Movie Review: If the Russians want “Kompromat” on a foreigner, you know they’ll find it

You’re going to have to trust me on this. Espionage thrillers are my jam, for obvious reasons. And “escape” narratives — in books or in films — have been a passion since I was old enough to read “Who Goes Next?” or root for James Garner in “The Great Escape” on TV.

“Kompromat” is the best thriller about breaking out of Russia to come along in years. It’s a tight, tense and just-melodramatic-enough tale that will have you racing along with our flawed hero, reasoning as he does as he tries to escape a culture whose police state traditions go back centuries.

French director and co-writer Jérôme Salle has conjured up a superb entertainment, and a sobering reminder that nobody’s ever been caught breaking “into” Russia. It’s the sort of film any Westerner considering traveling there for work, “business” or whatever, should see before confirming that reservation.

People like basketballer Britney Griner and multi-national “operator” Paul Whelan and others seem to have forgotten what this riveting film’s Cold War-familiar title means. It’s a KGB coinage for manufactured “evidence” to use in whatever kangaroo court show trial they cook up if they decide The West needs to be taught a lesson through whatever tourist, athlete or business person they have at hand.

And as too many true stories that “inspired” this fictional one remind us, once they’ve got their hands on you, who knows who can get you out? Who knows who you can even trust enough to try?

Gilles Lellouche, best-known for “Tell No One” on this side of the Atlantic, plays Mathieu, a local director of the Alliance Francaise, the cultural affairs arm of the French Embassy, in remote Irkutsk, Siberia.

That outreach program has helped finance the renovation of a theater there, and his efforts have landed a local oligarch’s backing as well.

But one day, the FSB, which is just the dreaded KGB rebranded, storms in and arrests Mathieu, right in front of his little girl. He’s hooded and hauled away, hearing her screams as he does.

This begins the process of digging through his memories, trying to figure out who he crossed and what brought this on? When they tell you they’ve caught you with child pornography, that your wife has denounced you for child molestation, you know they aren’t messing around.

Was it the homoerotic dance performance he booked to reopen that theater and cultural center? Did he dance with the wrong Russian blonde that night? Was she (Joanna Kulig) a classic “honey trap?” Did his unhappy and unfaithful wife (Elisa Lasowski) pull the trigger?

Perhaps that Russian liaison in his office, Vladimir, is behind it? What about the gregarious, hard-drinking, loud-singing consulate handyman, Boris?

Can he even trust the “best lawyer in town” provided by the embassy, when the town is Irkutsk in the middle of snowy Siberia?

Mathieu is from the world of the arts, “soft” even by French standards. He’s also not the most careful guy. Fluent in Russian, he might have listened when somebody warned him that the local FSB chief was watching him. And he can’t have wholly understood that “Russian mentality is very different from the French” suggestion in the way it was intended, joining that rich benefactor for a stag hunt in wolf-infested forests, refusing to participate or even carry a gun.

This “artistic type” is shackled, tossed into a crowded prison cell where the tattooed skinheads are full of questions and threats. There are “three types of men” in there, one of them advises in his most menacing Russian (with English subtitles). “Men we respect. Men we beat. And men we f—.” Which will Mathieu be?

Even removal from that environment, after the pre-ordained beating by the inmates, is no picnic. He is under house arrest, with “no outside contact” allowed — no phone, no Internet.

At least he’s now got the solitude, limited freedom of movement, and wherewithal in this bugged-and-watched house to consider his lawyer’s whispered advice.

“If you have the guts, escape.”

“Kompromat” is another thriller that makes my oft-repeated point that what is most exciting and engaging in such movies is seeing an EveryWoman or EveryMan try to use what little they know about such dilemmas to try and reason, scheme and fight their way out of this type of fix.

The phrase “ex-special forces” has become the lazy screenwriters’ best friend. The explanation “very particular skills” should have been retired once Liam Neeson used it in “Taken.” It’s become a cliche.

Mathieu is” Jason Bateman in “Ozark,” Redford in “Three Days of the Condor,” the grieving snowplow operator played by Stellan Skarsgaard from “In Order of Disappearance” or stricken husband Russell Crowe, desperate to free his imprisoned wife over “The Next Three Days.” He has no “particular skills.” But Mathieu does have the wherewithal to know how much he can accomplish if he can score a phone, if he can secretly access the Internet.

The screenplay by Caryl Ferey and director Salle (“Anthony Zimmer” was his, and he scripted the Hollywood espionage flop “The Tourist) has creative problem solving, surprise twists and plenty of melodramatic touches as our clumsy but not stupid hero takes his shot at escape.

Igor Jijikine is the very face and bald pate of Russian villainy as the Spetsnaz tracker brought in to find our fleeing political pawn.

There are interpersonal intrigues with the Russian Svetlana and political ones with the French ambassador, as this story is set between Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and its current attempt at “territorial expansion.”

The West always frets over “Russian relations.” The boozy once-and-future Bolsheviks have no such qualms.

Lellouche deftly navigates all this as a man just careless enough to make us shout “What are you DOING?” at times, even as we marvel at just how much “freedom” one can achieve, just through ride shares, social media, online AirBnB bookings and that modern mode of liberation, the cell phone.”

No wonder totalitarians and their pet South African oligarchs fear our “all access” tech. In this day and age, the most useful gadgets aren’t from “special branch” and whoever supplies the Impossible Mission Force. They’re from the Genius Store, or greet us with a helpful “Hello, Moto!”

“Kompromat” settles for a few easy ways out of this or that situation, and takes a few “compromised” steps. But it’s a first rate thriller, more cerebral than Tom-Cruise-does-his-own-stunts, and all the more engaging for it.

Lellouche and Salle allow us to sprint in Mathieu’s sodden shoes, identify with his plight and imagine we have the wits to attempt the impossible as he does, or even have the guts to.

Rating: unrated, violence, sex

Cast: Gilles Lellouche, Joanna Kulig, Elisa Lasowski, Aleksey Gorbunov, Michael Gor and Igor Jijikine

Credits: Directed by Jérôme Salle, scripted by Caryl Ferey and Jérôme Salle A Magnet/Magnolia release.

Running time: 2:06

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
This entry was posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news. Bookmark the permalink.