Spy movies have always held a certain glamour, romance and intrigue, but most appear to paint the protagonists as super slick agents of the state. Witness how this common premise is oft-repeated in the 007 James Bond franchise, as well as movies like the Bourne Ultimatum and Wong Kar-Wai’s Lust, Caution. Taking a slightly different tact, Tony Gilroy takes a more light-hearted look in Duplicity, which sets itself in the cut-throat commercial world of New York-based MNCs.
Helmed by A-list Oscar winning Julia Roberts and Academy Awards nominee Clive Owens, Duplicity has more twists, turns and double-crossing action than a pretzel store in New York (which is where it is set). Former CIA agent Claire Stenwick (Roberts) meets ex-MI6 agent Ray Koval (Owen) as corporate spies acting on behalf of two feuding MNCs. The object of their affections (other than each other) is a secret formula which is fiercely guarded by Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson) and his cronies, much to the chagrin of rival CEO Dick Garsik (Paul Giamatti) who appears to be the main perpetuator of this commercial spy-versus-spy tale.
The plot goes like this. Former CIA officers Claire Stenwick (Roberts) and MI6 agent Ray Koval (Owen) have left the world of government intelligence to cash in on the highly profitable cold war raging between two rival multinational corporations. Appearing as undercover agents on both sides of a corporate espionage mission, their mission was to suss out what hyper-secretive Tully is up to. Part of their mission is to secure the secret formula for a product that will bring a fortune to the company that could roll it out to market first.
Opening to positive reviews by most of the major movie critics, Duplicity is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise blockbuster-saturated Summer Season. It takes a light-hearted dig at the normally sombre business of corporate intelligence, and exposes the flaws of the spying profession in a delightfully charming manner.
While the romance between Stenwick and Koval may lead one guessing at times (“So are they truly in love?”), the way in which their brewing relationship intermingles with fresh developments and discoveries by the agency was masterful in execution. At times, Roberts and Owen appear to be sitting on opposite ends of the fence, while at others, both appear to be hopelessly head-over-heals in love with one another. While the way in which they “cooperated” professionally appeared to be well orchestrated, their love scenes were unfortunately less convincing.
Kudos should go to both Giamatti and Wilkinson playing the head honchos in the game of corporate survivor, each trying to outwit, outlast and outplay each other. One could easily detect the sense of greed, ambition and cunning prevalent in both characters, and the ending sequence where smug and “triumphant” Giamatti addresses a capacity corporate crowd is unforgettable – annoyed and irritated moments before appearing on stage but oozing with charm the moment he took the stage.
The way the plot twists and turns also reveals the foibles of humanity – everybody seem to be both a pawn and a player in the complex game of commercial intelligence. Overall, a highly recommended movie and a breath of fresh air for those seeking to tickle both their funny bone and intellectual muscles at the same time.
Special thanks to Omy.sg for inviting me for this movie preview.