John le Carre's spy stories stand as smart, sobering counterpoints to the theme-park thrills of James Bond.
How playfully contrarian, then, that the film adaptation of le Carre's The Tailor of Panama co-stars the current Bond, Pierce Brosnan, doing a double-agent twist on 007.
Starring Geoffrey Rush in the title role, the film is a satisfying blend of action, intrigue, snappy dialogue and dark humor. Director John Boorman's pacing is crisp and even, no small achievement considering what a mongrel medley of genres — spy caper, political drama, domestic comedy, buddy flick — the movie takes on.
Rush plays Harry Pendel, a British expatriate who runs a tailor shop in Panama, a business built less on stitching skills than his talent as a raconteur — notably, his fibs about being professional heir to a master Savile Row tailor.
"There's only so many people you can do that to, tell the truth," Harry says. "Others are different. They need to be tailored."
Harry has a happy life with his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) and children and a reliable circle of friends, acquaintances and customers. But secrets underlie Harry's facade of bliss and prosperity.
Enter Brosnan's Andrew Osnard, a jaded British spy exiled to Panama after flubbing an assignment. Sniffing around for one good score so he can retire in comfort, Osnard catches a whiff of Harry, and the game is afoot.
Osnard quickly dissects Harry's Savile Row pretensions and bullies the tailor into feeding him morsels about the Panama Canal from his clients and his wife, a canal planner.
Trouble is, Harry is unable to glean anything noteworthy. So he concocts ever wilder stories about overseas interests negotiating to buy the canal. Undeceived, Osnard plays along, since the canal tales give him an edge to achieve his financial goals.
Boorman describes Osnard as the "anti-Bond," and Brosnan bravely delivers on the reverse image of his own career meal ticket.
As for the tailor, there's perhaps no actor better at playing the captivating babbler than Rush, who did it so well in Shine and Quills. Rush infuses Harry with buoyant charm, a survivor's willfulness and the anguish of the dissembler on the brink of being found out.
Curtis leads the excellent supporting cast with a nice twist of her own on the oblivious housewife she played in True Lies.
Harold Pinter provides comic high points as Harry's deceased Uncle Benny, an apparition who's mentor for his nephew's mendacity. Brendan Gleeson, star of Boorman's The General, is the tragic flipside as Harry's chum Mickie, a boozy ex-rebel. Leonor Varela plays Harry's office manager and polar opposite, a woman whose disfigurement by Manuel Noriega's thugs has left her rooted in cold truth.
Le Carre served as executive producer and shares screenwriting credit with Boorman and Andrew Davies. In commandeering 007 and his world, they've concocted a taut, tart, refreshing representation of what "license to kill" might mean in a world more real and grim than Bond's.
The Tailor of Panama, a Sony release, is rated R for strong sexuality, language and some violence. Running time: 109 minutes.