Originally published Thursday, August 4, 2011 at 3:02 PM

Movie review

'The Devil's Double' captures horror of Hussein son's look-alike

A movie review of "The Devil's Double," a crime drama based on an autobiographical novel by Latif Yahia, the former body double of Saddam Hussein's crazed, sadistic son Uday. Dominic Cooper convincingly plays the dual role of Uday and Yahia.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

'The Devil's Double,' with Dominic Cooper, Ludivine Sagnier, Philip Quast, Raad Rawi. Directed by Lee Tamahori, from a screenplay by Michael Thomas, based on a novel by Latif Yahia. 108 minutes. Rated R for extreme violence, language, drug use. Egyptian, Lincoln Square.

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Imagine a nightmare version of "The Godfather" featuring Saddam Hussein instead of the benevolent Mafia kingpin Don Corleone. Then replace Corleone's driven son and successor, Michael, with the cruel, degenerate Roman emperor Caligula. That will give you a pretty good idea of what "The Devil's Double" is like.

Based on an autobiographical novel by Latif Yahia, this unexpectedly sleek but taut drama is the story of Yahia's time spent in Iraq as the unwilling body double of Saddam's crazed, sadistic son Uday Hussein.

I use the word "sleek" because veteran screenwriter Michael Thomas ("The Hunger") and director Lee Tamahori ("Once Were Warriors") have ingeniously presented the real-life horrors wrought on Iraqis by the younger Hussein as akin to a stylized crime movie.

That might sound like a tacit celebration of Uday's brand of violent excess, which includes an unchecked penchant for murder, rape and torture. But it's a calculated artistic decision that makes unsettling, perverse sense.

Uday's circle of fellow thugs, minders and party animals looks like a snapshot of 20th- century mob culture. But most of the people in his life are too scared not to play their designated roles. Just below the glossy, appealing illusion of an outlaw life is the realization that Uday is the law, and no one can escape his bloody whims. That includes Yahia (Dominic Cooper, who also plays Uday), a soldier forced to become the monster's official doppelgänger at various times.

Yahia becomes a prisoner of an indulgent world, visibly tormented as he watches his captor freely abuse schoolgirls and a newlywed bride. The film is, in part, about Yahia's psychological survival, but on that score "The Devil's Double" is a bit of a letdown. The script raises a haunting, impressionist idea about identity that ultimately goes unexplored: If Yahia has to become like Uday to stay alive, what happens to Yahia?

Though Cooper plays look-a-like characters, it is always clear which of the two men is on screen at any moment, including those moments when Yahia is impersonating Uday. That says a lot about the inner wellspring of great acting.

Tom Keogh:

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