The Statement

The movie that “The Statement” wants to be but isn’t is a thought-provoking drama about a Nazi war criminal haunted by his past, seeking to avoid capture a half-century later, constantly searching for redemption.

That’s what “The Statement” isn’t. What it is instead is a slow-paced, formulaic thriller in which the Nazi war criminal’s psychology is given the short shrift and the by-the-numbers plot gets all the attention.

It is also a film that is set in France, featuring almost exclusively French characters, yet featuring nothing but English accents. It must take place in a particularly British region of France, I guess.

Michael Caine plays Pierre Brossard, a commander in the Vichy government — France’s ruling body under the Nazi occupation — who killed several Jewish prisoners in 1944. Now, in 1992, he is an old man who has hidden himself within the protective bosom of the Catholic church all these years, keeping a low profile. He’s also been keeping a gun, which he must employ when a secret Jewish organization begins hunting down him and his Vichy compatriots.

Meanwhile, the cops are looking for him, too, and hoping to find him before the assassins do. The cops are played by Tilda Swinton and Jeremy Northam, and darned if they, like Caine, don’t just give it their all, despite having such weak material to work with. (The writer is Ronald Harwood, who won an Oscar for writing “The Pianist”; the film is based on Brian Moore’s novel.)

I’m especially impressed with Caine’s extremely likable persona. If anyone can make a Nazi executioner sympathetic, it’s this guy, and it’s fascinating to see how director Norman Jewison emphasizes the character’s (and the actor’s) age throughout the film. Brossard is well-worn and exhausted. It’s hard to believe this is the same man who once killed innocent Jews, and I suppose that’s at least partly the point: Can a man this elderly and penitent truly be said to be the “same man” he was 50 years ago?

Ah, but I am again implanting ideas into the film that it does not have. Such deep ideas are only hinted at, with the wan storyline at the forefront instead. It’s a shame that a film with this much potential could be turned into such a dull, pedestrian affair.

C- (1 hr., 59 min.; R, a little mild profanity, some strong violence; it probably could have been PG-13.)