“Spider in the Web” is a well-crafted, reasonably cunning spy thriller starring Ben Kingsley as an aged Israeli agent on the hunt for proof of a company’s complicity in helping arm Syria with chemical and biological weapons.
It hangs on the urbane, wily charms of its star, on Kingsley’s ability to sell a warm anecdote, to look at home in any sophisticated setting, to play the man who knows a good Cohiba, a good cognac and a good intel “asset” when he sees one.
As he’s played such men, of varying degrees of cunning, since “Pascali’s Island,” it comes as no surprise that he pulls off this Antwerp antiques dealer-by-day, master spy-by-night chap with his usual aplomb.
A tale “inspired by true events,” this Israeli production is set during the period of the Syrian civil war when President for Life Assad was bombing his own people with chemical weapons.
Simon Bell, the cover name for Avram (Kingsley), is working his favorite source, an expat Syrian general. When the source says “The woman will lead you to it,” Avram/Simon takes it seriously.
“Forty years on the job, I don’t go looking for sense any more.”
His boss (Itzik Cohen) figures “It’s time to call it a day,” meaning Mossad has lost trust in the old spook’s sources and skills. But sending an escort, Daniel (Itay Tiran) to fetch him, at gunpoint, only shows how sharp Avram’s spycraft still is.
He sniffs out a hostile on a train with just a conversation over a John LeCarre novel, and dispatches him. He can still jump off a moving coach (the most far-fetched thing in the film), still flag down a farmer for a ride, and so knows the lay of the land he remembers a cozy hotel nearby.
Daniel, the son of a former colleague, watches as Avram works the desk clerk for a room, and listens to how one can tell if the restaurant’s chef’s food is up to snuff.
“You should be able to stand your spoon upright in a good pea soup!”
Turns out the owner (Hilde Van Mieghem) is an old source, too.
As Avram gives Daniel a tour of Belgium’s dining and spying hot spots, he is also working Daniel — seducing him — just as he works his latest contact, a doctor with ViRobe, the company the Israelis are investigating. Angela (Monica Bellucci) is not immune to the old master’s charms.
“You make love like you live life.”
That’s your touchstone moment in “Spider in the Web.” Either you cringe at that corny old line and figure, “I’ll pass,” or you buy in. Sure, it’s dated. But so is most of the cast, the genre, the whole nuts-and-bolts of espionage on the big screen.
Even the plot device driving the story is WWI vintage — chemical warfare. It’s no surprise that Avram is a WWI era history buff. That late German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empire era was also the setting for “Pascali’s Island,” by the way.
This Eran Riklis (“Lemon Tree,” “Syrian Bride,” both worth Netflixing) film is a tale of tinkling cognac glasses, savored cigars, of squealing BMW tires, the “thunk-snap” of rounds being chambered, the “p-tiff, p-tiff” of pistols with silencers silencing this rival, that “traitor.”
The script gives Kingsley scene after raconteur scene, telling Daniel stories of his late father, the no-mistakes-allowed politics of Mossad, which can be fatal for non-Jews like Avram. He plays the “instinct” scenes like an old master, keeping a bottle handy for any security guard he sizes up as a Foreign Legionnaire, reciting the Legionnaire’s creed like the old comrade he can pretend to be.
If you love Kingsley, and you should, these moments are to be treated the way he treats that Cuban cigar — savored.
It’s a story too reliant on those moments, too dependent on coincidences and overfilled with examples of Avram’s hunches, instincts, back-engineered canniness and double-dealing. It all gets a bit murky by the third act.
But Sir Ben sells it and faithfully maintains our interest in what happens, and what happens to Avram, from first scene to last, a spy in his element, a “Spider in the Web.”
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Monica Belluci, Itay Tiran, Itzik Cohen
Running time: 1:53