Sep 30, 2008

OSS 117 Contest Winners

This contest garnered the most entries ever for the Double O Section, so I want to thank everyone who entered. Congratulations to the following readers, who have each won a copy of the brand new Region 1 DVD OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies.

Todd Elliott of Kentucky
David Broussal of California
Kevin Ruppenthal of Maryland

Your DVDs are on the way! And for those of you who didn't win this time, stay tuned because there will be more nifty contests in the near future!
New Spy DVDs Out This Week

Well, all you really need to do is scroll down to the two most recent posts for this week's biggest spy releases, but I'll reiterate here nonetheless!

First up, Music Box Films releases OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies. Unlike the various import options, this Region 1 DVD includes the deleted scenes (a whopping fifteen minutes' worth!), gag reel and making of featurette with English subtitles. If you didn't catch this one in its limited theatrical run this summer, make it a top priority on DVD. This is a real must for spy fans and Bond fans, a pitch-perfect period spy comedy which achieves a rare blend of silly spoofery and smart satire. It's also a loving tribute to James Bond, the OSS 117 films of the Sixties and other Eurospy fare.

Second, Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., the 1998 TV movie adaptation of Marvel's eyepatched superspy starring David Hasselhoff, makes its long-awaited DVD debut today as a Best Buy Exclusive. Also making its American DVD debut today as a Best Buy exclusive is The Brides of Fu Manchu, starring Chritopher Lee and two-time Bond Girl Tsai Chin.

Finally, Nick Fury also pops up (in his Samuel L. Jackson "Ultimate" guise) after the end credits of Iron Man, this summer's smash hit superhero movie starring the incomparable Robert Downey, Jr. S.H.I.E.L.D. makes numerous appearances in the film, too, going under its new acronym of "Strategic Homeland Intervention, Espionage Logistics Directorate."

Sep 29, 2008

REMINDER: Last Day To Enter OSS 117 DVD Contest

Be sure to get your entries in by midnight tonight if you want a chance to win a DVD of OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies, the hilarious French spy spoof out tomorrow from Music Box Films. Click here for full contest details.
Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV Movie On DVD Tomorrow!

This one really snuck up on me; I don't think there was ever a press release or official announcement or anything... but according to Best Buy's weekly circular, the 1998 TV movie Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. starring David Hasselhoff as the comic book secret agent and Lisa Rinna as his flame Countessa Valentina de Allegro Fontaine will be released on DVD tomorrow and available exclusively at Best Buy. The timing is obviously designed to cash in on the character's appearance in Iron Man (as played by Samuel L. Jackson), which also hits DVD tomorrow. The DVD artwork makes the movie look much cooler than it actually is, and (understandably) plays up the involvement of Batman Begins screenwriter David Goyer. Despite its overall mediocrity (due in a large part to its TV movie budget... and some of the casting), this movie has been something of a Holy Grail for Nick Fury fans for quite a while, frequently bootlegged but never before officially available. I, for one, am very excited to know that it's coming out (and so soon!), and I'm sure legions of Fury fans will be as well.

Sep 27, 2008

Movie Review: BURN AFTER READING (2008)

Movie Review: Burn After Reading

The Coen Brothers begin their assault on the spy genre and the intelligence community itself before a single character has even appeared in Burn After Reading. The first joke is a font. As we zoom in from space, getting closer on satellite images of the earth and eventually Langley, VA and CIA headquarters, the titles are typed across the screen in a perfectly-chosen, slightly tech-y font. It looks just like the titles you might see in a 90s spy movie–maybe the Harrison Ford Jack Ryan entries. Even better, it makes the noise that such fonts inevitably make, a sort of squeaky beeping noise as each individual letter is input that sounds like it might come from a computer–although if you really had a computer that beeped like that at every keystroke, you’d probably end up smashing it after hammering out just a few sentences. By the time the camera zooms inside the CIA building, I was already laughing. The mere idea of a Coen Brothers movie beginning like a Scott Brother’s movie was hilarious to me–as I’m sure it was to the brothers. The biggest joke in the movie is really the mere fact that the Coen Brothers have made a spy movie.

As you might expect from such a venture, there’s not much actual spying in this film, if any. It’s a movie about spies, and would be spies, and the stupid things that they do. Like most Coen Brothers movies–the outright comedies and the so-called "serious" ones alike–it’s about people with very little intelligence of their own getting into something way over their heads–in this case in Intelligence itself.

From the satellite zoom, we finally end up inside a dull, unassuming office at CIA headquarters. Prim, proper, bow-tied analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) takes a seat opposite his boss, surprised by the presence of the others in the room. "Olson?" he inquires. "Isn’t he in–?"
"Yes," his boss assures him with a nod of his head, further perplexing Cox, before proceeding to strip him of his duty as head of the Balkan section. "You have a drinking problem," he explains, and Cox goes apoplectic. He feels that this move is political. Whether it is or isn’t is entirely beside the point for the rest of the movie, but it and his subsequent quitting set into motion a hilarious, coincidence-laden chain of events involving Cox, his "cold hearted bitch" of a wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), her Secret Service agent lover Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) and her divorce lawyer’s assistant’s trainer Chad (Brad Pitt), his colleague Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand)–who is also Clooney’s mistress–and their boss Ted (Richard Jenkins). I’m surprised I was able to summarize these relationships so succinctly! They’re all part of an insular, incestuous Beltway culture, and they’re all either screwing each other or spying on each other–and the Coens don’t seem to detect much difference between the two. Furthermore, they’re all being spied on from without as well, either by the CIA or by agents of various divorce lawyers.

J.K. Simmons plays an Agency section chief who receives regular reports on these characters’ doings from an underling (David Rasche) who never knows what to make of the intelligence he’s reporting. Without any sort of helpful analysis, Simmons’ automatic reaction to each shocking report (which quickly escalate from sex to blackmail to murder) is either to cover it up or "see what happens."

What happens, in short, is that gym workers McDormand and Pitt (who steals the show with his hilarious squinty-eyed stupidity) come into possession of Malkovich’s tell-all memoirs and try to blackmail him for the intel. When he refuses to acquiesce to the demands of morons (he sees Pitt as part of a "league of morons"), they decide to go to the Russians (one of whom is actually named "Krapotkin"), seeking higher remuneration from them. ("The Russians?" asks the perpetually flummoxed Simmons when he hears this. "Why would they go to the Russians?") All McDormand wants is enough money for several "cosmetic procedures" that her insurance won’t cover. Pitt has no idea what he wants, but he’s clueless enough to go along with her scheme.

The blackmail plot and a parallel plot about infidelity involving Clooney, Malkovich, Swinton and McDormand play out as classic farce until, this being a Coen Brothers movie, things get very suddenly violent halfway through. And then–again, this being a Coen Brothers movie–they continue to play out as a farce, albeit one with the occasional grisly shooting or axe murder.

Burn After Reading is a fascinating follow-up to No Country For Old Men, and one that ends up shedding new light on that masterpiece as well. It’s almost a companion piece, even though the two movies are complete opposites in tone and pacing. There’s a scene in Burn After Reading with Brad Pitt hiding in a closet, observing someone through the crack in the door. It’s a slow-build comedic sequence that had the audience in stitches, but the sequence was constructed almost identically to the one in No Country For Old Men where Josh Brolin sits in a dark motel room, watching Javier Bardem’s feet through the illuminated crack at the foot of his door. The brothers construct their suspense and their comedy the same way, and for them, there may be little difference. They often punctuate unbearable suspense with moments of levity (as in the excruciating climax of Blood Simple), or, as in one particularly memorable scene in Burn After Reading, punctuate an elaborate comedic setpiece with a burst of graphic violence.

The end of Burn After Reading also vaguely recalls the end of No Country For Old Men, which many viewers found frustrating. Viewers might find this ending frustrating as well, but most of them will probably find it more funny. This time, the joke is clear, and it’s on the intelligence community ("What have we learned?" asks J.K. Simmons. "Nothing?" replies his underling, probably summing up the brothers’ views on the CIA and Washington in general), but it’s also on us. In that light, I think it’s clearer that to some extent (and even though it came directly from the novel), the end of No Country For Old Men was a joke as well. A hilarious joke for the Coen Brothers on their characters, on their critics, and on their audience. But also for the benefit of all those parties, should they choose to view it as such. Life as it often turns out for their characters is so bleak, it must be a joke. The Coens use their "serious" movies, like No Country For Old Men, to comment on the absurdity of life and their madcap, absurdist ones (like Burn After Reading) to comment on its seriousness. Of course, as much as it’s a joke about politics and current events, it’s also a joke about spy movies in general. Most movies that begin with beepy text scrawled across satellite images could end with a question like "What have we learned?" and an answer like "Nothing?" (Not that that usually bothers me.)

It’s a funny ending to a supremely funny movie, and I don’t mean to distract from that with my digression into the brothers' larger oeuvre. Whether you care to laugh at real spies, at movie spies, at stupid people, or just at movie stars pulling funny faces, there are gags for everyone in Burn After Reading.

Read my review of the Burn After Reading DVD here, including a (positive) reappraisal of the film and discussion of the DVD extras.
Los Angeles Comic Book Signing Today

This is pretty last-minute notice and entirely non-spy-related, but I will be signing my horror comic book, Night & Fog, today (Saturday, September 27) in Santa Monica from noon to 3PM along with my co-writer, Alex Leung, at Hi-De-Ho Comics, 525 Santa Monica Blvd. (at 5th, just East of the Promenade). If any of you L.A. readers find yourselves on the West Side this afternoon, please stop by and say hi! Number 3 doesn't hit stores until Wednesday, but we should have some copies available early at the signing, as well as 1 and 2.

And, yes, I'm aware that that flyer kind of makes me look like a Nazi, which is unfortunate. Despite the implications of the copy, those are zombie super-soldiers, and not the writers!

Click here for more information on Night & Fog.
Click here to read a preview of Issue 1 online.
Click here to visit the Studio 407 blog.

Sep 26, 2008

Warner Announces Get Smart (2008) DVD

The Digital Bits report that Warner Bros. has announced a November 4 release date for single-disc, double-disc and Blu-Ray editions of the 2008 theatrical feature Get Smart starring Steve Carell as Maxwell Smart, Agent 86, the role originated on TV by Don Adams. The Bits have the different artwork for all three versions, and DVDActive have higher-res versions, plus back cover art. They use the art from the teaser and final one-sheet theatrical posters, which was good art. Unfortunately, they muck it up with a big flippy banner at the bottom corner promising "62% More Laughs." These extra laughs appear to come from additional takes with different jokes, which can be viewed in "comedy optimization mode," apparently showing viewers different takes as they watch the movie. After a year that's seen the release of every single previous incarnation of Get Smart, this one makes roughly the billionth Smart DVD released this year.

Sep 25, 2008

DVD Review: Mission: Impossible: The Fourth TV Season

DVD Review: Mission: Impossible: The Fourth TV Season

With the loss of starring spouses Martin Landau and Barbara Bain due to contract disputes and a shakeup in leadership behind the camera, I approached Season 4 of Mission: Impossible with some trepidation. I was especially ambivalent about the absence of Martin Landau, who, despite the crucial, magnetic presence of Peter Graves (as team leader Jim Phelps) and Steven Hill before him, I had always viewed as the true star–and heart–of the show. Landau’s Rollin Hand got all the showiest "roles," slipping easily into varied disguises and personalities as each mission dictated. As it turned out, though, Leonard Nimoy proved a completely adequate replacement for Landau, so much so that I never really missed Rollin. Nimoy imbues his character, "Paris the Great" (ostensibly a magician, although that line of work only comes into play in one episode), with spirit and charisma, giving his all and eagerly diving into a succession of roles week after week with a gusto equal to Landau’s.

It turns out Barbara Bain actually left a larger hole in the cast. Bain took a while to grow on me, but eventually she did, and I came to appreciate her even more in her absence. The producers didn’t hire a permanent replacement (which was a mistake), so we’re left with a rotating succession of female agents in her stead. The only one who seems truly capable of filling Bain’s shoes is Honey West herself, Anne Francis, but she only gets a single episode. Lee Meriwether fills in the most, but never really gets much to do. Still, aside from the notable lack of a female lead, Season 4 does a remarkable job of maintaining the overall quality of the previous three seasons. This is still top-notch spy TV, though viewers will quickly tire of the Paramount backlot, which gets even more use than it did before, somewhat diminishing the mystique of international intrigue. (The plus side is, every time I’m on that lot, I feel like I’m an IMF agent on assignment behind the surprisingly Californian Iron Curtain, which is a pretty cool feeling...)

In the season premiere, "The Code," the lot stands in for the Cuba-like Central American nation of San Cristobel. I don’t think one has to know the Paramount lot well in order to realize that many shots don’t even match up! One moment, a car is driving on a well-foliated park road, the next it’s passing through the famous Paramount Bronson Gate (too recognizable a landmark to successfully play a dictator’s compound), with no trees in sight. They don’t even bother to clear a golf cart (used for easy transportation from soundstage to soundstage) off the set! I guess it makes things look more exotic.

Being in Central America, Paris’s very first disguise requires him to sport a bushy Castro beard. He sure doesn’t waste any time! And, believe me, Leonard Nimoy with a Castro beard is an asset to any season premiere. It’s a sight worth seeing. Furthermore, Barney gets too play with a cool toy: a little remote control car with a camera mounted on it that scoots through tubes of some sort in the walls of a building. And the special guest female agent, Alexandra Hay, is quite attractive, even if she’s underused (typical for the women this season). So despite the lack of scenery, the kickoff has a lot going for it even before you add cool 1969 camera angles and the strange sort of camera movements the show is known for. (It must have been the 24 of its day.) We’re off to a good start.

Even though the IMF has never been squeamish about sending villains to their doom (they did it in the series’ very first episode), they seem particularly cold-hearted in Season 4, and Phelps sets that tone in the coda of "The Code." The mission results in one of two conspirators (and national leaders, no less, albeit of a dangerously leftward persuasion) firing at another. Jim comments emotionlessly, "The mission is a success." But who fired? Jim responds to that inquiry by saying, "What difference does it make?" That’s cold! Especially for the hero of a Sixties TV series! But it’s a streak that continues throughout the season. Perhaps broadcast standards were relaxing a bit heading into the 1970s, but it seems to me that the team goes especially hard on its rogues’ gallery of thugs, dictators, Commies and racketeers this year.

We may be off to a good start, but it isn’t long before Jim and his team are already falling back on another variation of the "make someone believe it’s WWIII" scam they’ve pulled successfully before. The victim in "Numbers Game" strives to count himself among the dictator set of the IMF’s enemies. Our guys need to convince this would-be ruler (plotting to reclaim his now independent European country) that war has broken out in order to get him to give up a vital Swiss bank account number. Yawn. Same old, same old. This episode reeks of "been there, done that," but doesn’t manage to do it as well as it’s been done before–or would be again, for that matter, in this season’s far superior "The Submarine."
The doomsday scenario is even more pointless than usual, because it turns out all they’re really setting up is a situation where the general is desperate to trade his account number for Penicillin! Surely there were easier ways to bring such circumstances about. Jim needs a lot of extras to play soldier for this plan to work, so he recruits the entire "Hartford Repertory Company" during the standard "selecting the team" moment. Yet all these amateur players are perfectly adept at pulling cons in the middle of Europe. It’s tenuous moments like this that threaten to bring the entire series toppling by exposing the inherent lameness of the premise. Even though all the members of Jim’s team–including the regulars–are supposed to be ordinary citizens with jobs like electrician, magician or strongman, none of them act like it. They all behave like professional spies! Luckily, the show is usually good enough that you forget that shaky foundation and it doesn’t much matter. Not so in this episode. Lee Meriwether briefly livens things up posing as a nurse, but, once again, the "woman of the week" doesn’t get much to do. Despite the weak script, the whole thing is at least well-executed, offering up some good off-lot locations like the bay where Jim collects his briefing tape and the bridge the team eventually crosses to leave the country.

Season finale "The Martyr" is another bad one, but manages to be much more fun than the tired "Numbers Game" in the process. To combat pressure from "their country’s young people," an Eastern European dictator wants to use the Youth Congress to spread his wicked ways. There’s good use of stock footage to create the Eastern Bloc country this time, and even to fill its streets with youthful demonstrators. But it’s more dated than most Missions by its failed attempts to delve into the hippy culture and fashions of the time (even behind the Iron Curtain, I guess). Where the episode really falls apart is in having us believe that Paris and Barney could actually pose as "youth leaders." Nimoy was pushing forty at the time, and looks it! It’s laugh-out-loud ridiculous to see him playing a student.

Barney actually looks good in his motorcycle-riding "youth" costume, but he can’t pull off lines like, "Say, baby, what’s botherin’ you?" and "If you don’t like it here, split, you dig?" and "Oh, this is funky, man. Real funky."

In addition to criminal overuse of the word "youth" and variations thereof, we’re even treated to a youthful "happening" so full of Hollywood’s version of hippydom it would seem more at home on Hawaii Five-O. This culminates in a horrible, horrible rendition of Bob Dylan’s seminal Sixties anthem "The Times They Are A-Changin’" courtesy of IMF "lady guest star" Lynn Kellogg (an actual folk singer).

It’s really, really horrible. Just awful. Truly.

It’s also about seven years too late. Mission: Impossible was never on the cusp of popular culture, but then again it didn’t usually try to be. As long as they avoided such contemporary gimmicks, they managed to create timeless episodes. Not so with "The Martyr."

But the episode has a lot of good things to offer as well, making it a tricky paradox. There’s a very good spy plot going on amidst all this youthful exuberance, and it owes a lot to John Le Carré. The IMF creatively uses a double agent to make their enemies believe what they want them to. And those enemies–both the Boris Yeltsin-looking Premiere and his curly-haired chief of secret police (the usual duo)–are particularly wonderful villains, among the season’s best. Jim is programmed to withstand hypnosis and truth drugs, and even has a chip implanted in his ear so Barney can talk to him. All this adds up to an impressively intricate triple-blind dupe, the sort of con you always want out of Mission: Impossible. And even that awful rendering of "The Times They Are A-Changin’" is used very effectively at the end over footage of student protesters believably cut in with shots of the Premiere shouting from his podium. "The Martyr" embodies the best and the worst of the season, but unlike in "The Numbers Game," both are enjoyable. The espionage is top-notch, and I do get a Jason King-like kick out of seeing Paris lead a Youth Congress. But did I mention how badly that Dylan song gets butchered?

Fortunately, most of the fourth season is better than all that. Even a three-part episode manages not to drag too much (and also affords Meriwether her biggest role, and Paris the chance to do magic). And episodes like "Double Circle" and "The Submarine" are among the very best of the series so far.

In the former, the team’s object is to retrieve a stolen rocket fuel formula from an impenetrable safe belonging to a notorious secrets broker named Victor Laszlo (yes, writer Jerry Ludwig got a little cute with his naming). Their elaborate plot to pull it off involves building a duplicate of Laszlo’s apartment on the floor underneath his, rewiring his security camera to show their duplicate apartment, and erecting a false wall in his own apartment, concealing the real safe at a crucial moment, Inside Man-style. It’s all so complicated that I don’t think I could explain exactly how they pull it off–or even say if it really works–but that doesn’t matter because the episode is so slick that I didn’t even find myself wondering while watching.
What makes this a particularly exemplary episode is the fact that every member of the team has a very specific role to play, utilising their own unique skill set in a way that contributes to the overall whole. So often one team member doesn’t get to pitch in, or is asked to serve a function other than his or her primary one. Not so here. Willy even gets to use his strongman skills and lift up the huge false wall so that Barney can get out from behind it! (Rarely do the plots actually call for a strongman, causing the producer's to rethink Peter Lupus's role the following year.) Paris makes such use of his mastery of disguise that Nimoy gets to sit most of this one out, with another actor playing the role. Barney gets to be the techie he’s meant to be, plugging and unplugging XLR cables with the gravity of someone defusing a bomb. It’s a real credit to Greg Morris that he can do this stuff again and again, episode after episode, and still make it both convincing and suspenseful every time. Finally, Anne Francis’s Gilligan gets the best Barbara Bain part since Barbara Bain. Her role (and haircut) is the same one that Cinnamon usually found herself in, as an undercover operative reliant on her looks and charm to obfuscate her true objectives. Gilligan is the best written female role of the season, perhaps because it’s written like Cinnamon. On top of that (as I mentioned before), Francis is the best guest actress of the season, and the combination is a winner. She demonstrates admirably that she could have filled Barbara Bain’s platforms better than anyone–and looked even better than Bain in the process. It’s a tragedy that the producers apparently didn’t see this, and Francis never returned. She clearly should have been a regular.

On top of the team clicking so well, we’re also treated to a great villain in Laszlo. Guest star James Patterson plays the role so well (adding a fey "dear boy" to every order he gives) that he should have been named after a different Bogie foil: Kasper Gutman. I couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for him when the IMF set him up for another one of the season’s typically violent ends. In an episode that represents all the aspects of the show working together so well, it’s appropriate that Paris (while disguised as Laszlo) gets a line which neatly summarizes the premise of the entire series: "People see what they expect to see." Paris may only get to perform magic in one episode, but the whole team performs masterful slight of hand week after week. I think that Brian De Palma and David Koepp may have been referencing "Double Circle" in the opening moments of their 1996 Mission: Impossible movie, which would make sense as it’s so representative. After that initial scene, the film (and its sequels) would stray far from familiar series territory.

"The Submarine" is another prototypical Mission: Impossible episode. (So much so that the producers of the 80s revival saw fit to remake it–in a ploy to shoot "new" programming despite an ongoing writers' strike!) The premise of making someone believe they’re being transported in some sort of vehicle isn’t new for the series (they did it in Season 3 with a truck in "The Exchange"), but it’s so well executed here that that hardly matters. This time, they kidnap a Nazi war criminal from his own Iron Curtain captors, and trick him into believing he’s being secreted away by his compatriots aboard a U-Boat. In reality he’s still in the same Eastern Bloc neighborhood where he was being held by the other side. (The neighborhood is, of course, the familiar Paramount lot, and the general who orders his men to sweep the city might as well have ordered them to "Check every sound stage on the lot!") The IMF team manages to assemble a very elaborate submarine set in the middle of this Eastern republic: it’s even set up on a rig to simulate motion, diving and being hit with depth charges. The plotline is pretty predictable, but the execution is flawless. And the reaction from the old Nazi when he realizes what’s happened is priceless.

"Robot" is a complicated tale about doubles and doubles of doubles and mechanical doubles of doubles with a pseudo sci-fi twist. In a rare moment of hilarity in a generally pretty somber series, Jim and Paris film a fake demo reel of themselves as a novelty act with Paris pretending to be a robotic man. As planned, this captures the attention of a Communist-leaning general plotting a coup, and he pressures them into creating a robot of the Western-friendly Premiere to make a speech bequeathing power to him. Of course, the "robot" they create ends up having a bit more free will than the general counted on... This plot has it all. In addition to a fantastically tense scene of Barney breaking into a cell inside a jail–with the guard watching him–we get masks, doubles, fake robots, mechanical hands; you name it! The fake-outs and double fake-outs are so complicated this time that they might be a little silly, but they’re still wonderful. They’re exactly what I expect out of this show.

"Phantoms" is another episode that plays up the technology to an almost sci-fi degree–and another one that sets up yet another Eastern European dictator for a fall. It’s cool, though. The team sets up a fake television interview, blinding the dictator with really powerful lights. In that moment, they switch his glasses for specially treated infra-red ones. They then use an infra-red projector (hidden in a book) to broadcast "ghosts" on his wall that only he can see: the ghosts of those he’s ordered killed, including family members. The ghost trick is only the capper to a much more elaborate con, but it’s a great capper. The con itself is pretty good too–except for a rather unbelievable bit of mask business that requires Paris once again to play a man much, much younger than himself.

Lee Merriwether gets her meatiest role of the season posing as Jim’s philandering wife in "Fool’s Gold," but it’s still not much of a role. Her goal is to set herself up for blackmail, but the stakes aren’t that high as all of the characters involved in the blackmail scenario are creations of the IMF, and not real people. It’s still a decent episode, though, with Paris posing as a professional counterfeiter who lures the bad guy into a bigger and greedier scheme than he was initially planning, leading–of course–to his ruination. In addition to playing a part, Paris has to contend with a vault protected by soundwaves that can reduce a man to a vegetable.

"Chico" treats viewers to a somewhat lighter note, revisiting a premise from the second season with an animal team member. That time Phelps selected a cat, this time it’s a cute dog (named Chico, of course) to slightly lesser effect. But the episode is pretty strong overall, even if we’ve seen the animal agent thing done before. Jim and his team pit two rival South American drug barons against each other. Once again, they’re both good villains–and intelligent, too. From the first scene, it’s clear that Jim will have to be at the top of his game to put one over on these guys. Luckily, one of them is a collector of rare stamps, giving Paris his in, posing as an Australian sailor. (And he pulls it off better than Artemus Gordon did in Season 4 of The Wild Wild West!) Chico is such a well-trained dog that Barney’s able to train him to pick out one certain stamp from the whole collection (all part of the elaborate con), and he lowers him into the air conditioning ducts in a basket. (Yes, it’s cute.) There’s no way that viewers will ever think of "Chico" as anything but "the one with the dog," but it does have some very suspenseful moments, and a circuitous plot that holds up pretty well.

As with Season 3, Season 4 shakes up the formula a bit with a few more personal episodes focusing on the characters as more than just mannequins for masks. Just when Jim’s limited expressions of varying degrees of concern are starting to get a bit annoying, along comes a love story for Paris or Barney to distract you. Since the show’s formula demands that its characters remain unattached, any Mission: Impossible love story is bound to be a tragic one, but that makes them all the more interesting.

Paris gets his chance to show emotion in "Lover’s Knot." As with most of these more personal episodes, this one eschews the formulaic opening wherein Jim gets his mission (should he choose to accept it, at least). Instead, it opens with the murder that sets everything into motion. The team is already in place in England, undercover at the U.S. Embassy. Well-chosen scenery, good stock footage, a lack of studio shots and some real English actors (including Jane Merrow and Hitchcock favorite John Williams) all add up make the setting pretty convincing. Overall, it looks like more money went into this prestige episode than most.
The team’s mission, already in motion, is to expose "K," the top Eastern Bloc spy in London. K’s spy ring has already blackmailed, turned and even killed a few American diplomats, so Jim and Paris both position themselves as likely targets, with Paris getting himself pretty deep into gambling debts very quickly. Sure enough, the enemy moves in, in the form of lovely Lord’s wife Lady Cora Weston, played by Jane Merrow. She throws herself at both men, which serves their plan nicely, but toys with Paris’s heart as he develops real feelings for her. She may be a spy–and she may be married–but he’s convinced she’s as much of a pawn as he is in the Great Game.

This episode breaks the mold stylistically as well as formulaically. We’re treated to far more superimposition than usual in the form of two montages: a nifty gambling one as Paris loses oodles of money and a rather cheesy love montage, which finds him horseback riding and rowing with his lady love–all to some very stereotypical romantic music. (The lake they go rowing on is the one location that seems significantly more Southern California than England.)

Everything comes to a predictable but satisfying tragic conclusion, which borrows rather heavily from Ian Fleming. It’s a great finale, heartbreaking for Paris and rewarding for the audience. It’s nice to have an occasional emotional connection with characters who are normally so robotic and aloof. Once again, Jim plots things so tightly as to force K to suicide... but wouldn’t America have been better served by capturing such a notorious spymaster, and learning what he had to offer? Jim certainly has the opportunity, but seems to want to see K dead. The whole episode reminded me a lot of a Danger Man or a Saint, perhaps owing to the presence of Merrow (who was in both those series–as well as The Prisoner), but more likely owing to similar plots in similar settings on both of those shows as well.

Barney gets center stage for the first time in "Death Squad." He even gets a love interest: Alma (Cicely Tyson). Once more, there is no "your mission" opening, signifying another more personal episode. This one opens with Barney and Jim on vacation in Central America, where Barney is arrested for murder. It was an accident, of course, that came as a result of defending Alma. That seems like a bit of a cop-out to me; I think the premise would have been far more interesting had Barney been arrested for a murder he actually did commit, while on a mission instead of on vacation... but the Mission: Impossible wasn’t yet ready to intentionally tackle scenarios quite so morally ambiguous.

Unfortunately for Barney, the man he killed was a relative of the head of the banana republic’s secret police. Also unfortunately for him, the police chief runs a notorious death squad–and prefers his enemies to disappear forever rather than receive a fair trial. Jim mobilizes the team, and Paris and Willy show up fifteen minutes in. Working with Alma, they first attempt to mount a legal defense, but realizing that’s useless here, they instead do what they do best. This time, however, the stakes are higher than usual, because as in Season 3's "The Exchange," they’re playing for the life of one of their own.

Meanwhile, Barney’s far from idle on the inside. He makes a rather ingenious escape attempt, using his electronics skills to create his own soldering iron out of wires from a bedframe and a light fixture. His devotion to another wrongfully-sentenced inmate, however, makes the attempt a failure.

Luckily, his comrades have better luck. Willie gets to do an accent this time, pretending to be an Italian Interpol agent, Inspector Rinaldi, in a scheme appealing to the police captain’s sense of greed. He and the rest of the team manage to intervene at the very last moment, arranging a rather spectacular escape from the noose for Barney in an especially nail-biting finale. A great slower version of the standard "Mission: Accomplished" theme plays at the end, re-emphasizing that "Death Squad" wasn’t just business as usual.

I love these atypical, more personal episodes. When you have a show that’s so staunchly rooted in formula, it makes it all the more rewarding when that formula’s shaken up. "Lover’s Knot" and "Double Game" are the icing on the cake of another fantastic season of Mission: Impossible. Astoundingly, Season 4 manages to maintain the momentum of the excellent third season despite the loss of two stars. The lack of a strong, regular female team member keeps it from attaining quite those heights, but Paris is a more than adequate replacement for Rollin Hand, who’s loss I had expected to feel more strongly. One final note I should make about Paris, though: Nimoy brings a Roger Moore level of Seventies fashion to Mission: Impossible, including such Moore favorites as cravats and safari jackets. It’s a little jarring in a series that generally manages to appear fairly timeless (despite the odd attempt at cashing in on the "youth culture!"), but regular readers will no doubt be aware that I’m a sucker for Jason King duds, so I don’t mind it one bit. And appearance aside, his acting is top-notch.

More Missions:
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Seventh TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Sixth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Fifth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Third TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Second TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The First TV Season here.
Tradecraft: From Paris With Love

Variety reports that John Travolta and Jonathan Rhys Meyers will team up for a new big budget Eurospy film called From Paris With Love. (Why does that title sound kind of familiar...?) Like all the modern Eurospy movies, it's produced by Luc Besson. Beson and Adi Hasak penned the script, and Pierre Morel (District B13, the upcoming Liam Neeson Eurospy thriller Taken) will direct. All that the trade reveals about the plot is that it "concerns a young embassy worker and an American secret agent who cross paths while working on a high-risk mission in Paris." The budget is estimated at $55 million, and the movie will shoot for eleven weeks in Paris.

Sep 24, 2008

Tradecraft: Shane Black Returns To Spying

Shane Black was the king of 80s action scripts. Then, after his selling his spy script The Long Kiss Goodnight for a record price, he disappeared for a while, re-emerging a few years ago with his brilliant and hilarious private eye/action spoof, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Now, he's returning to directing--and returning to the spy genre. According to Variety, Black will direct Cold Warrior for Universal. "Based on a script by Chuck Mondry, pic revolves around a spy from the Cold War era who comes out of retirement to team with a younger agent from the new school to confront a domestic terrorism threat orchestrated by Russia." The Cold War spy coming out of retirement seems to be something of a trend in development these days, but Black's experience should give him the edge on the competition. After Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, I await his next project with baited breath.

Duffy Records Bond Theme After All

Duffy Records Bond Theme After All

...just not a new one. The Welsh chart sensation whose album Rockferry got her frequently touted to sing the theme song for Quantum of Solace (prior to the announcement of Jack White and Alicia Keyes as the singers) will instead record a cover of Paul McCartney's classic "Live and Let Die" for a charity CD due out in November. reports that "the latest fundraising idea from the War Child organisation is an album that takes its inspiration from the Bowie track of the same name, 'Heroes'. The idea behind the project is that a whole bunch of music legends chose one of their own favourite music acts to cover one of their songs." Besides Bowie, the album will involve such interesting pairings as Beck singing Bob Dylan's "Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat" and Duffy performing the theme from Roger Moore's first Bond movie. The album comes out November 24 on EMI's Parlophone label with a cover by Help! cover designer John Squire.

Sep 23, 2008

CONTEST: Win OSS 117: Cairo Nest Of Spies On DVD!

The summer's best spy movie, the spot-on French James Bond/Eurospy parody OSS 117: Cairo Next of Spies, comes to DVD in the U.S. at long last next week... and I have three copies to give away! Want one? Simply send an email with the subject heading "OSS 117 DVD CONTEST" including your name and mailing address to the Double O Section by midnight, Pacific Time on Monday, September 29, 2008. Winners will be announced in one week's time, next Tuesday... the very day the DVD hits stores. Good luck!

Even if you've already gotten ahold of an import copy of this movie, this new Music Box Films DVD is still worth getting because it offers the Making Of, Deleted Scenes and Gag Reel with English subtitles, something the French and Canadian DVDs didn't have.

Click here for my review of OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies.
Click here to visit the film's official website.
Click here to order the DVD from Amazon.

One entry per person, please. Double entries will be disqualified. One winner will be drawn at random and announced in on Tuesday, September 30, 2008. Winners’ names will be posted here and they will be notified via email. All entries will be deleted immediately after the contest’s close, and no personal information will be retained or transmitted to any third parties. The contest is open to anyone, in any country, although this DVD is NTSC Region 1, so make sure that you have a compatible player. Unfortunately, the Double O Section cannot assume responsibility for items lost or damaged in transit.

Sep 22, 2008

Random Intelligence Dispatches For September 22, 2008

New Saint DVD Release

Our man down under, David Foster (of Permission To Kill) wrote in about another cool new DVD so far exclusive to Australia. The Saint - A Fan's Guide appears to be an unauthorized companion to the TV series. According to the copy on EzyDVD, "The DVD shows how the series began as a straightforward mystery series, but over the years adopted more secret agent and fantasy-style plots... The film focuses on [Roger] Moore's portrayal of [Simon] Templar as it was considered a training ground for his later work as James Bond." It's hard to tell much from the information given, but I'm certainly curious about this one. I wonder who they interview? I wonder if it treads the same ground as Network's documentaries available on the UK Saint sets, or entirely new territory?

Limited Edition Ian Fleming Golf Balls

Chris Wright of sent in a heads-up about a cool Ian Fleming Centenary collectible that I hadn't previously heard of: limited edition Penfold Hearts golf balls, like those used by James Bond in Goldfinger. Penfold Hearts balls (not to be confused with Penfold the hamster)haven't been produced for decades, and this special release is limited to just 500 dozen sets, so golfing Bond fans would be wise to pick them up while they can! Each set comes with a card of authenticity and a commemorative slipcase. Order directly from Penfold for £50. No word on whether Slazenger will produce a villain's edition...

80s Patrick Macnee Movie Coming To DVD

Patrick Macnee hasn't made a whole lot of movies, but with The Avengers in all its incarnations well behind him, the Eighties were definitely his most prolific decade for films. Although spy fans will be most familiar with his turn as the doomed Godfrey Tibbett in A View To A Kill, the majority of that output was horror movies like Waxwork and, most famously, The Howling. While those two are on DVD (MGM's Howling DVD contains some hilarious Macnee outtakes), most of his Eighties film work remains fairly hard to see. Now, DVD Drive-In reports that one of Macnee's best regarded films, Sweet Sixteen (1983), will get a DVD release next month. Macnee plays the father of a promiscuous teenage girl, all of whose male conquests suddenly turn up dead immediately after sleeping with her. Is she to blame? The Code Red director's cut DVD comes out October 14 with ample special features.

Sep 21, 2008

SNL Spoofs 007

Last night's James Franco-hosted edition of NBC's Saturday Night Live contained a James Bond spoof called "Agent 420." Franco portrayed a pothead secret agent--essentially a tuxedoed version of his character from this summer's hilarious Pineapple Express. Although the sketch was one of the funniest in the episode, it's unfortunately not among those preserved in video form on NBC's website. While the premise is ridiculously stupid (and I can't believe it hasn't been done before), it's kind of ingenious in its stupidity. Franco and the other actors (including Fred Armisen as the Asian villain Dr. Huang, pronounced "Wang" to 420's endless amusement) further elevated the material by diving into it enthusiastically. Kristen Wiig performed a terrific Bondian theme song for Agent 420, accompanied by scantily-clad dancers approximating a Bond title sequence. In the sketch's best moment, Dr. Huang tries the old Goldfinger laser-to-the-crotch trick, but accidentally ends up igniting Agent 420's "crotch stash," getting them both stoned along with Huang's henchmen.

Sep 20, 2008

DVD Review: Mad Mission 3: Our Man From Bond Street (1984)

DVD Review: Mad Mission 3: Our Man From Bond Street (1984)

In this 1984 entry in the goofy celebration of stunts and effects–Hong Kong style–known as the Mad Mission series (or the Aces Go Places series depending on your geography), director Tsui Hark turns his attention full-on to one of the obvious influences on the series: the James Bond films. As the movie begins, our hero is in Paris (we don’t know why) when a beautiful woman in Geordi La Forge glasses suddenly tries to kill him with a missile. He chases her up the Eiffel Tower, where he encounters Jaws and Oddjob. (As you do.) They all fight, then Oddjob leaps off with a parachute. Jaws tosses his parachute off the tower, and for some reason the hero (whose name is Sam) jumps after it, grabs ahold, and fights Oddjob while they’re dropping. But why did he have to jump after the parachute? He wasn’t falling from a plane like Bond when he fought Jaws in freefall; he was standing on solid footing! Oh well. If you’re the sort of person who constantly asks those kinds of questions, then the Mad Mission movies aren’t for you. Surprisingly, all this Eiffel Tower action happens a year before 007 himself does it in A View To A Kill!

Sam’s escape from Oddjob takes him under the Seine, where he’s immediately devoured by a giant submarine with a SPECTRE space capsule-style mouth adorned with pointy shark teeth. Inside the cavernous shark submarine, he meets someone who claims to be James Bond while carefully avoiding any copyrighted phrases. Fake James Bond is played by a Sean Connery impersonator who perpetually wears a white dinner jacket and actually looks a little bit like Never Say Never Again-era Connery in certain light. Sometimes. He’s aided by the Oddjob lookalike we already met (who really likes to laugh and goes the real Oddjob one better by having a metal arm in addition to a deadly derby) and the Jaws lookalike, who’s named "Big G" and who’s actually played by the real Richard Kiel. Rounding out Fake Bond’s motley crew is the beautiful seductress/assassin who fired the initial missile at Sam, Jade East, and a woman who appears to be Queen Elizabeth II. Yep, it’s that kind of movie, and this scene really has to be seen to be believed. Fake Bond introduces himself with a very clever "fake arm" gag, and the "Queen" appears to emerge from a painting. All inside a giant mechanical shark, you’ll recall, with Jaws and Oddjob looking on. It’s an Avengers level of delightful spy surrealism.

For those just joining the series, or even those who have forgotten what’s gone before (it’s easy to do), we learn at this point that Sam is a famous jewel thief. "Bond" and "the Queen" convince him to steal the crown jewels for them, claiming they’ve already been stolen and his job is to get them back. The jewels are on display in Sam’s home city of Hong Kong. Sam thinks he’s doing this for James Bond and the Queen of England, so how can he turn them down? What we learn soon enough, however, is that Fake Bond is really a notorious international thief only posing as 007–and that the so-called Queen is really a notorious Queen impersonator! (Sam doesn’t realize any of this, though.)

There are so many spy movies with dull Bond-clones in the lead that it’s a very refreshing take to cast the Bond clone as a villain. And I just love the fact that a measly thief travels the world in a giant shark submarine with a Queen impersonator. I know I’m repeating myself, but this is stuff that bears repeating!

Peter Graves, meanwhile, plays the real "man from Bond Street," specifically from "Bond Street Exports," whose telephone exchange ends in "007." Fake Bond may have avoided potentially litigious terms, but in this case, "Bond Street" and "007" are mentioned again and again by the telephone operator connecting Graves. Other than hitting us over the head with the number "007," the whole phone call is rather superfluous, given that Graves receives his orders via exploding tape recorder, as he once did on Mission: Impossible. (And would again, for that matter, a few years later on the 80s revival of his signature series.) Unfortunately for him, though, the five second self-destruct delay doesn’t give him much time to escape the rickshaw he’s riding in, and the dead-serious Mr. Phelps (ah, that is, "Tom Collins") ends up the butt of a predictable physical gag. He then sits out the bulk of the movie until the finale. Presumably, the film’s producers could only scrounge up enough Hong Kong dollars to lure Peter Graves for a few days’ shooting at most.

Upon his return to Hong Kong, Sam quickly meets up with his old partners, police people Kodyjack and his wife Nancy. Sam and Jade East concoct an elaborate scheme to use Kodyjack as his alibi while Sam swipes the first of the jewels. Like many of the best moments in this movie, it involves fake arms, as well as Jade East’s seductive skills. While much of the humor falls flat to my modern, Western tastes (whether it's because its Hong Kong humor, because it’s dated 80s humor, or because it was never really that funny to begin with I cannot say), this alibi trick does lead to one of the movie’s genuinely hilarious scenes. Thinking he’s caught onto Sam’s trick, Kodyjack questions his old friend with the aid of a lie detector. Nancy operates the machine, and Sam carefully calculates all of his responses to incriminate Kodyjack ("You were too busy with that beautiful woman!") in front of his wife until she storms out, ending the potentially dangerous interview.

The bulk of the movie consists of a number of unnecessarily elaborate heists (utilising a lot of very early CGI) and lots of cool stunts, governed for the most part not by the laws of physics but by the laws of extreme silliness. We get personal jets (watch for the wires), car chases, dirt bikes ridden by Santa Clauses (yes, that's a plural), and dune buggies aplenty manned by leather-clad punks. Let’s discuss that phenomenon for a moment. It’s easy to underestimate the perplexing amount of influence Mad Max had on a generation of filmmakers. For some reason, though, no 80s action movie could resist leather-clad punks riding motorcycles and dune buggies and wielding medieval weapons, even if they’re totally out of place—which they always are, of course. Mad Mission III: Our Man From Bond Street falls into the leather punk trap as easily as so many of its contemporaries.

Eventually, Sam realizes he’s been duped thanks to Peter Graves, and he begins collaborating with Nancy and Kodyjack against Fake Bond. Fake Bond arranges to sell the crown jewels Sam stole for him to a wealthy Arab sheik who’s already tried to purchase the Statue of Liberty. The exchange it to take place on the sheik’s yacht. Graves leads a team of helicopters to intercept the exchange, though, and uses powerful magnets to lift the Sheik’s yacht out of the water. A British submarine then surfaces, flips over and reveals itself to be a duplicate yacht on the other side! This fake yacht replaces the real one. All this leads to a couple of finales, an imperiled baby, and a final showdown with Fake Bond. They also manage to work in one final celebrity impersonator: Ronald Reagan. (Unlike the others, I think he’s supposed to be the real Reagan.) Yes, I realize that my summary doesn’t make a lick of sense, but neither does the movie. And that doesn’t matter one iota. The Mad Mission movies aren’t about sense-making; they’re about the crazy stunts, which I can’t really do justice to in mere words. If you have a soft spot for inanity and the bizarre, and if there’s even a part of you that smiles at over-the-top Hong Kong action, I promise you’ll get a kick out of Mad Mission III: Our Man From Bond Street. It’s surprisingly one of the only Bond parodies of its era, and one of the more enjoyable entries in that subgenre.

Sep 19, 2008

Another Way To Die

As everyone probably knows by now, the Jack White and Alicia Keys theme song for Quantum of Solace, "Another Way To Die," is now available to listen to online. posted a link to a BBC broadcast early yesterday, and since then it's been made officially available, streaming, on White's Third Man Records site. I'm going to need a few more listens to really make my mind up on it, and probably need to see it in the context of the movie's title sequence. My initial reaction, though, falls somewhere between the love I developed for Chris Cornell's Casino Royale theme, "You Know My Name," and my instant hatred for Madonna's wretched "Die Another Day." I wasn't a particular fan of Cornell prior to hearing his theme, but I am a fan of Jack White's. And I'd expected to love this, but it's not there yet. It certainly feels like exactly what you'd expect of a Jack White Bond theme, literally. Half White Stripes song, half James Bond song. (I'm just not sure they combined so well; maybe he should have struck out more in his own direction than feeling so indebted to Bond Past.) My biggest regret about it is that it lacks the traditional hooks associated with either, which is surprising. There's no new, hummable Bond theme music in there, just new reworkings of familiar sounds. Perhaps that's owing to a lack of involvement by composer David Arnold. That said, I do love White's new arrangements of those sounds, played with his signature guitar style. The music is good. Lyrically, I'm not that impressed. Is he really singing about "the player with the slick trigger finger for Her Majesty?" I guess it's no worse than, "Who will he bang? We shall see!" from "The Man With the Golden Gun..."

The "Another Way To Die" single will be available digitally worldwide on September 19, and a week later in North America. A limited edition 7" (pictured) will be available after that.

Sep 17, 2008

DVD Review: The Charlie Chan Collection, Volume 5

The Charlie Chan Collection: Volume 5 sadly brings to a close Fox’s epic run of box sets preserving these highly entertaining staples of 30s and 40s theatrical programming. But it does so in style, offering terrific presentation, informative bonus features, and–most crucially–seven top-shelf Charlie Chan adventures. Two of the seven are legitimate spy movies: Charlie Chan In Panama and Murder Over New York.

Charlie Chan In Panama is one of the best movies of the series. It’s action-packed, and heavy on international intrigue. The action includes more gunplay than usual, and even an exciting leap from a second story balcony. That’s serious stunt work for a Chan movie! The feature starts with the disclaimer, “We have brought this film to DVD using the best surviving source material available,” but Fox needn’t have bothered. It looks great, even the copious stock footage of battleships and aircraft carriers on the move, always to the theme of “Anchors Aweigh.”

The movie starts out with lots of setup, introducing us to a plethora of potential suspects and victims, even for a Chan movie. Panama is presented as a mysterious, bustling Casablanca-like tropical oasis of agents and intrigue. There’s good footage of the canal spliced in, as well as lots and lots (and lots) of Panama hats just to hammer home the idea that we’re in Panama. In fact, when we first meet Charlie, he’s working undercover for the U.S. government posing as a purveyor of Panama hats! It’s never explained why a Hawaiian police detective is on assignment overseas for Uncle Sam, but that doesn’t matter. No sooner does Charlie meet his contact than that contact dies, the victim of an ingeniously poisoned cigarette. His murder was no doubt the work of the notorious enemy agent Reiner, and it’s up to Charlie and his ever-present Number Two Son Jimmy (Sen Yung) to uncover which of the many suspects that is, and stop him before he can sabotage the U.S. fleet. Is Reiner the doctor with the suspicious beard who’s been injecting lab rats with bubonic plague? The shady Egyptian with the suspicious fez? The shady club owner with the suspicious accent? Or the beautiful (and shady) ingenue with a mysterious past who’s performing at his venue? Or is it the ubiquitous Kane Richmond, who seems to turn up somewhere in every single Chan movie? Those are but a few of the options.

Jimmy gets to be really effective for once, pitching a heavy urn at a hand with gun and saving his dad’s life with precise accuracy honed on the college baseball team. But no sooner has he enjoyed this moment of heroism than he is set up with the old, “I don’t miss a thing!” line followed immediately by opening a closet and having a dead body fall out. Whether he’s pitching in or providing comic relief, Sen Yung remains a welcome presence in these movies and, in my opinion, a worthy successor to Keye Luke’s Number One Son in the Warner Oland Chan films.

Things culminate in a secret chamber accessed from a tomb through a hidden passageway. It’s a set that could turn up in any Chan movie, not Panama-specific in any way, but it’s still just what we look for in this kind of flick. And as for Panama-specific, did I mention the hats? How much more specific do you want? Charlie Chan In Panama is the place to start in this set, and a great intro to the Chan series in general.

Murder Over New York doesn’t need to be specific, because Charlie Chan has been to New York before (Charlie Chan On Broadway, one of the lost ones). There’s a twist this time, though in that the murder happens over the city! Oh, wait a minute; no there’s not. The murder does, indeed, occur on the ground, and in New York rather than over it. But the title still serves to evoke the movie’s topic: airplanes, specifically bombers–and the sabotage thereof. With war on everyone’s lips, sabotage at aircraft plants and naval yards was surely on everyone’s mind in 1940, and it’s clearly reflected in the entertainment of the era–including in these two Chan pictures.

The movie opens on an airplane, where Charlie runs into an old Scotland Yard detective pal who’s now working for British Intelligence, on the trail of a ruthless saboteur who the script never connects with any specific country. The two part ways at the airport, as Charlie heads off to yet another policemen’s convention to accept another key to another city. Even Jimmy cracks a joke about how many keys to how many cities his dad has accumulated over the years. The Honolulu Police Department must have a limitless budget to send its star detective all over the world so often to collect medals and awards! Anyway, after picking up his latest big brass key, Charlie goes to meet his friend, only to find that the British agent has been murdered. It’s dangerous to be Charlie Chan’s friend; they have a habit of getting bumped off in the first reel.

The NYPD naturally has no problem with letting Charlie run the investigation, and soon he and Jimmy are collecting clues instead of awards. Even though the trappings this time are quite cloak and dagger and political in nature, the structure is very much a classic Chan murder mystery. The killing happened at a party hosted by the owner of an aerospace firm; all the guests are naturally suspects. They include the usual sorts: an actress, a butler, some mysterious foreigners, at least one guy with a mustache, and, of course, Kane Richmond.

In the course of his inquiries, Charlie learns that the saboteur traveled in Britain with a Hindu companion. He shares this information with the New York police captain, who promptly orders his men to “round up all the Hindus in the city.” On seeing the lineup, the surprised captain comments, “I had no idea there were so many Hindus!” (Examine them closely; one is Stooge Shemp Howard!) Things get even more cringe-worthy as Jimmy misidentifies a few of the suspects, complaining that they all look alike, but in a victory for ethnic profiling, they do net the real suspect in their haul.

There are a few good bursts of action (some of it surprisingly violent) amidst Charlie’s sleuthing: Charlie himself gets shot at while investigating a secret lab, and Jimmy gets himself conked on the head. They learn that the saboteur has altered his face; he doesn’t look like any of their suspects, but fingerprints will still identify him... unfortunately, they’re stolen before they have the chance for that, thanks to Jimmy’s head conking.

In a good wartime variation on the usual Charlie Chan/Thin Man “gather all the suspects in the drawing room” ending, Charlie eventually convenes all the suspects at the airfield to go aboard the new bomber. They pile in for their ostensible tour... and then it takes off! The plane starts to dive, a dive that will send a glass orb of deadly gas falling, killing everyone on board. Only Charlie and whoever placed that orb know this. At the last minute the killer reveals himself to prevent his own death... but it’s still not the final villain! He wasn’t working alone... All this adds up to one of the best finales in the series, and it keeps you guessing till the last minute as to the identity of the physically altered saboteur.

The other movies in this set are all equally enjoyable, standard-issue Chan mystery stories, with little spying, but lots of exciting detecting. The atmospheric Castle In the Desert is the most fun. It plays like a Fox version of a Universal horror entry of the period, including the titular castle, filled with all sorts of medieval weapons, poisons, passageways and even living Borgias. Charlie Chan At the Wax Museum (which features a future Bond baddie and a wax dummy of Charlie, used to similar effect as 007's wax dummy in The Man With the Golden Gun) and Dead Men Tell also deserve mention. Charlie Chan In Rio is the slowest, but still worth a watch. Strangely, three of the seven movies included in this set feature solutions that hinge on plastic surgery and facial reconstruction. Were the writers lazy, or was that a big deal at the time?

As usual with these sets, the first thing I did was look for the special features. Previous volumes have offered a wide array of fantastic documentaries on all sorts of fascinating subjects in some way tangential to Chan, thanks to documentarian John Cork. Due to all the extra Chan movies packed into this set (three of the four discs are double features), there is sadly only one documentary this time around, “The Era of Chan.” Luckily, though, it covers a lot of ground–and it’s as good as ever, and a bit longer than past ones at thirty-four minutes. Beware, though, that it does contain spoilers for a few of the movies in the set, so you may not want to watch it first.

“The Era of Chan” serves as a fairly comprehensive overview of the character, paying quick lip service to the Warner Oland films (more coverage would be unnecessary, as they were well covered in previous instalments) and focusing–naturally–on the movies represented in this set, all made in the early Forties, when war seemed inevitable. Cork uses the overview format to seamlessly fit in some good nuggets on the history of Fox that may not have made it into previous documentaries, such as the merger of 20th Century Pictures and Fox, which resulted in Daryl F. Zanuck overseeing the studio’s prestige pictures and Sol Wurtzel shepherding the lower budget ones, such as the Chans. After that, the bulk of the documentary focuses on the films, ultimately providing the same coverage they would have gotten had they had individual featurettes, as previous collections allowed.

Charlie Chan In Panama gets a bit more screentime, which is appropriate as it’s the best of the lot and seems to be generally regarded as such. We learn that it began life as a Mr. Moto picture, but became a Chan when escalating hostilities in the Pacific rendered a Japanese hero no longer viable. The film, more action-packed than the average Chan, belies that origin, and various talking head experts (all of whom have very distinctive hair, oddly enough) tell us that’s largely because of director Norman Foster, imported from the Moto series. The experts also nicely contextualize the story, something that (as with past sets) enhances the viewing experience immeasurably. They cite the strategic importance of Panama, where, apparently, most Americans feared an attack against our fleet would come.

Nearly all the key behind-the-scenes personalities are profiled, most interestingly co-writer Lester Ziffrin, who turns out to have been a real-life spy himself! Ziffrin accompanied Wurtzel on a tour of South America, ostensibly scouting Chan locations... but this featurette reveals a surprising ulterior motive for Ziffrin, who reported to a higher authority than 20th Century Fox in Washington, D.C.

While the movies themselves don’t go in order in the set, the documentary does, covering each one chronologically. As with Cork’s previous Chan documentaries, it proves to be a riveting ethnography of the Hollywood community of the era, all filtered through Charlie Chan. A number of high- and low-profile actors and producers are covered, including Marc Lawrence, the actor who made a career out of playing gangsters owing to his undeniable “gangster face,” familiar to Bond fans from his performances in Diamonds Are Forever and The Man With the Golden Gun. Lawrence portrays the main heavy in Charlie Chan At the Wax Museum, looking younger than I’ve ever seen him, yet still exactly the same.

At the end, “The Era of Chan” rather abruptly sums up the rest of Chan’s screen career, including an aborted pilot starring Number One Son (dropped because ABC “decided they don’t want any ethnic characters in anything”) and a Saturday morning cartoon called The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan. I was certainly intrigued to learn about these Chan incarnations, but a bit perplexed as to why the documentary skipped over the Monogram era (with Toler and Roland Winters) completely. To watch it, you would thank that Sidney Toler never played the role again once the Fox series ended, when in reality he went on to make eleven more movies for Monogram (six of them previously released on DVD by MGM). Whatever the reasons for that omission, it’s still another fine production from Cork & Co., and serves as a perfect companion to the films included in this set.

One final “special feature” that I’d be remiss not to mention (even though it’s not mentioned on the box itself!) is the booklet the collection comes with. Not many DVD releases include booklets at all anymore, and while the Chan ones are brief, they do manage to compile a good amount of facts and trivia, often complementing the featurettes with information not focused on there. I really like that Fox has gone to the trouble of creating these pamphlets for each of their Chan releases.

Ultimately, The Charlie Chan Collection: Volume 5 is a great way to go out, though I’m genuinely saddened that we’ve reached the end of the road with Chan at Fox. The studio has done an amazing job with these releases, treating B-pictures like A-pictures and giving them the respect they deserve, not only with impressive picture restorations, but also with the special features I’ve talked about, even going so far (on previous sets) as to recreate lost Chan features out of stills and surviving elements. I feared that the series would decline rapidly at the end, but all seven of these entries are decent examples of Chan at his best; fans of the series will find nothing to scoff at. I only wish that Fox would go back and give the same treatment to the Toler titles previously released by MGM (since they’re all part of the same catalog)–or better still acquire the unreleased Winters ones–but neither of those possibilities seems likely to happen. So we’re left with a swan song–but a damn good one. If you’re a Chan fan, you’ll definitely need this set to compete your collection. And if you’re not yet, Charlie Chan In Panama is a good place for a spy aficionado to begin.