By Michael Gray
Director John Boorman’s latest feature, "The Tailor of Panama," shows a lighter side of the veteran filmmaker than we’ve seen in recent years. Set in Panama City shortly before the handover of the Canal Zone by the U.S. to the Panamanian government, Boorman’s new film is a tongue-in-cheek adaptation of John le Carré’s bestseller of the same name.
The story centers on the relationship between the title character, a put-upon cockney tailor named Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush), and his nemesis, Andy Osnard (Pierce Brosnan), an MI6 agent of tarnished reputation. Osnard has been banished to Panama after some unpleasantness at his previous posting involving his seduction of an ambassador’s wife, and he arrives at his new job knowing that his career in the foreign service is finished. Devoid of loyalty to an agency that has little further use for him, the cynical Osnard decides to use his government’s anxiety about the future of the canal to generate a retirement fund for himself.
The fear of unknown forces working to wrest control of the Canal Zone from the Panamanian authorities alarms MI6 enough to make sizable funds available for information about rebel groups operating behind the scenes. Osnard is more interested in siphoning off the funds than finding out the facts about putative rebels, who may not exist at all, but he’s got to come up with some juicy rumors from local sources to keep the cash flowing from London. He finds a reluctant mole in Harry Pendel, a cockney tailor with a criminal
past who has reinvented himself in the tropics as a maker of Savile Row suits for Panama’s generals, drug barons and cabinet ministers. Osnard surmises that in the confessional of the fitting room, the tailor must be privy to choice political tidbits from the country’s rulers. He prevails upon Pendel to spill the beans about his clients, through a combination of bribery and blackmail — he gives him a cut of the money from London, pocketing most of it himself, while threatening to destroy Harry’s business by letting his customers know that he learned his trade in prison. Harry, a crumpled man in a sharp suit, is already compromised financially by a bad investment in a Panamanian farm, and sees the crooked spy’s largesse as the solution to his mortgage worries. A skilled raconteur and fantasist who almost believes his self-devised Savile Row pedigree, Pendel is undeterred by his lack of real information about local political chicanery. He invents The Silent Opposition, a radical movement poised to take over the country, to keep Osnard interested. As Harry’s tales grow more outlandish, Osnard neither knows nor cares whether they’re true, as long as his superiors in London are convinced enough to send more money. Soon the plot escalates beyond Pendel’s and Osnard’s control, and the Pentagon is poised to take the canal back by force before the alleged rebels make their move.
Boorman’s sly spy thriller makes comic capital of the venality of British and American operatives in third world countries, and playfully derides the notion that superpowers and former empires are motivated by anything other than self-interest in foreign-policy decisions. The Panama Canal may be a crucial artery of pan-global commerce, but it’s also a laundry chute for Central American drug money, and Boorman enjoys exposing the methods by which the international diplomatic corps try to cash in on it. Boorman’s script finds more comedic material in le Carré’s tale than was evident in the original work, and his combination of espionage, corruption and absurdity allows his leads, Geoffrey Rush and Pierce Brosnan, to stretch their range. Rush is terrific as usual, and Brosnan displays a surprising feel for comedy scarcely evident in "The Thomas Crown Affair" or in his Bond films.
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This is Boorman’s second time to inveigle the suave Bond-du-jour into doing something a little evil. Almost 30 years ago he cast Sean Connery, Bond-weary from half a dozen 007 outings, to play a ruthless feral assassin in his futuristic fantasy "Zardoz." This time around, Boorman enlists the current Bond, Pierce Brosnan, as the corrupt seducer Osnard, playing against the goody two-shoes image he’s been typecast with since "Remington Steele." It’s fun to watch the Irish actor as a baddie, and he clearly relishes putting his lightweight charms to devious use as an incorrigible rake.
Boorman’s perverse casting is rounded out by choosing Brendan Gleeson, his criminal lead from "The General," as the washed-up Latin activist Mickie Abraxas, and playwright Harold Pinter, making a cameo as the tailor’s deceased Uncle Benny. The wily old uncle pops up from beyond the grave as Harry’s conscience, a sort of cockney Jiminy Cricket, giving him guidance in times of crisis (which, for Harry, is most of the time). Gleeson, an actor of remarkable versatility, continues to astonish as the former Panamanian rebel who can’t be bothered to sober himself up for another tilt at the government.
Every Boorman release seems, at first, a major departure from all that he has done before. In an eclectic career spanning three and a half decades, the Wicklow-based director moved on from the early success of "Point Blank" and "Deliverance" to explore Arthurian legend in "Excalibur." He visited Dublin’s criminal underbelly in "The General" and revisited his own London wartime childhood in "Hope And Glory."
Certain themes recur: the disintegration of authority, and preoccupation with injustice inflicted on the dispossessed, usually seen from the dominant viewpoint, and often shot in exotic locations. "The Tailor of Panama," his 15th feature, continues this pattern, and its potent combination of high-level corruption, sweltering locale and comedic mischief combine to make it a worthy addition to the Boorman canon.
"The Tailor of Panama" is currently on release in theaters nationwide.