Paul Verhoeven tries to go respectable with the WWII drama Black Book, and the question that persists is: Who wants a respectable Paul Verhoeven? Naysayers be damned, the Dutch firebrand’s finest work remains his disreputable American films – Robocop, Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers, and the undervalued (and, by some revisionists, now slightly overvalued) Showgirls – which never failed to deliver an electric mixture of combustible action thrills, hysterical sexuality, cunning satire, and pop-melodrama intensity. The director’s latest (shot in his native homeland and tongue) feels like an apology of sorts for the giddy fun of those triumphs, though it’s not without its own Hollywood elements, as its tale – about a beautiful Dutch Jew named Rachel (star-in-the-making Carice van Houten) who infiltrates Nazi HQ as part of the Dutch resistance – is cut from a classic big-studio cloth. Full of intrigue, deception and amour, Black Book follows the ordeal of Rachel as she straddles the line between rebel and collaborator during her mission to seduce Gestapo chief Müntze (Sebastian Koch) as the blond Ellis. It’s a high-wire act of identity reconfiguration and confusion that Verhoeven lays out with technical aplomb but not enough emotional impact. As his protagonists and peripheral players boast sketchy interior lives, they prove unable to fully transcend their two-dimensionality, and his often-cloudy characterizations are complemented by his narrative’s exploitative use of heinous Nazi war crimes as mere plot-forwarding devices. In Rachel/Ellis’ half-clothed romantic roundelays (as well as a scene in which she dyes her pubic hair golden), Verhoeven’s lewd impulses bubble to the fore, just as revelations about the story’s “good guys” and “bad guys” exhibit his familiar cynicism about human nature. In the end, however, there’s too little heat and even less dramatic vigor to this “return to form,” which may function as a remedial response to the implied anti-Semitism of 1977’s Soldier of Orange, but which also serves as an unnecessary and unsuccessful attempt at prestige-picture atonement for making some of the past two decades’ most clever and exciting genre films.