Mar 29, 2009

DVD Review: Kiss Me Deadly: A Jacob Keane Assignment (2008)

I reported on Kiss Me Deadly: A Jacob Keane Assignment when it was first announced in the trades: a spy movie (co-starring the great John Rhys-Davies!) featuring a gay hero, made for the gay-oriented Here! Network–and potentially the beginning of a new franchise. I never got to see it on TV, though, and completely missed its DVD release late last year. I just discovered that it was on DVD when I came across its Amazon listing recently while searching for its classic (and fantastic) Mickey Spillane namesake–and I’m glad that I did. Kiss Me Deadly scratched an itch I’ve had for a while for more Robert Ludlum-type made-for-TV spy movies. I know, that’s a very specific itch, but it’s a corner of the genre in which I very much like to wallow! And, unfortunately, nobody makes miniseries anymore the way they did it in the 1980s. So TV movies and cable movies are the closest it’s possible to come. And gay hero or not, Kiss Me Deadly fits the bill for solid, low-budget spy entertainment.

Rather than cramming the conceit down audience's throats, the producers set out to make a spy movie first and foremost, in which it was almost beside the point that the hero was gay. They succeeded. For the most part, it plays just like a regular spy movie, but with a few more scenes than normal of the hero showering! In the making-of featurette, star Robert Gant (Queer As Folk) says, "I just love that it’s taking such a traditionally masculine icon and making him gay. A lot of people when they first hear about it think it’s going to be a comedy. And one of the things that I love is that we play it for real." Director Ron Oliver adds, "The trick to this film was to make sure it wasn’t campy. So we sort of veered away from any ‘hardy-har’ stuff, and we went dead serious." The technique paid off. Another telling fact revealed in Oliver's audio commentary is that the script, co-written by the writer of the second-ever episode of The Wild Wild West, among many other things, did not begin life with a gay protagonist. But just as using Honor Blackman in the early Avengers scripts that had been written for a man resulted in a truly liberated female character back in the Sixties, I think plugging a gay character into a role originally conceived as straight goes a long way to break new ground for gay characters today in traditionally hetero roles–and helps avoid any temptation to go for camp. The result is a compelling, believable and likable character (thanks to an engaging performance by Gant), and not a stereotype.

The action begins in East Berlin, 1989, just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall with a pretty typical–and typically cool–spy setup: agent Jacob Keane (Gant) and his partner Marta (Shannon Doherty, in a truly horrible Sidney Bristow wig for some reason) sit in a battered old car on a cobbled, dimly lit street waiting for a defector to appear. Their third teammate, Jared (Fraser Brown) is perched high above, covering the transaction with a sniper rifle just in case anything goes wrong. Something does indeed go wrong–but its beyond salvage by a mere sniper. The mission is compromised, and the defector is killed.

Later, back in West Berlin, the trio (who work for an organization identified as NIA–Nato Intelligence) rendezvous with their boss, Yale (the always excellent John Rhys-Davies, whose many spy credits include The Living Daylights), as jubilant Berliners celebrate the destruction of the Wall. "I do believe we have just won the Cold War," declares Yale. Cynical, Keane wonders if that means they’ll no longer be needed. "There will always be an enemy," Yale reminds him somberly. "The NIA thinks maybe the Middle East. Oil."

Keane’s not happy with that. "When you recruited me, you promised Paris!" (I imagine many a real-life CIA agent has expressed similar sentiments.)

The credits roll (in the requisite Beepy TextTM) over an effective montage of (presumably cheap) news footage chronicling the next two decades. There are lots of Presidential soundbites, and shots of the destruction in New York and at the Pentagon on 9/11. The world has changed. So has Jacob Keane. When we meet him in the present day, he’s living the good life–the soft life, as a photographer–in Milan, with a committed boyfriend and a young daughter. That life is suddenly shattered when, out of the past, Marta leaves an urgent message for him on his answering machine. She’s coming to Milan, she’s in danger, and she needs him to meet him at the train station.

After dropping off his daughter with her lesbian mother, Keane races for the train station where he sees Marta looking out of it and being followed by a sinister looking fellow wearing a spy’s trench coat but sporting very unspylike bleach blond hair. Keane quickly incapacitates her pursuer, then whisks a baffled Marta off in his car. But she doesn’t know who he is, or who’s after her, or why. She’s got amnesia. As soon as he gets back to his luxurious apartment, Keane dials up his old bosses, cuing a prototypical blue-lit spy HQ environment. "I haven’t heard that line before," comments a newer techie.

"It’s an old analogue line!" explains a more experienced one. Keane has enough time to identify himself as "Nighthawk," but just then the bad guys show up at his front door and the chase is on!

So begins the setup for a classic Ludlumesque hunt across Europe with stops in Italy and Switzerland at the usual sorts of places: the country house of an old friend, a monastery, another train station and a cathedral. The movie was shot entirely in New Zealand, but I’ve got to admit: Aukland does an excellent job of filling in for Europe. (But not quite as good a job playing the Carribean later on.) The locations deliver everything that I expect of them in this type of international chase movie. The vehicles are there, too. Keane and Marta start out on his motorcycle, before changing to a classic red Mustang for the duration of the movie, including a chase scene with a Mercedes.

In trying to solve the mysteries of the present, Keane and Marta end up reconnecting with a lot of old faces from their past, including Yale (who now resides in the aforementioned monastery, attempting to atone for his former life). He delivers some crucial exposition (as such characters are wont to do) and they realize that the money that was paid to the defector back in 1989, ($10,000, plus interest), was never claimed and is presumably still sitting in the Swiss account into which it was initially deposited. (Yes, this is a rather unbelievable conceit, but this is the kind of movie where you just have to go with it.) Marta, Keane and Jared, each had a third of the pin number to access the account. That must be what the bad guys are after! Furthermore, Yale reveals that Marta appears to have been injected with a next-generation truth serum developed by the CIA which has the nasty side effect of erasing all memory from the subject after forcing them to spill the beans.

For now, though, the effect isn’t total... yet. Marta is still having some flashbacks: her and Keane making out. She asks him if they used to be lovers. "It’s complicated," he tries to explain.

"No, it’s not," she asserts. "Did we have sex?" Yes, he admits. It turns out that she was recruited for a very specific purpose, and that he was the honey trap who lured her in. He’s responsible for the direction her life took–and the dire situation in which she finds herself now. It weighs heavily on him. Then again, she may not be as innocent as he thinks. Certain clues lead Keane to question her loyalty as they press on. The villain (and the director admits on his commentary track that if you haven’t figured out who the villain is by the second reel, then you’ve probably never seen a spy movie before) makes things even more personal by killing Keane’s beloved boyfriend and kidnapping his young daughter (of course), setting up a high-stakes finale during which Keane will take another page out of Jason Bourne’s book for the old cell phone trick where the other guy says, "Where are you?" and the hero replies, "Turn around," revealing himself to be right behind him, pointing a gun.

Kiss Me Deadly is not the kind of movie you enjoy for its originality; it’s the kind of movie you enjoy for its familiarity. And in this genre, I do enjoy the familiar. The gay twist, however, does add the right ring of originality to the rigid Ludlum formula–just enough of it. It’s cool to see a slightly different spin on the spy hero. If you’re looking for a low budget, made-for-TV Robert Ludlum-type thriller, you could do a lot worse than Kiss Me Deadly. I hope Jacob Keane returns for other assignments.

Liberation Entertainment’s DVD actually presents a surprising amount of quality bonus material for a TV movie. For starters, there’s a pretty good trailer (viewable here) which gives you a decent taste of the movie and its Ludlumesque tone. There’s also the aforementioned making-of featurette, "Backlot," which is fairly extensive. Sure, it’s an EPK package with lots of the usual ego-stroking, but it also offers some really interesting insights on making a gay spy movie. "It’s been a dream of mine since I was a kid to play a spy," shares Gant. "I remember when I was coming out, thinking, ‘oh, this probably isn’t gonna be something that I get to do.' All the superheroes that I was going to play, I was thinking those were now beyond my reach. And all of a sudden, this project comes along.... that dream was fulfilled." He even teases a sequel, which I’d very much like to see happen.

Finally, director Ron Oliver contributes a highly entertaining commentary track. I was only planning to sample it, but got sucked into listening to the rather flamboyant raconteur. It’s one of the most gossipy commentaries I’ve ever heard–and also one of the most frank. Oliver knows what worked and what didn’t work in his film, and he’s good-natured about the failures. In fact, everything bad that I made a note of while watching, he calls out–starting with Shannon Doherty’s appalling wig in the opening ("Truly one of the most unfortunate wigs in cinema history," he says)! He even acknowledges that "the time thing" in the film doesn’t really work, given the actors’ ages and the supposed passage of two decades, but says they concluded "let’s just make it a good spy thriller and hope the time thing doesn’t bug anybody." The strategy paid off. He admits that one early scene is nothing but gratuitous tits and ass (as it obviously is), and does his best to disown it. He also disowns the shocking bleach job on that main henchman, acknowledging that it isn’t very spy-like and claiming the actor made that choice on his own and it was too late to do anything about it. He really sticks it to the poor art director (a first timer), and indeed points out some of his more laughable work. But overall, he sells the film short in that department, since the New Zealand locations really work well as Europe. Clearly, someone in the art department was on top of things!

Oliver is able to laugh off his film’s shortcomings, but his audio track is by no means negative. He ably conveys the fun that they had on set, calling the experience "a hoot," and he goes out of his way to credit the crew members who contributed to its success. (One particular driver seems to have been responsible to the point of saving the movie!) And, as is evident from his film itself, he knows his spy movies–including 007–not just his gay movies. He admits that "the notion here, of course, is to make Robert Gant into the next James Bond, a gay James Bond, if you will." There were some Bondian conceits, however, that he acknowledges don’t translate very well from straight to gay. In one scene, Keane seduces a young man in a club in order to set him up as a decoy. Oliver says it was their attempt at the casual seductions of minor Bond Girls, but admits that there’s simply no way not to come off as a bit sleazy whenever you have two men kissing in a public bathroom. (Maybe they could have put a bit more thought into their location!) Another Bondian scene fares better. Keane attempts to wash away his sorrows in the shower, and Oliver reveals that there was some talk about it being too similar to the scene in Casino Royale with Daniel Craig ("oh my God, he’s so hot!") in the shower. But he re-watched the scene and concluded that Bond was in a tux, so it was totally different.

I already liked Kiss Me Deadly: A Jacob Keane Assignment (within its budgetary limitations), but Oliver’s commentary bought it even more good will from me. It’s impossible not to share his enthusiasm for this enjoyable, Ludlumesque spy yarn.


Keith said...

I'll have to check it out. I hadn't heard of it before. I'm always looking for new spy movies. I'll add it to my Netflix queue.

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