Aug 30, 2011

Tradecraft: B Sky B Books New Spy-Com

Tradecraft: B Sky B Books New Spy-Com

According to Deadline, British satellite broadcaster B Sky B (the cable network that first brought us Strike Back) will debut a new spy sitcom this fall aimed at family audiences and called, simply, Spy. Sky's website describes it as the story of a single father, Tim (Darren Boyd), trying to win the respect of his precocious 9-year-old son, Marcus (Jude Wright). "In the hope of proving that he is not a complete loser, Tim quits his dead-end job but his life changes forever when he is accidentally recruited as a trainee spy for MI5. Tim struggles as he attempts to juggle family life and his professional life without his secret being discovered. Supervising Tim at work is irrepressible MI5 boss, The Examiner, played by Robert Lindsay (My Family), who teaches the recruits his own unorthodox approach to the espionage game." So it's The Piglet Files meets... Two and a Half Men? Also in the typical sitcom mix are an "acidic ex-wife," her new boyfriend, a potential love interest spy colleague and a psychotic social worker. Spy is created and written by Simeon Goulden and set to air this fall in the UK. I doubt it will turn up in America unless a US network buys the format to remake.

New Spy DVDs Out This Week: Nikita (2010)

New Spy DVDs Out This Week: Nikita (2010)

The only major spy release out this week in America comes frm Warner Home Video, who release The CW's reboot of Nikita (based on Luc Besson's 1990 movie and the subsequent US/Canadian TV series) starring Maggie Q on DVD and Blu-ray today. The 5-disc DVD set of Nikita: The Complete First Season retails for $59.98 and the 4-disc Blu-ray for $69.97though both are available at substantial discounts right now from Amazon. The generous bonus features sound pretty interesting, too. Both releases include the documentaries "Inside Division, Part 1: The New Nikita" - (in which we discover what elements from the previous versions of La Femme Nikita were important to preserve and protect and what twists and changes needed to be made in order to reinvent Nikita for a new generation), "Inside Division, Part 2: Executing an Episode" (which focuses on how the sets, costumes, weapons, lighting, editing and music were all fashioned to reflect the creators' new vision) and "Profiling Nikita, Alex, Percy & Michael" (a look at the characters and the actors who play them). We're also treated to commentaries on two episodes, copious deleted scenes and a gag reel. In addition to all that, the Blu-ray also boasts an exclusive feature called "Division Tracker" which enables viewers to "hack into Division and uncover a global tracking device designed to record every major character's move throughout the years." I'm not totally sure what that means, but it could be cool...

Nikita may have started out a bit shakily, but it found its legs pretty quickly and proved to be a pretty good spy series. If you missed the first season on TV, I recommend giving it a chance on DVD.

Meanwhile, to coincide with this release, all the seasons of USA's late 90s TV version of La Femme Nikita (which are usually way overpriced in the $90 range) are on sale again on Amazon for just $15.69 apiece!  At those rates, you can assemble the complete series for cheaper than the regular price of a single season.

Aug 29, 2011

Clooney Ankles U.N.C.L.E.; U.N.C.L.E. Incorporates Real World Events

Clooney Ankles U.N.C.L.E.; U.N.C.L.E. Incorporates Real World Events

As previously reported, George Clooney was expected to star in Steven Soderbergh's upcoming big-screen version of the classic Sixties spy series The Man From U.N.C.L.E.presumably as ace U.N.C.L.E. agent Napoleon Solo, the character originated by Robert Vaughn. As fit as Clooney undeniably is, by the time filming starts next year he will be the same age that Vaughn was when he reprised the role in the reunion telefilm The Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair (review here)! So perhaps it's for the better that Deadline is reporting today that Clooney "is in the process of withdrawing as the star of Steven Soderbergh’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E." Of course, the big danger in losing Clooney is the risk that the film will fall apart without a bankable lead. Luckily, Soderbergh has good relationships with a lot of actors, so hopefully he can line up someone just as good and maybe a little more age-appropriate. So who else could be Napoleon Solo? Matt Damon? Michael Fassbender? Both have recently worked with Soderbergh. Then there are the stars of Soderbergh's current movie to consider, Channing Tatum and Alex Rider star Alex Pettyfer. They'd sort of fit as Napoleon and Illya... if the script were rewritten to accommodate much younger stars. (Who are actually closer age matches for Vaughn and David McCallum.)

Meanwhile, Cinema Blend reports that this version of U.N.C.L.E. will utilise its previously revealed Sixties setting to incorporate actual historical events into the story. Writer Scott Z. Burns told the website, "All those shows are called, like, 'The Terbuf Affair' or whatever." (Other good examples include "The Moonglow Affair," "The Iowa Scuba Affair" and of course "The My Friend the Gorilla Affair.") "Our affair comes from something that was actually going on in the world at the time." That's intriguing, but I sure hope it's not the Cuban missile crisis, yet again, so soon after it was done in the excellent period spy movie X-Men: First Class! (Also, I would hope that a Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie would be set a few years later than that.) When asked if the film version would pay homage to specific episodes of the series, all Burns could promise was, "I think if people know the show they’ll recognize tiny little things." He also said that the script is done, and was hopeful that casting will begin soon and production could start in the spring. (That was before Clooney dropped his bombshell, though.)

Smiley Keeps the Cousins Waiting: Tinker, Tailor Delayed

Smiley Keeps the Cousins Waiting: Tinker, Tailor Delayed

So much for the special relationship. In possible retaliation for how the CIA treated Smiley in The Honourable Schoolboy, Americans will have to wait even longer to see Tomas Alfredson's new film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, based on the classic John Le Carré novel. Tellyspotting (via Dark Horizons) reports that Focus Features is pushing back the film's US release to December 9 in order to better position it for Academy Awards consideration. The Gary Oldman starrer was previously slotted for November 18. While I understand their thinking, this is incredibly frustrating! Lucky UK audiences will still get to see Oldman's take on George Smiley in just a few short weeks on September 16. In other Smiley news, IMP Awards has revealed yet another character poster (pictured), this one portraying Benedict Cumberbatch's take on Smiley's right-hand man Peter Guillam. And yet another trailer has materialized, this one billed as the international version and offering a bit of new footage and a load of "based on the best-selling novel" sort of voiceover. Americans, disregard that September release date at the end!

Aug 26, 2011

TV Review: Strike Back (US Version) (2011)

TV Review: Strike Back (US Version) (2011)

No, you're not experiencing déjà vu. I did just review a show called Strike Back a few days ago. But this one is... different. Sort of. Read on.

The less you know going into it about the history behind Cinemax’s Strike Back, the better off you’ll be. Which means that American viewers, for whom it’s primarily designed, will be much better off—and presumably more receptive—than British viewers (or readers of this blog). As regular readers will surely be aware, Chris Ryan’s Strike Back (note the possessive credit, which would mean nothing to American audiences) was a successful 2010 UK cable series starring Richard Armitage as SAS operative turned SIS operative John Porter. (Read my full review here.) Evidently US cable network Cinemax liked the format, because they bought it. But rather than simply remaking it, as happens so often in Hollywood, they struck a complex deal with UK cabler British Sky Broadcasting to co-produce the expanded second season and make it so that it would work as a follow-up to the first season for British audiences and an all-new series for American audiences coming fresh to the property without having seen last year’s installment. (It’s a sort of similar thing to what AIP did with Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs, for those looking for weird spy precedents.) Further complicating matters was the fact that none of the show’s original stars were available for an immediate second season as, somewhat ironically, they’d all gone Hollywood. (Armitage is starring in The Hobbit for New Line, Andrew Lincoln stars on AMC’s The Walking Dead, Shelley Conn stars on ABC’s forthcoming dinosaur show Terra Firma, and Toby Stephens was at the time of filming already starring in another US remake of a British show, Prime Suspect, from which he’s since been fired.) The somewhat sloppy result certainly favors the American audiences, who will indeed require no background knowledge of what’s gone before to get into the new version of the show—and will probably enjoy it all the more for that.

For those who have seen the first season, the new installment can’t help but come off as a disappointment, as it completely abandons the excellent set-up from the end of the first series (which should have led to a thrilling showdown between Armitage and Stephens, among other things). Furthermore, John Porter, who made quite a compelling lead in the UK series, is unceremoniously killed off in the first half-hour to make way for new leads Stonebridge and Scott, the former a Brit played by American Philip Winchester (Camelot) and the latter an American played by Australian Sullivan Stapleton (Animal Kingdom). There are those who believe that Porter’s death will prove to have been faked, and while I’d welcome that turn of events, I just can’t see it as he was shot in the head with the same amount of graphic blood and brain spatter with which the new show meticulously augments every kill. Adding insult to injury, prior to being shot he was captured and forced to read off a card, “To the Imperialist powers of the West, I, John Porter, confess to the crime of being a British spy…” While it’s hinted that Porter may have had good reasons for reading the card, the whole scenario is something of an insulting betrayal of the character British audiences warmed to in the first season. We’ll see where they go with this, but off the top of my head I could think of a dozen more satisfying ways they could have integrated the Porter character into the new story on the scant days of shooting for which Armitage was available on his Hobbit sabbatical. (Not the least of which just having him walk out of an office at MI6 headquarters on his way off on an unrelated mission while Stonebridge walks in, indicating that the two men are colleagues operating simultaneously.)

Okay, okay, so the British fans are screwed; how does it work out for the Americans coming to it with fresh eyes? Not altogether badly, actually. It’s a wholly different show not only in terms of talent in front of and behind the cameras, but also in terms of tone. Where the UK version prided itself on some degree of realism, the American version (as I’ll call it, because that’s clearly what it is, ostensible co-production or not) happily embraces the sort of over-the-top action and violence associated with Jason Statham movies. And the new leads, while a far cry from Armitage, prove themselves thoroughly watchable.

The set-up is still the same, at least. The new Strike Back still follows operatives of Britain’s ultra-secret Section 20, a division of SIS that handles highly dangerous assignments, utilizing Special Forces soldiers as well as its own agents, most of whom are drawn from their ranks anyway. There’s a whole different crew at MI6 headquarters. I really would have liked to see Colin Salmon or Jodhi May pop up to just give the illusion of continuity, but they’re absent and unaccounted for. Instead we have a long-haired blond woman, Captain Kate Marshall (Eva Birthistle), and a short-haired brunette, Colonel Eleanor Grant (Amanda Mealing), running the show. They send a team on an attempt to rescue the captured John Porter, only to watch the team walk into a trap. We’ve seen this scenario before in the “Iraq” episode of the original series, but then this is a quasi-remake as well as a continuation so I suppose the repetition is forgivable. Reminding us that it’s a new show (as if we needed any reminders), we launch from this teaser into an all-new title sequence with a new theme song. (Pity they didn’t use the Propellerheads song that opened the final episode of the UK show!)

So Porter’s missing and Marshall sends her other best guy, Michael Stonebridge (Winchester, who's got Sean Bean's profile), to go find an American Special Forces soldier named Damien Scott who once worked with Porter and is supposedly the only other man alive who can identify a terrorist called Latif. Stonebridge travels to Kuala Lumpur to locate Scott (Stapleton), an excursion that’s really just an excuse for some tits and some MMA-style fighting. This is, after all, Cinemax! Eventually Stonebridge gets Scott back to London (now conveniently identified with an on-screen caption as "London, United Kingdom," presumably for the benefit of us backwards American newcomers who don't know where London is) where Scott rubs his new superiors the wrong way (as Americans are wont to do in Britain according to TV) and insinuates himself into Stonebridge’s home life—much to the latter’s dismay. The groundwork is laid for a “classic” (which is to say wholly unoriginal but entirely acceptable for this sort of show) Brit-and-American buddy relationship. (Their relationship instantly recalled Saracen for me, another UK show about a pair of ex-Special Forces soldiers, one British and one American.) Stonebridge is a disciplined soldier and apparently a good family man (though this portrayal is cleverly and surprisingly upended in the second episode) and Scott is an upstart American and ladies’ man who was dishonorably discharged. Reinforcing Strike Back’s new mandate to cast aside even lip service to realism, Scott doesn’t undergo any refresher training the way Porter did before he's whisked off to Delhi on his first assignment.

He and Stonebridge are quickly dispatched on an operation at the Royal Lotus, a Delhi luxury hotel where Section 20 believe that Latif is holed up. There, Scott barely has the opportunity to hit on two women and bed one of them before they get caught up in a Die Hard-in-a-hotel scenario, which isn’t nearly as interesting as the more intelligent plots of the UK version. (In fact, dyed-in-the-wool spy fans just saw that on Undercovers last year—but luckily for Strike Back no one else was watching.)

The Cinemax version prides itself on doing things that wouldn’t happen on network shows—even 24—like graphically killing off innocent hostages, including children. Excessive gore and slight misanthropy aside, one way in which the new Strike Back does resemble the old one (probably thanks to returning director Daniel Percival) is in its action sequences, which are still top-notch. In its coolest moments, the gunplay happens much faster than we’re used to, and the swiftness of it never fails to shock and surprise. The shootouts play like whole action scenes made up of that shock gunshot from Taken!

Gone, though, is the Sandbaggers-like realistic sort of interagency rivalry that characterized the UK version (particularly in “Afghanistan”). Instead, British Intelligence works unrealistically closely with Pakistani intelligence, and happily agrees to let them take full control of shared assets, happily trusting that they’ll share all the intel gleaned from said asset! The new incarnation of Strike Back takes 24-like turns of stupefying illogic, like Section 20 accepting foreign intelligence officers at complete face value without bothering to check their credentials or even run a check with their agencies to make sure they really are who they say they are!

I can tell this is going to frustrate me. I know I’m entering into an abusive relationship, but I can’t help it. Strike Back Version 2.0 is not the show I fell in love with on DVD, but it is pretty fun spy action in the total turn-off-your-brain sort of way that one would expect of Cinemax. Ultimately, the Cinemax version of Strike Back is a pretty kick-ass action series where one of the heroes catches a bomb. That’s right, catches a bomb. Like, the kind planes drop. That’s a far cry from the reality-based action of the UK Strike Back, but I can’t really dislike a show where someone catches a bomb. Can you? If your answer is yes, then you definitely don’t need to shell out for a Cinemax subscription. But if your answer is no, you’ll probably find something to enjoy—especially if you haven’t seen the British version, which is still not available on Region 1 DVD.

I do hope, though, that the producers are doing a Bourne Legacy kind of thing, running a placeholder, and planning to do a proper follow-up to the UK Season 1 after Richard Armitadge is done with The Hobbit. Because that’s something I’d definitely pay cable rates to see! But it probably isn't the case.

Aug 25, 2011

Universal Still Keen on an Invisible Agent

Universal Still Keen on an Invisible Agent

Four years ago we first heard about Universal's efforts to revive their classic monster franchise The Invisible Man in the form of a period spy movie. Then nothing. I'd assumed the project was dead. But today, Dark Horizons reports that Batman screenwriter David Goyer's take on the famed franchise character is still alive. “It’s a period film," Goyer told the LA Times' Hero Complex blog, "but it’s period like Downey’s Sherlock Holmes. It’s period but it’s a reinvention of the character in the sort of way that Stephen Sommers exploded The Mummy into a much bigger kind of mythology.” I like the sound of that. In 2007, Variety reported that Goyer's story was conceived as a sequel to H.G. Wells' original tale, and "[centered] on a British nephew of the original Invisible Man. Once he discovers his uncle's formula for achieving invisibility, he is recruited by British intelligence agency MI5 during WWII."

At the time, the trade article called this concept "a new take" on the Wells classic, but the idea of an invisible spy has actually been done before, even in that same era. Universal's own fourth entry in its original Invisible Man series was called The Invisible Agent (1942) and featured the first Invisible Man's grandson volunteering to use his formula and aid the Allied cause during WWII, as a spy behind German lines. Then in 1958, future Danger Man/Secret Agent creator Ralph Smart cut his teeth on the espionage genre with a television series called H.G. Wells' Invisible Man, in which the character (very unlike Wells' version, despite the titular possessive) worked for British Intelligence in a contemporary Cold War setting. (It's an enjoyable show, featuring a number of familiar spy faces who would go on to appear in Bond movies, The AvengersDanger Man and other Sixties spy shows.) In the Sixties, Eurospy movies like Matchless and Mr. Superinvisible flirted with the invisible spy scenario. The 1992 Chevy Chase take on the character, Memoirs of an Invisible Man (directed by John Carpenter!), also had an espionage element, with Sam Neil as an unscrupulous CIA agent in pursuit of our transparent hero. More recently, the Sci-Fi Channel ran a show about an Invisible Man who worked for a top secret government agency. None of that, of course, is any reason why there can't be another Invisible Man spy movie, and, personally, I'd welcome a WWII spy movie in the vein of the movies Goyer mentioned!

Trailer For OSS 117 Team's Next Movie

Trailer For OSS 117 Team's Next Movie

The US trailer is out for the next film from Michel Hazanavicius and Jean Dujardin, the director/star team behind the two French OSS 117 spy parodies. Bernice Bejo, co-star of OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies (and real-life wife of Hazanavicius) also stars. It's not a spy movie—not by a long shot—but those two amazing Sixties spy spoofs have earned these guys my respect forever. This new one, The Artist, is an homage to Silent Era Hollywood and it looks amazing. I can't wait to see it this fall! And I'm impressed at how Dujardin's managed to transformed his uncanny resemblence to Sean Connery into an uncanny resemblene to William Powell.

Read my review of OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies here.
Read my review of OSS 117: Lost in Rio here.
Read my overview of the original OSS 117 series here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aug 24, 2011

Clips From The Debt

Clips From The Debt

Spy fans are being really spoiled this fall. There are a ton of spy movies hitting North American theaters between now and December. Off the top of my head, we've got Colombiana, The Debt, The Killer EliteSafe, Johnny English Reborn, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. I'm sure I'm leaving a few out. Focus Features doesn't want The Debt to get lost in that shuffle, so they've released a few cool clips to remind us that this is an old-school spy movie to be excited about. If there's one thing (besides Elke Sommer) that I really love in a spy movie, it's Wall crossing. I just love scenes of agents using whatever means necessary to sneak into East Berlin or escape back into the West. And that's exacly what we get in this clip:

The Debt has a lot going for it even beyond Wall crossing. It's partially set in the Sixties (the greatest era of espionage, on film anyway), it's from the writers of X-Men: First Class (Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn) and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Peter Straughan) and it stars spy vererens Helen Mirren (RED), Jesper Christensen (Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace), Marton Csokas (The Bourne Supremacy), Ciarán Hinds (Munich, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) and Tom Wilkinson (The Ghost Writer, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol) – as well as Sam Worthington and Jessica Chastain. And it's only a few weeks away! The Debt opens on August 31. Here's the official synopsis:
In this espionage thriller, shocking news reaches retired Mossad secret agents Rachel (Mirren) and Stefan (Wilkinson) about their former colleague David (Hinds). Back in 1966, the trio (portrayed, respectively, by Chastain, Csokas, and Worthington tracked down Nazi war criminal Vogel (Christensen) in East Berlin. At great risk, and at considerable personal cost, the team’s mission was accomplished – or was it? The suspense builds in and across two different time periods, with startling action and surprising revelations.
See a bunch more clips and a making-of featurette at the official website.

Aug 23, 2011

New Character Portraits From Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

New Character Portraits From Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Cinema Teaser (via Dark Horizons) has debuted five new promotional images from Tomas Alfredson's new feature version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, based on the seminal spy novel by John Le Carré. The images amount to character portraits of key characters George Smiley (Gary Oldman), Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Control (John Hurt), Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik). While I still wish Oldman had put on a big more weight to play the pudgy Smiley of the books (he looks a little bit too cool for Smiley here), they all look great—like they could have stepped out of a stuffy, smoke-filled Whitehall office building in the mid-Seventies. Which is perfect!

More New Spy DVDs Out Today: The Venetian Affair (1966)

More New Spy DVDs Out Today: The Venetian Affair (1966)

Yesterday I speculated that Warner Bros. might slip another spy title in with today's exciting Warner Arvhive U.N.C.L.E. explosion (read about that here), and sure enough, they did. Appropriately, they're also releasing the Robert Vaughn Eurospy movie The Venetian Affair, co-starring the awesome combination of Elke Sommer and Luciana Paluzzi! (Too bad they couldn't co-ordinate with MGM to get David McCallum's Sol Madrid out at the same time, too.) Regular readers will doubtlessly be aware that Elke Sommer spy movies tend to be my favorites of all spy movies, so I'm personally thrilled to see The Venetian Affair on DVD at last. Despite its colorful, action-packed poster and purposefully resonant title, however, U.N.C.L.E. fans should be warned that The Venetian Affair, based on a novel by Helen MacInnes, is an altogether more down-to-earth sort of spy movie, and Vaughn's character of drunk, disgraced former CIA agent Bill Fenner is pretty far from Napoleon Solo. It's still a must for fans of Sixties spy movies, though, and Venice and Ms. Sommer both look great! Right now, The Venetian Affair is only available through the Warner Archive website for $19.95, but soon it will pop up on, Deep Discount and Amazon for less than that, so keep your eyes open.

Aug 22, 2011

New Spy DVDs Out This Week: A Girl and More Men From U.N.C.L.E.!

New Spy DVDs Out This Week: A Girl and More Men From U.N.C.L.E.!

Here's a nice surprise! TV Shows On DVD first sounded the alert this weekend that the 1966-67 spoofy spin-off series The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. is at last coming to DVD... tomorrow! The show will be available in two 4-disc, made on-demand sets comprising its entire run from the Warner Archive. At the height of the show's popularity, NBC decided to do a spin-off from its blockbuster spy series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. The result was The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., starring Stefanie Powers and Noel Harrison (son of Rex and sometime Eurospy dabbler) as U.N.C.L.E. agents April Dancer and Mark Slate. (Like "Napoleon Solo," the name "April Dancer" was actually dreamed up by James Bond creator Ian Fleming in a memo that amounted to his sole contribution to the series he was hired to develop.) Unfortunately, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. ended up debuting in the 1966 TV season, the same year that its parent show succumbed to high camp in an effort to emulate mega-hit Batman. That meant that The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. shared the sillier tone of Man's third season rather than that of its more serious (and better) first season. In my opinion, however, Girl managed to wear it better; camp seemed an appropriate match for April's fabulously mod Carnaby Street fashions.

Like The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. attracted some first-rate guest stars, including Thunderball's Luciana Paluzzi (in the series premiere), Boris Karloff (in drag, no less!), Ed Asner, Gena Rowlands, Stan Freberg, Yvonne De Carlo and John Carradine. Robert Vaughn turned up as well, appearing as Napoleon Solo in the crossover episode "The Mother Muffin Affair" (with Karloff). Harrison also appeared on a Man episode, and Leo G. Carroll played U.N.C.L.E. boss Alexander Waverly on both series. (Girl was spun out of an episode of Man's previous season, in which Mary Ann Mobley and Norman Fell played Dancer and a very different Slate.)

Tomorrow, The Warner Archive will release all 29 episodes of Girl's sole season in two sets, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.: The Complete Series - Part One and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.: The Complete Series - Part 2. Both are available to pre-order from Warners' website now at $39.95 apiece, or together in a bundle as The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.: The Complete Pack for $59.95. (Right now the individual sets are listed on the Pre-Orders page discounted to $35.95 and the pack discounted to $53.95, but when you then click the linke to order, the prices revert to their full amount. I'm not sure what's going on with that.) For now you can only get them directly through The Warner Archive, but I suspect they'll pop up on (probably at a discount) by the end of the week and Amazon a month or so later. It's a little disappointing that Girl won't get the full, feature-laden Special Edition treatment like Man did a few years ago from Time-Life, but mainly I'm just glad it will finally be available! Between this and It Takes A Thief coming out this fall (something I keep meaning to do a post about), by the end of 2011 we should finally have most of the major Sixties spy shows on DVD! (Still waiting on T.H.E. Cat...) That's very exciting.

But April Dancer isn't the only U.N.C.L.E. agent The Warner Archive is unleashing tomorrow. Additionally, they'll release The Man From U.N.C.L.E 8 Movie Collection, which collects all eight theatrical U.N.C.L.E. films on Region 1 DVD for the first time in a 4-disc set. (Only one was included in the Time-Life box set.) While it's true that the U.N.C.L.E. features were created by combining two episodes of the show into a feature for overseas markets, they're still worth having for U.N.C.L.E. completists who already own the whole series because they add some extra footage (mostly sexy stuff to make them more Bond-like) and boast new (and, in my opinion, often better) score music. The episodes from the show's black-and-white first season are also viewable in color in the films. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. 8 Movie Collection is available to pre-order from The Warner Archive for $39.95. I wonder if The Warner Archive will announce any more spy titles tomorrow to tie in with these major releases? Here's hoping!

Aug 18, 2011

Johnny English Reborn American Campaign Kicks Off With New Trailer

At last, we have an official U.S. release date for the Rowan Atkinson spy sequel Johnny English Reborn: October 28. So we don't have to wait too long! The domestic campaign kicked off today with a brand new trailer for American audiences (complete with American Trailer Voice), a new one-sheet (basically the same as the international one, but with a better tagline and a gun flag added, no doubt to make it look sillier) and some new stills. We've seen most of the footage before, but there are a few new gags and overall it plays much better than the last one we saw. (Though the chair gag, which still cracks me up, was funnier in the first one without that added sound effect.) As far as spy spoof sequels go, personally I'm a lot more excited for this one than I could ever be for the recently rumored new installment of Austin Powers. Roll on, October 28! Check out the cool new trailer on Apple.