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"TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY"
(2011) (Gary Oldman, John Hurt) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: Members of Britain's 1970s era Secret Intelligence Service try to find a mole in their ranks.
PLOT:
It's 1973 and Control (JOHN HURT) is in charge of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, a.k.a. "The Circus." Believing there's a mole in their operation, Control sends agent Jim Prideaux (MARK STRONG) to Hungary for information on who that might be.

The mission goes wrong, however, when Jim is shot, resulting in Control and his right-hand man, George Smiley (GARY OLDMAN), being forced into retirement in favor of agents Percy Alleline (TOBY JONES), Toby Esterhase (DAVID DENCIK), Roy Bland (CIARAN HINDS) and Bill Haydon (COLIN FIRTH) who have created Operation Witchcraft to collect Soviet intelligence.

When rogue agent Ricki Tarr (TOM HARDY) reissues the claim that there's a mole in their fold, Smiley is brought out of retirement to investigate. With the aid of agent Peter Guillam (BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH), he begins interviewing past Circus employees, such as Connie Sachs (KATHY BURKE) who was similarly forced into retirement for alleging that an agent was really a Russian spy.

From that point on, Smiley continues his investigation and digs deeper into the dealings of the Circus and its various agents, all to prove that one of their own truly is working for the Soviets and their spymaster, "Karla."

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
If one were to believe Hollywood's usual representation of being a spy, such a career and lifestyle would be filled with wild action, sexy babes and bits of wink-wink humor. After all, that's what most audiences have been spoon fed over the years through the James Bond flicks, the "Bourne Identity" and "Mission: Impossible" films and others ranging from the likes of "True Lies" to the "Austin Powers" comedies.

In reality, being a spy is likely a far more sedate occupation, with lots of paperwork, meetings, politics and boring surveillance peppered with occasional bouts of peril, violence and such. It's certainly an interesting vocation for one to choose, but despite the inherent trappings that come with it, such work is far more likely to end up being fairly boring rather than exciting.

I'm guessing that's not the intent, but that pretty much also sums up "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," a serious offering in the spy genre that has a plethora of characters, the search for moles, bursts of violence and some lust. Yet, despite all of its posturing and a great cast (with equally good performances), it didn't really do anything for me.

That's not to say it's bad by any means, and I didn't develop any desire to stop watching it at any moment. It's just that I kept expecting more from all of the obvious effort to make a serious rather than Hollywood-ized tale about spies and their "spy games." In full disclosure, I have not read John le Carré's 1974 source novel of the same name, nor have I seen the 7-part, 1979 BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley of the Secret Intelligence Service (a.k.a. MI-6) who's ordered to find a mole in their fold.

Screenwriters Bridget O'Connor & Peter Straughan have kept that as the core of the story in this adaptation, but reportedly had to perform quite a bit of truncating to pare down le Carré's lengthy novel into a two-hour film. Not being familiar with the source material, I can't attest to how that's affected the story. I can, however, say there are a lot of characters and motivations at play that, when coupled with the various flashbacks -- and flashbacks within flashbacks -- could have some viewers struggling to keep up with who's who and what's what.

Gary Oldman takes over for Guinness in the lead role and is quite good, often delivering intricate bits about his character without saying a word. After being ousted from the SIS - along with his mentor and boss (played by John Hurt) -- following a mission that goes badly for the involved agent (played by Mark Strong) -- Oldman's character -- ironically named Smiley as he never exhibits that or any other emotion for that matter -- is called upon to figure out if the mole exists.

A rogue agent (a good Tom Hardy, looking quite differently than he did as the beefed up MMA competitor in "Warrior") says there is, but those who've taken over the operation (Toby Jones, David Dencik, Ciaran Hinds and Colin Firth -- with the latter three barely personified and pretty much only used as chess piece filler) aren't particularly cooperative, so Smiley enlists the help of another agent (Benedict Cumberbatch) to do some inside digging for him.

Along the way, there are bouts of violence, a few perilous moments and some sexual content. For the most part, however, they're in the minority compared to longer passages of talking, exposition, discovery and such. That's obviously not a bad thing, but director Tomas Alfredson seems to have forgotten that an effort like this needs a slow burn approach that finally leads to a third act sizzle.

What's present works, but it isn't as engaging, compelling and/or interesting as it thinks it is. And despite all of the posturing as well as the character and storyline mechanics put into play, the film really boils down to the simple tale of a mole that needs to be found in their spy circle. And at least for yours truly, it wasn't that difficult to figure out (especially with one line of dialogue pretty much giving it away without being too obvious to those not really paying close attention).

While I appreciate a more mature and thinking person's spy film as compared to what Hollywood usually offers, I would have liked "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" to have grabbed and held onto my interest and surprised or even shocked me better than it ultimately does. The film rates as a 5.5 out of 10.




Reviewed December 27, 2011 / Posted December 30, 2011


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