[Screen It]


(2016) (Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgard) (R)

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Dramatic Thriller: A poetry professor and his lawyer wife find themselves caught up in a Russian money launderer's efforts to defect from the Russian mob.
London poetry professor Perry Makepeace (EWAN McGREGOR) and his lawyer wife Gail Perkins (NAOMIE HARRIS) are in Marrakech trying to recover their marriage, but the strain is deep. When she leaves dinner to go work, that situation draws the attention of the boisterous Dima (STELLAN SKARSGARD) who invites Perry over for a drink and then to a party. He eventually reveals he's a money launderer for the Russian mob, but is concerned that its new prince, Nicholas Petrov (GRIGORIY DOBRYGIN), and son of the former leader, had one of his own killed, along with that man's wife and daughter.

Married to Tamara (SASKIA REEVES), Dima is worried about her safety as well as that of their 18-year-old daughter, Natasha (ALICIA VON RITTBERG), as well as two young twins girls they're now responsible for following the murder of their parents. Dima wants Perry, upon his return to London, to deliver a thumb drive to intelligence agents at MI6, and Perry reluctantly agrees. But he's stopped at the airport by one such agent, Hector (DAMIAN LEWIS), who's running a small surveillance team on the Russian mob and wants to know what Perry knows.

Perry and Gail are eventually let go, but then contacted again by Hector who informs Perry that Dima wants him at a meeting with MI6. The money launderer needs a witness in case they renege on a deal of delivering the names and account numbers of corrupt government types -- including possibly Hector's boss, Aubrey Longrigg (JEREMY NORTHAM) -- in exchange for asylum for Dima and his family. Worrying about the latter, Perry and Gail agree to assist, although their sudden involvement with Dima draws the suspicious eye of Petrov's lieutenant, Emilio (VELIBOR TOPIC). From that point on, Perry does what he can to help his new friend as things become ever more perilous.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
In terms of screenwriting and their subsequent portrayal on the screen, there are plenty of character types. For the most part, however, they fall into three basic forms. There's the established expert who's good at what he or she does, such as James Bond or the President of the United States.

Then there's the character portrayal of the person aspiring to get to that level. You know, think of sports figures such as Rocky Balboa or those trying to break into and rise through the music world in any number of related biopics.

And finally there are those who have no initial intention of getting involved in something, but suddenly find themselves thrust into some sort of new situation or world. Just about any superhero origins story falls into that category, but so do films such as "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" or "North by Northwest" (and many others) where the characters have nothing to do with the subject matter but end up sucked into that and then tossed around. That's followed by them figuring out how to either extract themselves from said situation or get up to speed and save the day.

"Our Kind of Traitor" falls into the third character type. In this adaptation of novelist John le Carre's 2010 work of the same name, a London poetry professor (the always likeable Ewan McGregor) is approached by a boisterous Russian figure (Stellan Skarsgard, terrific as usual) who seemingly simply wants to bolster the academic's spirits after seeing that man's wife (Naomie Harris) exit their restaurant on less than pleasant terms.

Soon the two are partying, an attractive woman makes eyes at him, and Perry even ends up playing tennis with Dima. But the Russian then approaches his new "friend" with worries that -- being a money launderer for a new "prince" of the Russian mob -- his family might be in danger, what with another involved man and his wife and teenage daughter earlier finding themselves on the wrong end of a machine gun.

Accordingly, he wants the professor to take a small thumb drive to MI6 upon his return to London. But before that can happen, he's pulled aside at the airport and interrogated by a British intelligence agent (Damian Lewis) who wants to know all about his affiliation with the mobster. Perry swears their friendship is barely that, but soon the poetry man and his lawyer wife find themselves embroiled in a possible mob defection and valuable (and damning) intel about shady and corrupt goings-on involving prominent political and business types and the mob.

That seems like a decent premise for an espionage type thriller, and perhaps it works quite well in le Carre's tome. As adapted by Hossein Amini and directed by Susanna White, however, the results are mediocre at best. The film does have its moments of intrigue and potential, and Skarsgard is magnetic playing the mob money man. But so much of what transpires is unbelievable that suspension of disbelief -- that really wouldn't be needed in this sort of tale if handled properly -- is sometimes hard to come by.

For starters, it's highly unlikely an educated university man would so easily accept a thumb drive from what's essentially a stranger (and a dubious one at that based on the freewheeling money vibe) and agree to turn it over to the intelligence community. Some easy script tweaks could have remedied that, ranging from personal or professional threats (injury or death to him or loved ones, blackmail stemming from a setup, etc.) to a longer period of knowing and becoming friendly with the guy. It's simply too short and too suspicious for anyone to get involved.

Then there's the fact that the nearly estranged wife agrees that they should work as intermediators of sorts between the mobster and MI6 to help make sure the intel deal goes down. The plot bases that on the couple's worry about the mobster's wife, teen daughter and "adopted" (and orphaned) younger twins should things go awry.

I can buy that to some degree, but with her being a smart lawyer, it's unlikely they'd put themselves at such high risk, what with barely knowing these people. Again, some tweaks could have softened or eliminated that story logic problem. Beyond those already mentioned, had the couple lost a child or children of their own, that would have given them a more believable impetus to get involved (and could have further explained the rift between the husband and wife that's presented right from the get-go).

Further lapses in believability pop up now and then and perhaps they could have been easier to overlook had the motivation of the money launder or intelligence agent been in play (as in one or both lying to the couple to selfishly get what they want without worrying about the fallout).

Alas, that's not the case as both sides are played out straight, all of which means having McGregor's character thrown into the unexpected situation isn't as engaging, exciting, worrisome or "fun" for viewers as it might have otherwise been. All of which means "Our Kind of Traitor" ends up as a middling thriller that rates as just a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed June 27, 2016 / Posted July 1, 2016

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