I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

The Devil’s Double

tn_devilsdoubleTHE DEVIL’S DOUBLE, the new film from the director of ONCE WERE WARRIORS and THE EDGE, is the fascinating true story of a man forced to be a lookalike decoy version of Uday Hussein, the most depraved of Saddam Hussein’s two sons. But shit, I can’t lie to you – Lee Tamahori is also the director of xXx: STATE OF THE UNION and NEXT, and the story is mostly bullshit other than how the poor guy got mixed up in this business. In fact, on the DVD Tamahori talks about how he wasn’t interested in doing a true story, saying it with disgust as if we’re all on the same page and he doesn’t have to explain why it would be boring to tell an incredible truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story. But oh well. I still thought it was worth watching.

Dominic Cooper (Iron Man’s dad in CAPTAIN AMERICA, but not in the IRON MAN movies) plays Latif, who is called in by old school acquaintance Uday (also Cooper – you know, just like Eddie Murphy would do), who shows him how they look like twins and tells him he will become his “brother” and be a double to him just like the guy his pops has. Latif refuses, so they lock him up and whip him and threaten his family. So on second thought why not, right? He takes the job.

It’s definitely more like a mafia movie than a political one. Uday has his staff of scary looking, suit-wearing, cigarette smoking enforcers, part bodyguard, part babysitter. They give Latif a tour of his new toys: fancy palaces, expensive cars, hot girls everywhere instructed to do anything he wants (get him strawberries or whatever), but don’t you fucking halfway maybe think about even just barely touching one of Uday’s girls. So yeah, it’s pretty clear early on what this is gonna be about.

I don't completely understand this poster, but I love it. I bet Kanye was jealous when he saw it.
I don’t completely understand this poster, but I love it. Kinda looks more like a hip hop album cover than a movie poster.

Uday loves women, but also dancing to ’80s dance music with transvestites. He patrols the streets looking for school girls to pick up (and I mean in school uniforms, coming home from school, holding school books, the whole thing). In the most horrifying scene (thankfully off screen) he snatches a young bride from her wedding, rapes her in her wedding dress, and it gets worse from there. And when it’s clear even to him that he’s gone too far his version of feeling bad about it is telling Latif to give the family some money.

My favorite scene is when Latif is telling the other guys that Uday is psychotic. I think he knows they can never agree with him out loud, but he knows from their faces that they can’t deny it. And they don’t try to. “You’re a good man in a bad job,” Latif says. All these guys around him, the guys that might kill him, are victims just like he is. None of them seem to enjoy what they’re doing, but they do it.

Latif figures out the secret to passing as Uday so that even Uday’s inner circle falls for it:

1. Pull what little hair he has down onto his forehead
2. Speak in a higher voice
3. Yell at everybody and smash things

He even does speeches as Uday, and things he does get reported in the paper as Uday. But he doesn’t really get seduced by the power and the lifestyle like you might think. He stays aware of being a prisoner to a sick and dangerous world. He gets into trouble by refusing to do things (shoot a guy in the head, etc.) but keeps getting away with it. It seems like as long as they’re gonna be making up a fake version of the story they could give him a more dramatic arc than just “he has to do it, then after a while he tries to run off.” But that’s what we get.

The big historic events, including the invasion of Kuwait, are handled by showing montages of news footage. It feels a little cheap but it was probly the best idea, to deal with the story on a more intimate level. The biggest drawback to using the real footage is that it emphasizes how much the guy playing Saddam doesn’t really look or seem very much like Saddam. But he’s actually not in it that much.

A bigger problem is that it has this fascinating topic of doubles but doesn’t really explain the process that much. I mean surely there’s gotta be something more to it than there just happened to be a dude in his school that looked fucking 100% identical to him. I guess he’s supposed to be putting on a fake nose or something, but I mean, you see them, they are clearly just the same guy, in real life it wasn’t that easy. Wouldn’t it to be interesting to know how the real guy really did this, got a guy to pass for him so well that even people who actually knew him sometimes couldn’t tell which was which?

And why is it that everyone always believes he’s this famous terror, but suddenly when he escapes he’s just a dude and can go around and nobody thinks he’s Uday anymore? Shouldn’t he have to wear a wig or something?

They do play with the doubling in a few interesting ways, like a scene where Uday sends the double to meet with his dad, just to amuse himself. He waits nearby excitedly asking “What did he say? What did he say?” But the double of Uday insists it was the double of Saddam he met with and real-Uday thinks it was real-Saddam. It kind of makes you question if it’s really known which events were the real guys and which were the doubles.

I guess Ice-T saw The Devil's Double too.
I guess Ice-T saw The Devil’s Double too.

Cooper is good in this, most memorably as Uday. I like that as horrible as he is he seems to have a genuine attachment to Latif. He could just kill him, but he always wants to keep him around, like he’s convinced himself they’re actually good friends. Even after Latif escapes Uday seems to want him to come back and just act like it never happened. I guess in that one sense being a double to a mad prince is good work to have, because you’re hard to replace.

There are many ways this movie should’ve been better and more substantive, but I can’t deny that it’s entertaining because of the inherently fascinating topic. This world is scary because they’re out of control gangsters, but they never have to worry about the cops. It’s like working for Scarface, except he’s a rapist, and in a world with no cops.

And yet when somebody tries to assassinate him, thinking he’s Uday, he goes into soldier mode and starts firing back at them. Obviously it’s self defense, but really he’s on the same side as those guys. It’s hard out here for a devil’s double.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Sunday, November 27th, 2011 at 7:21 pm and is filed under Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

16 Responses to “The Devil’s Double”

  1. As a NEXT defender and a fan of at least the concept of xXx 2:TONY HAWK ISN’T IN THIS ONE, I *should* want to see DEVIL’S DOUBLE, but I’ve been dealing with too many weirdo, rapey, misogynist characters & movies lately (most recently SHEITAN, which was more enjoyable than CALVAIRE but of equal ‘shower-immediately’ quality).  

    Vern’s history with the horror genre perhaps has better conditioned him to be able to enjoy, or find “fascinating,” a story about the old Ace of Hearts and his double, while my disgust for the entire country of Iraq’s unwillingness to trade intel for a huge monetary reward in the hunt for HVTs would lead me to interpret this movie through a prism of tactical could-have-beens.  

    But maybe not, since I was a naive college boy the last couple years Uday was alive and since no American knows anything about Iraq pre-2003 post-1992.  We were all clueless fucking idiots then, and I know this movie will not be enlightening, since the review & Tamahori say so.  

  2. it would be pretty weird meeting someone who looks exactly like you

  3. also, I have not seen this yet, but it warms my heart to see a director take a turn for the worst and then try to actually bounce back instead of shrugging and saying “whatever” as many directors seem to do

    if only guys like Rob Reiner would do that

  4. I’m in the Dutch film school and since a couple of graduates produced this we got a Q&A. Some things:
    – The romance plot was entirely invented, because you can’t make a commercial movie without a romance plot
    – I can’t remember who but some A-lister (maybe Clive Owen?) was attached as lead for a while.
    – The script was like 200+ pages long and they pretty much cut half of it out before shooting instead of doing actual rewrites
    – The part when they’re on Malta all of a sudden for no reason is in there for tax breaks
    – The guy who it’s based is at least very happy with it

    I thought it was more good than bad, but really frustrating because it’s got huge potential with some easy fixes. I think the trailer is really excellent and one of the years best though.

  5. Griff: when you say take a turn for the worst and bounce back are you referring to Lee’s choice of films to make or the whole cross dressing and offering sex for cash to an undercover cop thing in 2006?

    Hey, we all have our kinks, but that’s pretty out there. He couldn’t have needed the money. But if he did, turning tricks in drag certainly beats Robert Rodriguez submitting himself to medical experiments in terms of dedication to meeting your production budget.

  6. Tamohari is a noted and open fetishist, for the record. And the subplot about the Uday’s gay sex is entirely invented and certainly a reflection of the director. A very strange Auteur moment.

    I saw this movie twice in theaters, only one of which was in the company of Ice-T and 2000 other compete strangers. It was pretty cool, the afterparty was at this swanky hotel in a penthouse and they had lots of celebrity impersonators. I went with my buddy from high school. We both found it pretty funny that we used to drink beers before school behind the Taco Bell and now we were drinking super bougie mixed drinks on the 35th floor of the Ritz. Still wearing our steel toed boots, however. ahahah.

    I actually think this movie is a very interesting piece of an emerging genre that also includes The A-Team and From Paris, With Love. It’s a post-post 9/11 film. It’s all about the war on terror and complex, real world politics, but it treats these politics as a set up for cheap exploitation entertainment. 9/11 has officially become a plot device. This film is rather stunning in its’ open fictionalization of history intercut with actual documentary footage. The really strange part is, the low-grade video footage of war looks more like scifi and fantasy than do the baroque set pieces of the wholly fabricated narrative.

  7. Hey, so I forgot that I actually wrote a review of this movie. And I forgot that it was one of the best reviews I have written in a very long time.

    For most of this century’s first decade Hollywood thrillers reeled from the events of 9/11 by replacing stock Arab villains with other standbys like Nazis (The Sum of All Fears), Soviet sleeper cells (Salt), and corrupt figures within the US government (The Manchurian Candidate [2004]). Often, these films would feature lip service to anti-Arab sentiments by including at least one darker skinned cast member acting as a red herring (Source Code). Terrorism played an increasingly central role in many films, but it was rarely treated as a simple Deus Ex Machina. And though many of the films were ultimately philosophically problematic, there was a general air of seriousness and importance to the proceedings.

    But with the passage of time, the reverence has fallen away and films have begun to revert back toward a more streamlined approach. We are now beginning to see a new movement, a sort of Post-Post-9/11 action film. Traces of this new style can be found in films like Taken and Iron Man but solidified in 2010 with the one-two punch of From Paris, With Love and The A-Team. Hollywood filmmakers are now taking bits and pieces of the Post-9/11 landscape and adapting them into fantasy filmmaking. The A-Team begins with an extended sequence set within the drug cartel sponsored civil war in Mexico, but it plays this as a gimmick with all the subtly and nuance of a James Bond intro. Meanwhile, From Paris, with Love, made by the same French filmmaking team behind Taken, deals with the anti-Arab xenophobia head-on, from the perspective of a paranoid bigot. In both of these cases, The P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act and the War on Terror are central to the plot, but treated as little more than a simple McGuffin and an expositional shortcut.

    If Post-9/11 filmmaking was defined by bringing moral simplicity to an increasingly complex world in order to reassure a traumatized populace, Post-Post-9/11 filmmaking appears to be developing around bringing amoral characters to the forefront to combat the more complex world and restore the original status quo, by any means necessary.

    the-devils-double-posterThese films play as straight action fare with unambiguous morality but feature immoral, or more likely amoral characters at their center. After a decade of the closeted, whitewashed fascism of superheroes, filmmakers are beginning to feel comfortable positioning antiheroes as protagonists without any shades of grey. Early traces of this can be seen in R-rated comic book adaptations including Wanted, The Punisher: War Zone and arguably Watchmen.

    All of this brings us to Lee Tamahori’s The Devil’s Double. Filmed independently on a reported $15 million budget, The Devil’s Double takes this new subgenre and pushes it into bizarre, gonzo and tremendously entertaining directions.

    The film tells the story of Latif, an Iraqi Soldier with Kurdish heritage who is forced to become a body double for Saddam Hussein’s emotionally unbalanced, cocaine-addicted and sexually deviant son Uday during the build up to the first Gulf War. This is a true story in the sense that Saddam did have a son named Uday and Uday did have a body double named Latif. Latif even wrote a book on the subject, but Tamahari makes no bones about the validity of the film; it’s fiction. It’s all fiction. From the characterization and motivations of the protagonist through to the inevitable ironic justice of the ending, nearly every detail of this movie is based first and foremost upon what would look cool and never on what would be most accurate.

    And while this is typical of biopics, The Devil’s Double complicates matters by framing the film on all sides with documentary footage of the first Gulf War. Missiles and rockets fly through the air looking like laser beams and space invaders thanks to the grainy 1991 VHS footage blown up to fit a movie screen. In fact, the real footage is more surreal than any of the fiction. Jean Baudrillard’s Desert of the Unreal is made manifest in Kuwait’s burning oil fields because the real footage here is indeed more strange and more difficult to believe than any of the fiction.

    Dominic Cooper The Devils Double premiere Los Angeles Film FestivalAnd perhaps this is exactly the point. By couching the ridiculous fantasy within historical images that look intensely surreal Tamahori effectively divorces the film of any type of reality. It is a copy, of a copy, of a copy of history that we half remember from nearly a quarter century ago. There is no moral or political weight, Iraq might as well be a fantasy realm of Middle Earth populated primarily by transsexual hookers and yes men and ruled over by a little boy playing dress up in his father’s military clothes.

    This is the kind of film where an offhanded joke about penis size comes back into play as an actual plot point during act three, where one character disembowels another during a drunken argument at a dinner party, where Saddam Hussein appears in a half dozen scenes depicted in a positive light, where there are riffs on Miami Vice, Scarface and Lawrence of Arabia all within five minutes of one another.

    Holding the film together is Dominic Cooper, playing both Latif and Uday. He is so good that for the first half of the movie I wasn’t entirely sure they didn’t have two separate actors. Uday and Latif are each fully formed and distinct characters, each with a complete set of tics and mannerisms. Both parts are underwritten with Latif remaining far too stoic in the face of his new lifestyle and Uday remaining entirely too cartoonish to ever feel human, but Cooper elevates the material, finding something real to cling to in each and every scene. Even more impressive is his ability to portray Latif portraying Uday. This element of the film could easily have fallen to pieces but Cooper rises to the occasion and sells it perfectly. This is the kind of performance that opens up the doors to A-list material, which in 2011 I guess means that Cooper will be playing a superhero or something soon.

    The-Devils-Double-Dominic-Cooper-imageThe film is a rollicking, amoral good time for the first hour, but it cannot sustain the energy. Once Latif enacts a half-formed escape plan things kind of fall to pieces. Major plot points are glossed over and even completely ignored. At one point, Latif and his mistress stand in the middle of the desert with no money, no car and price on their heads and then the film just jumps ahead to the couple standing in a lavish hotel room in another country with an entirely new wardrobe and money to burn. The film is supposed to build to a tragic romance but there is never any reason for us to care about the lovers. In fact, I don’t even know why they like each other except that he apparently has a large member and she definitely has a great ass. Casablanca this is not.

    Still, the film functions as a very entertaining black comedy punctuated by sequences of stunning violence and filmed with all the gloss of a liquor advertisement. It is a return to form for Tamahori after years of wading through some of the worst of Hollywood’s for-hire jobs. At the film’s center, Cooper demonstrates himself to be a man of considerable talent and range, elevating middling material with a truly memorable performance.

    This is a film that is perhaps most interesting because of what the filmmakers are saying unintentionally, but it still features enough exploitative spectacle to satisfy action fans and enough symptomatic social importance to inspire a good conversation over pie and coffee. Fun for the whole family.

    7.9/10

  8. Even in the previews this film seemed like a strange confluence of genres. I kept on waiting for the inevitable political commentary, but the trailer kept on looking like a straight up gangster flick. I don’t necessarily have a problem with films that deviate from strict historical fact, so long as they acknowledge this and wind up doing something interesting in the end. I kind of wonder why this movie wasn’t just Scarface gets a double. I’m sure everyday, salt of the earth gangsters have thought of creating a decoy.

  9. BR Baraka – re-reading my post I was think I was a bit too vague, so I’ll try to be more clear

    what I was saying is that sometimes there are directors who make some good movies, like Rob Reiner, who for whatever reason lose they’re mojo and start either making bad movies or stop altogether

    very rarely (actually, I can’t think of any other examples) do you see a director who’s made a few bad movies bounce back or at least try to, that’s why I really respect Lee Tamahori for at least saying “maybe I should stop making movies like Die Another Day, XXX State of The Union and Next and start making movie that aren’t complete shit”

    of course I can’t understand why once talented directors start making shitty movies to begin with, there’s a lot about Hollywood I don’t understand

  10. shit, I feel bad about the extra “was” and the “they’re”/”their” faux pas

  11. I actually read the book that this was based on several years ago. I should get around to watching this just to see how much of it I don’t recall being in the book.

  12. Great review Tawdry. Maybe Vern should post his reviews on your site.

  13. He already had aintitcoolnews.com… Collider.com is more of a news site and we try to avoid editorializing in our articles too much, (a standard that I obviously ignore). But if Vern wanted to have a regular thing on Collider, I’m sure it could be arranged.

  14. I really thought this movie had a lot of potential. Unfortunately, nothing in this movie made sense. I was completely disappointed.

  15. ONCE WERE WARRIORS was a perfectly serviceable after school special, but not much more than that. And THE EDGE was goofy enough fun, but nothing to build a reputation on.

    So, “bounce back” to what? I don’t see it, not even two seconds in the future.

  16. Watch your mouth when you insult David Mamet around me, DocZ.

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