In the spy thriller Duplicity, warring empires obsessed with global supremacy compete in a high-stakes chess match. Their leaders hate each other. And they'll do whatever it takes to gain the upper hand, including surveillance, infiltration, espionage and counterintelligence straight out of a Tom Clancy novel.
But these rivals aren't nations. They're corporations. The spoils of war are innovations, market share and elated stockholders. Private jets have become their air force. And the foot soldiers are Park Avenue businessmen and women whose careers sometimes get caught in the strategic crossfire.
Central to this conflict are shaving cream, soap and hand lotion. Burkett & Randle CEO Howard Tully is suspicious of chief pharmaceuticals competitor Dick Garsik, head of Equikrom. With good reason. It seems Dick is so paranoid that B&R is about to unveil a game-changing product that he has hired ex-CIA operative Claire Stenwick to infiltrate B&R's security division. She's an Equikrom mole. He also enlists former MI6 agent Ray Koval to act as her contact officer.
What Garsik's team doesn't know is that Ray and Claire have a history together (she drugged him and relieved him of Egyptian Air Defense codes during a one-night stand in Dubai), and the reunited couple intends to double cross Equikrom, swipe B&R's trade secret for themselves, and walk away with $40 million ... maybe. It could also be that Ray is conning Claire. Or that Claire is gaming Ray. Or both.
Clandestine sex in exotic locales and the promise of great wealth can't make Claire and Ray's relationship a satisfying one, because it lacks trust. In fact, one of the story's few redemptive moments occurs late in the film as the two express affection for one another without any confidence that the person sitting across the table really means it. It's sad. She longs for real intimacy, which is impossible without trust. While not preachy, this subtle exchange reveals the emptiness of romance marred by habitual dishonesty.
The script seems to take corporate America to task for being greedy, spending too much energy on industrial espionage and not enough on true innovation. It's an outgrowth of writer/director Tony Gilroy's research. "The statistics of corporate theft are somewhere between $50 and $100 billion every year," he says in the film's press notes. "There isn't a major corporation on the planet that doesn't have a competitive intelligence department with some form of either defensive or offensive intelligence gathering, which are basically spy units."
Great. Now James Bond will be looking for a bailout.
Although not married or otherwise committed to each other in any binding way, Ray is visibly hurt when Claire threatens to dissolve their partnership ("We took a vow!"), suggesting that faithfulness matters. Likewise, she is irritated when she suspects he has been with another woman, and even puts his fidelity to a test. We also learn that cheating wasn't worth the price for a college student expelled for plagiarism.
Dick turns a biblical phrase from Luke 11:33 and Matt. 5:15 when he says, "The h--- with hiding our light under a basket!"
Claire wears low-cut dresses that reveal cleavage. There's kissing, sexual dialogue and shots of lingerie. Black-and-white surveillance photos show a woman (from behind) in various stages of undress during an after-hours tryst at her office. Men discuss the pix, alluding to more explicit moments.
Ray seduces a woman to gain access to files. When confronted by Claire, he claims it meant nothing and was just part of the job, as if that makes it any better. Of course, she did the same thing to Ray upon meeting him. (He talks her into bed, after which she slips him a Mickey and robs him.) A subsequent confrontation leads the pair right back into bed. Three days later they're still tangled up in the sheets (in a scene that includes a glimpse of side breast nudity).
During the opening credits, Dick and Howard get into a slow-motion tussle on the tarmac before boarding their jets (shoving, kicking, a body slam). To shake a spy following Ray, a colleague "accidentally" knocks the man to the ground.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Claire drugs Ray during their one-night stand. It's the rare scene that doesn't involve alcohol of some kind. A woman gets giddy after rounds of appletinis at a bar, then gives herself sexually to a stranger she met there. Guys share beers. There's talk of red wine, blue margaritas and people dealing Ecstasy. Characters celebrate victory and drown their sorrows with bottles of bubbly. Whenever Claire and Ray get together, they always seem to end up with drinks in their hands, and a champagne cork becomes her calling card. A man drinks liquor in a casino as he fuels what is reported to be a $300,000 per week baccarat habit.
Other Negative Elements
The romantic leads are, in the director's own words, "professional liars." In fact, no one in this movie is completely aboveboard, making it hard to root for anybody. Still, we're encouraged to embrace Ray and Claire, who attempt to steal sensitive information for Equikrom.
Duplicity is a shrewdly crafted caper flick aimed at viewers willing to spend two hours navigating an intricate web of deceit. In addition to keeping the players straight and gauging the true agenda of each character, audiences are challenged by a fractured timeline as action gives way to flashbacks that eventually intersect with the present.
The hypnotic script (which has little trouble vilifying big business at a time when real U.S. corporations are awarding huge bonuses while jockeying for federal aid) was written and directed by Bourne trilogy screenwriter Tony Gilroy, whose poignant Michael Clayton earned a Best Picture nomination. The man definitely knows how to ratchet up tension, where to put the camera, and how to make verbal origami out of what could've been paper-thin dialogue loaded with techno-babble.
But words are also his downfall, specifically thoughtless abuses of Christ's name. That, along with sexual immorality and wall-to-wall disingenuousness (hence, the film's title), will leave discriminating viewers feeling as if they're the ones who've been played.