“Damascus Cover” or How to Waste 93 Minutes of Your Life with Jonathan Rhys Meyers

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Photo: Steven Klein

Jonathan Rhys Meyers broods well. Better than most, in fact.

His uncontrollable yearning for his family’s new hiree (a Jewess in disguise) in The Governess (1998) is an indelible depiction of post-pubescent desire. In Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Goldmine (1998), his petulant take on a David-Bowie-esque rocker cemented the film’s rep as one of the best narratives on rock. Then there’s his Dracula, Elvis, and Henry VIII with their applaudable sneers, plus his obsessed adulterer in Woody Allen’s Match Point (2005) whose coin flip brings his comeuppance.

Now in Daniel Zelik Berk’s highly cliched, instantly forgettable Middle-Eastern spy caper, Damascus Cover, Meyers goes stoic. What a waste! So wooden is his performance here, if you were casting for the part of an elm, you would definitely be stuck choosing between him and the oft splintery Henry Cavill.

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Ari (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) notes: “Someone once told me that if the Berlin Wall could fall, anything could happen.”

Based on Howard Kaplan’s bestselling thriller from 1977, although now set in 1989, Meyers plays the recently divorced Ari-Ben Zion, an Israeli spy pretending to be a German businessman interested in purchasing Syrian rugs from a merchant who regularly commingles with a group of transplanted Nazis. Ari’s task is supposedly to help a Jewish family escape to Israel from Damascus.

The rightfully esteemed John Hurt, in his final film, plays his boss Miki, the head of Mossad, the Israeli national intelligence agency, who’s using the unsuspecting Ari as a pawn in a grand scheme involving much double-crossing. In one scene, Miki gets to eat a sandwich on a bench. It’s a minor role.

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Ari (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) might not enjoy

Then there’s Kim Johnson (Olivia Thirlby), who shows up as a flirtatious USA Today photographer with a broken watch. But is she who she says she is?

You might care, but I was more interested by the various telephones showcased: the old-fashioned dial-ups, the push-buttons, and the oversized cellulars, especially when one is used as a murder weapon. Try killing someone with an iPhone X. It just won’t do.

In another scene, Ari is violently beaten up, possibly by members of Mukhabarat, the Syrian intelligence agency. Blood is everywhere. Face, clothes, street. The next moment, he is splatter-free, bloodless like the film. Maybe he was carrying Wash N Dri towelettes. If so, that shot was confusingly cut.

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Former Nazi Franz Ludin (Jürgen Prochow) and Israeli-spy-disguised-as-a-German-rug-dealer (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) walk by the Jewish quarter in Damascus.

Berk means well with this poorly realized script he co-wrote with Samantha Newton. He’s trying to capture the inanities of the situation in the Middle East, spotlighting how both sides have to go through the motions of playing cat and mouse, constantly switching who’s the feline and who’s the rodent, but you can’t care when the characters are little more than one-dimensional.

No wonder the one line that really rings true is the provoked Ari’s exclamation, “I’m done with this bullshit!” If only the film ended then.

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For a more entertaining film on a troubled Mossad agent, try Eytan Fox’s Walk on Water (2004). For a truly clever take on the Arab-Israeli conflict, you won’t go wrong with Eran Riklis’s Syrian Bride (2004).

(Damascus Cover is in theaters and On Demand as of July 20th.)

Brandon Judell has published in The Village Voice, The Advocate, and 50 or so other outlets. He is currently a lecturer at The City College of New York.

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