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Movie Review: The Devil’s Double (R)

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Length: 109 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Age Appropriate for: 17+. Cursing, lots of slurs (including the homophobic f-word and the women-bashing c-word), full nudity from both men and women and a sex scene, implied rape, violence, torture, murder, shootings, suicides, vomit and disemboweling. Just believe the R rating on this one.

Dominic Cooper in ‘The Devil’s Double’: Great. The movie’s simplistic plot and overly skimpy development of its two main characters: Ultimately not so great.

By Roxana Hadadi

I have this really visceral reaction to movies set in the Middle East that make their characters have British accents. Last year’s “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” starred Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton and Ben Kingsley as Persians — Iranians, for modern-day purposes — and they were all laughable, with their U.K.-tinged tones. I would have been far happier with no accents at all than some really unnecessary British ones. Also, I’m Iranian, so I’m sure you can fully get my wrath at this affront to my people.

And I’m sure Iraqis would be as exasperated with most of the voices in “The Devil’s Double,” an adaptation of the life story of Latif Yahia, an Iraqi man who was chosen by Saddam Hussein’s basically insane son Uday to be his body double in the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq War. Both Latif and Uday are played by British actor Dominic Cooper, and while his performances are truly remarkable, it’s irritating that his portrayal of Latif comes with a sometimes British accent; it’s also infuriating that main love interest Sarrab, played by French actress Ludivine Sagnier, similarly slips up. Come on guys! Don’t you get paid to, you know, act?

But honestly, now I’m just nagging. For the most part, Cooper is astonishingly good: He develops definitive characters in both Latif and Uday, and his transitions between the two are seamless. He’s impulsive, repulsive and psychotic as the drug-addicted rapist Uday, Saddam’s first-born son who is spoiled and egotistical; in contrast, the initial meekness of Latif, plucked off the street and placed in a terrible situation, believably develops into a stronger, more confident and determined will as the years pass in the film. The film’s faults don’t lie in Cooper; they’re manifest more in the repetitive plot and stagnant final third.

Until things get boring, “The Devil’s Double” is actually pretty good. Interspersed with news footage from the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the Persian Gulf War, the film requires you to know a little about Middle Eastern history — like the bad blood between different religious and ethnic groups in Iraq — the film tracks Uday’s manipulation of Latif’s life. Convinced that he needs a body double (like his father, who allegedly had a few different ones) while the war is going on, Uday tracks down Latif, who is serving in the battle, after remembering that their classmates in school always commented on their similar looks. Uday gives Latif 10 minutes to decide, but there’s no choice, really: When Latif hesitates — “You are asking me to extinguish myself,” he says — Uday has him beaten, tortured and locked up. Who can say no to that?

A few wardrobe updates and some fake teeth later, Latif is coached by Uday’s adviser Munem (Raad Rawi) in how to be just like Hussein’s son. “You are to be his brother,” everyone says of Latif’s relationship with Uday, but no one mentions how Uday is manic, absurd and out of control, or that Latif’s skeptical, calm and controlled manner is completely the opposite. When the two start going places together — nightclubs, parties — Latif catches the eye of one of Uday’s favorite lovers, Sarrab, and soon he’s even more torn on his new role. He can’t see his family, he can’t start a relationship with Sarrab and he can’t think for himself: Uday’s extinguishment of his life is essentially complete. “We must have discipline,” Uday yells as he whips Latif for getting out of line, and in the beginning, he does.

But the fracture between the two really comes as Uday careens further into his protected cage of booze, cocaine, guns and women, and Latif — successful in his impersonation of Uday so far — realizes that Uday isn’t lying when he says, “Everything I want, I just take for myself.” As the death toll begins stacking up, Latif decides to finally bail on being the devil’s double — but what will happen to his parents and siblings in Iraq, and to Sarrab, keeps his abandonment of the life in constant question.

And that’s the thing: It’s safe to assume Latif gets out of his servitude to Uday, or the film wouldn’t really exist, would it? “The Devil’s Double” is based on a same-named 2003 memoir by Latif, which writer Michael Thomas adapted for this movie. So when director Lee Tamahori bogs down the final third of the film with escape attempt after escape attempt, it’s frustrating to hear the same dialogue and see the same confrontations again and again, when we can all guess that there’s some form of happy ending coming up.

Some final twists regarding a few of the main characters’ true loyalties are appreciated, but ultimately the film paints the picture as Uday: evil, Latif: saintly, with a final showdown that is action-packed but not historically accurate. More about Uday’s motives — the film hints his power-hungry behavior could have been because of repressed homosexuality or incestuous lust for his mother, but those feel like cheap copouts — or whether Latif felt any loyalty toward Saddam’s regime would have helped the plot feel more complete.

Cooper truly does his best, mastering both the smirking, ferret-like nature of Uday and the more resigned, guarded personality of Latif; he shines most when Latif must step into Uday’s shoes and when the two face off against each other. They fight often — over women, the outcome of strangers, whether Uday can even tell who is his real father and who is Saddam’s double — and each scene is a personal triumph for Cooper. But the film careens so much toward the end (Assassination attempts! Heroes riding horses into the sunset! A sex scene as the U.S. military attacks Baghdad during the Gulf War! Birthday parties where the guests are forced to strip naked!) that it’s hard to tell how much of the bombast really happened. Tamahori and Thomas have said in interviews that they fictionalized much of Yahia’s life, but while it’s all pretty entertaining, it’s ultimately too simplistic. Even with Cooper’s performance, “The Devil’s Double” suffers most from its own streamlining.

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