Two hours with Saddam Hussein's psychotic, bloodthirsty butcher of a son. Now there's some true counterprogramming to the big, splashy summer fare out of Hollywood.
"The Devil's Double" presents two excellent performances from British actor Dominic Cooper as unhinged party boy and all-around nut job Uday Hussein, along with the body double he uses to thwart assassins.
As grand and showy as Cooper is, the characters and action are so unsavory — even sickening, at times — that you really need to be sure you're up for a peek into Saddam's inner circle of crooks and monsters before laying your money down.
Director Lee Tamahori ("Die Another Day") lays on the savagery relentlessly, from revolting sexual abuse of women to nauseating slaughter. It all offers a vivid glimpse of the world of Iraq's former elite, but not so much the people, who come off as one-dimensional thugs in a gory gangster flick intent only on their own pleasure and profit, with little insight into who they are and how they got into a position to plunder a country silly.
Into this "Caligula"-meets-"Scarface" world comes the honorable Latif Yahia, a soldier in Iraq's war with Iran who is summoned to Baghdad in 1987 by Uday, an old schoolmate who recalls their remarkable resemblance and graciously asks him to be his double. Then, after Latif declines, not so graciously.
Cooper's Uday is a shrill, grinning, coke-addled rabid dog who won't take no for an answer and has every means — from torture, imprisonment and threats against family members — to get his way. So Cooper's steady-handed, reserved Latif relents and begins his physical transformation, through prosthetics and plastic surgery, and spiritual indoctrination, through "Pygmalion"-like coaching and viewing of Uday's torture-porn tendencies on video, as a stand-in for Saddam's eldest son and heir.
"The Devil's Double" was adapted by screenwriter Michael Thomas from Latif's memoir, though the filmmakers take liberties to heighten the conflict between Uday and Latif and its eventual outcome.
Though Cooper interacts with actors playing Saddam and his own double, plus others in the family's entourage, the movie would be mainly Cooper in a one-man, two-character show if not for Ludivine Sagnier as Sarrab, one of Uday's mistresses who winds up drawn to Latif.
Their tender moments together aren't all that interesting, but they do provide a breather from the carnage and cruelty that Tamahori piles on to show us what a depraved animal Uday is. The barbarity is so thick, you'll appreciate those breathers, which come too rarely between repetitive, almost smothering sequences that show Uday as a booze, drug, sex and violence fiend.
Cooper has done such a good job bringing Uday to life, it's a bit of a trial simply sitting in the audience and watching. He's not a fascinating portrait of evil, such as Bruno Ganz's Adolf Hitler in "Downfall" or Forest Whitaker's Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland." This is a creature, a ranting beast, one you can't wait to see put down.
What is fascinating, at least fleetingly, is the inside look the movie offers of Iraq as U.S. forces move in to liberate Kuwait after Saddam's invasion. But that passes quickly, and soon the movie is back to stomach-churning mode.
Bring your antacids.
"The Devil's Double," a Lionsgate release, is rated R for strong brutal bloody violence and torture, sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and pervasive language. Running time: 108 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.