Intrigue made to measure


The Tailor of Panama
Rating: * * * * Director: John Boorman Running time: 109 minutes Language: English Opens July 7 at Cine Saison in Shibuya

“The Tailor of Panama” is a genuine spy movie, but just a shade away from being “Saturday Night Live.” One gentle push and it’d be a slapsticky comedy with banana peels strewn across the screen. Even as it is, it will still have you giggling uncontrollably before you snap back and think: “Wait a minute, I thought this was a spy story.” Sure enough, there’s Pierce Brosnan in a worsted suit and impeccable shoes, smoking cigars and driving too fast, coming on to different ladies and scoring most of them. So why this urge to crack up and slap your knees, even during scenes when people hurt each other or die and a nation’s welfare is at stake? Oh gosh, excuse me . . . (the sound of stifled laughter).

Geoffrey Rush and Pierce Brosnan in “The Tailor of Panama”

My guess is that director John Boorman got a thrill dangling himself from the Cliff of Cynical, Psychological Thrillers by just a hand’s grip, the Gorge of Improbable Ridicule looming below. What a feat. Or rather, what a hand.

Brosnan plays has-been British agent Andy Osnard, who, after some unsavory sex scandal, is packed off to Panama to keep an eye on the canal, the main focus of British interest now that it has been returned by the Americans.

In search of a source of information, Osnard runs down the list of British expats and seeks out the local tailor, Harry (Geoffrey Rush), who claims to have left Savile Row for a Panama City business. Osnard’s instincts were right: The city’s bigwigs all come to Harry for fancy $3,000 suits and trust him implicitly. Meanwhile, Harry has things to hide and is heavily in debt. Osnard offers cash for information heard in the fitting room, and Harry immediately caves in.

What follows is a partnership of incompetence: Harry likes to dream up glamorous scenarios involving an imaginary underground organization called “The Silent Opposition,” left over from the days of Noriega. Osnard’s main interest in life is to sip drinks and cavort with women, or make offhand lewd remarks when women aren’t available. He swallows most everything Harry says because he’s too lazy to do otherwise.

Knowing this, Harry keeps him on a steady diet of fabricated nonsense. Before Osnard’s arrival and Harry’s induction, Panama City is a quiet backwater, “a Casablanca without heroes.” Then, between the two of them, they turn it into a hub of international espionage, if only in the bogus reports Osnard keeps sending back to London.

Boorman is suggesting that today’s spies, deprived of secrets in the Net-dominated, post-Cold War world, are reduced to making them up from scratch and that only the trappings remain the same: smoke-filled hotel rooms, automatics stashed in wall safes, little cameras in the shape of lighters.

With these, Boorman discharges the irony full-blast. Harry is given the camera to shoot documents relating to the canal, but he’s so panicked he doesn’t realize the papers are about water-sample analyses and pension plans. And the rendezvous point for Osnard and Harry is a brothel where the hookers leave the doors and windows wide open. They have to raise their voices above the din, and Harry must constantly vie with the porn on TV for Osnard’s attention.

Rush is brilliant as the tailor with grand dreams festering inside, always doing battle with his wish for a secure and peaceful home life. Matching his performance on an entirely different level is Brosnan, who proves to be an expert at self-parody. The way he goes after every 007-type ever played and dances all over their characters with wicked glee — well, it just makes you wish Tom Cruise coulda been there to see it.