Aug 31, 2007

Tradecraft For August 31, 2007

Alex Rider Creator Inks US TV Deal

The Hollywood Reporter reports that Anthony Horowitz, prolific novelist and television writer and creator of the bestselling "Alex Rider" series of teen spy adventures, has signed a deal with Sony to develop a one-hour drama for American TV with Sex and the City showrunner Darren Star. Even though Horowitz may be better known to spy fans for his young adult novels, he's spent years in the UK television industry creating such hits as Midsomer Mysteries and Foyle's War (both of which have aired on PBS' Mystery! here in the US) and contributing to the long-running Poirot series. The writer tells the trade, "Most of the best ideas on television are coming out of America, and if you're passionate about television, that's the place to be." His project with Star sounds like it has more in common with his UK TV mysteries than with last year's (unwarranted) flop Alex Rider: Stormbreaker, which Horowitz adapted from his own novel. The writer describes the new series as "an American-based police show with lighter-touch elements and an European angle." (Whatever that means!)

Horowitz's seventh Alex Rider novel, Snakehead, is due out this fall.

24 Cast Additions

Janeane Garofalo, Jeffrey Nordling and Star Trek: Enterprise's John Billingsley have all joined the cast of 24 for the upcoming seventh season, says The Hollywood Reporter. Garofalo will play "a government agent who is part of the team investigating the crisis befalling Jack Bauer and company in the upcoming season." That sentence alone sounds almost convoluted enough to have come from the 24 writers' room! The Reporter points out that Garofalo is a notorious leftie, and 24 showrunner Joel Surnow an equally notorious "right-wing nutjob" (as he describes himself), so the pair make strange bedfellows. Oddly enough, though, I suspect that people with different political leanings have managed to work together before, even in Hollywood...

Aug 30, 2007

See NBC's Fall Spy Shows Early On DVD!

TVShowsOnDVD.com reports that NBC has teamed up with Blockbuster to offer an exclusive DVD of the pilot episodes of four of their upcoming fall series. Among those are two highly-anticipated spy hybrids: spy/comedy Chuck (which is pretty good... I'll post a full review soon) and spy/sci-fi Bionic Woman. The disc is available to rent from Blockbuster stores and Blockbuster's online rental service from September 4 through October 24.

NBC is doing their best to make sure everyone has the opportunity to check out their new pilots at their convenience. These shows will also be available to view on demand in most cable markets.

Aug 26, 2007

Prisoner TV Remake Cancelled

AintItCoolNews is reporting the the remade Prisoner TV series, rumored at times to star Christopher Eccleston and supposed to have begun filming this past spring, has been cancelled. The series was to have been a co-production between Britain's Sky One network and America's AMC. AICN links to an interview with Digital Spy in which Sky One head Richard Woolfe says as much:

"The Prisoner is not happening. It's a very quintessentially British drama and there were too many creative differences trying to share it with an American partner. I didn't want to be responsible for taking something that is quintessentially British and adapting it in a way that I didn't feel was reflective of the way people would remember it and the way people would want it to be. So we called time on that."
I'm sure he will get a lot of cheers for defending the realm and so forth, and I certainly won't argue that its Britishness is a key element of The Prisoner. I certainly wouldn't want to see the setting changed to America, or the lead recast as an American. But one wonders if we're getting the whole story there. It sounds to me like a patriotic way of saying "creative differences." I know, in all probability, we dodged a bullet, and I'm sure that's the way most fans will feel. But personally, I'm disappointed. I think a Prisoner TV remake actually has the potential for greatness, as evidenced by the excellence of the Battlestar Gallactica remake. There's no question that the original series is a masterpiece, but there is room for improvement (like adding more regulars among the Village populace, people of whose allegiance we're unsure), and updating it to our current global climate could make for some really interesting television. As far as we know, the Christopher Nolan feature film version is still going ahead, but while I am excited about that, I think the project had more potential as a series.
Tradecraft For Friday, August 24, 2007

Ang Lee Spies An NC-17

Director Ang Lee's new film, which Variety describes as an "erotic espionage thriller," has been slapped with an NC-17 rating in America. Lust, Caution is the story of a shy, young Chinese woman recruited to seduce a Japanese collaborator in order to lure him into an assassination attempt during WWII. Focus Features will not appeal the restrictive rating, and will release the uncut movie this fall. Lust, Caution is co-written by Focus CEO and frequent Lee scripter James Schamus, and stars Tony Leung.

G.I. Joe Storms Theaters In 2009

If Ang Lee's spy movie is limited to adult audiences, what do younger spy fans have to look forward to? Variety reports that Mummy director Stephen Sommers has signed on to direct a big budget feature version of G.I. Joe for Paramount. The studio hopes to duplicate the success of this summer's toy-based blockbuster Transformers. Readers who remember a beach-head storming plastic WWII fighter may wonder why this is spy news. Well, this is how the trade describes the film: "G.I. Joe is now a Brussels-based outfit that stands for Global Integrated Joint Operating Entity, an international co-ed force of operatives who use hi-tech equipment to battle Cobra, an evil organization headed by a double-crossing Scottish arms dealer. The property is closer in tone to X-Men and James Bond than a war film." Remember, also, that the 80s Marvel comics version of G.I. Joe was famously influenced by Jim Steranko's groundbreaking Sixties run on Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.!

Aug 22, 2007

Random Intelligence Dispatches For Thursday, August 23, 2007

Young Indy Cover Art

TVShowsOnDVD has scored the disappointingly underwhelming artwork for the first volume of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, due October 23 from Lucasfilm and CBS/Paramount. They've also got information on some of the discs' massive amounts of bonus content. As for the cover, I like the color and the braided edges, but I hate the photoshop artwork. I also miss the series' original logo, which looked better than simply adding a "Young" to the regular Indiana Jones logo. Still, with the fourth movie on its way, I supposed brand recognition is very important. But when it comes down to it, they could package this set in blank cardboard and I'd still buy it!

Sam Jackson On Nick Fury

Perhaps Samuel L. Jackson won't be playing one-eyed superspy Nick Fury in Iron Man after all? In an interview with AintItCoolNews, who first broke the story that he would be donning the eye patch, Jackson seems to have no idea what the interviewer is talking about when asked about the role. Is he serious, or is he dodging the question, as the AICN interviewer speculates? Jackson acts like he thinks he's being asked about the long-in-development Nick Fury movie, and not about a cameo in Iron Man. He does confirm that he's at least had talks about such a movie: "[Marvel] keep saying it and I keep looking forward to that happening and I keep running into [former Marvel honcho] Avi [Arad] and asking him, 'Is it going to happen?' He keeps saying, 'Well, we hope so… we hope so…' So that’s all I can do too."

Long Lost Avengers Reunion Discovered

It's long been reported that The New Avengers (the Seventies incarnation of the Sixties classic) came about because of a French champagne ad that reunited Patrick Macnee and his final partner Linda Thorson. But there didn't seem to be any copies of the commercial in existence, so some doubted that claim. I had always heard that it was a print ad, and not a TV ad. Recently there has been some very exciting activity on The Avengers.TV International Forum, and an Super8 film print of the commercial has been found, thus proving its existence! (Credit for the discovery must go to a Yahoo SecretAvengers Group member named "avengersteed" who contacted the champagne company, Laurent-Perrier.) David K. Smith has put together a comprehensive page on the subject on his excellent The Avengers Forever website, complete with a screen capture. The clip was briefly available on YouTube, but has since been removed. Hopefully it will one day find official release on a future DVD!

Aug 21, 2007

Region 2 Spy DVD News

UK DVD distributor extraordinaire Network have at long last updated their website - and given it a complete overhaul! They provide an update on their upcoming 40th Anniversary edition of The Prisoner, with news on two of the (presumably many) extras to be found on the set. One sure to excite Village devotees is the inclusion of "a restored version of the 'alternative' version of 'Arrival.'" Network claim this different cut of the pilot episode is "painstakingly completed in high definition and sourced from recently located 35mm materials [and] offers additional scenes, music score and titles." On top of that, they reveal that the first 5000 copies will be in a limited edition packaging, and that all copies will come with a "specially-commissioned book on the making of the series" by The Avengers Files author Andrew Pixley! If this is anywhere near as good as his book that came with the Adam Adamant Lives! DVD, it will be something worth looking forward to.

Furthermore, the company clarifies the mystery surrounding their announced DVD of Philby, Burgess and Maclean (starring Derek Jacobi) that failed to materialize this summer. Turns out it is available now - as a web exclusive. The disc can be ordered directly through Network's website. Unfortunately, there is still no update on the exciting spy TV soundtracks Network teased late last year.

Aug 20, 2007

DVD Review: Hot Fuzz

Watching Hot Fuzz again on DVD planted a very obvious question in my mind: why the hell isn’t Timothy Dalton the villain in everything??? He’s so good in villainous roles (generally distinguishable from his heroic roles by the addition of a mustache) that he really, really should be on that go-to list of Euro-villains that used to be dominated by Alan Rickman. (Come to think of it, why wasn’t Dalton the villain in this summer’s Live Free Or Die Hard? He’s much more in the lineage of Rickman and Jeremy Irons than that other Timothy who did get the role!) He’s so good at it that Shaun of the Dead creators Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg cast him in the role of the Obvious Villain in this cop movie send-up. Whether or not Dalton’s improbably sinister grocery store owner is actually the big baddie of the movie, I won’t reveal, but the former James Bond certainly does his best to convince us that he is. He has all sorts of fun with the role, chewing up every visible bit of scenery with relish as only the best Shakespearean actors can. People always talk about how much they’d like to see Sean Connery play a Bond villain. Personally, I can’t really see that, but I could definitely see Dalton stepping in as an adversary to Daniel Craig. His presence wouldn’t be as distracting as Sir Sean’s (owing to his far too brief two film tenure as 007), and frankly, he does evil better. (See: The Avengers movie.)

While Dalton gets the showiest role in the film, there’s no question that the true stars are the trio of quickly (but rightfully) hailed comedy gods Wright, Pegg and Nick Frost. Wright directs; he and Pegg write, and Pegg and Frost star. With Hot Fuzz they’ve truly perfected the unique brand of humor they tested in Shaun of the Dead and cult TV series Spaced. Hot Fuzz is unlike most other send-ups in that, for the most part, it doesn’t directly parody recognizable scenes out of other movies, but skillfully spoofs the conventions of the genre. Wright and Pegg discuss that on the top-notch commentary track; they say Roger Ebert’s book of Hollywood cliches was a bible to them in constructing the movie. And they go after every cliche in mysteries and action movies.

Hot Fuzz starts off as an Agatha Christie-type, polite, ever-so-British small-town whodunit, with splashes of giallo in the mysterious hooded killer and moments of (hilariously) excessive gore. The village of Sandford, to which Pegg’s London super-cop Nicholas Angel is reassigned because his department brass (Martin Freeman, Steve Coogan and Bill Nighy) feel he’s making them look bad, is populated by Britain’s best character actors, including Dalton, Jim Broadbent, Edward Woodward, Bill Baily and Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Belloq, Paul Freeman. And at least one of them is bumping the others off. Urged on by his Point Break-obsessed sidekick, Danny Butterman (Frost), Angel eventually turns the scenario into an American action movie, unloading enough rounds in Sandford to make John Woo swoon. The contrast between drawing room mystery and Bad Boys II plays brilliantly, and the filmmakers show remarkable restraint (or possibly budget constraint; either way, it works) in holding off on the promised action movie tropes (including not just car chases, but also ample doses of the requisite buddy cop homoeroticism) until the final act, when they have the most impact.

Universal’s new DVD would appear loaded were it not for the knowledge that the UK two-disc affair had even more extras. (So does a limited edition US version that was available only at Wal-Mart the first week it went on sale.) But if you don’t let yourself dwell on that, you’ll find plenty to keep you occupied here. There are lots of deleted scenes (which for some reason don’t all play when you hit "play all," at least on my player) with optional commentary and a slew of outtakes sure to please any spy fan who’s always wanted to hear Timothy Dalton blow a line and then yell "Motherfuckit!" (For similar spy star amusements, see the Connery outtakes on the Criterion edition of The Rock and the Patrick Macnee ones on The Howling. Until I see proof otherwise, I won’t believe that Roger Moore ever uttered any variations on "motherfucker" outside of his role in–and possibly pertaining to his decision to appear in–Boat Trip!) There’s an amusing documentary following the main trio on their publicity tour of the United States, which offers humorous glimpses of Dalton at a Santa Monica screening (that I’ll never forgive myself for missing by half an hour due to calendar error) but sadly omits their truly hilarious visit to L.A. radio show Jonesey’s Jukebox.

Best of all the bonuses, though, is the feature audio commentary with Wright and Pegg. Edgar Wright gives Quentin Tarantino a run for his money in terms of pure movie geekdom, and he shares a lot of his influences. This is a wall-to-wall commentary track, with no dead air whatsoever. In fact, you’ll have to rewind a few times because facts come so fast and furious. The infuriating thing about the commentary, however, is that it’s apparently only one of four available on the UK release! And just to drive that point home, to make you feel your loss, the participants refer fairly frequently to the other, absent tracks! One of the UK ones apparently even features Timothy Dalton, who turned down offers to record commentaries for his Bond movies, and didn’t even do new interviews for the recent special editions. (That one also features Edward Woodward, whom Pegg teases may tell some Christopher Lee stories on the track. Sigh. I guess I’ll have to buy the import after all...) Still, the track you do get here is one of the better commentaries I’ve ever heard, and may even bear repeat listening. Of particular interest to Bond fans (besides some choice Dalton anecdotes) is their discussion of David Arnold’s score for the movie. Given their limited budget, Arnold told the filmmakers to choose what scenes they wanted to have the most impact, and recorded only those ones with a full orchestra.

If it weren’t for the references to what we’re missing here in America, I’d probably have no complaints about this fairly-loaded special edition DVD of a terrific movie. It's a must-watch for any fan of action films or comedy.
Spies On DVD For Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The best of all of last year's many weighty spy movies, and winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, comes out today from Sony. The Lives of Others (reviewed here) stars Sebastian Koch as East German playwright Georg Dreyman, a mesmerizing Martina Gedeck (The Good Shepherd) as his actress mistress, and, at its center, the late Ulrich Muhe as the Stassi agent who spies on them. I only just learned reading TIME Magazine that Muhe passed away a month ago at the age of 54, from stomach cancer. That's incredibly sad. He gives the kind of performance every actor dreams of in The Lives of Others, anchoring the whole film as a spy (or, as he explains it to Gedeck's character, her "audience") drawn into the lives of the people he's paid to observe. The DVD features a making-of documentary, deleted scenes, and a commentary with director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. It's an absolute must-see.

Also worth noting on the DVD front are a few recent titles. Fox's The Charlie Chan Collection, Vol. 3 features the famous detective in more mysteries and espionage capers around the world (including In Monte Carlo), and boasts a slew of impressive extras for fans of classic cinema. And Best Buy has Universal's recent release of the Robert Ludlum mini-series The Rhinemann Exchange on sale for just $9.99 this week!
The Company On DVD

I didn't watch and didn't even mention TNT's recent CIA mini-series The Company. I'm sure that was a serious oversight on my part, but I can rectify it quickly enough thanks to a fast DVD release from Sony. I find DVD to be a more convenient way to do TV shows anyway, and I've just been too busy this summer to take on a mini-series. Luckily, it will be available to own on October 23, according to TVShowsOnDVD.com, who also have the cover art for the regular release and the Blue-ray version.

Drawing on some of the same events as The Good Shepherd, The Company is produced by Ridley Scott and based on the novel by Robert Littell. It stars Alfred Molina, Michael Keaton and Chris O'Donnell. The 2-disc set will include a making-of featurette and a documentary on the true events and people that inspired it. Retail is $39.99. And if you can't wait till the fall to see it, then you can actually watch the entire series on TNT's pretty impressive website for it.

Aug 17, 2007

Tradecraft: More Delays On 24

The Hollywood Reporter reports further production delays on the coming seventh season of 24. The trade confirms that "the real-time drama starring Kiefer Sutherland that was scheduled to start filming Aug. 27, will now begin shooting Sept. 10 so that the writers can complete enough scripts for the new seasonlong plot." This is the second major setback for the series, which was originally supposed to begin production in late July. The first outline for Season 7 called for half the season to take place (and shoot) in Africa, which frankly would have given a much-needed shake-up to the tired, LA-based routine. (Really, how many major crises can be averted within an hour's driving distance of Los Angeles, year after year?) There would have been a gap in the real time formula while Jack Bauer travelled back to LA to wrap up the season. Fox executives reportedly put the kibosh on the African shoot for cost reasons. The Reporter reiterates that the only new casting yet announced for Season 7 is Cherry Jones as the new President, and puts it mildly when they conclude: "24 is going through a major revamping this year after coming off a lackluster sixth season."

Aug 12, 2007

Random Intelligence Dispatches For August 12, 2007

New Patrick McGoohan Biography

Amazon.co.uk lists a new biography of Secret Agent star Patrick McGoohan as having been released in England last month. Patrick McGoohan: Danger Man Or Prisoner? promises to "explain the enigma that is McGoohan!" Not having read it, I can't say if it manages to do that, but it does have a catchy cover! Amazon lists an October U.S. release date (and offers a pretty good discount on the rather hefty price tag), so I'll probably wait till then to pick it up.

Sir Michael Caine To Release Album

All of us who have been waiting decades for many-time spy star Michael Caine to put out a CD can now breathe a collective sigh of relief.... The album we didn't even know we had to have is on its way! Well, sort of. Sir Michael isn't actually recording anything, but he's curating a compilation of "chill-out music" called - wait for it - Cained. The Playlist points the way to a London Times article on the subject, which drops quite a few references to the espionage side of his career. "Michael Caine was the personification of icy cool as secret agent Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File, but it wasn't until he wowed Elton John with his knowledge of downtempo ambient music that he realised he was a chill-out expert. Now the Alfie actor, 74, has announced the name of his new chill-out album - Cained - a selection of his favourite mellow tracks." So there you have it. Amazon.co.uk lists a September 3 release date, and a tracklist that includes Delerium, Nina Simone and Felix Da Housecat, Magnet's "Lay Lady Lay" and, appropriately, a track by Roy Budd. Now just keep your fingers crossed for that Roger Moore electroclash compilation...

Aug 10, 2007

MST3K's Secret Agent Super Dragon On DVD

This fall, the Eurospy favorite Secret Agent Super Dragon, starring Ray Danton, will finally see official release on DVD... albeit in a bastardized (but hilarious) form. The Mystery Science Theatre 3000 version (which I reviewed here some time ago) of the film will be included in Rhino's latest collection of that series, The Mystery Science Theatre 3000 Collection, Volume 12. The official website for the show reports that the set will be come out on October 2. Extras include "original theatrical trailers," so hopefully there will be one for Super Dragon. That should be entertaining to see. It's too bad that the DVD won't include the original, un-MST3Ked version of this rare film (which isn't really all that bad, as MST3K fare goes), like some of the very early discs of the show did. Oh well. I believe that Rhino has to clear the rights to each of the movies in these collections, which means that they could now release the movie on its own if they wanted. I doubt they'll figure the market's there, though, unfortunately.

The Mystery Science 3000 Collection, Vol. 12 will also include The Rebel Set, The Starfighters and Parts: The Clonus Horror, as well as some nifty extras (like some of the "Jack Perkins" wrap-arounds from The Mystery Science Theatre Hour!).

Aug 9, 2007

Tradecraft For August 9, 2007

More Burn Notice

USA's hit summer spy series Burn Notice has been renewed for a second season. This is a historic moment: a Bruce Campbell show has actually been renewed! Of course, since a USA season is only 13 episodes, I guess it's only the equivalent of the two half-seasons Jack of All Trades achieved, but Burn Notice's ratings seem to ensure it a healthy future. Variety says "Burn has blazed new trails for USA on Thursday nights, winning its timeslot among basic cable nets every week since its June 28 premiere. Ratings for the skein have been on the rise, with last week's seg notching a series-high 4.4 million viewers."

Craig's Brothers-In-Arms

The Hollywood Reporter reports that Live Schrieber and Jamie Bell will play Daniel Craig's brothers in Ed Zwick's WWII drama Defiance. Alexa Davalos and Tomas Arana are also joining the cast, as Craig's love interest, Lilka, and a Resistance leader, respectively.

Pink Panther Sequel News

The Pink Panther movies may not technically be spy movies, but they've always bordered closely on the genre, with Inspector Clouseau's adventures often taking him out of his Parisian jurisdiction and around the world. The latest entry in the series seems to be no exception, and also continues the tradition of populating the series with lots of spy actors. I'm in no way endorsing Steve Martin's version of the classic character, just reporting the developments (courtesy of Variety). Former Q John Cleese will step into the role of Chief Inspector Dreyfus in Martin's next movie, following Kevin Kline and the inimitable Herbert Lom. Jean Reno and Emily Mortimer will reprise their roles from Martin's first outing, joined by Andy Garcia, Alfred Molina and frequently-rumored Bond Girl Aishwarya Rai as "detectives and experts who join forces with Clouseau to catch the thief who has been stealing artifacts around the world." Agent Cody Banks director Harald Zwart directs, from a script by Scott Neustadter, Mike Weber, Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel and Steve Martin. Yeah.

Aug 8, 2007

Movie Review: Lightning Bolt (1966)

Movie Review: Lightning Bolt (1966)

Lighting Bolt is one of those Eurospy movies that starts off looking really, really low budget (the spy headquarters is designated by nothing more than a sign on a door and a room with a conference table), then surprises viewers halfway through by revealing itself to be a much more lavish production than first imagined. This happens a lot in the genre, I suspect because the filmmakers felt pressure from the Bond movies they were copying to deliver a spectacular finale. No Eurospy finale I’ve seen comes close to the spectacle of Thunderball or You Only Live Twice, but they do often manage to provide some surprisingly big explosions and an opulent villain’s lair. Furthermore, by holding back so much on the first half of the film, it’s all the more surprising when this happens, and it makes the conclusion look even more expensive than it actually is. Lightning Bolt pulls this trick, and in a way that’s too bad, because the second half is so much more enjoyable than the first. If they’d had a little more money, perhaps they could have stretched the budget across the entire picture instead of packing it all in at the end. Oh well. Few directors had Mario Bava’s gift for making ten dollars’ worth of action look like a million, so despite its unimpressive start, Lightning Bolt turns out to be pretty enjoyable.

The hero, Harry Sennet (Anthony Eisley, one of the Eccentrics in Season 2 of The Wild Wild West) is, as usual in this genre, somewhat loathsome, but actually turns out to be more charming and less sleazy than a lot of his contemporaries once you get past his grating narration and barrage of corny jokes and bad puns. (Glancing at a sunbathing beauty, he utters "TAN-talizing!") Before we meet him, we’re told that he abhors violence and would rather write a check (drawn on taxpayers’ dollars) out of a bad situation than shoot his way out. He does write a lot of checks (and the joke doesn’t get any funnier the more times they do it), but he also turns out to be handy with a gun.

His boss is (and we’re supposed to be shocked by this) a woman. She may hold the rank of captain, but that doesn’t stop her from being designated "Agent 36-22-36." And despite the fact that we’re told she’s an expert at unarmed combat, Captain Patricia Flanagan doesn’t prove herself too useful on the assignment. Still, actress Diana Lorys is appealing... and drop-dead gorgeous. It’s a pity she disappears for a large chunk of the movie.

Lightning Bolt starts out as a spy comedy, more in the vein of Flint than Bond, with lots of jabs at the mainstream genre. But as it progresses, it starts to take itself more seriously, and it becomes easier for the audience to buy into the movie’s goofy spy world. Sennet, and agent of the FSIC (Federal Security Investigation Commission, I think), is holed up at a resort (populated entirely by spies) in Florida trying to discover who’s toppling American rockets. (It’s not Dr. No this time.) In the course of the investigation, he and Captain Flanagan get themselves stuck in a silo that fills up with water, setting the tone with a fairly lackluster setpiece. They escape when the villain for some reason decides to drain the silo at the last minute. Bit of luck, that.

Things start to pick up when Sennet’s clues lead him to the Cape Kennedy rocket base to witness a launch cobbled out of grainy stock footage. Here he exhibits an astounding propensity to crash every single vehicle he ever gets in, from car to jeep to forklift. In the course of crashing vehicles, he encounters a beer truck with a hidden toppling apparatus and a beautiful blonde assassin named Kary (Eurospy stalwart Wandisa Leigh). Kary gets the better of Harry and whisks him away to the baddie’s headquarters: a sprawling underwater facility amazingly prefigurative of Karl Stromberg’s Atlantis in 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me!

Here we come to the moment in many a Eurospy picture where the heretofore unseen mastermind swings around in his Evil Chair, and his face is revealed to be that of a character we’ve already met. There’s usually a fairly limited number of characters to begin with, and once the inevitable bodies start piling up, we’re left with even fewer to pick from. Therefore, it’s usually pretty easy to figure out who’s going to turn out to be the bad guy. Lightning Bolt contains a glorious villain reveal, and I have to admit it tricked me. I never guessed whose face it would be, yet the movie did play fair, and didn’t reveal someone we’d never seen before like some do. I’m almost tempted to spoil it, since the movie is so rare and hard to see, but I can’t countenance ruining its best moment for those who do manage to track it down. The villain is pretty good, though, and looks like a combination of Goldfinger and Oddjob! He and his base thoroughly enliven the second half of the movie.

The evil plot turns out to be far more complicated than simply toppling rockets (hint: it involves world domination and a laser on the moon), and thrown in for good measure on top of this scheme is a lab full of cryogenically frozen people, reminiscent of Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die. This lab is even better than that one, though, because it’s run by ninjas, as is the entire facility. In my experience, it’s fairly rare to see ninjas performing such mundane tasks as pulling levers and monitoring heat levels, and that rarity makes it a priceless sight.

I feel that I’m spoiling nothing to the seasoned spy aficionado when I reveal that it isn’t long before this impressive underwater lair is explosively self-destructing, its hallways overrun by the lava(!) that it’s powered by, its monorails run amuck, and the path to its escape submarines irritatingly blocked by ninjas. Sennett fights his way through all this (after having caused it, natch), and the sequence is so exciting and engaging that the weak forced comedy of the first act is forgotten and forgiven by the time you’re leaving the theater. (Or ejecting the bootleg DVD.) Seasoned director Antonio Margheriti, who cranked out quite a few taut thrillers in his day, under his own name and the nom de guerre of Anthony Dawson (no relation to Professor Dent), may stumble a little with the comedy, but he comes through in a clinch, providing a captivating climax.

Lightning Bolt is a silly, incredibly fun little Eurospy flick, and if you ever have the opportunity to watch it I recommend you seize it. I had bought the fantastic German poster (which takes gun phallic imagery to whole new levels) a few years ago, but never seen the movie until last week, when I had the chance to see it in the theater on a 35mm IB Techniclor print. Amazingly, it lived up to the poster!

NOTE: Since this review was written, Lightning Bolt has actually (amazingly) materialized on several DVD releases of dubious legality, but unquestionably the one to get is the most official and best-looking version, a pretty beautiful widescreen transfer included in Code Red's Rareflix Triple Feature Volume 4 box set. And even though it's a box set, it's still cheaper than most single-disc DVD releases. And best of all, the three movies included are each in their own individual cases, so you can easily discard the other two if you don't like them and just hang onto your Eurospy treasure!

Aug 7, 2007

Lots Of Spies On DVD This November!

TVShowsOnDVD.com has a bonanza of spy DVD news this week. This November, we can expect not only the recently announced Man From U.N.C.L.E. DVDs from TimeLife, but also the next volumes of Paramount's Mission: Impossible and The Wild Wild West! Their source reports that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. will be released in two configurations: The Complete First Season, including all 29 black and white episodes of the first year, plus the unaired color pilot, Solo, and other extras, and The Complete Series, comprising 105 episodes on 39 discs. TVShowsOnDVD.com has more details on the many bonus features, including awards show appearances by stars Robert Vaughn and David McCallum. The Wild Wild West Season 3 (24 color episodes) comes out November 20, and its star, Robert Conrad, is one of the many guest stars in Season 3 of Mission: Impossible, due out the same day. This is the second season for star Peter Graves, and the last for co-stars Martin Landau and Barbara Bain. Leonard Nimoy would replace Landau the following year. So start saving up for November, spy TV fans!

Review of Wild Wild West: The Second Season
R.I.P. John Gardner

I sadly haven’t seen an obituary in the mainstream press yet, but lots of Bond websites (CBN, YBD, MI6) are reporting the death of author John Gardner on August 3, from a heart attack. He was 80 years old. Even though Kingsley Amis had taken a one-off shot at continuing James Bond’s adventures past creator Ian Fleming’s death, and Christopher Wood had penned two surprisingly good novelizations, and John Pearson had written a "biography" of the character, it was Gardner who truly continued the literary adventures of Agent 007. Commissioned by copyright holders Glidrose Productions, John Gardner appeared an unlikely choice to update James Bond for the 1980s. In the Sixties, he had been part of a strong, reactionary anti-Bond movement in spy fiction, often lumped in with Len Deighton and John Le Carre. Whereas those two wrote more realistic spy fictions, Gardner turned his pen to parody. His Boysie Oakes series was a fun but somewhat mean-spirited send-up of Bond and his world. (The first novel was made into an entertaining but not overly-faithful movie, The Liquidator, starring Rod Taylor and future Bond Girl Jill St. John with a terrific theme song by Shirley Bassey.) Boysie was a man saddled with a Bond-like job and a Bond-like appetite for women, but without the taste for killing–or flying, for that matter, quite the hindrance to a jet-set secret agent. He farmed out his deadlier assignments to a sinister hit-man, then reaped the praises of his superiors for a job well done. They’re good reading (and it’s a shame they’re out of print), but hardly the calling card of a future chronicler of the true Bond. Indeed, even after accepting the Bond assignment, Gardner cleansed himself by working on his Le Carre-esque "Secret Generations" series between Bond books.

No matter how he felt about the character, however, the author flung himself enthusiastically into his early James Bond continuation novels. As a kid who had just discovered the literary world of 007, I alternated between original Fleming titles and the then-contemporary Gardner product. And at that age, the more modern Gardner books in some ways held more appeal. (Well, that’s not quite true. Fleming knew exactly how to appeal to a young teenage boy, and even sometimes wrote off his work as "boys’ own adventures.") Gardner never tried to ape Fleming’s unique style, but put his own to good use. He generated some fantastic plots in his first batch of Bond novels, then succumbed to recycling some of them on his later ones. Ultimately, he penned 16 Bond novels, counting the novelizations of Licence To Kill and GoldenEye, meaning he actually wrote more words about the character than Ian Fleming.
For me, Gardner’s stand-out titles are License Renewed (his first, re-introducing Bond to readers), For Special Services (boasting the exciting return of SPECTRE), Win, Lose Or Die (shaking up the formula by putting 007 in a Die Hard scenario–aboard an aircraft carrier hosting a peace summit between George Bush (Sr.), Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev!) and the great Nobody Lives Forever, which ranks as one of the very best Bond continuation novels by any author. Nobody Lives Forever was another one that altered the usual formula, sending 007 on a Ludlum-esque chase across Europe to rescue Moneypenny and his housekeeper May from the revitalized SPECTRE while a cadre of the world’s best assassins all tried to take him out. It would still make a great movie, should EON ever decide to use other authors’ books as inspirations.

Unfortunately, John Gardner ended his Bond tenure on a low note with the appalling GoldenEye novelization (to this day I feel it must have been at least partially written by a ghost writer; there’s no sign of Gardner’s usual style) and the lackluster swan song Cold Fall (or just Cold in the U.K.), which reintroduces one of the main characters of Nobody Lives Forever in a most unappealing manner. But now that he’s passed on, it’s a good time to look back and re-evaluate the best in Gardner’s canon. He wrote a lot of great Bond novels, and defined the super-spy for the 1980s at least as much as Timothy Dalton did. I was a fan of his, and he will be missed.

Aug 2, 2007

Tradecraft: Universal Goes Mossad

"Universal Pictures has paid a seven-figure sum to acquire rights to a seven-book series of bestselling spy novels by Daniel Silva," says Variety. The first movie in the series will be The Messenger, which the studio has tapped District B13 director and frequent cinematographer of Luc Besson-produced action movies like The Transporter Pierre Morell to helm. I'm not familiar with Silva's books, but the trade says the series focuses on Gabriel Allon, a Mossad agent who was one of the Munich avengers and has since retired. With seven adventures on the shelves, however, I don't imagine the retirement takes! The article also mentions another spy movie on the horizon which I was unaware of, Taken. "Morel just completed directing Taken, a thriller that stars Liam Neeson as a former spy who dusts off his old skills when his daughter is kidnapped and sold into the slave trade."

Aug 1, 2007

Book Review: In Secret Service

Mitch Silver’s debut novel, In Secret Service, has a premise that should appeal to a lot of James Bond fans: a lost Ian Fleming manuscript contains secrets that various factions are willing to kill for, and endangers the life of the brilliant modern-day researcher into whose possession it falls. Regrettably, it fails to live up to that brilliant concept.

With two storylines going–one past, one present–and a historical puzzle to be solved, it’s clearly a product of the post-Da Vinci Code publishing industry. The rush to buy anything that fits that formula has resulted in a few wonderful novels, like Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, and a lot of forgettable ones, like In Secret Service.

Silver’s heroine, Amy Greenberg, inherits an unpublished manuscript–a confession of sorts–by Ian Fleming by virtue of her grandfather having been assigned to drive Fleming on one mission at the end of WWII. Of all the people in the world, why he chose to bequeath his lengthy letter to Amy is never adequately explained. It’s merely a convenient plot device.

Amy collects her inheritance from a bank vault in Ireland, starts reading it, and by doing so attracts a few would-be assassins. In order for the Da Vinci Code formula to work, it’s crucial that the present-day hero work hard to solve the riddle of the past. Kostova did a great job juggling three separate narratives in The Historian, with each one fueled by a search for answers. Dan Brown may not be a master of prose, but he, too, is a great storyteller, and figured out how to use a great historical mystery to propel his modern-day hero’s journey, forcing Robert Langdon to unlock a series of intricate puzzles in order to move forward. Silver neglects to do any of that.

We’re told that Amy Greenberg is a world-class researcher, like Langdon and Paul, Kostova’s primary hero. She even thinks to herself that Fleming is lucky his manuscript, rich in historical details, fell into the hands of such a master researcher, but unlike those other academic heroes, Amy never actually does anything! She doesn’t have to solve puzzles or figure out the meanings of obscure references to get from A to B. The Fleming character has done all the research for her already, and she is simply handed a fully assembled puzzle. All she has to do is read it. Silver grasps at straws to throw occasional obstacles in her path to keep her from finishing it in a single sitting, but there’s really no convincing reason that she couldn’t have finished the entire manuscript (as it’s presented in the book) during the course of her flight back to the United States, even if she is scared someone’s out to get her.

All that Amy does the entire course of the novel is receive a package, read, get on a plane, read, switch seats, read, get off the plane, read, and then finally flee from a succession of hitmen in the last fifty pages or so. Only at the very end does she finally take any sort of action of her own devising, and at that point it’s too little too late. The ostensible heroine of the novel is completely superfluous. The only point of even having a present-day wrap-around story seems to be to force the story into that Da Vinci Code mold.

The tale that unfolds over the course of the supposed Fleming memoir (entitled "Provenance"), however, is a different story. Fleming’s own adventure is compelling and interesting. Unlike Amy, he has a clear goal and he goes after it, figuring things out, overcoming obstacles and deciphering clues. In Secret Service would have worked much better had it abandoned its attempt at the hot structure of the moment and just told the story of Ian Fleming uncovering the details of a Royal scandal.

"Provenance" begins with a fascinating background on Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee for whom King Edward VIII abdicated the throne of England in the 1930s. I felt like I was learning something here, because I don’t really know much at all about Edward VIII, but the author admits in his afterward to taking so many liberties (some extreme, even irresponsible!) with the historical figures that I can’t be sure what was true. Fleming then embarks on his own adventure, determined to learn the truth about a secret treaty between Prince Edward (as he became after relinquishing the crown) and Adolf Hitler. Even if it’s all hogwash, these sections move quickly and show promise in the first-time author.

Unfortunately, entertaining though "Provenance" may be, it doesn’t read like Ian Fleming. Granted, many readers will neither notice nor care, but Bond fans will. At times, Silver comes close to getting Fleming’s voice right, but then gets too caught up in his own narrative and loses Fleming. For example, when Silver’s Fleming laments his ill health (in 1964, the time he’s writing this lengthy letter) and imposing mortality, it would have been a nice touch to use Fleming’s own vivid description of heart disease as an "iron crab." Arguably, it’s probably more difficult to keep in the voice of a well-read author than that of your own original character, but that Silver fails only calls attention to the fact that his characters themselves aren’t well enough differentiated. (Kostova managed admirably in switching between three distinct voices of different genders; Silver seems to have trouble with his female protagonist, leading to cringe-worthy sentences like this one: "It would be a hoot to see the faces on The Girls when she told them they’d be wearing matching dresses....")

Silver’s Fleming sounds much too familiar, even a bit of a Bertie Wooster-ish twit at times. He certainly doesn’t sound like a journalist, which Ian Fleming was. Even the published letters of the real Fleming that I’ve read aren’t as familiar as Silver’s version. He picks up on Fleming’s self-effacing humor, but doesn’t get it quite right. He also hones in on Fleming’s schoolboy-like obsession with sex, but that too seems off to me. Silver’s Fleming dwells unnecessarily on penis size, the only explicit reference to which that I can think of in the author’s works is a joke scribbled on the wall of an American restroom in Diamonds Are Forever. The real Fleming seemed far more interested in myriad sexual deviances and strange fetishes than in genitalia. I assumed that the explicit references to the length and depth of Edward's and Simpson’s respective organs were shoe-horned in as a point of historical curiosity, but they turn out to be among the many details Silver admits to fabricating in his afterward. Bizarre.

Finally, the whole conceit of the novel (and I’m going to drift into vague, minor spoiler territory here, so potential readers beware), that Fleming would feel compelled to reveal to the world a secret that could potentially destroy the Royal Family seems off base. This is, after all, the man who penned On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, who created a literary hero staunchly devoted to Queen and Country. I suspect Fleming himself shared those devotions, at least enough so that he wouldn’t want to bring down the Monarchy. Ultimately, Ian Fleming seems the wrong vessel to choose to deliver this message, but he’s an interesting figure, and the James Bond connection is sure to lure in curious browsers.

The book also loses credibility from serious Bond fans for mixing up (probably intentionally, since Silver seems to have at least read Fleming, as well as a few biographies of him) the Bond of the books with the Bond of the movies. "Ian Fleming" writes, in "Provenance": "Q lives. The real-life counterpart of the quartermaster in the Bond books is alive and well and counting the days to retirement in the basement of Whitehall." Of course, while Q branch exists in the novels, as does an armorer named Major Boothroyd (named after a real person), the character referred to by the letter Q is an invention of the movies, and not one that Fleming would likely take credit for.

In Secret Service succeeds neither as an Ian Fleming pastiche nor as a Da Vinci Code-style historical mystery, but it is a fast read. The storyline in the past was interesting enough to keep me turning the pages, and worked better as soon as I resigned myself to accept it on its own merits and not look for clever Flemingisms. Had it been the sole story, I might have fully enjoyed the novel. As one cover-quoted author points out, Silver's enthusiasm for his own material is palpable, and that zeal goes a long way. In Secret Service is a failure, but a promising one, and the writer's second novel might fare better.