Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: The November Man is the latest in a long line of spy thrillers that owe their exist and most of the interest to the fact that a former James Bond is involved. Or a moonlighting James Bond, in this case of this week's subject.

The word that most immediately presents itself to describe The Tailor of Panama, the 2001 adaptation of John le Carré's 1996 novel, is "fitful". Fitfully great, fitfully aggravating, fitfully clever, fitfully stylish, fitfully underwhelming. But it is mostly fitful about its tone, which pulls between flippant, cynical satire (the tone of le Carré's book, one of his best post-Cold War spy novels) and taut seriousness. The script, which le Carré co-wrote with Andrew Davies and John Boorman (the only one of the author's books he had a direct hand in adapting) is at any rate more stable than the filmmaking itself: as director, Boorman can't quite bring himself to be as morbidly sardonic as the work he co-wrote would seem to demand. And this is the ultimate source of nearly all of the movie's problems, though I'm not inclined to think that there are so many of those that it ends up wrecking the movie. Even in a compromised state, there's still enough slyness and sharp thinking in the writing and performances to make the film much, much smarter than the average spy thriller.

The film's secret weapons, beyond a doubt, are the leads, Pierce Brosnan as semi-disgraced British spy Andy Osnard, and Geoffrey Rush as Harry Pendel, an expatriate British criminal living in Panama as a high-class tailor for the very finest sort of person, or at least the very wealthiest sort of non-eine person. Osnard ends up assigned to the British intelligence office in Panama City as punishment for his sins, and looking to find the easiest possible way to get in good with his higher-ups. Reasoning that a man with Pendel's connections, financial troubles, and checkered past would be more than willing to serve as a spy, Osnard recruits him to wiggle secrets out of his highly-placed clients, as well as his American wife Louisa (Jamie Lee Curtis), assistant to a high-ranking official with the Panama Canal Authority. What Osnard rather blindly fails to consider is that he's not alone in hoping to find praise by ginning up overheated intelligence, and while Pendel is an easy mark, he's also a bit too eager to keep Osnard happy and willing to pay for information. And thus he ends up inventing out of thin air an impending revolution and a scheme by the Panamanian government, newly in control of the strategically vital canal, to sell the administration of that canal to the Chinese government.

The scenario is basically identical to Our Man in Havana, the 1958 novel and 1959 both written by Graham Greene, only with the farcical tone of that story replaced with le Carré's characteristic soul-weariness and putrid bureaucracies and simmering disgust with Western governments bullying around and insisting on how the world should be run. That's what Boorman runs with, anyway, focusing on making things feel as strained and harsh as possible, whether it's by conspiring with cinematographer Philippe Rousselot to leach all the brightness out of the movie and leave it with a shockingly muted color palette for a film made on U.S. studio dollars (and some Irish, as well) in Central America, or by framing every interior in shots that leave ceilings feeling like they're about to squeeze the life out of the characters, or by steadfastly refusing to amp up the thriller aspects of the plot until the end, making the whole movie feel as tense but stalled out as the characters themselves. And this is not always a great film fit for a script that has a clear comic spirit that doesn't get much chance to pop out, though things like Pendel's frequent visitations from the hallucination of his dead uncle Benny (Harold Pinter, a completely unfathomable bit of casting) simply can't help but be a little wacky despite the sobriety of the filmmaking.

It falls mostly to Brosnan to keep a spirit of sarcastic, acidic humor in the film: with the film released in the window between his third and fourth outings as James Bond, The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day, or "the shitty ones", as we connoisseurs like to say, the actor clearly got some pleasure out of being able to play an anti-Bond, and his Osnard is the best single element in the whole film. Sleazy, pathetic, calculating, and entirely unconcerned with the real-world ramifications of the bullshit he's peddling, the character is a perfect vessel for the cold-blooded satire that runs through all of the film's best scenes, and Brosnan's ability to suggest the laddish charisma of Bond as a variant of Osnard's oily insincerity works both for this film's own caustic view of spying while also doubling as a commentary on Brosnan's most famous role; it is possibly the best counter-Bond performance given by any Bond actor (and virtually all of the men to play Bond have had at least one).

So perfect is Brosnan for the part that he completely alters the tone of the movie with every scene he's in, bringing a level of smarminess that makes it far more interesting than just a bureaucratic spy thriller, raising Rush's performance to heights he never quite reaches in most of the film (for which I blame Rush's scene partners more than anything: he and Curtis never make a remotely convincing married couple, and besides Curtis and Brosnan, he spends most of his time opposite Brendan Gleeson, horrifically mis-cast in brownface as a Panamanian drunk). The two men, together, are absolutely terrific, and in their best scenes together - whether engaged in casual hetero male flirtation or angry battles of wits - are so electric that it's hard to remember in those moments that The Tailor of Panama has any problems whatsoever.

And it does, that's certain: the erratic tone, the lumpy exposition in the form of onscreen text and laborious references to the political situation around the canal (somewhat artlessly grafted onto a story that, in its novel form, took place before the United States relinquished control of the canal in 1999). But it also has things like a generally perfect escalation of tension through tight editing and claustrophobic frames in the last quarter of the two-hour movie, and the effectively dusty and hot sense of place. Above all, though, it has Brosnan and Rush, bringing their crafty dark humor to bear on a film that needs their solid commitment to that mood in order to be its best self. As a book, The Tailor of Panama is a cutting look at the political, bureaucratic maneuvering of espionage and the nasty little humans who get caught up in it; the movie is those things intermittently only. It's probably the worst of the good le Carré adaptations, if you follow me. But it's still smarter and more grown-up than virtually any spy movie of the same vintage, in that foggy area around the turn of the century when American films were even leerier of politics than they are now. Imperfect as it is, it's still got sparkle and a nasty kick.