Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Devil's Double - Theatrical Review


Release Date: August 5, 2011

The advertising campaign for this movie is kind of misleading. It seems to be promoting itself as a Scarface for a new generation. But that is making light of its subject matter which is far more interesting than the story of a psychopathic drug cartel kingpin who gets in over his head. This is the TRUE story of a good man who was dragged kicking and screaming into a world of power and greed by the devil incarnate.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: AMC 30 at the Block in Orange
Time: 5:10 pm August 10, 2011
Projector Type: Film

Loves: The story being told
Likes: Dominic Cooper
Neutral: Characters acting out of character for no apparent reason
Hates: A significant lack of time and place for reference
Scary: Uday Hussein

I first came across Dominic Cooper almost a year ago in the film An Education. His part wasn't very big but he did make an impression as the confident and handsome friend of Peter Sarsgaard. Now that I have seen him in two new films back to back with Captain America a few weeks ago and now The Devil's Double it has become clear as day to me that this guy is someone to watch. The reason I am talking about the star of the film more than anything else is because this movie would not work without the amazing job that Cooper did here portraying two radically different sides of the coin. The story itself would have been enough to keep my attention but this specific slice of history combined with Cooper's star making performance is what sold me on the movie despite some of the more nagging issues I had with how it handled certain aspects of its narrative structure.

I will refrain myself from giving a history lesson on Saddam Hussein and skip to the the central figure of the story which is Uday Hussein (Dominic Cooper), one of the ruthless dictator's two sons. More specifically though this is the story of Latif Yahia (also Dominic Cooper), the man who was forced to erase himself from existence in order to act as Uday's body double. This includes sharing the luxuries of a man who has or can have everything he wants but who also must serve as a target for any would be assassins. In case you are unfamiliar with the legacy of Uday, he was a very dangerous, psychotic and unbalanced individual who passes his time by torturing athletes who don't win games or cruising by the local school to pick up very young teenage girls and have his way with them. Latif is the polar opposite of Uday but Uday needs him and even goes as far as to have Latif surgically altered to resemble him beyond their natural physical similarities. Latif must find a way to not only survive Uday's "hospitality" but also try to find a way to stop the mad man.

Two of the best reasons to see this film and they both share the same name.

I knew of Uday Hussein and have heard many stories about the hell he put the Iraqi people through. He was more ruthless and unforgiving than his father ever was and that is quite an accomplishment. His basic nature as depicted here is that of a child, a child that has the world at his fingertips. He suffers no repercussions for any of his actions and although his father frowns upon the activities that he undertakes he still has a standing order to kill anyone that does anything to hurt his son in any possible way. This is what would happen if a psychotic sociopath was given complete autonomy. If ever there were a person that deserved the moniker of the devil it was indeed Uday Hussein. But he is not the primary focus of the movie or the story being told here, that honor belongs to Latif

From minute one we are witness to the torment and pressure Latif is under. He was a simple soldier who fought for his country proudly that was ripped away from everyone and everything he loved or cared about for the sole reason of his resemblance to Uday. The movie wastes no time in getting us up to speed on Latif's situation either. Most people might question why Latif would willingly be a maniac's body double, why he would just not run when given the chance or simply off himself. After a botched attempt to flee, numerous threats against his family (even if he would try to kill himself his family would suffer for it) and a couple of beatings he quickly comes to the realization, as do we, that if he wants his family to live he must do what is expected of him.  So begins his journey to become Uday in every possible conceivable way, even down to his strange speech patterns and dental records.

Uday isn't too thrilled to find out Latif went on a field trip.

There were a few things that worked for me with this movie and a couple that didn't. Let's start with the positives shall we since they are among the stronger aspects of the film. The first is the story being told, it is fascinating and horrifying to see what Latif was forced to endure. He was put in an impossible situation where he was constantly forced to participate in all of Uday's madness. It is kind of impossible to fully explain just how f**ked up this whole world he lived in was. You have a fairly nice guy like Latif who is at the beck and call of psychopath whom he cannot kill, hurt or run away from without risking the lives of his family. Then on top of that there is the whole idea of being the body double for a guy that EVERYONE wants dead...and Latif understands or even empathizes with them on why they want him dead. It is a strange and somewhat unique set of circumstances that places an innocent man in the way of a bullet fired by people he not only sympathizes with but kind of wishes he was the one shooting the gun at himself. When you add in the fact that this is all taking place in Iraq which was under the rule of one of the most ruthless dictators in recent history you start to feel just as helpless as Latif must have.

And if that isn't enough he must also deal with Uday's evil tendencies towards every single person he comes in contact with. Uday was not a guy who thought stuff through, he would not hesitate to kill someone that is close to him just for being annoying, he is the text book definition of unpredictable. His acts of evil are often coupled and compounded with one another as well. In one of the more uncomfortable moments in the film we not only get to see Uday seduce a little girl no older than 14 by drugging her and raping her but he also takes the time to murder a very close friend in probably one of the most gruesome killings I have seen in some time. Latif often times is forced to stand idly by and just observe because Uday wants him around to experience everything he does. In a sort of ironic twist even though while Uday has no respect for the lives of others he will stop at nothing to make sure that Latif is never hurt or injured enough so that he would cease being a proper body double. So often times Latif is able to get away for saying or doing things that even Uday's personal entourage (who are scared shitless of him) would never think about acting upon.

Uday shows off his favorite girl Sarrab.

The relationship between Uday and Latif is another aspect of the film that just completely sucked me in. Although Uday had a real brother he constantly refers to Latif as his other brother. You might have gotten the impression by this point that Uday is one evil bastard but the thing that makes him an even more disturbing presence is his usually upbeat and bubbly personality. That mixed with his unique way of talking almost makes him comical at times, especially when he gets angry. Latif on the other hand is a much more reserved and elegant kind of guy who even if Uday was not the insane individual he is would be upset at how Uday treats people. That of course goes doubly for Uday's main female escort Sarrab (Ludivine Sagnier) who has a special yearning for Latif's more respectful nature despite any contact between the two being forbidden by Uday. I don't think it is giving anything away by saying Latif and Sarrab end up having an affair with each other that complicates things greatly for everyone.

Watching Uday and Latif argue is like watching a ticking time bomb. You know the only reason Latif is still alive is that Uday needs him and the only reason Uday doesn't harm Latif's family on a whim is that might instigate Latif into some kind of retaliation that would leave him without his double. Basically the two men are at a neutral point where neither can go too far against the other and it is this core element of their relationship that sells you on everything else. You sit there wondering which one will snap first and how will the other react. I guess you could almost call it a battle of wits where each player is constantly looking for a way to get the upper hand on the other. But this back and forth conflict between the two men wouldn't work nearly as well as it does without Dominic Cooper's mesmerizing performance.

Latif is constantly struggling with what is being asked of him.

It takes a special kind of actor to be able to pull off dual roles that play off each other, especially if both are the two main characters. Last year we had Armie Hammer portraying twins in The Social Network and while he did a bang up job in both parts he didn't have to be concerned with playing two completely distinct personalities or have to worry about carrying the entire film on his shoulders. I am not shortchanging the terrific performance by Hammer but more like putting into perspective just how much was resting on Cooper's ability to play these two roles as real as he could. And while he wasn't faced with the challenge of being the sole actor on screen such as James Franco was in 127 Hours and Ryan Reynolds was in Buried, I still feel he had more of an uphill battle than any of those actors and he performed admirably in that respect.

As Latif he is cool and collected, only breaking out in fits of anger or rage when mimicking Uday. Latif as a character must constantly show restraint in situations that Uday must appear unrelenting and unrestrained. Uday is the star of the show as far as which character is more interesting to watch though. His unpredictability plays a lot into that but the character itself is just so off the wall and bug nuts crazy that one wonders where Cooper must have gone emotionally to conjure that side of him up (just wait until you see how close he is with his mother...shiver). There was never a doubt in my mind while watching Cooper play both parts that I was watching two different people on screen and that is a true testament to just how fantastic a job he did at making both Latif and Uday such polar opposites even though they look almost identical save for hairstyles and clothing. But the true magic is when you look into Cooper's eyes as he plays either role, I would swear that you could almost detect a different soul at the core of each man just by the emotions portrayed in his eyes.

This is what happens in the Hussein family when someone misbehaves.

If it were not for Cooper's transcendent turn as both these characters I don't think the film would have worked as well as it does. Sure the story itself is intriguing enough to get most people in their seats for the ride but the thing that will sell them on the film when it is all said and done is Dominic Cooper without a doubt. The reason I bring that up is because there were some fairly sloppy issues I found with how this film was put together. Now these may not be as big a problem for some people out there but I couldn't help but feel completely lost during most of the movie due to there being almost zero information given as to when and where everything was taking place. Let me shut up the naysayers right now and put it out there that yes, I know what country the story takes place in (duh) and yes I know it all takes place somewhere around the late 80's to the early 90's (I got that mostly from doing some research online). But my problem is mostly regarding how the film jumps around with little to nothing connecting each scene to one another.

A good example of this is after Uday kills a rather important person at a party, he is seen being escorted out by his personal guards while all hell is breaking loose around them. The very next scene we see Saddam, either Uday or Latif (neither is specified at this point) and a group of guardsmen entering a hospital. Inside we find either Uday or Latif (once again nothing is specified) on a bed in severe pain and puking on himself. By this point I was able to decipher that it was Uday on the bed merely by the fact that Latif is a much more restrained individual and he was at the back for most of this scene. But we are never told specifically that it is Uday on the bed, I had to figure that out for myself and that isn't even my real issue with the scene. My main complaint is that I have no idea what happened to get everyone there. We are told off hand that Uday took some pills and is having his stomach pumped but he looked fine as he left that party just a minute ago. Saddam is very angry with him which is related to the scene at the party but that still doesn't explain what happened to Uday to get him there.

Did I mention Uday is a little ill-tempered?

That scene is just an example, the film jumps around like that all the time. There was another scene that made zero sense near the end where something happens to Latif and Uday does something in return that is completely contradictory to everything we had seen up to that point without any explanation. And that only leads into another series of events where Latif does in fact escape from Uday at one point despite the fact he knows his family will die for his actions which also serves to make the rest of the film somewhat pointless due to the fact that the whole reason he never tried to get away in the first place was because his family would be killed. Then there is the issue of the film giving no place or time reference for most of anything that transpires. Sure we get some stock war footage of our invasion of Iraq but beyond a quick image of George Bush senior and General Schwarzkopf (along with those snazzy 80's outfits and music) I almost would have guessed this was taking place during 2003-ish. This all carries over to the smaller moments of the film as well such as not knowing what country Latif has fled to or even how much time passes between scenes where one second someone is nearly dead and the next they are fully recovered. And don't even get me started on the somewhat abrupt set of events that lead up to the film's conclusion.

I suppose you could call those nitpicks but ya know what, it bothered the hell out of me. Because instead of trying to figure out where I am and what has led me there I could have been more focused on what mattered most which is the story being told. Make no mistake about it though, the two things that will carry you through this film is the tragic tale of Latif and Dominic Cooper's performance as both Latif and Uday. It is a little sad that director Lee Tamahori couldn't have included someway of explaining what all was happening at any given time beyond just letting the audience figure it out on their own. I don't know though, maybe I am just not quick on the uptake and was focusing on things that didn't really matter. Regardless I feel as though the positives far outweigh the negatives in this case and I can give a strong recommendation for anyone out there to...


P.S. Anyone looking for another Scarface out of this should look elsewhere.



Anonymous said...

You got it mixed up, it was Latif on the bed after trying to kill himself by taking pills.

David Weaver said...

I don't know how you were able to tell but I suppose that could be a possibility. Either way it wasn't clear enough for me to be able to tell one way or the other so that is a problem right there.

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