John Boorman's adaptation of John le Carre's The Tailor of Panama is vastly different in tone than any other big-screen le Carre adaptation, and that's mostly because The Tailor of Panama is vastly different in tone than any of le Carre's other books. While most of the esteemed novelist's works are dense, moody stories of real-world geopolitical intrigue, The Tailor of Panama is a brisk, prickly satire that retains le Carre's familiar cynicism and adds an appealing layer of dark comedy. Fortunately, Boorman manages to capture most of the book's virtues in addition to adding a few of its own.
Andy Osnard (Pierce Brosnan, Tomorrow Never Dies) is a British secret agent whose career has been derailed by scandal. Now, MI6 must decide what to do with him. “I argued your case,” Andy's handler declares, “Your long service, your fine brain against the balance of the gambling debts, the blown cover and the wives... the wives.” So, Andy is shipped off to Panama, where he's been tasked with keeping an eye on any political developments that may arise involving the Panama canal (which has just been returned to Panama after nearly a century of American control). It's an important passageway, and if it were to fall into “the wrong hands,” there could be serious political implications.
As played by Brosnan, Andy is essentially an alternate universe version of James Bond. He shares the character's vices (drinking, gambling, women), but has almost none of the virtues that make Bond such an indispensable agent. Andy has no moral code and no considerable talent for spy work, instead relying on his oily charm to keep his career afloat. He's fond of double entendres, too, but in this case they lack the light touch that Bond often brings to them: “It's dark and lonely work, Harry – like oral sex, but somebody has to do it.” It's a delightfully sleazy performance, and a surprisingly savage parody of the Bond character considering that Brosnan was still playing 007 at the time (this film was released between The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day).
Naturally, the first thing Andy needs to do is find some local connections, and he immediately finds a prime target: a local tailor named Harry (Geoffrey Rush, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl), whose suit-making prowess has made him the acquaintance of nearly every powerful man in Panama. Andy discovers that Harry has accrued some serious debts, and the spy makes the tailor a proposal: if Harry will toss Andy a few secrets about the inner workings of the local political factions, Andy will take care of Harry's debts. After a little hesitation, Harry opens up and begins to tell Andy stories about “the silent opposition,” the assorted schemes to sell the canal and other juicy tidbits. The only problem? Harry is making everything up.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that a struggling businessman like Harry (played with endearing fretfulness by Rush) would tell a few lies for the sake of making an easy fortune. What is surprising is how quickly and eagerly Andy accepts his lies, and how quickly and eagerly everyone else accepts the lies when Andy passes them on. The Tailor of Panama is the story of how a few little fibs create a major political crisis. It would be easy enough to fact-check most of the claims being made, but it just so happens that the lies are more profitable than the truth, so everyone who encounters the lies chooses to ignore the obvious. By the film's final act, a local drunk (a disheveled Brendan Gleeson, Calvary) is being described as a powerful political leader, Andy is being described as an astonishingly skilled spy and Harry is being described as the savviest and most well-connected man in Panama. None of these things are even remotely true.
Boorman makes superb use of his assorted Panamanian locations (it's nice when a movie is actually shot where it ought to be shot) and maintains impressive control of the film's ever-escalating madness. Insane things are happening by the conclusion, but the journey there is so skillfully constructed that we never sense a specific moment where things jump into the deep end. The film is hilarious, but almost always in a way that never undercuts the reality of the situation. We're also treated to a superb score from Irish composer Shaun Davey, whose main theme perfectly summarizes the setting, suspense and darkly comic tone without pushing too hard in any direction.
Brosnan and Rush are the central players, but the film also takes time to focus on the women in their lives. Harry is married to Louisa (Jamie Lee Curtis, Halloween), an American who works for the Panama Canal Authority. Louisa is absent for most of the film's first half, but ends up giving the film something of an emotional core later on. She suspects Harry of having an affair, and is surprised when Andy tells her that Harry is actually working as an informant. Does her husband actually know anything? Meanwhile, Andy forms a steamy relationship with Francesca (Catherine McCormack, Braveheart), a fellow Brit who knows Andy is bad news but also knows that he looks like Pierce Brosnan. Their scenes play like R-rated versions of the sort of casual flirting Bond and his assorted Bond girls often engage in, and once again we have a more sordid variation on something familiar: Andy's behavior often wanders well past playfulness and enters the realm of sexual harassment (and in once instance, sexual assault).
The story may begin from Andy's point-of-view, but as the title suggests, this is ultimately Harry's story. The Tailor of Panama is a morality play of sorts, featuring Andy as the devil on Harry's shoulder. So who is the angel? That would be the late Uncle Benny (played by the playwright Harold Pinter), who occasionally appears in hallucinatory visions to give Harry some level-headed advice. Alas, Uncle Benny's presence isn't real, and Andy's large envelopes of cash most certainly are. And so, Harry sells his soul, casually looking away from the destruction he causes until the destruction is too widespread to ignore.
The Tailor of Panama
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 115 minutes
Release Year: 2001