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In 1987, an Iraqi army lieutenant named Latif Yahia was summoned to Saddam Hussein’s palace and ordered to serve as a body double for Saddam’s monstrous son Uday. What a great premise for a movie: an existential crisis – as Latif tells Uday, “You are asking me to extinguish myself” – that runs almost no risk of becoming overly introspective and talky, since it will be played out amid the insane violence and sensual excess that were the hallmarks of Uday Hussein’s life. How does a man hold on to himself while he plays the part of his moral opposite?

Sadly, the greatness of the premise only deepens the disappointment of the actual film. Uday Hussein in The Devil’s Double is a very bad man, yes. Latif is shown a gruesome video of people being tortured at Uday’s behest, and we are treated to an extended and frightening encounter between Uday and a (very) young woman. But all too often, he comes off as a perpetually horny cokehead who lets his temper get the better of him. Scary, yes – you never know when he’s going to go off, and the violence that follows in his wake is awful. But not scary in the impersonal, calculating way of a man who kept torture scorecards for underperforming members of the Iraqi soccer team. Uday in the film behaves like a child bent on sensual gratification; Uday in real life was reportedly obsessed with the more adult pleasures of leading a nation. And a tyrant wields more menace than a spoiled child. He tortured those soccer players not because they crossed him personally, but because they failed to uphold national honor. After a while, the film’s decision to exile Uday’s worst exploits to videotape begins to look like a failure of nerve.

As for Latif, he is not dragged down into Uday’s reign of terror so much as he is dragged near it. Oddly, he gets to watch a lot (one might think Uday would want the existence of his double kept secret). What Latif sees horrifies him, and rightly so. But he is never made to really participate in Uday’s madness, and we get only a taste of his role as a walking target for would-be assassins. (In reality, he survived 11 attempts on “Uday’s” life.)

Dominic Cooper’s double performance as Uday and Latif is impressive on the surface, and that is no small thing. But it’s not enough, and the rest of the movie seems content to follow his lead, relying heavily on the visual fun of glitzy, late-‘80s nightclubs, and on Ludivine Sagnier’s meltingly carnal performance as Uday’s favorite mistress. Instead of an existential crisis replete with sex and violence, we are left with a love triangle replete with sex and violence. It’s quite a comedown.

One star

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