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Spy With a Post-Cold War Twist

In adapting his novel 'The Tailor of Panama' for the screen, author John le Carre takes a hands-on approach, with director John Boorman, in helping create an 'anti-Bond.'

April 03, 2001|BILL DESOWITZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What's a ruthless spy and a pathological liar to do in a post-Cold War world where none of the old rules apply and everything's up for grabs? Why, team up and turn the espionage game into the ultimate con and walk away with a fortune, of course.

At least that's what Pierce Brosnan and Geoffrey Rush try to do in "The Tailor of Panama," the John Boorman film that opened last weekend to strong business in limited release ($1.8 million on 199 screens). The film is adapted from John le Carre's offbeat, often whimsical spy novel.

"It's the anti-Bond," Boorman said over lunch the other day in Santa Monica, commenting on the way he and Le Carre (whose real name is David Cornwell) have reinvented the spy thriller for the screen.

No "Smiley's People" here; instead, when Brosnan's British agent is exiled to Panama for seducing the wrong women, he immediately searches for an operative to help him monitor the drug trade and volatile political situation. That would be Rush, an amiable English expatriate with a secret past who has reinvented himself as a tailor to the rich and famous. Trouble is, Rush not only weaves a good suit but a good yarn as well.

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In fact, he's concocted a whole fantasy life for himself that he manages to hide from everyone, including his adoring wife (Jamie Lee Curtis). Only it's gotten him into some real estate trouble and he's desperate for money. Enter Brosnan, who schemes his way into Rush's precarious life and charms him into fabricating the most preposterous tale about a counterrevolution and the sale of the Panama Canal.

The whole thing quickly spirals out of control into an international crisis, forcing Rush to confront his inability to tell the truth. If the story bears a striking resemblance to "Our Man in Havana," that's because Le Carre acknowledges the influence of the Graham Greene novel at the back of his own.

"I liked the idea of Panama as this dangerous mix of high finance and corruption," noted Boorman, "and I liked the idea of these two men, one who is totally immoral and the other who is living this lie, a storyteller who can't help himself tell people what they want to hear. It seems very contemporary."

Boorman, who for more than 30 years has enjoyed turning familiar stories on their head ("Point Blank," "Excalibur" and "Hope and Glory") or delving into unfamiliar territory ("Deliverance," "The Emerald Forest"), found inspiration in Le Carre. Once again, the acclaimed director was confronted with human folly set in a dangerous tropical region. Only this time, black comedy was thrown into the mix.

"What I tried to do was to catch something of this curious mixture you find in the Le Carre books of satire, farce, black comedy, intrigue and tragedy," Boorman added. "And it's difficult to pull those things together."

It's a strange mix to be sure. Aside from the biting banter between Brosnan and Rush ("Panama," Rush explains in the film, "is Casablanca without heroes."), there's a slapstick introduction to Rush tailoring a suit in fast-motion and Rush's imaginary conversations with his deceased mentor (played by playwright Harold Pinter), who's always steering him wrong. Then Boorman unexpectedly assaults the viewer with a bloody dose of reality.

Both Boorman and Le Carre realize that "The Tailor of Panama," which is being released by Sony Pictures, may be a tough sell with American audiences as a result of its ambivalent tone, confusing plot and casting of Brosnan as the bad guy. But they were heartened by the warm critical reception the film received at the recent Berlin Film Festival.

"At Berlin, somebody asked Le Carre what was the process of going from a book to a film, and he said, 'It's like turning a cow into a bouillon cube,' " Boorman reported.

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The witty and erudite Le Carre, recognized as the master of the Cold War spy novel ("The Spy Who Came in From the Cold," "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" among others), has never been as involved in a film adaptation as this one. He not only churned out a quick rewrite himself (180 pages in three days!) following Andrew Davies' initial draft, but also served as executive producer. He thought it was the right time to get closer to the filmmaking process.

"The world has changed," Le Carre said by phone from his home in London. "This was my first novel in the post-Cold War world. There's absolutely no ideological content. The ideology is materialism.

"Everybody lies all the way up until the fantasy takes us all the way to war. Lying is much more expansive in the novel. The media are involved in it as well. The labels may have changed but there is something about a continuum. The U.S. pulls out of Central America but goes back in because of the drug war. While we play the game of nations, it's a disguised term for the game of competing industries. In retrospect, the Cold War was a war of fantasies as well as a war of hardware. It was a war of perception."

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