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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Jul. 28, 2011 | 10:58 PM

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In order to fully enjoy Lee Tamahori’s The Devil’s Double, viewers will have to accept certain realities from the outset.  First and foremost, subtitles are thought to be the enemy of box office dollars in the U.S., so the characters in the film, with few exceptions, all speak accented English.  This includes Dominic Cooper, a British actor speaking with an Iraqi accent, and Ludivine Sagnier, a French actor speaking with an Iraqi accent.  Since the characters in the film are based on real people, the film also requires the presence of actors portraying well known historical figures, namely Saddam Hussein.  If you can put those issues aside, there’s much to enjoy in The Devil’s Double, even if it’s often too slick to be as harrowing as Tamahori intends.

Based on a true memoir by Latif Yahia, The Devil’s Double recounts the time spent by Yahia after he was hand picked to be the double for Saddam Hussein’s son Uday.  Saddam himself was said to have a number of doubles, so it makes sense that they would also be provided for his sons.  Initially refusing this “great honor”, it quickly becomes clear that Latif has no choice in the matter.  Things quickly become more complicated as he begins an affair with Uday’s mistress (Sagnier).

The premise is a juicy one, and Dominic Cooper gleefully sinks his teeth into the dual roles of Latif and Uday.  This is the kind of part that actors dream about, as Cooper not only has to portray two different people, but he also has to bring enough subtlety to the role so that we as viewers are able to tell the two men apart.  The formula turns out to be fairly straightforward, as Uday is an obvious psychopath and Latif is not.  The problem is that while Latif is clearly a much more evolved human being, his onscreen behavior is pretty dull.  Cooper’s clearly enjoying himself in the part of Uday, and whenever he’s playing that part, the film roars to life, only to sputter to a halt in many of the Latif sequences.

Beginning with his breakthrough feature, 1994’s Once Were Warriors, New Zealander Tamhori has proven himself to be a capable action director.  He brought the Pierce Brosnan James Bond era to a close with 2002’s Die Another Day, and there’s a similar slick feel to The Devil’s Double.  While this results in a film that’s fast paced and entertaining, it also ignores a lot of the cultural context that made Once Were Warriors such a gripping story.  The film starts out guns blazing with Uday driving around acting crazy with little regard for anyone, and never really finds another gear. 

This eventually reaches its nadir late in the film when Uday commands everyone at his birthday party to strip naked, just because he can.  Aside from a couple of brief shots which suggest an Oedipal connection to his mother and one scene where he complains that the Kuwaitis are “stealing our oil!”, we never really are invited to understand Uday.  Instead the film beats us over the head with his shocking misdeeds until it becomes difficult to care.

In the end, The Devil’s Double is never less than entertaining, and even offers occasional food for thought on the subjects of duality and identity.  It’s not particularly deep, but for a late Summer release, you could do a lot worse than to climb aboard as the film barrels towards its historically based conclusion.  The Husseins may be gone, but the gulf war got a sequel, and we may yet see new eminently filmable devils emerge.

The Devil’s Double
opens Friday, July 29th at the Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood and The Landmark in West Los Angeles.

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