double resembles, somehow snagged Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.) But Grace’s presence vexes more: he has the glibness and intelligence to play an FBI nerd, not a bargain-basement bad-screenplay version. Here, his natural charm only works against the charmlessness of the movie. At least supporting player Martin Sheen, to his credit (or not), feels right at home with this schlock, sauntering into crime scenes and delivering grave pronouncements that aim for hard-boiled but only hit the broad side of boilerplate.
As famous names like Gere, Grace, and Sheen have come to mean less, movies like this, movies that stars can help get made but not rescue, give off a time-capsule vibe. They feel of another era not due to old-fashioned craftsmanship (indeed, the ‘80s or ‘90s version of this movie could have been made by a reliable pro like Roger Donaldson or Sydney Pollack, and might’ve included some actual suspense in the deal), but because they exist at all. The Double comes to (a few) theaters on the heels of Trespass, a similarly star-led direct-to-video-quality thriller. That one at least had the fascination of Nicolas Cage’s deep (and sometimes deeply strange) commitment to his role. No one in The Double feels so invested.