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starring Dominic Cooper, Ludivine Sagnier, Philip Quast, Raad Rawi
screenplay by Michael Thomas
directed by Lee Tamahori
by Angelo Muredda The Devil's Double might be the first bad movie about which you can non-figuratively say, "That looked like piss." Director Lee Tamahori, who started off decently with 1994's Once Were Warriors but has since become a dependable franchise killer (Along Came A Spider, Die Another Day, xXx: State of the Union) and a Hollywood hack behind the occasional Nicolas Cage abortion (Next), bathes every shot in garish yellow lights that transform white leather couches into urine-stained gilded bars. If you're willing to excuse this aesthetic for the first few seconds of every shot as an uncomfortable and weirdly xenophobic bit of formalism--what better way to depict Iraq than to give it a nice golden shower?--good luck with the rest. When characters reposition themselves in the frame, they often seem to block the light source and thrust their companions into the dark for no good reason. DP Sam McCurdy surely considers this a clever trick, as he executes it over and over again, yet Tamahori's film, a hollow adaptation of Latif Yahia's unconfirmed autobiographical account of serving for many years as Uday Hussein's political decoy, is such a bore that the effect is one of watching someone throw buckets of neon paint on a blank canvas.
How this gaudy, slow-motion trainwreck became a Sundance selection instead of a straight-to-video release is anyone's guess, but Dominic Cooper tries his best in the dual roles of Latif and Uday--the straight-laced merchant's son and the flamboyant, murderous wastrel issue of Saddam (Philip Quast), respectively. Latif, an academic sort called in to meet his former classmate and now political superior, turns out to be the closest physical match Saddam's people can find for the important assignment of his son's body double. He protests, but as you might expect, the Husseins aren't the sort of people you say no to, and soon Latif is called upon to observe and transform himself into the spitting image of the man he's now forced to call his "brother." Mostly this means learning how to throw tantrums and field mundane speaking arrangements, but hey, the scenery's nice.
Beyond that mildly engaging set-up, nothing much happens for the two-thirds of the film that remain. The Devil's Double grinds to a halt whenever Latif tries to extricate himself from Uday's iron (or maybe golden) grip. The laughably protracted residual plot is split between Latif's mind-numbingly banal secret trysts with Uday's favourite lover, Sarrab (a wooden Ludivine Sagnier, looking like Lady Gaga), and a series of unintentionally hilarious foiled escapes. Cooper is tasked in these scenes with playing both the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, and though the sight of him whipping his physical likeness might be the start of something intriguing in a better movie, Tamahori is content to have audience members supplement his trite reflective images with their own stock thoughts about the doubleness of identity and what have you. It's supposed to be meaningful, for instance, when Sarrab disparages Uday as someone who wants to "fuck himself to death," but so vapid are these characters and so excessive are the stylistic flourishes that surround them--not least the frequently stuttered frame rate--that you'd think she was referring to Tamahori. Why Uday wants to anything himself to death is hardly of interest to anyone here.
I wish I could say that Cooper comes out of this mess alive, but that's only half true. As Uday, he's a riot--a friendly, locker-room teasing runt who's always one step away from either talking about his cock or hyping himself into a cartoonish rage. He's no Tony Montana, but then this is no Scarface, so he'll do. As Latif, however, Cooper mostly seems constipated. "You are asking me to extinguish myself," he tells his handler (Raad Rawi) early on, his brow intensely furrowed. But we haven't a clue what this means for him: what fire, after all, is there to extinguish in an empty urn? His Latif is the kind of grave family-man cipher Eric Bana has been stuck playing ever since Hollywood discovered he was handsome and forgot he was funny. It's supposed to be revelatory when Latif walks out of his room as Uday for the first time, screaming shrilly and knocking over champagne glasses, but it's a bad performance: overwrought and without conviction--the devil's double of the film he's in.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Lionsgate brings The Devil's Double to Blu-ray in an impressive 2.35:1, 1080p transfer. It's a pristine delivery of a very ugly film: McCurdy's gold palette is rendered with appropriate saturation, sharpness is fine (check out the brothers-from-other-mothers' varying stubble), and contrast is generally strong, though it's sometimes deliberately cranked in a way that turns faces like Sagnier's into undifferentiated blobs. My only quibble is over the slight edge enhancement in the many garishly floodlit scenes. The 7.1 DTS-HD MA track is also very strong, offering deep range and immersing you in everything from marketplace gunfights to Iraqi nightclubs that only ever seem to play "Relax." This is a loud, directionally complex mix rendered well in lossless audio.
Bonus material is fairly standard for a mid-tier box-office dud like this one. First up is an audio commentary by Tamahori. While I'm not a fan, this is a pretty affable track, heavy on technical details, anecdotal bits about location, and some historical background on the Husseins. Unfortunately, Tamahori also lapses into some mundane description of the on-screen events whenever his interest dries up, tossing off choice nuggets like "Gold guns--tough guy asserts himself." Even so, he seems like a nice enough guy without a great deal of pretense. I found especially amusing his take on the gratuitous stock footage of the Gulf War that runs throughout the film: "It gave an air of authenticity that the film otherwise didn't have." Yes, you could say that.
The remaining special features are eager to puff up the legitimacy of this highly-fictionalized action biopic. We get three featurettes, all presented in 1080i. At 16 minutes, "True Crime Family" is the longest of these and does an okay job of contextualizing Saddam's reign, although it's a great deal more lurid and less informative than a jaunt to WIKIPEDIA. "Double Down with Dominic Cooper" is fluff at just under nine minutes, but it gives a good sense of the depth of visual trickery at work here. In particular, the CG is surprisingly subtle for Tamahori, who once made a cardboard cut-out of Pierce Brosnan out-surf a tsunami in maybe the worst big-budget effects sequence of the past decade. Last up is a roughly 8-minute interview with Yahia himself; looking nothing like Cooper and sporting D&G sunglasses and a fedora, Yahia talks about meeting Hussein in school, the offer he couldn't refuse, and the danger he allegedly still faces while he "continues to fight for truth and peace," as per the ridiculous on-screen captions. Try to ignore the disruptive gold-embroidered (!) intertitles that pop up in the middle of the discussion to inform you that Yahia is speaking "On His Family." Originally published: December 5, 2011.