Sep 30, 2007

R.I.P. Lois Maxwell

Very sad news. One of the defining faces of the James Bond fanchise has passed away. The original Miss Money-penny, Lois Maxwell, died yesterday at the age of 80 in Free-mantle, Australia (near Perth), where she had made her home for some time. According to the AP obituary, her friend and frequent co-star Roger Moore said she'd been suffering from cancer.

Born in Canada with the name Lois Hooker (changed for obvious reasons when she entered show business), Maxwell toiled in relative obscurity for fifteen years before finding international fame in the Bond series. During that time she made her spy debut in the 1956 movie Passport To Treason, directed by future Saint producer Robert S. Baker, and even won a Golden Globe for "Most Promising Newcomer" for her role opposite Ronald Reagan and Shirley Temple in That Hagen Girl (1947). Despite wholesome, girl-next-door looks that ran counter to the femme fatale image of the genre, she seemed destined for spy stardom. Maxwell guest-starred on TV shows O.S.S. and Danger Man before being cast in the first Bond film, Dr. No in 1962.

Thanks in part to the crackling script by Richard Maibaum and Johanna Harwood, she imbued the character with a spark not found in Fleming's novels, and elevated the role from window dressing to essential co-star. Her running flirtatious banter with Connery's 007 captured the public's imagination so much so that more than four decades later Fleming's literary estate commissioned a series of novels focusing on Moneypenny, written by Samantha Weinberg under the nom de plume Kate Westbrook. Even though the books are clearly set in Fleming's literary world, there's no doubt that the inspiration was the Moneypenny of the films, the Moneypenny of Lois Maxwell.

Maxwell sealed her association with the role by reprising it in From Russia With Love, which features what is probably the quintessential Bond/Moneypenny interplay. Throughout the Sixties, besides a small role in The Haunting and her continuing contribution to the ongoing, wildly popular Bond series, she worked mostly in TV, guesting on many more spy shows. She re-teamed with Robert Baker for two episodes of The Saint, where she worked with Roger Moore for the first time. (The two already knew each other from drama school, and remained fast friends.) She was cast against type as a killer in her first Saint guest spot, "Interlude In Venice," and also played an evil nun on The Avengers. Besides those roles, she made a tour of virtually all the British spy/adventure shows of the decade, including The Baron, Department S and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). She also appeared (in a very Moneypenny-ish role) in the Italian Bond spoof Operation Kid Brother, starring Sean Connery's brother, Neil. So did Bernard "M" Lee. According to Maxwell, Connery was furious with them for participating in a film that he saw as exploiting his brother, and never fully forgave either colleague.

In the Seventies, Lois Maxwell worked again with her old friend Roger Moore on The Persuaders shortly before he took over as the new James Bond. She continued to play Moneypenny throughout his tenure, acting in a total of fourteen Bond films (a record surpassed only by Desmond Llewelyn as Q) opposite three lead actors. When Timothy Dalton was cast as the fourth 007, it had become necessary to recast the part with a younger woman, and Caroline Bliss filled in for two films. Samantha Bond played Pierce Brosnan's Moneypenny, and the role was sorely missing from Daniel Craig's debut in Casino Royale.* Pamela Salem (looking very Maxwell-ish) filled in in Connery's non-canonical encore Never Say Never Again. But no matter who has played the part since, or will in the future, Miss Moneypenny is forever associated with Lois Maxwell. She is the originator of the role, and sure to remain the longest-running player in the part. She is to Moneypenny what Sean Connery is to James Bond, and was arguably as big a part (along with Llewelyn) in defining the series as he was.

I met Ms. Maxwell once in 1995, and found her to be extremely friendly and gracious. The screen has lost one of the great supporting players of all time, and she will be remembered forever through her incalculable contribution to the James Bond franchise.

*Even though Barbara Broccoli has publicly stated that there are currently no plans to reintroduce the Moneypenny character into the series, I think it would be a wonderful tribute to Maxwell if they did so in Craig's second outing. Lois Maxwell created a character who has seeped into the public consciousness almost as much as Bond himself , and the character deserves to live on.

Sep 28, 2007

TV Review: Burn Notice Season Wrap-Up

USA’s summer spy show Burn Notice wrapped up its premiere season last week, and I have to say, it was a pretty stellar season. Burn Notice started out as an agreeable way to pass an hour, aided immeasurably by Bruce Campbell in a supporting role, Miami eye candy (of the scenic and bikini-clad varieties), and threat-of-the-week plots that resolved themselves in an hour and didn’t require the viewer to have seen everything that had come before to know what was going on. All the necessary ingredients for escapist summer fun. But as it ran its course, Burn Notice revealed itself to be more than just the sum of its very appealing parts. The fact that it’s the first episodic spy series in a long while that doesn’t dangle dozens and dozens of ongoing plot threads for the viewer to keep track of definitely helps. It’s not 24 or Alias, wrapped up in its own dense and impenetrable continuity. But unlike the mighty Eighties action hours it emulates so well (Magnum P.I., The Equalizer, Remington Steele, etc.), it does have an ongoing storyline, and in that paradox lies its genius. Creator Matt Nix managed to sustain the first season with a single serial aspect, the burning question of who "burned" ex-spy Michael Weston. This plot was doled out in manageable, bite-size nuggets all season long. In each episode, Michael got another small piece of the puzzle that got him closer to discovering the truth, but the pieces were so small that it didn’t matter if a viewer missed one or had never even seen another episode. Yet they were big enough to keep record audiences (for USA) tuning in week after week, eager for the next piece, but probably more eager to spend some time with a group of likeable characters.

In my review of the pilot, I was a little critical of Michael’s frequent voice-overs. But as the show went on, I really grew to love them. It was a good device to let us in on the thoughts of a very guarded character, and it doled out what sounded like good, practical advice for carrying out spy work. And that’s exactly why people watch spy shows, isn’t it? Because a part of all of us yearns to be a spy? (Of the exciting, fictional variety, at least.) Having Michael tell us how week after week really tapped into that collective desire. Jeffrey Donovan delivered these bits of narration quite well, too, in a laid-back, conversational-but-instructive style. I wasn’t sure about him as a leading man to begin with, but, like the show itself, he thoroughly won me over. As did Gabrielle Anwar as the feisty Fiona, Michael’s gun-crazy on and off girlfriend. (I suppose their relationship was another serial plotline, but all shows have that. And even if you do count it, two plots to keep track of is a lot less stressful than all the balls Lost has in the air!) I’ll confess an attraction to Ms. Anwar ever since her sexy spy debut in If Looks Could Kill, but she played a well-written role well, and drew me into her character well beyond the skimpy tropical outfits. Some of my favorite moments were the ones she shared with Bruce Campbell. Those two supporters displayed very good chemistry together.

Bruce himself did a great job too. Of course, as a fan of his work ever since The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., it was his presence that originally drew me to this series, but I was disappointed that his part, Sam, seemed both underwritten and underused at first. As the series progressed, however, either the writing for him improved, or Bruce managed to do more with less. I’m not really sure which, but Sam was a much better character by the end of the season. This was thanks in large part to those scenes with Anwar, and also thanks to an expanded role in the final three or four episodes. I like that Sam may be the comic sidekick, but he’s no bumbler. He’s an ex-spy too, and he proved himself thoroughly capable when he put down his beer, left the pool-side, and picked up a sniper rifle in some of those final episodes. (It is too bad, however, that he didn’t get to share any scenes with his former Xena co-star Lucy Lawless when she guest-starred!)

In twelve episodes, Burn Notice sort of resolved its season-long arc, but left us hanging with an inevitable (and satisfying) cliffhanger. I’m looking forward to Season Two, and I hope Nix is up to the challenge of continuing the story without ruining it, of staying fresh as well as familiar. I’ll definitely be tuning in next June to find out.

As for Nix, he seemed to come out of nowhere. But a recent LA Times profile dispelled that notion: "After more than eight years writing feature scripts that may have sold but were rarely produced, Matt Nix learned this summer that it’s true what they say about Hollywood: It takes 10 years t to be an overnight success." The article goes on to reveal that he’s 36, and not 20 (which is about how old he looks), so frustrated screenwriters can stop hating him!

Nix claims that Michael Weston is basically him, but if he’d been a spy. Who got burned. So... not really him, but the sarcastic voice is his, through and through. So much so that he’ll stop staff writers from making good jokes that he wouldn’t come up with himself. "I’m responsible for making the show sound like it’s supposed to sound. It either needs to feel like something I wrote or something I wish I wrote," he says. On the subject of network compromises, he shares that Burn Notice was originally set in Newark, NJ, which seems like a much more miserable city to be trapped in than Miami. But USA kept insisting that relocating to Miami would lighten things up, and eventually they just told him to switch. Now Nix is happy with Miami. "It’s so much more fun to have this dark character highlighted against this background. Nobody’s ever done a show about a guy in a tropical vacation wonderland who hates being in a tropical vacation wonderland."

The writer also weighs in on the thorny, age-old TV issue of "will they or won’t they?" and his decision to allow his on-again/off-again leads to have sex with each other so early on. (In the past, pundits have claimed such unions have ruined shows like Moonlighting, Remington Steele and The X-Files. Others have been frustrated that the leads never did get together onscreen in shows like The Avengers. You couldn’t win.) "The conventional answer on television is that people with rocky relationships can never have sex. Then the tension is gone," he admits. "I realized in my experience people with on-again/off-again relationships are always having sex. Having sex doesn’t release any tension at all; it makes it worse." You know what? He was right. I’d say there’s even more sexual tension in Michael and Fiona’s relationship now.

Finally, the Times article tantalizingly discloses that Nix is currently working on a "European version of the show." I’m not sure why Europe can’t simply take the American version; it worked with all the action hours in the Eighties. But the idea of a Euro-set remake intrigues me, so I’ll be keeping my ears open for more information on this...
More Details On Young Indiana Jones’ Adventures In The Secret Service

LucasFilm has released full press information on all three sets of Young Indiana Jones DVDs, including some promising glimpses at the episodes and extras on Volumes 2 and 3. It looks like Volume 2 (coming in December) will be a must for spy fans. Not only will it contain the bulk of Young Indy’s espionage adventures, but it also features Bond stars Daniel Craig and Christopher Lee and several exciting documentaries about spies. (Craig even features on the cover, despite the brevity of his role.)
The “episodes,” it should be noted, are not the original hour-long versions that aired on ABC from 1992-93, with bookends featuring George Hall as a very old Indy recollecting his adventures. They are re-edited ninety-minute movies, each one comprised of two of the original episodes, or, in some rare cases, one episode plus footage that was shot later and will be seen for the first time on DVD. The “Old Indy” narration is dropped altogether, and those segments are not even available as deleted scenes. Some of these movie versions were released on VHS in 1999, and others are making their debut in this format in these sets.

Volume 2's “Demons of Deception” finds Indy on leave from the Belgian army (which he joined seeking adventure prior to America’s entry into WWI) in Paris, where he falls in love with the most notorious spy of that era, Mata Hari. The episode was written by Carrie Fisher and directed by Nicolas Roeg. Two of the accompanying historical documentaries (which are said to be amazing, the culmination of almost a decade’s worth of work) should fascinate espionage aficionados: Flirting With Danger: The Fantasy of Mata Hari and Reading the Enemy’s Mind: Espionage in World War I.

“Adventures In the Secret Service” compiles two standout escapades from Indy’s spy career. In one, directed by frequent Bond second unit director Vic Armstrong and written by Frank Darabont, Indy is sent on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines into the palace of Emperor Karl of Austria in an attempt to bring about an early end to the war. Christopher Lee guest stars in the most typically “spy movie” entry in the series. In the other, Indy’s espionage work takes him into Russia, which is on the brink of revolution. He must infiltrate a Bolshevik group and ultimately choose between his friends and his duty. I remember this as being a particularly good episode.

In “Espionage Escapades,” Indy engages in a pair of more comic spy missions, going undercover as a ballet dancer in order to discredit German diplomats with the aid of three bumbling agents, and then finding himself thwarted in a very simple assignment by a Kafka-esque web of bureaucracy... with only Franz Kafka himself to assist him! His spy career continues in “Daredevils of the Desert,” in which he must again go undercover, this time with beautiful lady spy Catherine Zeta-Jones in Turk-occupied Beersheba. Future 007 Daniel Craig has a small part as a mustached officer.

Volume 3, due sometime next spring, presumably to coincide with the theatrical release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, contains two more episodes in Indy’s espionage career. “Tales of Innocence” offers up some more light-hearted cloak and dagger work in Italy and North Africa, while “Masks of Evil” contrasts that with two of the series’ darkest tales. Indy has a tragic love affair in an Ashenden-esque Istanbul-set adventure dealing with a plot ot assassinate French agents, and has his first encounter with the supernatural when he comes face-to-face with Vlad Dracula in the only story in the series to completely throw history to the wind. There are plenty of other good episodes in Volume 3, but they take place after WWI, and after Indy’s days as a spy are over. One, however, "The Mystery of the Blues," is notable for featuring future Felix Leiter Jeffrey Wright as jazz legend Sidney Bechet. (The same episode guest-stars Harrison Ford as a fifty-something Indy telling the tale.)

The sets progress chrono-logically, and Volume 2 contains most of Indiana Jones’ espionage adventures, but all three sets of this wonderful show should definitely be worth getting, not just for the series itself, but also for the new historical documentaries. I really can’t wait to have this show on DVD.

Sep 27, 2007

Tradecraft For Thursday, September 27, 2007

Robert Redford Spies Again

According to Variety, Robert Redford will direct an adaptation of former U.S. terrorism czar Richard Clarke's scathing memoir, Against All Enemies. The trade says "Jamie Vanderbilt penned the screenplay, which centers on Clarke, the counterterrorism adviser to three presidents, who charged in his book that the Bush administration prioritized Iraq above threats from Al Qaeda both before and after the Sept. 11 attacks." Casino Royale/Bond 22 co-writer Paul Haggis was at one point attached to this project.

New Bond Cinematographer

The Hollywood Reporter slips this nugget of information into an article about Bond 22 director Marc Forster's new film, The Kite Runner: Forster's frequent collaborator, director of photography Roberto Schaefer, will shoot the next Bond movie. The trade says this: "Schaefer is teaming with Forster again on the next film in the James Bond franchise. The cinematographer is location scouting for the tentatively titled Bond 22, for which shooting is being planned in the U.K., South America and Italy. Production is scheduled to begin on or around Dec. 10." Schaefer has shot all of Forster's features since Monster's Ball, including Finding Neverland and last year's Stranger Than Fiction, as well as Christopher Guest's For Your Consideration. Nothing on his filmography suggests he's ready to shoot 007, but hopefully a fruitful collaboration with Dan Bradley will result in a good-looking action film. Phil Meheux shot Casino Royale and GoldenEye, David Tattersall shot Die Another Day and Adrian Biddle lensed The World Is Not Enough.
Huge U.N.C.L.E. News!

After months, years of speculation, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is finally, officially coming to DVD. (Doesn't that sound familiar? How many times have I reported it in various stages?) As previously announced, it will be available exclusively from Time Life, and exclusively online, starting Nov. 27, 2007. And now, TVShowsOnDVD has the full press release, listing all the features, and displaying a nice, big picture of the whole set in all its deluxe packaging glory! It's all housed inside an attache case, and it looks good. Imagine if MGM/Fox had realized their own plans to put the complete Bond collection in an attache case as well? Wouldn't those two sets have complemented each other nicely? Oh well.

Besides great packaging, the set boasts all kinds of cool bonus features. As far as I can tell, though, it doesn't list commentaries, which is too bad because we know that Robert Vaughn recorded some for Anchor Bay way back when that company was planning to release the series. It does, however, include Ian Fleming's original notes on the series, which should be cool to see. Head on over to TVShowsOnDVD for all the details, or to Time Life to order the whole set now for $249.99.

Sep 26, 2007

Tradecraft For The Week Of August 24, 2007

Animal Commandos...

AintItCoolNews noticed a blurb in Variety about a new Jerry Bruckheimer movie called G-Force. In it, actor Gabriel Casseus will play "an NSA agent tracking a group of genetically enhanced animal commandos." Has anyone noticed how the NSA suddenly replaced the CIA a few years ago as the go-to branch of the Intelligence community for movie agents to work for? There was xXx, Die Another Day, various other movies and TV shows, and now this. I was under the impression (largely due to James Bamford's excellent book on the subject, The Puzzle Palace)that the NSA spent a lot of time analyzing satellite intercepts and cracking codes, but apparently what they actually do is recruit extreme athletes and, um... track animals. All kidding aside, though, this could be a pretty fun movie. The folks at AICN have done all the legwork and also provide a link to another Variety story with more details: "G-Force's team of genetically enhanced guinea pigs working as spies for the U.S. government [looks] likely to bring home the bacon in this live-action/CG family adventure. Combining good clean fun with comedy and cutting-edge effects, this project puts former vfx supervisor Hoyt Yeatman (Crimson Tide) in charge of directing.

...And Commandos Named After Animals

Variety reports that 300 producer Gianni Nunnari will remake the cult favorite 1978 Roger Moore action epic The Wild Geese. The original packed near-toxic levels of testosterone with Moore, Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Hardy Kruger as mercenaries. It was made during - and largely responsible for - the brief strangely popular mercenary sub-genre of the late Seventies and early Eighties. Perhaps the recent Blackwater scandal in Iraq has put soldiers of fortune back in the spotlight. Commercial and video game director Rupert Sanders is attached to direct. Euan Lloyd, producer of the Andrew V. McLaglen-directed original, will exec produce the new version. There's no word on whether or not Daniel Craig is being sought to play the Roger Moore role, but how could he not be? Seriously, he might be more suited to play the Richard Burton part, but if you're making a new movie about very British manly men, you're gonna need Craig, right? Unless of course they're making the guys American this time 'round... I don't know, but to me mercenaries become a lot less appealing when they're American. Maybe it's the Blackwater taint.

Roger Moore contributed a typically entertaining commentary track to last year's Region 1 Special Edition DVD of the original, and for further Bond connections, OHMSS director Peter Hunt helmed the 1985 sequel.

"Damn It!"

I don't generally cover the personal lives of spy stars, but The Hollywood Reporter posits that Kiefer Sutherland's off-screen antics might affect the show, so that makes news. The trade says, "the show faces an uncertain future as the actor's arrest violates a five-year probation, something that might send him to jail for up to a year." Sutherland was arrested for DUI in West Hollywood earlier this week. Fox has picked up 24 through 2009, so a jailed star could unfortunately put a serious crimp in their long-term plans. The actor's arrest hasn't affected the current production schedule for Season 7, which will reportedly find his character, Jack Bauer, on trial for his sometimes overzealous methods in protecting America from terrorists.

Sep 24, 2007

Television Review: Chuck Pilot Revisited

Well, I’m changing my mind after watching Chuck a second time tonight. I liked it quite a lot. I still think that Chuck himself is a bit sub-Seth Cohen, but he’s appealing nonetheless. The supporting characters are good too, even if the best friend is better in small doses.

The basic premise finds a professional nerd (as in "Nerd Herd," the fictional equivalent of Best Buy’s "Geek Squad" computer technicians) named Chuck transformed into a spy by... well, that’s not important and it barely makes sense. But average Chuck suddenly finds himself in some extraordinary circumstances, such as the aforementioned ninja fight (which is still funny, despite being severely trimmed since the Comic-Con version), a car chase (somewhat reminiscent of The Bourne Identity) and defusing a bomb. Zach Levi plays baffled well, and Yvonne Strahovski and Adam Baldwin are amusing as the rival secret agents keeping tabs on him.

Director McG handles all the action scenes with style and skill (which is hardly a surprise), even on a TV budget. It will be interesting to see if producers manage to keep every episode as action-packed as the pilot. Speaking of action scenes, Chuck kicks off with an exciting parkour sequence, in which a burnt spy attempts a daring escape. I think this scene is a testament to how large James Bond still looms over the genre. After GoldenEye, all wannabe spies needed a bungee jump scene. And after Casino Royale, it’s parkour that’s become shorthand for thrilling espionage action. Pay attention, those who claim that Bourne has usurped Bond’s spot atop the pile of spies!

NBC's new spy lineup continues Wednesday night with the all-new Bionic Woman.
NBC Spy Series Chuck Debuts Tonight

Chuck, the first of NBC's several new spy series this season, debuts tonight at 8PM Eastern. I saw the pilot down at Comic-Con this past summer, and found it to be pleasant, but not amazing. I seemed to be in the minority though. The audience loved it, wildly cheering for the cast as they came out to do a Q&A afterwards. The last show that got that kind of reception at Comic-Con was Heroes, so perhaps Chuck is NBC's newest hit. If it were, it would definitely be a good thing. I enjoyed Chuck's blend of comedy and espionage-related action, and I'd like to see more shows and movies brave enough to attempt this mixture. Tonally, it was similar to executive producer McG's Charlie's Angels movies.

Adam Baldwin was particularly good as an NSA enforcer, but the two leads, Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski, were kind of bland. Levi seems desperate to channel Seth Cohen, the breakout geek star of Chuck creator Josh Schwartz's first show, The OC. But in the pilot, he came off a little heavy on the desperate and light on the Cohen. Strahovski was perfectly good (and certainly looks good!), but just comes off as sort of generic. A generic TV blonde. In person, she was very charming, largely thanks to her Australian accent. I wish the producers had let her keep in on the show!

The pilot does have some very good scenes, though, including an exciting car chase, a deadly dance and a very funny fight with a ninja. These scenes alone are promising for the series, and I'll certainly be sticking with it... for a few more episodes at least.

Sep 23, 2007

More Alex Rider Comics

Good news for fans of Anthony Horowitz's teen spy series! Even though the first movie based on his bestselling books tanked at the U.S. box office (thanks mainly to a non-existent marketing campaign from The Weinstein Company), the series of graphic novel adaptations will continue. Why would there have even been a question of its not happening? Because the first one, Stormbreaker, was based on the movie Stormbreaker, not the book. (There were some key differences between the two.) Adapter Antony Johnson, no stranger to the world of spy comics (having written the only Queen & Country mini-series not penned by creator Greg Rucka), said in an interview last year that the second graphic novel, Point Blank, would be adapted from the novel and not the film. But then there was no sign of it. Amazon now lists a December 27 release date in America and England. Both countries are going with the far less clever American title, Point Blank, instead of the British Point Blanc. (It's a pun, see? "Point Blanc" is a French location in the book.)

I'm really glad that we'll see Point Blanc adapted into some visual medium. I haven't read all the Alex Rider books, but of the ones that I have, it's my favorite. I think it would actually make a much better movie than Stormbreaker, so I still hope we see one eventually. In the mean time, I'll happily take the comic. As Stormbreaker more or less followed the plot of Ian Fleming's Moonraker (the book, mind you, not the film), Point Blanc is rather cavalierly adapted from the Fleming's On Her Majesty's Secret Service. James Bond himself, in his Alex Rider-inspired young incarnation (confused?), will star in a comic adaptation of the Charlie Higson's first Young Bond novel, Silverfin, next year. That graphic novel will be illustrated by Kev Walker.

Sep 21, 2007

Tradecraft For September 21, 2007

FX Spies Uhls

The FX network has first-rate cop shows (The Shield is hands-down the best drama on television), crook shows, con-man shows and lawyer shows; isn't it time for a spy show? Fight Club writer Jim Uhls seems to think yes! According to Variety, Uhls is developing Paranoid, "an edgy thriller with themes of privacy and spying" for the cable network. The trade goes on to describe the series as "a modern-day The Parallax View centering on a surveillance agent who himself may be spied upon, all set against Patriot Act-America" and quote sources as saying, "a pilot deal is likely but has not officially been ordered."

Agent Zigzag

Variety also reports that New Line has won a bidding war for the screen rights to the Ben Macintyre book Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love and Betrayal. Tom Hanks will produce. According to the trade, "it's the true story of Edward Arnold Chapman, a career criminal who spied on the Germans for the British in WWII."

The Horowitz Project

The Hollywood Reporter reveals the title of Alex Rider author Anthony Horowitz's previously reported American TV project: Raffik. The trade calls it "a character-driven one-hour" about "an Albanian detective sent to the US whose enthusiasm for everything American inspires and baffles his new Los Angeles police partners." Darren Star co-produces.

Sep 16, 2007

Mini Review: Bava Book

The weekend before last, I was delighted to receive my copy of Tim Lucas’s long-awaited and highly anticipated magnum opus, Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark. The book, clearly the definitive work on the great Italian director, pleasantly ate up most of my weekend, but I still can’t help but feeling I’ve barely scratched the surface. That’s because it’s more than eleven hundred pages, and two and a half inches thick! It’s also nearly a foot tall and almost as wide, so that makes for a lot of words per page. Every time I walk through the living room and catch sight of it, I think, "Holy shit, that is one big book!"

Mario Bava is most famous for his horror movies, so what does all this have to do with spies? Plenty! Even though the better part of the book is obviously devoted to Bava’s revered horror output, it also covers the many other genres he worked in in extensive detail. (In fact, I had no idea just how much work he’d done in peplum prior to reading Mr. Lucas’s account!) One of those genres, of course, is spy.

For starters, there is an entire chapter on Bava’s pop masterpiece, Danger: Diabolik. (Yes, I consider that a spy movie through and through, though some may argue. True, it’s about a super-criminal instead of a super-spy, but it plays as a checklist of everything I look for in a great Eurospy caper: dashing hero, beautiful women, fast sports cars, wild action, underground lairs, amazing setpieces, bizarre deaths, and Emilio Largo himself, Adolfo Celi, as the villain!) Next, there is a very lengthy chapter on the making of what I’ve always considered to be Bava’s worst movie, and among the worst of the Eurospy genre, Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs. What I had never realized, though, and what Mr. Lucas sets the record straight about, is that there are two very different versions of this film... because it was shot so that it could be cut into a sequel to both Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine for American audiences, and to Due Mafiosi Contro Goldginger, for Italian audiences! That explains a lot. While the author admits neither version works particularly well, apparently the Italian one (which I’ve never seen) is far superior. Irregardless of the final product, the story of its making is absolutely fascinating, and the most detailed account I’ve ever read of a Eurospy production. I suspect that some of the problems Bava’s film encountered were not unique to it, but rather exemplary of how Eurospy movies were produced. Mr. Lucas also reveals that Bava was briefly attached to come aboard (and, it was hoped, to save) another troubled Eurospy production, Dick Smart 2.007, but ultimately opted out of it to make Girl Bombs.

Throughout these chapters and the whole book, we meet a succession of familiar faces from both behind and in front of the cameras in the Eurospy genre. Lucas takes the time to go off on welcome tangents and give mini-bios of varying depth on just about everyone Bava ever worked with, including Celi, Elke Sommer, Sylva Koscina, Tony Kendall, John Phillip Law, Christopher Lee, Telly Savalas, Antonio Margheriti, Daiah Lavi and many more! In some cases, these mini-bios are actually the most detailed accounts I’ve ever read on these people. He’s also found some amazing quotes from nearly all of them. Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark is not just a biography of one man, but ultimately functions as a cultural biography of the entire European film industry in the Sixties and Seventies. (It’s very fortunate for us, the readers, that the industry was so insular, and Bava’s career caused him to cross paths with so many people!) In fact, even though Bava officially directed only two straight-forward spy movies, there is probably enough information sprinkled throughout this massive tome to have filled a small volume on Eurospy stars alone... as well as several other genres! This book is a must-have not only for fans of the director, but for all serious students of film of that era.

If I have one complaint about the book, it would only be that it’s rather difficult to read comfortably. The text sucks you in, and hours pass while reading it, but as they do you really start to feel that twelve pound weight on your lap! This tome would probably be best read at a table or desk, but it’s so engrossing that I’d rather be able to curl up with it. Oh well, with all this information, that small problem was obviously unavoidable.

It’s a good time now for me to mention Mr. Lucas’s other work. The man is an extremely prolific writer, yet manages to remain devoutly factual and highly entertaining to read. In addition to spending the last thirty-two years working on Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark, he’s found time to publish an excellent bi-monthly magazine, Video Watchdog (for which he writes much of the content himself) and blog almost daily without overlapping content! I don’t know how he does it. On top of all that, he also manages to record audio commentaries for lots of Bava DVDs, including an enormously entertaining dialogue with John Phillip Law for Paramount's Danger: Diabolik special edition and an equally informative track for Dark Sky's sadly withdrawn Kill, Baby, Kill, which may never officially see the light of day (but is worth seeking out!). It bears mentioning that the last several issues of the magazine have all, coincidentally, been at least tangentially spy-related. Warner Oland’s Charlie Chan featured on the most recent issue, Wild Wild West graced the cover of the one before that, and Daniel Craig in Casino Royale on the one before that! The articles on all three subjects are typically in-depth and well worth seeking out. The blog also occasionally touches on spy-related topics, as it really runs the gamut on everything from Bava to Bob Dylan.
Upcoming Spy DVDs: Bourne and Mission has the box art for CBS/Paramount's upcoming Mission: Impossible: The Third TV Season, which streets November 20, as previously reported. They also run down an impressive list of guest stars for the season, including Robert Conrad, Joan Collins, Sid Haig, Charles Napier, Lee Meriweather and Martin Sheen. The Wild Wild West: The Third Season comes out the same day, making it quite an exciting (and expensive!) day for fans of classic spy TV.

DVDActive has the rather nifty cover art for The Jason Bourne Collection, which will street December 11, 2007, the same day as the individual disc for The Bourne Ultimatum. Retail for the collection will be $49.98 (although it will, of course, be available much cheaper from most online retailers); pricing has not yet been announced for Ultimatum, which will also be available on HD-DVD. This news is sure to come as a blow to anyone who purchased The Bourne Files this summer, which included the first two films in the series plus a bonus disc. DVDActive says the new set is four discs, so presumably it also includes that bonus disc.
Gilt Edged Bond

My copy of Charlie Higson’s newest Young Bond novel, Hurricane Gold, finally arrived yesterday from (much later than their shipping estimate). I know a lot of others have already been showing up on US shores, but I haven’t seen a detailed description anywhere yet, so for those who still haven’t gotten hold of it, here are some pictures of the shiny gold book that hopefully offer a better sense of how cool it looks than Amazon’s cover image. The book itself is a shiny, mirrored gold surface all over. (Luckily, the glistening surface didn’t get too scratched in the shipment from England.) The boards are gold, and the gilt edges of the pages are the same color. The whole thing is the literal realization of the title of that old Ian Fleming anthology, Gilt Edged Bonds! (Unfortunately, its reflective qualities also make it remarkably hard to photograph accurately, so I’m afraid these dreary images still fail to capture its magnif-icence...)

This volume would look set to store in Fort Knox were it not for the scant dust jacket, a narrow strip of paper covering about 1/4 of the book with the title (which is also embossed on the book itself) and the crucial bar code. It would look so much cooler without the dust jacket (and I never thought I’d be saying that about a Bond book!), but the collector in me couldn’t possibly discard it. Creating even more of a dilemma for collectors, the jacket is taped into place inside the cover on each side. I haven’t tried removing the tape yet, for fear of damaging the endpapers, which are emblazoned with the recurring Young Bond logo. It doesn’t look like the sort of tape that would tear, but of course removing the tape would also alter the book from its original state and thus reduce its potential value. The true first state of this first edition technically (and unfortunately) includes the tape.

The pages seem to be printed on the same low-quality paper that the previous English paperback first editions were printed on, an odd choice for a hardcover. But the really good news is... the binding is sewn! (In gold, of course.) I know that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s been an unfortunate trend in UK publishing of late to bind hardcovers with glue, like a paperback, instead of stitching. Both the Moneypenny Diaries books and the Young Bond limited editions (the only way the previous volumes were available in hardback in England) sadly suffered this fate. Books may be cheaper to produce like this, but they’re also much less durable. So it’s very nice to see that Hurricane Gold is well bound, and actually of a higher quality than the more expensive, slip-cased, limited editions!

Now for the reading! I can’t wait to dig in... (Carefully, of course!)

Sep 14, 2007

Haggis Progresses On Bond 22

Paul Haggis spoke at a screening of his new movie, In the Valley of Elah, in Los Angeles last night. He didn't reveal any details about his script for Bond 22 other than to say that he's up to page 30. So apparently the first act of the new Bond is done or nearly done! When the moderator asked if it was intimidating to write Casino Royale, seeing how there was a lot of pressure with the Bond franchise to always make them bigger and better, Haggis honestly said "No. Bond was just fun. Every other project has been intimidating in some sense, but Bond is just fun to write.", meanwhile, reports that call sheets for Bond 22 have gone out seeking "a Latina actress in her late twenties, preferably with South American roots" for a Bond Girl role in the movie. Head on over there for more details...
(Thanks to T-Bone for the Haggis report.)
Images From Black Tight Killers
Yasuharu Hasebe, 1966

Sep 12, 2007

Shoot ‘Em Up Offers Hints Of What Owen’s Bond Might Have Been

Action movie Shoot ‘Em Up, which opened in the U.S. rather dismally last weekend, gives some hints of what Clive Owen might have been like as 007. True, his character here is purposely an anti-Bond, but some scenes in the movie might as well be Owen’s screen tests for Eon. (The actor denies actually doing any real screen tests for the role, or even being approached. There have been reports to the contrary, but I tend to believe him.)

In one scene, audiences are treated to one of the most unpleasant Fleming scenarios never filmed, with Owen sitting in for James Bond in the finger-breaking torture from Live And Let Die. (Roger Moore managed to escape that treatment in the movie.) Owen handles it well, but the scene lacks the intensity that Daniel Craig was subjected to in the filmed version of Bond’s even more brutal punishment from Casino Royale. In another scene, the actor recreates the pre-credits sequence from Moonraker, only upping the ante. In the film’s most spectacular setpiece, Owen jumps out of an airplane followed by parachuting baddies. Shoot ‘Em Up goes one up on Moonraker’s midair wrestling, though, with a whole midair gunfight! Still, the ‘79 version managed to seem more real, despite the unconvincing close-ups of Moore. CGI has just made it impossible to believe that stuntmen are actually doing what you’re seeing today.

Owen also delivers a succession of one-liners so groan-worthy they could have come from one of the recent Pierce Brosnan scripts. Granted, they’re supposed to be bad in Shoot ‘Em Up (I think!), but as with Brosnan it’s a little disappointing to see such a good actor saddled with such lines! Still, the movie is 80 minutes of pure, wild, nonstop action, and Bond fans will likely get a kick out of the ridiculously over-the-top shootouts. Plus, they get a glimpse at a Bond who might have been.... Personally, I'm 100% happy with Craig, but I'll always wonder what Owen would have made of the role.

Sep 11, 2007

DVD Review: The Charlie Chan Collection, Volume 3

Unlike the previous volume, there are no spies per se to be found in any of the movies in Fox’s third collection of Charlie Chan films starring Warner Oland. But the series remains an undeniable prototype for the spy series to follow in later decades, and thus merits Double O Section coverage.

The notion of the "series spy," or even of the spy as hero, wouldn’t really come along until James Bond (or at least Hammer’s Dick Barton, Special Agent) and is a purely postwar phenomenon, cinematically speaking. In the 30s and 40s, series heroes tended to be detectives or, in the serials, masked avengers. But whereas the detectives of literature tended to stick to a single haunt (Marlowe had LA and Sam Spade San Francisco; Charlie Chan had Honolulu), their early cinematic counterparts quickly drifted farther afield. When you’re delivering a succession of B pictures that all basically offer variations on the same plot, it’s a lot more appealing to audiences (especially depression-era audiences seeking escapism from their own bleak, urban surroundings) if you change the location, and offer them some exotic scenery. Thus the Chan of the movies, while remaining a detective on the Honolulu police force, began to venture out around the world and append destinations like "In Paris," "In London," "In Shanghai," and "In Monte Carlo" to his name for a succession of successful programmers. An argument could certainly be made that these films led directly to the postwar secret agent hero, who had much better reason to travel abroad than a flatfoot, anyway.

Of course, the Chan crew didn’t actually travel the globe. A Charlie Chan movie typically begins with the credits appearing over establishing stock footage of the locale in question, then moves into studio sets and the occasional Southern California exterior dressed to look like wherever. But that, combined with an appropriate cast of accented "locals" (usually including a local police chief), is generally enough. One exception to the rule, however, is The Black Camel, which really was shot on location... in Hawaii. (Black Camel was only Oland’s second performance in the role, and the series was still young enough that Chan’s home turf was exotic enough in and of itself.)

The Black Camel finds the detective investigating the murder of an actress who was shooting a movie in Hawaii, and also that of an actor killed three years earlier in Los Angeles. (As Nancy Drew would sometimes speculate, there just might be a connection!) Bela Lugosi shows up (fresh off his success as Dracula) as a psychic, and Chan wastes no time in debunking his methods. Lugosi’s character, however, sees through Chan’s as well, making their initial confrontation a highlight of the film. Some of the supporting performances are definitely better than others, and there’s a major flaw in the solution if one puts too much thought into it, but this is certainly a fun way to pass seventy minutes. In fact, the location photography and impressive camera movements (atypical for the era), make the picture look more expensive than it no doubt was, and combine to make this one of the better entries in the series. (And probably the best from a purely visual standpoint.)

On the other end of the spectrum, Charlie Chan In Monte Carlo was Oland’s last completed Chan picture. The actor is certainly comfortable in the role, and a joy to watch. But the series has fallen, for better or worse, into a predictable formula by this point, and the direction is a lot more formulaic, too. Still, it’s a formula by which anyone who’s bought and enjoyed Fox’s previous volumes will no doubt be entertained, and the supporting cast is especially good this time out. Harold Huber, who plays a proto-Clouseau police chief (the sort of French caricature who actually exclaims, "Sacrebleu!"), deserves particular mention. Monte Carlo (as portrayed primarily by a casino interior) is always a favorite setting of mine, and Bond fans will probably get a kick out of the (admittedly few) gambling scenes. Maybe it was the stagy casino sets, but I was pleasantly reminded of the Barry Nelson Casino Royale while watching this.

Charlie Chan’s Secret brings the detective to San Francisco, where he unravels an "old, dark house mystery," a staple of 30s and 40s B movies, but an enjoyable one nonetheless. The house itself is a marvel of production design (which the commentators credit to the director, a former art director himself), with oddly-sized doors and crooked angles reminiscent of German expressionism. It’s also loaded with secret passages and hidden panels, and this is exactly the sort of movie that served as the model for classic Avengers episodes like "The Joker" and "The House That Jack Built." Chan debunks a seance by exposing some nifty trickery, and some of the ingenious killing methods also involve inspired gadgetry, making this entry especially appealing to spy fans.

Finally, Charlie Chan On Broadway proves a curious title, for the movie doesn’t involve actors or showgirls (of the big-time variety, anyway) or any of the things one associates with the Great White Way. Instead the tale revolves around newspapermen, gangsters and the goings on at a small nightclub that really could be anywhere. It's another one of those "missing diary" plots, but at least Keye Luke gets some time to shine as Chan's famous #1 Son, Lee. (The only other movie in this set that Luke appears in is Monte Carlo.)

As with all of Fox’s Cinema Classics, there is an abundance of quality bonus material on this set. (The only noticeable omission is original theatrical trailers, but I assume that’s because none survive.) These DVDs are produced by John Cork, and James Bond fans especially know that his association is generally a mark of quality on any DVD release. A half-hour featurette called "The World of Charlie Chan" lends credence to my argument for the Chan movies as a proto-spy series, and also serves as a great primer on the Oland cycle of Chans. A succession of experts in various fields pop up to contribute comments on the historical or sociological significance the locations and events dealt with in all the Oland Chan movies (not just the ones in this set). The best part concerns Charlie Chan At the Olympics, which appeared in the last volume and bursts at the seams with historical curiosities! (Chan flies to Germany on the Hindenberg mere months before its destruction, and stock footage shows brief glimpses of both Adolf Hitler and the man who put his "master race" in its place in ‘36, African-American Olympic great Jesse Owens.)

Equally fascinating is the documentary on Oland himself, "Charlie Chan is Missing." While it never delivers a satisfactory answer to the startling mystery it begins with (why did Oland excuse himself for a drink of water on set one day and then disappear?), it paints a portrait of a very complex and emotionally unbalanced actor. Did you know that Oland and his wife translated the first editions of their friend August Strindberg’s plays into English? Or that he became so enmeshed in his famous character that he would conduct interviews as Chan late in his life, referring to Warner Oland in the third person? These are only a few of the fascinating bits of information to be gleaned from this featurette.

I expected "Chanograms: The Aphorisms of Charlie Chan" to be nothing more than a compilation reel of Chan’s various pithy epithets ("Tongue often hang man quicker than rope!"), but it’s actually more than that, and begs reconsideration of a hallmark of the series which some dismiss as unfortunate, racist "Confucius say" humor at the expense of the Chinese. One film historian points out that these biting remarks are generally terrible insults disguised as polite wisdom, and enable Chan to establish his intellectual dominance over hapless, xenophobic Caucasians in a socially acceptable manner. Perhaps he’s over-thinking it, but the notion appeals to me. I must admit that I have trouble seeing why the series is considered so politically incorrect to begin with. True, the lead Asian character is played by a white man, but is that really so bad? The character is portrayed with great reverence and intelligence. Chan is no bumbler; he is smarter than everyone else and always outwits the white local police and suspects alike.

"Charlie Chan and the Rise of the Modern Detective" firmly establishes the character’s place in the pantheon of crime-fighters. Scholars of the genre compare the detective to Sherlock Holmes. Like Holmes, Chan relies on deductive reasoning and forensic investigation to solve cases. They point out that this was in direct opposition to the prevailing trend in the genre at the time, that of the "hard boiled" detective, who relied more on his fists and his gun. Famed forensic investigator Dr. Henry Lee reveals that Chan’s methods are surprisingly accurate, and often prefigured actual investigative techniques that wouldn’t be perfected until much later in the 20th century. Lee, who, like Chan, is Chinese, also stars in the final featurette, "Dr. Henry Lee: The Modern Day Charlie Chan." Based on the title, I was expecting this to be a throw-away feature, drawing a tenuous comparison between the forensic expert and the fictional gumshoe with very broad strokes. It isn’t; it’s merely mis-titled. The documentary doesn’t present Lee as a "real life" Chan, but gives him the opportunity to discuss his own love for the Chan movies and their influence on his life and career, which is interesting and unexpected.

Cork and film historian/Chan expert Ken Hanke contribute informative commentaries to two of the titles; both are worthwhile listens, and information doesn’t overlap. Their track for The Black Camel offers a lot of insight on why it’s so visually superior to the others, giving most of the credit to director Hamilton MacFadden. The track for Charlie Chan’s Secret gives plenty of background on the character and the series, along with an interesting explanation for Chan’s famous broken English. "It isn’t pigeon English," Hanke asserts. (That’s something different, and very specific.) The delivery, he says, came about because Oland wanted it to seem that a non-native speaker was thinking, formulating his sentences in Chinese and then translating them (roughly) to English as he spoke. Cork also throws in a good nugget for Bond fans, revealing that the look for Oddjob was modeled on Oland’s Chan.

But the best special feature of all is the inclusion of two entire bonus movies... almost. One of them, Charlie Chan's Chance, has been lost (apparently destroyed in a fire), but it’s been re-created for DVD via production stills and script pages, read by actors. Bear in mind, the production is mounted with the budget of a DVD feature, and not of a radio play, so it’s not particularly impressive. But it admirably serves its purpose, giving us an idea of what that lost film might have been. The other bonus movie, Behind That Curtain, fortunately survives, but proves a bit disappointing. The 1929 talkie is the first appearance of Charlie Chan in a Fox movie, but the character, played by E.L. Park, barely appears! Still, the transfer on this film is impressive, despite Fox’s dire caveats that it was made from the best vault materials at their disposal, and the studio deserves major credit for including the film. It will prove a curiosity to most, but a treasure to dedicated followers of the series.

The Charlie Chan Collection, Volume 3 is another impressive set in the Fox Cinema Classics line. Because of the way the movies are distributed between the boxes, you’re guaranteed some really good ones in any of the sets, but this latest one (concluding the Warner Oland cycle) definitely offers the best extras of the batch.

Sep 10, 2007

Exclusive Interview With Moneypenny Diaries Cover Artist Stina Persson

Exclusive Interview With Moneypenny Diaries Cover Artist Stina Persson

After issuing Volume 1 of Samantha Weinberg’s “Moneypenny Diaries” trilogy of James Bond novels with a bland and misleading cover and more or less repeating that mistake with the hardcover edition of Vol. 2 (despite a half-hearted attempt to recall Richard Chopping's series of "gun still life" jackets for Fleming's originals), John Murray Publishers finally got creative with the paperback edition of the second book, Secret Servant. This time around they brought on designer Madeline Meckiffe and artist Stina Persson to create a vibrant and eye-catching illustrated cover. The result is both retro and modern at the same time: a Sixties throwback that sets the perfect tone for the story within, but stands out on the shelf. Whereas the initial covers made the books look like straight “chick lit," the paperback cover for Secret Servant perfectly captures the spirit of Ms. Weinberg’s books. Its combination of glamour and sophistication with a hint of sexy, Modesty Blaise-style danger should appeal to old and new readers, male and female alike. Ms. Persson, whose glam, Sixties-infused artwork has graced book covers, fashion magazines and galleries the world over, graciously took some time out of her busy schedule last month to chat with the Double O Section about her work on The Moneypenny Diaries.

00: How did you come to be involved with the cover to The Moneypenny Diaries Vol. 2 paperback?

SP: I was contacted by John Murray Publishers in [the] UK through my agent in New York.

00: What was the nature of your collaboration with designer Madeline Meckiffe? Were you involved in the decision to make this cover so radically different from the (much less attractive) cover to the paperback of Vol. 1?

SP: My first brief said that they looked for an illustration of a glam woman. And wanted me to capture classy 60s mood but also feel fresh and modern. Later I made sketches, and from then on I worked with Madeline Meckliffe, which was enjoyable. She wanted my ink style and the colors of her dress to be what stood out. Later it ended up being background and beaded necklace that were in color. I am doing the second cover this fall too, by the way.

00: Is that one for a new paperback edition of Vol. 1 (to make them match) or for the hardcover of next year's Vol. 3?

SP: I only know it as "the Next Moneypenny."

00: Prior to publication, another cover design appeared online depicting a woman with a gun and a prominent handbag. (You can see it here.) Were you involved in that? If so, why was the decision made to change it? (Good decision, by the way!)

SP: I have not seen this cover before.

00: Did you read Secret Servant, and had you ever read any other James Bond novels? Were you at all inspired by the artwork on the Sixties paperback covers or movie posters?

SP: I haven't been given the book, only “tear sheets” of the cover. (A reminder though that I should ask for a few samples.) I haven't read any James Bond novels either, but have seen the earlier movies many times and I really like the 60's esthetics in everything from hairdos to furniture and movie posters to music.

00: Have you had any conversations with Moneypenny Diaries author Samantha Weinberg?

SP: The book I've illustrated is by Kate Westbrook. And I have not have any contact with her. [Ed. Note: “Kate Westbrook” is the pseudonym of Samantha Weinberg. The publishers obviously didn’t feel the need to share this information with the design team!]

00: What's on the horizon for you? Where can fans see more of your artwork?

SP: I had a show with original art in New York this May, and the art work can be viewed at (scroll down). I'm planning a second show at Gallery Hanahou in NY this coming May. And then I am working on a couple of different assignments ranging from CD covers to construction cladding!

And for updates and more work, please check out (is to be updated and fixed this fall).

00: Thanks for your time, Stina. I and a lot of other Bond fans look forward to seeing your next cover, and I’ll definitely be following your other work as well. I love your style.

Read my exclusive interview with Moneypenny Diaries author Samantha Weinberg (aka Kate Westbrook) here.
Upcoming Spy DVDs

Sony has finally re-announced the long-awaited Hudson Hawk special edition for November 20, according to DVDActive. That's right, I said "long-awaited!" By me anyway. Surely someone else out there has been waiting too, right? Because the movie (while far from perfect) frankly wasn't the disaster it's made out to be. It was silly and it was pretty funny. In middle school, I loved it. I caught it recently on TV and I thought it still held up pretty well. Of most interest for spy fans, it contains a terrific performance by Our Man Flint himself, James Coburn, as a tough-guy CIA mastermind. The special edition will feature deleted scenes, featurettes with Bruce Willis and Sandra Bernhard, and a commentary with director Michael Lehman. The disc had originally been announced for last year as a "15th Anniversary Edition," and that's the artwork pictured. Presumably they'll change it, but you never know...

Meanwhile, has revealed the cover art for Mystery Science Theater Vol. 12, and (in a break with tradition), it contains actual poster art for Secret Agent Super Dragon. That set is due Oct. 30.

Sep 7, 2007

Movie Review: THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM (2007)

Movie Review: The Bourne Ultimatum

The third movie in Universal’s Jason Bourne cycle bears no resemblance whatsoever to the third book in Robert Ludlum’s trilogy of eponymous novels, upon which it is ostensibly based, but that should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen the first two movies and read the books. Then again, The Spy Who Loved Me, Roger Moore’s best Bond film, bears no resemblance to the Ian Fleming novel of that name, either.* Fidelity to a book has never been a prerequisite for a good spy movie. And it’s just as well, because The Bourne Ultimatum is easily the best entry in the Matt Damon series, and quite possibly the best action spy movie in years. (The Lives of Others isn’t action.)

Unlike the rather convoluted plot of the last movie, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum is incredibly straightforward in its storytelling. The story of amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne’s search for the truth about his past doesn’t have many plot beats, but each one there is develops into a lengthy action setpiece. This isn’t a criticism of the movie, but praise. An action-based spy thriller doesn’t need to be labyrinthine; it just needs to justify its action sequences (as opposed to The World Is Not Enough, for example, which shoehorns them into the story so obtrusively it seems like you’re suddenly watching another movie altogether) and to make sense. On both counts, The Bourne Ultimatum succeeds better than any recent entry in the Mission: Impossible or Bond franchises. And the action sequences in question are uniformly spectacular.

As Bourne travels from one exciting location to another and gets involved in elaborate chases, director Paul Greengrass (co-writer of the infamous British espionage tell-all, Spycatcher) immerses the viewer in the midst of the action. His reckless, hand-held camera techniques were often a little too confusing in Supremacy, but he’s perfected them in Ultimatum. You can always tell what’s going on, but the camera work is still unhinged enough to make you feel like you’re in the middle of it. In one spectacular shot, the hand-held camera leaps after Bourne from one upper storey window into another in the middle of a foot chase!

One of the highlights of the first two Bourne movies for fans of Cold War spy movies was the excellent use of locations. Even though espionage has become much more global since the fall of the Iron Curtain, and even though Europe is no longer its central playing field, there is something about European cities that makes them ideal settings for international intrigue. The Bourne Ultimatum continues that tradition, setting key sequences in Madrid and London. Bourne then ventures off the Continent for the first time, traveling first to North Africa (another classic spy location) and then New York.

Tangier is a perfect city for spies, and Greengrass and Director of Photog-raphy Oliver Wood make the city look beautiful and romantic. Its narrow, hilly streets, crowded rooftops and Europe-meets-Africa architecture all lend immensely to the movie’s most satisfying chase scene. The city looks just as good as it did in the heyday of the Eurospy genre, as captured in Espionage In Tangiers, but the modern day action in Bourne is far more exciting than anything that happened in that movie. The city is put to much better use.

Bourne pursues an assassin named Desh through the crowded streets of Tangier, first on motorcycle (which he rides not only down but up some of the city’s bustling stairways!), and then on foot. The foot chase is especially spectacular, a perfect blend of action and setting. (To me, this is one of the key ingredients of a good spy movie: a symbiotic relationship between elaborate action and exotic setting, and it’s very rarely achieved!) Bourne manages to keep pace with Desh from afar, following the street-bound assassin from the city’s iconic rooftops, which bristle with inconvenient antennas. After making the aforementioned jump into the building where Desh is about to kill Bourne’s only friend, the two killers engage in some of the most intense hand-to-hand combat ever filmed. This sequence is truly the modern-day equivalent of Sean Connery’s close-quarters fight with Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love. It seems to last forever (in a good way), and I found myself holding my breath. Bourne incorporates every makeshift weapon at his disposal, improvising with things as innocuous as a hand towel and even a book. Each time I’ve seen this movie so far, the audience has cheered at this fight’s conclusion. The action in The Bourne Ultimatum is amazing across the board, and there were multiple moments that elicited such a response.

Matt Damon has really learned to move like a man who can master any situation, and imbue Bourne with an unrivaled sense of "badassery." Take, for example, the scene in London’s Charing Cross Station wherein Bourne encounters two members of a CIA hit squad (who are after him and his contact) in a stairwell. Bourne moves so fast and with such decisiveness that the men don’t even know what hit them, and the burst of action is over almost as soon as it’s begun. But apparently length isn’t everything! As soon as they’ve digested what’s just occurred, this is another scene which sends the audience into spontaneous applause. Part of what makes the fight so cool is how quickly it’s over, in contrast to the lengthy fight with Desh which draws mileage from its duration.

David Straithairn makes an excellent villain, keeping a safe distance from the man he’s tracking while entrenched behind a bank of computer screens in New York. Of course, that doesn’t stop Bourne from taking the fight to him, which he does, culminating a not-quite face-to-face confrontation in which it seems like Damon speaks more dialogue than in the entire rest of the movie! (And it’s still not that much.) Bourne gets a rare punchline in here, and once more the audience applauded, with not a single punch thrown.

There are enough oblique references to real world politics and the war in Iraq to make Matt Damon believe he’s doing something smarter than Bond (a topic he won’t shut up about!) and lead a few critics to give the marketers that "thinking man’s action movie" quote they’ve been throwing around, but for the most part Bourne remains action-packed, escapist entertainment and nothing more. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, Matt Damon! Audiences love action-packed escapism! (This audience member enough so to devote a blog to the subject, more or less.) Damon and Greengrass should be proud to have made such an excellent action movie, and I really hope that Universal is able to convince the star to return for a fourth outing, even though he’s been pretty vocal in his aversion to such a prospect.

The Bourne Ultimatum is the perfect 21st century equivalent to the best of the Sixties Eurospy genre. It offers everything you could want out of a Eurospy movie (breathtaking action, exotic locations, a stoic, ass-kicking hero, and even a beautiful woman–though it could honestly use a few more of those...), and it does so at a breakneck, modern-day pace with state of the art, modern-day technology. (And, like the Eurospy flicks of old, it owes it all to 007, even in the instances where Bourne outperforms his progenitor. I wish the filmmakers and the critics at large would remember that!) There’s something for every spy fan in The Bourne Ultimatum, and it’s definitely worth repeat viewings in the theater.

*Granted, this was a contractual obligation to Fleming.

Read my review of Robert Ludlum's novel The Bourne Ultimatum here.