ARTS

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February 16, 2007

Thriller plays spy game for snoozes

It’s hard to go wrong making a spy movie—double agents and government secrets always make for interesting content. Once you’ve got that, just plunk a strapping lad or lass in the lead role, add a villain of equal or greater strapping-ness, throw in some gadgets and a pink wig, and at the very least you have a mildly entertaining film. It won’t be a waste of an evening as long as you turn your brain off somewhere around the title sequence.

Like all formulas, this doesn’t guarantee quality. Audience members with a few Bond or Bourne flicks under their belt can see gratuitous gizmos and sultry FBI partners for the gimmicks that they are. America may be ready to see a better spy movie, but if director Billy Ray’s new motion picture Breach is any indication, Hollywood isn’t ready to produce one.

Based on a true story, Breach tells the tale of a lower-level FBI operative Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), who gets assigned to track and pin down Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), the agency’s slipperiest mole. In the film, Hanssen is a fervent Christian and family man who entertains secret passions for strippers, homemade sex tapes of him and his wife Bonnie (Kathleen Quinlan), and, of course, bringing down the FBI from the inside.

Frustrated with his colleagues’ inability to recognize his own genius, Hanssen begins leaking information to the KGB in the early ’80s—mostly for kicks, if the movie has its facts right. Decades later, O’Neill is plucked from his job tracking terrorists and is asked by his boss Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) to keep tabs on Hanssen because of suspicions he may be a “sexual deviant.”

After some time, Burroughs informs O’Neill that Hanssen is one of the worst traitors in American history, and O’Neill consequently graduates to pulling occasional stunts like downloading KGB contact records off his Palm Pilot, and keeping a journal for Burroughs’s perusal.

Phillippe and a lackluster script drag this movie down like a pair of cement boots. His stony, pissed-off expression gives him all the range of a gargoyle. He has to smile to let the audience know he’s making a joke. To no one’s surprise, these jokes always flop. There’s no chemistry between Phillippe and Cooper—it’s something of a shock when O’Neill tells Burroughs that he has come to respect and admire Hanssen. Phillippe manages to make a slight connection with Linney, but even this falters thanks to the blunt, uninspired dialogue.

Good acting is important to any movie, but it’s absolutely crucial to a spy flick. Cooper’s performance serves as a bright point in the film. He hits Hanssen’s dull, disaffected disposition on the head, barking at agents left and right for their failure to submit to his superior intelligence.

Unfortunately, bad production decisions blemish even Cooper’s performance. Too much screen time is spent watching Hanssen fix his tie and drink from water fountains. Too often, the film puts inordinate focus on banal details such as O’Neill’s marital problems or Hanssen’s and O’Neill’s trips to church.

No matter how many movies of its type you’ve seen before, Breach is sure to offer a new experience, but not necessarily a good one. The hackneyed spy flick isn’t new to anyone, but one that’s as utterly boring as Breach is pretty hard to come by.