In the espionage game, the secret to success is telling people what they want to hear. That's the lesson of "The Tailor of Panama," a film which sends up spy-film conventions even as it embraces them. This "Tailor" was stitched together by the novel's author, John le Carré ("The Spy Who Came in from the Cold"), screenwriter Andrew Davies ("Pride and Prejudice") and director John Boorman ("Excalibur," "Hope and Glory") and owes much to smart antecedents such as "Our Man in Havana" and "Casablanca" (which it references several times).
When it works, "The Tailor of Panama" is a heady blend of international intrigue and con-man comedy, but Boorman seems to feel he must temper his audacious storytelling. For every leap into the satirical hubris of a Dr. Strangelove, he promptly backpedals into safe, conventional drama.
That vacillation may have something to do with the contradictory nature of tailor Harry Pendel (a superbly buttoned-down Geoffrey Rush), masterful weaver of tall tales. He, in fact, is his own greatest creation. A Cockney ex-con who's become the Panama City representative of Savile Row sartorial splendor, Harry has happily embraced the quiet life with wife Louisa (Jamie Lee Curtis), an American working for the Canal commissioner.
On a lovely tropical day, a snake slithers into their idyllic family life. British agent Andy Osnard (a slimy, seductive Pierce Brosnan as the anti-James Bond), exiled from important assignments because of reckless behavior, decides to shake things up. With Harry's assistance, Osnard plants the idea of a "silent opposition" and perks the interest of a United States anxious to reclaim the Panama Canal, that marvel of American engineering and manifest destiny colonialism.
Some gaps of logic wound but don't kill "The Tailor of Panama," which explores the slippery nature of loyalty in an increasingly ambiguous moral climate. Functioning without ideology or country, and caring only about the welfare of loved ones, it's often well-intentioned nonpartisans who do the most harm.