Showing posts with label Spooks. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Spooks. Show all posts

Apr 15, 2014

Empire Offers Details on the Spooks/MI-5 Feature Film

Empire (via Dark Horizons) has the first details on the new big-screen movie version of the long-running UK spy series Spooks (known in the U.S. as MI-5)and this picture of series star Peter Firth (The Hunt for Red October) reprising his role of spymaster Harry Pearce, and newcomer Kit Harrington (Game of Thrones) as MI-5 agent Will Crombie. Director Bharat Nalluri (a veteran of the series) told the magazine that the movie, Spooks: The Greater Good, will have a much larger scope than the TV show. "The canvas is huge on this," he said. "We’re running from Moscow to Berlin to London. It’s a story of the old world and new world.... We’ve got motorbikes, attacks on convoys, huge sniper sequences in the middle of London. It’s set piece after set piece." The movie is designed to be accessible to new viewers who haven't seen the show, so it will largely focus on new characters. Harrington will be joined by fellow newcomers Tuppence Middleton (Cleanskin, The Lady Vanishes), Jennifer Ehle (Zero Dark Thirty) and Elyes Gabel (Exit Strategy). The only other series veteran officially slated to return is Tim McInnerny as Harry's slippery colleague on the Joint Intelligence Committee, Oliver Mace, though Nalluri also hints that Matthew Macfadyen, who starred on the show's first two seasons and then made a surprise appearance in the series finale, might pop up as Tom Quinn. The movie's plot finds MI-5 mired in scandal after letting a terrorist escape during a routine handover, and Harry's career in shambles. "You could say that Harry is having a Nick Fury moment," says Nalluri, alluding to events in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. When Harry disappears amidst his agency's turmoil, it's up to Crombie to get to the bottom of the disappearance and find out what's really going on. The movie is scheduled for release in Britain in 2015; I really hope they get a U.S. distributor as well! The series was pretty excellent, and the prospect of it transitioning to a regular film franchise sounds like a very promising one to me.

Read my review of MI-5: Volume 1
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 2
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 3
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 4
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 5

Nov 12, 2013

Tradecraft: Spooks Feature Film Cast Expands

Deadline reports that Kit Harington (Game Of Thrones) and Jennifer Ehle (Zero Dark Thirty) have joined the previously announced Peter Firth in Spooks: The Greater Good, the feature film continuation of the popular and long-running UK spy series Spooks (known in the U.S. as MI-5. According to the trade, "Harington plays an ex-MI-5 operative brought back in by Ehle’s deputy chief to uncover how a terrorist escaped custody during a routine handover." The feature, directed by frequent series helmer Bharat Nalluri, is scheduled to shoot early next year. Further cast announcements are expected soon; it's still unknown if any other series cast members whose characters survived will be joining Firth. I have yet to see Game of Thrones (I know, I know...), but I saw Harington on a panel at Comic-Con and he exuded leading man charm. Ehle is always good (and especially in Zero Dark Thirty), so I have no doubt she'll make a good addition to the Spooks team too.

Read my review of MI-5: Volume 1
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 2
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 3
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 4
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 5

Nov 1, 2013

Tradecraft: Spooks/MI-5 Revived For Theatrical Movie

BBC's Spooks, known in America as MI-5, ran for ten seasons and concluded in 2011, making it one of the longest running spy series in television history. Now it looks like the show may find a new life in feature films. Variety reports that series star Peter Firth, who played spymaster Harry Pearce, will star in the theatrical feature Spooks: The Greater Good for Shine Pictures and Kudos. Series producers Jane Featherstone and Stephen Garrett will team up with Ollie Madden (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) to produce the film, from a script by series writers Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent. Bharat Nalluri, who helmed both the series pilot and the series finale as well as lots of episodes in between, will direct the movie as well. The producers are seeking international distribution partners at the American Film Market. According to the trade, "In the film, a terrorist escapes from the custody of MI-5, the British intelligence service, during a handover. The head of counter-terrorism is blamed, and then disappears himself. His protege is called in to help uncover what happened." So far Firth is the only actor attached, but I'm sure a few more familiar faces from the series (well, from the few who survived all the way through anyway) will turn up, probably joined by some heavy-hitting guest stars. Personally, I'd love to see Hugh Laurie reprise his Season 1 role as Firth's condescending MI-6 counterpart Jools Siviter!

Read my review of MI-5: Volume 1
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 2
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 3
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 4
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 5

Apr 3, 2012

Tradecraft: When the Nemesis Becomes the Hunted (and She's Still Melissa George)

The Melissa George spy series formerly known as Nemesis and even more formerly known as Morton is now known as Hunted, according to The Hollywood Reporter. (Note to producers: of those three options, the correct title is Nemesis. Please go back to that. Thank you.) Hunted is created and written by Frank Spotnitz (Strike Back, The X-Files) and directed by S.J. Clarkson (Hustle). The trade recaps what we (mostly) already knew about the plot thusly: "George [Alias] plays Sam, a spy who has just escaped an assassination attempt by a member of her own team and goes back to work undercover as a nanny, not knowing who tried to kill her or who to trust." Spotnitz has been experimenting with the European TV production model, and collaborated with UK production company Kudos (MI-5) on Hunted, shooting on location in London, Scotland and Morocco. “The showrunner model works very well in the US,” Spotnitz told the crowd at the MIPTV conference in Cannes, “but it’s a different creative culture [in Europe]. I’ve been trying to take the best of both worlds and I’m still in process of figuring out how to do that.” One thing he's taken from the UK world is a short season. The trade reports that "the first season will follow the same storyline over eight hours, and Spotnitz and his team are already thinking about upcoming seasons and different locations, though nothing has been confirmed just yet." Hunted will air this fall on BBC1 in the UK and Cinemax in the U.S.

Mar 14, 2012

New Spy DVDs Out Recently: M:I, MI-5, English and Eurospies Both Real and Fake

Once again, I'm behind here, with another massive catch-up round-up. There have been a lot of spy DVDs released in the past few weeks, all of them good stuff. As always, if you're inclined to buy any of them, you can support the Double O Section by doing so from the provided Amazon links!

MI-5: Volume 10

Now American fans get to see what British fans saw on TV last fall: the final season of the BBC's long-running spy drama MI-5 (known as Spooks over there). Unlike the last few seasons, MI-5: Volume 10 actually has a few special features (albethey disposable and spoiler-filled ones) including "Top Ten MI-5 Moments" (as chosen by the cast and crew) and "Harry’s Game," devoted to MI-5’s most constant character [Harry Pearce, played by Peter Firth]." I'm looking forward to seeing how ten seasons' worth of twists and turns pays off in what I hope turns out to be a satisfying finale! Retail is $29.98 for the 2-disc set, containing all 6 episodes.

Killers Are Challenged

Finally, we gat the long-awaited third film in the "Bob Fleming, Agent 077" series of Eurospy movies on DVD! Following Secret Agent Fireball (starring Richard Harrison) and the unforgettable Fury in Marrakesh (a prequel in which Stephen Forsyth took over the lead role), which both came out on PAL discs from the Swedish company Fin de Siecle Media, the middle film in the series, Killers Are Challenged (aka 077 Bob Fleming - Man in Casablanca) is now available as an All Region PAL title from another Swedish label, Njuta FilmsKillers Are Challenged (1966) was directed by prolific Italian filmmaker Antonio Margheriti (often credited as Anthony Dawson), whose only other Eurospy movie was the thoroughly entertaining Lightning Bolt, starring Anthony Eisley. (Unless you count the giallo Naked You Die which has a few vague spy elements and even a cameo from "James Bond.") Personally, I really enjoy Lightning Bolt, but the infallible Eurospy Guide rates Killers as a better film, so I'm quite eager to see it! Susy Anderson, the beautiful Sdenka from Mario Bava's Black Sabbath (in her only spy role) and the delectable Wandisa Guida (from Lightning Bolt) co-star. No Eurospy movie ever relied too heavily on a plot, but for those who care about such things, here's the official description: "Three scientists discover an alternative energy to oil. Two of them die under mysterious circumstances, while the third - Coleman - is protected by CIA agents in Geneva. Special Agent Bob Fleming is instructed to go to Casablanca with the researcher's identity in order to investigate the mysterious deaths. He convinces Coleman's wife to work - with the rest of the women around him trying to kill him." You won't find this one on Amazon, but the import DVD, which does feature an English audio option, is available from Diabolik DVD for $21.99.

Mandrill

In the vein of the Jean Dujardin OSS 117 films and Black Dynamite, the Chilean action thriller Mandrill is a modern film conceived to look like it was made in another era. Only while those are parodies, this one is played relatively straight. The setting is South American, but the flavor is pure Eurospy. I've wanted to see this ever since I first heard about it when it played the festival circuit a few years ago, and I'm very excited that now I can, thanks to Magnet Releasing, who have released Mandrill on DVD and Blu-ray with English subtitles. (I think there's also a dubbed option, which might actually be appropriate for this sort of film.) Special features include the trailer, "Behind the Scenes of Mandrill" and "Anatomy of a Fight Scene." Retail is $26.98 for the DVD and $29.98 for the Blu-ray, but both, of course, are considerably cheaper on Amazon.

Mission: Impossible - The '89 TV Season

Presumably originally intended to coincide with the DVD release of the latest Tom Cruise blockbuster before it ended up being a big hit and lasting in cinemas for longer than likely expected, the second season of the 1988-90 revival series of Mission: Impossible instead hit DVD a few weeks ago, beating its theatrical cousin by a month. And what a joyous occasion it is for fans of classic spy television: we now have the final season of Mission: Impossible TV episodes containing the final appearances of Peter Graves as the one and only, real Jim Phelps. It's hard to believe that the first theatrical Mission (in which Jon Voight played a very different character named Phelps) came just five years after this DVD set leaves off. The two incarnations of the brand seem worlds apart. This 4-disc set (containing all 16 episodes of the revival's second season) represents my own preference. These episodes aren't as good as the Sixties and Seventies ones, but they're still highly enjoyable and, for me, more fun than the movies. Speaking of that original series, one of its stars, Greg Morris, returns to the revival once more reprising his role as Barney Collier in the two-part season premiere, "The Golden Serpent." (Those episodes, which were bundled as a film in Europe, are directed by old ITC hand Don Chaffey, who helmed his share of spy fare like The Prisoner, The Avengers, The Baron and more back in the Sixties.) Morris' son, Phil, is a regular on the revival, playing Barney's son Grant. The other regulars this season are Tony Hamilton, Jane Badler and Thaao Penghlis. Happily, for the first time ever on any Mission: Impossible DVD set from CBS/Paramount, there are even some bonus features! Not many, granted, but some. We get four episodic promos (including the trailer for the feature version of "The Golden Serpent") and the priceless "Holiday Promo," which features Peter Graves and the rest of the cast in snug winter sweaters in front of a Christmas tree wishing audiences season's greetings! It may not be that 1997 Diagnosis Murder episode "Discards" (which guest starred Phil Morris and Barbara Bain, reprising her Cinnamon Carter role from Mission's earliest seasons), which I would have loved to see included, but it's pure gold for Graves fans and likely the source of a screengrab that will feature on my Christmas post next winter! Retail on Mission: Impossible: The '89 TV Season is $39.98, but Amazon's got it way cheaper: just $25.49 right now. Complete your collection today!

You can also order Mission: Impossible: The '88 and '89 TV Seasons, which bundles the entire revival series together for just $69.98 (or less on Amazon).

Johnny English Reborn

Johnny English Reborn, the unexpected eight-years-after-the-fact follow-up to the 2003 Rowan Atkinson spy spoof Johnny English, made a mint overseas but failed to have much impact in America. Hopefully more U.S. viewers will discover it on DVD and Blu-ray DVD Combo, courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment, because it's a very funny spy send-up. In the pantheon of spy spoofs, it's not as good as the Jean Dujardin OSS 117 movies, but it's way, way better than any of the Austin Powers sequels. If you liked the original Johnny English (which is making its North American Blu-ray debut to coincide with this release), you'll like this one too. I laughed pretty much all the way through it. The DVD release includes a commentary track with director Oliver Parker and writer Hamish McColl, deleted and extended scenes with director intros, a gag reel, and a featurette on "The Wheelchair Chase." The Blu-ray/DVD combo has all that plus four more featurettes ("The English Files: The Making of Johnny English Reborn," "Working With Rowan," "Gadgets" and "English in Hong Kong"). So that's the one to get. Retail is $29.98 for the DVD and $34.98 for the BD/DVD Combo, but of course both are significantly cheaper on Amazon.

Oct 22, 2011

Upcoming Spy DVDs: MI-5: Volume 10 Hits U.S. Shelves Early Next Year

Upcoming Spy DVDs: MI-5: Volume 10 Hits U.S. Shelves Early Next Year

Confirming what we already suspected, the BBC America Shop blog (via TV Shows On DVD) reports that Americans can expect the current, final season of MI-5 (the long-running British spy series known as Spooks in the UK) on DVD "earlier next year." I'd imagine that's supposed to read "early next year," as we're used to MI-5 seasons coming out in January, and it's pretty hard to get much earlier than that. That means that for once, the US release will be nearly in sync with the UK one, which comes out at the end of November. Presumably this was the endgame in mind when BBC released two volumes of MI-5 in the U.S. this year (Volume 8 in January and Volume 9 in June), making it possible to catch up in time for the final season. Sweetening the deal, the blog reveals that there will be some special features on this final release, which is nice, since early seasons offered a wealth of bonus material but the last two have been bare-bones. The extras mentioned at this point include the "Top Ten MI-5 Moments chosen by the cast and crew and 'Harry’s Game,' devoted to MI-5’s most constant character [Harry Pearce, played by Peter Firth]." The show's series finale airs in Britain tomorrow night, and it was reported earlier this week that a fan-favorite character who departed the series many seasons ago would make a welcome (if fleeting) return. Cover art and price for the Region 1 DVD set are not yet available.

Read my review of MI-5: Volume 1
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 2
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 3
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 4
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 5

Oct 19, 2011

A Former Star Returns For Spooks/MI-5 Series Finale

A Former Star Returns For Spooks/MI-5 Series Finale

Digital Spy reports that one of the few former stars of Spooks (known in the US as MI-5) whose character managed to leave the series alive will return for the show's finale, which airs in the UK next week. The site couched their report in spoiler tags, so I won't reveal who (though fans can probably count the number of survivors on one hand, so it shouldn't be too hard to guess), but if you don't care about that you can find out by following the link here. I will say that the person in question is probably my favorite Spooks character (or second favorite after Harry), so I definitely welcome their return.

Read my review of MI-5: Volume 1
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 2
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 3
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 4
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 5

Sep 22, 2011

Tradecraft: Cinemax is Hooked on Spies

Tradecraft: Cinemax is Hooked on Spies

Deadline reports that Cinemax has booked another action drama "set in the world of international espionage" from their Strike Back showrunner, Frank Spotnitz. This one, Nemesis (also known as Morton for some reason), is another UK co-production, but this time with BBC One as opposed to BSkyB. The former X-Files showrunner will be teaming with Kudos, the production company behind Spooks/MI-5. According to the trade blog, Alias' Melissa George (next seen opposite Pierce Brosnan in the A&E Stephen King miniseries Bag of Bones) stars as "a highly skilled operative for an elite private intelligence firm who survives an attempt on her life that might have been orchestrated by members of her own team. Once she returns to the firm, she must perform her secretive duties without knowing who to trust and who wants her dead." The Beeb commissioned eight episodes last January, and Cinemax just came aboard. No word on whether that means more episodes, but I doubt it. Like Strike Back, Nemesis will indulge in some cool location filming. Shooting kicks off this fall in Europe and North Africa under the direction of S.J. Clarkson, who previously collaborated with Kudos on episodes of Hustle, Whitechapel and Life On Mars. Oh, and of course the logline likens it to The Bourne Identity. That pretty much goes without saying with any new spy show or movie these days. Now here's a gratuitous image of Aussie George channeling Ursula Andress in a white Bond Girl bikini...

Aug 25, 2011

DVD Review: Chris Ryan's Strike Back (UK Version) (2010)

DVD Review: Chris Ryan's Strike Back (UK Version) (2010)

I’d imported the DVD of the 2010 UK series Strike Back a while ago, right after the Cinemax sequel/remake version was first announced, but didn’t get around to actually watching it until recently, prompted by all the inescapable advertising for the US cable series. On the one hand, I’m really glad I watched the original version first, because it’s excellent—way better than I’d expected it to be, honestly. On the other hand, I have a slight regret that it will completely spoil the American version for me (which I had been excited for), because I know there’s no way that it will live up to this one.

The original series of Strike Back (officially known as "Chris Ryan's Strike Back"), produced in the UK for British Sky Broadcasting (yes, B Sky B, that cable network that was in the news so much at the beginning of the summer because of Rupert Murdoch’s failed buyout attempt), stars MI-5’s Richard Armitage as disgraced former SAS man John Porter. I’ve always had a soft spot for SAS action flicks like The Final Option. There’s something a bit romantic about Britain’s special forces like the Special Air Service that plays well on film and television—and even better when combined with spying, as is the case in Strike Back. On top of the intriguing, action-packed premise, Strike Back offers compelling characters (something of a rarity in the modern military action genre) played by first-rate actors like Richard Armitage (who I liked fine on Spooks, but liked much more here!), Andrew Lincoln (who I didn’t even realize was British when I saw him on The Walking Dead), Colin Salmon, Toby Stephens, Ewan Bremner, Shelley Conn, Jodhi May and more. It’s also got a very appealing and modern style. From its purposely washed-out color scheme (perfect for the many desert settings) to its creative use of subtitles and chyrons, the show quickly defines itself with a unique look and impressive production values.

Strike Back is divided on DVD and Blu-ray into three feature-length episodes (“Iraq,” “Zimbabwe” and “Afghanistan”), but they were originally broadcast in two parts each, making it a six-part series on television. Each feature stands on its own, but they also form an ongoing storyline with a rich payoff in the third one for events set into motion in the first. I recommend watching them all, and in order.

“Iraq,” directed by Daniel Percival (Dirty War, The State Within), introduces us to SAS soldier John Porter (Richard Armitage) during a 2003 mission in Basra. Leading his team to rescue a British hostage from an Al Qaeda in Iraq safehouse, Porter elects not to shoot a 13-year-old kid with a bomb. In an inquiry following the operation, the military deems Porter therefore responsible for the subsequent deaths of three men under his command, including his best friend. He’s dishonorably discharged and spends the next seven years living in shame, estranged from his wife and daughter and basically living on the charity of his former comrade-in-arms, Hugh Collinson (Andrew Lincoln).

Collinson is now a bigwig in MI6, leading the elite and ultra-secret Section 20. Section 20 seems roughly analogous to Jeffery Deaver’s version of the Double O Section in Carte Blanche: it has access to the resources of both the SIS and the SAS, but doesn't seem to be an official part of either. Collinson does, however, seem to answer to higher-ups inside MI6, including Colin Salmon, M’s former aide who must still be hanging around the building from the Pierce Brosnan days of Bond. Collinson has seen to it that Porter’s been steadily employed as a lowly security guard in the SIS parking garage, and he even reluctantly agrees to take him on as a Section 20 agent when it appears that the same young man Porter spared as a boy, As-Ad, is now responsible for the kidnapping of a female British journalist who also happens to be the daughter of a former high-ranking minister.

When he’s suddenly re-commissioned (at the insistence of Salmon’s character, James Middleton, since he figures they need to grasp at any lead—no matter how slim—given the pressure SIS is facing from the government), Porter undergoes some quick refresher training. Soon enough he finds himself back in Iraq—but sidelined at the base while a crack SAS squad, Alpha Team, helicopters off to the compound where MI6 believes the hostage is being held. Section 20’s Layla Thompson (Jodhi May), who appears to be the official liaison between MI6 and SAS, accompanies them on the chopper, but doesn’t go in when they raid the compound. Good thing, too, because it’s a trap and they’re quickly wiped out, which leaves Porter as Britain’s last hope. Before he can even be officially tasked, however, he’s already commandeered a Range Rover and gone off on his own rogue mission into Basra convinced he knows where to find the terrorists.

In Basra, Porter is out of uniform and totally undercover, like Matt Damon’s character in Green Zone. Like Green Zone (review here), Strike Back presents a rare glimpse in popular culture at the actual battlefields of the War on Terror. (Well, close enough, anyway. The impressive South African shooting locations certainly made a convincing Basra to me, though I must admit I’ve never been there.) Just as Europe was the backdrop to the Cold War, I suspect most Western spies today are concentrated in the Middle East, yet spy movies and TV for the most part have yet to catch up with that new paradigm. Hollywood seems convinced to keep the spying in Europe (maybe because it's cheaper to approximate?), so this focus alone makes Strike Back fairly unique among the landscape of today’s spy TV shows.

The backdrop may be different, but John Porter still behaves like we want our classic movie spies to behave. Out of uniform, he’s still armed, and he’s got some nifty spy gadgets on him, like a cool set of lock picks. He even actually manages to smuggle a knife in his rectum when he knows he’s going to be captured, which is as impressive a feat as it is painful to contemplate. (Truth be told, I’ve sometimes wondered why we don’t see TV and movie spies pulling that sort of trick more often.) He also kills a lot of people, and doesn’t shy away from Jack Bauer-like methods of on-the-go interrogation. Strike Back is nothing if not fast-paced, and the action is quite good.

When we’re not following the action in the field, we’re following the action in the Ops Room back at MI6 (SIS), delivering that classic Sandbaggers Field vs. Desk dichotomy. The two are even frequently linked, as is the case later in the episode when Collinson, from London, is giving direct orders to an SAS team in a helicopter in Iraq. Regular readers will know that I’m a sucker for that Field/Desk formula, but Strike Back adds an interesting new element into the mix. By the end of the first episode, Porter has learned that Collinson is most likely a fraud—the one who’s really responsible for the deaths that Porter has taken the rap for for the past seven years. This extra wrinkle adds a crackling new layer to the standard relationship between field agents and their bosses back in London. It’s not that Porter suspects Collinson of treason (as we’ve sometimes seen before), but that he suspects him of a very personal betrayal. At the same time, though, the two men have a shared desire to do whatever it takes to protect Britain’s interests, meaning that their goals align… even if they’re personally—secretly—at odds. This unique dynamic fuels the next two installments.

The second combined episode, “Zimbabwe,” is probably the weakest of the three—but still well worth watching. It opens explosively with an assassination attempt on real-world dictator Robert Mugabe. The assassin fails and is captured, which presents a problem for the British because he’s ex-SAS. Mugabe will put him on a show trial and claim that he’s MI6, and that Britain tried to kill him. Porter’s mission is to get him out of prison, and if that fails… to make sure by any means necessary that he never goes on trial. Porter and Layla have suspicions of their own. Why go to all this effort… unless there’s some truth to the Zimbabwean claims? Could the assassin have really been working for MI6 after all? Not even Collinson seems to know for sure.

Porter goes undercover in the prison where the assassin, Felix Masuku (Shaun Parkes), is being held. (Well, I say “goes undercover,” but what that entails, of course, is getting himself arrested.) As one might expect of a Zimbabwean prison run by the military, it’s not one of these country club establishments. It is, in fact, a very unpleasant place, and soon enough Porter’s involved in illegal bare-knuckle fights that the prison guards bet on. Meanwhile, Layla is posing as a South African policewoman trying attempting to “extradite” Porter. Nothing goes according to plan and her cover is blown, but Porter still manages to escape with Masuku and the two of them find themselves on the run together across Africa.

At this point, the writers throw every sort of African obstacle they can think of at them: soldiers, desert, warlords, native trackers, a Butch and Sundance plunge into a muddy river… even a cobra! A side trip to save a bunch of kids in an orphanage run by nuns risks veering into 24: Redemption territory, but Strike Back’s approach is altogether less maudlin than 24’s. In fact, in keeping with the series’ generally realistic tone, it’s pretty gritty and horrible. The horror is driven home when Porter comes upon a mass grave full of children.

To say that it’s not maudlin, however, is of course not to say that Porter and Masuku abandon the orphans and the nuns and leave them to their fate. They dig in and use all of their Special Forces training to defend the school against a warlord’s men and Mugabe’s men. Porter once again demonstrates a knack for killing, which earns him a slap from one of the African nuns despite the fact that he just saved her. “I’ve seen a lot of killing,” she tells him. “Most men seem to take pleasure in it. But you… You’re like a machine. I don’t know which I find more frightening.”

Meanwhile, back in London, Collinson and the Operations team try to figure out what the hell is going on with the almost-assassin. Was it an MI6 mission? Or is there a rogue agent in their midst working with the Mugabe government or even pursuing a private agenda? The answers actually takes Collinson back into the field in the final act and face-to-face with Porter. Layla has come to share Porter’s suspicions about their boss, but they’re still all fighting on the same side, even if they don’t trust each other. That thread won’t come to a hilt until the third and final episode…

The third two-parter is by far the best, and the main reason I rate the entire series so highly. But I would certainly not advise skipping the others. Part of what makes “Afghanistan” so good is the way it concludes some of the ongoing story arcs.

“Afghanistan” feels different from the other two, right from the opening moments when a Propellerheads song accompanies fast-moving, POV helicopter shots of the desert. (I haven’t heard the Propellerheads on a soundtrack in about a decade, but hearing them here stokes my nostalgia for late 90s spy and action movies. Their music was among the very best of the John Barry-inspired wave of soundtrack trip-hop.) This can probably be attributed to a different director from the others. Spooks (MI-5) director Edward Hall takes the reins for this part, and instantly makes his presence felt, despite maintaining the distinctive overall style of the series.

“Afghanistan” is the “Bad Americans” episode, an episode that any regular viewer of UK spy dramas knows is a requisite of the genre over there. (Spooks has even managed to stretch it into an entire season!) Speaking strictly for myself, this is one American who secretly relishes the Bad Americans episodes. It just adds another layer to that whole inter-agency in-fighting that makes the Desk side of the spy genre so juicy. Instead of simply MI5 vs. MI6, when you throw the CIA into the equation, the stakes are instantly raised. In Strike Back, surprisingly, the face of the CIA is a very recognizably British one: Die Another Day villain (and Kim Philby in Cambridge Spies) Toby Stephens. Even though I’m used to seeing Stephens as a quintessential Oxbridge snob, I had no trouble accepting him as a quintessential Ivy League snob instead. In fact, his American accent is pretty darn good as UK TV goes—even if the rumors are it wasn’t good enough for US TV. (He was dropped from the American version of Prime Suspect—supposedly because of his accent.) Anyway, it’s the snob part that’s important here, not the accent, and Toby Stephens has the reprehensible, reptilian snob role down to an art form. Here he harnesses those powers to play obnoxious CIA liaison Frank Arlington, who marches into MI6 headquarters like he owns it and takes charge of Section 20’s latest operation, because it directly affects US interests in Afghanistan.

Taliban fighters have gotten their hands on a system that can override UK missile guidance, and on several occasions (including this episode’s budget-busting opening) that’s enabled them to re-route missiles fired from UK air support to hit the American forces they were supposed to be supporting instead of their intended target. Section 20 suspect that the man behind this scheme is probably Gerald Baxter (Trainspotter Ewan Bremner in an excellent performance), a Scottish weapons designer who’s apparently gone nuts and gone native in Afghanistan, bringing his technology to the Taliban. But what was he doing there in the first place? Was he sent in on behalf of MI6 or MI5? Or even the CIA? Collinson has his reasons to suspect that Baxter was working for one of those agencies, but they’re all quick to disown him now and save themselves any embarrassment. John Porter is sent in to extract Baxter and learn the truth. To those ends, he goes undercover as an arms dealer named “Tom Wallace.” While it seems kind of unlikely that this name is a deliberate Queen & Country reference, it’s still tempting to believe, as this is a very Queen & Country-like episode! The spy references (real or imagined) keep flying when he assures a suspicious Baxter, “I’m not here to play Our Man Flint.”

Like Queen & Country and its primary inspiration, the Seventies TV classic The Sandbaggers, this episode of Strike Back perfectly balances the Field and Desk storylines. The tough decisions and political maneuvering made by Collinson in London directly affects Porter in the field (well, desert), and Porter’s actions on the ground likewise affect those decisions back at HQ. While the undercover Porter is captured by (along with Baxter) and subsequently escapes from American forces, Collinson and Arlington play the clubland buddy-buddy game, having drinks at Collinson’s posh club as they move their imaginary, opposing chess pieces. All pretense of civility fades pretty quickly, however, when the boorish Arlington declares, “The Anglo-American love-in? It’s over. And there’s a go-it-alone strategy on the table in the White House. So, if I were you, I’d think twice before having principals.” From then on, it’s a game of constant one-upmanship between them. At each meeting, the upper hand changes based on Porter’s actions in the field. This is gripping stuff—every bit equal to the action and explosions going on in the desert. The situation also serves to actually get the audience rooting for Collinson. Because we know him to be a coward, we’re usually against him, but you can’t help root for him when the alternative (Stephens) is so entertainingly unpleasant.

As Collinson spars with Arlington in clubs and offices, Porter has his hands full with Baxter in the Afghan desert. Once again, the locations (still South Africa, I think) are truly commendable, and certainly stand in for Afghanistan much better than a quarry in East Anglia or California scrubland would. I was convinced, anyway.

With the Americans and the Taliban on their tail in Afghanistan, Baxter offers to take Porter to Zahir Sharq (the ever-reliable Alexander Siddig), a warlord he believes can unite all the squabbling factions in the country. Of course, like all terrorists-cum-warlords worth their salt, Sharq is not skulking in a cave in Afghanistan. He’s living it up in luxury in Pakistan. Porter’s uneasy about crossing the border, but Baxter makes a point. “Show me the border,” he demands, pointing to a vast stretch of indistinguishable desert. In this tribal land, he observes, borders hold no meaning, a point further driven home when they arrive at Sharq’s impressive compound. Baxter comments, “This ain’t Afghanistan… and it’s sure not Pakistan. Guess that makes it…”

“Sharqistan,” finishes Porter. Evidently Baxter unlocks a rarely-displayed sense of humor in him. Indeed, the unlikely pair develop quite a repartee, and their banter might possibly have been seen as a model for the new Cinemax version of Strike Back, which stars a duo. “We’re having a bromance!” the mad Baxter declares after Porter saves his life for a second time—and Bremner manages to successfully pull off such a line! He’s very, very good—and so is Armitage. Of course Armitage has been good in every episode, but his talent really shines in the company of Bremner. Baxter turns out to be quite an interesting character. He’s definitely kind of crazy, and politically motivated. He’s got a guilty conscience about deaths his weapons have caused in the past, and that makes him easily manipulated by the British, the CIA, the Taliban and especially Sharq. He’s really an innocent caught up in the very dangerous games of nations—and any seasoned spy viewer will know that situation can’t lead him anywhere good.

In classic fashion, every player is double-dealing everyone else, each with their own agenda. As Collinson tries to out-maneuver Arlington and the CIA, Layla is secretly maneuvering to undermine him at MI6 and Sharq is trying to make a deal with Arlington for Baxter and Porter! It’s a very fluid situation all around, and makes for top-flight spy viewing. And the constant bursts of action are every bit as compelling as the diplomatic skullduggery. Hall keeps a lot of balls in the air with great skill.

Unfortunately, “Afghanistan” as a two-part story and Strike Back as a series (at least in its original incarnation) end on a cliffhanger—and not a lame cliffhanger-just-for-the-sake-of-having-a-cliffhanger sort of cliffhanger as Spooks has on occasion been guilty of, but a genuine, legitimate, story-driven cliffhanger that sets up a potentially awesome second season based around the desire to see a confrontation between Porter and Frank Arlington. Sadly—even infuriatingly—however, that will never come as Strike Back went in a very different direction instead with its second season. Its original stars all got amazing Hollywood jobs on huge projects like The Hobbit, The Walking Dead and Steven Spielberg’s Terra Nova just as B Sky B made a deal with Cinemax to co-produce the second series with American audiences squarely in mind. John Porter would make a brief appearance in an empty gesture to placate fans of the first series, but ultimately the next version of Strike Back would go a radically different direction and those fans would never see the payoff hinted at in the finale of the first series. That’s not a reason not to watch, however. Strike Back in its original form is fantastically entertaining and likely to please fans of the Sandbaggers school as well as action junkies.

The Region 2 DVD (no sign of a US release yet) offers three featurettes. “Spotlight On Location: Shooting South Africa” is an interesting look at exactly what you’d expect—South Africa’s suitability to play Zimbabwe, Iraq and other topical trouble spots as well as itself. It’s got comments from all the key members of the cast and crew, but at a mere three minutes and change, it’s ultimately all too brief for its subject matter. “Guns ‘N’ Ammo: Arming Strike Back” is a more substantial piece at ten minutes, focused on the show’s weaponry and commitment to accuracy and technical details in portraying the SAS. Unfortunately, the key technical advisor, Chris Ryan—who also authored the book the show is based on, earning him that possessive in the UK title—cannot appear on screen (presumably for reasons of secrecy). But the set armorer stands in nicely, augmented by remarks from the actors and producers. There’s a fairly thorough segment on filming with helicopters, a topic that surprisingly I’d never seen examined in much detail before. The real meat of the special features is reserved for the 15-minute “On Strike: Making Chris Ryan’s Strike Back,” an EPK-style featurette that’s mainly promotional, but still manages to explore every facet of the production in at least some detail, including interviews with all the key personnel. Unfortunately, it’s focused entirely on the first episode, “Iraq,” so we don’t get any behind-the-scenes perspective on the other two. Nonetheless, all three special features are welcome inclusions—though I would have preferred something more in-depth like audio commentaries. If you've got the means to play a Region 2 DVD, Chris Ryan's Strike Back comes highly recommended.

Aug 12, 2011

Official: Spooks (AKA MI-5) is Ending

Confirming what was first hinted at in a May press release for the American release of the Volume 9 DVDs, the BBC has confirmed that Spooks (known in America as MI-5) is indeed coming to an end after ten seasons. The Guardian reports that the decision to end the popular long-running spy drama comes from the show's producers at Kudos, and not from the network. They say they wanted to see it go out "in its prime" rather than see it cancelled by the BBC down the line. Whether or not it's actually still "in its prime" is a matter for fans to debate, but the series has seen amazing longevity thanks to the producers' ability to reinvent it again and again with a constantly changing cast. (I don't think I've ever seen another spy show kill off as many lead characters, a fact that kept the series unpredictable, since viewers knew no one was ever safe.) According to the newspaper, the 10th and final season will focus on Peter Firth's character, Harry Pearce (the head of counter-terrorism at MI-5) which is entirely appropriate as Harry is the only remaining character who's been on the show consistently since Season 1 and thus its de facto true lead. While it's had its ups and downs, I've really enjoyed Spooks overall, and I will be sad to see it go... but I agree with Kudos that it can't run forever. I look forward to seeing how they wrap it all up. I hope that some of the few past stars who actually survived will return! (Most of all I'd like to see Harry Pearce go another round with Hugh Laurie's condescending MI-6 man from Season 1, Jules Siviter. That seems unlikely, however, given Laurie's House commitments.)
Thanks to The Harry Palmer Movie Site's Kees Stam for the alert on this one!

Read my review of MI-5: Volume 1
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 2
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 3
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 4
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 5

Jul 19, 2011

New Spy DVDs Out This Last Week

I'm a week late with this, but that kind of works out because as far as I know there are no major spy releases out this week. As of last week, though, America is finally caught up with Britain on seasons of MI-5 (known as Spooks in the UK), for the first time in the series' nine-year run! Because of a weird yearly January release schedule, we've always been a whole year behind, which kind of sucks when the storylines are often closely tied in to contemporary headlines. Now we're on the same page, just in time for the show's last season, due to air this fall in the UK and presumably to come out on DVD here next January. Last week's BBC release of MI-5: Volume 9 is a 3-disc set, retailing for $39.98 (though it's cheaper on Amazon). For once, there are no extras whatsoever, which is unfortunate, as the show's early seasons were packed with bonus features, and recent ones had featured at least a few. Oh well. Maybe that's the trade-off for finally getting a season half a year earlier.

She doesn't do it too often, but I love it when Agatha Christie ventures into spy territory in her mysteries. (And I would really love to see adaptations one day of her few straight-up espionage novels like They Came to Baghdad or Destination Unknown one day.) Agatha Christie's Poirot Movie Collection Set 6, out last week from Acorn on DVD and Blu-ray, contains one such venture in "The Clocks," when Poirot is recruited by the British Secret Service to look into some murders in Dover involving possible German spies on the eve of WWII. And, of course, there are secret documents to be recovered. As a bonus for Bond fans, Tomorrow Never Dies' Admiral Roebuck Geoffrey Palmer turns up as another Admiral. Plus, as the title indicates, it's one of those Christie mysteries that depends on clocks and timetables, and who doesn't love those? The other mysteries in this collection are "Three Act Tragedy" and "Halowe'en Party." Retail is a typically steep $49.99 for the DVD and $59.99 for the Blu-ray.

Read my review of MI-5: Volume 1
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 2
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 3

Jun 2, 2011



Trailer For Cinemax's Strike Back

Cinemax has released a trailer for their "new" original series Strike Back... and apparently it debuts much sooner than I thought: this summer!  (I'd assumed it was a fall show.)  "New" is in quotation marks because, as previously reported, this is actually the second season of the UK series Chris Ryan's Strike Back, which aired over there on the satellite network Sky.  But despite being the second season, it's got new stars and a new, more American format (ten hour-long episodes instead of three hour-and-a-half episodes).  Yet it's not a remake, as evidenced by the different UK trailer (below), which makes it clear (somewhat surprisingly) that Spooks/MI-5's Richard Armitage, who starred in the first season, is still involved.  (There they're calling the new series Strike Back: Project Dawn to differentiate it from the original.) However, it looks like he'll be sidelined in favor of the new actors (including an American lead, played by an Australian)... most likely because he's tied up down in New Zealand shooting two Hobbit movies.  (Luckily, that didn't stop Martin Freeman from continuing his UK TV show, though... and he's the star of The Hobbit!) It seems like a good arrangement to me: maintain continuity from the first series but make the second friendly to new viewers as well.  I imported the Region 2 DVDs of the original series and what I put on briefly looked good, but I still haven't had a chance to watch it in earnest.  I'll post a review when I do.  That said, I think the new Cinemax version looks cool, too!

May 12, 2011

Upcoming Spy DVDs: More Details On MI-5: Volume 9

Season 10 to be the series' last?

We already knew that the next volume of MI-5 DVDs (known as Spooks in the UK) would hit American shelves this July as opposed to next January.  (All the other seasons had been released in January, keeping American audiences over a year behind on the show's storylines.)  Now, thanks to TV Shows On DVD, we have the artwork as well.  And, thanks to the official copy, we also have a strong indication that Season 10 will be the final season.  (If true, I'll be sorry to see it go.  MI-5 has had its ups and downs, but I always look forward to the next season, and overall the show has done a good job handling a constantly changing core cast.)  BBC will release MI-5: Volume 9, a 3-disc set, on July 12.  The SRP is $39.98 (though it can already be preordered for cheaper than that on Amazon).  No extras were announced in the press release, which the editors of TV Shows On DVD take to mean there won't be any.  That would be unfortunate, as the show's early seasons were packed with bonus features, and recent ones had featured at least a few. Here's the BBC description:

The penultimate season of the hugely successful, long-running drama introduces a host of new characters. Relations between the CIA and MI5 reach breaking point over mysterious hackers. And a horrific truth about Lucas' past is uncovered by Harry when they come face to face in a compelling interrogation. Friendships are tested to the limit, Harry and Ruth's bond intensifies and the depth of deceit leads to the ultimate game of cat and mouse.
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 1
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 2
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 3
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 4
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 5

Mar 24, 2011

Upcoming Spy DVDs: MI-5: Volume 9

TV Shows On DVD reports that, true to their promise last fall, BBC Home Video will release the next season of MI-5 (aka Spooks) this summer rather than making American spy fans wait a whole year between volumes, as we've had to in the past. This move will put America on the same schedule as Britain, and hopefully means we'll be able to get the next season (10) as soon as it wraps up its UK TV run. It's an altogether more appropriate arrangement for a series that tries (to some degree) to keep up with the latest headlines. MI-5: Volume 9 will hit American shelves on July 12, 2011. SRP for the 3-disc set is in line with the recent Volume 8, much cheaper than previous volumes, at $39.98; of course it will be availabe for even less than that online.

Feb 17, 2011

Tradecraft: Exit Strategy Recruits Spies From MI-5

Deadline reports that Megan Dodds has been cast opposite Ethan Hawke in what sounds like the most promising new spy series of next season, Fox's Mission: Impossible meets 24 real-time drama Exit Strategy.  Like Mission: ImpossibleExit Strategy follows a team of five experts in different fields employed to untangle the CIA's most impossible missions.  Like 24, the action unfolds in real time.  (The hours take place days apart and in different locations, however; not over the course of a single day in a single place.)  Hawke has been attached since December as team leader Eric Shaw; Dodds is the first additional team member to be cast.  According to the trade blog, she will play "Dr. Hannah Burke, the medic on the team who has a genius-level IQ,  trusts no one and appears to have a romantic connection with Shaw."  This isn't Dodds' first foray into spying.  She played the CIA's London Station Chief, Christine Dale, on Season 2 of Spooks (aka MI-5).  On that series, she "appeared to have a romantic connection" with Matthew Macfadyen's Tom Quinn, but the spark didn't have a chance to develop.  Like most CIA characters on Spooks, her American accent sounded a little dodgy... which was why I was shocked to discover that she actually is an American, born in California!  I suppose living in London for a while messes with your accent, whether you're a CIA officer or an actress.  Still, I really liked her on Spooks and I'm glad to see her on another spy series.  No word on what accent her character will have on Exit Strategy. Dodds also appeared with Daniel Craig in Sword of Honor.

As previously reported, Antoine Fuqua directs the pilot. Exit Strategy is produced by the prolific team of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Alias, Mission: Impossible 3), and created by David Guggenheim (Safe House).

Feb 10, 2011

Tradecraft: Cinemax Strikes Back With Scripted Spy Series

According to Deadline, HBO's sister network Cinemax is finally entering the original scripted television arena that's been so profitable for other pay cable channels.  Only their new "scripted original" isn't that original; it's a remake of a UK spy series that debuted last year, Strike BackThe British Strike Back was a 6-episode series for the Sky satellite network based on a novel by former SAS operative Chris Ryan.  This is actually the first I've heard of it, but it sounds pretty good, like an attempt to revive the tough guy action genre of The Professionals or Saracen. In that version, Richard Armitage switches allegiances from MI-5 (Spooks) to MI-6 as John Porter, an ex-SAS man turned agent for MI-6's Section 20. The show was shot in South Africa, whose deserts doubled for Iraq, Zimbabwe and Afghanistan. 

For the American version, Cinemax will team up with Sky to produce a 10-episode series (inspired by the television format, and not the original novel), again shooting in South Africa (as well as Hungary).  Armitage will not be involved. Instead, the Antipodean Sullivan Stapleton (Animal Kingdom) will play Damien Scott, "a charismatic former U.S. Special Forces operative who teams up with a British military unit led by Section 20 officer Michael Stonebridge (Fringe's Philip Winchester) to stop an international terrorist group." Daniel Percival, who directed the bulk of the original Sky series (as well as other spy stuff like The State Within and Dirty War), will be involved with the new version in a directing capacity as well; X-Files vet Frank Spotnitz and EastEnders writer Richard Zadjlic (huh?) are the showrunners. 

So... the new series is a US/UK co-production that retains some of the original creative team, but not the lead actor or lead character?  And instead of replacing him with an American, they replace him with an Australian playing an American?  Who's still working for MI-6, and not for an American covert squad? That's... weird.  Why not just stick with Armitage?  It's not like Sullivan Stapleton is any better known here in the States.  I'm not quite sure if this series is supposed to occupy the same world as the original one.  Perhaps there's the prospect of crossover down the line?  If it's not the same world, I would think it would be confusing when co-producer Sky airs the new version.  And what does this mean for a potential second series of Armitage's version?  I guess we'll have to wait and see.  In the meantime, I'm going to make sure to check out the first one, which is available on PAL DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk.  Mind you, I'm not complaining about the new one, just making observations. In my book, there's always room for a new spy show on American television--especially one shot on location in Europe and Africa!

UPDATE:
Read my full review of Chris Ryan's Strike Back (the original UK version) here.
Read my review of Strike Back (the Cinemax version) here.

Nov 7, 2010

Upcoming Spy DVDs: More MI-5 In January

I have to admit, I was getting a little bit concerned about this, since we usually get a press release before now.  But it's here now, and TVShowsOnDVD has all the news: like clockwork, MI-5: Volume 8 (aka Spooks) is coming out in America on January 25, 2011.  The 3-disc set contains eight episodes and a handfull of special features including commentary tracks on the premiere and finale and two behind-the-scenes featurettes: "Acting the Fall" and "The Flat Explosion."  I love MI-5 and I start getting really jittery for it around this time of year.  I'm glad to hear I'll get my fix, as usual, in January! Retail is also lower than on previous seasons at a much more attractive $39.98 (which means it can be pre-ordered on Amazon for an even more reasonable $27.99). 

But that's not all.  TVShowsOnDVD also points the way to the BBC America Shop Blog, where the company announces that they'll be breaking with the every January release pattern after Volume 8–and for the better.  American fans won't have to wait a whole year to see the episodes that British audiences are watching on TV right now.  Instead, we'll get MI-5: Volume 9 as early as next summer!  Excellent news.

Aug 12, 2010

Tradecraft: Spooks (aka MI-5) Gets A US Remake

Huh.  This is kind of weird... but potentially cool.  Deadline is reporting that "ABC Studios has closed a deal [with UK production company Kudos] for the rights to Spooks, known in the U.S. as MI-5."  Michael Seitzman, whose screenwriting credits include North Country and–in a more relevant vein–the long-percolating Robert Ludlum adaptation The Chancellor Manuscript (last seen in the clutches of Quantum of Solace director Marc Forster) will write and executive produce the adaptation. 

I'm sure most readers are familiar with Spooks (or MI-5), but for the uninitiated it follows the originally very down-to-earth but increasingly preposterous exploits of a small team of MI-5 agents and analysts under the even-handed leadership of Harry Pearce (Peter Firth).  Its hallmarks are slick production values, (generally) intelligent scripts and a very high mortality rate among the leads.  (Some of the character deaths have been shocking and profound.)  It's a great show, but not really one so patently original that it screams out for a Stateside remake.  In fact, I'm kind of perplexed as to exactly what ABC hopes to gain from shelling out for the rights rather than just creating their own brand new spy show.  Presumably they won't use the great title, Spooks, since A&E (who first aired the British version here in America) already rejected it out of an idiotic fear that it conjured up a rediculous racist epithet so archaic and obscure (today) as to run zero risk of misinterpretation among this generation of television viewers.  The title Americans actually know, MI-5, refers by name to the British domestic Security Service, and therefore has little use to the network unless they plan on setting their remake in Britain... which would kind of defeat the purpose of a remake! 

So the benefit of name recognition is out.  Which leaves, basically, the concept of a curmudgeonly but honorable spymaster quarterbacking for a stable of agents with various issues.  In the early seasons, there was a focus on said agents' attempts to balance relatively ordinary home lives with their secret lives, but that focus has diminished over the years.  In any case, none of that is anything particularly original that we haven't seen on numerous other spy series over the years–including ABC's own hit show Alias.  Don't get me wrong; Spooks does such a great job with its premise that it rises to the top of the pack, but a new version won't benefit from its actors or creative talent.  Furthermore, America has no direct analogue of MI-5 (no domestic security service), so either you're left with just another FBI show (how many have there been?), you're fudging it so that the CIA operates on US soil (like Covert Affairs) or you're making up a fictional service (essentially CTU), which has been done on 24, an inferior show to Spooks that Spooks for some reason attempted to emulate in later seasons.  So I can't help but feel that ABC got hoodwinked.  That said, of course I'll follow the development of the resulting series eagerly, and hope for the best!

Read my review of MI-5: Volume 1
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 2
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 3
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 4
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 5.