They’re no angels

The deranged animal that once was Uday Hussein comes back to life in full havoc-breaking force in The Devil’s Double, recently released on DVD. Hacking limbs off fellow Iraqis and raping women just because he could were all in a day’s work for the son of the notorious dictator, Saddam Hussein.  British actor, Dominick Cooper, excels in portraying the junior Butcher of Bagdad with ferocious swagger.  Cooper also plays – with much less brutality but no less intensity – Uday’s reluctant stand-in, Latif Yahia. The polar portrayals are mesmerizing and here’s to hoping that Cooper’s relevance as an actor will soon shift from love interest in female driven flicks to leading man status in high concept films.

The story begins with Latif being approached by his former classmate, Uday Hussein, to offer him the role as his “fiday” or “double”. The proposition is not unwarranted. Outside of Uday’s flamboyant bravado and vocal pitch resonating a half octave higher than his former classmate’s, Uday and Latif bear an uncanny resemblance to each other.  Latif refuses the opportunity at first but accepts the task after Uday threatens his family. Here the transformation proceeds. Latif is cut to resemble Uday beyond suspicion, even down to the Bugs Bunny-like overbite to fit the part. As the finished product of Uday’s design, Latif is sent to Saddam, himself, to be given the once over.  The distant father behind the desk, who undoubtedly has never been impressed by much by his wild and wretched son, gives his approval with a mild reference to his god that he’s been given two sons, but “now I have three”.

Propelled into a world of madness and vulgarity, Latif bears witness to Uday’s unbridled fetish of whores and teenage girls off the streets of Bagdad. He can do nothing more than be a forlorn observer of such depravity and barbarism, giving the movie a somewhat one-dimensional feel.  If the purpose of this film is to provide a display of Uday’s lunacy, which it does well, it accomplishes its goal.  Yet a more intriguing route screenwriter Michael Thomas and director Lee Tamahori could have taken would have been if the lines of good and evil had been blurred a bit more with Latif entangled in a crisis of identity and morality. There are no distinct character arcs to be found anywhere, and it’s safe to assume that Latif’s vengeance could have been played out at any time in the film.

It’s unclear why Latif begins a half-hearted affair with Uday’s prized mistress, Sarrab, played by French actress, Ludivine Sagnier.  There’s no real story or motivation behind the attraction. And Sagnier, resembling Lady Gaga, is an actress with bland appeal and even less acting ability.  Her role serves as a token female relationship story line.

A more fascinating look at a relationship between a psychopathic dictator (question: is there ever a dictator that is not psychopathic?) and his tethered, innocent captive would be The Last King of Scotland. DD brought to mind that 2006 film about real-life Ugandan President Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) and his doctor (James McAvoy). In that film, Idi Amin is seen, at first, as a benevolent, enigmatic president and friend to the unsuspecting doctor until the tides turn to reveal the monster within – to chilling effect. That film excels in ways DD fails to do so. And while the similarities between both movies are as prevalent as their differences, the brutality in each is no less flagrant than the other.

While the story and character development are lukewarm, the art direction and cinematography are red hot. Tamahouri provides a lush palette of color and light to his shots, complementing Uday’s rage with vibrant settings. But what the audience comes away with most from DD is the portrayal of the late Iraqi prince by Dominick Cooper.  If nothing else, he establishes himself as a vital new talent to look out for.

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