With the possible exceptions of Timothy Dalton and David Niven, Pierce Brosnan was the least effective and least memorable actor to ever play James Bond on film. Brosnan is even bested in the Bond film canon by George Lazenby, who only appeared in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, as well as Roger Moore, a bad actor who never even appeared to be in particularly good shape. Over the course of four films of varying badness, Brosnan was a lightweight James Bond for the creaseless corporate vapidity of the 1990s, adding no layers of personality to a role that had already become an anachronism by the late-Sean Connery era.
The irony of it all is that Brosnan has fared far better in James Bond-esque spy, con-man and lady-killer parts where he does not actually play Bond, including films like The Thomas Crown Affair, The Matador, The Tailor of Panama and even Brett Ratner’s After the Sunset. He exudes a comfort and ease in those roles that betrayed him in his performances as Bond, where he was forced to be all things to all demographics and had to carry the high expectations of a decaying franchise desperately in need of an overhaul. Allowed to play a role at his own slow, steady, twinkly eyed beat, Brosnan has displayed a low-key effectiveness in genre films.
Brosnan certainly slips comfortably into his lead part in the espionage thriller The November Man, playing an aging but still deadly international spy chased by both crooked Russians and his own people. If anything, Brosnan is far too comfortable here as the world-weary Devereaux, and the same goes double for director Roger Donaldson and screenwriters Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek (adapting a novel by Bill Granger). The November Man is so comfortable, so content to reprocess the familiar and predictable, that the film practically dozes off on the recliner in the living room of your mind.
If you took a shot every time you spotted a recognizable spy-movie cliché in The November Man, you would be hammered before the end of the opening credits. The cynical veteran who surrendered his humanity to the job? Drink. His hotheaded young apprentice with the itchy trigger finger? Drink. “You feel the need for a relationship, get a dog.” Drink. The big job that gets tragically botched due to the veteran’s hardheadedness and the rookie’s inexperience? Drink. The dead child who drives the veteran into retirement? Drink. The old boss who ropes the veteran back for one last job? Chug.
We are maybe 10 or 15 minutes into the film at this point, and we haven’t even gotten to the trucks carrying giant panes of glass, or the many slow-motion walkaways from automobile explosions. A certain level of reliance on familiar genre tropes is expected and even encouraged in a spy film—we know that themes of moral compromise, cultural distrust and identity displacement are going to come up, and that shadowy figures are going to liberally chase our heroes through dark alleyways and parking garages. But even by the loosest of standards, The November Man is pretty half-assed, interchangeable from any number of unmemorable spy flicks and/or reruns of Remington Steele.
It plays less like a gripping spy yarn made for the big screen and more like the two-hour pilot for a midseason CBS fill-in show. Brosnan is easy to accept in his tailor-made lead role, but the supporting cast has even less to work with. Luke Bracey struggles with an underwritten part as Devereaux’s hotheaded apprentice turned pursuer, while the talented Olga Kurylenko plays a secretive social worker who slips into a black microdress just long enough to make it on to the poster dressed as such.
This film was executive produced by Brosnan, although he was just one of the 18 credited producers needed to bring this deeply personal vision to the screen. Brosnan is rumored to be making an appearance in the planned fourth edition of the execrable The Expendables franchise. If he is going to keep churning out by-the-numbers duds like The November Man, then Sylvester Stallone’s cinematic wax museum is the perfect place for Brosnan to rest.