1. "The Debt" is not based on a true story, but it feels like it wishes it were. It certainly uses the real-life horrors of the Holocaust, even a real-life Nazi war criminal, as the backbone of its characters' motivations, and the driving force of its story. But it's not a true story. Mossad agents named Rachel, Stephan and David did not try to kill Josef Mengele -- on whom this film's "Surgeon of Birkenau" was based -- and did not come home to a hero's welcome after they announced his death. They are made-up people living in our actual universe. This might seem an unfair quibble -- where was "The Debt" supposed to put these fictional characters? Tatooine? -- but "The Debt" invites it with its real-life parallels. This is a well-made thriller that derives artificial gravitas from the subject matter it uses as its backdrop. That doesn't make it any less of a well-made thriller, of course. But it doesn't make it matter any more, either.
2. We open in the present day -- well, 1997, but it's essentially present-day, minus the cellphones -- with a young woman being praised for a book written about her parents' heroism. The looks on the faces of the parents (Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson) tells all you need to know about how comfortable they are being called heroes. We flash back to 30 years earlier, as Mossad agents Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) train for a super-secret mission to capture the aforementioned Surgeon from East Berlin and bring him to Israel for trial. Most of the movie takes place during this time, as the three agents plan out their heist, go forth with the plan and deal with the aftereffects. Why, exactly, do 1997 Rachel and Stephan look so miserable, and why does 1997 David (Ciaran Hinds) kill himself before we're through the opening credits? Two-thirds of the movie is devoted to answering those questions, and the last third is about what happens once they are.
3. The film is directed with quiet precision by John Madden, who has had a miserable decade since "Shakespeare In Love" but proves himself a surprisingly able director of taut thrillers here; the movie is riveting throughout, even when its story goes slack. The story does go slack, though, particularly when it attempts to take these three characters and toss them into a love triangle, for some reason. (Honestly, they don't have time for love triangles: They're Mossad agents. They're busy!) Rachel's and Stephan's daughter exists solely as a plot device -- she's there to make sure no character ever says, "Hey, 30 years later, why do we have all these secrets? Nobody cares; let's retire to Florida" -- and, without veering too much into spoilers here, the interactions the trio has with the Surgeon back in the '60s sometimes feel a little too on-the-nose. Fortunately, Madden and the actors -- well, most of them -- keep the action moving; they make these three feel like cold-eyed, professional soldiers committed to the mission ... until the plot takes over and everyone starts getting dewy about love again.
4. Helen Mirren has been playing these sort of steely-yet-vulnerable sorts for so long and so well that it no longer feels noteworthy, but the real find of the movie is Chastain. This is Rachel's film, and Chastain -- who in "The Tree of Life" and "The Help" was in danger of being so ethereal as to float away -- rises to the challenge, delivering a strong, focused and anchored performance as the young version of Mirren. The actresses look nothing alike, but you still believe they're the same person. Csokas also has an oily, muscular charm as the young Stephan, though it's possible that's because of whom he's playing across. I appreciate that Sam Worthington is trying to stretch himself in roles like this and "Last Night," but this is an actor who's more comfortable communicating through deltoids and eyebrow glowers than by talking. It's a gallant effort, but it's wooden: The more you look into his eyes, the less you see. You keep waiting for someone to toss him a sword.
5. The movie picks up a certain "Bourne"-as-a-period-piece momentum in its middle section, when the agents are trying to transfer their prisoner to Israel via abandoned East Berlin train platform. (Madden's excellent at making us understand the plan and see how it couldn't possibly go wrong ... and still surprise us when of course it goes wrong.) As a thriller, it's a smart, well-constructed one. But I can't help but wonder if it would seem as effective if it were about something other than a Nazi war criminal, if it would feel less important. Or, more accurately, if it would feel more free to just be a thriller, rather than try to force in some sort of romantic subplot, or have some sort of epic historical sweep. "The Debt" is tense, intelligent entertainment. That's rare, and that is more than enough.