Feb 28, 2007

Double Or Die Gets A US Release Date

The Young Bond Dossier has another great scoop today: Charlie Higson's third Young Bond novel, Double Or Die, will receive US publication on June 25, via Random House. (Miramax Books published the first two stateside.) Hopefully they'll give it the push it needs for the franchise to catch on here to the extent it has in the UK, where the book spent several weeks atop the Childrens' Bestseller lists. Like the others, Double Or Die will initially be available in hardcover in the States. (In England they're all paperback originals.) I haven't been able to verify this publication date myself, but hopefully it's true...

Now if only someone would announce an American publication date for The Moneypenny Diaries!
Alan Arkin Gets Smart

Fresh off his Little Miss Sunshine Oscar win this weekend, Alan Arkin has signed on to play the Chief in the Get Smart movie. He'll be Smart's boss at CONTROL. It's another inspired casting choice for a movie that's already accumulated Steve Carell as Maxwell Smart, Anne Hathaway as Agent 99, The Rock as their fellow agent and the great Terrence Stamp as the evil leader of KAOS. Get Smart is set for release in Summer 2008. I've said it before and I'll say it again; I can't wait for this movie!

Feb 27, 2007

DVD Review: The Kommissar X Collection

DVD Review: The Kommissar X Collection

I had long heard of Kommissar X, and been entranced by the evocative posters, but I’d never seen one of the movies until now. Boy, am I glad that Retromedia put these out on DVD! They’re certainly not the peak of the genre, not by a long shot, but they’re extremely fun Eurospy movies for both the right and wrong reasons.

I’ve already mentioned the Eurospy trend toward "loathsome heroes" (a term I’ve stolen from the website Chefelf, talking about ‘80s barbarian movies, to which it equally applies). I think it’s just what happens when writers try to duplicate James Bond without fully grasping the character, and when actors without the effortless charm of Sean Connery or James Coburn occupy the parts. Kommissar X (who, rather disappointingly, is a private detective and not any sort of Kommissar at all, X or otherwise), aka Joe Walker (Tony Kendall), has to be the most loathsome Eurospy hero I’ve encountered yet. Which is not really a criticism of the films, merely an observation. It’s not a criticism because his loathsomeness doesn’t hamper the viewer’s enjoyment of the movie; in fact, it enhances it. Eurospy is a peculiar genre that’s more about the trappings than the characters, and it’s often just as much fun to watch a hero you hate as one you love. Such is the case here.

What does Joe do that makes him so annoying? Well, for starters he’s always punching people, whether they’re his friends or enemies, and always doing it with a smirk. Not a smirk that says, "oh, brother, now I’ve gotta punch you," but a smirk that says, "boy, I sure love punching people who are weaker than me." For another thing, he’s always kissing beautiful women. I know, I know, that’s what spies do! But Joe doesn’t just kiss the ones who like him; he kisses all of them, from stewardesses waiting on him to pretty girls he passes in the street, whether they want it or not. (He assumes they do, but from the looks they sometimes give him afterwards it’s clear that he’s not really that good a judge of character.) Finally, Joe’s just plain irresponsible. Not in a likable, Mel-Gibson-in-Lethal-Weapon sort of way; in a sociopathic sort of way. He seems totally oblivious to the needs or wishes of anyone but himself, and doesn’t think twice about setting a whole pier on fire to make his getaway.

Luckily his partner and (for some reason) friend Captain Tom Rowland (Brad Harris) is always around to, literally, put out his fires. "You might burn down the entire city," he has to explain to Walker, as one would to a four-year-old playing with matches. Walker gets the idea and starts to help out by unspooling an extra fire hose, but he loses interest in dousing the flames as soon as he discovers how much fun it is to spray women with the hose. After he knocks one down with the spray, he just keeps blasting her with the water, cackling gleefully. (See what I mean? Total sociopath!) Granted, she is an assassin, but she’s helpless while he’s spraying her, and that doesn’t excuse his utter delight at watching her wriggle around on the dock, soaked. (And it doesn’t stop her from hooking up with him later, either!)

As you might gather from Joe’s behavior, the Kommissar X movies are about the most chauvinist of any of all Eurospy titles, and that’s saying a lot. They make the Sixties Bond movies look like they were written by Susan Faludi. But surely that’s part of the joke, right? Right...?

Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but it’s easy to laugh at today. As are all of the movies’ weaknesses, but their strengths are just as much fun. They’re often shot in exotic locations, and the sets may not be Ken Adam, but they’re decent knock-offs. The women are all quite beautiful, and the villains delightfully villainous. Each movie features at least a few good fights and exciting chases (some very impressive indeed), and the music is exactly what you want from a Eurospy movie, with an infectious (if obnoxious) theme song called "I Love You, Joe Walker." And, above all, Harris and Kendall have a good rapport together and are undeniably fun to watch on screen, even if one of them is a total prat.

Retromedia’s triple-feature DVD is presented full-screen, which is a pity, because these movies are obviously cropped. I assume this is because all they had access to were 16mm prints, probably made for TV broadcast. The prints themselves are not restored at all. They’re blurry and sometimes out of focus. So Darling, So Deadly is in the worst shape. Whole chunks of the print appear to be missing, and what’s there is badly faded, particularly at the beginning of each reel, when it’s almost entirely red. There’s even a botched reel change at one point, preserved for all time on the DVD transfer! It’s a shame that Retromedia didn’t have access to better elements, but I certainly can’t fault them for failing to do a full-scale restoration. I can’t imagine it would be cost-effective for the niche market this disc appeals to. These movies are a joy to view, and I’d much rather they be released with sub-par prints than not released at all, which are probably the only options.

As it stands, I really hope every spy fan out there buys a copy and they sell enough to warrant a second collection containing the remaining four Kommissar X movies. Despite the print quality, and despite featuring a deplorable hero, these movies are tons of fun. Death Is Nimble, Death Is Quick, in particular, is an exemplary Eurospy title, boasting breathtaking scenery, impressive stunts, and exciting setpieces that manage to look much higher-budget than they are. (Although I imagine they are substantially higher budgeted than many Eurospy films.) This is an absolutely essential DVD for any spy collection.

For full reviews of each individual title, please see:

Feb 26, 2007

New Spy DVDs

There are a couple of notable new spy-related DVDs out today. BBC's conspiracy thriller The State Within, a six hour mini-series that just finished airing this past weekend on BBC America, stars Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy to Harry Potter fans) as a British ambassador caught up in Washington intrigue. It's been compared to MI-5 and 24, and the production values are certainly there, though it's premise seems a bit preposterous. I'll have a full review up soon. For anyone who hasn't already amassed all the individual sets, or bought the previous megaset, A&E delivers a new Secret Agent collection with the lofty title Secret Agent aka Danger Man: The Complete Collection. This new box collects both the hour-long series (previously released as Secret Agent) and the original half-hour series (previously released as Danger Man) together for the forst time. On 18 slimcase discs, you get every episode ever made of this fantastic Patrick McGoohan show, including the final two color episodes. (All the rest were black and white.) Before he was The Prisoner, McGoohan starred as John Drake in this, one of the all-time classic spy programs, and source of the famous Johnny Rivers theme song, "Secret Agent Man" (which was recorded for the American credits sequence, and appears here as a bonus feature).

Feb 24, 2007

Bond Is Back!

...as the trailers used to say. But this time, in comic form! The latest release in Titan's ongoing series of James Bond newspaper strip reprints is in stores now. The Phoenix Project (not expected in stock at Amazon until May 1) reprints several Bond strips from the mid Seventies. Unlike the first eight volumes in the series, The Phoenix Project, like the last two (The Golden Ghost and Trouble Spot), is of particular note to 007 completists because instead of adaptations of the novels, it presents original Bond adventures by writer Jim Lawrence. Artist Yaroslav Horak again provides the illustrations. Flipping through the book, what stands out immediately is the copious female nudity. There were glimpses in the last volume, but in this one it seems like there are breasts on every page. I guess by 1974 British newspapers were a lot more liberal than American ones about what could appear in their comic strips! It seems kind of strange that the strips would be so adult-oriented just as the movies, at the height of the Moore era, were becoming increasingly more kid-friendly.
In addition to the title story, this volume reprints The Black Ruby Caper, Till Death Do Us Part and The Torch-Time Affair. It's also got an introduction by Bond girl Tania Mallet (Tilly Masterson in Goldfinger), which proves among the more interesting and better-written of the Bond girl introductions to these books (but still has little to do with the comics), and more informative individual introductions to each story. In the back of the book, Titan touts Nightbird as being the next title in the series, which would make sense chronologically. But Amazon has a listing for Death Wing instead, using the same cover image! That would mean skipping a few stories, but there is precedent for that when Titan couldn't locate original strips in good enough clarity to reproduce.
Titan's Bond volumes, along with their Modesty Blaise collections, are essential reading for spy fans.

Feb 23, 2007

Moneypenny Diaries Paperback Cover

The Young Bond Dossier points out that the paperback cover art for Samantha Weinberg's Secret Servant: The Moneypenny Diaries Vol. 2 has been revealed on Amazon.co.uk. Weinberg is again credited only by her pen name, Kate Westbrook. (Who is actually a character in the novel.) Like the hardcover and the paperback of the first Moneypenny Diaries book, Guardian Angel, the art is again way too girlie (more likely to put off potential male readers, who are actually the more likely audience for this James Bond continuation novel, than attract new female readers, I fear), but I do like the style. It's certainly something we haven't seen before for a James Bond cover, that I can remember. Unfortunately they still don't mention "James Bond" on the cover, which is really weird because it IS a Bond novel, even though it's told from a different perspective and 007 is only a secondary character. I think that the presence of James Bond is definitely the strongest selling point for this book, so it's almost criminal that they don't mention it on front if they want to generate sales. There is still no US publication date for either Moneypenny Diary. A third and final volume is planned for fall release in the UK. Additionally, Weinberg also penned two Moneypenny short stories (in Tatler and The Spectator) which saw publication around the release of Casino Royale in theatres. The paperback of Guardian Angel is due out July 12 in England.

UPDATE: Young Bond Dossier is now reporting that this is not the final cover artwork, so despite the Amazon listing, it's possible it could still change.

Feb 21, 2007

Casino Royale DVD Busstop Posters

Driving around LA this morning, I was surprised to see Daniel Craig on busstop ads again! The giant Casino Royale posters had come down months ago to make way for Pursuit of Happyness posters, which in turn made way for Ghost Rider... only to return to Bond. It's pretty rare to see a DVD advertised at busstops in this city, so I'd say this is probably the beginning of what will no doubt be a fairly major campaign on Sony's part. The poster itself again features the same shot of Daniel Craig walking, with tie undone and Walther at his side, that we saw on the theatrical poster. Only instead of the casino steps, it's Venice in the background, and there's a picture of the DVD and Blue Ray in the lower left-hand corner.

Feb 20, 2007

Review: The Amazing Screw-On Head

How do you characterize Lionsgate’s DVD of The Amazing Screw-On Head? Is it a historical spy thing? Well, it is about a secret agent who works for Abraham Lincoln in 1862, but then there’s also the little matter of him being a robot. So is it sci-fi/spy? Yeah, kind of, but then there’s the zombie and the werewolf. So is it historical horror/sci-fi/spy? Getting closer, but you can’t really label The Amazing Screw-On Head as anything. It’s unclassifiable. But it does have a secret agent hero, so it definitely deserves a review here.

The Amazing Screw-On Head is a twenty-two minute TV pilot that failed to get a series pick-up on SciFi Channel, yet still managed a DVD release. It’s a real oddity, and a bit of a masterpiece.

Based on Hellboy creator Mike Mignola’s brilliant, absurdist one-shot comic book, writer Bryan Fuller (Wonderfalls) delivers a surreal cartoon that captures the spirit of its source material, expands on it, and sets it up as the basis for a series. The plot adheres fairly close to the comic, and there’s barely enough of one to fill the scant twenty-two minute runtime. But there are enough cool characters, gadgets and situations that you definitely want to spend more time with them.

Screw-On Head, voiced by Paul Giamatti, is a robotic secret agent whose head can be screwed onto any number of strange, Victorian mechanical bodies. When the evil Emperor Zombie (David Hyde Pierce) steals a tome from the Museum of Dangerous Books and Paper–and kidnaps the only man capable of translating it–President Lincoln sends Screw-On Head to investigate. The strange trail takes him to Marrakesh (by rocket) to the Mississippi, and brings him into contact with an old lover (Molly Shannon), whom Emperor Zombie has turned into a vampire. Emperor Zombie’s dastardly plot involves freeing a demonic demi-god from a turnip, and then using it to take over the world. Needless to say, Screw-On head foils the plot (with the aid of his trusty valet, Mr. Groin, voiced by Patton Oswalt), but that’s almost inconsequential to the zaniness transpiring onscreen.

Where Fuller has fleshed out the story from the comic, it’s barely noticeable. Everything still feels very Mike Mignola, and it was a good idea to flesh out some characters Mignola only mentioned ("two horrible old ladies and a monkey with a gun") and turn them into additional villains. Where he stumbles slightly is in adding backstory to Screw-On Head and Emperor Zombie, and creating a love triangle between them and the vampire woman. From a character standpoint it works, but in providing any sort of explanation, it diminishes some of the comic’s utter absurdity slightly. Still, it makes for exciting and rewarding viewing.

The animation itself is based directly on Mignola’s artwork, and does a great job of translating his unique, shadowy style. It’s not perfect, but it’s enough to make me really want to see a Hellboy cartoon done like this, even though Tad Stones & Co. recently pulled off an amazing Hellboy animated movie in their own style. (Mignola contractually forbade them to use his look.)

For such a short running time, The Amazing Screw-On Head provides a surprising amount of bonus content. There’s a short storyboard/animatic/finished product comparison, and a behind the scenes documentary that’s as long as the show itself. The featurette covers all aspects of creating the show, and does it really well, even if it misrepresents a few participants’ viewpoints. There’s also an informative commentary track by Brian Fuller and director Chris Prynoski.

Most interesting of all, there’s a sixteen page booklet of production art by Mignola and Concept Artist Guy Davis. There are some great designs here, wonderful additions to Screw-On Head’s world that really make me with the series had continued. In addition to several intriguing alternate bodies for the title character (like "unicycle body" and "cannon body" and "suit of many hands"), there is an enigmatic villain with a potted flower for a face. Only Mignola can pull that off and have it be as spooky as it is funny. He says in his notes that this character would have been a Moriarty-like smooth-talking criminal genius. Ah, what might have been! Perhaps if the DVD sells well enough, there's still a chance of the series being picked up by Cartoon Network or Comedy Central or something...

At the bargain price of $9.99, The Amazing Screw-On Head is a great value. The additional materials ensure that you really get your money’s worth despite the brevity of the main attraction. Fans of the more surreal side of spying, like The Avengers or, particularly, Wild Wild West (or Lucifer Box!) would be well-served to check this out.
More M:I On DVD!

TVShowsOnDVD reports that Paramount will release Mission: Impossible Season 2 on DVD on June 5! The set includes all 25 episodes of the 1967-68 season, which introduced Peter Graves as Jim Phelps. (The team leader in the first season was Dan Briggs, played by Steven Hill.)

Feb 15, 2007

The Week In Spies

The new spy movie Breach, based on the Robert Hanssen spy case, opens tonight in the United States to generally positive reviews. Stalwart genre staple (and fine actor) Chris Cooper plays Hanssen. John Hurt previously played the part in Master Spy, a 2002 TV movie scripted by Norman Mailer.

Retromedia released their eagerly-awaited (by me, at least) Eurospy triple-feature The Kommissar X Collection this week, too, touting it as "James Bond, German Style!" No, I still have no explanation for the porn-style cover art, and can't really see how it will help sales. Especially when the movies all had some pretty cool original poster artwork. But the obscure movies are on DVD at last, and that's cause for celebration. It's one double-sided disc, with Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill (1966) on Side A and Death Is Nimble, Death Is Quick (1966) and So Darling, So Deadly (also '66) on Side B. The movies are in full-frame, presumably because they're taken from 16mm TV prints. The prints don't look great, but they're certainly watchable and definitely better than nothing! I hope to have a full review up next week.

Feb 12, 2007

Nick Fury in Captain America

I originally wrote this post sometime back before Christmas, but for some reason never got around to putting it up. Due to Marvel’s wacky scheduling and delays resulting from the "Civil War" storyline, though, I don’t think there’s been a new issue of Captain America since then, so it’s still fairly relevant and I’ll post it now:

Despite being "underground" throughout the events of Marvel’s big, stupid "Civil War" event, Nick Fury still manages to play a key role in Ed Brubaker’s Captain America series. Even without being physically present, the eye-patched super-spy has dominated the last several issues (#22-24) and appeared as a hologram and as a robot of himself, which he controls from afar. Yes, the Marvel Universe is still a sillier place than even 007's realm, but Brubaker plays it all straight. His run on Captain America has been stellar, and his approach has been to turn the comic into a spy series. With all the dangerous politicking going on behind the scenes at S.H.I.E.L.D., Bru’s actually doing a better job with the "Queen & Country with superheroes" concept than Q&C creator (and former Brubaker co-writer on Gotham Central) Greg Rucka is with his CheckMate at DC. Of course, thanks to introducing Nick Fury and SHIELD back in the Sixties to cash in on the Bond fad, Marvel’s got a richer spy lore to play with than DC.

Brubaker’s even transformed sometime Captain America girlfriend and SHIELD agent Sharon Carter (aka Agent 13) from a supporting player to a plucky, Tara Chace-ish heroine in her own right. If you like spy comics but don’t normally venture into superhero territory, I’d really recommend picking up Brubaker’s Cap run in trade paperbacks. Despite the costume, it’s much more of a Tom Clancy style espionage series than a crime-fighting tights and capes series.

In other news for Nick Fury fans, shortly after I complained about the relative lack of Nick Fury toys (compared to other Marvel heroes), my friend gave me a tiny Fury figure that comes as part of some sort of Marvel dice game. I have no idea how the game works, but the little figure’s pretty cool, like a miniature version of the Marvel Legends figure from a few years ago, complete with jetpack.
Kim Possible Returns

Disney Channel began broadcasting the fourth season of their animated teen spy series Kim Possible this past weekend. Now, I know what you’re thinking: Alex Rider, Young Bond... enough with the kiddie spies already! But the truth is, like those others, Kim Possible is by no means limited to kids. In fact, while they’ll enjoy the adventures and the typical cartoon comedy, a lot of the jokes will go over their heads.

The brainchild of creators Bob Schooley and Mark McCorkle, Kim Possible is one of the sharpest, smartest James Bond parodies ever. It often deals with the myriad problems of being a Bond-type villain, from the overhead costs of maintaining elaborate underground or underwater bases, to the perfect real estate for said lairs, to the difficulty in finding good help. (Turns out that standard-issue henchmen are provided by an entrepreneur named Jack Hench who runs a large staffing agency.) And it does so even better than the Austin Powers movies ever did, calling out the cliches and turning them over on themselves. At the same time, the love and reverence for the material they’re spoofing is also evident everywhere, from the clearly Ken Adam-influenced designs to the music to the Bond-inspired title sequence of the Kim Possible movie, So the Drama.

Disney Channel cartoons usually run 65 episodes and a few direct-to-DVD movies before being cancelled, victim’s of Disney’s mandatory euthanasia. But so popular was Kim Possible that it was brought back from the land of cancellation, the channel’s first cartoon since DuckTales (I think) to exceed that self-imposed limit. And since things had been pretty thoroughly wrapped up in the movie (which served as the finale to the original run), the new season breaks another unwritten cartoon rule and ages the characters (slightly). They’re still in high school, but Kim and her sidekick Ron Stoppable are now seniors. And their main adversary, Dr. Drakken (voiced brilliantly by Futurama’s Bender, John Di Maggio), is surprisingly still in jail. Luckily, the show has a reliable repertoire of equally amusing villains, and some of the second stringers stepped to the fore-front in the season’s first four episodes, which were broadcast Saturday night. Even after two years off the air, Kim Possible has lost none of its charm or humor, and is well worth checking out for any spy fan with a sense of humor–especially one who also appreciates good animation.

New episodes air Saturday nights at 8 on the Disney Channel; reruns air weekday afternoons. There are unfortunately no season sets, but there are several good "best of" DVDs available (I recommend starting with The Villain Files), and two DVD movies. You can also watch episodes online on Disney's site, or download some from iTunes. And to read a good interview with Schooley and McCorkle, in which they discuss what to expect in Season 4, head over to Newsarama.

For more information on Kim Possible, you can brave Disney's noisy homepage for the show, but consider yourself warned.
Tiffany Memorandum DVD Update

Dorado Films have updated their website with a new blog entry on the progress of their upcoming Eurospy DVDs. They've checked their prints for the Ken Clark films Tiffany Memorandum and Fuller Report, and found a lot of scenes to be missing. They're hoping to track down some complete prints from labs around the world, saving them the trouble of painstakingly re-inserting the missing elements (all of which they do, happily, possess). If they can't locate an uncut original negative, they'll be forced to assemble one themselves and presumably that will take more time. There is no timeframe either way indicated in their update.

I certainly hope that they're able to find a full print and proceed quickly, but I'm willing to wait if they need to take time with their own restoration. All of the Dorado Eurospy titles so far have been well worth the wait, especially the excellent Special Mission Lady Chaplin, which they released last year after a number of unforseeable delays.

They seem to be in the midst of a complete overhaul of their website, and are updating more often, so it's worth stopping by if you haven't visited in a while. For one thing, they now have a must-see "trailers" section with previews for movies they haven't yet released, including the wild spy/superhero hybrid The Fantastic Argoman. You've gotta check that one out!

Feb 7, 2007

Review: Double Or Die

007 continuation authors have historically always had trouble with Book Number Three, if they made it that far. John Gardner produced the convoluted Icebreaker. Wedged between two very strong entries, Raymond Benson faltered with High Time To Kill. So how does Charlie Higson fare with his third Young Bond novel?

Double or Die* is structured like Fleming’s Moonraker, in three parts, here representing three consecutive days (although the first part contains considerable flashbacks, making the story actually play out over weeks rather than days). The action is limited to England, shifting from Eton to Cambridge to London.

James (as he is referred to in this series, rather than "Bond" as Fleming and his successors always identify the adult 007) and his roommate Pritpal receive a coded letter from a kidnaped Eton teacher, mathematician Alexis Fairburn. They have just a few days in which to decipher seven clues and figure out Fairburn’s whereabouts before he is spirited out of the country–or worse. Echoing The Da Vinci Code, the clues take James and his allies from landmark to landmark, encountering various eccentrics and villains along the way. As in Dan Brown’s book, this device keeps things moving along at an exhilarating pace and gives the reader lots of puzzles to work out, which he or she inevitably will long before the characters do (excepting the few that would be impossible because they don’t really work, given too much thought). Luckily, Higson is handier with prose than Brown, and he tells a good story as well as providing brain teasers. Double or Die may cash in on a successful formula, but it never feels like a rip-off.

Higson’s real gift, as in his two previous Young Bond novels, lies in his solid understanding of the character. Once again, despite the fact that this is ostensibly a children’s book, that it’s set before WWII, and that the hero is just fourteen years old, it feels like a Bond book. And James feels like Bond. While the basic conceit of the series (that Bond had incredible adventures as a child, long before he joined Her Majesty’s Secret Service) remains a bit difficult to swallow, I never doubted that I was reading about the same character that Ian Fleming wrote, albeit at a different age. That’s a feat that John Gardner never managed to completely pull off writing about the adult Bond! (Although, to his credit, he did write some great adventures for his own version of 007.)

Unlike the Bond of film, Higson’s Bond is even prone to the same fits of melancholy that Fleming’s frequently endures (often while flying, when his fate is totally out of his hands), and we witness the beginnings of Bond’s grim obsession with mortality. There is a sequence where Young Bond comes upon a fresh corpse and ponders the sudden finality of death, the absence of a soul that differentiates a living, breathing man from a mere husk, that nicely prefigures his similar meditation after killing the Mexican hitman in the first chapter of Goldfinger. Death is a subject that the adult James Bond probably dwells on too much for a man whose profession is killing people, but then that’s probably what keeps him human. Higson continues to develop this fixation throughout Double or Die, particularly during a visit to the Royal College of Surgeons, where James encounters an array of preserved body parts. James isn’t just a generic boy adventure hero, or Alex Rider clone; this really is the person who grows up to face Blofeld and Goldfinger, and Higson shows his personality forming, which is something no previous continuation authors have had the opportunity to do.

The most famous and oft-quoted criticism of Fleming, which accused him of peddling "sex, snobbery and sadism," also summed up the original books’ primary appeal, for better or worse. While you won’t find the sex (the obligatory "Bond girl" in this one isn’t introduced until the book’s final third, and though Higson delights in manipulating her and James into slightly risque situations, the young Bond remains frustratingly disinterested), you will get a touch of Fleming’s snobbery and a whole heap of sadism. Though current mores prevent even a benign kiss for the teenage Bond (the publishers claim that young male readers wouldn’t be interested, though I recall being plenty interested in girls in middle school!), there seems to be no limit to the amount of violence a young reader brought up on first-person shooter video games can be exposed to. (Not that I’m objecting, mind you, merely surprised.)

Like SilverFin and Blood Fever, Double Or Die is full of gruesome deaths, and once more James endures ghastly torture and bodily damage. It seems like Higson ups the ante in that department with each book, and here we have a henchman who comes out of each encounter with James missing another body part. Although it makes a nice running gag, the humor in these situations is so dark that he actually gives Fleming a run for his money in sadism. And all this in a young adult novel! (Not that there isn’t precedent. After all, You Only Live Twice screenwriter Roald Dahl created situations aplenty in his children’s books far more sadistic than anything Fleming ever concocted.)

Despite the violence, I still think Higson’s young spy series offers more benefits for young adult readers than Anthony Horowitz’s. For one thing, you learn a lot reading his Young Bond novels. Like Ian Fleming, Higson has a talent for lecturing the reader while entertaining at the same time. While Fleming’s best lectures tended to be about cars, cards, food and drink, Higson covers a wide variety of topics in Double or Die. In the course of James’s whirlwind journey, you’ll pick up nifty nuggets of information on neuroscience, crossword puzzles, early computers, Alan Turing, the impoverished living conditions of pre-war London’s East Side and, yes, cards and drinks. As often happens in Fleming’s novels, James first encounters a possible villain over a game of cards. In this case, it’s Hearts. Fleming had a special talent for writing gambling sequences that were exciting even to non-card-players, but I suspect it’s impossible to duplicate. Like Fleming, Higson does a good job of explaining the rules of the game, but has trouble sustaining its momentum over a chapter and a half. And he’s not entirely successful at lecturing about drink either, because his is a Lecture with a capital L.

Throughout the series the author has found ways to make subtle references to James Bond’s famous bad habits without encouraging them. In one, James decided that he would never smoke. That worked because it set a good example for younger readers, but rewarded older ones with a level of irony, as we all know Bond eventually goes on to consume an appalling three packs a day. This time he tries the same trick with alcohol, and it doesn’t really work. The villains torture James with gin, pouring it down his throat until he’s drunk in an attempt to kill him with alcohol poisoning. This leaves him with a massive, cautionary hangover for the final third of the book, which works fine from the perspective of modern kid readers, but not so well for adults. I suppose Higson is trying to show the roots of an amazing tolerance, but having experienced my share of hangovers bad enough to put me off certain drinks for good, I can’t really see anyone ever wanting to drink gin (or any alcohol) again after what James goes through. (And, yes, Bond does sometimes drink gin martinis in Fleming’s novels, despite being famous for preferring vodka. It's even an ingredient in the famous "Vesper!")

Other than that quibble, though, I thoroughly believe that Higson’s character could grow up to be Fleming’s. Higson’s Bond already dreads boredom–accidie, Fleming called it, a spiritual term literally meaning "absence of caring"–more than anything, partially explaining his compulsion to seek adventure wherever he can find it, even at a young age. Readers bear no risk of succumbing to accidie, though; there are no boring moments in Double or Die. If you’re a fan of Fleming’s Bond or the continuation novels, but you’ve been holding off on this latest series because it sounds like a bad idea, do yourself a favor and give it a try. The writer and the publishers are very reverential to the original source material, and these books are some of James Bond’s best post-Fleming adventures in any medium. Happily, Higson even avoids the Third Book Curse. Double or Die doesn’t quite achieve the heights of his last book, Blood Fever, but it certainly comes close, and makes a worthy addition to the Bond canon.

There is still no publication date for Double or Die in the United States, but it can currently be ordered from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.ca.

*Double Or Die, a title voted by readers, sounds vaguely Bondian but doesn’t end up fitting the book as well as the other choices (The Deadlock Cipher, N.E.M.E.S.I.S.) would have. I admit, I voted for it, but I think it’s proof that people who haven’t read the story shouldn’t choose book titles! The most appropriate title of all would have been the one Higson was bandying about as a working title, "Shoot the Moon." Oh well. C’est la guerre.
Good Shepherd DVD

Universal will release The Good Shepherd on April 3, not in March as previously rumored. The only confirmed extra so far is sixteen minutes of deleted scenes. Writer Eric Roth had previously said that a much longer cut of the film would be available on DVD with up to an hour more footage. Obviously, that isn't the case with this edition, so presumably Universal is planning a second DVD down the road. The film's original trailer showed a lot more violence than was actually shown in the movie, and that stuff may make up the sixteen minutes on this release. DVDActive has the artwork.

Feb 3, 2007

Get Smart Delayed

Bad news! The Get Smart movie, starring Steve Carrell, has been delayed until 2008! June 20, 2008, to be precise. The date actually indicates a strong belief in the movie (or its rapidly rising star) on the part of Warner Brothers, positioning in the heat of the summer blockbuster season. (I believe it was formerly scheduled for either late summer or fall of this year.) That means it will compete against Batman: The Dark Knight, Iron Man and others in next summer's crowded line-up, and join 007 as a spy to look forward to in '08. (But it was one of the ones I was most looking forward to in '07!) It also means that fans who haven't seen the original TV show will have more time to catch up, since it becomes widely available on DVD in fall of this year. (It's currently just a TimeLife exclusive.) Get Smart (the movie) also stars Anne Hathaway, The Rock and Terrence Stamp.

Feb 1, 2007

TV's Mrs. Smith Cast

Jordanna Brewster, who to me will always be the hottie from the otherwise forgettable The Faculty, has been cast in the Angelina Jolie role of Jane Smith in the TV version of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

The TV pilot is written by Simon Kinberg and directed by Doug Liman, the same team behind the 2005 film version. Says the Reporter: "It revolves around John and Jane Smith, a married couple who are spies.Brewster will play Jane, who is as cool, tough and smart as she is gorgeous and can disarm a horde of thugs without breaking a sweat. Kinberg penned the script and is executive producing with Liman and Dave Bartis." The TV series reportedly picks up six months after the events of the movie.

It's certainly debatable whether or not Mr. & Mrs. Smith is technically a spy movie, since the characters were assassins, not agents, and worked for no obvious government agencies. The Reporter article, however, clearly says "spies." So are they spies now, working for governments? And if so, the same one or rivals? Whatever the case, the movie was great--a whole lot of over-the-top fun--and clearly had enough tropes of the genre to qualify as "spy" for me.

Jordana Brewster is beautiful, sexy and talented, and on top of all that, she kind of looks like Jolie. I think this is an inspired bit of casting, and combined with the fact that the primary creative forces behind the movie are also behind the show, I'm definitely giving it the benefit of the doubt for now. I just hope that they find a good surrogate for Brad Pitt, and, most importantly, maintain the gonzo, cartoonish OTT style and attitude of the film.

Ms. Brewster's other roles include The Fast And the Furious (the first one, with Vin), Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, D.E.B.S. and the guilty pleasure TV mini-series The Sixties (which I'm absolutely shocked, shocked(!) to see that Amazon sellers are now getting upwards of a hundred bucks for. And here I was too ashamed to admit I owned it!)