Feb 28, 2015

R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy: We'll Always Have Paris

Another IMF team member has completed his mission. The great Leonard Nimoy, who joined the cast of Mission: Impossible in Season 4 and stayed through Season 5, passed away yesterday at the age of 83. I have such a deep emotional connection to this series that I'm always profoundly saddened to lose one of its stars. As with Peter Graves before him, Nimoy's passing dashes the hopes I held that he might pop up in one of the Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible movies reprising his TV role as Paris. (Unless he filmed a cameo in secret for this summer's Mission: Impossible 5...? We can only hope.)

A replacement for the departed Martin Landau, Nimoy's Paris was a former stage magician (he performed as "The Great Paris," but rarely utilized his magic skills as part of his missions) and master of disguise. Despite being well into his thirties, Nimoy brought a youthful flair to the series (though not quite youthful enough to successfully pull off masquerading as a student protester in "The Martyr..."), wrapped up in natty mod fashions. His clothes, often including cravats and bright, colorful, patterned shirts, stood in stark contrast to the government-issue suits favored at the time by his teammates and predecessors. I've said before that Seventies fashions snuck into the series on Nimoy's back (even though he joined the team in the late Sixties) and slowly spread to the other agents until Jim (Graves) sported orange turtlenecks and Barney dressed like Shaft. But they weren't the only thing he brought to the show. Nimoy also introduced a twinge of humor to what had always been a very serious spy show. Paris was quick with a quip, and Nimoy always had a twinkle in his eye. He clearly relished the opportunity to play so many different types of roles (old and young, mustachioed, bearded and clean-shaven, even Latino and Japanese) in Paris's many disguises, which he leaped into with all the gusto of Landau before him. All of this added to the show. It's a common fallacy that the early years were its best, but personally I enjoyed Mission: Impossible more and more thanks to the subtle changes brought on via Paris.

Some of Nimoy's best episodes include Season 5's "My Enemy, My Friend," in which Paris is brainwashed to kill Jim Phelps and the character's past is delved into, and "The Merchant," in which Paris gambles life or death poker stakes against George Sanders' evil arms dealer, and Season 4's "Lovers' Knot" (which I selected to watch last night in honor of the late star), in which Paris displays very un-Spock-like emotions and allows himself to fall in love with a beautiful enemy agent, and "The Falcon," a 3-parter that allows Paris (and Nimoy) to show off his magician's talent. Besides Mission: Impossible, Nimoy's other spy roles included a pre-Star Trek pairing with William Shatner on one of the best episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., the surprisingly Mission: Impossible-like "The Project Strigas Affair" and as the gadget-toting KAOS assassin Stryker in the first season Get Smart classic "The Dead Spy Scrawls."

Leonard Nimoy may not be an actor immediately associated with spies because he was, quite rightly, most readily associated with science fiction thanks to his timeless performance as Mr. Spock on Star Trek (a role it was a joy to see him reprise in J.J. Abrams' 2009 franchise reboot). But his legacy in the pantheon of great TV spies should be equally assured. His tenure on Mission: Impossible covered some of the show's very best episodes, and he himself contributed immeasurably to their success. Mission accomplished, Mr. Nimoy. We'll always have Paris.

Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Fourth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Fifth TV Season here.

Spy Character Posters From Marvel's Avengers: Age of Ultron

Of course spy fans know better than to think of Marvel's Avengers as the real Avengers, but even if it doesn't have John Steed and Emma Peel, Marvel's Joss Whedon-directed sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron still boasts some A-list superspies. Yesterday Marvel Studios (via Imp Awards) released character posters for their star secret agents Nick Fury and Black Widow (played by Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlet Johansson respectively) from the new movie. Though he may not be an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. anymore (or is he?) after the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I'm glad to see that Nick Fury is sporting his slick spy look again, with trademark eye patch back in place, instead of his sunglasses wearing homeless look from the end of that movie. In fact, Jackson looks cooler than ever on this poster! I'm not sure why Black Widow has decided to add Tron-style neon blue trim to her leather Emmapeeler (doesn't seem very good for being stealthy), but I've never been one to complain about a beautiful lady spy in a catsuit... and maybe it's a deliberate nod to Emma? Marvel's Avengers: Age of Ultron opens May 1.


For comparison, see these secret agents' previous character posters from the first Marvel Avengers movie and Captain America: The Winter Soldier here and here, respectively.

See Black Widow's introductory character poster from Iron Man 2 here.

Read my primer on Marvel's superspies here.

Feb 20, 2015

Tradecraft: Bruce Willis, Kellan Lutz and Gina Carano Topline Extraction

Deadline reports that Bruce Willis (RED), Kellan Lutz (The Expendables 3) and Gina Carano (Haywire) will star in a new spy movie for Emmett/Furla/Oasis Films called Extraction. (Good title!) According to the trade, "Lutz plays CIA rookie agent Harry Turner, who sets out to find his kidnapped father (Willis) against the agency’s wishes" and "Carano plays Victoria, a tough field operative assigned to hunt down Harry." Dan Bilzerian (The Equalizer), Lydia Hull (Escape Plan) and Tyler Olson (Bus 657) co-star. Steven C. Miller (Scream of the Banshee) will direct from the script by Umair Aleem and Max Adams (Bus 657). I've been itching to see Carano do another spy movie ever since Haywire, which I really enjoyed. It will be interesting to see if this one gets a theatrical release.

Feb 19, 2015

Tradecraft: Sony Picks Up Broccoli and Wilson's Non-Bond Movie

In what could be a portent of a renewed 007 pact (the last Sony co-production deal covered Skyfall and SPECTRE, but no more), Deadline reports that Sony Pictures Worldwide has acquired North American rights to Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson's latest rare foray into non-Bond producing, The Silent Storm. The Silent Storm stars Andrea Riseborough (Shadow Dancer, Birdman) as "an enigmatic outsider living on a remote Scottish island who finds herself caught between her minister husband and the delinquent who is sent to live with them." Damian Lewis (Homeland, Our Kind of Traitor) co-stars. Sony has served as MGM's distribution partner on all of the Daniel Craig James Bond movies to date, and Broccoli has forged a solid partnership with newly deposed Sony co-chairman Amy Pascal. There is speculation that Pascal, who is transitioning to a producer position on the Sony lot starting with the next Spider-man movie, may join Broccoli and Wilson as a co-producer on Bond 25.

Matthew Vaughn Drops Hints About Kingsman Sequel Possibilities

NOTE: This story contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Kingsman: The Secret Service.

Speaking to Moviefone (via /film), director Matthew Vaughn offered some hints about what audiences can expect in Kingsman 2, should a sequel happen. (And with a $36 million opening weekend in the U.S., I'd say the odds are pretty good.) "I'd love to do another one," he told the website. "This movie really is the origin story of [the Taron Egerton character] Eggsy. And Eggsy is really the real, true modern gentleman spy. It really isn't Harry Hart [Colin Firth's character]. Harry Hart is the old cliché of what you think a gentleman spy is. Eggsy will be taking on a whole new way. But it's up to the audience. If they go see it and want another one, I would absolutely love to do it. We had so much fun making this movie. And you wouldn't believe what we've got in store. Poor Mark Strong will be going on a journey that he never imagined. And we've got this idea to introduce the world to the American branch of the Kingsman." Hm... Part of the appeal of Kingsman (right down to the title) is its pervasive Englishness. I'm not sure it would be a good idea to dilute that with an American branch, but you never know. Still, Mr. Vaughn, you don't need to go doing that on our account. Americans love that exaggerated, bygone Englishness. Look at the success in this country of Downton Abbey, or the original Avengers.

Despite insisting that the franchise now belongs to Eggsy, Vaughn also told USA Today (via Screen Rant) not to rule out the possibility of Colin Firth returning despite his character's untimely demise in the first film. "A lot of people are very upset that Colin might not be in the sequel but I’m coming up with ideas at the moment. If people buy tickets in America, I’ve got a feeling we’ll figure out a way for having Colin back." Even so, he still reiterates that in his eyes, Eggsy is the future of the gentleman spy, jokingly calling Kingsman "the prequel to the Eggsy movie."

He's got a good point about Eggsy being the more original element in Kingsman and Harry being a throwback, but they nailed the throwback character so well that I can't help think I prefer Vaughn's vision of the past to his vision of the future. Firth really managed to epitomize the image of the British gentleman spy, dated though it may be. If you've read my review, you'll know I didn't much care for Kingsman. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't be interested in a follow-up. It would feel like something of a cop out to say that Harry survived that headshot delivered him at close range by Samuel L. Jackson's villain Valentine in this movie, so I'm guessing his potential return would take the form of flashbacks. (It could be a Godfather II situation, transitioning between a past adventure of Harry Hart and a current, related one starring Eggsy.) But how about this? Here's my idea: use Kingsman's success to build two separate franchises. Studios love Marvel-style shared worlds nowadays! Do a series of sequels with Eggsy to be cutting edge and showcase all the hyper-violence, misanthropy and nihilism that Vaughn seems so fond of, and a simultaneous series of prequels for those of us who prefer "the old cliché" starring firth as Harry to satirize and celebrate the great British spy traditions of the past! I did say in my review that I wished I could pluck Firth's character, fully formed, out of Kingsman and send him off in an entirely different series all his own. And I really would like to see that happen. And even if Vaughn (quite understandably) prefers to invent a new kind of spy hero, he's just so good at realizing the old kind!
Thanks to Danny for the heads-up.

Feb 18, 2015

Tradecraft: Pierce Brosnan's The Coup Re-titled No Escape and Delayed Six Months

The Hollywood Reporter (via Dark Horizons) reports that the Pierce Brosnan action movie The Coup (in which the actor again plays a secret agent, apparently named Hammond) has been re-titled and delayed until September 2. The new date is good news, since there's been no advertising whatsoever yet, and it would have been pretty hard to build word of mouth between now and the original March 6 release date! The title change... maybe not so much. The new title is No Escape, which not only isn't a very good title, but also one likely already familiar to Brosnan fans, as it was the name of the Ray Liotta film that Martin Campbell directed immediately prior to GoldenEye. (I remember seeing that in the theater with some high school friends back in '94 specifically so we could get a bead on this new Bond director. We weren't too impressed, but luckily history proved Campbell to be considerably better than that flick demonstrated!) Apparently dwindling educational standards are to blame for the title change. According to the trade, the old title tested poorly because Americans didn't know what a coup was. (Not part of the Common Core?) The new No Escape (the former Coup) stars Owen Wilson (I Spy) as a father trying to get his family to safety when the Southeast Asian country they're living in erupts in a violent... coup. From which there is presumably no escape. Lake Bell plays his wife. We first learned that Brosnan would star in this movie way back in May of 2012; cameras eventually rolled in late 2013, and now it seems to finally have a release date. Oddly (and unhelpfully), the THR story doesn't mention the distributor, but according to the IMDb it will be put out in North America by The Weinstein Company.

Feb 17, 2015

Network Brings Deadlier Than the Male to Blu-ray!!!

Are you sitting down? Are you ready for the best news ever? Because you're about to read the best news ever. Unless you don't live in Great Britain and don't have an all-region Blu-ray player, in which case it might be the most frustrating news ever. Or just a good excuse to finally buy an all-region Blu-ray player! Okay, here it is: on April 27, Network will release the 1967 Eurospy classic Deadlier Than the Male on Blu-ray! If that seems anticlimactic to you after my perhaps slightly hyperbolic build-up, then that must just mean that you've never seen Deadlier Than the Male, in which case you need this Blu-ray. And if that doesn't seem anticlimactic to you, then you already know you need this Blu-ray! As regular readers will no doubt be aware, Deadlier Than the Male (which stars Elke Sommer, Sylva Koscina and Richard Johnson) is one of my absolute favorite non-Bond spy movies. It's the best Eurospy movie, and the best James Bond knock-off ever. It's also the Sixties spy title I've most wanted to see in high definition, so I absolutely cannot wait for this release! (For more about Deadlier Than the Male, read my lavishly illustrated, gushing review here.) Network's Region B Blu-ray will be in the original widescreen aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and carry over all of the special features (most in standard def, except where noted) from their Deadlier Than the Male DVD, including the original theatrical trailer (in HD), archive interviews, archive location reports, extensive image galleries (HD), and promotional materials PDFs. Their listing does a disservice to the "archive interviews" and "archive location reports" by calling them that, because they're far cooler than you might expect from that name. These are on-set featurettes filmed during production, and they're fantastic! Retail is listed at £9.18 (a bargain!), and the disc will be available for purchase through Network's website and Amazon.co.uk.

The bad news for spy fans outside of Region B (Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Africa and the Middle-East) is that you will require an all-region Blu-ray player to play this disc. An all-region Blu-ray player is a pretty essential piece of hardware for cult movie and TV fans already (largely thanks to Network's output, like their amazing Persuaders! Blu-rays), but this is a title worth making the plunge for if you haven't already. They are no longer exorbitantly expensive like they used to be. I have an Orei player that I bought cheaply on Amazon and that I love, but it doesn't seem to be available anymore. (At least not through Amazon; you may be able to find one elsewhere.) I see Amazon currently offers a Samsung player fairly inexpensively, and I'm sure more can be found by poking around. Just make sure that any listing specifically states that it plays Blu-rays from all zones, because there are a lot of players out there that function as all-region DVD players, but only play Region (or Zone) A Blu-rays. The cheapest way to view foreign HD may be to get an external Blu-ray drive and find an easy hack to play discs on your computer. I'm sure hacks are available somewhere for standalone players, too. But seeing Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina come out of the water in their bikinis with their spearguns in high definition will be totally worth any expense!

Now let's hope Network follows this up with a Blu-ray of the (admittedly inferior, but still worthwhile) sequel Some Girls Do, which hasn't even ever been available in its proper aspect ratio before...

Feb 13, 2015

Movie Review: Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

NOTE: This review contains some SPOILERS.

Kingsman: The Secret Service is a nasty, hateful poison pill of a movie wrapped in delicious candy coating. That candy coating includes not only cool, colorful, slick, budget-stretching production design, but also knowing nods to an encyclopedia’s worth of past spy movies and TV. For these reasons, it’s safe to assume that it might appeal greatly to readers of this blog and spy fans in general… but ultimately that appeal will depend on the spy fan’s individual tolerance for truly excessive violence, gleeful and graphic slaughter of innocent people, on-screen murder of world leaders played for laughs, and pervasive misanthropy. While I was genuinely torn, for me, sadly, the latter ultimately kept me from enjoying the former. As a self-confessed aficionado of the teen spy subgenre to which this movie belongs and someone who enjoys James Bond imitators almost as much as James Bond movies, and as an avowed fan of director Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: FirstClass), I really, really wanted to love Kingsman. I was greatly looking forward to it. But I’m afraid it comes off as my first major letdown of 2015.

Based on the comic book The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, Kingsman tells the story of Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a working class teenage London street punk whose life is transformed when he’s recruited by Harry Hart (Colin Firth), a British spy of impeccable breeding and John Steed-like class and sophistication, and trained to be a gentleman and a spy. It’s a My Fair Lady story (acknowledged in one of the movie’s funniest exchanges), a teen agent in training story, and a paranoid global conspiracy story all in one. Eggsy’s father was a Kingsman candidate killed while saving Harry’s life in the movie’s opening moments. For that, Harry feels a sense of debt, and promises the late agent’s widow and young son one favor in their moment of need. Eggsy’s moment of need comes years later, when he’s in jail for stealing a car and needs a way out. Harry not only offers him that way out, but offers him a new future following in his father’s footsteps.

During the first half of the movie we follow Eggsy’s Alex Rider-style training as part of a group of cadets competing for the single spot on the Kingsman roster, while Harry pursues a mysterious threat that leads to celebrity kidnappings, sudden outbursts of extreme violence from ordinarily peaceful people and exploding heads. (There are a lot of exploding heads in this movie. If that’s not your thing, stay away.) And ultimately, probably, the annihilation of all life on earth outside of the proverbial Ivory Tower. The man behind this threat is social media mogul Richmond Valentine (a lisping Samuel L. Jackson in full over-the-top mode). In the second half of the movie Eggsy ends up with a mission of his own, and of course finds himself using his training to take on Valentine.

The candy coating I mentioned really is delicious stuff. It’s lots of fun to spot the spy references. I won’t itemize them all here because that would be a bigger spoiler than anything I could say about the plot, but they range from broad tropes of the genre (which the film attempts to both celebrate and subvert at once) to specific details from Bond movies or classic TV shows like The Avengers or Get Smart. The best ones manage clever new twists upon the tried and true. It was a brilliant idea, for example, to relocate The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s tailor shop entrance to the secret spy headquarters to Savile Row. What could be more classically spy than entering the office through a Savile Row tailor?

Even better than the references are the performances. There is a lot of strong acting talent in Kingsman. Egerton is all charm and makes an easy to root for protagonist; I look forward to seeing where his career goes from here. I find Mark Strong (Tinker TailorSoldier Spy) infinitely more enjoyable as a good guy than a bad guy, so it’s nice to see the former ubiquitous villain following up his scene-stealing turn in The Imitation Game with another savory spy role. Edward Holcroft (London Spy) makes a good impression as a sneering fellow cadet. Jack Davenport and Mark Hamill have entertaining cameos. And Michael Caine is Michael Caine! But the performance of this movie is Colin Firth’s. The role of Harry Hart (changed in a stroke of genius from the comic’s Bond-inspired “Jack London” to a more original Steed-inspired part) is Kingsman’s best creation, and Firth inhabits it brilliantly. Good as Egerton is, I couldn’t help but wish that the whole movie was about Harry Hart, and that there would be a long series of others to follow! Firth combines Patrick Macnee’s refined wit and sophistication with Daniel Craig’s brutality in what really might be the ultimate British gentleman spy role. Sadly, there is ultimately too little of Firth in the movie, and Kingsman suffers for it.

Then there are the trappings. Kingsman gets the trappings just right for the most part. There’s gadgetry galore, and Vaughn demonstrates how to handle spy gadgetry in the modern age. Some Bond screenwriters have gone on record saying that there’s not much you can do with gadgets in an era when we all have amazing smartphones in our pockets, but Kingsman makes a good joke out of that. When Harry first shows Eggsy the room full of meticulously organized Kingsman gadgetry, the teen takes in the pens and shoes and gold cigarette lighters—all with secret lethal functions—and then his eyes land on a wall of cell phones. “What do those do?” he asks. “Nothing,” says Harry. “That technology has caught up with the spy world.” So it has, but that doesn’t diminish the coolness of a good old fashioned poison pen!

There’s impressive production design, including the immaculate tailor shop and Kingsman headquarters, a secret subway from London to the countryside, and an airplane hangar and landing strip built inside a mountain. There’s even more impressive clothing, thanks to costume designer Adrianne Phillips (Knight and Day). Men’s fashions haven’t looked this good on screen since the Sixties. And there’s a great spy score full of Barry-esque horns and a strong theme courtesy of composers Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson.

All that candy coating crumbles away upon closer inspection though. The sets, though initially impressive, show at the seams. The score is great, but too often it’s ignored for key sequences in favor of uninspired pop songs. The giant spaces are too obviously digital, lacking the grandeur of those cavernous Ken Adam physical sets. Even Eggsy’s epic third act shootout in the villain’s lair loses some of its luster when you realize he’s just running through the same white hallway set again and again. Maybe that, too, is a reference—a nod to the Eurospy movies and PovertyRow spy pictures of the Sixties that somehow maintained a shabby dignity in their attempts to achieve Bondian spectacle when they had to use curtains tostand in for walls—but I doubt it.

Like the sets, when you see past the spectacle, the movie itself loses a significant amount of its luster. Vaughn again and again promised in interviews a return to the sense of fun that modern spy movies have lost since the Sixties. But he doesn’t deliver. Kingsman doesn’t convey the sense of fun of a Sixties Bond movie. It’s far too misanthropic for that.

Rather than tantalizing us with the horrifying prospect of sadistic violence, as Goldfinger did when Bond came within inches of being sliced in half by a laser, Kingsman indulges that violence. Valentine’s henchwoman, Gazelle (dancer Sofia Boutella) has razor-sharp prosthetics for legs. That’s kind of a cool deformity/weapon, like we might have seen in Bonds of old, but Vaughn can’t resist wallowing in the violence of the weapons. Kingsman doesn’t stop at the prospect of a person being sliced in half; it gleefully slices them before our eyes, delighting in the shoddy digital effect of two halves of a severed body splitting.

With Kick-Ass, Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman cut out a lot of Millar’s mean-spirited violence, creating a movie that was far more fun than its unpleasant source material, but in Kingsman they wallow in Millar’s misanthropic excesses. This is a movie where a character with a vomit-inducing aversion to bloodletting is destined to be brutally impaled and then vomit at the sight of his or her own blood while expiring. Perhaps you find such an image as funny as Vaughn seems to, but it’s not something that screams “the fun of Sixties Bond movies!” to me. And lest I come off as squeamish, let me state that I am no prude when it comes to screen violence. I’m an ardent Tarantino admirer, and I like my horror movies as gory as possible. But gore has a place in horror that I don’t think it has in a Bond-type movie. I find Milton Krest’s exploding head in Licence to Kill to be a step too far for 007 (or even Imitation 007), and Kingsman is full of exploding heads. Like The Interview, it even explodes the heads of sitting world leaders, including President Obama and the Royal Family. I found this rather tasteless in The Interview (even with a dictator!), and I find it tasteless again in Kingsman.

The deaths of world leaders comes in keeping with Kingsman’s confused anarchic politics. There’s a reason that the Kingsman organization, despite being so obviously British in every way (right down to its name), is not tied to any one government. (In the comic it was MI6.) That’s because Vaughn and Goldman want to tap into a prevailing mistrust of governments in general… though they don’t seem to know why. (Or at least they don’t share that with the audience on screen.) Where Bond is for Queen and Country, Eggsy ends up fighting that system—and even facilitating the death of that Queen 007 would lay down his life for.

Like all the best British spy stories (and, well, pretty much all British fiction in general), Kingsman is obsessed with class and the British class system. Unlike the works of masters like John le Carré, Len Deighton and Graham Greene (whose The Human Factor may contain the best class commentary in all spy fiction), Kingsman doesn’t seem to know what it’s saying about class though. Eggsy finds himself competing with a bunch of snobby Etonian types for a spot on the roster of the ultra-secret, non-governmental spy agency, and we certainly side with him against their class-based bullying. His own trajectory is to become a sophisticated gentleman and prove that a man can defy his origins and achieve class status without the prerequisite birthright, yet the head of the snobbish Kingsmen opposed to his progress is played by Michael Caine, spydom’s leading working class hero, who seems to betray similar origins to Eggsy in a crucial cockney slip.

Like John Steed, Firth’s Harry Hart is the epitome of class and breeding, yet he is the one who believes steadfastly in Eggsy. In its macro plot, Kingsman espouses full-on class warfare, essentially advocating the slaughter of the One Percent (lest they slaughter the masses), yet in its micro arc Eggsy’s personal growth is demonstrated by his rejection of his roots and adoption of Harry’s exquisitely tailored upper-class ways. The politics of Kingsman are more The Spook Who Sat By the Door than The Spy Who Loved Me, but unlike that revolutionary classic, Kingsman doesn’t convincingly portray social ills in need of such a drastic countermeasures. The upshot is offensive to liberal and conservative alike, but not in a biting satirical way. In fact, despite seeming to want to be political, it’s really just crass. Because the enemy to Vaughn isn’t so much the upper class as humanity itself. And when Harry, the movie’s most likeable character, is written into a situation where he must use his previously cool fighting prowess to brutally slaughter a church full of unarmed civilians (racist, hateful civilians, in a slight attempt to make the scene more palatable than in the comic, but civilians nonetheless), that’s when the movie loses me.


Kingsman: The Secret Service is a contradiction. Part of it is pure, reference-loaded spy fun, and part of it is hopelessly misguided and terminally half-baked social commentary soaked in far too much blood and viscera for me to find enjoyable. Harry Hart is perhaps the best new spy hero since Steed himself, but stuck in a movie that misuses him. But I will enjoy those trappings. I will buy the soundtrack and revisit its terrific spy score frequently. I will even download the surprisingly hummable Take That theme song, “Get Ready for It.” And if I could afford them, I would also buy the Kingsman suits and cravats from the Mr. Porter menswear tie-in. But I probably won’t find myself revisiting the film itself too frequently. It’s just not as fun as the sum of its parts. 

Feb 12, 2015

First Man From U.N.C.L.E. Poster Revealed


The amazing trailer wasn't the only piece of Man From U.N.C.L.E. promotional material unveiled yesterday. Warner Bros. also released the first teaser poster for the Guy Ritchie film version of the Sixties TV classic starring Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, and, happily, it looks classy and fantastic! There's also a half-sheet version. On top of that, the studio opened up an official website and Facebook page. Check them out! Is it August yet?


Hitman: Agent 47 Trailer Hits

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. wasn't the only spy trailer to debut yesterday. But it was so good that I didn't want to step on it at all by posting this one then, too. Fox also released the first trailer for their reboot of their 2007 videogame-based neo-Eurospy movie Hitman (review here), Hitman: Agent 47. Homeland's Rupert Friend takes over for Timothy Olyphant as the bald and barcoded titular assassin Agent 47, and Zachary Quinto (24), Thomas Kretschmann (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and Ciaran Hinds (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) round out the cast. It looks... okay (even if it brazenly cribs one of its only lines of dialogue from Alan Moore's Watchmen)... but it certainly suffers from being released on the same day as something as awesome as Warner Bros.' U.N.C.L.E. trailer. Bad timing, Fox. But I'm sure I'll still check out the movie when it opens in August. (After I see U.N.C.L.E., anyway. And Mission: Impossible 5...)

First Look at 007 in Action in SPECTRE

What an exciting week for spy fans! Hot on the heels of the awesome Man From U.N.C.L.E. trailer comes our first look at Daniel Craig in action as James Bond in Sam Mendes' SPECTRE, courtesy of 007.com. The first official still of Craig in the 24th official 007 movie shows the actor in winter gear clutching a pistol (not a Walther PPK) in a snowy Alpine setting with snowmobiles and off-road vehicles in the background. The shot is reminiscent of the famous still of George Lazenby in the Alps with a Sterling submachine gun, and the background elements seem the perfect ingredients for a classic James Bond action sequence—the creation of which is confirmed in the first official behind the scenes video from the set! I'm particularly excited to see Craig in the snow, because cold weather setpieces tend to be among my favorite in the Bond canon, but we haven't had a great one since The Living Daylights back in 1987. (I'm sorry, but the lackluster ski sequence in The World Is Not Enough just didn't cut it for me.) That's more than 25 years—or more than half the duration of the series! So it's about time for another great winter setpiece in a Bond flick. Check out the video below for a spoiler-free hint of how things will go down in this Austrian sequence. Now with Bond and U.N.C.L.E. videos this week, all we need is for Paramount to offer a first look at the next Mission: Impossible!


NOTE: While the plot of SPECTRE was leaked in the Sony hack, not all Bond fans want to know what's going to happen. So please be courteous and refrain from posting SPECTRE spoilers in the comments section.

Feb 11, 2015

At Last--The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Trailer!

It's taken decades of development, years of false starts, and months of release date delays, but now we finally have video evidence that the feature film version of the classic Sixties spy TV show The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a reality! Here's the first trailer (along with some photos courtesy of EW) for the Warner Bros. franchise bid, opening in August:


Personally, I could not be happier. This trailer exceeds my wildest dreams for an U.N.C.L.E. feature. As great a job as the French OSS 117 parodies did at recreating the era, I've long wanted to see a straight action/spy movie made with today's technology but set in the Sixties, and this trailer delivers on that front. I love the 1963 setting and the very From Russia With Love feel. I love the little spy Easter eggs like the blue Aston Martin DB5 in the background of one shot, or Pussy Galore's helicopter from Goldfinger. I love the glimpse of Cold War Berlin. (Or some other border crossing?) I love what appears to be a villain's island headquarters. But I also love the nods to the original series. Sure, Armie Hammer seems to be playing a very different variation on Illya Kuryakin than we're used to from David McCallum, but is that an updated version of the (fully assembled) U.N.C.L.E. Special he's wielding in one shot? Sure looks like it! And Henry Cavill, who I confess I had misgivings about in the role of Napoleon Solo, completely wins me over in this trailer! I love his delivery. It feels like just the right tone. And despite his claims that he wasn't watching the original series in preparation for the role, I seem to detect a certain tribute to Robert Vaughn in his delivery. This looks truly fantastic. The only thing I'm not crazy about is the music. (A Temptations funk song from the early Seventies doesn't seem to convey that early Sixties spy feel to me.) I'd certainly prefer Jerry Goldsmith's classic TV theme. But that's a minor gripe. I can't wait for August, when we'll get Mission: Impossible 5 and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. within mere weeks of each other!

Feb 9, 2015

Tradecraft: Sundance to Air German Period Spy Series Deutschland 83

The success of The Americans has now led to U.S. networks seeking foreign period spy series, which is a very exciting development! According to The Hollywood Reporter, Sundance TV has picked up an 8-part German language spy drama, Deutschland 83, at the Berlinale European Flim Market. It will air in the U.S. later this year (and sooner on the German network RTL), making it the first German language series to run on American TV according to the trade. As the title would indicate, the Cold War show is set in 1983. Here's the official synopsis from the Berlinale website:
A NATO exercise, the peace movement and German New Wave music – young and inexperienced spy Moritz Stamm is sent to the West by the East German secret services and finds himself caught between personal and ideological fronts.
I'm very excited to see this! That sounds like an ideal cultural mash-up to me. And Berlin-set spy tales are always my favorites. Furthermore, while there are many great ones set in the Sixties, I find the early Eighties a particularly fascinating period of the Cold War, when tensions rose again and Berlin became even more of a powder keg than it had been. Len Deighton's Samson novels capture this era nicely, but I've always found it under-explored on television. And it will be particularly interesting to see it from a German point of view. It sounds like the creative talent involved has been thoroughly detail-oriented. From the trade:
Deutschland 83 was shot mainly in and around Berlin with a special focus on an exact re-creation of West Germany in 1983, when the country was at the center of the Cold War. “Finding locations hasn’t been easy,” says [director] Jorg Winger, 45, who co-created the show with his American-born writer wife, Anna Winger, 44. “So much has changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there are almost no houses left in the East that look like they did back then.” The production team ... finally found a sleepy suburb to the east of Berlin and a house where the furniture, and even the wallpaper, hadn’t changed in decades. It plays stand-in for the family home of Moritz, a young East German man (newcomer Jonas Nay) who is recruited to infiltrate the West German military as a spy.
The idea of an East German spy in the West German military ranks comes from Jorg Winger's personal experience. He tells the Reporter that he spent a chilling Christmas during his military service for the West listening to a Russian radio broadcast in which the Soviet broadcaster wished all the men in his unit a Merry Christmas... by name. This event led them to realize that they had a spy in their midst.

All told, this sounds like it has the makings of a truly compelling Cold War spy show, and I'm so grateful that we Americans will finally have access to some of the cool spy television coming out of Europe.

Kingsman Music Video

They used to be a regular part of a major spy movie's marketing, but it's been quite a while now (to my recollection) since we've seen a music video associated with a big spy film. So it's kind of a refreshing throwback that Kingsman: The Secret Service sports a new song from Take That, "Get Ready For It," plus a music video tie-in using footage from Matthew Vaughn's movie. It's not a great video, but the band did go to the trouble of sporting some Kingsman-appropriate duds and shooting in the U.N.C.L.E.-esque tailor shop that serves as the titular spy agency's secret entrance. And there's even a cameo from the film's razor-legged femme fatale Gazelle (Sofia Boutella). I appreciate that. Plus, I have to admit, it's a catchy song! So... "Are you a fool or a Kingsman? 'Cause only you know!" Watch the video and find out!



"Get Ready For It" isn't included on the film's soundtrack album from La La Land, but the CD does feature a suitably spyish, horn-heavy score by Henry Jackman (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: First Class) and Matthew Margeson. You can buy it now (and listen to samples) as a digital download on Amazon, or pre-order the CD (with three extra tracks), out February 17. And if you really fancy yourself Kingsman material, you can also look the part—provided you're fairly well-heeled. The Kingsman line from fashion website Mr. Porter offers stylish overcoats, bespoke suits, high-end accessories and more—all from British manufacturers and all in the high style associated over the years with fashionable secret agents like John Steed, James Bond and Harry Palmer. So even if you don't care for Kingsman, you can look to Harry Hart's antecedents and enjoy dressing like your favorite undercover clotheshorse.

Feb 5, 2015

Allegiance Debuts Tonight on NBC

NBC's newest spy series, Allegiance, debuts tonight at 10/9c. It's the networks second attempt at a spy hit this season (following the disappointing State of Affairs), and the second major network attempt to ape The Americans in two years (following ABC's quite good but unseen The Assets). Seemingly taking its premise from the Season 2 cliffhanger of the FX Cold War hit (but not really, since Allegiance was sold before that aired), the George Nolfi (The Bourne Supremacy)-penned and directed pilot (set today) follows a pair of KGB-turned-SVR sleeper agents (Scott Cohen and the great Hope Davis) assigned to turn their CIA agent son (Gavin Stenhouse) to spy, like them, for the Russians. Meanwhere, his case is to investigate the sleeper cell that happens to be his parents. I don't care if it's a blatant network attempt to mine cable gold; the plot sounds intriguing and the trailer looks promising, so I'll be tuning in tonight! Allegiance premieres tonight at 10/9c on NBC.

Jan 30, 2015

The Prisoner Returns in Original Audio Dramas From Big Finish

Big Finish, the UK company that resurrected the lost first season episodes of The Avengers by producing the original scripts as excellent new audio dramas, has secured the rights to another cult Sixties spy series: Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner. The company announced earlier this month that Number 6 would return in a series of full-cast audio dramas with original scores. Big Finish co-executive producer Nicholas Briggs (best known as the voice of the Daleks on TV's Doctor Who, but also the writer of some of Big Finish's Doctor Who audio dramas) will write and direct the new series. Voice actors haven't been cast yet. It's a real shame this didn't happen when Patrick McGoohan was still with us, because it's hard to envision anyone else in the role. But still exciting to anticipate new adventures set in the world of the original TV show! Briggs is a fan and promises to treat the material reverently (while not delivering "a slavish retelling of all the original episodes," fortunately), which is more than can be said of the best forgotten AMC miniseries remake a few years ago. It's also exciting to dream about what other ITC classics Big Finish might delve into! The Champions? The Persuaders!? Man in a Suitcase? (Richard Bradford's still around!) Any of those would be great, but what I'd really like to see them do after listening to their fantastic audio recreations of the lost Avengers episodes would be to created audio dramas based on the lost episodes of Adam Adamant Lives! and Callan. In the meantime, though, I'll definitely be checking into the Village next January, when The Prisoner - Volume 1 (four episodes plus a making-of documentary) comes out. It's already available to pre-order ($60.38 for a lavish CD box set with a color booklet, or $35.00 for digital download) from Big Finish's website.
Thanks to Phil for the tip!

Listen to Red File for Callan On BBC

BBC Radio aired the first installment of a 4-part abridged reading of James Mitchell's Red File for Callan this week, and for the next month you can listen online. Red File for Callan (originally published as A Magnum for Schneider) was the novel that introduced the world to David Callan, one of the great antiheroes of the spy genre. Mitchell adapted it twice for the screen, first as an episode of Armchair Theater (which actually predated publication of the book) that served as the pilot to the Callan TV series, and later as the feature film Callan, both starring the incomparable Edward Woodward. But the novel is fantastic in its own right, and deserving of a place alongside the better known likes of Deighton and Freemantle in the canon of working class spy fiction. While abridged versions are never the best way to read (or listen to) something, Ben Miles does quite a good job narrating, and free is infinitely preferable to the inexplicably steep price of the unabridged Story Sound audiobook (which is itself quite excellent if you can find it more cheaply).
UPDATE! And... you can get it more cheaply right now! When I composed this post last night it was its usual exorbitant $64.95, but at this moment it's available on Amazon for 88% off... just $7.86! At that price, go buy this unabridged audiobook right now! Buy it! Now! You won't regret it. Who knows how long this amazing deal will last.

Read my review of Acorn's Callan: Set 1 here.
Read my review of Acorn's Callan: Set 2 here.
Read my review of Network's Callan: The Monochrome Years here.

Jan 28, 2015

Pierce Brosnan Pokes Fun at His James Bond Image in Kia Sorento Super Bowl Spot

Well, Kia has managed to get me to give them free advertising by reposting their commercial by casting Pierce Brosnan in it. And I'll happily do so for any commercial with Brosnan! That's a good way to get my attention during Super Bowl advertising breaks. I found this pretty amusing.

Jan 26, 2015

Tradecraft: Cruise's Next Mission Moved Up

The fuse has been lit early! Usually when tentpoles are dramatically shifted into another season, it's a move backwards. (See: Warner Bros.' The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which has been pushed back twice now.) But today Deadline reports that Paramount is shifting Mission: Impossible 5 up from its previously announced December berth to July 31. Yes, that's this July 31... 2015! So spy fans will get to see the movie sooner than expected. And in terms of genre competition, Ethan Hunt is retreating from James Bond's crosshairs (SPECTRE opens in November and will likely still be in theaters come Christmas) and setting the more vlunerable Napoleon Solo squarely in his own. (U.N.C.L.E. is currently slated for August.) The spacing is good and there's more than enough room for all these spy franchises to coexist... but it's still considerably safer to be the first of the biggies out of the gate than the last, since it's possible the public may burn out a little on the genre after a whopping fifteen spy movies have opened from January to December. (I hope not! And Bond, being practically a genre unto himself, seems pretty safe from such a scenario.) The most surprising thing bout seeing a major action movie shift up by five months is that post-production on these big would-be blockbusters tends to take a long time. But the movie obviously indicates that the studio is confident director Christopher McQuarrie will have all his effects shots finished in time. (This also strengthens the Mission: Impossible series' boasts about relying on practical effects and real stuntwork over time-consuming CGI.) The move means that Paramount's publicity team will have to leap into action, Tom Cruise-style, to build awareness faster than thought. It likely means we'll be seeing a poster and even a teaser trailer quite soon. (Could they even whip up something in time for next week's Super Bowl?) Assuming the effects are in good shape and the marketing folks are up to the challenge, the move makes a lot of sense for Paramount. Currently, the trade points out, the only competition in the weekend of July 31 is Warner Bros.' Point Break remake, Focus Features' sci-fi thriller Self/Less and The Weinstein Company’s Jake Gyllenhaal boxing drama Southpaw, none of which are likely to pose too big a threat to the venerable Mission juggernaut. The move kind of sucks for Point Break, though, since Cruise & Co. will probably poach the very audience its aiming for. I wouldn't be surprised to see it shuffled. The question for spy fans, of course, is what will that mean for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. if Warner Bros. starts shuffling its tentpoles again? If they'd already begun their publicity campaign, it would make sense for the studio to move it up if there's an available frame earlier in the year, but since they haven't it would be more likely to shuffle backwards... yet again. I really hope that doesn't happen.

Jan 23, 2015

Grimsby Retreats to 2016

With all the huge movies slated for this year (among them at least fifteen spy movies, including heavy hitters like James Bond and Mission: Impossible), it was inevitable that some of them would end up shifting dates into 2016. Today it was reported on Box Office Mojo (via Dark Horizons) that the Sacha Baron Cohen spy comedy Grimsby would make such a retreat. It was previously slated to open this July, but considering that there was virtually no awareness yet (unlike Fox's summer spy comedy Spy, which already has a trailer), it's not terribly surprising that Sony has re-positioned it for February 26, 2016. While we've now got more than a year to wait, Grimsby sounds worth waiting for on paper. Working from a script by Cohen (Borat), Phil Johnston (Cedar Rapids) and British comedy genius Peter Baynham (I'm Alan Partridge), Louis Leterrier (who directed the good Transporter movies) helms an impressive cast including Mark Strong (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Penelope Cruz (Sahara), Ian McShane (The Terrorists), David Harewood (Homeland), Annabelle Wallis (Fleming), Scott Adkins (The Bourne Ultimatum), Gabourey Sidibe (Seven Psychopaths) and Isla Fisher (The Great Gatsby). As previously reported, Mark Strong will play a British superspy forced to go on the run with his dimwitted soccer hooligan brother, played by Sacha Baron Cohen.

Jan 22, 2015

Watch Archer on Conan... or Conan in Archer... or... I know, "Phrasing."

This is absolutely hilarious, and a must-watch for fans of FX's animated spy comedy Archer. Conan O'Brien announced on his TBS talkshow, Conan, the other night that his next guest would be the world's greatest secret agent, Sterling Archer. Of course that would be pretty tough because Archer is an animated character, and the actor who (brilliantly) voices him, H. John Benjamin, looks nothing like him. How would they pull off such a feat? Well, the phone rings, and Archer invites Conan to meet him outside the studio. Conan does, and enters the stylized cartoon world of  Archer (becoming an "Archerized" cartoon character himself), ending up in a hilarious car chase with Archer. Watch below to see what happens. While it's full of in-jokes and cool references to reward regular Archer viewers, there's more than enough general spy spoofery going on that any spy fan or James Bond fan should find it pretty funny. I really hope this ends up as a bonus feature on the eventual Archer Season 6 DVDs and Blu-rays. (Surely that was a condition of the Archer team animating the segment...?) Check it out!
(Via io9; thanks to Josh for the link.)

Tradecraft: Pierre Morel to Adapt Victor the Assassin

The Hollywood Reporter reports that Taken and From Paris With Love director Pierre Morel will follow up his forthcoming Sean Penn assassin movie, The Gunman, with another assassin movie. Morel will reunite with two of his Gunman producers, Andrew Rona and Alex Heineman from The Picture Company, to launch a potential franchise for Studiocanal based on Tom Wood's "Victor the Assassin" novels. Morel plans to helm a movie based on the first book in the series, The Killer (no relation to the classic John Woo movie). The trade humorously acknowledges that the plot "is something spy-thriller fans may have seen before," their tongue-in-cheek description still sounds alright to me: "a hitman on the run, chased and double-crossed by many parties." Yeah, that's what I like.... The publisher's description offers more details. Victor, "a man with no past and no surname," pulls off a kill for hire in Paris in order to retrieve a flashdrive with details about a sunken Russian submarine carrying a payload of next generation missiles. But when he returns to his hotel, he's set upon by a cadre of international hitmen, propelling him on a chase across Europe and eventually to CIA headquarters pursued by the world's intelligence agencies. In a capsule, that sounds kind of similar to Mark Greaney's The Gray Man (currently in development as a film at Sony)... but then it was hardly an original one there, either. It's all in the execution, and I haven't read the book so I don't know how Wood handles it. But I'll watch that movie every time someone makes it, whether it's based on a book by Robert Ludlum, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Mark Greaney or anyone else. Especially when it's directed by Pierre Morel, grandmaster of the neo-Eurospy genre! There are four Victor novels to date (the most recent being No Tomorrow), so if the movie is a hit, it certainly has franchise potential... which is clearly Studiocanal's hope.

International Trailer for The Gunman

Here's the international trailer for Pierre Morel's latest neo-Eurospy moive, The Gunman, starring Sean Penn, Idris Elba and the great Javier Bardem. It shows a little more than the previous domestic trailer, but mainly shows why Morel is the reigning grandmaster of the neo-Eurospy genre. With furious action spanning the Congo, London, Barcelona and Gibraltar, this doesn't look like a very faithful adaptation of the cult French noir novel Prone Gunman, but it does look like a pretty worthy follow-up to Taken and From Paris With Love! (If only Morel had continued to direct the Taken movies!) The Gunman opens March 20.

Jan 21, 2015

Tradecraft: Covert Affairs Cancelled

This month brought some most unwelcome news for fans of USA's spy drama Covert Affairs. According to Deadline, the network announced that it's cancelled the series after five seasons. While in some ways the finale of the fourth season seemed like a logical ending point, the fifth season unfortunately concluded with a number of cliffhangers and unanswered questions, intended as seeds for sixth season plotlines. Obviously fans will hope for a movie or miniseries to wrap up these threads, but the trade says that's unlikely. "While that always is a possibility as Covert Affairs producer Universal Cable Prods. has been high on the series and is a sibling to the network, making it happen is usually prohibitively expensive. Therefore, chances for a different conclusion to the series are slim, despite Covert Affairs creators/executive producers Matt Corman and Chris Ord’s hope for a sixth season." It's worth reading the whole story at Deadline, as they go into the interesting financial reasons behind the cancellation. (Among other factors,while the show remained quite popular, it's audience primarily viewed it on DVR rather than live, apparently making it difficult to monetize.) Personally, I'm quite sorry to see it go. Covert Affairs remained a consistently entertaining spy series, and one of the few that actually filmed on location around the world (a factor that made it expensive to film) as opposed to the more common Alias-style "Burbank-as-Barcelona" approach. And NBC's State of Affairs is a poor substitute when it comes to CIA blondes having Affairs.

Jan 15, 2015

Two Trailers For SPY With Melissa McCarthy and Jason Statham

Fox has released two versions of the first trailer for Paul Feig's Spy, the Melissa McCarthy/Jason Statham spy comedy we've been following since mid-2013. Jude Law (Sherlock Holmes), Rose Byrne (X-Men: First Class), Bobby Cannavale (Ant-Man), Peter Serafinowicz (Guardians of the Galaxy), Allison Janney (The West Wing), Morena Baccarin (Homeland), Miranda Hart (Call the Midwife), Will Yun Lee (Die Another Day) and 50 Cent (13) round out the impressive cast. The somewhat unimaginatively titled Spy has nothing to do with the UK sitcom of the same name, but it does seem to follow a very similar plot trajectory (analyst thrust into the field as spy) to the movie version of Get Smart... which itself was virtually a beat for beat remake of the movie version of I Spy. It also looks like it has the potential to be better than either of those! The green band (all audiences) trailer feels like the more promising of the two to me, because the red band seems to add a lot of swearing for swearing's sake, which doesn't automatically equal funny. But I'll reserve judgment, because I imagine Jason Statham can probably make a stream of foul language very funny indeed. Spy opens May 22. Check out both versions below:




Jan 10, 2015

Tradecraft: Susanne Bier to Direct Le Carre Miniseries The Night Manager

According to Deadline, AMC confirmed at their TCA session this week that, as previously reported, they have indeed picked up U.S. and Canadian broadcast rights to the BBC John le Carré miniseries The Night Manager. They also confirmed the roles that the stars will be playing. As I'd assumed, Tom Hiddleston (Marvel's The Avengers) will play hotelier-turned-undercover agent Jonathan Pine, and Hugh Laurie (Spooks/MI-6) will play the charming but despicable millionaire arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper, one of the author's best villains. (And a role in which Laurie should shine.) Additionally, the cable network revealed that acclaimed Danish feature director Susanne Bier (Brothers, In A Better World) will direct the miniseries. While she's never tackled espionage before, Bier may be familiar to spy fans from having directed Casino Royale's Mads Mikkelsen in After the Wedding and Pierce Brosnan in one of his best post-Bond films, the excellent but poorly titled Love Is All You Need. Bier has two features presently in the can and awaiting distribution, A Second Chance with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and The World Is Not Enough's Ulrich Thomsen, and Serena, which re-teams Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. Landing Bier for television is quite a coup. I'm a big fan of her work, and I can't wait to see what she does with the material! I also look forward to further cast announcements, as this is quickly shaping up to be among the most exciting spy projects on the horizon. The Night Manager will run six episodes in the UK, but may be re-cut into eight episodes for America to accommodate commercials on AMC.

Jan 7, 2015

Upcoming Spy DVDs: The Top Secret Life of Edgar Briggs

Network have been slowly working their way through many ITV spy series over the years, and in March they'll finally get to one that I've never seen, but long been curious about. Cold War comedy The Top Secret Life of Edgar Briggs ran for a single 13-episode season in 1974 and starred David Jason (Rough Diamond, Danger Mouse) as clueless SIS agent Edgar Briggs. In the tradition of Inspector Clouseau and Maxwell Smart, Briggs usually managed to bungle his way to success, rising - mystifyingly, to his flummoxed colleagues - to the number two position in the Service. The 2-disc set is out on March 3, and will retail for £12.24.

Jan 6, 2015

Marvel's Period Spy Drama Agent Carter Debuts Tonight on ABC

The new season of spy TV kicks off tonight with the premiere of Marvel's period spy drama Agent Carter on ABC. The 8-part miniseries, a spin-off of sorts from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., stars the incomparable Hayley Atwell (The Prisoner, Any Human Heart) in her second 1940s-set spy saga (following the superior William Boyd adaptation Restless) reprising her role as Agent Peggy Carter from the Captain America films and the Marvel One-Shot short film Agent Carter. (She also appeared in that role in flashbacks on two episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. last fall, and will play the part again on the big screen in Ant-Man later this year.) Besides being a part of the larger juggernaut known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Agent Carter is notable for the period in which it's set. We've seen very few spy series so far set in the nascent days of the Cold War following the conclusion of WWII. It will be interesting to see to what degree the period even plays a role on the show, as geopolitics are less likely to figure into storylines than larger-than-life Marvel comic book plots about alien technology and the like. Either way, I'm expecting the show to be a lot of fun! Atwell is a fantastic actress, and she's supported by a good roster of talent as well including Dominic Cooper (Fleming), Lyndsy Fonseca (Nikita), Bridget Regan (Legend of the Seeker), Shea Whigham (American Hustle), Chad Michael Murray (Fruitvale Station) and Enver Gjokaj (Dollhouse). Behind the scenes, Louis D'Esposito (Marvel One-Shot: Agent Carter) directed the pilot, and Joe Russo, co-director of one of the year's best spy movies, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, helmed the second episode. Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas (Reaper) serve as showrunners. ABC airs the first two episodes tonight (in the usual Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. timeslot while that show is on winter hiatus), starting at 8pm Eastern/Pacific.

Dec 25, 2014

Movie Review: The Interview (2014)

Ever since the Thunderball references in a deleted scene from Pineapple Express, I’ve wanted to see Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg take on a spy parody. They do just that in The Interview (co-directing from a script they co-wrote with Dan Sterling), but take a typically non-traditional approach. Rather than using James Bond as their leaping-off point like so many spy parodies, their touchstone would appear to be The Chairman, the 1969 movie that found Gregory Peck’s scientist interviewing and possibly (inadvertently) assassinating a then sitting political leader, China’s Chairman Mao. The premise to The Interview is very similar. James Franco plays an Andy Cohen-like fluff talkshow host, Dave Skylark, who lands the interview opportunity of a lifetime when it turns out North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is a fan of his, and willing to grant him his first worldwide sit-down interview. But as Skylark and his producer Aaron Rapaport prepare for this opportunity of a lifetime, they’re approached by the CIA and asked to assassinate Kim while they’re at it. Whether or not this controversial plotline is in good taste or is even responsible filmmaking is certainly a valid debate, but not one I’ll engage in here. Instead I’ll be reviewing it as a spy movie.

Skylark may be seen as a softball interviewer, but as the film opens he manages to draw a pretty amazing revelation out of Eminem (in a truly hilarious cameo), and coaxes Rob Lowe to make a surprising on-air admission. Be that as it may, Kim and his propaganda team see Skylark as a good candidate to stick to their script of pre-approved questions celebrating the glory of North Korea and invite him to the presidential palace with unprecedented access. The CIA comes calling in the appealing form of Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan), who counts on using Skylark in much the same way as Kim. While it seems rather unlikely that the CIA would ever invite a muckraking journalist of all people to help it contravene Executive Order 12333 and assassinate a foreign leader, Agent Lacey certainly has Dave’s number. Aaron realizes what’s happening and pulls Dave aside, telling him, “They’re honeypotting us!”

“What?” asks Dave.

“It’s an attractive spy woman who lures men into doing shit they’re not supposed to do!” Aaron explains, not only providing malapropismic exposition on honey traps, but also setting up one of the movie’s running gags. (Every character seems to be either “honeypotting” or “honeydicking” someone, to use the movie’s amusing, gender-dependent vocabulary. Whether this terminology ends up entering the actual spy lexicon like le Carre’s remains to be seen.) Dave insists that such an insinuation is sexist (because “women are smart now”), a sentiment Agent Lacey herself later echoes, but Aaron enumerates how the sexy agent is playing to Dave’s known predilections: big boobs, bangs and glasses.

“Fake glasses?” asks an incredulous Dave, to which Aaron sarcastically deadpans, “How could the CIA come up with such a thing?” in the first of several clever riffs on spy gadgetry.

The plan calls for Dave to wear a Ricin poison patch on his palm, dosing the Supreme Leader with a twelve hour delay when he shakes his hand.  Along with some conveniently multi-functional wrist watches, the Agency provides the duo with some specially designed luggage in which to smuggle this tiny weapon. But Dave deems their choice of bag far too unfashionable, and makes his own arrangements setting off a series of blunders. After losing the first patch, Lacey’s team races to send their poorly-chosen assassins another one via drone. This leads to one of the movie’s funniest sequences, involving a drone, a tiger, covert communications, night vision imagery, and (this being Rogan and Goldberg) Aaron’s anus.

Besides the initially ludicrous premise, Rogan and Goldberg make the wise choice to keep The Interview’s spyjinks fairly low-key and plausible—but still all too easy to screw up in the hands of two idiots. We’ve seen idiots fumble with over-the-top Bondian stuff plenty of times before, so it’s refreshing to see them fumble something so credible. As in all of this duo’s movies, there is a somewhat half-baked“bromance” at the film’s center (and there are also a lot of funny Lord of the Rings references), but it was this fresh approach to spoofing spy tropes that I found funniest. Less funny was the violence. I’m in no way squeamish about violence in movies, but I do find graphic violence (even of the over-the-top, comedic variety) out of place in a spy comedy, and like Pineapple Express and This Is the End (only moreso), The Interview becomes very, very violent. There is an unnecessary level of gore that I found off-putting as the film careens towards its jaw-dropping and (until it ended up splashed all over the news, anyway) unpredictable denouement. But even at this point, the violence is still laced with plenty of humor—both scatological and satirical. American foreign policy takes a well-aimed jab when one character asks, “How many times can the U.S. make the same mistake?” and Dave replies emphatically and patriotically, “As many times as it takes!”

The Interview also scores well in its production design. Production Designer Jon Billington (World War Z) creates a truly imposing and thoroughly Communist edifice in Kim’s luxury bunker compound. There are lots and lots of greys in this North Korea, and all feels very real, even if these locations also boast a decidedly Ken Adam spin.

I enjoyed the first half of The Interview, but the violent excesses of the third act ultimately left a bad taste in my mouth. Spy fans who come across it on TV in the future should certainly watch at least the first half, and will be rewarded with an interesting take on the spy parody subgenre and quite a few genuine laughs. But anyone expecting more from this movie thanks to its dramatic will it or won't it be released? controversy will probably find themselves let down, and wishing that if this sort of brouhaha had to be stirred up, it had been over a better film. Because ultimately, The Interview is a wildly uneven movie, and at best a mixed bag.

Dec 24, 2014

Tradecraft: Gary Oldman Joins Kevin Costner Spy Movie

They played similar spymasters, one British, one American, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Now Gary Oldman and Kevin Costner will star in a spy movie together, according to The Hollywood Reporter. When Millennium Films first acquired the script by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg (The Rock) last year, Deadline described it as "an action movie about the right man in the wrong body. In a last-ditch effort to stop a diabolical plot, a dead CIA operative’s memories, secrets and skills are implanted into an unpredictable and dangerous prison inmate in hopes that he will complete the operative’s mission." Because, of course, a dangerous prison inmate is exactly who you'd transfer those memories into, not, say, a CIA volunteer who has had the same spy training himself. Oldman will play the director of the CIA. Ariel Vromen (The Iceman) directs. The cast also includes Ryan Reynolds (Safe House), Tommy Lee Jones (Yuri Nosenko, KGB), Gal Gadot (Fast Five) and Alice Eve (Men in Black 3). Criminal is produced by Millennium and will be released by Summit in August 2015.