The November Man is a nasty piece of work — the kind of movie where it’s not enough for a bad guy to get a sniper’s bullet through the brain in close-up; he also has to smash his head against the side of a boat as his lifeless body plummets to the water. (He’s on a boat.) Based on the late author Bill Granger’s popular series of Cold War–era espionage novels, this thriller, updated for our times and starring Pierce Brosnan as Granger’s CIA agent hero Bill Devereaux, is appropriately pulpy — fuss-free and fast. If it doesn’t transcend its genre origins, I suspect it’s because it doesn’t want to.
The film opens with a scenario typical of movies like this: the job gone wrong. In this case, it’s a foiled assassination attempt in Montenegro in 2008, in which Devereaux’s protégé David Mason (Luke Bracey) fails to follow an order and the ensuing mess leaves a young boy dead. It then moves forward to another typical scenario: Devereaux, some years later, enjoying a quiet Swiss retirement, being coaxed back into service by his former superior Hanley (Bill Smitrovich). He has to help extract a double agent from Moscow, a woman who holds the secret that could potentially bring down the next president of Russia. Actually, scratch that, she holds the secret of another woman who holds the secret that could potentially bring down the next president of Russia.
What follows is the usual pulp shuffle — familiar twists and double-crosses, recombined and reordered for this story in their own particular way. Suffice it to say that Devereux winds up spending a lot of time protecting Alice Fournier (Olga Kurylenko), a social worker dealing with victims of human trafficking, against both Russian thugs as well as his former underling Mason. There are hostage standoffs, mysterious assassins, and plenty of nameless cannon fodder for our protagonists to dispatch with unsurprising efficiency. It’s the movie equivalent of airport reading, a disposable story with disposable characters. Nothing is as it seems, but everything is still as predicted. If this was 1995, your dad would have a VHS of this sitting in the corner, unrewound.
However, The November Man seems to understand where it’s coming from. Brosnan, who was a better James Bond than he often gets credit for, doesn’t like to smile much, but he still brings a weary likability to a grim part, just enough to keep us invested as the movie trots through its gauntlet of familiar twists and double-crosses. The director, Roger Donaldson, is a talented journeyman who has made a number of unadorned genre movies that are better than they needed to be: The Bank Job, No Way Out, White Sands, even Species. (He’s also made some more prestigious, worthy dramas like Thirteen Days and The Bounty.)
The November Man doesn't come anywhere near that pantheon, but it does have a speedy, brutish quality that feels appropriate for the material. Donaldson keeps his camera tight, follows close, and doesn't dwell. The film leaps and dashes from one twist and/or moment of arterial spray and/or unnecessary head-slam to another, without giving you any time to think about anything — which is what it needs to do, because if you thought about it for more than a second, it would all come crashing down. “Running is better than dead,” seems to be Devereaux’s mantra, and the film has dutifully absorbed that lesson: It moves.