The Tailor of Panama

Movie Information

In Brief: Never the most prolific of filmmakers (most of his films are separated by two to four years), Boorman had willfully bitten the hand that was feeding him at least twice with Zardoz and Exorcist II: The Heretic by convincing major studios to pour money into what were essentially limited audience “art” films disguised as mainstream productions. Consequently, he’s often found an understandable reluctance on the part of studios to back his work. The Tailor of Panama is certainly unorthodox and quirky enough to put off a lot of viewers. But the film answered the question of whether 14 years of low-budget obscure films had in any way diminished Boorman’s talents. The answer is a delighted “no.” Not only is this film as good as Hope and Glory, it is better. And while in a very different key (in fact, it’s almost the polar opposite) than his masterpiece, Excalibur, I’d rank the film very nearly on that level. Everything about The Tailor of Panama works and everything about it is surprisingly daring — from the casting to the bitterly satirical tone to the use of interjections of unforced fantasy in moments where playwright Harold Pinter appears as Uncle Benny to offer often less than sage advice to the title character.
Score:

Genre: Satirical Spy Thriller
Director: John Boorman (Excalibur)
Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Geoffrey Rush, Jamie Lee Curtis, Leonor Varela, Harold Pinter
Rated: R

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Taking John Le Carre’s post-Cold War novel and adapting it — with the help of co-writers Le Carre and Andrew Davies — was in itself a masterstroke. The concept is not dissimilar to Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, which was filmed by Carol Reed in 1960. Indeed, the plots are often nearly interchangeable. The impoverished vacuum cleaner salesman pressed into service as a spy is merely replaced with an impoverished tailor. But much has changed in the intervening years: The world has become more corrupt and cynical. Noel Coward’s bumbling secret service operative who stupidly recruited Alec Guinness’s vacuum cleaner salesman has now become a smary, sex-obsessed secret agent (Pierce Brosnan) who doesn’t care if the results of a spying mission are faked, while his protege (Geoffery Rush) is a fraud from the onset — an ex-con masquerading as a posh tailor, who needs money to recover his wife’s inheritance (which he invested badly without telling her). Moreover, the absence of easily identified villains in a post-Soviet world has caused a bizarre need to create bad guys where none exist. This is the central point of The Tailor of Panama — a work utterly brimming with unraveling levels of lies and deceits.

 

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The “art” of spying has been reduced to a farcical game — yet a very dangerous one — where people get killed and wars can be started on the strength of fabrications and the need of elaborate espionage and military networks to justify their existences. Early in the film, Harry Pendel (Rush) refers to Panama as “Casablanca without heroes,” and the film — which later bitterly references that film’s last line (“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship)” — is at pains to demonstrate this. Everyone is corrupt. Everyone has his price. And everything is built upon betrayals of one kind or another. It isn’t for nothing that Harry’s mentor, the late Uncle Benny, whom he’s transformed into a non-existent Saville Row tailor, was in reality a small-time crook who set Harry up in Panama as a gesture of thanks for burning down a warehouse for him and taking the rap. The central irony is that the mythical version of this character is seen as Harry’s moral center!

 

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The casting of Pierce Brosnan — that must have horrified the producers of the James Bond movies, since Brosnan was still Bond at the time — as the utterly amoral spy, Andy Osnard, is nothing short of subversive genius. Brosnan, in the performance of his career, tears into the role full-bore, laying bare the already dubious myth of 007 in the process. A libido-driven secret agent, getting long in the tooth, out for himself, using the same tired pick-up lines on anyone he meets, cheerfully blackmailing anyone who suits his purpose, with a passion for pornography and a peculiar familiarity with gay bars is about as far from James Bond as you can get … or is it? This is just one of the areas that The Tailor of Panama explores in its viciously funny, perceptive, and bitter assessment of modern-day government intrigue. It isn’t a very comfortable film, but it’s a brilliant one from a master filmmaker.

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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21 thoughts on “The Tailor of Panama

  1. I find Brosnan extremely under-appreciated as an actor, but this is probably my favorite performance in a pretty impressive body of work.

    • Ken Hanke

      I would tend to agree, but I also think this particular role was a perfect fit in part because he was then the reigning James Bond. (In much the same way The Matador works because he was then the deposed James Bond,)

      • trexguy .

        Brosnan was better as a spy in other movies but not a good Bond. Strange. I include GHOST WRITER in that due to its intrigue and political espionage.

        • Ken Hanke

          I’d rate him over Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, and, yes, Daniel Craig.

          • T.rex

            Highly disagree but to be fair Brosnan didn’t have much to work with, those scripts were awful. Die Another Day is the absolute worst Bond film.

          • Edwin Arnaudin

            I’d rate him over Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, and, yes, Daniel Craig.

            Overall, I prefer Craig’s Bond films to Brosnan’s, but I agree that Brosnan is a better Bond.

            Die Another Day is the absolute worst Bond film.

            I prefer it to Tomorrow Never Dies and The World is Not Enough…and Quantum of Solace.

          • Ken Hanke

            I prefer it over either of those Dalton snoozefests. And whatever else may be said about Daniel Craig, he ain’t my idea of James Bond. Actually, I think they shoulda pulled the plug on the whole thing with the end of the Cold War.

          • T.rex

            I do miss the Cold War element too but glad the franchise is still going strong for 50+ years. If this summer’s MAN FROM UNCLE is a huge hit I won’t be surprised if EON productions goes retro (even a huge Bond fan like me knows they always “borrow” from other movies)

          • Ken Hanke

            glad the franchise is still going strong for 50+ years

            Why?

          • T.rex

            Elementary my dear Watson,, I’m a Bond fan.

          • Ken Hanke

            No, it’s not elementary at all. Setting aside the fact I categorically reject the word franchise unless these things are being sold in a box with fries, coleslaw, and a biscuit, let’s look at this rationally. You’re talking about a series of movies — the most famous and iconic of which were made before you were born, so it’s not like you’ve been following this from the beginning — of wildly varying quality, with an array of different stars, and directors. There’s no consistent tone. The actual connection of Skyfall to Dr. No — apart from a central character, who has been so completely modified that he’s James Bond in name only. One might more reasonably say that you’re a brand-name fan.

  2. Dionysis

    This movie and ‘The Matador’ are (so far) among Pierce Brosnan’s best work, in my view. As for who is the best Bond…Roger Moore was the worst, IMO (as my brother noted, he seemed more like a shoe salesman from Harrods); I liked Timothy Dalton okay, but the two Bond films he starred in were kind of lame. While Daniel Craig just doesn’t ‘look’ like James Bond to many of us, I like the fact that he portrays the character in a far grittier way than any of the others. But truthfully, Bond should have been put out to pasture long ago.

    • Ken Hanke

      Considering that my idea of a great Bond movie is the 1967 Casino Royale — which perhaps clues you in on how seriously I take these movies. — I am not the most respectful judge here. (You and I are probably the only ones here old enough to have seen these things from the start in 1962.) If I had to pick a serious Bond, I’d go with George Lazenby, if only because On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was the best of the straight films. Of course, that assessment has something to do with being 14 or 15 when it was new and the movie having Diana Rigg in it. My problem with the grittier Craig is that he is grittier — not my idea of James Bond.

  3. Dionysis

    You know, I had almost forgotten about George Lazenby. I remember seeing that one Bond film he starred in when it was first released. I was, at the time, unaware that Sean Connery had declined to be in that film, and when I first saw Lazenby, I was dumbfounded. I recall thinking something like ‘WTF is this’ (with the ‘W’ being ‘who’). I don’t think I cared for it at the time, but since then, having seen it a couple of times, I have a far more positive view of Lazenby and the movie.

    I guess I would have to agree that Craig is far grittier than the literary Bond or the other Bond actors, but nonetheless, I find it a refreshing change.

    • Ken Hanke

      But if it’s no longer James Bond, why bother? Call him Stanley Shapiro and make what you want, If you’re lead isn’t an approximation of Bond as he was dredged up and characterization, you’re just trading on the brand name.

      • Dionysis

        A valid point. Yet hearing the lead say “the name is Shapiro…Stanley Shapiro” just doesn’t have the same effect.

        • Ken Hanke

          I considered going with Fred Fu Manchu — “Fu Manchu — Fred Fu Manchu.” I kind of like it.

      • Edwin Arnaudin

        Isn’t Craig’s Bond’s full name Jason Bruce Wayne-Bourne?

  4. Dionysis

    Yeah, I like it too. Who would expect a smooth, British spy with such a moniker? The last Bond-related, worthless comment is that the Brosnan film ‘The World Is Not Enough’, with the ridiculously cast Denise Richards as a Ph.D. scientist, was one of only two films I’ve ever seen that, when watching, made me feel I was not so much watching a movie, but rather, watching a movie being filmed. The other one that seemed like that was Jess Franco’s ‘Count Dracula’. I felt like I was hanging around the back of the sets.

    • Ken Hanke

      That — and worse — of course, can be said about all Franco movies. I am trying to remember if I’ve seen The World Is Not Enough. I just don’t know. By that time, Bond pictures were things to be seen at some point on cable. That changed with Die Another Day because of this job.

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