Oct 31, 2012

Sixth Blogiversary

Amidst the excitement of a new James Bond movie and the milestone of this blog's millionth hit last week, I'm a day late in celebrating another milestone: the Double O Section's Sixth Blogiversary. I started this blog six years ago as we were looking forward to a brand new Bond movie with a brand new Bond that proved to be one of the series' best entries. Now we're on the verge of another new Bond movie (in America, anyway; for British readers it's already here!), one that I suspect will prove the biggest ever at the box office, and the excitement is palpable. In the six years I've been blogging about spy movies, the genre has only become more and more popular. We've seen terrific new movies about some of spydom's greatest heroes, including Bond (of course), George Smiley, Jason Bourne and Ethan Hunt. We've seen the rise of exciting new spy heroes like Bryan Mills, and seen historical spy missions thrillingly chronicled on film, like the so-called "Canadian Caper" in Argo. We're really living in the the second Golden Age of Spy Movies, with the genre at its greatest height since the Sixties, and it's been a great pleasure to chronicle it. With Skyfall about to take the world by storm, I don't see the genre declining any time soon, and I look forward to continuing to blog about it for years to come! But all that's just  me blathering. A better way to celebrate this blogiversary is with a new contest. It's been way too long since we've had one of those! Check back tomorrow for a chance to win a great spy prize.

See Bond Pitted Against Bond

Brad Hansen, co-host of that epic Bondathon last year and creator of the excellent time-lapse video chronicling it, has edited a very clever new video pitting all the Bond actors against one another. It's quickly gone viral (including hitting the front page of Yahoo!), and deservedly so. Take a look, and be sure to watch all the way to the end, which might be the most brilliant bit.

Oct 30, 2012

Movie Review: Skyfall (2012)

A note on spoilers: I will not spoil any of the things that shouldn’t be spoiled about Skyfall. However, it’s not possible to write a good review without discussing some plot points of a film, so I will be doing that. If you want to remain completely virginal and you’re avoiding all reviews, avoid this one, too, until after you’ve seen the film. But if you just want to avoid the big actual spoilery spoilers, then you needn’t fear. And those things are worth discussing, so I may well revisit Skyfall once the film has opened in North America on November 9, but until then I shall refrain from discussing such things, and I would appreciate it if commenters from territories where the film has already opened also avoid doing so until then. There's plenty to talk about besides!

There’s already been ample hype and hyperbole touting Skyfall as “the Best Bond since Goldfinger!” or “the best Bond movie ever!” and whatnot. Is it that? Well, obviously such judgments are in the eye of the beholder, but most likely no. I mean, there have been a lot of good Bond movies over the years, right? So I’m not going to leap straight to such ecstatic claims, but I am going to say that this is definitely one of the good ones; Sam Mendes has made a damn fine Bond film! It offers up heaping doses of classic 007, along with plenty of exciting new things we’ve never seen in a Bond movie before in nearly equal measure—which is no mean feat. And it feels thoroughly satisfying in the end, which I’d say guarantees numbers in America to match those we’ve already seen in Britain. Skyfall is going to be huge. And deservedly so. But I was by no means certain of any of that as the film began.

All of the good reviews that I had read or heard, all of the hype, all of the fantastic trailers… that all went out the door as soon as the film began. Because it began, like Quantum of Solace before it, without a gun barrel. I said it all before when I reviewed that film, but apparently it bears repeating: to me, the iconic gun barrel sequence, the dripping blood, and accompanying music are thrilling in their own right. They get my blood pumping for that perfect blend of unequaled action and unrivaled globe-hopping glamor sure to follow. They tell the audience, “You are watching a James Bond movie, so fasten your lap-straps!” That’s why the gun barrel comes up front, not at the end of the movie or in the middle or upside-down or inside-out. There are certain aspects of Bond that no filmmaker should mess with, and that is one of them.* Without a gun barrel sequence, you could be in for an off-brand imitation like the ’67 Casino Royale; with a gun barrel you know you’re in EON’s capable hands, expecting brand-name Bond and guaranteed a good time in the theater. And audiences expect that promise up front. I certainly do. So when I sit down for a Bond movie and it fails to deliver on that expectation, I’m instantly disappointed. Consequently, in those opening seconds, director Sam Mendes undid all of the goodwill I brought with me to this movie. He dug a hole for himself that he would have to work hard to get out of. Marc Forster did the same thing in Quantum of Solace, and he never managed to get out. He never won me over. Luckily, Skyfall is not Quantum of Solace (not by any means!), and Mendes did manage to win me back fairly quickly with a rousing, Istanbul-set pre-title sequence that surely ranks among my favorites of recent vintage. (Even so, though, even as I was watching action I loved, I was still rankled in the back of my mind by the lack of gun barrel. Hopefully that won’t affect me upon a second viewing, and hopefully this warning will alleviate similar discomfort in other viewers.)

I’ve discussed my love of Istanbul as a spy film backdrop plenty of times before (most recently in my Taken 2 review), and Mendes makes the best use of the city I’ve seen in a long time. Remember that cool but somehow somewhat underwhelming foot chase along the rooftops of the city’s grand bazaar in The International? Well, now imagine it on motorcycles. It’s no longer underwhelming in the least! And, happily, Mendes directs the action in such a way that (for the most part) you can tell exactly what’s going on. And editor Stuart Baird (Casino Royale) cuts it in such a way that you can tell what’s going on. There’s none of the muddled confusion that plagued all of Quantum’s setpieces. Furthermore, this opening sequence, like the one in GoldenEye, depicts 007 working in tandem with a fellow agent rather than on his own or with sexist after-the-fact female assistance ala Thunderball or A View to a Kill. And, personally, I like seeing that. It also involves M more integrally than ever before in a pre-title sequence (even Tomorrow Never Dies), setting up a greatly expanded role for Judi Dench in the film to come.

By the time the now-familiar opening notes of Adele’s theme song kick in (by the way, Movieline has an in-depth, must-read analysis of said song), I was fully on board with this Bond outing. Daniel Kleinman’s title sequence is also first-rate, a real return to form after the lackluster job MK12 did on Quantum of Solace. Like Kleinman's work on Casino Royale, this isn’t a straightforward Maurice Binder pastiche; he brings in fresh elements appropriate to the story while retaining essentials of the past. And the movie that follows does that as well.

In a way, Skyfall is so schizophrenic that it almost shouldn’t work—but it absolutely does work. It’s torn between the past and the future, parading all sorts of classic Bondian elements dating back to the Sixties (some of which haven’t been seen in quite a long time) only to then tear them down with deconstructionist lines reminiscent of Daniel Craig’s “Do I look like I give a damn?” when asked in Casino Royale if he wants his vodka martini shaken or stirred. But then, after rejecting them, it somehow builds these classic elements back up again. Mendes desperately wants to have it both ways—and he gets what he wants, and makes it work. Somehow, the 50th Anniversary references to past Bond movies end up working amidst all the deconstruction. (There was, however, one throwaway line of this sort about Q gadgets that almost made me cry as well as laugh because I miss the gadgets so!) At times I worried that by playing on fans’ nostalgia for the series’ classic elements (like one sequence that combined The James Bond Theme and an Aston Martin in such a way as to arouse audible cheers from the whole audience), Mendes risked damning the whole series to Trotsky’s dustbin of history as much as celebrating it. Bond movies shouldn’t rely too heavily on nostalgia, but Mendes and screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan are clearly well aware of this, and always auto-correct. The mixture of nostalgia and post-modernism, in fact, is almost as thrilling and suspenseful to watch unfold as the action on screen. I kept gasping in fear that the film would veer too far in one direction as it came precipitously close, only to then clutch my seat as it suddenly careened the other way.

The actual action is equally thrilling, but comes in surprisingly spare doses. There are lengthy stretches where Mendes gives full attention to other aspects of Bond, like the spycraft (including more le Carré-esque bureaucracy and politics than we’ve ever seen in a Bond movie before—and even a subtle visual reference to Tomas Alfredson’s film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) or the scenic travelogue shots, which in the more-than-capable hands of master cinematographer Roger Deakins look more beautiful than they have since the Sixties. The only classic Bond element that, perhaps surprisingly, isn't really played up is the sex. Despite Craig’s Bond sleeping with more women than he did in either of his previous outings, Skyfall is more interested in Bond’s professional relationships than his intimate ones, and boldly gives them precedence. The gamble pays off.

Performances are quite good across the board. Sam Mendes is an actors’ director, and, sure enough, he coaxes the best out of his stars. Cubby Broccoli is oft-quoted as saying that it takes three films for Bond actors to really come into their own, and I think history bears him out. Thanks to the reboot aspects of Casino Royale, Daniel Craig has had a slightly different journey than his predecessors, but Skyfall marks his most comfortable performance as 007. (In part this is thanks to the welcome return of the series’ trademark humor, largely absent from the last two outings.) He's fantastic. With more to work with than ever before, Judi Dench rises to the challenge and delivers her best turn to date as M. Is it possible that she could actually score an Oscar nomination for acting in a Bond film? I think it is. After a decade of appropriate histrionics as arch-villain Voldemort in the Harry Potter films, Ralph Fiennes delivers an unexpectedly subtle (and quite impressive) performance as a government bureaucrat. I was somewhat dubious about Bond Girls Bernice Lim Marlohe and Naomie Harris (I'm not sure why), but ended up really liking both of them quite a lot. (Neither of their roles proved to be what I had expected, either.)

Javier Bardem relishes his villainous turn as the mysterious Mr. Silva (displaying notable shades of Walken and Brandauer in the pantheon of Bond Villains), but his character proved the most frustrating to me. If Elliott Carver owed something to Rupert Murdoch, then Silva’s closest real-world cousin is Julian Assange, which is certainly topical and timely, but the flashes we get of backstory for him prove ultimately more frustrating in their fleeting nature than rewarding. In the end, he feels like a sketch of a great villain rather than a deeply-nuanced Caravaggio painting of one. A small part played by Albert Finney also proved frustrating, but for an entirely different reason, and certainly no fault of Finney’s. The role seemed so clearly written for Sean Connery as a sweet 50th Anniversary nod that it was frustrating not to have him actually playing it! That would have been priceless. Oh well.

Overall, all of Skyfall’s well-fleshed-out characters, rich performances, beautiful photography, exotic locations, visceral action, Komodo dragons (yes! I said Komodo dragons!), and equally entertaining nods to the past and future alike add up to a pretty incredible Bond film. If Quantum of Solace owed a debt to the Bourne movies (which, in turn, of course, owe a tremendous debt to Bond), then Skyfall’s debt is to Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies (which, in turn, also owe a huge debt to 007; as Craig says, “That’s the circle of life.”). This will no doubt be widely remarked upon, but the real debt owed here, as with both Bourne and Batman, is to James Bond himself. Sam Mendes may have seemed a somewhat unusual choice to direct a Bond film, but he proved to be just the man for the job, and it’s his avowed love of this series’ past that makes this movie work so well, and, by the end, sets the series on a clear course for its future. When the final credits role (accompanied by Thomas Newman’s entirely satisfying score, which I’ll no doubt write more about in the future), Bond fans will likely feel an intense satisfaction. I know I did. Skyfall is a very gratifying movie, and an excellent course-correction after the disastrous Quantum of Solace. Everyone should see it. And trust me—I haven’t even mentioned the best stuff!

*The one exception is in the 2006 Casino Royale, which, being an origin story, has its reasons for situating the gun barrel elsewhere. And even then, it’s still near the beginning! But for some reason the one-time success of tinkering with the gun barrel position has led EON to believe it bears experimentation every time.

Oct 29, 2012

Tradecraft: 007 Teams Up With OSS 117

James Bond is teaming up with Hubert Bonnisseur de la Bath... and Charlotte Grey, and, um, the man who knew too little, and Argo's John Chambers and... well, it's too bad George Clooney never ended up playing Napoleon Solo or Matt Helm (both roles he flirted with at one time or another), because none of those other names are really in a league with the first two. If Clooney had been Helm, then Monuments Men really would be an all-star spy team-up. As things stand, it's still a very impressive all-star tream-up, if not all-spy. Deadline reports that Clooney has lined up Daniel Craig, Jean Dujardin (OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies, The Artist), Cate Blanchett (The Good German, Charlotte Grey), Bill Murray (The Limits of Control, The Man Who Knew Too Little), John Goodman (Argo), Hugh Bonneville (Tomorrow Never Dies, Downton Abbey) and Bob Balaban (The Tuxedo, Gosford Park) to star with him in his latest directorial effort, Monuments Men. The stars will play an international assortment of art historians and museum curators who team up to recover art treasures stolen by the Nazis in the final days of WWII, and prevent the destruction of masterpieces. The fact-based drama is penned by Clooney and his regular producing partner Grant Heslov, who previously wrote Goodnight and Good Luck together. (Heslov might be better known to spy fans as the techie in the van with Tom Arnold in True Lies.) The pair will also produce the Sony/Fox co-production, which reunites the entire crew of their most recent spy production, Argo (review here), including composer Alexandre Desplat (Largo Winch, The Ghost Writer). Shooting begins in Europe March 1. Just seeing Craig and Dujardin together would guarantee my ticket sale, but that hugely impressive line-up sweetens the deal all the more. I'm definitely looking forward to this one!

Upcoming Spy Blu-Rays: Flint in High-Def

Specialty label Twilight Time, who release 20th Century Fox catalog titles in limited editions of 3,000 (and began their run with a spy release, The Kremlin Letter), unveiled their first titles of 2013 on their Facebook page yesterday... and among them are two eagerly awaited Blu-ray spy titles! Our Man Flint (1966) makes its high-definition debut on January 15, and its 1967 sequel In Like Flint follows a month later on February 12. Both star the inimitable James Coburn as the flawless superspy Derek Flint. No details are available yet, but Twilight Time Blu-rays tend to retail for $34.95 and the most common extra is an isolated score track. (Jerry Goldsmith composed the wonderful Flint music.) I happen to know for a fact that there was a documentary about the Flint films produced several years ago for a cancelled Fox Blu-ray release. I really, really hope that turns up on one of these Twilight Time discs! Twilight Time titles are sold exclusively by Screen Archives Entertainment.

Movie Review: Argo (2012)

In Argo, director Ben Affleck successfully blends history and pop culture nostalgia to create one of the best spy films of the year, deftly jumping from genre to genre and combining laugh-out-loud humor and nail-biting suspense in ways that shouldn’t work... but undeniably do. Based on a chapter from the memoirs of real-life CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez and a WIRED Magazine article about the recently declassified mission, Argo tells the story of a real CIA rescue mission that has all the hallmarks of a Jim Phelps operation from the Mission: Impossible TVshow. It’s impossible not to think of that show, in fact (which is among the highest compliments I can pay to a modern spy movie), watching the events of Argo unfold.  When Mendez (played by Affleck) suggests disguising American hostages (or would-be hostages) as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a Star Wars-inspired sci-fi movie to extract them from hostile Iran, it sounds just like the zany capers Phelps would dream up on the show. And, just like Phelps in the early days, Mendez goes on to select a team of non-spy professionals in their given Hollywood fields to pull it off. Just like Phelps in the later days, he and everyone else wear gaudy Seventies fashions while doing it! (Mendez’s boss even gives him a version of the standard “disavowed” warning from Mission: Impossible, instructing him that should he be captured, the Agency “won’t claim” him.)

Adding a dash of documentary to its multi-genre quiver, Argo begins with a succinct history lesson detailing America’s sordid history with Iran, including the CIA’s installation of the puppet Shah who safeguarded U.S. oil interests while allowing his people to be tortured. But just because we understand their anger with America doesn’t make it any less harrowing when the film then puts us inside the American embassy in Tehran during the early days of the Islamic Revolution as a frenzied protest turns into an assault on U.S. sovereignty. Diplomats hasten to incinerate or shred as many files as they can as furious Iranian students overrun the building, seizing hostages. During this powerful opening scene, Affleck demonstrates an impressive Paul Greengrass-like ability to thrust his audience into the center of the action (and not just by quick-cutting and shaking the camera around chaotically, either). You really feel these Americans’ terror as the hostage-takers pour in.

Six terrified Americans, however, manage to escape onto the streets of Tehran amidst the chaos. With nowhere else to go, they end up finding refuge at the personal residence of the courageous Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (wonderfully played by Alias’ Victor Garber). And there they remain… for two and a half months. That’s when the State Department decides to put together an exfiltration plan, initially inviting Mendez and his Agency boss Jack O'Donnell (Brian Cranston) purely as a matter of protocol. Mendez can’t help pick apart their faulty plans, however (State wanted them to bicycle across the border in the middle of winter), and soon finds himself with the responsibility to come up with a better one. Inspiration strikes when his son directs him to a Planet of the Apes movie on TV. There are no more foreign teachers or aid workers left in Iran to convincingly disguise the Americans as… but everyone knows that Hollywood movie studios will “shoot in Stalingrad, with Pol Pot directing, if it will sell tickets,” as Mendez puts it. And Iran has desert and Arabian Nights-like locations that would lend themselves to one of the budget sci-fi epics that preponderated in the wake of Star Wars. As O'Donnell tells the State Department, “it’s the best bad idea we’ve got.”

Mendez is authorized to set up a fake film production, for which he recruits a pair of Hollywood insiders. One is legendary make-up artist John Chambers (the man responsible for much of that Apes make-up), who’s worked with the CIA before by creating disguise kits, and the other is once big-time producer Lester Siegel, who insists that if he’s going to produce a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit. Both characters are played excellently, by John Goodman and a sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated Alan Arkin, respectively. While Chambers’ real name made it into Mendez’s book and the movie, the Siegel character is a composite of several unnamed people. As Mendez pretends to be bigshot in Hollywood (“you’ll fit right in,” Chambers assures him), Siegel takes out trade ads and drums up publicity for their fake sci-fi epic, Argo, by hosting a staged reading of the script, complete with actors in cheesy sci-fi costumes.

The whole Hollywood section has a very Ocean’s 11 vibe to it, and plays out largely for laughs, yet Affleck manages to segue seamlessly from that into the visceral suspense of the actual mission as Mendez slips into Tehran on a fake passport (by way of a brief meeting with British Intelligence in Istanbul to collect his visa). Certain visas are needed for entering and exiting the country, and various permits are required for a film crew from the Ministry of Culture, all of which leads to some suspenseful and well-executed spycraft of the sort we’re used to from fact and fiction alike. There’s dissent among the party of Americans Mendez is there to rescue, as well, and it’s deftly handled by the skilled actors. (Standouts include Tate Donovan, Kerry Bishé  and Scott McNairy.) Especially following a harrowing trip into the heart of the city to sell the cover (they’re accompanied by a representative from the Ministry of Culture, but still subjected to a torrent of anti-American demonstrations even as they pretend to be Canadian), some of them are none too eager to accept Mendez’s out-there plan. But there’s a ticking clock. They won’t be able to stay in the ambassador’s house much longer… and then what? If they're discovered, the fear is they'll be publicly executed. Even though audiences likely know the outcome going in, Affleck still manages to generate some blistering suspense during the film’s final act. (Though he and writer Chris Terrio resort to creative license to heighten what actually happened.)

Not only do costume designer Jacqueline West and production designer Sharon Seymour do a fantastic job of recreating exceptional period detail in Washington, Hollywood and Tehran, but Affleck reinforces the era by shooting in a style and aesthetic instantly evocative of the late Seventies. The film stock is attractively grainy (he reportedly achieved this effect by cutting his frames in two and then blowing them up), and the studied camera movement recalls paranoid spy and conspiracy thrillers of the era like Scorpio, 3 Days of the Condor, All the President's Men and Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite. Best of all (and setting the appropriate tone from the film’s opening moments), there’s even a period-appropriate retro Warner Bros. logo! (If only GK Films had followed suit and created a fake one from that time even though they didn’t exist then; when their logo comes up after the WB one, it sort of kills the effect.)

There’s something in Argo to please just about everyone. First and foremost, it’s a killer spy movie with a very Mission: Impossible feel and a very Scorpio look, both of which are likely to appeal to readers of this blog. Beyond that, it richly evokes the period in a way likely to equally interest those who lived through it and those born since. Then there’s also the geek nostalgia factor. Fans of those late Seventies Star Wars rip-offs (among whom I count myself, Starcrash being my favorite) will thrill to the loving Hollywood details, and likely wish that the film had actually been made. (They’re also likely to enjoy the final shot of the movie, which serves as a heartfelt tribute to those films and their fans.) Fortunately, even if it wasn’t made, Argo served a higher purpose well chronicled here, and the implausible-but-true story of its non-making, now also called Argo, is an instant classic of multiple genres.

Oct 27, 2012

Tradecraft: Homeland Renewed For a Third Season

Deadline reports that Showtime has renewed Homeland for a third season. After the show swept the Emmies and posted its best ratings yet this season, that hardly comes as a surprise, but is still welcome news for fans of intelligent spy TV drama. Commensurate with te first two seasons, the order is for twelve episodes. Man oh man do I wish I hadn't had to drop my pay cable stations this summer! It's very hard to wait for DVD to watch this season...

Oct 26, 2012

The Double O Section Celebrates its Millionth Hit

Today is a milestone in the six-year history of this blog, as the Double O Section racked up its 1,000,000th hit! (And it's 1,000,007th hit.) Thanks, as always, to everyone who reads it regularly or visits from time to time for contributing to that achievement. I'm sorry things have been a bit slow around here for the past few months, but that's going to change very soon as I return to regular reviews and even some new contests! So stick around for the next million. Be seeing you!

Tradecraft: John Logan Signs On For Two More Bond Movies

Variety reports that Skyfall co-writer John Logan has been hired to pen not only the next Bond movie (Bond 24 in the official cycle), but also the one after that, Bond 25. Logan wrote Skyfall with Bond regulars Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who have worked on every Bond film since The World Is Not Enough in 1999. (The pair also penned the Bond send-up Johnny English.) According to Mike Fleming at Deadline, Logan pitched "an original two movie arc" to producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson while they were shooting Skyfall, and the scribe has already begun work on the scripts. Both Deadline and Variety speculate that this would open the door to potentially shoot Bond 24 and Bond 25 back-to-back, which would be a first for the 50-year-old franchise. The hiring also marks a changing of the guard at EON, since Purvis and Wade have traditionally generated the first drafts of the recent Bond screenplays before people like Paul Haggis and Logan were brought on to rewrite their work. These new scripts are clearly beginning with Logan. Does this mean that Purvis and Wade won't be involved at all? It's certainly possible that they're Bonded out after five films in a row, but the pair seem so entrenched in the Bond family that I wouldn't be surprised if the roles were reversed and they were called upon to do a pass on the Logan scripts at some point in the future, since they know so well exactly how the producers envision 007. Besides Skyfall, Logan's credits include Gladiator, Hugo, The Aviator and Any Given Sunday. Logan is an avowed Fleming fan, and has gone on record as saying that "Bond should always fight Blofeld," so as long as trades are indulging in rampant speculation (about the back-to-back shooting), I'll allow myself some as well and reiterate my hopes that these upcoming films ("The Logan Duology," if you will) will see the return of 007's greatest enemy!

Oct 23, 2012

Movie Review: Taken 2 (2012)

Almost four years after the original Luc Besson-produced, Liam Neeson-starring neo-Eurospy flick Taken (review here) became a surprise hit, a sequel finally arrives. And it delivers pretty much exactly what a Taken sequel needs to deliver. Think of Taken 2 as the Die Hard 2 of the Taken franchise: it adheres to the same basic formula of the original with the slightly diminishing returns inherent in reheating a premise… but does so in such a way as to leave fans of the original satisfied that they have, indeed, just seen another Taken movie. Gone, sadly, is the element of surprise that worked so well for the first film, when anything seemed possible around any corner. (I’ve never seen an audience uniformly gasp and jump in their seats the way they did when Neeson’s character suddenly shot someone in the arm unexpectedly.) That’s not really possible the second time around. So what we’re left with instead is the other thing that drove the original: Liam Neeson being a badass in a foreign city. And when the city is as photogenic as Istanbul is, that’s enough for me.

This is, of course, the first of two major spy movies taking advantage of Istanbul’s scenic minarets this fall. (Three if you count a brief scene in Argo.) We will see those same inviting rooftops play host once more to an exciting chase sequence in Skyfall, as we’ve seen them do countless times before, and it never gets old for me. Istanbul is one of my very favorite spy locations, lovingly photographed in genre entries as diverse as Bond movies From Russia With Love and The World Is Not Enough, Eurospy titles like Fury on the Bosphorous and From Istanbul, Orders to Kill, actual Turkish spy films like Golden Boy, and neo-Eurospy entries like The International. I’m happy to report that the ancient city uniquely bridging East and West is well-utilized in Taken 2 (though sadly Neeson never threatens to “tear down the Topkapi Palace” if he has to).

The movie’s plot is a direct continuation of the first film… though not so direct that you couldn’t pick it up easily enough not having seen that one. After former CIA agent Bryan Mills (Neeson) used his “unique skill set” to save his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) from Albanian sex traffickers in Paris, Kim has returned to her home in Beverly Hills and tried to get on with her life. Thus we begin, per formula, with the same sort of cheesy domestic scenes that began the first movie, but they’re far less excruciating this time—even enjoyable. That can mainly be credited to Grace. If there were a Golden Globe for “Most Improved,” Maggie Grace would surely win it hands-down! No doubt slightly embarrassed being a 29-year-old playing a 16-year-old, in the first film she overcompensated by playing Kim like she was 8. Not this time. Now (perhaps thanks to her experience playing a full-grown heroine in another Besson-produced neo-Eurospy flick, Lockout), Kim is a functioning adult. (Well, teenager. She still hasn’t passed her driving test.)

Bryan, meanwhile, is making some inroads with his ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen, looking every bit as stunning as she did in GoldenEye 17 years ago), after her rich-guy husband (24’s Xander Berkeley, not present in the sequel) left her. Bryan proposes that his ex and daughter meet him in Istanbul for a vacation when he’s finished up a 4-day private security job. And that, of course, proves to be a bad idea. (The Taken movies might be the first anti-tourist spy movies, insinuating that whenever Americans travel abroad, they inevitably get targeted by sex traffickers and their families! I actually know some women forever put off Parisian vacations by the first film.) Istanbul is too close for comfort, it turns out, to Albania, where a little village mourns the loss of many sons (all awful, evil criminals—but no matter) slain by Mills in the first film. Chief pallbearer is grieving father Rade Sherbedgia (The Saint, 24, M:I-2), and whenever he shows up there’s bound to be trouble. Sherbedgia’s character, Murad Krasniqi, leads a small army, like pigs to slaughter, on a road trip down to Turkey to have their revenge on Mills and his family.

Luckily, when Bryan and Lenore are, ahem, taken (after a rousing pursuit through the city’s old world streets and bazaars), Kim is back at the hotel hanging out by the pool. This enables Bryan, through some ingenuity learned in the CIA, to secretly contact her and instruct her on how to find the location where her parents are being held. His circuitous plan involves Kim throwing hand grenades all over Istanbul (don’t ask), but it’s suitably filmic and fun to watch—and it works! The film’s best scenes involve Mills and his daughter teaming up to save Lenore. Whether Bryan is talking Kim through a rooftop foot chase over a cell phone or shouting driving instructions at her during a high-speed car chase through the labyrinthine streets of Istanbul, the high-octane father/daughter bonding adds a welcome new dimension to the Taken formula.

The biggest disappointment compared to the first film comes from the action sequences. While I’ve enjoyed a number of Olivier Megaton’s films, he doesn’t have Pierre Morel’s gift for directing fights and chases in a lightning-paced manner that still enables viewers to always know exactly what’s going on. Instead (here more than in Colombiana or Transporter 3, unfortunately), Megaton and his editors fall back on that oh-so-popular zeitgeist crutch of cutting the fights up so rapidly so as to render them incomprehensible—seemingly in an attempt to disguise the fact that they weren’t shot very dynamically to begin with. Megaton’s perfectly adept with car chases and firefights, but resorts to that stroby fast-cutting to cover up the shortcomings in Taken 2’s mano-a-many-mano fight scenes. That’s a shame, because audiences want to see Liam Neeson being the badass we know him to be from the first film unencumbered by such gaudy distractions.

The directing doesn’t live up to the first film, but the surprisingly solid script makes the most of delivering a new storyline within the confines of the established series formula. The exotic setting is top-notch, Neeson is as good as ever, Grace is dramatically better than before, and there’s more Famke Janssen, which is always a good thing. The sequel also benefits from a more clearly defined villain to root against, and milks some considerable humor from the previously grating domestic scenes. (There’s almost as much anticipation in seeing how the world’s most overprotective dad will react to his daughter’s new boyfriend as how he will save his ex-wife from being slowly bled to death while suspended upside-down!) All-in-all, Taken 2 is a sequel that delivers the expected goods, and should appeal to fans of the original and fans of the neo-Eurospy genre at large.

Tradecraft: Luke Goss Stars in Dead Drop

Deadline reports that indie sales and distribution company Lightning Entertainment is entering the feature arena with a spy movie called Dead Drop. And, honestly, Dead Drop is such a cool title for a spy movie that I'm shocked it hasn't been used for a feature before! (It has, however, been very popular as an episode title for spy TV shows, including Alias, Nikita, The EqualizerTransporter and Connor Undercover.) According to a press release, the feature Dead Drop (which is already in post-production) stars Luke Goss (Hellboy 2, Charlie) and "tells the harrowing story of Michael (Goss), a CIA operative who is shot by his best friend, pushed out of a plane, but miraculously survives the dead-drop from 5,000 feet. Waking up to his living nightmare, Michael re-inserts himself into the dangerous Mexican smuggling ring where he was operating deep under cover to flush out his would be assassin who is also holding his girlfriend hostage." Cole Hauser (Good Will Hunting) and Nestor Carbonell (Kim Possible's Señor Senior Jr) co-star.

Oct 19, 2012

Cinemax Spy Series Hunted Premieres Tonight

Cinemax's latest UK co-production spy series Hunted (formerly known as Nemesis) premieres tonight on the American cable network. I've heard good things about it, and reviews tend to shorthand it as Rubicon meets Alias, which sounds pretty intriguing, or compare it to Spooks/MI-5, which also sounds good. Strike Back's Frank Spotnitz produces and Alias's Melissa George leads a cast that also includes Adam Rayner (Undercovers), Stephen Dillane (Spy Game), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Killer Elite, Strike Back), Lex Shrapnel (Captain America: The First Avenger), Uriel Emil (The Bourne Ultimatum), Patrick Malahide (The World Is Not Enough, The Long Kiss Goodnight) and Stephen Campbell Moore (The Bank Job, Johnny English Reborn). Hunted premieres tonight at 10pm on the pay station. (I wish I got it!) Here's a trailer:

Another New Skyfall Trailer!

With only a little over a week left until its UK opening, Sony have released another new trailer for Skyfall:

Oct 18, 2012

Tradecraft: Brenden Fraser is Legendary

Deadline reports that Brenden Fraser (The Quiet American) has been cast as the lead in Howard Gordon's long-in-development TNT spy pilot Legends, based on the book by Robert Littell. According to the trade blog, Legends "follows Martin Odum (Fraser), a deep-cover operative who has an uncanny ability to transform himself into a different person for each job." Hm. I don't instantly see Fraser as a Peter Sellers- or Lon Chaney-like man of 1000 faces who can transform himself that effortlessly either physically or mentally, but on the other hand, I do think that Fraser is at his best when he's doing drama as opposed to fluffy kids' comedy. He's terrific, for instance, playing an idealistic CIA agent opposite Michael Caine in Phillip Noyce's Graham Greene adaptation The Quiet American, and in the James Whale biopic Gods and Monsters. Not so terrific in movies with cartoon animals. I haven't read the book (though I finally bought it recently with that intent!), but I don't think there are any talking critters in Legends, so hopefully this will prove to be a good fit after all! With a track record including Homeland and 24, I'm on board for any Howard Gordon spy show. (And there's another one in development this season at Fox.) He's producing Legends alongside Jeffrey Nachmanoff (Traitor) and Mark Bomback. As previously reported, David Semel will direct the pilot. TNT has a good track record with Littell material, having scored a hit with a miniseries based on the author's Agency epic The Company.

Oct 14, 2012

Clark Gregg Joins Joss Whedon's S.H.I.E.L.D. TV Show

WARNING: This article contains spoilers about the movie Marvel's The Avengers. But is there really anyone on the planet who hasn't seen that movie by now?

Earlier this week, I posted a lengthy primer on the espionage organization of the Marvel Universe, S.H.I.E.L.D., including some of the characters so far announced for Joss Whedon's upcoming S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show for ABC. Today, Deadline reports that another name has been added to that list: Agent Phil Coulson, played by Clark Gregg. Since all of the other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents listed were brand new characters, it's nice to see a familiar face from the films. Even if Coulson was never in the original comics, he's arguably the most familiar S.H.I.E.L.D. agent to movie fans from his appearances in Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, Marvel's The Avengers and a couple of Marvel Studios short films included on those movies' DVDs and Blu-rays. The film character proved so popular, in fact, that he was written into the comic book Marvel Universe in Battle Scars, the same story that introduced a new, Sam Jackson-like Nick Fury Jr. into continuity, and booked a recurring role, voiced by Gregg, on the current Spider-man cartoon, Ultimate Spider-Man. But his momentum suffered a small setback in Whedon's Avengers film: he died. In fact, his death was a major turning point in that film. So what's the deal with Gregg on the TV series? Does that mean that the series (which has an official title now: Marvel's S.H.I.E.L.D.) will be a prequel? Or will Gregg appear regularly in flashbacks? Or will his death be somehow undone, wiped from the records? Well... as it happens, the S.H.I.E.L.D. of Marvel Comics has a long history with fake deaths, and a ready explanation for them: LMDs. LMDs or Life Model Decoys, are robotic doubles of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. Conveniently, whenever a regular S.H.I.E.L.D. agent gets killed, it usually turns out to be an LMD. Nick Fury himself seemingly died in the final issue of the Sixties run of Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (an issue weirdly guest-starring Country Joe and the Fish!), but it was later revealed (in an issue of The Avengers collected in the third Marvel Masterworks S.H.I.E.L.D. volume) that it was actually a Fury LMD shot by the assassin Bullseye. Since then, that exact same scenario has repeated itself at least three more times in the comics. Whenever Nick Fury appears to be dead, no matter how real it looks and how much Marvel's editorial team assures the press that it is, they always fall back on this convenient device. I'm not saying that that will be the excuse for Coulson not dying (I have no idea), but I am pointing out that Marvel has a convenient device for circumventing death pre-built into the S.H.I.E.L.D. universe. (There was even an allusion to LMDs in the Avengers movie.) So it would be kind of cool if they used it...

Oct 11, 2012

A S.H.I.E.L.D. Primer, Including More on Joss Whedon's TV Show

Variety (via Dark Horizons) offers a few extra details on the new ABC S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show, first reported by Deadline a little over a month ago. According to the trade, Joss Whedon told a WGA audience that "the storyline for the proposed series will be largely 'autonomous' from the Avengers sequel feature that is also in the works. The series will revolve around the activities of the top-secret S.H.I.E.L.D espionage [organization] featured in Avengers." Whedon will co-write the pilot with his brother Jed and his sister in law, Maurissa Tancharoen (who's married to Jed). All three previously worked together on Dollhouse and Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. The Marvel's The Avengers helmer hopes to direct, schedule permitting. If the pilot is ordered to series, the trade reports, the three of them "will serve as showrunners/exec producers with Jeffrey Bell. Marvel TV topper Jeph Loeb, an alum of Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, will also exec produce."

Zap2It uncovered even more details last week. Apparently the show will deal primarily with new S.H.I.E.L.D. agents created for television by Whedon and his cohorts, rather than focusing on familiar characters from the comics and movies. Here are the breakdowns for some of those new agents, as obtained by the website:

Agent Grant Ward: A gruff, anti-social manly man in his early 30s who's great at his job but not so great at getting along with his coworkers. Ward has a strong moral foundation and isn't without his charm.

Skye: A quintessential Whedon woman, Skye is described as "bubbly and goofy" but "also warm, edgy and witty." She's in her late 20s and can more than hold her own in any situation.

Agent Althea Rice (a.k.a. The Cavalry): A strong, silent type, still damaged by harrowing combat duty, Rice is in her late 30s and is both an ace pilot and a weapons expert.

Agent Leo Fitz and Agent Jemma Simmons: A twosome so connected to each other they're known as "Fitz-Simmons." They're in their late 20s but already highly respected agents. Nerdy yet attractive, they bicker like brother and sister. His specialty is weapons, gadgets and cutting edge technology. Hers is life sciences (both human and alien).
Of course, this breakdown doesn't answer the question of whether Samuel L. Jackson will make occasional appearances as Nick Fury, or Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill (this is rumored to be the last season of her sitcom How I Met Your Mother), but it does sound a bit like the Grant Ward character could be a surrogate for the younger version of Fury from Marvel's Sixties comics. For those unfamiliar with the S.H.I.E.L.D. concept, Marvel has put out all the essential comic book stories in nice collections over the past couple of years. The book began at the height of the Sixties spy craze as Marvel's answer to the popularity of James Bond and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. The company's WWII hero, Sgt. Fury, was aged a few decades, promoted to Colonel, outfitted with an iconic eyepatch, and set up as the director and star agent of a high-tech spy outfit. (You can even read Fury's wartime adventures in an affordable compilation now, Essential Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos - Volume 1.) Some of his wartime Howling Commandos like Dum Dum Dugan and Gabe Jones also made the transition to S.H.I.E.L.D. agents (at that time the clunky acronym stood for Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law Enforcement Division), joined by Atlas Comics veteran Jimmy Woo and new characters Jasper Sitwell and the Contessa Valentina Allegra di Fontaine. While Marvel mainstays Stan Lee and Jack Kirby respectively wrote and illustrated the earliest S.H.I.E.L.D. stories in the anthology comic Strange Tales, it was writer/artist Jim Steranko who really creatively defined the character and the organization for the era. Steranko's issues were artistically bold, combining collage and pop art and innovative page designs into the traditional comic book form. He also dared to draw entire sequences without dialogue or captions, letting the art totally drive the story. While this is common in the medium today, at the time it was such a radical departure that Stan Lee refused to pay him as a writer for those pages, just as an artist! Steranko's issues were also characterized by frequent, artistically stunning psychedelic sequences. It seemed like once an issue Nick Fury succumbed to some sort of druggy gas grenade (or something like it) and found himself suddenly navigating a melting, Salvador Dahli-like landscape. The term "_____ on LSD" is a cliche now, but Steranko's Nick Fury issues really did read like U.N.C.L.E. on LSD. For fans of Sixties spy pop culture, they're as essential as that series, or as Goldfinger for that matter.

A pair of out-of-print trade paperbacks collect all of Steranko's Nick Fury material from Strange Tales and the secret agent's subsequent, eponymous book. But if you want the best presentation possible for material that really deserves it, you're much better off shelling out for the beautiful hardcover archival Marvel Masterworks editions. Marvel Masterworks: Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Volume 1 compiles the earliest S.H.I.E.L.D. stories from Strange Tales (mostly Lee/Kirby material, with a little bit of Steranko at the end), as well as a pre-S.H.I.E.L.D. issue of Fantastic Four in which Fury appeared as a CIA agent with both eyes intact. Volume 2 is the true treasure of the batch, collecting nearly all of the Steranko material from both Strange Tales and the early issues of Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. If you only get one Nick Fury collection to sample, this is the one to get! Finally, Volume 3 collects the rest of the original Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. run after Steranko's departure (and these issues shouldn't be underestimated), as well as a fantastic standalone story from the Seventies drawn by Howard Chaykin in which the WWII vet's seeming agelessness is explained away by means of an "infinity formula." Only in comic books! It's all wrapped up in the most iconic of all the Steranko covers. These books are beautifully, lovingly made. They're printed on acid-free paper and they're stitched, not glued, so you can spread them open on the table before you and fully appreciate Steranko's two-page spreads without risking breaking your book's spine. They also include informative introductions and other bonus material. They belong on every Sixties spy fan's shelf right between your Man From U.N.C.L.E. DVD box set and your Donald Hamilton paperbacks. They're great stuff.

Throughout the Seventies Nick Fury made a lot of guest appearances in books like Iron Man, Captain AmericaNova, Marvel Two-in-One, Spider-Woman and others. Unfortunately, these appearances have never been collected together. (I'd love to see Fury get the Essential treatment one day with the first volume covering the Sixties solo stuff and the second one including all of these guest spots collected together.) S.H.I.E.L.D. (but not Fury, who only had a cameo in the first issue) next took a starring role in an unlikely place. They became Marvel's in-house kaiju hunters in a licensed Godzilla comic book! That run, surprisingly, has gotten an Essential collection (it's now out of print, but still easy to get), reprinting the entire series in black and white. I kind of doubt Joss Whedon's TV S.H.I.E.L.D. will hunt Godzilla, though.

In the Eighties, Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. made a surprising comeback in a high-profile, prestige-format miniseries tailor-made for the Iran-Contra era: Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D. This storyline is a perfect case study in how drastically the public perception of spy agencies had changed since the Sixties. (Even the Steranko cover clearly displays the difference in eras; instead of pop art, it looks like a Rambo poster.) Once portrayed as heroic, S.H.I.E.L.D. was now duplicitous and untrustworthy. So much so that even Nick Fury had to go rogue and battle his own organization. (This would become a recurring theme in the ensuing decades.) Marvel recently collected Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D. in a nice, high-quality hardcover that makes a perfect companion piece to the Sixties Masterworks. (The spine is slightly different, but the size is the same.)

Around that same time, Fury also teamed up with X-Men's Wolverine a few times. These three team-ups (drawn by the likes of Howard Chaykin and John Buscema) directly continued one of Steranko's Sixties storylines, and were recently collected in the trade paperback Wolverine & Nick Fury: Scorpio. I wish it came in a hardcover edition to match Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D., but instead the paperback matches the next chronological collection.

Bob Harras, author of Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D., also penned a more traditional continuation in an ongoing 1990s revival of the series Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Honestly, I never expected to see this run collected, but Marvel surprised me by doing just that this summer! The 272-page trade paperback Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Classic - Volume 1 compiles the first eleven issues in one satisfyingly massive full-color volume. In this series, Fury assembled a new team of young S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. It kind of reminds me of the 80s/90s TV revival of Mission: Impossible, which paired an aging Peter Graves with a new, young team. If Steranko's Sixties run dabbled in the fantastic, Harras' run fully embraces it. These stories are far from straight-up espionage. In the Nineties, with the Evil Empire dead or dying, Marvel's spy agency found itself countering a growing number of extraterrestrial or monstrous threats. That's not really my cup of tea, but I still like having this era collected and I hope Volume 1 sells well enough to justify subsequent editions. It's kind of funny to think of the Nineties version of a Sixties original branded as "Classic" (at the time, these issues seemed anything but!), but I suppose that label is meant to differentiate the title from the current incarnation of S.H.I.E.L.D.—particularly the popular "Ultimate" version of Nick Fury. Before we get to that, though, there's still another important chapter in the life of Classic Nick.

In his most recent starring ongoing series, Secret Warriors by Jonathan Hickman, Nick Fury once more went rogue, and once more found himself battling his own agency. The first story arc was tellingly titled Nick Fury, Agent of Nothing. Speaking of trends, this incarnation once again found the eyepatched spymaster recruiting a new team of young agents to help him—the titular Secret Warriors. While each arc has been collected in its own trade paperback, Marvel collected the entire run of Secret Warriors (which tells one complete story with a beginning, middle and distinct end) in the truly enormous Secret Warriors Omnibus. It's pricey, but still a better deal than buying all the trades individually. The only drawback is the comfort of reading a six pound, 900+ page hardcover! Make sure you've got a table handy.

Prior to Secret Warriors, Fury made even more guest appearances than ever before during the first decade of this century, including an important presence in Ed Brubaker's epic run on Captain America. But with more bearing on this new TV series was his memorable guest appearance in the first volume of Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men, Gifted. Not only did John Cassaday draw a great, Steranko-style jumpsuited Fury, but Whedon proved that he definitely had the character's voice down pat, which bodes well for his TV show, even if that's likely to feature a different version of Fury, should he be on it at all.

In the 2000s, Nick Fury also mutated into a couple of different variations. Personally, I'll always take the classic Steranko version, but Garth Ennis's take on Nick Fury for Marvel's adult-oriented line MAX found a lot of fans and even made Rolling Stone's annual "Cool List." Ennis's first attempt at the character, Fury MAX, was a hyper-violent, darkly humorous look at an old Cold Warrior addicted to war, liquor and prostitutes. He toned down some of the excesses when he brought the character back in an arc of his MAX Punisher run entitled Mother Russia. (He's crude, but the Punisher version of the character is a lot closer to his traditional Marvel Universe equivalent.) This year, Ennis penned another Fury MAX miniseries of a very different tone called My War Gone By. While still very much adult in language and content, this version is also adult in its storytelling, unlike the sophomoric ribaldry of the first Fury MAX miniseries. The 2012 Fury MAX, in fact, is my very favorite take on the character besides Steranko's. It's what I've always wanted to see: Nick Fury in a serious Cold War espionage story. Be careful not to mix it up with its predecessor (that's easy enough, as that one is out of print and consequently pricey as a collection), but make a point of sampling the current Fury MAX if that sounds like your cup of tea.

Another alternate version of Nick Fury worth mentioning from the first decade of the new century is Neil Gaiman's Sir Nicholas Fury from his epic Marvel 1602. Gaiman's story explores a divergent timeline in which the Marvel Universe comes into being during the late Elizabethan age, and he turns the comic book characters into analogues for real historical figures. Fury, quite obviously, fills the shoes of Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I's famous spymaster. (Walsingham was memorably portrayed by Geoffrey Rush in the film Elizabeth.) The result is true to both the fictional character and the factual one, providing one of my favorite incarnations of the eyepatched superspy at his most Machiavellian.

The third alternate version from that decade is by far the most famous, now, thanks to the Marvel films. That's the "Ultimate" version. In the early 2000s, Marvel decided to create an alternate universe to that in which their primary comics take place so that they could tell stories about Spider-man when he was still a teenager and the X-Men before they got bogged down in decades' worth of impenetrably dense continuity. In other words, comics that someone who had just walked out of one of those movies could pick up and make sense out of. It was a good idea. Some characters were similar to their regular Marvel Universe versions; some were wildly different. Nick Fury was the only one I know of in the initial batch to change race. But he's not just the Nick Fury we know and love with a different skin color. No, writer Mark Millar went further than that and modelled Ultimate Nick Fury on Samuel L. Jackson. The character has played an even bigger role in the Ultimate Universe than he does in the regular Marvel titles, and since the Ultimate Universe has served largely as a blueprint for Marvel Studios' films, it made sense that director John Favreau turned to Jackson himself when the time came to cast Nick Fury for a cameo in Iron Man. Thanks to the massive popularity of the films, this is the version of Nick Fury that mass audiences are now most familiar with, and presumably the one who exists in the world of the Whedon TV show, whether he actually turns up in person or not.  Despite his popularity, Ultimate Nick Fury has never starred in his own solo book, instead playing a major role in The Ultimates, Ultimate Spider-man and other Ultimate titles.

Thanks to the success of the films, Marvel has even felt pressure to work a more Samuel L. Jackson-y version of Nick Fury into the primary Marvel Universe. This summer, they introduced a black Army Ranger character named Marcus Johnson in a comic called Battle Scars. By the end of the story, he'd lost an eye, gained a patch, shaved his head, and been revealed to be the illegitimate son of Nick Fury. Thus he was rechristened Nick Fury, Jr. He seems poised to take over his father's job as the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., and the elder Fury will be slowly retired to the background of the Marvel Universe. I'm just glad he'll still be around at all, and not completely replaced!

If Fury does show up on Whedon's S.H.I.E.L.D. show, it won't be his first foray into television. He previously appeared in the form of David Hasselhoff in a 1998 FOX TV movie written by future Batman Begins/Dark Knight Rises scribe David S. Goyer. It's not awful (but it's not great either), but I'm afraid Hasselhoff was no more suited to playing the classic Fury than Jackson. (Decidedly less so, in fact--though he did manage to look the part thanks to some savvy costume and production design.) He apparently thought he was, though, and recently made headlines for resenting the fact that he wasn't asked to play the role in the bigscreen Marvel movies! Well, perhaps he can take some solace in the knowledge that the out-of-print DVD of his Nick Fury movie now commands prices upwards of $60 on Amazon... Fury also made semi-regular appearances on the animated Spider-man series of the 1990s. (He even ended up immortalized in plastic for the first time in the toy line based on this show, though there have been better Fury figures since.) Fury's Ultimate-based, Samuel L. Jackson-styled incarnation plays a fairly major role (not voiced by Jackson, though) on the current kid-oriented cartoon Ultimate Spider-man.

There have been some other famous agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. over time, too, foremost among them (thanks again to the films) the sexy former Russian spy Natasha Romanoff, aka The Black Widow. Three Marvel Premiere hardcovers (again, beautifully produced) collect this secret agent's most essential adventures in matching volumes. Black Widow: The Sting of the Widow presents the character's first appearance (in a silly costume in an issue of Iron Man) and earliest solo adventures from the early Seventies, after she'd gotten an Emma Peel makeover, ending up in the black catsuit with which she's still most closely associated. These early Black Widow comics will surely be of interest to collectors and hardcore fans, but casual fans looking for a great introduction to the character are better off picking up the second volume in the series, Black Widow: Web of Intrigue first.

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

My two favorite modern-day Widow storylines have yet to receive the hardcover treatment, sadly, but are available in a pair of out-of-print trade paperbacks. Richard K. Morgan's Black Widow: Homecoming and Black Widow: The Things They Say About Her put the focus on espionage above superheroics and are among the very best Marvel spy stories of recent vintage. I hope they end up in the next Premiere volume. Other recent Widow stories include Black Widow: Deadly Origin, Black Widow and the Marvel Girls, Black Widow: The Name of the Rose and Black Widow: Kiss or Kill. Most of the character's adventures with Daredevil from the 1970s are included in Essential Daredevil: Volume 3. The character currently appears in the ongoing series Winter Soldier, Secret Avengers and Captain America.

They may be more famous for their superheroes, but the Marvel Universe actually contains a nice little niche of superspies as well. And they're worth reading up on before they become more famous than ever in a new Joss Whedon TV show! (And if you do decide to take the plunge on any of these titles, please feel free to support the Double O Section by using the Amazon links provided.)