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The Tailor of Panama (R)
Columbia Pictures

How many of you remember "Operation Just Cause"? I'll give you a hint. 1989. Drugs. Musak. Bombs. Pornography.

Does the name throw you off? Are you trying to think of some just cause in 1989? Well, think shipping instead. "Operation Just Cause" was the now-forgotten name of the invasion of Panama, where the CIA finally got mad at its double-crossing puppet Manuel Noriega and invaded the country, killed hundreds if not thousands of civilians, squashed the American press, then hightailed it back across our borders.

And now what?

Well, if you believe John le Carr, that's exactly the question that the world's major powers are asking as well. In The Tailor of Panama, a film based on Le Carr's novel of the same name (with the screenplay co-written by Le Carr, director John Boorman and Andrew Davies), MI6 spy Andy Osnard (Pierce Brosnan) is dispatched to Panama to learn what is to become of the canal now that it is wholly owned by Panama. The assignment is part punishment-in-exile for Osnard, who has been caught one too many times with gambling debts and his hands on other peoples' wives.

In order to gather information in his newfound post, Osnard hooks up with tailor Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush), who claims to be descended from generations of Savile Row clothiers, but in fact learned his trade in prison after burning down his uncle Benny's warehouse as an insurance scam. Pendel is a perfect source for Osnard -- he is the tailor to all the new luminaries in the post-Noriega years, his wife Louisa (Jamie Lee Curtis) works for the canal authority, and he has both debts and a shady past that make him susceptible to bribes and blackmail. Unfortunately, he also has a heart of gold that makes him look out for old friends who were tortured and imprisoned by Noriega, and he loves to tell impossible stories. It is the yarn that he spins for Osnard -- that the canal is going to be bought by the Chinese -- that sets in motion both the comedy and tragedy at the heart of the film.

In a world where the threats to British-American hegemony are now fragmented and no one can really tell the good guys from the bad, The Tailor of Panama tries to occupy a new niche for a spy film -- both conventional thriller and self-referential farce. It succeeds and fails at both. Unlike the earlier Cold War thrillers at which Le Carr so excelled, there never seems to be quite enough at stake in The Tailor of Panama to elicit the heart-stopping, nail-biting response of a true thriller. It is only at the end where we see the cost of Pendel's deceit on his good friends that we realize something real has been lost. On the other hand, the winking, self-referential and humorous look at the genre itself -- most particularly in the ugly, grasping behavior of Osnard as a kind of sleazy 007 underbelly -- creates a kind of post-modern house of mirrors that is enjoyable to watch.

If "Operation Just Cause" is the future of our international policy, the style of The Tailor of Panama may be the only way to tell such a ridiculous tale.

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