Think of “The November Man” as “Mission: Impossible” with extreme prejudice. Ethan Hunt wouldn’t kill anyone that he didn’t absolutely have to kill, but Pierce Brosnan’s ex-CIA spook Peter Devereaux lives by no such code. If anything, he’s a “Do as I say, not as I do” kind of guy, which would normally make someone an antihero, but we’re talking about Pierce Brosnan here. He doesn’t know how to do antihero: even as he steals booze and downs it like it’s his last night on Earth, he’s just too damn likeable. Ultimately, this works in the movie’s favor, as Brosnan’s presence excuses a fair amount of shortcomings. The end result is boilerplate, but entertaining, just twisty enough to keep the audience guessing.
The movie opens in 2008 with Devereaux showing the ropes to new recruit David Mason (Luke Bracey) on a mission. Mason doesn’t follow Devereaux’s instructions to the letter, and though the two accomplish their mission, a civilian dies in the process. Fast forward five years, and a now-retired Devereaux is roped in by former colleague John Hanley (Bill Smitrovich) to help extract a CIA contact who has valuable intel on Russian general and soon-to-be president Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski). The extraction is botched on a number of levels, but Devereaux is able to get the name of the person the contact is protecting. Devereaux discovers that the mystery person is a refugee, and contacts a local shelter to ask for help. Shelter employee Alice (Olga Kurylenko) doesn’t have any answers, but Devereaux knows that her life is now in danger and that if he doesn’t protect her, she will be dead by sunset. In a second, Devereaux inherits three tasks: find the mystery girl, protect Alice, and continue to play cat and mouse with Mason, who’s clearly out to prove himself to his former mentor.
To appreciate a movie like “The November Man,” one has to accept that there is no local law enforcement, at least until it’s convenient. One must also accept that the wronged ex-spy has the right to kill or maim anyone that gets in his way. It’s a slippery slope, especially when you consider that a lot of the people chasing him don’t even know that they are part of a big conspiracy. They’re essentially innocents, and Devereaux kills them without a thought. Again, good thing they cast a former 007 in the part; if anyone else plays this role, they’d look like the homicidal sociopath that Devereaux really is. Case in point: the scene between Dexereaux, Mason, and Mason’s cute neighbor Sara (Eliza Taylor) would be unwatchable, and frankly, it should be. Instead, it comes off as merely odd and out of step with the rest of the material, even though Devereaux nearly kills her.
Director Roger Donaldson peppers the magic hour shots with streaks of light across the screen, similar to the gleaming thing JJ Abrams did in his “Star Trek” movies. It proves to be more of a distraction than a nifty effect. The movie’s casting is just about perfect, though. Brosnan’s two former CIA comrades are played by Will Patton and Bill Smitrovich (who’s almost too good at the sexist pig thing), two guys who have made a career playing smarmy military types, and ‘smarmy’ is key in this instance. If there’s a weakness here, it’s Bracey, and even he isn’t bad; it’s just that he doesn’t own a single scene he’s in. Even Caterina Scorsone, the plucky CIA techie and clear second fiddle to Bracey story-wise, has more screen presence than Bracey does here.
“The November Man” is about as grounded in reality as the “Taken” movies are, but there are times when one shouldn’t let the facts (due process, murder charges, extradition, etc.) get in the way of a good story, and this is one of those times. Indeed, in many ways, Brosnan is a better spy here than he ever was in the Bond movies. That might be damning with faint praise, but it’s the truth.