Dominic Cooper pulls double duty — literally — by playing both Saddam Hussein’s son Uday and an Iraqi soldier named Latif Yahia, who has the misfortune to be a dead ringer for the dangerously demented sociopath. While his paranoid and dictatorial father Saddam used lookalikes on occasion for security reasons, the childishly impetuous Uday wants his own mirror-me as more of an ego-boosting plaything.
This tense and fascinating drama, which takes place from the 1980s through the end of the first Persian Gulf war, succeeds mainly because of Cooper’s ability to make Uday and Latif distinctly but believably different. His Uday is a conscience-free modern-day Caligula, as likely to abduct schoolgirls off the street as he is to demand sex from another man’s bride on her wedding night. Latif is thoughtful and humane enough to be horrified by Uday’s cruelty and crimes. But Latif also realizes he can’t quit his unwanted job without endangering the lives of his entire family.
Director Lee Tamahori and writer Michael Thomas keep the movie from careening too far into Scarface levels of cartoonish outrageousness, although at times it’s a close call. Uday viciously disembowels his father’s best friend at a social gathering, snorts a mound of cocaine from a knife blade and demands that every guest at his disco birthday party strip naked for his amusement.
Latif is warned by Uday’s older and chillingly businesslike right-hand man Munem (Raad Rawi) that he should “never even speak to a woman Uday has chosen for himself.” Unfortunately, longtime Uday paramour Sarrab (Ludivine Sagnier) is too sexy, simpatico and compassionate for Latif to resist. Latif and Sarrab realize that even if Uday doesn’t catch on and kill them, he eventually will tire of them. Then their bodies will join countless of his other victims that end up tossed by the side of a desert road.
Incredibly, the movie actually understates the dangers Latif faced during his tenure. We see him survive two onscreen assassination attempts while impersonating Uday, but the real Latif lived through 11 of them (and was wounded nine times).
The Devil’s Double could have used some tightening in the middle and yet feels rushed at the end. We have no idea how a certain major turning point that would have required elaborate logistics was accomplished, for example. (The CIA apparently played a part in the real world version of events, but we never see any American agents in the movie.) Also, the seductive Sarrab comes across as an obvious “composite character” construct.
Still, this is a star-making showcase for Cooper, whose previous work included memorable smaller roles in Captain America: The First Avenger (as inventor Howard Stark) and Tamara Drewe (as a rock star in love). Whether ranting insanely and firing guns at ceilings as Uday or bitterly enduring mental and physical torture as Latif, the actor is in nearly every frame of The Devil’s Double, often playing opposite himself.
It’s a hell of a performance…or two.