Remember when the CIA was badass? When it was known for doing ruthless things and for doing them so well that even those who questioned the agency's morality never doubted its lethal cunning? These days, that kind of killer-spy reputation at least, in the popular culture tends to be associated more with the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. It's not simply that Mossad agents are thought of as being the most super-elite of operators. It's that they possess an image of skill that springs, in part, from their unsurpassable conviction. Steven Spielberg's great, wrenching Munich tapped deep into the mythology of how Mossad agents root their do-or-die ways in a kind of ''never again'' absolutism, and the tricky-gimmicky, mostly diverting new thriller The Debt is basically an entertaining riff on Munich. It's about a (fictional) operation of top secret Israeli revenge, carried out by three highly trained agents whose plan goes off the rails in ways that are more fascinating than the mission itself.
The movie, a remake of a 2007 Israeli thriller called Ha-Hov (The Debt), toggles between two eras in a busy, satisfying way. It starts off in 1997 as the tale of three battle-scarred heroes of the Mossad, all in their late 50s: Rachel (Helen Mirren), edgy and venerable, with a telltale knife mark on her cheek; her ex-husband, Stephan (Tom Wilkinson), a crusty customer confined to a wheelchair after an encounter with a car bomb; and David (Ciarán Hinds), who wears his life of disappointment on his gaunt, troubled face. These three share mysteries, secrets, and lies. But before the film gets lost in their downbeat haze, it lurches back to the past. In 1965, the three, now played by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, and Sam Worthington, are assigned as young agents to East Berlin, where Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), a former Nazi doctor who committed hundreds of atrocities, is hiding in plain sight, living under a fake identity as a genteel gynecologist. Their mission is to apprehend him and bring him to Israel to stand trial for war crimes.
To nab this scoundrel, Rachel poses as one of Vogel's patients, winning his trust in a couple of queasy moments as she sits in the stirrups. Chastain, in a turn that couldn't be more different from her brazen, luscious performance in The Help, does much to humanize these spy games; she's like a wary, neurotic Julia Roberts. The scene in which Rachel wraps her legs around Vogel to jab him with a sedative as her partners come barreling through the streets in an ambulance to take him away is a terrific piece of existential pulse pounding. Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) doesn't stage the events like something out of a seamless action thriller he creates suspense with the rough edge of reality. For the agents, though, the real trick isn't nabbing Vogel; it's sneaking him out of the country amid the hushed height of Cold War paranoia. There's a heart-in-the-throat sequence in which they hide out at an abandoned but meticulously patrolled East Berlin train station, trying to spirit him away. It's at that moment that everything goes awry.
Held prisoner, the old Nazi indulges in some rather intense anti-Semitic mind games, which Christensen enacts with creepy conviction. Confronted in the flesh with this monster, the three agents end up perpetrating a deception that lasts for decades. But the way that it wears and tears on them, as the years go on, isn't nearly as compelling as the more present-tense, procedural parts of the movie. Yet Mirren and Wilkinson, even if they never seem brusque enough to be ultracombative Israelis, do lend these sections a touch of emotional heft. In its booby-trapped way, The Debt poses an arresting question: In a place that's as haunted by history as Israel is, can a lie ever really serve to prop up a larger truth? The movie demonstrates, compellingly, why the answer is no. B+