Nov 30, 2008

Movie Review: Transporter 3 (2008)

The Eurospy genre is alive and well thanks to the efforts of Luc Besson and his Europa Corp. Yes, I know that a "transporter" is not a spy, but for all practical purposes these are spy movies: fast cars, hot babes, impossible stunts and daffy action in exotic European locales (from Marseilles to Munich to Budapest to Odessa). Specifically, they’re Roger Moore Bond movies with a different sort of leading man. (The wink and the self-deprecating humor are traded for abs and abs and a face that doesn’t look all wrinkly when sucking the air out of tires underwater.)

In the spectrum of extant Transporter movies, Transporter 3 isn’t quite as good as the sublimely over-the-top Transporter 2, but it’s definitely more enjoyable than the first film. Director Olivier Megaton, new to the series with this installment, lacks some of Louis Leterrier’s patience. Leterrier was content to stand back and give full coverage to action choreographer Corey Yuen’s impressive fight spectacles, allowing star Jason Statham to show off his moves. Megaton subscribes to the more contemporary school of action direction, and cuts too quickly. If Statham’s still got the same impressive moves he demonstrated last time out, he never gets to really show them off here, which is too bad. But even at their choppiest, the fight scenes are always at least coherent, which is sadly more than can be said for Quantum of Solace. Furthermore, Megaton has the good sense to let the car chases (and a very impressive bike chase) play out entirely unimpeded by unnecessarily choppy editing, and those are the bread and butter of any Transporter movie.

The plot to Transporter 3 makes no sense at all. In fact, the very involvement of the hero, the transporter, is never remotely justified. There’s nothing that needs transporting. He’s completely extraneous to the bad guys’ rote kidnapping plot. But that doesn’t seem to bother the writers, and damned if it didn’t bother me, either. The filmmakers are so committed to their utterly (as I said before) daffy action that plot matters little. True to Eurospy form.

As a dedicated follower of Fleming, and as a staunch admirer of Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale, I realize that it’s wrong for me to lionize the Roger Moore era of Bond. I shouldn’t want that. But for some reason, I do. When watching Quantum of Solace a second time recently, as Bond haphazardly chased someone across the rooftops of Sienna I found myself wishing I were watching Roger Moore. It took me another moment to realize that of course, that’s not really what I wanted at all. I love Craig’s 007. What I really wanted was John Glen. If I was watching an Eighties Moore film, I’d be able to follow the action completely and take in the amazing scenery at the same time, because John Glen would direct it in an unflashy, even workmanlike manner that would allow me to do so. It didn’t matter that it clearly wasn’t Roger performing most of those stunts (likewise it clearly isn't Jason Statham riding the bicycle!); the Bond team in the Eighties committed to exactly the same sense of daffy action that the Transporter team does today, and after the dead-serious, gritty shaky-cam action of Quantum of Solace, it was refreshing to wallow in such unashamed... fun as Transporter 3.

The movie piles on the Bond references. There are whole heaping bits of GoldenEye, a direct steal from Diamonds Are Forever and the aforementioned tire air breathing from A View To A Kill (which I've always thought to be one of the cooler moments in that movie), to mention just a few. (There’s even an actor from The Living Daylights–Jeroen Krabbe.) But in each case, Transporter 3 takes things a bit further than its illustrious predecessors. Not only does Statham’s Frank Martin survive underwater by sucking air from his car’s tires; he somehow uses that air to inflate some bags he had in his trunk and float the whole car to the surface! Yes, it’s impossible, but that’s the world of Transporter. Frank doesn’t drive through an alley on two wheels of his car; he drives between two eighteen wheelers moving at high speed! (Though we never get a satisfactory shot explaining exactly how he gets his Audi on two side wheels without the benefit of a ramp! The same way Sean Connery managed to flip his Mustang halfway down the alley, I guess.) And rather than stopping a train with a tank to face down the villain as 007 did, Frank Martin actually jumps his car onto the moving train... twice. They recycle stunts from Bond, but they do them even bigger, in loving homage.

I hate to imply that Transporter 3 out-Bonds Bond. You’ll find none of the pathos, none of the rich characterizations or stellar performances, and none of the genuine drama of the latest 007 adventure here. But there were moments when classic Eurospy movies managed to one-up the very thing they were desperately aping, like Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina rising out of the water in bikinis and brandishing spearguns in Deadlier Than the Male, or Daniella Bianchi machine-gunning people while dressed as a nun, then stripping down to a bathing suit and diving off a cliff in Special Mission Lady Chaplin. And in that tradition, Transporter 3 contains a few action setpieces far more Bondian than anything in Bond's own latest offering–even on a decidedly lower budget.


Of course, every Eurospy movie needs a hot Euro-babe. Olga Kurylenko filled that role in last year’s Hitman, and look where she is today! After the first Transporter 3 trailer hit, I speculated as to whether Natalya Rudakova would be able to follow in her footsteps. At the time, there was no information on Rudakova whatsoever on the web. Well, judging from the number of hits that story has been getting via Google searches since the movie opened, the striking freckled redhead has certainly struck a chord with viewers. While she never wields two guns as makeup streaks her face as she does on the poster (and as her predecessor Kate Nuata did in Transporter 2), she is sexy, which is really the most basic requirement of any Eurospy starlet. Her party girl character is a bit annoying at times, but Rudakova has fun with that and earns quite a few laughs.

Furthermore, her character becomes the first woman in a Transporter movie to actually become romantically involved with Frank Martin.

In the first two movies, Frank wanted nothing to do with women. It was explained away under his strict adherence to his own specific set of strict rules, which didn’t allow for such distractions–but he almost seemed afraid of the fairer sex. Rudakova’s Valentina picks up on this and exploits it fully. And this is how the Eurospy genre has changed in forty years. At one point, Valentina steals Frank’s car keys (the most important things in the world to a professional driver), and demands that Frank do a strip tease for her to get them back. (She’s already watched him fight topless with great interest.) Then she demands even more from him, and Frank finally succumbs to feminine wiles. This is exactly the sort of behavior that one of the loathsome, chauvinist Sixties male Eurospy heroes would have engaged in. (I can just picture Kommissar X’s Tony Kendall forcing a reluctant woman to strip for some keys! In fact, maybe he did...) Natalya Rudakova makes the prospect much more appealing. In forty plus years, things have some full circle. Gloria Steinem might not agree, but for the Eurospy genre, this is feminism.

It may not have done it with quite the finesse of the second movie in the series, but for the most part, Transporter 3 delivered exactly what I wanted from it. It’s fun, mindless action with a likable hero and a sexy girl. It’s crazy car stunts that unfold impressively before the viewers’ eyes, and not off camera between rapid cuts. And it doesn’t make a lick of sense. It’s daffy action. It’s Eurospy.

Nov 26, 2008

Francesco Francavilla's Awesome Retro Bond

Comic book artist Francesco Francavilla, illustrator of one of my favorite spy comics of recent years, Left On Mission, posted this moody, eye-catching, retro-style poster design on his blog this week. I like the way the Penguin title treatment works with the Sixties-style font, and I love his depiction of Daniel Craig. Man, how I wish Bond posters still looked like that! Great work, Francesco!

Check out more of his work on his official website.

Image used with the artist's permission.

Nov 25, 2008

Movie Review: Espionage Agent (1939)

In the days leading up to WWII, Joel McCrea made near back-to-back spy films with polar opposite political agendas. Alfred Hitchcock’s genre-defining action masterpiece Foreign Correspondent warned of the chaos brewing in Europe and made the clear case that it would be impossible for America and Americans to avoid being caught up in it, so the U.S. should make a stand soon and come to the aid of its overseas allies. (As a Brit working in Hollywood, Hitchcock himself had an obvious patriotic agenda.) Prior to that role, however, McCrea played an American diplomat in Espionage Agent, a movie that dared to vilify Hitler’s Germany at a time when studios preferred to play it safe with international politics, yet at the same time advocated America’s neutrality. "If America, lacking the protective laws it needs, is drawn into another war," one mouthpiece character declares, "it will be because of those human ostriches who keep their heads buried in the sand." While advocating isolationism, the movie recognizes its drawbacks. "Isolation is a political policy, and not a brick wall around the nation," comments another character. "And fancy pants guys [meaning spies] walk right through political policies."

Espionage Agent blames nefarious foreign spies and saboteurs for warmongering in America, ignoring all the other factors that led to U.S. involvement in the Second World War, but at the same time makes the sound case that the United States badly needs a counterintelligence agency of its own to root out those spies. That, the film’s creators naively believe, will be the end of it. As long as U.S. authorities can round up all the foreign agents operating within the country, America need have no more involvement with the war in Europe. So while it’s heart may have been in the right place, the movie’s politics have dated badly. But how does Espionage Agent fare as pure entertainment? Sadly not so well. Director Lloyd Bacon and the four credited writers had not yet cracked the genre the way Hitchcock had.

At a time when Hollywood films weren’t supposed to stir up trouble by specifically identifying the foreign powers behind the spies and saboteurs creeping all over movie screens, Espionage Agent boldly opens with headlines about German agents operating subversively on U.S. soil and Congress’s need to take action. They get away with this by hiding behind a title card that identifies these events as occurring in 1915, but the implication is clear that they’re happening again. Once we flash forward to the contemporary setting of 1939, there’s no more specific mention of Germany, though all the foreign agents speak with German accents and have names like Muller and come from a country that borders Switzerland with soldiers whose uniforms closely resemble those of the SS.

McCrea plays Barry Corvall, a U.S. diplomat in Algiers. He helps a throng of American travelers escape the revolution-rocked nation, including the beautiful Brenda Ballard (played by the equally beautiful Brenda Marshall). When he sees Brenda, it’s love at first sight. Unfortunately, we’ve just seen her agreeing out of desperation to spy for the loathsome Herr Muller (Martin Kosleck) if only he’ll furnish her with an American passport so she can get home. Barry books Brenda passage on the same steamship he’s taking back to the States, and woos her throughout the voyage. Not wanting to drag him into her own unfortunate predicament, Brenda adamantly refuses his advances.

Back in America, Barry and his friend Lowell enroll in some sort of advanced diplomat school, and learn more about the dangers of foreign spies. This section plays out like the Top Gun of the diplomatic corps; it’s clearly designed to attract eager recruits for foreign service. Barry eventually completes his higher learning and gets posted to Paris. And he finally convinces Brenda to marry him. Of course, that’s when the snake Muller emerges from the shadows, reminding her of her debt of service to his organization. Here, the movie does something surprising. It doesn’t milk the drama of a wife coerced into spying on her husband. Instead, Brenda comes clean with Barry and tells him everything. He, in turn, reveals all this to his bosses in the State Department.

I don’t know if their response accurately belies the astonishing ignorance of the pre-war U.S. intelligence community, or merely the astonishing ignorance of Hollywood’s screenwriters at telling good spy stories. Either way, instead of using this newfound asset as a double agent to pass misinformation along to the Germans, the honchos at the State Department call Muller into their office and tell him exactly what they know, blowing their chances at running any sort of counterspy operation. Muller smiles and says it’s all true, but what can they do about it? He’s a foreign citizen, so under the current U.S. law they have no choice but to let him go. Way to go, State Department; way to accomplish nothing. Yes, that’s the movie’s point, but it makes for frustrating plot development.

So halfway through the movie, we’re robbed (twice) of what could have been the compelling espionage drama promised in the film’s title. Luckily, Corvall feels just as cheated as the audience, and vows to single-handedly bust up this spy ring. Of course Brenda won’t let him go it alone, so he reluctantly accepts her help. As a private citizen, he’ll fashion himself and Brenda into a two-person CIA. And so they head off together to take on all the espionage agents in Europe, trying to gather evidence of infiltration that will force Congress to act... somehow. This private mission leads to the good stuff we expect from Thirties spy movies, like secret codes, foreign embassies, listening to conversations through windows and–of course–crossing borders on trains. But still, Barry and Brenda are dogged by America’s general lack of preparedness to function as a superpower. When Barry tries to bluff that American agents are watching all the train stations, the head German (oops, I mean head "foreign") agent snidely gloats, "Ve know America has no counter-espionage service."

Things still manage to get exciting in a kind of third-rate way, and then wrap up very suddenly against the same conditions that end Foreign Correspondent, with the world on the verge of war. It’s not giving away too much about a movie of this era to say that Barry does something worthy of praise, but sadly America is in no position to offer it. "You helped forge the weapon the service so badly needed," says his former State Department superior. "And yet the service can’t show its gratitude for it." The age-old secret agent’s dilemma: there’s no public reward for secret service. Of course, the movie itself has managed to make its very public case for an American counterintelligence agency, so it’s undeniably successful to some degree, and of considerable interest to students of spy history. Yet its creators remain blissfully hopeful that such an organization will enable the country to maintain its isolationist outlook, and steer clear of the troubles in Europe.

Espionage Agent is a curious time capsule from that moment when Hollywood was first dabbling with the notion of a secret agent hero. Spies were still shadowy villains, aiming to do America harm, but what about a counterintelligence officer, protecting the country from such threats? Barry Corvall is still a private citizen, and a cinematic James Bond is still two decades away. Despite a few anomalies during WWII, the heroic counter agent wouldn’t emerge until the Cold War, but Espionage Agent is notable as an early experiment in that direction. It’s also worth seeing for solid performances from Joel McCrea and the truly stunning Brenda Marshall, whose career was sadly never as big as it should have been. But it’s far from top-shelf spy entertainment. For that, seek out McCrea’s next spy movie, Foreign Correspondent.
New Spy DVDs Out This Week

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold Criterion Edition

This one caught me completely by surprise. It somehow slipped under my radar entirely whenever it was announced, which was a serious oversight on my part, as this is one of the cornerstones of the "serious" side of the spy genre--and a Sixties classic. The John Le Carré novel was adapted by Paul Dehn, who wrote a trilogy of Sixties spy films starting with Goldfinger in 1964--as different a spy movie as you can get from this one--and concluding with another Le Carré adaptation, the underrated Smiley story without Smiley The Deadly Affair (based on Call For the Dead) in 1966. The existing Paramount disc of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was a bare-bones affair, and not even the best transfer, so its high time this title got the treatment it deserves. Criterion provides a brand new, digitally-restored transfer and a number of extras on this two disc set including new interviews with John Le Carré and the film's cinematographer, Oswald Morris, an old interview with star Richard Burton, the theatrical trailer, a gallery of set designs, and printed essays and interviews. Best of all, though, is the inclusion of an hour-long 2000 BBC documentary about Le Carré called The Secret Centre. This sounds like an amazing release, and clearly a must-have for fans of the serious side of the spy genre.

24: Redemption

Jack Bauer in Africa! (Finally!) This is the extended version of the long-awaited 24 TV movie (formerly titled Exile) that aired on Fox this past weekend. The DVD includes all sorts of extras including a making-of documentary, a commentary track, several featurettes, a recap of the show's sixth season and a preview of the seventh--in the form of the first act (sixteen minutes) of January's season premiere.

The Pink Panther Ultimate Collection

The ultimate Christmas gift for all Pink Panther fans: The Pink Panther Ultimate Collection. This impressive box set contains a whopping eighteen discs comprising every Pink Panther movie from the original up through the Steve Martin version, including all the weird ones like Inspector Clouseau with Alan Arkin and Curse of the Pink Panther with an impressive Roger Moore performance as the second-best Clouseau, but excluding (of course) one of the series' best films, Return of the Pink Panther. Since that one was financed by Lew Grade and ITC, it's never been a part of the MGM library and is currently available on DVD on a Universal imprint. In addition to all the movies, the Ultimate Collection will also include over 190 Pink Panther cartoons! This includes the first four volumes (previously available as a set), the Ant and the Aardvark volume, and the previously available Inspector volume... as well as the previously unreleased Inspector Volume 2, Roland and Ratfink and a mysterious ninth disc! Best of all, this new set also includes a new Special Edition of Blake Edwards' original Pink Panther film, including over sixty minutes of never-before-seen bonus material, all exclusive to this set.

Nov 22, 2008

Movie Review: Quantum Of Solace (2008)

The trailers were so awesome. The concept of a direct continuation within the Bond series held so much merit. I really believed that this movie had the potential to be even more incredible than its genuinely illustrious predecessor, Casino Royale (2006). Regrettably, it isn’t.
Quantum of Solace is far from a Die Another Day-level disaster, to be sure, but–sadly–it’s also far from a Casino Royale-level success. And coming on the heels of such a masterpiece, that’s a fairly crushing disappointment.

My heart sank as soon as the gun barrel failed to appear on screen. I had the same sinking feeling at the beginning of Casino Royale, but that movie quickly demonstrated its right to be different, and, indeed, it was a good choice not to begin it with the classic James Bond opening. But at the end of Casino Royale, when Daniel Craig uttered the line "Bond, James Bond" and The James Bond Theme kicked in on the soundtrack, it was clear that Craig’s neophyte 007 had earned his stripes. Therefore, I was expecting some classic elements of the series to fall back into place after the experiment of Casino Royale. Foremost among them, the gun barrel.

There is a gun barrel sequence in Quantum of Solace, but it doesn’t come until the end of the movie. Yes, I understand the implication. Bond has dealt with his own emotions regarding Vesper’s death; he’s ready to move on and become the 007 we know from the other movies. That gun barrel signifies the opening of every adventure to come. But that’s not the purpose of the gun barrel sequence. The gun barrel opening, along with the distinctive theme music that accompanies it, is designed to get the audience’s pulses pounding. To get the adrenalin pumping. To prepare us for the ride to come. It simply doesn’t work at the end of a movie. And, besides, the gimmick of putting it there is too repetitive after Casino Royale. Bond has a decidedly different arc in Quantum of Solace, but closing with the gun barrel makes it feel far to similar to what came before.

Anyway, back to the beginning: director Marc Forster started his movie in a hole for me without the gun barrel. He’d have to dig himself out quickly. Luckily, that should be entirely possible. After all, we’ve got an opening sequence with all the classic Bond elements one could ask for: one sleek Aston Martin and a few fast pursuit cars leaden with machine guns careening along some beautiful Italian countryside. (Tim Lucas points out in his review that one of the locations is even the tunnel from Mario Bava’s spy classic Danger: Diabolik, so there’s another thing going for it!) Furthermore, we’d all read about how the filmmakers wrecked two Aston Martins shooting this sequence, and a stuntman came perilously close to losing his life. Surely, all that hard work would pay off in something great?

Again, it saddens me to no end to report that the answer is no. All the elements are there, yes, but Forster and editors Matt Chesse and Richard Pearson don’t ever let them stay on screen long enough to pay off. We’re thrust into the midst of a chase already in progress, but never situated. I am not averse to shaky, hand-held cameras or ultra-fast cutting in an action film. The Bourne Ultimatum used these techniques masterfully. But director Paul Greengrass had already used two other films to perfect them, starting with the not-entirely-successful Bourne Supremacy. Forster had never done an action movie at all before, and plunged into this most difficult of contemporary styles. As chaotic as the action appeared in The Bourne Ultimatum, it was all expertly orchestrated. There was never a moment where I felt like I didn’t know what was going on. In the opening scene of Quantum of Solace, I never felt situated. I never felt like I knew what was going on.

The spectacular stunts (Alfa Romeos going over cliffs) happen so quickly that it almost doesn’t matter that the stunt team worked so hard on them. They might as well be CGI. A James Bond pre-credits sequence should be about allowing spectacular stunts to unfold before our eyes, causing us to exclaim, "I can’t believe a guy actually did that!" Cases in point: the ski jump from The Spy Who Loved Me, or the bungee jump in GoldenEye. Here, the stunts happen so fast that they didn’t elicit much more than a shrug from me, I’m sorry to say. Maybe they really did that, but who’s to know? Not only are the stunts denied a chance to breathe; so is the scenery. We never get a sustained establishing shot, so we never get to bask in the beauty of the Italian countryside. We never even get a beauty shot of the Aston Martin DBS, so it doesn’t really matter that it even is an Aston Martin DBS. This is James Bond! These things should matter! The exotic locations and the luxury marques are part of the appeal!

I suspect that the sequence was well-written, and I’m positive that a lot of hard work went into creating it. But Forster and his editing team have rendered it incomprehensible, using those potentially fantastic elements to instead create the single worst pre-credits sequence of the entire series.

Things don’t improve with the entirely lackluster title sequence, either, courtesy of MK12. Why was Danny Kleinman not brought back after doing the best work of his career on Casino Royale? I certainly hope he returns for the next Bond. Jack White’s theme song, "Another Way To Die," never really made a strong impression on me one way or the other before seeing it in the context of the film. I didn’t love it, but I certainly didn’t hate it either. A suberb title sequence to go with it could have easily elevated the song to love for me, but the one we get unfortunately does nothing of the sort. I like that the girls are back, but it’s weird that the first one rears up out of the sand to accompany Judi Dench’s name, and their dancing seems pretty uninspired. Additionally, there’s altogether too much of 007 himself in the titles. This worked well in The Spy Who Loved Me and Casino Royale, but the concept has lost its originality in Quantum of Solace.

Immediately following the credits comes yet another incomprehensible action scene, this one a foot chase across the rooftops of Siena against the incredible backdrop of the Palio. Again, it should be a winner. All the elements are there. It’s a great Bondian setting, and how can you mess up a rooftop chase? Sadly, Forster manages. As with the opening, the sequence is cut so poorly it’s often difficult to tell which figure is James Bond. The chase culminates in what was probably a pretty amazing setpiece on paper, with Bond and his opponent dangling as counterweights to each other, each man trying to get his hands on a gun. As it plays, though, the device is never given the single set-up shot it requires for the audience to fully appreciate the situation. Furthermore, there hasn’t been a break in the frenetic action for a plot to manifest itself yet, and I found myself wondering why I was even supposed to care about the outcome. Who was this guy anyway? Forster’s rapid cuts and disassociated camerawork serve to completely relieve the scene of any stakes whatsoever.

So for the first fifteen minutes of Quantum of Solace, I was slumped down low in my seat, fearing the worst. Happily, things get better after that.

While the action direction remains atrocious, the story is finally allowed a chance to kick in, and it’s pretty good. The script, credited to Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, appears to be quite solid beneath the movie’s iffy veneer. And performances are top notch across the board. Daniel Craig once again makes a truly compelling 007, Mathieu Amalric hones a creepy intensity (somewhat reminiscent of Klaus Maria Brandauer’s Maximillian Largo in Never Say Never Again) to elevate an otherwise unremarkable villain into a genuine scene-stealer, and Jeffrey Wright and Giancarlo Giannini both give incredibly solid supporting performances as two of my favorite Ian Fleming characters, Felix and Mathis. When she first caught my eye in Hitman, I remarked that Olga Kurylenko didn’t have much to do with her character other than look nice, but she intrigued me enough that I’d like to see her with the chance to do more. Here she gets that chance, and she fully rises to the occasion as one of the more fully rounded female characters of the series. She also continues to look great.

The globehopping locations are amazing (and I like the stylized titles identifying each one), but Forster never allows us one of those great, lingering travelogue shots to fully take them in. The action is fairly wall-to-wall, but I cherished the brief expository moments where the camera calmed down and the editor actually let shots play out for more than a few seconds to focus on the performances. These moments, rather than any of the copious action sequences, become the movie’s standout scenes: a shared drink between Bond and Felix, developing their still-testy friendship, or a rooftop reunion with Mathis and his sunbathing companion. Here, Forster excels.

The centerpiece of Quantum of Solace takes place at an opera house in Austria. There was a lot that I loved about this sequence, including the giant eye motif of the stage, the villains’ ingenious method of meeting secretly and Bond’s interruption thereof, and the way Craig manages to simultaneously look both perfectly comfortable and slightly out of place in a tuxedo. The sequence also proffers the movie’s funniest line (levity is fairly scarce in this Bond entry), courtesy of the enigmatic Casino Royale holdover Mr. White (Jesper Christiensen). As the villains make hurried retreats from the audience, thus identifying themselves to MI6, he remarks, "Tosca’s not for everyone." Neither is Forster’s affinity for cross-cutting, which intrudes a little too much on this whole sequence. Making matters especially confusing is the fact that it’s a modern-day staging of Puccini's Tosca we’re seeing, so all the players–on stage and off–are brandishing guns. Still, by this point in the film I was at least accustomed enough to the direction that it didn’t bother me too much.

I’d hoped that Craig’s second Bond film would echo Connery’s, From Russia With Love. In that movie, the actor used a down-to-earth espionage plot to iron out any rough edges on the character, shaping him into the cinematic icon he is today. I was looking forward to witnessing that once again, a bit more intentionally this time out. Instead, it plays out like a mixture between the second Bond films of Dalton and Brosnan–Licence To Kill and Tomorrow Never Dies–but not as good as either of those. It’s the revenge-driven, rogue agent Bond of Licence To Kill in the nonstop action Cuisinart of Tomorrow Never Dies. In 1997, the favored action style of the moment was wire-heavy Hong Kong chic; now it’s a grittier, Bourne-driven hand-held style. Both cases are examples of 007 following the pack rather than leading.

Following the resonant conclusion of Casino Royale, I’d expected a more fully-formed James Bond this time out. Instead, he’s still a work in progress–though his real arc is getting over Vesper’s betrayal and death. (The film’s final scene is one of its most successful, bringing that storyline to a truly satisfying conclusion.) I really hope that next time we get to finally see Craig come into his own as a suave, assured 007. I think he’s more than capable of carrying that off, and I’m dying to see it!

I don’t have any problem with nonstop action Bonds; Tomorrow Never Dies is actually one of my favorites. But that’s discernable action. My problem with the action in Quantum of Solace is that it’s mostly incomprehensible, and never particularly inventive. There isn’t a single action setpiece–like the foot chase in Casino Royale, for instance–that I would consider a 007 classic. I simply had higher hopes for the follow-up to Casino Royale.

Does this mean that I won’t see Quantum of Solace again? Of course not! I’m going to try to see it again this weekend, and I plan to revisit my review after watching it a second time. Perhaps I’ll like it more. Perhaps less. Either way, I think it’s worth revisiting. Hopefully not being so hung up on the style will allow me to enjoy the substance more... or just focus more on my more petty gripes like the lack of Q and Moneypenny, or the fact that the new villainous organization isn’t SPECTRE!

Nov 20, 2008

Tradecraft: The Ludlum Pact

Variety reports that Universal has signed an exclusive pact with Ludlum Entertainment, executors of the late author's estate. The deal not only gives the studio exclusive rights to the highly lucrative Jason Bourne character, but also a first-look option at Ludlum's vast library of more than twenty-five unfilmed titles. All such projects will be developed with Ludlum Entertainment, whose CEO Jeffrey Weiner will set up offices on the Universal lot. According to the trade, Weiner will "hire development executives as the company takes an active hand in developing projects, including some not based on books by Ludlum." The studio is already developing The Sigma Protocol with Strike Entertainment.

The upshot of this deal should be more Ludlum novels coming to the big screen, something the author's fans have long known was a natural fit, but which Hollywood has been slow picking up on. Fortunately, the billion dollar plus Bourne franchise has lit a fire at Universal!

Nov 18, 2008

James Bond: The Secret World Of 007 Contest Winner

Congratulations to Johan Kjellstrom of New York, who has won a copy of the latest edition of James Bond: The Secret World of 007 courtesy of publisher DK. If you missed out on either this or the other DK book I gave away last week, Bond On Set: Filming Quantum of Solace--OR the James Bond Blu-Rays I gave away before that!--the publisher is currently running their own contest for both books and the Blu-Rays! So be sure to take another shot over there.

And here at the Double O Section, there's still one more Blogiversary contest to go and I'll have that up tomorrow, so be sure to stop by!

Nov 17, 2008

Contest Winner Tomorrow

Sorry for the delays of late. Returning from my trip back East, I came down with a monster cold that really put me out of commission. Regular posting will resume tomorrow, including the winner of the DK James Bond: The Secret World of 007 book contest. Thanks for bearing with me...

Nov 12, 2008

More Secret Agent Music!

Sometimes it seems nary a day goes by without exciting spy news from Network! (Or, in this case, Patrcick McGoohan news, I guess.) Hot on the heels of their Saint DVD announcement comes news of a second volume of music from the classic McGoohan spy series Danger Man--known here in the U.S. as Secret Agent. Following their collection of themes from the initial series of half-hour episodes comes this volume of never-before-released music from the hour-long series. Nearly 400 minutes of original score material by Edwin Astley are contained on five discs. As with other Network soundtrack releases, this Danger Man set includes the same exhaustive, unmissable liner notes by the tireless Andrew Pixley.

Note that this collection presumably won't include Johnny Rivers' famous theme song "Secret Agent Man" because that was only used as the intro to the series in America, and Network's sources are the U.K. master tapes. And it's not as if the Rivers song is hard to come by!

It's traditional that I end any blog post about a new Network ITC soundtrack by reiterating both how happy I am that the label continues to produce these sets and my perpetual hope that one day they give us my own personal Holy Grail of TV music: Ken Thorne's scores from The Persuaders!

Danger Man: Original Soundtrack is a Network web-only exclusive for the time being, scheduled to start shipping November 24.

Nov 11, 2008

Buffy Does Bond

Here's the cover to an upcoming issue of Dark Horse Comics' amazing Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Eight comic book series. Yes, that's Andrew looking suave in the tux, the character who once won the allegiance of Buffy-watching Bond fans by declaring on the show, "I like Timothy Dalton!" A previous cover (#9) by the same artist paid homage to The Avengers. This one, issue #23, is scheduled to come out March 8, 2009.
New Spy DVDs Out This Week: Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow Of Romney Marsh

Well, it's not actually a spy DVD at all, but it's a DVD that's been near the top of many a spy fan's want list for a long time, nonetheless. Fans of The Prisoner and Danger Man will no doubt be clamoring (as I am) for this long-awaited Disney Treasures release of the much-demanded, oft-promised and oft-delayed DVD! Number 6 himself Patrick McGoohan stars as a former pirate turned quiet English vicar who transforms himself into a horrific vigilante outlaw dressed as a scarecrow to fight injustices perpetrated by the Crown. A Robin Hoodish figure, he fights the King's dragoons to protect the townspeople (mostly smugglers) from exorbitant taxation and impressment. This 2-disc set includes all three hour-long TV episodes of the miniseries, as well as the edited theatrical version. It's a real treat for McGoohan fans!
The Saint Steps In... To Television

UK company Network has announced a DVD containing just the acclaimed documentaries from each of their three Saint DVD releases edited together and expanded into a feature-length documentary. I've been salivating for this disc since reader Delmo mentioned it in a comment on my post about the since-cancelled Australian Saint documentary. When the company's first Saint set debuted, Network posted clips from the documentary on their site, and they looked amazing. A&E offered no such features on the Region 1 Saint releases. Sadly I, like many American Saint fans, I presume, was in no position to spring for a whole new set just to get the bonus features. This new DVD combines "The Saint Steps In... To Television" from Network's release of the black & white Roger Moore episodes, "The Saint Steps In... To Colour" from their set of the Moore color series (both narrated by Ian Ogilvy) and "The Saint Steps In... To the 1970s," narrated by Moore, from their Return of the Saint set (starring Ogilvy). Here's Networks own copy on what's certain to be a stellar Region 2 release:

Previously only available with the best-selling Saint and Return of the Saint DVD box sets, this series of highly acclaimed documentaries has now been revised and expanded with new interviews to form one feature-length documentary. The Saint Steps In... To Television is the definitive look at the series’ production for Lew Grade’s ITC company, as told by those involved in its creation. It covers the full story of how Simon Templar came to the small screen in the early 1960s, the series’ evolution into colour and its revamping and reformatting to fit the shifting trends of a late 1970s audience. Featuring extensive contributions from Roger Moore, Ian Ogilvy, Robert S. Baker, Johnny Goodman, Patricia Charteris and many more, this two-hour documentary is the final word on Simon Templar’s time at ITC.
The Saint Steps In... To Television is currently available only as a Network website exclusive. While you're on their site, you might also want to check out their 40% off sale on select titles, including both Moore Saint sets as well as The Persuaders! which runs through Christmas.

Nov 7, 2008

CONTEST: Win James Bond: The Secret World Of 007

Here's the third promised Blogiversary James Bond contest! Want to win a copy of DK's other new James Bond book, the latest, updated edition of James Bond: The Secret World of 007? The one with the cool Quantum of Solace cover? All you have to do is send an email with the subject heading "SECRET WORLD," including your name and full mailing address, to the Double O Section by midnight, Pacific Time on Sunday, November 16, 2008. Winners will be announced the next day. Good luck!

One entry per person, please. Double entries will be disqualified. One winner will be drawn at random and announced in on Monday, November 17, 2008. The winner's name will be posted here and he or she will be notified via email. All entries will be deleted immediately after the contest’s close, and no personal information will be retained or transmitted to any third parties. The contest is open to anyone, in any country. Unfortunately, the Double O Section cannot assume responsibility for items lost or damaged in transit.

Nov 6, 2008

Bond On Set Contest Winner

Wow! The Blogiversary Contest for the DK photo book Bond On Set: Filming Quantum of Solace by Greg Williams generated the most entries ever for a Double O Section contest! Likewise, the month of October generated the most ever visits to the site in a single month, so all of that is very appropriate for celebrating the Section's Second Blogiversary. But out of all those entries, there can be only one winner, and this time that winner is...

Matthew Buzzell of California, USA

Congratulations, Matthew. Your book will be mailed out shortly. And for all the other entrants, don't despair, because there's another great Bond contest coming tomorrow! Stay tuned...
Tradecraft: Theron Spies On Cruise

Variety reports that Charlize Theron has joined the cast of one of the two spy movies in development with the title The Tourist. It's the Tom Cruise one, not the George Clooney one. The trade says, "In the Julian Fellowes-scripted drama, Theron will play a female Interpol agent who uses an American tourist in an attempt to flush out an elusive criminal with whom she once had an affair." Cruise favorite Christopher McQuarrie is currently doing a polish on the script.
James Bond Action Figures Still Alive?

Remember those James Bond action figures that were announced from Corgi early this year, previewed at several trade shows (with fabulous photos)... and then disappeared without a trace? Action figure collectors are used to lines being delayed, but with two supposed release dates come and gone, things looked dreary for 007. And there was no official word from Corgi, furthering fans' unease. Well, last week, the ever-reliable Action-Figure.com had something to report on the matter. Apparently PopCo, the division of Corgi responsible for the figures (and the masterminds behind the fantastic line of Harry Potter figures and Golden Compass Figures) has gone under. Which is terrible. But all hope is not lost! Here's the relevant bit from Action-Figure.com's story:
Then of course there were the James Bond line Corgi showed off at the UK ToyFair this year (which we understand should still come in 2009 under Master Replicas).
Master Replicas is another company under the Corgi umbrella, so that bodes well. I really, really hope these figures still see the light of day, because they looked fantastic! And because, simply put, the world needs James Bond action figures.
Brosnan Vs. Craig At UK Box Office

While Daniel Craig's Quantum of Solace has just enjoyed the biggest opening of all time in Britain, former Bond Pierce Brosnan has quietly acheived another U.K. box office milestone, according to Variety: his latest film, Mama Mia!, has just surpassed Titanic become the highest grossing film of all time over there. Can Quantum top it? As Lulu would say (er, sing), we shall see...

Nov 5, 2008

Upcoming Spy DVDs: Burn After Reading

The Coen Brothers' recent spy comedy Burn After Reading hits DVD and Blu-Ray this December. That's a pretty quick turnaround. This was a hilarious send-up of the Intelligence Community, Tony Scott movies (and beepy text titles) and Washington culture starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand and a whole cast of big stars and faces you'll recognize. It's Coen Light, but it's definitely good Coen Brothers, nonetheless. Extras are traditionally pretty minimal on Coen Brothers DVDs (since they generally refuse to participate in any serious way), and that's the case here as well, but at least Universal offers up a few features: "Finding the Burn" (the making of Burn After Reading from inspiration to the big screen), "DC Insiders Run Amuck" (creating the insular world of Washington, DC insiders), and "Welcome Back George" (a comedic piece focusing on Clooney's ongoing collaboration with the directors). The disc hits stores just in time for last-minute Christmas shoppers on December 21. [NOTE: The release date has been moved up to December 21.] Unfortunately (and as per usual), the studio has swapped out some of the best poster art of the year for a blander, more generic DVD cover plastered with pictures of the stars. Sigh.

Read my full review of the movie here.
REMINDER: Last Day To Win Bond On Set

Remember to get your entries in by midnight, Pacific Time, tonight for an opportunity to win DK's superb new photo book Bond On Set: Filming Quantum of Solace in the Double O Section's Blogiversary contest. The winner will be announced tomorrow.

Click here for contest details.

Click here to read my review of Bond On Set: Filming Quantum of Solace.

Click here to order Bond On Set: Filming Quantum of Solace from Amazon.
Callan Coming To DVD In USA!

Acorn Media has sent out a press release today announcing the aquisition of more than 30 classic British mystery and drama titles from FremantleMedia Enterprises... including the downbeat Sixties spy classic Callan, starring Edward Woodward as a government assassin who takes no pleasure in his work. The gritty espionage drama is one of the key spy shows of that era still absent on DVD in America, so this is really great news! Several seasons were released in Britain, but are now out of print. The show is currently available in Australia from Umbrella, but without the fantastic extras that make their ITC releases so amazing. Today's press release reveals no further details on Acorn's plans for the title, so I don't know if they'll begin with the surviving black and white episodes (some of which I don't think have been officially released anywhere yet) or jump straight into the later color seasons. I also don't know if their deal with Freemantle includes the pilot, a 1967 Armchair Theatre episode entitled "A Magnum For Schneider," or the 1974 theatrical movie (a remake of the pilot). But I do know that we'll be getting some iteration of Callan on Region 1 DVD, and that is fantastic news!

Acorn's press release also mentions that The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes is included in their Fremantle deal. This anthology of Victorian detectives, spies and gentleman thieves includes an appearance by William Le Queux's secret agent hero Duckworth Drew, one of the first fictional spies to rely on gadgets. I don't know too much about this series (although I love the Hugh Greene anthologies of that title), but I'd imagine there are some other espionage escapades as well. And speaking of gentleman adventurers, I believe that Adam Adamant Lives! is also a Fremantle title. 2Entertain put out a sublime DVD of this Avengers rival (which Brian Clemens worked on) in England, but it would be wonderful to see it available in America as well, so I hope it's among the thirty titles!

Nov 4, 2008

Travel Like Bond With Orbitz

This contest has been running for quite a while already, and it's my own fault that I hadn't fully explored it earlier. But Orbitz's "Travel Like Bond" sweepstakes is pretty awesome! We're now in the fifth week of seven, and the travel site is giving away a different fantastic Bondian travel package each week. For example, the first week's prize was a From Russia With Love-inspired Istanbul getaway which included such 007-style activities as a Bosphorus cruise aboard a private motorboat and a helicopter tour of the city, as well as meals at restaurants that would make Ian Fleming himself salivate. (I'm really sorry I missed out on entering for that one.) This week's giveaway is a London adventure package that includes a jet boat experience for two, luxury car rental and various tastes of Bondian nightlife. Next week is Ecuador (and paragliding) and the final week is Chile (with skiing). You don't need to make a purchase from the site to enter the contests. Additionally, there are daily Instant Win prizes like free airfare or Bond Blu-Rays or videogames. To get these, you must complete a short "assignment." The one I did took the form of a game that tested your typing skills--and turned out to be surprisingly addictive. I kept playing for additional chances at the week's grand prize. This is really one of the best thought-out Bond giveaways of recent years, and fans who appreciate the exotic locations and thrilling cities of spy movies as much as I do should definitely check it out. Be sure to let me know if you win!

The site is also offering some Bond coupons. "Save 10% on hotel stays with promotion code BOND10 plus up to 40% with special offers in select destinations. Or save $75 off 3+ night vacation packages with BOND75." And they've got a pretty good guide to Bondian travel up here.
New Spy DVDs Out This Week

The fall trend continues. Once again, there are tons of new spy DVDs out this week! Seriously, today is a very expensive day for spy completists. On the other hand, a lot of these are gift sets or repackaging of (mostly) previously available material, but they're still appealing. Today's column actually makes a great gift guide for the discriminating spy fan on your Christmas list!
Get Smart (2008)

First up, from Warner Bros. we have the DVD debut of last summer's bigscreen remake of Get Smart, starring Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway. Despite its impressive star power, the movie itself failed to impress me too much. Surprisingly, it turned out to largely be a rehash of a previous underwhelming Sixties TV remake, I Spy (really, it's amazing how similar the two movies are, right down to The Rock playing the Gary Cole role)... with a few dollops of Rowan Atkinson's superior spy comedy Johnny English tossed in, and just a tad of the original Get Smart. It does have its moments, though, and I would have liked to see it get a better DVD. Read my review to find out what I didn't like about this so-called "Special Edition," but it's one of the more disappointing spy DVD releases of late. However, it still might be worth picking up in the exclusive Best Buy version (pictured), which reader Delmo alerted me to below. This one comes in limited edition shoe phone packaging!

Get Smart: The Complete Series

If you're more of a Get Smart purist, however, you'll be thrilled to know that the complete original series starring Don Adams and Barbara Feldon hits stores today on DVD! The set (neatly housed in cool phone booth packaging) has been available for almost two years exclusively from TimeLife's website. The retail version will still cost $199.95 (but for 138 episodes and over nine hours of bonus material on twenty-five discs, you get your money's worth), but consumers will now be able to benefit from the deep discounts frequently applied by popular online retailers like Amazon or DeepDiscount.

The Wild Wild West: The Complete Series

This one's pretty divisive among fans so far. If you don't have any Wild Wild West yet, then it's a no brainer: you get every episode of this enormously entertaining Sixties Spy/Western hybrid series, all the extras included on Season One, and the two made-for-TV reunion movies, Wild Wild West Revisited (1979) and More Wild Wild West (1980), both available on DVD for the first time with this set. If you've already bought all four seasons individually, then that's the sticking point. It's a little bit annoying that Paramount is asking the show's fans to buy everything twice if they want the complete collection. Hopefully, they'll eventually release the bonus disc on its own, but there's been no such announcement so far. The packaging is a bit odd, with all the discs separated only by thin pieces of cardboard. You can't tell which disc it is without pulling it out. I'm not sure why they didn't just bundle the original slim packs, but I guess they wanted people to feel like they were getting something special... and big.

Despite the set's flaws, the bonus disc is certainly a treat. The first movie finds James West pulled out of retirement, where he's been living the Flint lifestyle with four women. His old partner Artemus Gordon quickly whips him back into shape (in one of the movie's better moments, Jim actually shaves his mustache off with a straight razor while doing sit-ups!), and the two of them hit the trail once again. (Actually, the track... and this time their train can actually be seen in aerial shots travelling through real wilderness!) The enemy is the son of their old foe Dr. Miguelito Loveless. Paul Williams steps into the shoes of the late Michael Dunn. His plot involves creating bionic people (including a "$600 man") and replacing world leaders like Queen Victoria and President Cleveland with his own doubles, Dr. Noah-style. The second reunion movie (for which Jim actually retains his mustache the whole time) features Jonathan Winters as the diabolical mastermind.
The Wild Wild West: The Complete Series is certainly something every Sixties spy fan (and particularly Avengers fan) should check out if they haven't already.
The Bourne Trilogy

This is simply yet another new repackaging from Universal of the three Bourne movies. It's a convenient way to buy them all together if you don't own them yet, but the new set does not include the fantastic bonus disc, The Ludlum Files, which was included with previous box sets, nor the Ultimatum bonus disc included with Best Buy's exclusive version.

Flashbacks of a Fool

Finally, from Anchor Bay we have the Daniel Craig passion project which got wide theatrical release in Britain last spring, and a very limited, completely unadvertised run here in the U.S. a few weeks ago. I've wanted to see this for quite a while (owing both to Craig and the Roxy Music-heavy glam soundtrack) and I'm glad that Anchor Bay is capitalizing on Quantum of Solace by finally giving it a decent American release.
Roger Moore's Autobiography Out Today

Ah, here we are: the first Tuesday in November of 2008! That's a big day, right? There's something happening today in America... Oh, yes! There is indeed: Sir Roger Moore's autobiography, My Word Is My Bond, hits bookstores today! (It's been available in Britain for a couple of weeks now.) You can get a taste of it by reading the first chapter online at Amazon, but why not just run out and buy the thing already? I've been excited about this since it was announced last year. Of all the Bond actors, Sir Roger's is the memoir I'd most like to read. He's just so funny and self-deprecating in interviews and commentaries; the guy's a good storyteller. So I can't wait to pick up his book!

Nov 3, 2008

DVD Review: Get Smart (2008)

This summer’s hit spy comedy Get Smart gets an embarrassing bare-bones DVD release masquerading under a very attractive lenticular cover as a two disc special edition. Once you get past that awful Warner Bros. anti-piracy thing that pirates scenes from Casablanca, you get no features, no commentary, just the movie itself. And, of course, the highly touted "Comedy Optimization Mode."

Don’t you hate navigating menus to select deleted scenes? Don’t you wish there were a less convenient way to watch them? At the same time, isn’t watching a movie on DVD too easy? Instead of plunking yourself down on your couch and just letting the movie play out, don’t you wish you had to push buttons on your remote control every couple of minutes? Well, Warner Bros. has anticipated your problem! And to solve it, they’ve devised the single most annoying way to watch a movie, and possibly the worst ever DVD bell or whistle. If you want to see deleted scenes or alternate takes, you need to select the "Comedy Optimization Mode." In an un-skippable introduction, Steve Carell explains that this makes the movie 62% funnier. It does not. It does, however, make it approximately 62% more irritating, though. Carell explains that at certain times an icon of a phone booth will pop up, you might imagine somewhat akin to the famous Matrix "follow the white rabbit" feature. When you see the icon, you can press a button on your remote and see the deleted scene or alternate take. It’s not a little icon, though. It’s a giant, ugly graphic that takes up the whole entire screen! (Pictured above in all its glory.) Furthermore, it cuts in at inopportune moments, often interrupting actors mid-word. And the alternate takes are rarely worth the inconvenience. Well, perhaps some of them would be (like the extra Bill Murray bits), but the feature was so aggravating that I gave up on it after a while. I would have preferred a simple menu of deleted material, then maybe I’d know. But you can’t access the deleted scenes any other way. Rather than "optimizing" the comedy, this atrocious featurette steps on it and frequently diminishes it.

Luckily, there’s a whole second disc, right? Well, yes... but sadly far too much space on it is taken up with one of those hideous "digital copies" no one cares about, so there’s no room for proper bonus features. What we get is a 14-minute Making-of featurette called "The Right Agent for the Right Job." It’s not an in-depth documentary, but just an EPK, with everyone saying nice things about each other. It does have its moments, though, including some good footage of Anne Hathaway reading for the part of Agent 99 opposite Steve Carell. The two start improvising, and it’s easy to see why she got the role. That’s good stuff. Carell explains that he was concerned that Anne Hathaway wouln’t be hot enough to share the screen with him, which is funny at first, but then the bit goes on too long. Overall, this is a featurette more concerned with cracking jokes than telling you anything about the movie. Both stars seem surprised that the movie turned out to be an action movie, which may explain something.

An even shorter featurette, "Max In Moscow" (about filming in Red Square) played in a truncated version with commercials before movies last summer, and it’s nice to have it included, but not nice enough to justify the disc’s "Special Edtion" moniker. Neither is "Language Lessons," a silly sketch with Carell speaking made up versions of French and German and Italian to promote the DVD. It’s slight, but funny. (Fake German is always funny, and Carell–unsurprisingly–does it well.) There’s also a Gag Reel, but not really much there. Besides a few amusing Carell ad-libs and mess-ups, it’s mostly just people blowing their lines in a way that might be funny if you were on set... but not at home watching a DVD. This highlight is a brief snippet of Carell doing a Don Adams impression, indicating a possible alternate direction the movie could have gone that might have actually worked better than it sounds. Rounding out the "Special Edition" is a 3-minute promo for the DVD spinoff Get Smart’s Bruce and Lloyd Out of Control.

I didn’t care much for the 2008 version of Get Smart, but the movie did have its moments, and both Carell and Hathaway were inspired choices for the lead roles who acquitted themselves nicely. The movie had some decent spy action and some good parody, and even if the two didn’t ultimately mix that well, either one of them would have normally justified a DVD purchase. But it’s hard to get very excited about a disc this poorly conceived and executed. I hope that Warner Bros. is working on a more elaborate Special Edition to coincide with the inevitable sequel. Assuming so, it’s worth waiting for now.

Nov 1, 2008

Bond Breaks Box Office Records In UK

Deadline Hollywood reports that Quantum of Solace enjoyed the largest Friday UK opening in box office history last night, netting £4.94 million ($8 million). The previous record holder was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire with £4 million. By comparison, Casino Royale made £2.9 million on its opening day, so Craig's second Bond picture is so far vastly outpacing his first.