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The Tailor of Panama

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Tailor of Panama

Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Pierce Brosnan
Director: John Boorman
Rated: R
RunTime: 109 Minutes
Release Date: March 2001
Genres: Comedy, Drama, Suspense

*Also starring: David Hayman, Jamie Lee Curtis, Brendan Gleeson, Harold Pinter, Leonor Varela, Catherine McCormack, Jon Polito, Harry Ditson

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

When Harriet Beecher Stowe, the diminutive author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," was introduced to President Abraham Lincoln, the first words from Lincoln's mouth were, "So you're the little woman who started this big war!" The pen can indeed be mightier than the sword. If we go along with scripters Andrew Davies, John Le Carre and director John Boorman's often humorous interpretation of John Le Carre's novel, a tailor who learned his trade in prison could have led the U.S. into a war with Panama in 1999. "The Tailor of Panama" is one of two movies opening within a week of each other (along with "Blow") that will be of particular interest to one segment of the movie-going population while disappointing another. If "Blow" is an urbane biopic about a major drug lord responsible for the majority of cocaine that came into the U.S. in the 1970s and not an updated version of "Scarface" as some might expect, then "Tailor," while featuring a womanizing James-Bond sort of feller, is more for lovers of chess matches than video games. An ultra- sophisticated, sardonic spy story in the tradition one of the genre's most famous novelists, "The Tailor of Panama" is loaded with ironies and twists and enough surprises to keep even the most passionate fans of the species on their toes.

Featuring Philippe Rousselot's lavish, widescreen lensing of the Panama Canal and the capital city of that Central American nation--which captures the free-spirited people of that ravishing, hot, sulty and diverse expanse--"The Tailor of Panama" is the story of a bizarre friendship of convenience between a burned-out, forty-five-year old spy about to turn in his cloak and dagger and retire when he is given a final warning. Having been caught in a compromising position with the wife of a European ambassador, Andy Osnard (Pierce Brosnan) is relieved of his assignment in London and sent to the backwater post of Panama to finish out his career and to unearth information about the future of the Panama Canal. A rumor is circulating that Panama's president is considering the sale of the waterway from which the U.S. retreated in 1999 and that the vital conduit could pass into the hands of enemies of Britain and the United States.

Being the sort of chap who would rather swing in hammocks and swing in more active ways than do any dirty work himself, Osnard hires his own spy, a subcontracting job if you will, playing up to a man he believes can give him the information he needs. That would-be informant is the title figure, Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush), a high-class tailor to the bankers, lawyers, and other movers and shakers right up Panama's president, and what's more his wife Louisa (Jamie Lee Curtis) is the administrative assistant to the canal's director. If the tailor cannot provide juicy details, no one else can. Luring Pendel into the conspiracy with envelopes loaded with cash, Osnard is pleased to learn from the tailor that a dangerous deal is indeed going down for the sale of the canal and that the whole operation, which could spell disaster for the West, could be halted if a leader of Panama's resistance movement known as the Silent Opposition can be financed to wage an insurgency. Osnard and Pendel are more interested in skimming some big bucks for themselves than in getting reasonable proof of Panama's course of action. They would as soon put a phony spin on frail evidence even if their testimony leads to an international cause celebre.

While "The Tailor of Panama" is fiction, the story makes one think of just how unfair the foreign policies of superpowers could be. For example, when President Clinton ordered the bombing of an alleged weapons-making plant in the Sudan, was his information accurate or was the bombed- out works just a legitimate pharmaceutical operation as the Sudanese claim? And was the Bay of Tonkin Resolution which led to an escalation of the war in Vietnam based on appropriate details about the plans of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese to expand their influence even beyond their own borders?

Our doubts about our own state department are evoked when things turn out seldom what they seem in the lush land whose travel posters once used the tagline, "So romantic that even the oceans get together." Osnard himself, however, is not exactly a romantic, but a cynical soon-to-retire snoop who is so certain of his looks and charm that he boldly seduces women, even those who appear as difficult as Francesca (Catherine McCormack), the ice princess administrator working out of the British Embassy in Panama City. Told by an expected conquest, Harry Pendel's wife Louisa, that he is a wicked man, Osnard coolly responds, "That's part of the appeal, isn't it?" Brosnan is Bond, but an evil one this time around and Geoffrey Rush, who can play an emotionally disturbed concert pianist with the same fortissimo as he can a sadistic inmate in a French asylum, is magnificent as a sewer of tall tales who under stress gets visions of his departed Uncle Ben (Harold Pinter).

The entire ensemble pulls off this complex tale of intrigue will alacrity, including Brendan Gleeson (who was the title character of John Boorman's masterful "The General") and Jamie Lee Curtis as the suspicious wife of Panama's most accomplished but prevaricating tailor. Watch especially for the scene in a gay bar highlighting a dance in which Osnard leads Pendel to the tune, "Let's Face the Music and Dance."

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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