There is something so dark and bleak about the texture of every 1970's espionage film that it makes you wonder how people made it through the decade without killing themselves. Every movie has a certain dirty, earth-tone wash. Every script seemed to be a method by which writers could transfer a certain cold, soulless lack of self-knowledge to the screen. There were no action-packed extravaganzas, no upbeat action films full of spectacle. In its day, The French Connection was a thrill-ride of action and intrigue. Today, it seems like a bleak foreign art film, full of gritty purpose and the nihilistic reality of a world without climaxes or happy endings, tossed away in the wake of Vietnam's stripping-away of the happy Technicolor sheen of the 1960's.
Until Reagan came full-steam into office, the jingoistic propaganda of Schwarzenegger and Stallone would have seemed a bizarre cartoon to the unhappy and staid viewers of the 70's, more inclined to view their matinee idols in fluffy Burt Reynolds capers and its ilk when not buried in the dark belly of the crime dramas of the time.
The Amateur is such a film, coming slightly after the curve in the early 80's, reminiscent of The Eiger Sanction and other laid-back espionage movies, more procedural than the wild, unrealistic Bond films.
The Amateur focuses on a CIA cryptographer, busily working on their computer programs to help decode codes, whose wife is killed in a terrorist attack in Germany. After the CIA shows no interest on following up on his wife's murder, the man, played well by the understated John Savage, goes about compiling information and blackmailing the CIA into letting him become an assassin. He goes through a quick training while "the Company" scrambles to find his stash of information and is on his way to Europe, to sneak into Prague and track the three terrorists behind the embassy attack that cost him his wife.
Sneaking across the border, the CIA finds his negatives and sends in their own men to kill him, so he's on the run to track the terrorists while being tracked himself.
The tagline claims that "The first 11 minutes will absolutely shock you. The last 11 minutes will rivet you to your seat." Looking back now, the film seems far too tame to imagine real shock in an age where we've seen Saw, Funny Games, and Guinea Pig. Those 11 opening minutes are interesting, but ramp up no tension for the modern viewer. And those last 11 minutes are a decent climax, but nothing less grand that you would expect of any given movie.
Perhaps it's just too late to look back on certain movies, but I was somewhat surprised that The Amateur didn't offer a little more in the way of plot. But, for that bleak, hard time and its generally dour and slow cinema, its an intriguing little film.