Judge Ian Visser would trade a few days in September for ten minutes in a closet with Juliette Binoche.
Time is running out.
It's early September, 2001, when French secret service agent Irene Montano (Juliette Binoche, Chocolat) gets a call from friend and former CIA agent Elliot (Nick Nolte, 48 Hours). Elliot has some significant information concerning the imminent future of the United States, and his employers, mysterious "investors" from the Middle East, are willing to pay him millions for the details.
Elliot is determined to leave the money to his teen-aged daughter Orlando (Sara Foriester, Angie) and adopted son David (Tom Riley, Freezing) and asks Irene to assemble them in Paris to discuss the situation. Complicating matters is Elliot's former CIA colleague William Pound (John Turturro, Miller's Crossing), who plans to kill Elliot for personal and professional reasons. After an initial meeting in Paris goes bad, Irene must reconnect the children with their father, discover why the information Elliot has is so valuable, and out-smart the hired killer.
Here is a film that does as much right as it does wrong and manages to fumble the ball for each instance it scores. It is a frustrating experience, and one can see what A Few Days in September could have been if it had been content to stay a simple, stripped-down spy thriller with limited ambitions. Instead, writer/director Santiago Amigorena (Tokyo Eyes) apparently decided to turn his spy movie into a character drama along the way and relegate the espionage elements to the back burner.
Let's start with the positives: the acting in A Few Days in September is top-notch. Binoche plays her character cool, collected, always in control, and one feels she could be the female version of Jason Bourne if she was allowed to do more than just talk. Whether being shadowed by an assassin or verbally sparring with other intelligence operatives, Binoche keeps her character wound tight and efficient. As the "McGuffin" of the film, Nick Nolte has only one significant scene but manages to convey the weariness of his hunted and fatalistic character in a short span of time. Turturro, unfortunately, is saddled with a character too quirky to portray seriously (more on that later), but he does what he can with the material.
The film also handles the business of espionage in a mature manner; this isn't James Bond territory we find ourselves in. There's not a lot of witty banter between adversaries, just people hiding what they know while trying to determine what cards the other person holds. There is an acknowledgment that the best thing to do when cornered is to think—not shoot—your way out of trouble; just leave the country if someone is trying to kill you, and if you are being tailed then simply invite your pursuer to a meeting and don't show up. This maturity may sound dull in concept, but it plays as refreshing after decades of big Hollywood spy thrillers.
Finally, A Few Days in September has a great look to it, swathing its locations in a palette of cool blues and greens. A French production, the film has a distinctly European feel to it that compliments its understated take on the spy business.
Despite these positives, the film makes a number of missteps. The most significant is the decision to turn A Few Days in September into a character drama somewhere around the one-hour mark, as the film starts to concentrate on the developing relationship between Irene and the children. Sexual tension manifests itself within the trio, as David begins a flirtatious relationship with both Orlando and Irene. Inevitably, just when the film begins to move along, the story will return to this plotline, grinding the momentum to a halt. A stronger presence in the editing room would have ensured that these tangents were cut to a minimum and the film's strengths were free to rise to the surface.
As good as the acting is in A Few Days in September it's the characters that come up short. Pound, the CIA assassin, is portrayed as a ruthless killer with a penchant for reciting poetry and calling his psychiatrist at odd hours to chat. The film drags during these segments and serve to make Pound less a sinister character and more a modern movie cliché. Elliot's children aren't well-defined either; their presence contributes nothing to the plot and they act merely as sounding boards for Irene to explain events to. The biggest fumble occurs with David, who seems to treat whole situation as a lark, despite his sister and Irene constantly carrying guns and a series of bloody murders surrounding the group. If I knew a CIA hitman was after me and my family, I'd spend less time talking about wine and more time trying to escape in one piece.
On the technical side, the transfer for A Few Days in September is very good, with no visible issues or defects. As mentioned, the palette of the film is cool and tempered, and the transfer does a good job of conveying that atmosphere. The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is well-balanced, although there isn't much demanded of it aside from the occasional gunshot. The only special feature is a trailer for the film.
Somewhere in here is a tight, suspenseful spy movie waiting to emerge. Unfortunately, A Few Days in September abandons its most interesting elements to concentrate on relationships that do nothing but slow the film and irritate the viewer. Despite strong performances and great visuals, the defendant is found "guilty."
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
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