Wanted: Stand-in for despot's depraved and despised son. Job requirements: Strong physical resemblance and stronger stomach.
That's the premise of The Devil's Double, the ambitiously perverse film based on the memoir of Latif Yahia, an Iraqi army officer who was coerced in the '80s to serve as the body double for Saddam Hussein's older son, Uday.
A convincing clone is a must-have accessory for tyrants, handy for boring ceremonial occasions, trips to the front lines, and those always pesky assassination attempts.
Dominic Cooper is remarkable in a dual role, first as Yahia, who is given cosmetic and dental surgery by some creepily efficient German doctors before being plunged into a disorienting world of opulence and decadence.
Cooper really sparkles as Uday, a rat-toothed megalomaniac to whom nothing is denied. He collects torture videos and likes to drive around Baghdad in one of his fleet of luxury cars, kidnapping schoolgirls off the streets with impunity.
Cooper, who can be seen in Captain America: The First Avenger as industrialist/inventor Harold Stark, gives it the full Pacino here. He's a manic Tony Montana from Scarface with more arrogance and less brains.
The better Yahia gets at his job, the more responsibility he is given. Uday's brother, Qusay (Jamie Harding), explains that the only way he was able to tell he was looking at a stand-in at a staged press event was that the Uday he saw on TV "was sober . . . and he wasn't foaming at the mouth."
The predictable twist comes when Yahia commits the cardinal sin of getting cozy with Sarrab (Ludivione Sagnier), one of Uday's free-range harem.
(I was going to term his dalliance an "unforgivable sin," but every transgression committed against the Hussein clan, whether real or imagined, is ipso facto unforgivable.)
Director Lee Tamahori (Next) does a striking job with the scenery and the suspense. But he falls so in love with his story that, much like Hussein with his out-of-control offspring, he gives the film far too much latitude.
Tamahori tries to top off this already long Arab immorality tale with gratuitous swirls of romance and heroism.
This is a straight-up gangsta film, yo. Spare us the phony redemption.
Contact David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his pop-culture blog at www.philly.com/dod.