Apr 16, 2014

Tradecraft: Spy Comedy American Ultra Assembles Eclectic Cast

This one sounds very intriguing to me. Deadline reports that Lionsgate has lined up Jesse Eisenberg (Now You See Me, The Social Network), Kristen Stewart (Jumper, Twilight), Walton Goggins (The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy), Bill Pullman (Torchwood, The Equalizer), Topher Grace (The Double), Sharon Stone (Agent X), John Leguizamo (Executive Decision) and Tony Hale (Chuck, Veep) for an action-comedy called American Ultra. According to the trade, Eisenberg plays "a stoner slacker whose secret past as a highly-trained sleeper agent upturns his small-town life with girlfriend (Kristen Stewart) as he’s thrust into a covert government operation." A stoner spy comedy? I like it! That's something a bit different. Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) is directing, from a script by Max Landis (Chronicle). Filming kicked off this week.

Apr 15, 2014

GoldenEye Returns to the Big Screen in Los Angeles Next Month

Wow, it's a really good season for Bond on the big screen in Los Angeles right now! Hot on the heels of these two rare Never Say Never Again screenings (and a Goldfinger/Thunderball double bill at the Egyptian earlier this year) comes a chance to see Pierce Brosnan's 1995 Bond debut GoldenEye projected in 35mm at the Arclight in Hollywood. While the classic Connery movies play the revival circuit quite frequently, the other Bond actors get considerably less exposure. Lazenby is getting screened more and more lately (a great thing), and occasionally you'll get a Moore. But unless someone is doing a whole retrospective of multiple Bond movies, Dalton and Brosnan are hard to come by in theatrical showings. Which is why I'm quite pleased that the Arclight will be playing GoldenEye as part of their Arclight Presents series on Tuesday, May 20 at 8:00pm. Tickets are available for pre-order from the theater's website at a cost of $14 for non-members. Wow, it's hard to believe that GoldenEye is almost twenty years old! I still remember the exhilaration of seeing that trailer for the first time in '95. (Before Species... and long before trailers debuted online instead of in theaters.) After six years away from cinemas (unfortunately my formative years as a Bond fan, in middle school and high school), it was so exciting to see Brosnan step out and address the audience. "You were expecting somebody else?"

Thanks to Neil for alerting me to this one!

Another Chance to See Never Say Never Again on the Big Screen in Los Angeles, Paired With The Rock

Well, I suppose Never Say Never Again screenings are like those proverbial city busses. You wait and wait for one to come along, and then there's another one right behind it! Only two months ago I was writing about how rare it was to see the 1983 Rogue Bond picture play at revival houses. In my fourteen years living in Los Angeles, it hadn't played once, whereas in that same time span all of the other Bond movies (including the other rogue one, the '67 Casino Royale) had played at least twice eachand far more often that that in the case of the other Connerys! So for the sake of the film's relative rarity, I encouraged anyone in the area, even those Bond fans who (for some odd reason) dislike the movie, to be sure to see it when it played for three nights at the New Beverly on a double bill with Diamonds Are Forever. And now, just a scant few months after that, it's playing once again on the big screen in L.A., this time at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. (My favorite local theater—and the same one that's showing Prisoner episodes a few days later.) And this time on an even better double bill than before. It's a Sean Connery night with Never Say Never Again (1983) and The Rock (1996). They're running this double feature as part of their "Unofficial Sequels" series, as Connery's character in The Rock is a former British agent and the script makes some sly nods to Bond. You could also call it a Connery/Clement/La Frenais night, since writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (Otley, Spies of Warsaw) contributed to both scripts (albeit on both occasions uncredited). Whatever the reason for the pairing, I think it's a great combination! For me, Connery got tougher and tougher as he grew older, and as much as I love him in the Bond role in the Sixties, he's at his peak of asskicking in these two movies. The double feature screens on Friday, April 25 at 7:30pm. Tickets are $11 for non-members, and available for pre-order through Fandango.

As I said the last time I was writing about a local Never Say Never Again screening, personally, I really like the movie a lot. Sure, the plot is a rehash of Thunderball; (but let's face it: that can actually be said of quite a lot of movies over the years!) sure, it may not have the Bond Theme for legal reasons, and sure, there are unfamiliar staff holding down the fort at MI6 (though I get a huge kick out of Edward Fox's quarrelsome M and Alec McCowen's cockney Q), but it does have SEAN CONNERY back in the role he had abandoned twelve years priorand looking fitter and more interested than he did in his last official picture, Diamond Are Forever. And it's got Barbara Carrera as one of the best (and best costumed) Bond villainesses ever (and a virtual prototype for Xenia Onatopp, another contender for that crown), Klaus Maria Brandauer as a superbly unhinged villain, Bernie Casey as a terrific Felix Leiter, a fight with Pat Roach, and stellar cinematography (all the better in glorious 35mm!) by the man who shot Raiders of the Lost Ark, Douglas Slocombe! And it's got the immortal line, "I wouldn't know. I've never lost." Yeah, I really love it.

It was also my own frustrating White Whale for a long time in one intangible, experiential aspect of my personal Bond collection: collecting big screen viewings. My first cinematic Bond experience as a kid was Licence to Kill, but over my years living in Los Angeles I managed eventually to rack up all the others in theatrical screenings. (Most far more than once.) But Never Say Never Again eluded me until 2012, when it played in New York while I just happened to be visiting that city. Unfortunately, I took the wrong train, and ended up missing the first half of the film. So when the opportunity came to see it at the New Beverly earlier this year, I went twice in one weekend! And now I guess I'm making up for lost time all these years, because I'm planning to go to this showing as well.

Incidentally, in other Never Say Never Again news (and more helpful news for people who don't happen to live within driving distance of Los Angeles), the Blu-ray, which has been out of print for some time and was commanding prohibitively steep prices last year, has recently come back into stock at Amazon through third part sellers for reasonable prices. I don't know if this actually means that it's back in print (doubtful), or just that someone uncovered some unsold stock. In any case, if you don't already own it on Blu-ray (and it's a shockingly good high-def transfer for a film EON would rather MGM bury somewhere and forget), you might want to grab it now while the grabbing is good, because in a few months the supply might dwindle and it might go back to being a $60 disc.

Empire Offers Details on the Spooks/MI-5 Feature Film

Empire (via Dark Horizons) has the first details on the new big-screen movie version of the long-running UK spy series Spooks (known in the U.S. as MI-5)and this picture of series star Peter Firth (The Hunt for Red October) reprising his role of spymaster Harry Pearce, and newcomer Kit Harrington (Game of Thrones) as MI-5 agent Will Crombie. Director Bharat Nalluri (a veteran of the series) told the magazine that the movie, Spooks: The Greater Good, will have a much larger scope than the TV show. "The canvas is huge on this," he said. "We’re running from Moscow to Berlin to London. It’s a story of the old world and new world.... We’ve got motorbikes, attacks on convoys, huge sniper sequences in the middle of London. It’s set piece after set piece." The movie is designed to be accessible to new viewers who haven't seen the show, so it will largely focus on new characters. Harrington will be joined by fellow newcomers Tuppence Middleton (Cleanskin, The Lady Vanishes), Jennifer Ehle (Zero Dark Thirty) and Elyes Gabel (Exit Strategy). The only other series veteran officially slated to return is Tim McInnerny as Harry's slippery colleague on the Joint Intelligence Committee, Oliver Mace, though Nalluri also hints that Matthew Macfadyen, who starred on the show's first two seasons and then made a surprise appearance in the series finale, might pop up as Tom Quinn. The movie's plot finds MI-5 mired in scandal after letting a terrorist escape during a routine handover, and Harry's career in shambles. "You could say that Harry is having a Nick Fury moment," says Nalluri, alluding to events in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. When Harry disappears amidst his agency's turmoil, it's up to Crombie to get to the bottom of the disappearance and find out what's really going on. The movie is scheduled for release in Britain in 2015; I really hope they get a U.S. distributor as well! The series was pretty excellent, and the prospect of it transitioning to a regular film franchise sounds like a very promising one to me.

Read my review of MI-5: Volume 1
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 2
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 3
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 4
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 5

Apr 13, 2014

Trailer: Le Carre's A Most Wanted Man

After two different trailers over the past year that popped up online and were immediately taken down, U.S. distributor Lionsgate finally released an official trailer for Anton Corbijn's John le Carré adaptation A Most Wanted Man. Unsurprisingly, it looks quite good indeed! This trailer doesn't give away as many major plot points as the illicit ones did (I suspect they were created as sizzle reels to attract distributors and not proper trailers), but sadly it also doesn't really show much of Willem Dafoe as Tommy Brue. I still want to know if he's going to play him with a Scottish accent! I suspect that they've made the character German for some reason. Clearly from the trailer, there are things that have been changed from the book. Sadly, A Most Wanted Man will mark one of the final lead performances from the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the actor's untimely death earlier this year is sure to cast a long shadow over the film for audiences. Gunter Bachman is a juicy role, however, and I cannot wait to see how Hoffman plays him. A Most Wanted Man opens in America on July 25.

Filming recently commenced on the next le Carré film adaptation, Our Kind of Traitor.

Apr 12, 2014

Second Season of The Equalizer Finally Coming to DVD!

As hoped for, apparently the upcoming big screen version of The Equalizer has spurred enough new interest in the original 1985-89 Edward Woodward TV series to at long last yield a DVD release of Season 2! Way back in 2008, Universal released The Equalizer: Season One on DVD. Fans hoped that release would be quickly followed by the other three seasons, but that never happened. All that time the feature version was in development (Russell Crowe was at one time attached when the film was set up at The Weinstein Company; now his American Gangster co-star Denzel Washington is starring for Warner Bros.), and word was Uni was waiting for the film to materialize. Now that's finally happening, but it's not Universal releasing the DVDs. Instead the title has been licensed out to VEI, distributed in the U.S. by Millennium. TV Shows On DVD reports that they've set a street date of August 26 for The Equalizer: Season Two, and an MSRP of just $29.99. (It's currently listed for pre-order on Amazon for a mere $20.99!) Additionally, on June 3 VEI will whet our appetites with a single-disc "Best Of" release. The Equalizer starred Woodward as former spy McCall, atoning for his past sins by helping those who found the odds against them. The extra-textual backstory was that Woodward had of course played a spy himself much earlier in his career in Callan. Guest stars on the show's second season include Kevin Spacey, Steve Buscemi, William H. Macy, John Goodman and Christian Slater.

In other Edward Woodward news, it's just come to my attention that Brian Clemens' 1998 revival of his hit Seventies action spy series, CI5: The New Professionals, starring Woodward as the tough leader of the updated team, was released on DVD in Australia back in 2012. The Region 4 release from the Madman label marks the first time that show has been available on DVD anywhere, so Woodward completists will want to take note.

Prisoner Episodes to Screen in Los Angeles

Los Angeles spy fans will have the rare opportunity to see episodes of The Prisoner on the big screen later this month. On Sunday, April 27, the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood (the best theater in town) will play two episodes of the groundbreaking Patrick McGoohan ITC spy show as part of their Art Directors Guild Film Society Series "Worlds Built to Order." Of all the Prisoner episodes, the one I'd most like to see on the big screen would be the series finale "Fall Out"... but I suppose the programmers have to consider people who have never seen any episodes, and it would be unfair to spoil the show's fantastic conclusion for them. And the episodes they've selected are not bad consolation prizes by any means! They will screen the series premiere, "Arrival," and the classic episode "The Schizoid Man" (an excellent choice for examples of the show's sublime art direction), in which McGoohan's Number 6 confronts his doppelganger, Number 12. But the rare opportunity to see Prisoner episodes on the big screen isn't all that audiences will see that night! There will also be a discussion of Sixties film design (illustrated by movie clips) with an illustrious panel including Nathan Crowley (Designer of the Dark Knight trilogy and the upcoming Interstellar), Alex McDowell (Designer of Man of Steel and Watchmen), and Arnold Schwartzman, O.B.E. (Oscar-winning Director and Graphic Designer, whose spy credits include the current UK Len Deighton paperbacks), and moderated by production designer John Muto (Species, Home Alone).

The episodes will be screened from a Blu-ray, but I suspect they'll look just fine. I saw some Avengers episodes projected from DVD at the Egyptian years ago, and even those looked okay.

The screening begins at 5:30pm on Sunday, April 27. Full details on the event can be found on the Egyptian's website, and tickets can be purchased through Fandango for $11.

Apr 11, 2014

Tradecraft: Summit Developing Female Spy Team Movie

According to Deadline, Summit Entertainment has tapped Twilight writer Melissa Rosenberg to "toughen up" an ensemble female spy script they've been developing for a long time. Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Mark Vahradian are producing. The project has a complex history. Deadline reports that it began life as a comedy called Blank Slate with a script by The Rock's Douglas S. Cook and David Weisberg. RED writers Erich and John Hoeber next penned a version under the title The Kiss Off. Rosenberg's mandate now is to change directions entirely, re-framing what was originally envisioned as a comedy into a gritty action movie along the lines of Salt. And it's currently untitled. There's no log line provided, only the news that the story focuses on a group of female spies. Late last year we learned that Rosenberg was working on a female-centered spy series for ABC called Clandestine. I'm not sure what's happening with that now; I know it's not in the mix as a fall pilot contender at the network, but since pilot season now basically lasts all year, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's dead. As I said then, while I know there are a lot of spy fans who will roll their eyes at Rosenberg's Twilight work, it bears remembering that her resume is actually a lot more diverse than just that franchise. Her TV credits include the short-lived spy drama The Agency as well as Dexter, The O.C. and one of my favorites, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Plus, there can never be too many female-centered spy movies!

Tradecraft: Pierce Brosnan's November Man Due in Theaters This August!

Here's some very exciting news! The Pierce Brosnan spy thriller November Man, recently acquired for U.S. distribution by Relativity Media, at long last has a release date. According to Variety, it will hit American theaters on August 27. With U.S./Russian tensions ratcheting up lately, it's a timely release for an espionage story involving Russian politics. Brosnan plays Bill Granger's ex-CIA operative Devereaux in an adaptation of Granger's novel There Are No Spies. In the movie, the trade reports, Devereaux is brought out of retirement to track down his former pupil (Luke Bracey) in a complex spy plot involving the Russian president-elect and high-level CIA officers. Former Bond Girl Olga Kurylenko co-stars, and Roger Donaldson (No Way Out, The Bank Job) directs. November Man has taken a very long road to the screen. Brosnan spent years trying to get it off the ground, and it looked finally set to start shooting back in 2012, but didn't end up going before cameras until 2013. Even then fans still wondered when they'd get to see it, since it was produced independently and didn't have a distributor lined up. But last month it got that distributor, and now it has a release date! And come August, we'll be seeing a film with the potential to launch a second Brosnan spy franchise.

Apr 10, 2014

Tradecraft: Noomi Rapace Circles Lead Role in Spy Thriller Unlocked

Deadline reports that the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Noomi Rapace, is in talks to star in a spy thriller called Unlocked for her fellow Swede, director Mikael Håfström (Shanghai, Escape Plan). According to the trade, the highly-touted Black List script by Peter O'Brien follows "a female CIA interrogator duped into getting a terrorist to provide key information to the wrong side. It puts her at the center of a plot to launch a biological attack in London." Rapace also has another spy movie in production, Child 44, alongside Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy's Gary Oldman and Tom Hardy, based on the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award-winning novel by Tom Rob Smith. Unlocked, an indie production, is being produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Georgina Townsley and Erik Howsam. Personally, I think Rapace is one of the most exciting actresses working, so I'm definitely looking forward to seeing her topline a spy film!

Apr 9, 2014

Tradecraft: True Detective Producers Developing Benedict Arnold Movie

Just as AMC launches it Revolutionary War spy series TURN (review here), Princess Pictures and Anonymous Content (the latter behind HBO's awesome True Detective) are hatching a plot of their own to bring the most notorious spy story of that era to the big screen. Deadline reports that they've acquired the screen rights to The Traitor's Wife by Allison Pataki, a bestselling historical novel focusing on Peggy Shippen Arnold, wife of the notorious turncoat Benedict Arnold. (Question for British readers here: In America, we learn in elementary school to loathe Benedict Arnold as a traitor. In the UK is he taught as a hero? He was, after all, the linchpin of a major British spy ring.) Pataki's presents Peggy as the woman behind the turncoat, alleging that the beautiful socialite half her husband's age was herself an agent working for (and formerly romantically involved with) British spy Major John André, and that it was she who first put Arnold in contact with Andre, the man who would become his controller. When Arnold was exposed and defected to the British, fighting for them against the fledgling Americans, his wife followed him. I haven't read the book, but this sounds like a pretty interesting spy story from the dawn of the United States.

Apr 8, 2014

TV Review: TURN (2014)

While there are a lot of spy shows on television right now, and a lot more in development, AMC delivers a different sort of spy drama in TURN. Different because of its unique setting, at least… but also pleasingly familiar in a lot of ways. In the ways that mean the most to aficionados of the genre.

TURN is set in 1776 against the backdrop of the American Revolution. The Continental Congress has declared independence, and an insurgency against the British rulers is raging. In the Long Island town of Setauket, farmer Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell) doesn’t want to pick sides. He wants to stay neutral, he wants the war to end, he wants to tend to his crops, and he wants to watch his baby son grow up and not have to fight. But fate has other plans for him. His complicated personal relationships and a rash decision to smuggle his cabbage across the Long Island Sound to Connecticut result in on offer from American patriot Ben Talmadge (Seth Numrich) to spy for General Washington, providing news of troop movements and other vital intelligence from within the British stronghold of New York. It’s the same sort of offer that Harry Palmer’s always grumbling about—the sort Abe can’t really refuse. Abe is given the option of spying for the patriots or jail time for his smuggling activities. But one gets the sense that there’s already a budding insurgent inside Abe’s soul, and it might not have taken blackmail to get him to take up the cause.

While Abe is married to Mary (Meegan Warner), who seems to genuinely care for him, he still carries a torch for his ex-fiance, Anna (Heather Lind)… but she’s now married to tavern owner Selah Strong (Robert Beitzel), a patriot sympathizer to whom Abe owes money. For Anna's sake, Abe finds himself stepping into an altercation with British soldiers in Selah’s bar. The altercation gets Selah sent to jail, but Abe’s father, Richard (Kevin McNally, The Contract), a British loyalist close to garrison commander Major Hewlett (Burn Gorman, Torchwood), manages to get Abe off the hook. Selah makes Abe promise to take care of Anna while he’s in jail, and it’s for her sake that he seems to have some patriot sympathies even before Talmadge presses him into service. The same smuggling that got him into that predicament with the Continental Congress also gets him into trouble with the Redcoats, and once again his father steps in on his behalf. The only way Abe can avoid jail time is by taking a public oath of loyalty to the Crown, which he does… even as he’s secretly embarking on his new career as a spy against the British.

The biggest flaw in the pilot is that it introduces so many characters that they’re a bit hard to keep track of and in some cases difficult at first to tell apart. (And I’ve only mentioned a handful of the many featured players!) But with all these characters, obviously, there’s plenty of human drama to drive the story even without the spy plot. But it’s the spy plot we’re here for, and in that respect TURN doesn’t seem as different as you might think. While the technology has certainly changed over the years, the basics of espionage and treachery have remained the same since the dawn of time, and spy fans will be thrilled to find the makings of a labyrinthine le Carre-style plot of spymasters and agents, assets and couriers, tradecraft and double-crosses, and even rudimentary gadgetry. (The British make use of a cool, if very basic, decoder.)

Once I figured out who was who, I found the pilot of TURN to offer highly compelling character-driven spy drama in a unique and fascinating historical context. Seeds are sewn for an exciting and harrowing story to come, with interesting characters on both sides of the conflict. I will definitely be tuning in again next week.

AMC has also put up a free digital prequel comic that serves as a good aid in figuring out who's who, and how the different characters relate to one another. Read it here.

Cool Poster For Tonight's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Hoping to capitalize on the mega success of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (in which the spy organization S.H.I.E.L.D. plays a huge role), Marvel has released a very cool poster image for tonight's new episode, "Turn, Turn, Turn," which ties in directly with events in the film. This excellent spy image (almost worthy of a le Carré cover!) was created by artist Mike Del Mundo. Marvel plans to release a new poster for each new episode, according to Bleeding Cool. The limited edition artwork can be purchased from the Marvel Store.

Events of The Winter Soldier should have a fairly huge impact on the future direction of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Hopefully they'll shake it up for the better, since the series has long felt like it was simply treading water waiting for this movie to come out so it could finally get on with its storyline. I guess that's one of the drawbacks of synergy.

I have a spoiler-filled review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (along with speculation about how its events will affect the TV show) coming soon.

In the meantime, if you haven't seen the movie yet, read my spoiler-free review here.

Read my review of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot here.

Read my S.H.I.E.L.D. Primer here.

Tradecraft: Violante Placido Joins Transporter TV Series

Violante Placido, the Italian beauty with an awesome name who stunned spy fans in Anton Corbijn's The American (review here), has joined the cast of the Transporter TV series for its second season. In the series based on the Luc Besson-produced neo Eurospy movies, Simon Vance stars in the role Jason Statham originated on the big screen, professional "transporter" Frank Martin. Deadline reports that Placido "will play Caterina Boldieu, a former French intelligence officer who first met Frank when he rescued her from captivity in North Africa. Two years on, the brilliant strategist has come to work for him." While the first season of Transporter aired in many countries in 2012, it did not air in America after Cinemax backed out as the U.S. broadcast partner. Earlier this year, however, we learned that TNT has picked up the series, and will air both the first season and the currently in-production second season starting this fall. It was previously reported that utility player Frank Spotnitz (whose spy credits include Cinemax's Hunted and Strike Back) had come on board to run the show's second season. Vance's contract had to be renegotiated because it had lapsed during the time it took to get a second season up and running. There's no official word so far on whether any other cast members from Season 1 will return for Season 2, but in my opinion Placido is a wonderful addition! Under Spotnitz's care, the show finally has the potential to live up to the films that spawned it.

Besson is separately developing a new trilogy of theatrical Transporter movies starring Ed Skrein and directed by Camille Delamarre (Brick Mansions), but that appears to be unrelated to the TV show.

Apr 7, 2014

Tradecraft: Jason Statham/Melissa McCarthy Spy Comedy Adds to Cast

Last year we heard about the somewhat unlikely pairing of Jason Statham and Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids director Paul Feig's "realistic spy comedy" Susan Cooper; now The Hollywood Reporter reports that Jude Law (Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows) is in talks to join the fun as well, and that Rose Byrne (X-Men: First Class) has also been cast. Feig has also tapped UK comedian and TV star Miranda Hart (Call the Midwife) for an unspecified role, according to Deadline.

Law can currently be seen in two excellent movies. He plays a supporting role in Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel, and delivers a tour de force lead performance in Richard Shepherd's Dom Hemingway. (Shepherd has a knack for coaxing truly masterful performances out of generally dramatic actors in his dark comedies; he previously did it for Pierce Brosnan in The Matador.) No details are given about Law's role in Susan Cooper, but with McCarthy and Statham as the heroes, it seems plausible that he could be up for a villainous turn. Despite his previous collaborations with McCarthy being broad comedies, Feig insists that Susan Cooper is a "realistic" take on a female James Bond owing more to Casino Royale (the '06 version, I mean) than Johnny English. Can that possibly be true? We'll find out on May 22, 2015.

Apr 4, 2014

Mini Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is Must-See Spy Entertainment

This is a short, spoiler-free review. This weekend I will post a longer review positively dripping with spoilers, because Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a crucial movie to discuss in analyzing shifting trends in spy entertainment. But the aspects that need to be discussed are the very ones which can't be until people have had a chance to see the film. Which, suffice it to say, all spy fans should. Whether or not you're a fan of Marvel movies or superhero movies or even saw the first Captain America film, if you're a fan of spy movies you'll find a lot to enjoy in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And it packs a lot of surprises, so the less you know going in, the more you might enjoy.

Directors Joe and Anthony Russo, whose previous experience was limited primarily to television, promised a film inspired by the paranoid spy thrillers of the Seventies. And they definitely deliver on that promise. From the opening moments, which quite specifically pay tribute to Marathon Man, to the presence of Robert Redford, whose appearance in the film as a S.H.I.E.L.D. overseer is far from the movie's only nod to All the President's Men or 3 Days of the Condor (the spy movie Winter Soldier owes the most to), to a Henry Jackman score filled with mournful trumpet fanfares, that Seventies spy influence is everywhere. But so is a Strong Sixties spy vibe. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is as close as we're ever likely to come to seeing those classic Steranko Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. comics faithfully translated to the screen (yes, far moreso than on Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television show or the Hasselhoff TV movie), and as in those comics, the nods to James Bond and The Avengers (and I'm not talking about the Marvel ones) are copious. In this film, you will see fantastical S.H.I.E.L.D. technology brought vividly to life and incorporated in larger-than-life action sequences. That's something I've wanted to see on screen ever since I first read those Steranko comics, and marveled at the way he heightened the already heightened world of 007 and U.N.C.L.E. as only comic books could. (Or so it seemed then.) But what's more impressive than merely accomplishing that feat is that the Russos manage to do so within the confines of a film that still feels fairly grounded and realistic. (Well, as far as superhero movies go, anyway.)

One of the many great things about how Marvel Studios has handled their cinematic universe is the way that they successfully incorporate totally different genres under the larger superhero umbrella. While these films all occupy one shared world, Thor: The Dark World is very clearly a fantasy film while the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy looks to be a space adventure. And Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a spy movie, through and through. The hero, Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) works for a massive spy agency, S.H.I.E.L.D., and though he dons a costume for his missions, he spends a surprisingly large chunk of the movie without it in order to blend in undercover. Taking its cues primarily from Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting's truly terrific run on the comic book, this is Captain America as a Tom Clancy techno-thriller. Besides Cap himself being an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., there are also spotlight supporting parts for the Marvel Universe's best known spies. Nick Fury, played once again by Samuel L. Jackson, gets his largest role to date in a Marvel movie, and even gets his own car chase. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson reprising her Iron Man 2 and Avengers role) also enjoys a significant amount of screen time. And S.H.I.E.L.D. agents familiar to comic book readers pop up everywhere, including Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), Agent 13 (Emily VanCamp) and Jasper Sitwell (Maximilliano Hernandez). Not all of them are treated with particular fidelity to the comics, but it's still cool to see them on screen.

Despite taking so many cues from spy films of the past, the most remarkable thing about Captain America: The Winter Soldier is that it ultimately proves to be the most contemporary espionage thriller imaginable, a spy film very much of and for our time right now. In this respect it echoes Skyfall to some degree (as well as the Bourne movies), but still maintains its own strong individuality. But that's what I have to discuss later, behind ample spoiler warnings. The purpose of this review is just to get the word out to any spy fans who weren't yet convinced by the non-stop TV spots that Captain America: The Winter Soldier, despite starring a superhero, is very much and unequivocally a spy movie, and one likely to strongly shape the direction the genre takes in the remainder of this decade. So go see it... then we'll talk.

Read my S.H.I.E.L.D. Primer here, an overview of Marvel's spy comics.

Note: Please keep comments on this post spoiler-free as well. Once I post that spoiler-filled follow-up review, that will be the place to discuss spoilers.

Mar 28, 2014

Tradecraft: Le Carre's Our Kind of Traitor Firms Cast, Starts Shooting

John le Carré's 2010 novel Our Kind of Traitor has taken a long journey from page to screen. Even before the book was published, we learned that Hossein Amini (who also contributed to, but wasn't ultimately credited on, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) was penning the script. In May, 2012, Australian director Justin Kurzel became attached, and by November Ewan McGregor (Haywire) was rumored to star as British academic Perry, with Jessica Chastain rumored to play his girlfriend Gail and Bond alums Ralph Fiennes and Mads Mikkelsen circling the plum roles of British spymaster Hector and enigmatic Russian gangster Dima, respectively. Then in October of last year, Kurzel departed to direct Michael Fassbender in Macbeth, and that Parade's End director Susanna White was replacing him. Additionally, Mikkelsen had had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. Would this film ever get made?

The good news is yes! In fact, filming began this week! But there have been further fluctuations with the cast. The only original member still involved is McGregor, who's still on board as Perry. While M and Le Chiffre may have moved on, there's still a Bond alumnus involved. The Hollywood Reporter reports that reigning Miss Moneypenny Naomie Harris will play Gail. Additionally, Stellan Skarsgård (The Hunt for Red October), Damian Lewis (Homeland), Jeremy Northam (Enigma) and Mark Gatiss (Sherlock) have all come aboard. (The latter two according to Variety and Yahoo! Movies, respectively.) What's unclear is exactly who's playing who.

All the trades seem in agreement that Skarsgård will play Dima, the Russian gangster who befriends Perry and Gail while they're vacationing, and recruits them to be his conduits to British Intelligence. But then things get murky. As far as I can tell, the only official word on Lewis's role is that he will play "a member of British Intelligence." Some outlets have taken that to mean that he'll be playing the book's most integral spook role, that of Hector, the role Fiennes had originally been circling. (Personally I always imagined Bill Nighy in that role.) The IMDb currently lists Lewis as spymaster Hector and Gatiss as his protegé, Luke. ("Little Luke," as he's frequently referred to in the book, which would make an odd match for the notably tall Gatiss.) But to readers of the novel, it would make more sense if those roles were reversed. With his spymaster experience on Sherlock, the 48-year-old Gatiss (easily capable of playing older) would make a credible Hector. And Lewis, at 43, would seem a more credible match for field man Luke. (It's also entirely possible that in the screenplay, Luke has the larger role since he ends up following the couple around Europe as they meet with Dima's entourage.) In the book, Hector is definitely older than Perry. Lewis and McGregor are the same age. Clearly, the part could have been altered (which certainly wouldn't be a first for a le Carré adaptation; a crucial role in The Looking Glass War comes to mind), but for the moment I'm betting that's how things shake out. So who does that leave Northam playing? Readers of the book, please chime in with your thoughts! The Ink Factory, the production company run by le Carré's sons, seems to like to play coy about who's playing who. We went through this same guessing game as the cast was assembled for Anton Corbijn's A Most Wanted Man.

No matter who's playing who, I'm very excited about this movie! Le Carré is still writing at the top of his game, and Our Kind of Traitor is a superb thriller. One gets the feeling that if le Carré classified his books by the same methods as Graham Greene, he might consider this one what Greene called one of his "entertainments." Which means that it should make a fantastic movie! Every bit as twisty, intelligent, and complex as we've come to expect from the author, it's also a gripping chase across Europe. According to Variety, Traitor will shoot for ten weeks "on location in London and its suburbs, as well as Finland, Bern, Paris, the French Alps and Marrakech." And lest anyone fear that the famous Hollywood trade had given up its classic turns of phrase since going online-only, I'd like to call attention to a tongue-twisting bit of Variety-speak. The trade describes this movie as a "contempo spy suspenser." Try saying that five times fast!

Mar 26, 2014

New Spy CD: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Sol Kaplan's score for Martin Ritt's 1965 classic le Carré adaptation The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is available in its entirety for the first time from Intrada. Making its CD debut, Kaplan's score is available in two versions. The first version, per Intrada's website, features a new mastering of the RCA original score album, recorded in London in October 1965 and presented intact from the original stereo album master tapes. Back then, it was common for composers to re-record their film music in album-friendly arrangements like this. The second version on this CD marks the world premiere of the film's actual soundtrack, recorded a month earlier and presented here from the original 35mm three channel scoring session masters. Two unused alternate cues round out the disc.

In keeping with the double music presentation, the disc comes with a reversible cover offering the original album artwork (right) on one side, and full color artwork on the other (above). The Spy Who Came in from the Cold soundtrack, running 28 tracks total, is available for $19.95 from Amazon or Screen Archives Entertainment or directly from Intrada.

Mar 25, 2014

Another Agent Gets Her Own Character Poster for Captain America The Winter Soldier

Marvel's sequel Captain America: The Winter Soldier looks to be the studio's most spy-filled film to date. In addition to comic book superagents like Black Widow (whose character poster we already saw), Nick Fury (ditto) and Maria Hill (all of whom already appeared in Marvel's The Avengers), the film also introduces Robert Redford (Three Days of the Condor) as shadowy S.H.I.E.L.D. maven Alexander Pierce and Emily VanCamp (Revenge) as comics' Agent 13, Sharon Carter. In the comics, Sharon Carter is a longtime S.H.I.E.L.D. field agent and the niece of Cap's WWII girlfriend Peggy Carter, who was played by Hayley Atwell in Captain America: The First Avenger. (Atwell since reprised the part in the Marvel One Shot short film Agent Carter and will again in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and a proposed Agent Carter TV series.) Sharon eventually becomes romantically involved with Cap herself. While many believed the blonde S.H.I.E.L.D. agent at the end of the first Captain America movie to be Sharon, actress Amanda Righetti was simply credited as "S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent." Befitting Redford's presence, Directors Joe and Anthony Russo have promised a tone for Winter Soldier akin to paranoid Seventies spy thrillers like Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View. Personally, I think the trailers and TV spots look great, and I can't wait! Captain America: The Winter Soldier opens on April 4.

Mar 24, 2014

Alfred Molina to Play Blofeld in New BBC Radio Drama of On Her Majesty's Secret Service

It's been rumored for a long time, but now an announcement in RadioTimes (along with a photo) makes it official: the next James Bond radio drama on BBC Radio 4 will be "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," and will air on Saturday, May 3. Toby Stephens (Die Another Day, Cambridge Spies) reprises the role of 007 for the fourth time, and Alfred Molina (The Company, Raiders of the Lost Ark) continues the BBC tradition of casting big name actors (Ian McKellen, David Suchet) as villains in these radio productions, playing Bond's arch-enemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld. This will mark only the second appearance of Blofeld in any medium since Never Say Never Again in 1983 when Max Von Sydow played the SPECTRE mastermind. (The other occasion was also on radio, when Ronald Herdman voiced the part opposite Michael Jayston's 007 in a 1990 adaptation of Ian Fleming's novel You Only Live Twice.) It's possible that might change soon, however, since after years of court battles over the ownership of the character, Bond filmmakers EON Productions have officially reclaimed the right to use the villain in films from Thunderball and Never Say Never Again producer Kevin McClory's estate. Molina would actually be an excellent choice, though I would personally hope for a more radical reinvention of the character should he ever face off on screen against Daniel Craig's Bond.

Stephens, who himself once squared off against Pierce Brosnan's 007, won't be the only Bond film alumnus involved in this production. Joanna Lumley (The New Avengers), who played one of the Piz Gloria girls in the 1969 film version of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, will return to the story in a different part. RadioTimes reports that Lumley will play the villainous Irma Bunt, but other sources have pegged her as Bond's wife to be, Tracy (the role Lumley's fellow Avengers heroine Diana Rigg played in the film). I suppose it's possible that she could play both roles; Lumley is certainly talented enough! The trade adds that Joanna Cassidy (The Fourth Protocol) will co-star. Additionally, Janie Dee is rumored to be returning as Miss Moneypenny. Martin Jarvis once again directs and stars as Ian Fleming, the narrator.

The previous BBC radio adaptations starring Toby Stephens have been "Dr. No," "Goldfinger" and "From Russia With Love."

A Great Sale on Flint Blu-rays Ends Today

Twilight Time titles rarely go on sale. In fact, they never have before. But to celebrate the boutique label's third anniversary, exclusive distributor Screen Archives Entertainment is offering $10 off a selection of their titles, including several spy releases! And since Twilight Time discs tend to be quite expensive, that discount might make all the difference if you've been holding off on buying these because they cost too much. The good news is that the sale includes the terrific, special features-laden Blu-ray releases of the James Coburn spy classics Our Man Flint and In Like Flint (discs featuring yours truly as a "talking head" expert in the new documentaries, hubris requires me to add!), and Twilight Time's very first offering, the only ever DVD release of John Huston's The Kremlin Letter. The Flint titles, normally a possibly prohibitive $29.95 apiece, are on sale for a more than reasonable $19.95 each, and The Kremlin Letter is just $9.95! The bad news is that I have been remiss as a dutiful spy blogger (damn that hubris, always coming back to bite me in the ass!), and have waited until the very final day of the sale to let you know. Which means that you only have until 4:00pm Eastern Time, or 1:00pm Pacific, to snag these amazing deals. To repeat, the sale ends today at 4pm Eastern! So act quickly. And while I may have blown all credibility as an impartial reviewer by admitting that I'm part of the documentaries on the Flint discs, I want to make it clear that I'm not just hawking these titles because of my involvement. It's more because they're truly fantastic releases of seminal Sixties spy spoofs. The new documentaries, exclusive to this release, are produced by John Cork, who co-produced all those excellent documentaries on the James Bond Special Edition DVDs and Blu-rays. And even though I'm in them, I have to admit I also learned a lot from each piece. On top of those new features, the discs also contain all the original special features previously available on DVD. (They don't, however, included the TV movie Our Man Flint: Dead on Target, which came with the DVDs.) These are truly essential spy Blu-rays.

Read more about the special features on Our Man Flint here.
Read more about the special features on In Like Flint here.
Read more about The Kremlin Letter here.

Order Our Man Flint here.
Order In Like Flint here.
Order The Kremlin Letter here.

Mar 19, 2014

Tradecraft: Aubrey Plaza to Star in Hal Hartley's Ned Rifle

Indie director Hal Hartley will complete his quirky espionage trilogy that began with Henry Fool (1997) and continued with Fay Grim (2007) with Ned Rifle, and Variety reports that Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation, The To-Do List) will star. According to the trade, Plaza will play Susan, a long lost flame of Henry Fool's. Thomas Jay Ryan, Parker Posey and Liam Aiken will return as Henry, Fay and Ned respectively, and James Urbaniak reprises his role as Fay's brother. In addition to Plaza, Martin Donovan, Karen Sillas, Robert John Burke and William Sage round out the new faces. (I guess that means no Jeff Goldblum, which is too bad. He was subtly hilarious as a gruff CIA man in Fay Grim.) Hartley partly financed Ned Rifle via a Kickstarter campaign, and here's the plot description he provided on that page:
In this swiftly paced conclusion, Henry and Fay's son, Ned, played by Liam Aiken, turns 18 and leaves a witness protection program. ("Rifle" is his maternal grandmother's maiden name—he's incognito). His mom has spent the last four years in military custody for alleged terrorist activities (see Fay Grim, 2007) and is transferred to a federal penitentiary to serve a life sentence. Ned, who has absorbed the Christianity of the well adjusted and devout family he has been living with, nevertheless sets out to find and kill his dad, Henry Fool, for the mess the man has made of Fay's life. But his aims are frustrated by the brilliant, sexy, and troubled Susan, whose connection to Henry predates even the great man's arrival in the lives of the Grim family.
Both Henry Fool and Fay Grim are available streaming on Netflix. 

Read my review of Fay Grim here.

Mar 18, 2014

Tradecraft: Zach Galifianakis and Jon Hamm Team Up for Spy Comedy

I know a lot of spy fans have long clamored to see Mad Men star Jon Hamm in a secret agent role for longer than his brief A-Team cameo, but I'm not sure if they were hoping it would be a comedy. But that's what they're going to get! He wasn't Matt Helm or Napoleon Solo, but The Hollywood Reporter reports that Hamm will soon team up with Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover) and director Greg Mottola (Superbad) for Keeping Up With the Joneses. Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald (Catch Me if You Can, Sneakers, The Tuxedo) will produce. According to the trade, "the script follows a type-A couple in an idyllic suburban neighborhood who discover that their new, seemingly perfect neighbors are undercover agents." Presumably Galifianakis is the snoopy Type A husband and Hamm is the undercover neighbor. That pairing certainly has potential! I've been a fan of Galifianakis (whose hilarious interview with President Obama went viral last week) since his stand-up days, and while his most famous role is a dramatic one, Hamm has been hilarious in his SNL and 30 Rock appearances (as well as in a cameo in Bridesmaids).

Tradecraft: State of Affairs Adds to Cast

The previously announced Kathrine Heigl CIA drama pilot at NBC, State of Affairs, is casting Heigl's Agency co-workers. According to Deadline, Heigl (Killers) stars as Charleston Whitney Tucker, a key CIA attaché who counsels the president on high-stakes incidents around the world. The trade blog reports that Adam Kaufman (Without a Trace) and Sheila Vand (Argo) will play Lukas Wright and Grace Hough, respectively, fellow CIA analysts on the President's daily briefing team, and Cliff Chamberlain (Chicago PD) will play quirky Agency linguist Brett Welker. I like that amidst all the spy dramas we've seen lately (and all the spy pilots contending for timeslots next season), this one explores a fairly unique aspect of Agency operations. While there are a lot of shows about field agents, not many follow the officers who brief the President on world events. There's plenty of room for drama at the intersection between Intelligence and politics. I'm curious to see how they play it.

Mar 17, 2014

I Spy Gets Yet Another DVD Release

It doesn't seem that long since the last time I Spy was released on DVD. (Though I guess it was actually six years ago) But apparently those three season sets from Image are now out of print. So for the fans who didn't buy the original individual snapper case releases, the later 3-volume slimline box sets (actually the first release ever in that now ubiquitous format), or the season sets in multi-disc flippers from Image, there's a new option. TV Shows On DVD reports that Timeless Media Group will release I Spy: The Complete Series, collecting all three seasons of the groundbreaking Robert Culp and Bill Cosby 1965-68 spy series on June 24. The 18-disc set will include a booklet and retail for $129.99 (though Amazon's got it listed for pre-order at $90.99). For that price, I hope it's a hell of a booklet! Or that the discs contain some new bonus material. (They better at the very least include the Culp commentaries from the various Image releases!) The last releases were priced at $12.99 a season, meaning you could have gotten the whole series then for around forty bucks, making this new one seem kind of egregious. (You can actually still get Season 2 new for that original price on Amazon, though third party sellers are charging premiums for Season 1 and Season 3 nowadays. But there are a few cheap ones still out there to be got if you act fast.) At any rate, I'm glad I snagged the season sets, even if they did employ some ill-chosen clip art of a 90s Ferrari for no apparent reason. Speaking of artwork, it's cool that the Timeless set is at least the first I Spy DVD release to take advantage of one of the coolest pieces of art ever created for a spy TV show... but then they botch it by cropping the original image (see below) and using only the actors' faces. Sigh. Extras have not yet been announced, so maybe it's possible there will be some new ones beyond the booklet.

Anyway, complain as I might about price point and artwork, it's good news that this seminal series will be back in print. Not only is it socially important for being the first non-ensemble series to feature a black actor in a lead role, but it's also notable among the many spy shows of that era for being the only one to shoot on location all around the world. Instead of the Paramount lot standing in for Eastern Bloc nations on Mission: Impossible or L.A.'s Griffith Observatory being identified as "somewhere in the Swiss Alps" on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (despite the obvious palm trees surrounding it), I Spy actually took you to the exotic settings it portrayed. Excepting the occasional special circumstances (like Scarecrow and Mrs. King's Season 2 European road trip), it remained the only American spy series to do that up until USA's Covert AffairsI Spy is essential viewing for both the easy camaraderie and crackling banter between Culp and Cosby and the stunning travelogue elements, so I'm glad to see it back in print at any price.

Mar 16, 2014

Tradecraft: Janssen and Grace Return for Taken 3; Forrest Whitaker Also Joins

Liam Neeson signed on last year to reprise his role as ex-CIA agent Bryan Mills in a third Taken movie; now Mills' wife and daughter are joining him. In separate stories, Deadline reports that Famke Janssen (GoldenEye) and Maggie Grace (Lockout) have closed deals for the threequel as well. If you're wondering which one of them gets taken this time, the answer might be neither. Bleeding Cool recently reported (via Dark Horizons) that Neeson himself told Jonathan Ross that "they called me up and I said 'I'll do it... but only as long as nobody gets taken.'" Apparently he wasn't kidding. He did promise, however, that neo-Eurospy maven Luc Besson and his series co-writer Robert Mark Kamen have concocted a "really, really good story." Whatever that story is, it apparently involves the addition of an acting heavyweight every bit Neeson's equal. Deadline reported in January that the great Forrest Whitaker (The Crying Game) is also in talks to join the returning gang. (My money would be on Whitaker as an antagonist.) The trade blog also reported that frequent Besson collaborator and Taken 2 helmer Olivier Megaton (Transporter 3, Colombiana) would return to direct Taken 3. It's too bad that Pierre Morel, who directed the excellent first movie, apparently couldn't be lured back to helm what Deadline claims will be the final film in the series. Morel has a much more impressive grasp of action filmmaking.

Mar 5, 2014

DVD Review: The Bourne Identity (1988)

I first saw the ABC two-part miniseries version of Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity shortly after reading the trilogy of books when I was in middle school. (Back then, you could still find miniseries on local stations, even years after their initial broadcast. What an age!) I remember mostly liking the first part, then being disgusted with the conclusion for how severely it deviated from the novel (review here), which I had loved, and which was fresh in my mind at the time. Little did I know that later a version would come along that deviated far more—far enough to make this one seem more or less faithful. Viewed now, the miniseries does feel pretty faithful, overall. Unfortunately, the ways in which it varies, while small, prove quite significant in terms of the story. Mostly, they come in the second part of the two-part, four-hour miniseries.

The first half remains generally faithful, and retains the basic setup of Ludlum’s novel. In the thrilling and highly effective opening moments (essentially identical to the opening of the book and the Matt Damon movie, because everyone knows better than to mess with perfection), we witness a man shot on the deck of a ship on a roiling, storm-ridden sea. The wounded man plunges into the Mediterranean, eventually washing ashore in a small coastal fishing town. He’s brought to the local doctor (Denholm Elliot), an alcoholic who sobers up long enough to nurse his mysterious patient back to health. The patient (Richard Chamberlain) cannot recall his own name or what he was doing that got him shot. Or anything. He’s got amnesia. The doctor picks up on some interesting clues, however. The man has spoken several different languages in his delirium, and appears to have undergone plastic surgery. Most strangely, he’s also got the number of a Swiss bank account implanted under his skin on microfilm. Following that clue, a recovered Chamberlain eventually heads off to Zurich where he discovers that his name appears to be Jason Bourne, and he’s got an account with millions of dollars in it. He also discovers that a lot of dangerous people are trying to kill him, and that he seems to possess some very deadly and very impressive skills of his own which we first witness in a well-staged elevator fight. In order to evade the police and criminals who appear to be after him, he’s forced to take a hostage—a beautiful Canadian economist named Marie St. Jacques (Jaclyn Smith). Together they follow a trail of clues about his identity (the best and most compelling section of the miniseries), and after he saves her life she transitions from being his hostage to his lover. The trail leads them into shootouts, car chases, and eventually to Paris.

I’m a fan of Eighties American miniseries. (Noble House is my favorite.) They have their drawbacks, for sure, but I appreciate those drawbacks as inherent in the format. You have to expect a certain degree of soapiness, for one thing, whether it’s present in the source material or not, and the price you pay for lots of big-name guest stars is the realization that some of them will be phoning in their performances for a quick payday in material they consider beneath them. Cheesy music is also a pratfall to be prepared for. (Though composer Laurence Rosenthal, who won an Emmy for this soundtrack, balances out the more hackneyed aspects of his score with at least an equal amount of rousing, genuinely effective bits.) But once you’re in the mood for those drawbacks, the plus side is usually self-evident. You get high production values for television, star-filled casts, and perhaps best of all, genuine location filming.

Budget does not seem to have been a particular concern on The Bourne Identity. It’s a pretty lavish production—especially for TV. Ludlum’s exotic European settings are brought vividly to life with actual location shooting, including plenty of scenic shots—the sort we only ever got in Eighties miniseries. (There’s certainly no time for lingering vistas in the quick-cut contemporary Bourne movies.) The action is generally well handled, including some exciting shootouts and car chases. In fact, during Bourne’s escape from assassins in the streets of Zurich, director Roger Young (Lassiter) expands upon the novel's chase to make it even more exciting than it was in the book. It’s got a Volvo slamming into a streetcar, the sort of stunt which to me (for some reason) typifies Eighties miniseries filmmaking. (Probably because my family and all the families I knew drove Volvos back then, even if I never witnessed any of them crashing into streetcars.)

Unfortunately, The Bourne Identity also suffers from more than its share of that Eighties miniseries cheesiness. At one point, Bourne runs on the beach followed by a gaggle of smiling little children, then they gather all around him laughing, and he starts laughing too. That’s where I draw the line with my own (generally high) tolerance for such cheese. I think it might even have been in slow motion. (I’m fairly certain of it, in fact.) No, that scene is not in the book. And, honestly, I have no idea why it’s in the miniseries! It doesn’t serve the plot other than to motivate a flashback, but it's not even needed for that. Maybe just to assure us that this character is really a good guy, even if it looks for a while like he might be an assassin? If that was the intention, then it backfires a little bit, because the moment comes off as kind of creepy instead.

There’s also a soft-focus love scene shot against a flickering fire. As Bourne and Marie start caressing and undressing (with the fire superimposed over their entwined bodies), one shot lingers forever on a hint of lacy fabric, and then it goes into slow motion as Bourne removes Marie’s dress to reveal some sort of lacy bodysuit that I associate with Joan Collins. And then… It. Goes. On. For. Ever! (To give you an idea of just how long, I've curated for your enjoyment an inordinately large number of screen shots.) Even though it’s too tame to get interesting (this was television, after all, in a less permissive era), the scene fills a full five minutes—at least! Then it concludes by cutely tilting down to an image of cherubs on the end of the bed. Yep, it does. I wouldn’t describe Ludlum’s book as a "bodice-ripper," but I guess that’s exactly what was expected of a Chamberlain miniseries after The Thornbirds? The thing is, as much as I complain about these deficiencies, I expect them in Eighties miniseries... and I don't know if I'd really want this one any other way.

The New York meeting of Treadstone 71, the elite intelligence cabal behind the whole Bourne operation, comes off as ludicrously laughable. Like in the book, they’re based in an upscale townhouse, but why isn’t explained in the miniseries, and it looks like an absurd setting for a high level intelligence meeting. Furthermore, the members are comical, and not for a second believable as any sort of high-level Juju men (to purloin a term from le Carré, not Ludlum). They’re all absurdly old, dressed in tweeds and bow ties or in grandma sweaters, and one of them insists on making his points by shaking a spatula.

Furthermore, the scene appears to be filmed on video, or at least a lower quality film stock than the rest of the proceedings, giving it the air of a high school play. Even the generally reliable Shane Rimmer, who lent his authoritative presence to so many mission control rooms in Bond movies, manages to appear blustery and… bad. He’s playing Alex Conklin, who has for some reason been transferred here from the CIA to the Army and made a General. And Conklin’s fate is just as altered from the book as it is in the Damon movie, making a faithful adaptation of the The Bourne Supremacy pretty much impossible, since the character plays such a large role in the sequel novel. I think that’s the part that annoyed me the most when I watched this as a kid, and I honestly can’t see why they made these changes, even today. It doesn’t benefit the narrative. And the follow-up novel had already been on shelves for a good year before this miniseries went into production, so I would have thought that the producers would take its events into account, laying the groundwork to adapt it should the first one prove successful. Right? I really can’t explain it. I’m not sure how successful the broadcast was, but there never was a sequel. And that’s too bad. Because as many gripes as I have about ABC’s Bourne Identity miniseries, I would have still loved to see an Eighties TV version of Supremacy. My imagination gives it the splendid opulence of another Hong Kong-set opus turned miniseries, Noble House. But, alas, that was not to be. (Neither was le Carré’s Hong Kong novel, The Honourable Schoolboy, turned into a miniseries in that decade, despite the success of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People.)

Further alterations from the book include Bourne’s motivation and his final confrontation with Carlos, the international assassin he eventually learns he was sent to trap. The explanation for Bourne’s mission is ludicrously simplified from the novel to the point where it makes no sense… but at least writer Carol Sobieski paid Ludlum’s brilliant conceit lip service, unlike the Matt Damon film, which simplified it even further. In the novel, Jason Bourne’s ultimate battle with real-life terrorist/assassin Carlos the Jackal ends in a stalemate, as it more or less had to since the ripped-from-the-headlines antagonist was still at large when it was written. By that point in the book, however, capturing Carlos was secondary, plot-wise, for Bourne to learning who Bourne himself really was. Since the answers the amnesiac has been seeking about his identity are simplified in the miniseries, I suppose it was necessary to give the Carlos plot a more definitive conclusion. (And one that effectively rules out an adaptation of the third book, as well, though ABC can’t really be blamed on that front as The Bourne Ultimatum had yet to be written.)

If you come to the 1988 version of The Bourne Identity searching for fidelity to Ludlum’s novel, you won’t actually find it—not after the first installment, anyway. (Though you will find a good deal more of it than is present in Doug Liman’s 2002 film version at least.) What you will find, though, is a pretty good Eighties spy miniseries, with high production values, awesome locations and decent action. You’ll also find a pretty good performance by Richard Chamberlain as Jason Bourne, and a satisfactory one from the beautiful Jaclyn Smith (Charlie's Angels) as Marie. There are also good supporting turns from genre veterans like Denholm Elliott (A Murder of Quality), Peter Vaughan (Hammerhead, Codename: Kyril) and Anthony Quayle (Strange Report, Espionage). (How on Earth isn’t John Rhys-Davies in this cast? Surely his agent must have been asleep!) And, honestly, if I weren’t such a big fan of the book, all that would probably be enough for me. This miniseries (largely thanks to those legit European locales) is also notable for coming the closest of any screen adaption we've seen yet (save for The Holcroft Covenent) to capturing the feel of a Ludlum page-turner in live action.

Warner Bros.’ DVD (which is now inconveniently out of print, and commands pretty steep prices on Amazon) isn’t ideal. For one thing, it comes in one of those old snapper cases, which were always inferior to Amrays and don’t shelve as easily. But that’s merely aesthetic. The main problem with the disc is that it’s been formatted for modern widescreen televisions (which is odd, since the DVD was released way back in the late Nineties, well before those were the norm) when the series was clearly originally framed for the standard 1.33:1 TV aspect ratio of its day. The weird faux widescreen framing on the DVD results in an oddly cropped image, clearly missing information at the top and bottom of the screen. So if you want to see the miniseries in its proper aspect ratio, you'll have to track down the old VHS. Other than that, however, the picture looks pretty good. The only extras are interactive menus, scene access, and subtitles, which don’t really count as extras. I'm surprised this hasn't been reissued following the success of the theatrical film series, but I hope that still happens. Because for Ludlum aficionados, it's certainly worth seeing.

The Ludlum Dossier
Read my book review of Trevayne (1974) here.
Read my book review of The Bourne Ultimatum (1990) here.
Read my book review of The Parsifal Mosaic (1982) here.
Read my DVD review of The Holcroft Covenant (1986) here.
Read my book review of The Janson Directive (2002) here.
Read my book review of The Bourne Supremacy (1986) here.
Read my book review of The Holcroft Covenant (1978) here.
Read my book review of The Sigma Protocol (2001) here.
Read my book review of The Bourne Identity (1980) here.