Dec 4, 2019

James Bond is Back in the NO TIME TO DIE Trailer!!!

It's here! The trailer we've been waiting so long for! And our first lengthy look Daniel Craig in action as James Bond since SPECTRE in 2015. (I'm a little surprised at how direct a sequel to that movie No Time To Die appears to be.) Check it out:

Dec 3, 2019

NO TIME TO DIE Character Posters

In anticipation of tomorrow's trailer debut, MGM have released six new character posters for No Time To Die. They include Ana de Armas as Paloma (above), her Knives Out costar Daniel Craig as James Bond (sort of channeling GoldenEye Pierce Brosnan in his combat gear), Lashanna Lynch as Nomi, Ben Whishaw returning as Q, SPECTRE's Lea Seydoux returning as Madeleine Swann, and Rami Malek as Safin. No Time To Die, the 25th official James Bond movie (and Craig's fifth) opens in April. The first trailer will debut tomorrow morning on Good Morning America.





First Trailer: Marvel's BLACK WIDOW Movie!

Black Widow will be the first of Marvel's superspies to get her own movie (preceding Shang Chi by a year), and today Marvel released the first trailer. And it looks pretty cool! I'm honestly surprised about how many images come directly from the various Black Widow comics over the years. Clearly, the character's first standalone film will contain some flashbacks to Natasha Romanoff's early days as a child raised to be a KGB assassin in Moscow's infamous Red Room. Scarlett Johansson has played the role in seven Marvel movies (most recently the all-time box office champ Avengers: Endgame), but this will be her first solo feature.


If you want to play catch-up on the comics and see where some of those images in the trailer come from, there are some collections out there that make that possible. (And even more are due next year in the lead up to the movie!) Three beautifully prodcued Marvel Premiere hardcovers collect this secret agent's most essential adventures in matching volumes. Black Widow: The Sting of the Widow presents the character's first appearance (in a silly costume in an issue of Iron Man) and earliest solo adventures from the early Seventies, after she'd gotten an Emma Peel makeover, ending up in the black catsuit with which she's still most closely associated. These early Black Widow comics will surely be of interest to collectors and hardcore fans, but casual fans looking for a great introduction to the character are better off picking up the second volume in the series, Black Widow: Web of Intrigue first.

Black Widow: Web of Intrigue offers an excellent primer on the character containing some of her classic appearances from the early Eighties, including an excellent comic drawn by my second-favorite spy artist (after Steranko), Paul Gulacy.  (Look for a cameo appearance by Michael Caine!) Black Widow: Web of Intrigue contains this and several other seminal tales of the red-haired Russian superspy. A third volume, Black Widow: The Itsy Bitsy Spider collects a pair of Marvel Knights stories from the late Nineties (including one by Queen & Country scribe Greg Rucka).

My two favorite modern-day Widow storylines have yet to receive the hardcover treatment, sadly, but are available in a pair of out-of-print trade paperbacks. (They'll also, happily, be collected in a new single volume next year!) Richard K. Morgan's Black Widow: Homecoming and Black Widow: The Things They Say About Her put the focus on espionage above superheroics and are among the very best Marvel spy stories of this century. Other recent Widow stories include Black Widow: Deadly Origin, Black Widow and the Marvel Girls, Black Widow: The Name of the Rose and Black Widow: Kiss or Kill. Most of the character's adventures with Daredevil from the 1970s are included in Essential Daredevil: Volume 3. as well as the color Daredevil Epic Collection: A Woman Called Widow.

Trailer for Bravo Reality Competition Show SPY GAMES

EW shared the first teaser today for Bravo's upcoming reality competition series Spy Games. According to EW, the show "features 10 contestants living together in a large house and attempting to gather intel on their fellow players while competing in challenges designed by three former spies, alumni of the CIA, Secret Service, and FBI. Players will be eliminated until one remains to claim a $100,000 prize." Apparently the format is in some ways based on a real-life World War II-era scheme known as Station S, "in which civilians were recruited and relocated to a 'remote estate' to be trained as spies." Spy Games, which is hosted by model and martial artist Mia Kang, premieres on Monday, January 20, 2020, at 10/9c. I tried to embed the video, but Bravo's own awful, awful video platform (which is really quite terrible) automatically plays a Real Housewives promo instead. So check out the trailer here.
Thanks to Jeff for the intel alert!

Dec 1, 2019

NO TIME TO DIE Trailer... Trailer!

The first actual movie footage of the next Daniel Craig James Bond movie, No Time To Die! Not the actual trailer yet (that's due on Wednesday), but the trailer for the trailer! And it looks amazing! Consider my appetite whetted. This premiered during football tonight in the U.S.

Nov 15, 2019

Third Jean Dujardin OSS 117 Spy Comedy Begins Filming!

A whole decade after the release of his second OSS 117 spy spoof, Lost in Rio (review here), Jean Dujardin (who picked up an Oscar for Best Actor in the interim) has at long last stepped back into the role that brought him international fame. Cameras began rolling this week on a third OSS 117 comedy, as announced by director Nicolas Bedos via video of a clapperboard on Instagram. OSS 117: Alerte rouge en Afrique noire (literally translated as OSS 117: Red Alert in Black Africa, which very much has the ring of a Jean Bruce novel title, but the ultimate English title is unlikely to be a direct translation of the French one) is scheduled to film in Paris and Kenya, with Bedos (La belle époque) taking the reins from Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), who helmed the first two. Hazanavicius and Bedos both contributed to the controversial 2012 sex comedy portmanteau The Players, which also starred Dujardin. Jean-François Halin, who co-wrote the first two OSS 117 comedies with Hazanavicius and went on to create the very funny, Sixties-set comedic spy series Au service de la France (known as A Very Secret Service in America, where it streams on Netflix) handles solo scripting duties on this one. Pierre Niney (Yves Saint Laurent), Fatou N'Diaye (Spiral), and Wladimir Yordanoff (currently appearing with Dujardin in An Officer and a Spy) are also among the cast.

Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, code name OSS 117, began life long before Dujardin. The redoubtable secret agent was the brainchild of French author Jean Bruce, and starred in a series of 234 novels (of which only a handful have ever been translated into English) beginning in 1949 (and thus predating Ian Fleming's more famous superspy). The books are serious spy stories, and the character was initially treated seriously on screen, too, beginning in the 1950s, but most famously in a series of five exceptional Eurospy movies directed or produced by André Hunebelle (Fantomas) between 1963 and 1968. (Read my review of my favorite, OSS 117: Terror in Tokyo, which presaged many James Bond moments, here.) Once notoriously hard to track down in English-friendly versions, Kino Lorber has now, happily, released a set of those five films on DVD and Blu-ray. For a more in-depth history of the character and links to my reviews of all the films, see my post OSS 117: An Introduction.

In 2006, Michel Hazanavicius revived the character in the hilarious send-up OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (review here). That first spoof was set in the Fifties and brilliantly parodied the early Bond films (with Dujardin partly channeling young Sean Connery) and Alfred Hitchcock movies... along with the prevalent casual racism and sexism of that era. The 2009 sequel was set in the late Sixties, spoofing the Sixties Bond movies and Eurospy movies.

A third film has been mooted ever since, always intended to be set in Africa. At one point it was supposed to be set in the Seventies and parody blaxploitation movies, Jason King, and Jean-Paul Belmondo action flicks, as well as the Roger Moore Bond movies (and fashions) of that period. Now, presumably since so much time has passed, Premiere reports that OSS 117: Alerte roughe en Afrique noire will be set in the 1980s. While I'm sorry we won't see Dujardin sporting Peter Wyngarde-style fashions, the Eighties setting will still provide ample opportunity to spoof the Moore Bond films and Belmondo, whose own African spy epic The Professional was made in 1981.
Thanks to Jack for the red alert on this one!

Oct 14, 2019

USA Shares Amazing TREADSTONE Clip on Eve of Premiere

USA's Bourne spin-off series Treadstone premieres tomorrow night. While I've been surprised by the paucity of advertising in the real world, the network has released many, many clips online over the past month--enough, seemingly, to create a fairly good assembly cut of the pilot episode! But they've saved the best for last. A clip with an extended fight scene and a chase across European rooftops shared today by the International Spy Museum really demonstrates that they appear to have captured the tone and feel of Doug Liman's 2002 movie The Bourne Identity. (The lead actor also seems to have been cast at least partly for bearing a slight resemblance to Matt Damon.) This has me very excited to sample the series tomorrow night! Watch the clip here.

Read my review of the novel that started it all, Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity, here.

Treadstone premieres on Tuesday, October 15, at 10/9c on USA.

Oct 13, 2019

John le Carré Teases New Smiley TV Series, Potentially Starring Jared Harris

In a great profile in Saturday's New York Times promoting his new novel Agent Running in the Field, author John le Carré  reveals that his sons' production company, The Ink Factory, are plotting an epic new TV series about his most famous character, spymaster George Smiley. "According to le Carré," asserts the article's author, Tobias Grey, "The Ink Factory now plans to do new television adaptations of all the novels featuring Cold War spy George Smiley - this time in chronological order. 'That means that if you actually go back to the first big conspiracies in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, you've got to consider how Smiley ages and how young he was at that time,' le Carré says. That would mean finding an actor who can play younger than the Smiley incarnated by Gary Oldman in the film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Le Carré says that his sons are interested in casting the British actor Jared Harris, whose performance they all admired in the recent TV mini-series Chernobyl." Harris (The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Allied), interestingly, was originally cast in Tomas Alfredson's 2011 le Carré  adaptation Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as Circus (MI6) chief Percy Alleline, but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts with Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, in which he played Professor Moriarty. Toby Jones took on the Alleline role, and embodied the character perfectly. Besides Oldman, Smiley has been played in the past by Denholm Elliott, James Mason, Rupert Davies, and, most memorably, Alec Guinness in two famous BBC miniseries.

A new miniseries version of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold was first announced back in 2016 as a follow-up to the hugely successful le Carré miniseries The Night Manager. Le Carré worked with the producers and writer to crack their take on the material, and that work led him to write a whole new sequel to the book, A Legacy of Spies, but did not yield a series. Instead, The Little Drummer Girl (2018) proved to be the next le Carré miniseries, but work continued on The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Now, apparently, that project has grown in scope and morphed into this one. I've long craved a long-form TV series about le Carré's Circus, devoting a season to each book and dropping in the short stories from The Secret Pilgrim at the appropriate historical moments and, most crucially, finally giving us a television version of the (to date unfilmed) middle book in the Karla trilogy, The Honourable Schoolboy. This sounds like it could turn out to be exactly that! (Though hopefully they'll begin at the real beginning with Call For the Dead, and not The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.) It's a most tantalizing prospect!

Read my George Smiley Primer here.

Oct 5, 2019

First Poster for NO TIME TO DIE, Daniel Craig's Last Outing as James Bond

I've never quite understood the concept of "James Bond Day" (or "Global James Bond Day?"). But maybe that's because since I was 11, I don't think there's been any day I haven't thought about James Bond! Maybe there are people out there who need reminding? Anyway, to mark this year's James Bond Day, MGM and EON have released the first poster for Daniel Craig's final outing as Bond, No Time To Die. No Time To Die, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga and starring Craig, Rami Malek, Léa Seydoux, Lashana Lynch, Ana de Armas, Jeffrey Wright, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, Billy Magnussen, David Dencik, and Rory Kinnear, opens in the U.S. on April 8, 2020.

Oct 4, 2019

Tradecraft: Jamie Bell Joins Clancy Adaptation WITHOUT REMORSE

It looks like this time, Paramount's decades-held hopes of making a movie out of Tom Clancy's epic saga Without Remorse are really going to happen! Last month, Variety reported that Jamie Bell will join the previously announced Michael B. Jordan (playing frequent Clancy hero John Clark) in the movie from director Stefano Sollima (helmer of the very Clancy-esque Sicario: Day of the Soldado). Bell will play a familiar character from the Tom Clancy universe, CIA Deputy Director of Operations Robert Ritter. Henry Czerny memorably essayed the role in 1994's Clear and Present Danger, in which Willem Dafoe played Clark.

Today, several more actors joined the cast, making this Without Remorse more and more of a reality! (Forgive my incredulity. It's just hard to believe this movie is finally happening after literally decades of development!) Deadline reports that Luke Mitchell (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Jacob Scipio (Bad Boys For Life), Cam Gigandet (Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden), Jack Kesy (12 Strong), and Todd Lasance (Spartacus) are all signing on as members of Clark's SEAL team. Nearly all of them have played special forces operators before. Additionally, Jodie Turner-Smith (The Last Ship, The Neon Demon) has been cast as a potential love interest for Jordan.

According to the trade, "Without Remorse is the origin story of John Clark, played by Jordan, a Navy SEAL-turned-CIA ops officer, who seeks revenge after his girlfriend is killed by a Baltimore drug lord." That sounds more or less like the novel, so if this capsule summary comes from the studio (and not just a Deadline writer Wikipedia-ing the book), then perhaps we can expect a fairly faithful adaptation. What I'm guessing we won't get is a period piece. I doubt Clark will serve in Vietnam in this version; I suspect they'll make it contemporary. (This was the plan back when Tom Hardy was supposed to play Clark in a series intended to cross over with Chris Pine's intended Jack Ryan franchise.) Paramount are very eager to launch a new film franchise with this movie, already eyeing Clancy's Rainbow Six as a follow-up. Also unclear is whether there will be any crossover with Amazon's Jack Ryan TV series, which hails from the same producers. The Clark character has been kept out of that series so far because of the percolating film franchise, but that doesn't necessarily preclude a cameo from John Krasinski in Without Remorse....

Without Remorse is slated to open September 18, 2020.

Sep 24, 2019

Trailer for EON's New Spy Movie THE RHYTHM SECTION

On Friday Paramount dropped the trailer for the second most anticipated EON Production of 2020, The Rhythm Section! The Rhythm Section has been delayed several times (first when star Blake Lively suffered an on-set injury), but here's proof that it's finally really coming... and it looks great! While an adaptation of Mark Burnell's 1999 spy novel would be something for spy fans to be seriously excited about anyway, it's even more exciting because it hails from Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson's EON Productions, the producers behind the James Bond movies. While EON has been venturing outside the realm of 007 lately, this marks their first new foray into the genre that defined them—and that they defined, under the auspices of first-generation Bond producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. And it's not only a new EON spy movie; it's potentially the start of a new, female-fronted EON spy series! (Burnell wrote four Stephanie Patrick thrillers.) Will Lively end up being the Sean Connery of a long lasting Stephanie Patrick film series?

The books are quite good, and remind me of a female Callan. Like Callan, Stephanie ends up working as an assassin for a particularly unpleasant boss in an ultra-secret branch of British Intelligence. And like Callan, she doesn't do this work by choice. Instead she's forced into it by that unpleasant boss. But she's also got very personal motivations (motivations he ruthlessly manipulates) for her initial mission: an opportunity to get revenge on the terrorists responsible for the death of her parents and siblings. Burnell's book is very dark and very serious, and judging from this trailer the movie will be true to that tone. In fact, the movie (directed by Reed Morano and scripted by Burnell himself) looks quite faithful to the book overall, though it's obvious that the ending has been changed, which was pretty much a given. (The villains' plot in the '99 book had eerie similarities to 9/11, which simply wouldn't play in today's world.) And it looks great!

The first of two major EON spy movies coming out next year, The Rhythm Section opens on January 31, 2020. It stars Blake Lively (The Age of Adaline), Jude Law (Spy), Raza Jaffrey (Spooks/MI-5), and Sterling K. Brown (Black Panther).

Sep 16, 2019

Movie Review: SAIGON: YEAR OF THE CAT (1983)

UK TV movie Saigon: Year of the Cat might be most notable today for what many of its key personnel went on to do, but it’s worth a watch as a sad historical spy movie, and does a good job conveying a strong sense of its titular time and place on a low budget. Frederick Forrest (The Conversation) plays CIA officer Bob Chesneau, stationed at the U.S. embassy in Saigon during the final weeks before the city fell to the North Vietnamese. Judi Dench (a decade before GoldenEye) plays the English bank employee, Barbara Dean, who falls in love with him at this inopportune time. The versatile Stephen Frears (who has a strange Bond connection, in that he was attached to direct the Die Another Day spinoff movie, Jinx, that ultimately fell apart) directs, from a script by playwright David Hare (who went on to write the excellent Page Eight spy thrillers). Frears frames the film as a star-crossed love story, opening with a retro-style title card and dramatic music that seem intended to evoke Casablanca, but the spy plot is far more interesting.

Chesneau receives intelligence from a good local asset, whose past record is unblemished, that the North will invade the city within three weeks. He tries desperately to convince his boss of the intel’s validity, but the station chief toes the line of official U.S. policy, insisting that an invasion is not imminent and refusing to make obvious evacuation preparations for fear of setting off a panic in the city. When the invasion does, inevitably, come, the evacuation is rushed and haphazard. Chesneau tries desperately to arrange to get all of his assets out of the country, which he had promised in good faith to do. Since the evacuation is a matter of historical record, it doesn’t seem too much of a spoiler to say that that doesn’t happen, and scenes of file cards with agents’ photos on them left in the embassy for North Vietnamese soldiers to discover, or bands of loyal South Vietnamese assets waiting nervously at their pre-appointed rendezvous points for American helicopters that will never come carry a heartbreaking, le Carré-esque sense of doom. 

The love story, of course, is similarly doomed, as Barbara does what she can to get her own local bank employees out before the Communist influx, even attempting to offer up her own spot on a helicopter. While the movie is mainly talky and stagey (not totally surprising, coming from a playwright and made for Thames Television), it becomes surprisingly exciting in its final act. Hundreds of extras swarm the streets as Vietnamese refugees try in vain to gain access to the U.S. embassy, escaping personnel pack themselves onto helicopters, and embassy staff furiously push as many documents as they can into industrial shredders and furnaces. There is nothing groundbreaking in Saigon: Year of the Cat, but it’s still a fairly compelling drama set against a fairly unique historical backdrop. Roger Rees (If Looks Could Kill), Wallace Shawn (The Princess Bride), and E.G. Marshall (The Poppy is Also a Flower) round out the impressive cast.

Saigon: Year of the Cat is available on a quality DVD from Network in the UK, and in America, where it seems to be in the public domain, on various budget DVDs and compilations, as well as streaming on Amazon (free for Prime members).

Sep 11, 2019

Expanded Score CD for Danny Elfman's MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996) Out this Week from La-La Land

Years in the making, La-La Land Records finally made the announcement today that Mission: Impossible fans have been craving: an expanded score CD featuring Danny Elfman's amazing music from the first Tom Cruise Mission movie! The 2-disc limited edition soundtrack to the 1996 Brian De Palma film (review here) will contain the original score album assembly, mastered by Patricia Sullivan, on Disc 1, while Disc 2 (per the label) "showcases the remastered film score, expanding the original album release by more than twenty minutes. Produced by Dan Goldwasser and Neil S. Bulk and remastered by Mike Matessino, this powerhouse 2-CD set is limited to 3000 units and features exclusive liner notes by writer Jeff Bond. The sleek art direction is by Dan Goldwasser." It should be noted that, like the original score album, this release will not contain the version of Lalo Schifrin's "Mission: Impossible Theme" by U2's Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, which was originally included on the entirely different album Mission: Impossible - Music from and Inspired by the Motion Picture (remember those annoying "From and Inspired by" albums so popular in the late Nineties?), and also issued as a single. Elfman's music, however, frequently incorporates Shifrin's theme, too, as well as his distinctive cue "The Plot" from the Sixties TV show. Missing from the track list for the new release are the three Elfman tracks originally included on that "From and Inspired by" album, but my guess is that that those tracks contain music already inclued in other tracks on the original score album. (Can anyone confirm or refute that?) Last year, Mondo released Elfman's Mission: Impossible score on vinyl, but that release contained no extra music.

Strictly limited to 3000 units, La-La Land's Mission: Impossible - Limited Edition soundtrack retails for $29.98. It's available to order now, and starts shipping later this week on September 13.

Here's the full track listing from the La-La Land website:

DISC 1 ORIGINAL POINT MUSIC SCORE ALBUM
1. Sleeping Beauty(†) 2:33
2. Theme From Mission: Impossible(§) 1:07
    Composed by Lalo Schifrin, arr. Danny Elfman
3. Red Handed(§) 4:23
4. Big Trouble 5:37
5. Love Theme? 2:24
6. Mole Hunt 3:05
7. The Disc(†) 1:58
8. Max Found 1:05
9. Looking for “Job”(†) 4:40
10. Betrayal 2:59
11. The Heist(†) 5:49
12. Uh-Oh! 1:31
13. Biblical Revelation 1:37
14. Phone Home 2:28
15. Train Time(§)(†) 4:15
16. Ménage à Trois 2:57
17. Zoom A 1:54
18. Zoom B(§) 2:58
TOTAL DISC TIME: 53:20

DISC 2 FILM SCORE
1. Sleeping Beauty**(†) (Film Version) 3:03
2. Theme From Mission: Impossible(§) 1:07
    Composed by Lalo Schifrin, arr. Danny Elfman
3. Red Handed** (†/§) (Film Version) 6:21
4. Big Trouble** (Film Version) 7:01
5. Lonely March* 0:54
6. Mole Hunt** (Film Version)/Escape* 3:35
7. Looking For “Job”(†) 4:44
8. Max Returns*/Max At Last* 1:30
9. Max Found 1:05
10. The Disc(†) 1:59
11. Disavowed*/Worse Than You Think** (†) 2:48
12. Langley*(§) 1:01
13. The Heist** (†) (Film Version) 5:05
14. Uh-Oh! 1:31
15. Biblical Revelation 1:36
16. Phone Home 2:28
17. Betrayal** (Film Version) 3:01
18. Love Theme? 2:24
19. Train Time** (Film Version)/Is He?* 5:33
20. Ménage à Trois 2:57
21. Zoom A** (Film Version)/Zoom B**(§) (Film Version) 5:21

ADDITIONAL MUSIC
22. Red Handed**(†) (Alternate Ending) 1:46
23. Disavowed* (Alternate)/Worse Than You Think*(†) (Alternate) 2:59
24. Zoom A** (Alternate)/Zoom B**(§) (Alternate) 5:19
TOTAL DISC TIME: 75:15

TOTAL ALBUM TIME: 128:35

* previously unreleased
** contains previously unreleased material
§ contains “Theme From Mission: Impossible” by Lalo Schifrin
† contains “The Plot” by Lalo Schifrin

Aug 22, 2019

Tradecraft: Netflix Orders Elvis Spy Series

It's always struck me as so weird that Elvis never made a spy movie. I mean, the King of Rock and Roll made movies in just about every other genre, throughout the whole spy craze of the Sixties! And even worked with lots of spy actresses, like Ann-Margaret (Murderers' Row, Viva Las Vegas) Nancy Sinatra (Last of the Secret Agents, Speedway), and Ursula Andress (Dr. No, Fun in Acapulco). But now, according to Deadline, Elvis will finally get to be a spy... sort of. At least an animated version of him will star in a Netflix series, Agent King (no, not Jason, I'm afraid!), which explores the premise what if the actual Elvis Presley were actually a secret agent? According to the trade, in the series, created by Elvis's widow Priscilla Presley and singer/songwriter John Eddie, "Elvis trades in his white jumpsuit for a jet pack when he is covertly inducted into a secret government spy program to help battle the dark forces that threaten the country he loves — all while holding down his day job as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll." Mike Arnold, who knows a thing or two about animated spy series, having written for Archer for six seasons, will be the showrunner.

Trailer: THE REPORT

Amazon Prime debuted the first trailer today for their upcoming film The Report,  Scott Z. Burns' thriller/expose about torture in the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program in the aftermath of 9/11. Burns is no stranger to the subject of spies and spy agencies, with writing credits on The Bourne Ultimatum (review here), The Informant!, and next year's Bond movie No Time to Die. He also penned an unmade version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. when Steven Soderbergh was attached to direct. Soderbergh is a producer on The Report, which stars Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Michael C. Hall, Tim Blake Nelson, Corey Stoll, Maura Tierney, and The Americans' Matthew Rhys. The Report premieres in theaters November 15th, and on Prime Video November 29th.

Aug 20, 2019

At Last, BOND 25 Has a Real Title!


Finally, we can stop referring to the fifth Daniel Craig James Bond movie as "Bond 25!" (The moniker lasted far further into production than usual for the 007 films, which have traditionally been known in pre-production as Bond # ever since the producers ran out of Ian Fleming titles.) Now we can start calling the next movie No Time to Die. It has a similar ring to A Reason to Die (the title that was reportedly rejected on the eve of the Bond 25 press conference due to objections from MGM), but more history for the Bond production team.

No Time to Die is a title previously used (in some territories, including the UK) by original series producer Albert R. Broccoli on one of his pre-Harry Saltzman collaborations with producer Irving Allen, the 1958 WWII drama known in the U.S. as Tank Force. That No Time to Die was directed by Terence Young (who would obviously go on to help shape the Bond franchise, directing three of the first four Sean Connery movies), co-written by Richard Maibaum (who would receive writing credits on a dozen 007 titles), shot by Ted Moore (who would shoot many Bond movies, establishing the series' visual style for decades), and co-starred Luciana Paluzzi (Thunderball) and future "Goldfinger" lyricist Anthony Newley. Additionally, Syd Cain, who would become a fixture in the 007 art departments, had an assistant art director credit. So the title is rich with EON-adjacent history, in a way similar to GoldenEye's and The World Is Not Enough's close associations with Ian Fleming history.

Unfortunately, those rich associations don't stop the title from sounding just a little average, redolent of Brosnan-era word mash-ups like Die Another Day and Tomorrow Never Dies. Personally, I think I preferred A Reason to Die, but we'll see how No Time to Die fits the story. And, of course, how it fits into the lyrics of a hopefully awesome song, which is the true test of Bond movie titles!

I'm surprised the title treatment didn't line up the O's in "No" and "to" to make a "007" (as seen on the Quantum of Solace and Casino Royale posters), but it does use a font that's been seen over the years (in a few variations) on many spy titles in film and print, including several James Bond editions.

Aug 12, 2019

Trailer for USA's Bourne Spin-Off Series, TREADSTONE

USA has released the first trailer for their upcoming Bourne TV spinoff, Treadstone.



Treadstone is the long in the works TV series derived from the Matt Damon Bourne films and based on the secret super assassin program originated in Robert Ludlum's novel The Bourne Identity (review here).

The project has been percolating in one form or another ever since 2010, when CSI creator Anthony Zuiker attempted a Treadstone show for CBS. But when Tony Gilroy came aboard to direct the theatrical spinoff The Bourne Legacy, he didn't want a competing version of the mythology on TV, and made it a condition of his directing that the nascent show be killed. The new incarnation comes from Heroes creator Tim Kring, who produces along with Captivate Entertainment's Ben Smith. Smith's fellow Keeper of the Ludlum flame at Captivate, Jeffrey Weiner, executive produces (as he does on the Bourne films) along with Ramin Bahrani, among others. Acclaimed Iranian-American helmer Bahrani directs the pilot. Bahrani has directed such indie features as 99 Homes and Chop Shop, the latter of which late film critic Roger Ebert famously anointed the sixth best film of the 2000s. More recently Bahrani directed HBO's Fahrenheit 451, with Michael B. Jordan and Sophie Boutella.

Seasoned spy veteran Michelle Forbes (Berlin Station, 24) leads the cast in what sounds like a role similar to Joan Allen's in the movies as "Ellen Becker, a savvy CIA veteran trying to balance the demands of work and family while investigating a conspiracy with international implications." Patrick Fugit (First Man), Michael Gaston, (Jack Ryan) Shruti Haasan (a Bollywood star), Brian J. Smith (Sense8), Tess Haubrich (Alien: Covenant), Jeremy Irvine, Omar Metwally, Tracy Ifeachor, Hyo Joo Han, Gabrielle Scharnitzky and Emilia Schüle also star.

It's clear that Kring's Treadstone takes some liberties with the versions previously established in both the books and the films, making all of the programs' assets virtual amnesiacs, in that they have been brainwashed not to realize that they are sleeper agents until the moment they are awakened. While this does somewhat undermine Bourne's own special circumstances, it also feels like a clever way to really cash in on the brand and give audiences an experience similar to what they've seen in the movies.

In Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity (review here), Treadstone 71 was the shadowy intelligence group that David Webb worked for (based out of a New York brownstone), with whom he created and assumed his more famous identity as assassin Jason Bourne. Nebulous and illegal though it may have been, in the book Treadstone's motivations were basically heroic. The Treadstone of the movies, which creates super-assassins through brainwashing and later drugs, is a much more sinister organization. It was also, I believe, officially shut down by Brian Cox's character, Abbott, in The Bourne Supremacy, and then reconstituted as Outcome by Ed Norton's character in The Bourne Legacy (review here). It will be interesting to see if the TV series mentions Outcome at all, and how closely it sticks to the mythology established in the movies.

Treadstone is not only keeping alive on the small screen, but also in print. Earlier this year, the Ludlum estate has commissioned author Joshua Hood to pen the first book in a new Treadstone literary series, The Treadstone Resurrection, which will be in stores this fall—I assume about the same time the show premieres on USA.

Jul 28, 2019

Tradecraft: William Boyd's Cold War Berlin-Set SPY CITY Series Gets Revived with Dominic Cooper

Several years ago, around the same time that Olen Steinhauer's Berlin Station was announced, another Berlin-set spy series from another major novelist was also announced: William Boyd's Cold War-set Spy City. But it sadly never came to be at that time. Now, five years later, though, it's finally happening!

Originally set up as a 10-part series at Gaumont, Deadline reports that Boyd's vision will finally come to life as a 6-part series for Miramax and Germany's H&V Entertainment and ZDF. And it will star a face who's become quite familiar to spy fans--Dominic Cooper. Cooper starred as Tony Stark's father, Howard Stark, in Captain America: The First Avenger, and again on the excellent late 1940s-set spy TV series Agent Carter. He also played Ian Fleming in the BBC miniseries Fleming. He'll continue his run of period spy shows in Spy City by playing a British agent dispatched to Berlin in 1961 to root out a traitor in the UK Embassy or among the Allies, shortly before the construction of the Berlin Wall. "The city, declared by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev as 'the most dangerous place on earth,' is teeming with spies and double agents. One wrong move could trigger the looming threat of nuclear war as American, British and French troops in West Berlin remain separated from their Soviet and East German counterparts by nothing more than an imaginary line."

William Boyd is the author of the James Bond continuations novel Solo, as well as the excellent generational spy saga Restless  (which the author adapted into a miniseries with Agent Carter's Hayley Atwell) and what might very well be my favorite novel so far this century, Any Human Heart. That one's not a spy novel, though it does feature some spying, and Ian Fleming as a minor character. It was also turned into a miniseries with Atwell, as well as Spooks' Matthew Macfadyan and Casino Royale's Tobias Menzies as Fleming. There are a lot of odd connections forming here! An intelligence analyst might even discern some sort of pattern. Can an announcement of Ms. Atwell co-starring in Spy City be far off? So far, Johanna Wokalek (The Baader Meinhof Complex) and Leonie Benesch (The Crown, Babylon Berlin) have been announced besides Cooper. Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Alexandre will direct.

When the project was first announced in its original, slightly longer format, Variety reported that Spy City "sheds light on the personal lives of spies and focuses on a group of men and women of different nationalities and backgrounds who are in the 'hornet’s nest' of divided Berlin." The Hollywood Reporter added, "Spy City is set in the hottest period of the cold war, when Berlin was the center of the global chess game between the powers of East and West. The series is billed as an intimate look at the men and women who risked everything to become spies."

In addition to being an internationally acclaimed novelist, Boyd is also a successful screenwriter. He co-wrote Richard Attenborough's Oscar-nominated biopic Chaplin (1992), adapted other people's novels into Mister Johnson (1990, starring Pierce Brosnan) and Sword of Honor (2001, starring Daniel Craig), and adapted his own novels A Good Man in Africa (1994, starring Sean Connery and Diana Rigg) and Stars and Bars (1988, not starring any James Bond, but starring Daniel Day-Lewis, which is also pretty good), among many other credits. He wrote and directed The Trench (1999), which also starred Craig. Besides Solo, his recent novels include the WWI espionage tale Waiting for Sunrise, the pharmaceutical thriller Ordinary Thunderstorms, and the short story "The Vanishing Game." The latter, Boyd's homage to John Buchan's The 39 Steps, is a great read and a great introduction to the author, as it's available for free (thanks to Land Rover) as an e-book from Amazon and as an audiobook download from Audible. It's a lot of fun, and I highly recommend it. Most of all, though, I can't wait for Spy City! I'm glad it's come back to life.
Thanks to Jack for the heads-up on this!

Jul 27, 2019

First Teaser Trailer for Amazon's JACK RYAN Season 2

At the TCA today, Amazon Prime unveiled a first glimpse at Season 2 of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan, again starring John Krasinski as the titular CIA analyst. The show was renewed for a second season before the first had even debuted, and was successful enough for the streamer that it's already been renewed for a third. Once again, this season is an original story rather than a direct adaptation of a specific novel, but just as the terrorism-themed Season 1 took some cues from Clancy's Patriot Games, it's clear from this teaser that the South America-set second season will, as expected, take similar cues from Clear and Present Danger--both the book and the 1994 movie (which starred Harrison Ford as Ryan). Keeping up with current headlines, the action, however, is centered mainly in and around Venezuela rather than Colombia.

Along with Krasinski, Wendell Pierce and John Hoogenakker return as, respectively, Ryan's mentor James Greer and SAD operative (and quasi-Clark surrogate) Matice. With the new setting, a lot of newcomers also join the cast, including Noomi Rapace (Unlocked, The Girl Who Played With Fire) as German intelligence agent Harriet “Harry” Baumann, Michael Kelly (Fair Game, House of Cards) as CIA field officer Mike November, Tom Wlaschiha (Crossing Lines, Game of Thrones), Jovan Adepo (Overlord), Narcos alums Cristina Umaña and Francisco Denis, and the always excellent Jordi Molla (Knight and Day, Criminal). Amazon hasn't yet set a premiere date for the second season, but the first one did well in August, so I'd hazard we can expect this one soon.

Jul 23, 2019

Tradecraft: Marvel Announces Shang-Chi Casting, Title

As much as I love Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (and I love it dearly!) and Black Widow, my favorite Marvel spy comic has to be the original 1970s run of The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu... particularly the issues showcasing the brilliant collaboration of writer Doug Moench and artist Paul Gulacy (a team who would go on to produce the best James Bond comic book to date, "Serpent's Tooth"). Last December, it was first reported that a Shang-Chi movie would feature among Marvel Studios' next slate of films. All has been quiet since then... until this past weekend. On a massive panel at Comic-Con Saturday night, Deadline reports, Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige announced the first official details about the studio's upcoming Master of Kung Fu movie, including its title and who will play the titular master, Shang-Chi.

Feige told the assembled hordes of fans in SDCC's Hall H that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will open on February 12, 2021. Chinese-Canadian actor Simu Liu will play Shang-Chi. Best known for a Canadian sitcom called Kim's Convenience, Liu has earned spy cred with roles on Nikita and the Taken TV show. As studied Marvel fanatics will glean from the title, Iron Man comics villain the Mandarin (basically a Marvel rip-off of Sax Rohmer's 1920s-created "yellow peril" character Fu Manchu) will replace the actual Fu Manchu (a character Marvel licensed in the Seventies, but no longer has the rights to) as Shang-Chi's criminal mastermind father... and the great Tony Leung (Lust, Caution, The Silent War) will play him. Actress and rapper Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians, Ocean's 8) will also appear in the film, though her role was not announced. I can't really imagine her as Shang-Chi's love interest Leiko Wu, but she might make a good foil as his duplicitous half-sister Fah Lo Suee. (Or she could be playing an original comedic role, of course.) As previously announced, Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) will direct, and Dave Callaham (Jean-Claude Van Johnson) handles scripting duties, making up an all Asian-American creative team driving the picture.

The comic book The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu was created in the early Seventies to (obviously) cash in on the kung fu craze of the time. Comics legends Steve Englehart (Batman: Strange Apparitions) and Jim Starlin (Avengers: Infinity War) originated the character, but it was the dynamic writer/artist team of Moench and Gulacy who became most associated with Shang-Chi... and who gave the comic a new direction as an espionage series.

Shang-Chi's real world origins at Marvel are a bit complicated, as the publisher had acquired the rights to Rohmer's villainous Fu Manchu character (still well-known at the time thanks to a series of Christopher Lee movies in the Sixties), but Englehart was more interested in the popular TV series of the time, Kung Fu. So he incorporated Rohmer's characters Fu Manchu and his nemesis, British adventurer Sir Denis Nayland-Smith, but invented a new character to star in the series more inspired by Kung Fu... Fu Manchu's hitherto unknown son, Shang-Chi. Though the father had seen to it that the son was trained from birth to be a Master of Kung Fu, when Shang-Chi discovered that the father he believed to be munificent was actually a diabolical criminal mastermind, he turned on him, and found employment with Nayland-Smith and the British Secret Service. In the hands of Moench and Gulacy, secret agent Shang-Chi encountered all manner of spy hijinks, from moles inside MI6 to supervillains with private islands, gadgets galore, and robotic armies. He also developed a roster of memorable sidekicks, including Nayland-Smith's assistant and bodyguard Black Jack Tarr (drawn by Gulacy to resemble Sean Connery in The Man Who Would Be King), and fellow MI6 agent Clive Reston (drawn by Gulacy at first to resemble Connery in Goldfinger, but later looking more and more like Roger Moore), who is strongly hinted to be the son of James Bond and the grand-nephew of Sherlock Holmes. Should the character of Black Jack Tarr make the movie roster (and it's hard to imagine Master of Kung Fu without him), I'd love to see Jason Statham brought into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in that role! Sure, he's too short... but I think he'd nail the attitude--and make a formidable physical foil for Liu.

While Marvel's most famous spy agency, S.H.I.E.L.D., never showed up in the pages of Master of Kung Fu (though Shang-Chi did eventually team up with Nick Fury and Black Widow in a multi-issue arc of Marvel Team-Up), Gulacy's stunning artwork owed a clear debt to Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. artist Jim Steranko. Like Steranko, Gulacy reveled in quasi-sci-fi technology and weaponry and innovative, experimental page layouts. (One particular standout turned the page into a maze, following Shang-Chi's progress against a variety of opponents as he navigated the labyrinth.) He also brought his own obsessions to the table, like Bond-inspired, movie poster-style splash pages, relentlessly sexy women in proto-Gaultier leather fashions, and the liberal use of famous actors' likenesses to "cast" the book with everyone from Bruce Lee (upon whom Gulacy's Shang-Chi was clearly based) to Marlon Brando, Christopher Lee (as Fu Manchu, of course), David Niven, and even Groucho Marx. The result was a truly unique book that far transcended (and consequently outlasted) the kung fu movie trend from which it was born, and drew influence from all sorts of popular culture. I think it may well be my very favorite Marvel comic. Long unavailable outside of back issue bins, the entire 125-issue series has at long last been reprinted over the past few years in four massive, hardcover omnibus volumes, which I cannot recommend highly enough. Marvel has also recently begun a line of cheaper paperback "Epic Collections."

Jul 20, 2019

Tradecraft: ARCHER Renewed for Season 11 and a Return to Spying

When FXX ordered 3 additional seasons of the animated spy comedy Archer back in 2016 (taking it up to 10), it was expected that Season 10 would be the show's last. But executive producer Casey Willis surprised fans at today's Comic-Con panel, Deadline reports, with the announcement that the cable network has renewed the show for Season 11. And, after three seasons taking turns parodying other genres (the most recent two through Archer's coma dreams), the program is expected to make a welcome return to the genre it started out spoofing: espionage. Wilson said, “We are incredibly excited for our 11th season and look forward to Archer waking up from his coma and returning to a spy world that has continued without him for the past three years." Personally, I'm also very much looking forward to that return. While I was initially excited by seasons lampooning Magnum PI, Sam Spade, Tales of the Gold Monkey, and Space: 1999 (among other classics of their various genres), the show, which began as a James Bond parody, is simply strongest operating on the familiar ground of international intrigue. In 2014, current events forced the series to abandon its original spy agency, ISIS (International Secret Intelligence Service) for obvious reasons. In the last full season of spying, Season 6, the team (including Sterling Archer, voiced by H. John Benjamin, his sometimes wife Lana Kane, voiced by Aisha Tyler, and his mother Mallory, voiced by Jessica Walter) worked for the CIA under the auspices of control Slater (voiced by Christian Slater).

Jul 15, 2019

Trailer: THE KING'S MAN (2020)

So far each Kingsman trailer has gotten me excited, and then each movie has disappointed me. But now they've done it again! Even after being burnt twice, I'm still on the edge of my seat waiting for director Matthew Vaughn's latest excursion into that world, this time a prequel set in the early 20th century. I'm a real sucker for WWI-era spy stories, and there are altogether too few. So despite my misgivings about the contemporary Kingsman movies, this trailer has me 100% on board for The King's Man!

The King's Man opens on Valentine's Day 2020, having moved into that slot (previously occupied by Bond 25, which then jumped to April) from fall 2019 after the Disney acquisition of Kingsman studio Fox.

Obviously none of the characters from the first two Kingsman movies, set in the present, appear in this one (which will depict the birth of the organization), so there's an all-new cast including Harris Dickinson (Trust) as Conrad, the WWI-era equivalent of Eggsy, Ralph Fiennes (Skyfall), Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace), Rhys Ifans (Snowden), Matthew Goode (Cambridge Spies), Daniel Brühl (Captain America: Civil War), Djimon Hounsou (Alias), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass), Charles Dance (For Your Eyes Only), and Tom Hollander (The Night Manager) in a triple role as Royal cousins King George V of England, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.

Jun 30, 2019

Trailer: CHARLIE'S ANGELS (2019)

The latest incarnation of Charlie's Angels is a new feature film directed by Elizabeth Banks and starring Kristin Stewart (American Ultra), Ella Balinska (Hunted), and, after seeing her in Guy Ritchie's Aladdin, my pick for Modesty Blaise should any studio ever wake up and realize the world is running out of heroes, Naomi Scott. And, after McG's two movies in the early 2000s (especially the second one) dabbled in espionage, this version seems to dive full into spy territory. And it looks pretty awesome! Charlie's Angels, which co-stars Banks (Catch Me If You Can), Patrick Stewart (Smiley's People), and Sam Claflin (Any Human Heart) opens November 15. Check out the trailer!

Jun 28, 2019

First Look Video at BOND 25

MGM this week revealed our first look at Cary Fukanaga's upcoming James Bond movie starring Daniel Craig in a fifth outing as 007. It's not quite a teaser and it's definitely not a trailer, but whatever you want to call it, it's pretty awesome! Made of largely of behind-the-scenes (BTS) footage, the spot still gives a good idea of the look that cinematographer Linus Sandgren (First Man) is going for in this film. And it's quite a stylish look! There's some great imagery here. (I love that shot of Lashana Lynch in her sunglasses.) Bond 25 is still officially title-less, though fansite MI6 reported this week that for a while it was known as A Reason to Die. Apparently that title was dropped on the eve of the Jamaica press event for commencement of filming in April because studio execs found it not Bondian enough. I don't know... it sounds pretty Bondy to me! It's certainly easy to hear the theme song in your head while saying it, anyway. Check out the Bond 25 first look video:

Jun 22, 2019

Movie Review: ANNA (2019)

French director Luc Besson single-handedly revived the latent Eurospy genre, so prominent in the 1960s, for this century with popular series he produced like the Taken and Transporter movies. Now he finally turns his hand to directing a neo-Eurospy movie himself (his first outright spy movie since the one that put him on the map, 1990’s seminal La Femme Nikita—one of the very best action movies of its decade)… and the results are spectacular. Anna is a slick, sexy, action movie, as the trailers lead you to believe (a twist, in fact, on La Femme Nikita—though more of a “remix” than a remake), but it’s also so much more than that. And it’s a movie very specifically targeted at spy fans. The more you know about the genre, the more you’re likely to appreciate its surprising number of layers.

Like the matryoshka dolls the title character starts out selling in a Moscow market, Anna is a spy movie inside a spy movie inside a spy movie. We tend to divide the genre into the action-packed fantasy school of James Bond and Mission: Impossible and the gritty, more realistic tales of double- and triple-crosses like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Homeland. Anna is both at once. Like you might see a novel that amounts to a le Carré-esque spy tail set in a sci-fi setting (like an intergalactic war), or in a historical setting (on the high seas or what have you), Anna is such a twisty spy tail set in the heightened world of fantasy spy movies. It’s Tinker Tailor set inside of Mission: Impossible, or, more appropriately, John Wick. Anna’s reality is a heightened one. This is a world where a skinny model can take on hordes of armed KGB troops in hand to hand combat… and firmly within that world, this is a gritty, twisty, “realistic” tale of double- and triple-crosses. “Realistic,” obviously, being a relative term.

Anna does not exist in a recognizable real world. It ostensibly occupies a historical setting—the late Cold War, specifically 1985-1990. But this isn’t a late Eighties or early Nineties that anyone who lived through those decades would recognize. Rather, it’s a deliberately inaccurate simulacrum. We might recognize fashions and music of the era, but in this alternate 1980s, we also see technology that did not exist then. Characters constantly use cell phones and pagers that behave like modern smart phones. They are not the obscenely chunky cell phones of the era, but the Nokias of the early 2000s—only chunky in comparison to today’s phones. There are laptops, too, and they, also, are chunkier than those we are used to… but again, the chunkiness of the early 2000s, not the early 1990s. Yet, while this technology didn’t exist in the real period, it might have existed in spy movies of that period, had they been thinking ahead along realistic lines. Other forms of tech—ones that never actually came to be—certainly litter Cold War spy movies. It’s artifice, and intentional artifice. But that’s only one layer—only the outermost matryoshka doll.

In that outer layer dwell recognizable characters from the fantasy spy genre. Foremost among them is Anna herself (Sasha Luss), the “female James Bond”/Modesty Blaise/Nikita archetype—the sexy, asskicking female superspy. (But she proves to have layers of her own.) In the movie’s middle layer lies a more complex, twistier narrative derived from the le Carré school. Here dwells a different kind of spy archetype—one based very obviously on George Smiley. But this archetype, too, has undergone a sex change. Helen Mirren plays the KGB spymaster Olga, and seems to be basing her performance on Alec Guinness’ BBC Smiley portrayal, right down to the distinctive, thick-framed glasses she wears.

All of the characters have inner lives—or inner layers. Most attention is paid to Anna’s—revealing, finally, the film’s innermost matryoshka doll—a cat-and-mouse character study hidden beneath the shoot ‘em up action. Because even within this heightened world of spy fantasy, people are complicated. No one is the simple “cardboard booby” Ian Fleming reductively described James Bond as being. But all three of Anna’s love interests over the course of the movie—Maude (Lera Abova), Alex (Luke Evans), and Lenny (Cillian Murphy)—also have inner lives. Maude’s is dealt with the least, but when a late scene between her and Lenny could cut away as he walks out, instead we dwell on her for several long moments as she cries. This is the classic innocent whose life is inevitably torn apart upon contact with the secret world, and it’s somewhat unusual for a neo-Eurospy-type movie to dwell on such a character at all. Lenny and Alex, both macho genre archetypes on the surface, are also allowed more introspective moments than we might expect. But they are very clearly supporting players in Anna’s story. “Never put your faith in men, Anna. Put faith in yourself,” Alex tells Anna early on. And from there, hers is a journey of female empowerment, with a very rewarding payoff.

In her most revealing speech (which Luss, until recently a model and not an actress, handles impressively), Anna admits, “When I was a kid I used to play with matryoshka dolls, way before I pretended to sell them on the street corner. I loved putting them up and looking at their beautiful faces. It’s a woman inside of a woman inside of a woman. If there would be a doll made of me, what would she be? A daughter? A girlfriend? Russian spy? Model? An American spy? If you go to the very smallest doll buried deep inside and say, ‘what is she?’… I never knew, and I would like to find out.”

But the matryoshka concept is not merely thematic. It’s also structural. Besson’s remarkable script is carefully constructed of different layers. It’s nearly (but not quite) palindromic, treating us to scenes that we think are complete the first time we see them, but later revisiting them and showing another half that reveals far more information, significantly altering the plot. If I’m being cryptic, it’s only because I don’t wish to spoil the actual plot elements revealed as Besson peels away layers; there’s a lot of satisfaction in watching that play out.

Lest I spend too much time on the fascinating inner dolls, however (which become clearer and clearer on multiple viewings), I should make it clear that that flashy outer layer is also terrific. And that may be the only layer some audience members choose to see… and that would be fine. They will still be satisfied. The action is spectacular.

For its first act, Anna plays like a fairly straight remake of La Femme Nikita, relocated from France to Soviet Russia (one setting not yet explored by previous remakes of the original concept, including American, Canadian, and Hong Kong versions of the story). On my first viewing, I thought that was what I was watching, and I was surprised it hadn’t been sold up front as a remake of that endlessly fruitful tale. It’s an interesting idea for a director to take another pass thirty years later at the film that put him on the map. What would he do differently? As it happens, Besson is telling a whole different story. But he makes the most of the Nikita foundation from which to do so. The basic concept is replicated intact: a woman involved with crime and drugs leading a seemingly dead-end life is taken off the streets by a secret government agency and given a new lease on life as a spy... but not given a choice. There are familiar characters (Alex is a version of Tcheky Karyo’s Pygmalion-like spy mentor figure Bob; Maude a gender-flipped variation on the innocent boyfriend Marco), and familiar situations, including the restaurant at which first Nikita and now Anna is given her first assignment—with a duplicitous catch. The catch in Anna is even more devious than the one in Nikita (where the exit she’d been briefed on turns out to be bricked up), and appropriate for the more heightened world in which this movie is set. The scenario escalates into a bloodbath, and it’s the most deliriously cinematic bloodbath I’ve seen in Western cinema in years. (And that includes the expertly choreographed action scenes of the John Wick franchise!) It's hyper violent, yet balletic in its execution.

It won’t be a spoiler to anyone familiar with La Femme Nikita that Anna does, indeed, survive her trial by violence, and impresses the not easily impressed doyenne of Moscow Centre, Olga (a frumped down Mirren channeling Guinness). Because of her beauty, she is assigned the cover of a model and sent to Paris. From there, Anna embarks on a dual career as rising supermodel and secret KGB assassin… and parts ways with Nikita’s path as the film’s further layers start to reveal themselves.

One interesting byproduct of making the movie a period piece is that, with the U.S.S.R. securely relegated to Trotsky’s “dustbin of history,” Western audiences can actually root for a character working for the KGB. Because the Cold War is an old enough conflict now that the specific ideologies no longer matter, we can accept a heroine with shifting loyalties without identifying too strongly with any single one. Call it The Americans Effect.

Of course, Anna has enemies within her own organization as well (including the fearsome director, Vassiliev (Eric Godon), who informs her at the wrong end of a pistol that there is only one way to leave the KGB), and that final layer of the film—the character layer—turns out to typify another favorite spy subgenre of mine, the internecine office politics thriller. Until the last frame of film, you’re never sure who Anna can trust and who she is betraying to achieve her ultimate desire (in fact, there may be just one twist too many)—to break free of the various intelligence services that have control of her, and take the time to get to that very smallest doll buried within herself. This is the story of an asset breaking free and becoming master of her own destiny—learning to put her faith in herself.

Anna is a gritty spy movie within a fantasy one, and a character-focused thriller within a flashy, surface, action picture. It’s a more mature work than many audiences will realize upon first viewing, and rewards repeat watching. It’s the crowning achievement of Luc Besson’s career, and one of the best spy films of this century.