Longtime cable TV viewers will probably recognize Munich as a remake of the 1986 HBO film Sword of Gideon, in which the Israeli Secret Service puts together a team of hitmen to go after the Palestinian terrorists who murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games.
But as involving as that film was, Steven Spielberg takes it a step further, imbuing his take on the George Jonas book Vengeance with the same searing emotionalism he gave to Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg may have his faults -- and this film does have a few glitches -- but when he sets his mind on a serious subject that's close to his heart, he reminds us that he's one of the best filmmakers in the world.
Anyone worried about watching the ghastly business of what happened when members of Black September, packing guns, sneaked into the Olympic Village and took the Israelis as hostages, killing two of them in their rooms, and the other nine at the airport, should know that the deed is carried out in the film's first 10 minutes, most of it off-camera. The story then moves on, telling what Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) discussed with Israeli Cabinet members -- "The world couldn't care less," she says in a quiet but passionate speech -- and what they decided to do about the tragedy.
The idea was to form a sort of "Mission: Impossible" team, a group of undercover killers that "doesn't exist" and will do whatever is necessary to hunt down and kill the perpetrators. In short order, a group of five men is recruited, headed up by a Mossad agent named Avner (Eric Bana). They are to sign a contract that says there is no contract, to read the rules -- kill only in Europe, don't take out any innocent civilians -- and, in one of the film's few moments of levity, to "bring back receipts" for their expenses.
Bana (The Hulk) has a strong screen presence and carries much of his character's moodiness on his face. There's a great look of uncertainty on it as he learns more, but still very little, about his assignment. And there's shock there when he wakes up from his ever-present nightmares about what might have gone on in the Olympic village and at the airport.
It's in these vivid sequences that viewers will have to control their own emotions. They're made of pure horror, and feature cold, hard violence and accompanying blood. There are only a few of these scenes in the film, but Spielberg does not hold back in their intensity. Neither does he when the Mossad team, after meeting over dinner -- one of a few relaxed, even funny scenes of bond-building between them -- starts hunting down their targets and blowing them away.
Before they can do that, Avner must find someone who can help him find them. His contact is Louie (Mathieu Amalric), a slick, mysterious fellow who will help Avner out, for large sums of cash, as long as he's not working for any government. Avner accepts, with a smile and a lie. And soon he's whisked off to the rural French estate of Louie's father, known only as Papa (Michael Lonsdale), a powerful man who takes a liking to Avner, and is soon telling him war stories, explaining why he and his family won't assist governments, and cooking for him. He is the most colorful character in the film, and there's no doubt that he's also quite dangerous.
This is a film fraught with danger, from the use of guns and bombs as the hit squad goes after targets, to the complications that inevitably set in during the assassination attempts. When things start to go wrong for the film's heroes -- has someone informed the other side about them? -- they take to sleeping with their guns. Before long, there are arguments among them. One insists that if the team wants to get the bad guys, they must act like them. Another argues that "Jews don't do wrong because our enemies do wrong. We're supposed to be righteous."
As the film's mood turns into one of paranoia, there's a false note in its presentation. Spielberg has Bana, who plays it level-headed through most of it, erupt into a fit of screaming when his nightmares start coming to him while he's awake. It's distracting, and will pop viewers, momentarily, out of the film's spell.
It's interesting that Spielberg doesn't blatantly take sides on the film's issues, and the quiet but heated political discussion between Avner, pretending to be a German, and Ali, a PLO member, is even-handed, with each man getting to declare his views.
In the end, we are not given a real conclusion. But Spielberg's final shot is chilling. It will stick in the minds of everyone watching.
Munich; Rated: R; Directed by Steven Spielberg; Starring Eric Bana, Geoffrey Rush, MIchael Lonsdale