The Tailor of Panama

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“The Tailor of Panama” is the first film to be shot on location in that country, and what a grand portrait it paints! Lush landscapes, charming locals, and corruption as far as the eye can see.

The post-Noriega Panama is, in this droll spy film, a place of crumbling morals and even worse social strata: Everyone is either dirt poor or filthy rich. It’s “Casablanca, without heroes,” says the title character, Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush), whose client list includes every wealthy man in Panama City.

He is approached by Andy Osnard (Pierce Brosnan), a British spy seeking personal gain. There’s little real trouble at this point, with Noriega out of the picture, so Andy creates some with Harry’s help. He figures to make everyone fear Panama’s about to sell the canal out from under the United States (which still controls it at this point), and pocket whatever millions he can get out of the trouble he starts.

Harry is coerced into helping because he has a checkered past he’d rather his American wife Louisa (Jamie Lee Curtis) not know about. As tailor to the stars, he hears a lot of secrets, and in exchange for having his considerable debts paid off, he tells Andy more than he actually knows. His drunken friend Mickie (Brendan Gleeson), he says, is still part of a “silent resistance,” as is his secretary, Marta (Leonor Varela). With a little greasing of the palms, they could be rallied to action.

Part of the fun of this film is not knowing exactly how much Harry is making up, and how much is real. At the same time, we’re never entirely sure what to make of Andy. We know he’s a scoundrel — sort of a James Bond type, but more vulgar — but what depths his dishonesty goes to we don’t fully grasp until the end.

It’s a good old-fashioned espionage caper film, with one significant difference: Where the thrill usually comes from seeing everything unravel at the end, here we witnessed the, uh, raveling in the first place. The intrigue is created right before our eyes. We see the webs weaved, and then we see their undoing. Very slick, very fun.

Andrew Davies, adapting John Le Carre’s novel, writes whip-smart characters and dialogue. I love Harry’s succinct, perfect description of the corruption that remains after Noriega: “They got Ali Baba, but they missed his 40 thieves.” And is anyone else as impressed as I am by Geoffrey Rush drawing chalk lines for a new suit like he’s been doing it all his life? What a thoroughly enjoyable little film.

A (; R, frequent harsh profanity, extremely strong sexuality, abundant nudity, some violence.)

In 2012, I reconsidered this movie for my Re-Views column at Film.com.

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