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Dirty Rotten Spies

Model and television show host Tyra Banks, third from right, poses with the cast members from "America's Next Top Model" at The CW Network Upfront at New York's Madison Square Garden on May 17, 2007.
GETTY IMAGES/Evan Agostini
To those worried that the end of the Cold War meant the end of the spy novel, novelist John Le Carre had what must have seemed soothing words.

"For decades to come the spy world will continue to be the collective couch where the subconscious of each nation is confessed," Le Carre said.

If the characters of Le Carre's The Tailor of Panama were to probe their subconscious from the comforting horizontal recline of a psychiatrist's couch, the stories they would spin would likely grow concentrically, increasingly daft and counterfeit.

First there's the titular tailor, Harry Pelton (Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush), a semi-bumbling sort who, with a tailor's regard for propriety and immaculate appearance, just cannot help embellishing a tale or smoothing over a jagged narrative point. A convicted arsonist whose Jewish father impregnated the Irish maid, Harry is blessed, or perhaps cursed, with both Jewish chutzpah and Irish blarney. He just hates for things to look bad. So he embellishes — about himself, his shop, his customers. Habitually.

Enter Andy Osnard (Pierce Brosnan), the professional spook with a rampant libido, a sparkling cut-glass smile and a deep moral rot. Relegated to Panama by his British secret service bosses, his job: to undermine the Panama Canal treaty to give the Americans an excuse to hang onto the canal. He sees Pelton as the perfect spy — literally working at the feet of Panama's powerful elite — to help him stir civil unrest in Panama and regain favor with his bosses, which in this case is synonymous. Besides, Pelton needs the money.

The Cold War's end ostensibly should have finished Le Carre, whose work as a fictional spymaster (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold; The Russia House; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Smiley's People) usually concerned England's role as diminutive sparring partner with the Russians and, occasionally, the U.S. But Le Carre approached his subject with deep un-Bondian realism and was always slightly less interested in the mechanics of spying than in the interplay between morality and political expediency, so his work has more staying power than mere ideology. As Le Carre's quote suggests, the work of a spy — and a spy novelist — is as eternal and varied as the psyche.

The Tailor of Panama is as close to outright comedy as the usually glum Le Carre has yet ventured (he describes Panama as being like Casablanca "but without the heroes"), and as the movie's executive producer, had influence enough to ensure that the film didn't stray far from the novel. Not that he needed to worry much: the film of his Spy Who Came In From The Cold is a classic and Richard Buton's finest performance, and movies and miniseries of the novelist's Russia House, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and Smiley's People were excellent, particularly the last two.

He also hired Director John Boorman (Deliverance, Hope and Glory, Point Blank, Hell in the Pacific, The General), whose visual elegance can match Le Carre's words (Boorman also co-wrote the script).

One potentially ominous note: the release of the movie into theaters was delayed from late December to now. Sometimes that's a sign of a film in trouble, especially considering reports that the film went way over-schedule due to production problems. The film co-stars Jamie Lee Curtis, Leonor Varela, Brendan Gleeson, and Harold Pinter and is rated R for some sexual scenes.

At the other end of the spy game this week is Spy Kids, which stars Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino as super spies who routinely save the world, but disappear on a mysterious mission and need to be rescued by their kids. As it's written and directed by hyper-kinetic Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi, Four Rooms), Spy Kids might be much more than a kids movie. Stars Antonio Banderas, Cheech Marin, Alan Cumming, Tony Shalhoub and Teri Hatcher can definitely play over-the-top comedy, and Rodriguez has a bouncy comic touch. The movie is rated PG-13.

This spring there's been a run of mediocre romantic comedies (The Mexican, The Wedding Planner) that Tomcats and Someone Like You will hopefully cure. In Someone Like You, Ashley Judd plays a TV producer whose dream romance with Greg Kinnear suddenly hits the skids. Tomcats unsurprisingly concerns randy bachelors (Jerry O'Connell and Jake Busey) who make a bet that one of them can get married within 30 days. Shannon Elizabeth (American Pie) stars as the woman of their — and everybody else's — dreams.

By NICK SAMBIDES Jr