The Prisoner Of Baghdad

Lee Tamahori's The Devil's Double takes an offbeat look at the horror show that was Saddam's Iraq
UNDERCOVER: Ludivine Sagnier's Sarrab is one of the perks for Uday Hussein imitator Latif (Dominic Cooper) in 'The Devil's Double.'

IN THE irresistibly tough The Devil's Double, director Lee Tamahori (Die Another Day) takes on Uday Hussein's Nero-worthy enormities. Uday was nicknamed "Abu Harsan," the wolf, yet the satanic son of Saddam had his gentler side. Reviewing his video collection, Newsweek sniped, "Those viewed so far have been less pornographic than puerile." Sure he was a rapist, a torturer and a murderer, but he owned three copies of Air Bud.

The flamboyant, golden poster for the film reflects how Tamahori gilded the stink lily. On the one hand, this version doesn't have the 99-cent-store kitschiness that was essential to the powerful spoiled brat. On the other hand, The Devil's Double is great ripe dirty fun, served up with a heaping side order of 1980s excess.

After surviving the front in the Iraq/Iran War, the army officer Latif (Dominic Cooper) is called in for a meeting with a man he knew (and apparently disliked) from school.

It has struck Uday Hussein that all great men have doubles to foil assassins. So Latif endures a round of plastic surgery and dental prosthesis. (Uday has a gap in his teeth; when he gives his spine-chilling grin, he looks like a leering camelid.

At first, Tamahori and Cooper make Uday seem a charming Lucifer by contrast to a slightly stiff and wary Latif. Between them is Uday's significant concubine, sashaying through his palaces.

Sarrab (appropriately pronounced "Syrup') is played by the infernally chemical Ludivine Sagnier. Lounging at various Iraqi discos in a spectrum of Dynel wigs, Sagnier has the kind of mouth once described by writer Angela Carter as waiting for someone, anyone, everyone to pop a piece of candy into it. Sarrab exists in such a beautifully mimicked state of heat that it looks as if she's actually going to melt, that the already wide-set eyes are going to begin drifting shoulderward.

She was picked up somewhere by the maniac prince (not, we hope, against her will—he's into that). Yet she becomes the moral center of the royal-double film that's been done ever since Zenda was on the map. Sarrab spurs the transformation of Latif. It's a ceremony begun in bed as George H.W. Bush commences the Gulf War bombing of the capital of his former political ally. Latif's quietness and wariness begin to look like watching and waiting. And in contrast to this suaveness, it's Uday's braying, vicious tyrant one wants to see get it.

Get it, he does. But it's not until further atrocities: the real-life dispatching of a friend of Saddam's; the taunting of a victim's father; or just watching the war on TV, with his mommy's satin-covered breast as a pillow.

The performance takes the British actor Dominic Cooper into a new league after a long build-up in uninteresting costume dramas (such as The Duchess). Who knew? Cooper is awesomely built, too; he really fills a Speedo. You could hear a murmur of disbelief in the audience in a scene where he emerges from a pool.

The performance isn't accent-crazed; in both roles, Cooper demonstrates an Omar Sharif-level of dapper Orientalism. And the point of the drama gives a Western audience what it wants: moments of reckless, brave Arab machismo. The blood-skied exteriors and gold-upon-gold-upon-brass interiors make us think, "This is the Baghdad we read about when we were kids."

But the fable is grounded. Philip Quast as the elder tyrant is a smaller-than-life worrier in an immaculate suit—a weighed-down sinner like Raymond Burr. We see him—pathetically—in white shorts and shirt, playing tennis with his own double.

If I haven't made it clear there's a trashy streak to the film, here goes. While modeled on De Palma's Scarface (with oily, fringed haircut, the flagrant fellation of Gran Corona cigars, the gold-plated automatic pistols), The Devil's Double is essentially more fun. Tony Montana was, as he said, just a businessman. This Uday had a whole nation to devour.

The Devil's Double

R; 108 min.

Opens Friday

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