Sleeper cell 

click to enlarge Damon to De Niro: Do we use the same optometrist?
  • Damon to De Niro: Do we use the same optometrist?

The Good Shepherd (R)

Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown

There's Robert De Niro the actor and then there's Robert De Niro the director. Unfortunately, The Good Shepherd serves to show that one is distinctly more talented than the other.

Stepping behind the camera for just the second time (the first was 1993's A Bronx Tale), De Niro leaves behind his cinematic roots in the Mafia and heads for another powerful institution of cold-blooded, patriotic killers: the U.S. government. Unfortunately, this spy story will put you to sleep without the fishes.

The story follows Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), a mild-mannered Yale student, vigilant in his pursuit of so-called "justice," who holds the men who lead his country in almost too-high esteem. An up-and-comer in the secret Skull and Bones society, Edward is recruited into the CIA during World War II and asked to keep tabs on a professor with suspected Nazi ties.

In the midst of this noble double-cross, Edward meets a pretty, deaf girl named Laura (Tammy Blanchard) who he can't stop thinking about despite his paranoid belief that her hearing aid is actually a recording device. Nonetheless, he's forced to end the charade when duty and nature call simultaneously: Edward marries his pregnant quasi-girlfriend Clover (Angelina Jolie) and is shipped overseas to engage in a cat-and-mouse game with a similarly emerging Russian spy.

What's frustrating is the film's employment of chronological hopscotch it leaps back and forth from Edward's youthful college days to his involvement in the Bay of Pigs to his role as a father with a full-grown son.

The Good Shepherd's narrative unfolds as the inverse of the typical spy movie; it's an ambitious but poorly executed decision, and it largely backfires Spy dramas should have some actual espionage maybe a poisoning, or an explosion while providing a glimpse into the protagonist's personal life. The Good Shepherd, on the other hand, is all about Edward's familial obligations and personal obsessions. We feel Edward's paranoia as he experiences it, but the whole film feels like window-dressing to disguise the fact that even this A-list ensemble cast isn't enough to bring life to Eric Roth's unusually dull screenplay.

The supporting cast is impressive, but Roth hardly gives them anything to do. Blanchard is mostly a breath of fresh air, but Jolie is saddled with an ill-fitting neglected housewife role. Even De Niro, as the agency's Godfather, "Wild" Bill Sullivan, fails to bring much fire to the proceedings. And the other supporting characters' agendas are as clouded as the film's which is still unclear by the time the lights come up some two hours and 47 minutes after their initial dimming.

In the end, The Good Shepherd lives and dies with Damon, who is in full-on sociopath mode here. His portrayal of Edward as an emotionless, dutiful patriot is nearly as cold as his repressed serial killer in The Talented Mr. Ripley. But throughout the plot, Edward remains distant and unlikable, an enigma who is never appealing or interesting enough to make us want to solve him.

The Good Shepherd could have made for an exciting, interesting movie to watch on the History Channel on a Wednesday night. But for a Friday night at the movies during a competitive Christmas season, it offers little entertainment or educational value.

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