You gotta love Helen Mirren, especially in a day and age when some actresses half her age (she’s 65, for the record) might be loath to do anything requiring even the least bit of finesse or physical agility.

In 2010’s Red she famously toted a machine gun and blew the ever-loving crap out of the bad guys. In The Debt, she’s the older incarnation of Mossad agent Rachel Singer (The Help‘s Jessica Chastain plays the younger version), and once again she’s tussling with baddies like she isn’t a day past 30.

The Debt tells the riveting story of three young Israeli agents who, in 1965, are given the unenviable task of hunting down Dieter Vogel, the so-called Surgeon of Birkenau (a fictional Josef Mengele)– a man who performed heinous operations and medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners during World War II. Twenty years later Mossad has discovered that he’s an unassuming OB/GYN in East Berlin.

The action begins in 1997 with Singer at a gala, reading the crowd a chapter from the book her grown daughter wrote about the mission. She relates how Vogel was held prisoner in the agents’ apartment and was then gunned down after a failed escape.

It’s not too long, though, before we get a more in-depth look at the events leading up to Vogel’s capture, including Rachel’s posing as a young German woman, allowing the good doctor to give her a particularly squirm-inducing pelvic exam. Then there’s the actual capture by Rachel and fellow agents David (Sam Worthington) and Stephan (Marton Csokas), a failed extraction, and then the question of what to do next with one of humanity’s worst-ever people.

From the opening moments straight through until the end, The Debt ramps up the suspense. The clear feeling of something’s-not-quite-right-here, coupled with the inherent tension of the mission itself, make it a true white-knuckle ride. There are more twists and turns than you may know what to do with, and the result is a film teeming with pure, adrenaline-fueled panic.

Director John Madden (who’s done a complete 180 since his gooey and soft Shakespeare in Love) is at the top of his game, creating an atmosphere dripping with intrigue and anxiety. The script is based on the 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov and is co-written by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman (who were responsible for 2010’s Kick-Ass and this summer’s X-Men: First Class). While it fails a little at making the issues in The Debt feel global and ‘of consequence’ to more than just the three agents, it still stands on its own as a solid thriller.

Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and CiarĂ¡n Hinds are the elder-version of the agents. Though there’s a bit of confusion keeping David and Stephan straight, since neither, in any way, resemble their younger versions, they all give outstanding performances– particularly Mirren, who is simply getting better with age.

It’s Chastain, though, who is the star of the show here, and her raw turn as the fresh-faced (though highly capable) Mossad agent is as compelling as anything seen on screen this summer.

Even though The Debt has been relegated to Labor Day weekend, it almost (almost) feels more like a winter-ish Oscar contender. (It was slated to open last December but got caught in the Miramax shake-up.) Think of it as the start of the fall movie season, and not as the end of a generally un-memorable summer.

4/5 stars