Mar 28, 2012

Upcoming Spy DVDs: This Means War

Fox has announced a May 22 release date for McG's action comedy about two spies competing for the love of the same woman, This Means War, on DVD and Blu-ray. Chris Pine and Tom Hardy play the spies; Reese Witherspoon is the woman. The Blu-ray edition comes loaded with special features, including (perhaps tellingly) three different alternate endings with optional commentary by director McG ("Warehouse Alternate Ending," "Alternate Ending #1" and "Alternate Ending #2"). In my review of the movie, I noted that Reese Witherspoon's eventual decision about which spy she wants to be with seemed arbitrary. The face that there are alternate endings that, according to the press release, "answer the question – what if she chose the other guy?" would seem to indicate that indeed it was arbitrary! Still, I'm quite curious to see them. Maybe there's one that works better? Additionaly bonus material on the BD includes an extended cut of the film (104 minutes as opposed to 97), something called "Bachelorette Party" (presumably not a deleted scene since it's not listed with the others), an "Uncensored Gag Reel," deleted scenes with optional commentary ("Trish & Lauren Chat / Shooting Range," "Jonas’ Funeral," "Post Pizza," "Ex-Girlfriends," "Visiting Joe" and "Lauren Freaking Out"), an "alternative opening concept" (previz with optional commentary) a theatrical trailer and, finally, an audio commentary by Director McG on "standard and extended versions." According to the press release, the Blu-ray and DVD will be available for an average retail price of $25.00 and $20.00, respectively.

Mar 24, 2012

Upcoming Spy DVDs: Missing (2012)

It only premiered last week, but TV Shows On DVD reports that ABC has already announced a June 12 release date for Missing: The Complete First Season on DVD! Missing is ABC's "Taken with a lady" spy series starring Ashley Judd as a former CIA agent fighting her way across Europe to rescue her missing teenage son, all while evading the intelligence agencies of America, Italy and France along the way. The best part is that, unlike most American TV shows, Missing is actually filmed in Europe! And the locations are among the show's highlights, along with the impressive action scenes. (Read my full review of the pilot here.) Sean Bean (GoldenEye), Cliff Curtis (Colombiana) and Adriano Giannini co-star. According to the website, extras include deleted scenes, bloopers, and the featurettes "Production Journal: Istanbul," and "Genesis Piece." (The copy for the latter invites us to "join Ashley Judd and creators Greg Poirier and Gina Matthews as they investigate the genesis and production of this international project.") Strangely, there's no mention of any commentaries, which is odd because Poirier has already recorded such a track for the pilot, as has producer Grant Scharbo for Episode 2, both of which you can listen to now on ABC's website. (Which is a pretty neat idea.) The 3-disc set includes all 10 Season One episodes, and retails for $39.99. It's already available to pre-order for less than that, though, on Amazon.

Mar 23, 2012

More Len Deighton Reissues in August

Following their first wave of Len Deighton titles last year (which included four of the "secret files" novels, The IPCRESS File, Horse Under Water, Funeral in Berlin and Billion-Dollar Brain), publisher Sterling has a second wave of Deighton reissues hitting American shelves in August. This wave includes the first trilogy of titles in the author's tour de force Bernard Samson cycle, Berlin Game, Mexico Set and London Match—the "Game, Set, Match" trilogy. Other books getting the trade paperback treatment in August are the prequel to the Samson cycle, Winter: The Tragic Story of a Berlin Family 1899-1945 (written and best read after London Match but before the next novel, Spy Hook), the speculative fiction novel about an alternate reality where Germany won WWII and Britain is occupied by Nazis, SS-GB, and the standalone spy thriller XPD. The publisher is also reissuing Alistair Maclean's catalog, which includes a number of spy titles like The Satan Bug, Ice Station Zebra, When Eight Bells Toll and Where Eagles Dare.

The Bernard Samson novels, for my money, are Deighton's best work, and right up there with Smiley and Bond among the greatest spy novels ever written. If you've never read them, be sure to pick up these new editions as they come out! Like their UK counterparts, each of these Deighton books features an insightful new introduction by the author.

You can read more about Len Deighton and his creations on the excellent Deighton Dossier and Harry Palmer Movie Site.

Mar 22, 2012

Movie Review: Safe House (2012)

As evidenced by its poster, which duplicates The Bourne Ultimatum’s 1-sheet so precisely (see them side by side here) that if the two films weren’t from the same studio it would be a clear case of plagiarism, Daniel Espinosa’s Safe House desperately, desperately wants to be a Bourne movie. Or at least it wants you to think it’s a Bourne movie. Ultimately, though, while it succeeds in keeping its audience entertained for two hours they probably won’t miss, it becomes painfully clear that it’s not a Bourne movie, that star Ryan Reynolds is not Matt Damon, and that (as we’ve seen demonstrated time and again since 2004), few if any directors besides Paul Greengrass are capable of pulling off quick-cut, shaky-cam action scenes and making them thrilling to behold rather than confusing and unspectacular.

There are good moments in Safe House, but none that spy fans haven’t seen at least a dozen times before. In a genre as repetitive as the spy genre is (let's be honest), filmmakers generally have two routes to go. Either they can present something original amidst the expected tropes (even This Means War at least offers a fresh twist, even if it fails to pull it off), or they can follow the paint-by-numbers pattern established by the Bond movies and Hitchcock and tweaked over the years by the likes of Robert Ludlum and Paul Greengrass—and do it so well that nobody cares. (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is a perfect example of the latter sort of success.) Espinosa and screenwriter David Guggenheim, unfortunately, do neither. They merely recycle the familiar and do it in a generally inferior fashion to what we’ve seen before. Perhaps I’m more critical because I (like most readers of this blog, I'd hazard) have seen more spy movies than the average moviegoer, but then again that means (as regular readers are well aware) that I have an extremely high threshold for spy clichés. If you’ve got safe houses and moles and car chases and shootouts, I’m really not that difficult to please.

Reynolds plays Matt Weston, the “housekeeper” (one of many terms in the film borrowed from le Carré) of a CIA safe house in Johannesburg, South Africa. This isn’t the sort of safe house we’ve read about in Deighton or le Carré (boring, nondescript apartments with second-hand furniture and grim, government-style décor); this is a high-tech establishment that truly lives up to the name (or should live up to it, anyway; when its big moment comes, though, it offers little protection). There are multiple passages within it that look designed by an acolyte of Ken Adam rather than a civil servant, a whole series of heavy security doors activated by various personalized means, interrogation cells and, of course, a room full of high-tech weaponry. Despite having this tricked out house to keep (though for some reason he doesn’t live there), Matt is bored stiff. Nothing ever happens in Joburg; no one needs the safe house. Until

One night, after a day spent complaining about this dead-end job to his superior in Langley (Brenden Gleeson) and his girlfriend in Johannesburg (Nora Arnezeder, to whom he must express his frustrations couched in the terms of his cover profession, as she doesn’t know he’s a spy), Matt’s dull routine is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of a CIA black ops team (led by Robert Patrick, of course) transporting a high-value prisoner: former star agent gone rogue Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington). Matt doesn’t really know much about Tobin Frost (you can tell how proud Guggenheim is of that name by how many times it’s spoken aloud) other than that he’s a legend and that the Agency wants him brought in, but Matt’s clearly not too comfortable about watching Frost waterboarded by Robert Patrick’s team. Washington shakes off the waterboarding as cavalierly as Daniel Craig resists Le Chiffre’s unbearable torture in Casino Royale. He has fun with this role, and consequently he’s fun to watch. Washington acts circles around not only Reynolds, but even heavy-hitting supporting players like Gleeson, Liam Cunningham (as an MI6 operative) and Vera Farmiga (as Gleeson’s colleague). Only Sam Shepherd (Fair Game) manages to match him as the crusty CIA director, but sadly the two never share a scene together.

If you’re thinking that Matt might have to make some sort of big decision about following orders versus the morality of waterboarding, then you’re watching the wrong movie. Most decisions are taken out of his hands by people or vehicles suddenly crashing through walls or other vehicles, and that’s what happens here. A sinister hit squad shows up to kill Frost, has no trouble at all breaking through the safe house’s defensive mechanisms, and makes short work of the squad of elite CIA operatives. The best Matt can do is escape with Frost, and after an efficient but artless car chase, his master manipulator prisoner is inside his head, Hannibal Lecter-style, trying to convince him to let him go.

It will surprise precisely no one who’s ever seen a spy movie or a Denzel Washington movie before that it turns out that, unlike Lecter, Frost is not the big bad guy he’s built up to be, but a misunderstood idealist forced to flee the Agency when he stumbled on a truth he wasn’t meant to know. The true villain of the piece is telegraphed so loudly that astute viewers will probably spot him or her not only from the first act but from the trailer. Meanwhile, with his own true nature revealed, Washington takes a moment to shave off his bad guy beard and trim his afro, transforming into the clean-cut (and much younger-looking) Denzel we all know and love.

Over the course of several competently but unspectacularly staged setpieces (the best of which is a protracted shootout/chase through a district of closely-packed tenements), the novice and the pro eventually come to trust and respect each other. The ending and the coda are borrowed from Green Zone and Ghost Protocol, respectively, but not very well thought out. Given too much thought, the film appears to endorse Wikileaks-style dissemination of government secrets little with care given to the consequences of releasing such information and presumably endangering American agents, but I don’t think it’s intended to be given that amount of thought. And, honestly, as long as you don't think too much, you’ll probably find enough to enjoy in Safe House to make it worth a rental one day. Washington’s performance alone ensures that. Just don’t go into it expecting the Bourne-level thrills promised by the poster.

Paul Dark Returns - Soon!

The published UK release date for Jeremy Duns' latest Paul Dark novel, The Moscow Option (at one time known as Free World), came and went last month, worrying me, because I'm very eager to read it. But today Jeremy has posted a reassuring update on his blog, The Debrief, with lots of exciting Dark book news! The Moscow Option (which Duns teases "is set in the Soviet Union and Finland in October 1969, and features sunken U-boats, a hunter-killer unit chasing Dark through icebound forests and a countdown to the end of the world") will see UK publication next month, in paperback. Additionally, in America, Penguin will publish an omnibus collecting the entire trilogy, The Dark Chronicles. This is significant because so far only the first book, Free Agent, had been published in the U.S. The Dark Chronicles collects that along with the second novel, Song of Treason (originally published in England as Free Country, but re-titled for its paperback release over there) and The Moscow Option. So even if you've already bought the first book, you're still getting a good deal on the other two... plus a really cool, pulpy cover! And if you haven't yet bought or read any of Duns' Paul Dark books, then you're in for a treat. These Sixties-set Cold War spy thrillers successfully combine the best aspects of the "Desk Man" and "Field Man" sides of the spy genre, delivering incredibly entertaining stories actually deserving of blurbs like the one on the cover comparing Duns to both le Carré and Fleming (the respective epitomes of each corner of the genre), as well as Deighton, who was the master of marrying the two. It shouldn't come as much surprise that Duns manages to pull off such a feat, as he's an avowed fan of spy fiction in all its forms, and an undeniable expert on the subject. Still, expertise doesn't necessarily translate into quality prose writing, but fortunately Duns has a gift for that as well. To my shame, I've never actually reviewed any of Duns' books on the Double O Section, but perhaps this anthology edition is just the excuse I need to finally do so. The Moscow Option comes out in the UK on April 12; The Dark Chronicles hits American shelves on May 29.

Tradecraft: FX Finds its Male American

Deadline reports that Welsh actor Matthew Rhys (Brothers and Sisters) has been cast opposite previously set Keri Russell in FX's 1980s-set Cold War spy drama The Americans. Rhys will play Phillip Jennings, the male half of the titular couple, a pair of deep-cover Russian spies who are not actually American at all, but posing as a suburban American family complete with children. Additionally, the trade blog reports that Noah Emmerich (Fair Game) has also joined the cast as the couple's new neighbor, an FBI counterintelligence agent suspicious of the Jennings. The Americans is created by Joseph Weisberg (An Ordinary Spy) and executive produced by Graham Yost (Spy Tech). Gavin O'Connor is directing the pilot.

Movie Review: This Means War (2012)

The action/romantic comedy is a really hard genre combo to pull off. Attempts at such desperate marriages—always appealing to studios, as done well, they could potentially bring in men and women in equal numbers—usually fail. But This Means War had a pretty promising pedigree. The director, McG, recently wrapped producing duties on the long-running spy series Chuck, which deftly pulled off that unique combination for most of its run. Even more promisingly, co-writer Simon Kinberg had penned one of the most successful attempts ever at combining those two disparate genres, Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005). His audio commentary on that DVD, in fact, is a master class in concocting such a blend. (And he admits that a lot of trial and error went into perfecting it in that movie.) And, finally, the stars seemed like a promising fit for such an amalgamation. Reese Witherspoon has long ago mastered the romantic comedy, and Chris Pine (Star Trek, and the upcoming Jack Ryan reboot) and Tom Hardy (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Inception) are two of the most promising young action stars out there. All in all, these people seemed like the right creative team to succeed in mixing the spy and rom-com genres. Therefore, I went into This Means War with high hopes and low expectations. Unthrillingly, it exceeded those expectations (slightly), but failed to live up to my hopes. It’s neither great nor awful, but it’s more awful than great. Mostly, though, it just is.

Neither spy movies (of this shoot ‘em up ilk, anyway) nor glossy romantic comedies tend to take place in a recognizable real world. And This Means War certainly doesn’t. It takes place in a world of conspicuous consumption, in which everyone has loads of money to spare. Witherspoon’s character, Lauren, works at a consumer goods testing company decorated in huge swatches of bright colors, where workers toil away the hours spraying products with water hoses and flame throwers. It’s sort of the Consumer Report equivalent of SPECTRE Island. Lauren lives in an incredibly spacious Los Angeles house, and those aren’t cheap. If she actually runs the company (which isn’t entirely clear), then perhaps that’s plausible. Chris Pine’s character, however, shoulders not only the unlikely name of “F.D.R.,” but a most unlikely lifestyle for an orphan who’s gone into government work. He lives in a luxurious bachelor pad that might make Diabolik jealous, complete with a swimming pool seemingly stocked with bikini beauties running the length of his glass ceiling. It’s the sort of place usually seen being broken into by Jason Statham with the objective of killing a drug lord. In addition to being a world of conspicuous consumption, this is a world of indeterminate time. But rather than recreating a specific, distinctive era (how cool would it be to set a spy rom-com in the pre-Swinging Sixties of Doris Day and Dr. No, along the lines of Down With Love meets OSS 117?), it appears to take place about a decade ago—which may just indicate a script that’s been in development for that long. This is a world where there are still giant video stores in downtown Los Angeles. Cool ones, too, with entire rows of the Criterion Lady Vanishes DVD faced out, which no Blockbuster I ever shopped at would have had. It’s okay for spy movies and romantic comedies to take place in unrecognizable realities on their own (and both genres certainly tend to play up the conspicuous consumption), but I feel like a more grounded world would have better suited the mixture of the two. As it stands, there’s really no relatable point of entry: not the guys, not the girl, not the world.

F.D.R. and Tuck (Hardy) are best friends who work together at the CIA—in its luxurious Los Angeles field office, which suits makers of films and television much better than Langley. (Their boss is an utterly wasted Angela Bassett, who also briefly headed up the CIA’s massive Los Angeles branch on a late season of Alias.) The script seems to hint that they’re even more than friends—either foster brothers (they seem to share a foster grandmother, but that plotline appears to have been excised) or gay lovers (in one particularly awkward scene, F.D.R. insists that Tuck recall an instance in Bangkok when he glimpsed his penis), either one of which might have made this premise more interesting. But of course it doesn’t actually go in either of those potentially promising (however unlikely) directions. Instead, the two bosom buddy colleagues both fall in love with the same woman—Lauren. To the credit of Kinberg and co-writer Timothy Dowling, this amazing coincidence is actually sold fairly plausibly, all things considered.

Tuck, who meets Lauren through an online dating service, is the nice guy. (“Safe,” as she puts it to her confidante, played by a typically annoying Chelsea Handler.) He’s got a young son from a previous marriage and he takes her on thoughtful dates like an impromptu trapeze session at what appears to be a closed circus. You know, like you do. F.D.R. is the sleazy ladies’ man, who tries to pick her up in the aforementioned video store, fails, and persists by following her to her place of work and shanghaiing one of her product testing focus groups. (Actually, this is one of the film’s best scenes, full of the kind of banter you expect from good romantic comedies, and Pine sells the seduction by delivering his double entendres with charm to spare.) He takes her on thoughtless dates that seem to have worked on a lot of women before her, trying to impress by ushering her past long lines into noisy, trendy dance clubs where he knows the doormen and the DJs.

When the two spies discover they’re competing, they pull out all the stops and spend millions of taxpayer dollars by railroading CIA resources to spy on Lauren (learning all about her to give them the dating advantage) and sabotage each other’s efforts. The upshot is a lot less fresh than when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Harry Tasker pulled the same trick to spy on his wife in True Lies, but no less creepy—and no less expensive! At one point, Tuck cavalierly shoots down a drone that F.D.R. has re-routed to spy on his friend. After the recent drone crash in Iran, audiences are fully aware of how much that costs. These guys’ abuse of Company technology makes 007 look like a model of responsibility! But of course that sort of analysis is beside the point. This is a comedy, and we’re not supposed to be thinking about such things. The fact that I was thinking about them speaks to the effectiveness of the comedy.

You would think that a movie in which two potential suitors make a bet out of a woman’s affections and then invade her privacy and her personal space to win that bet would end with the woman getting the better of them. Maybe she goes off with a more deserving man, and leaves them with what they deserve—each other. Or maybe the script is more clever than that, and she turns out to be an enemy agent herself, who’s been purposely diverting their attention this whole time, getting the better of them? No. Sadly, this movie has no such rewarding twists up its sleeve. Instead, she actually chooses between them (even after learning the truth), and her choice seems completely arbitrary. In fact, it seems like she chooses the less appropriate mate based on all of the information the movie has provided us with. And we’re not privy to the reasons why. The other one then ends up with a random character who hasn’t been developed as a presence in the film at all up until that moment—just to keep the ending “happy.”

If This Means War is unimpressive as a romantic comedy, how does it fare as an action movie? For the most part, equally unimpressively, I’m sorry to say. McG demonstrated on the Charlie’s Angels movie that he’s capable of masterful over-the-top action scenes in a comedic vein, and I was hoping for a few of those. Instead, we’re treated to a messy and unoriginal shootout in a rooftop club and a close-quarters fight lit by strobe lights that impede any comprehension of what’s happening. The inevitable fight between the two colleagues, in which they destroy two levels of an upscale restaurant, is considerably more impressive, but unfortunately it’s so hard to root for either of them by that point that its impact is deadened on arrival. The only truly rewarding action setpiece comes in the form of a freeway chase at the finale, but that seems to be happening because the genre (or one of them, anyway) requires it to and not because the plot does.

So that all sounds pretty miserable, right? Why, then, did I begin this review by stating that it wasn't awful? This Means War has one saving grace that makes it at worst watchable and at best entertaining at times: the game performances by the three leads. Pine, Hardy and Witherspoon each put their all into this film, and do their best to sell lines and situations that are frequently beneath their talent. And, for the most part, they do sell them. That scene in which F.D.R. interrupts Lauren’s focus group to ask her on a date is a case in point. In other hands, the character might have come off as obnoxious in the extreme, and be seen as bullying her into going out with him. But Pine uses his considerable charm to sell the dialogue (including lines like, “maybe this grill can’t handle a guy like me”), and the scene comes off as him winning her over rather than him forcing her to bow to his demands. Witherspoon gives as good as she takes, and she, too, sells her lines, even saddled with a hopeless character whose actions make very little sense. Hardy’s equally capable, and achieves the difficult feat of making us care about a character constructed entirely from leftover clichés. It’s actually a treat to watch these three on screen, even when they’re acting their way out of the cringe-inducing situations in which the writers have trapped them. And for that reason, I can’t entirely hate This Means War. I can’t give it a very enthusiastic recommendation, either, though, for all of the reasons discussed above. I guess that makes it, overall, a wasted opportunity.

Mar 21, 2012

New Spy DVDs Out This Week: Tinker, Puppet, Scarecrow, Spy

It's a big week for new spy DVDs. A very big week. And that's not even counting the two tangentially spyish titles Tintin and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, both of which star Daniel Craig, both of which promise more legitimately spyish sequels, and both of which are worth seeing.

First up, towering above the others is Tomas Alfredson's 2011 film adaptation of the John le Carre classic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley, one of my favorite spy movies from last year. (Heck, of the last decade, really.) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is available from Universal Studios Home Entertainment on both DVD and Blu-ray/DVD Combo. The DVD release features audio commentary with director Tomas Alfredson and Oscar-nominated lead actor Gary Oldman, along with interviews with Alfredson, Oldman, co-stars Colin Firth and Tom Hardy, and co-writer Peter Straughan. The Blu-ray/DVD Combo release (obviously the one to get) also includes deleted scenes, a making-of featurette called "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: First Look," an interview with author John le Carré, and an UltraViolet digital copy of the film. Retail is $29.98 for the DVD and $34.98 for the Combo Pack, though both are currently available from Amazon (via those links) for considerably less. Read my full review of Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a truly masterful adaptation of my all-time favorite novel, here.

Next, there's a nice surprise courtesy of Scorpion Releasing: the ultra-Bondian 1971 Alistair Maclean thriller Puppet on a Chain. I really didn't expect to see this one turning up in Region 1 except maybe on MOD, but the Scorpion disc is an actual DVD. Maclean's action-packed plot follows American agent Paul Sherman (Sven-Bartil Taube) to Amsterdam on the trail of an international drug cartel. His investigation leads him to the drug syndicate's island castle owned by an offbeat religious group, and into one of the most exciting speedboat chases ever filmed. (Comparable to Live and Let Die!) This release boasts not only a new 16x9 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, but also an audio commentary by Cinema Retro's Lee Pfeiffer and Todd Garbarini and film historian Paul Scrabo, an alternate scene, and the theatrical trailer. Retail is $19.95, but it's cheaper on Amazon.

Finally, from Warner Home Video, we've got Scarecrow and Mrs. King: The Complete Third Season. Scarecrow and Mrs. King, which was really the only bona fide hit spy series of the 1980s on American television, pairs professional secret agent Lee Stetson (Bruce Boxleitner), codename "Scarecrow," with perky Washington housewife Amanda King (Kate Jackson). It's light and played for laughs and romance over thrills, but at it's best it sometimes evokes the spirit of The Avengers, were that classic transplanted to Reagan-era American suburbia. (Read my review of Scarecrow and Mrs. King: The Complete First Season here.) The 5-disc penultimate third season set retails for $39.98—though of course it's available for less through the usual online outlets.

Mar 20, 2012

TV Review: Missing (2012)

The pilot for ABC’s new spy series Missing, written by Gregory Poirier and directed by Stephen Shill, reinforces every preconception I already had about the show: It is Taken with a woman (in all sorts of ways), it is set primarily in Europe… and it is actually kind of awesome. The Taken comparisons are unavoidable, but there is a long history of television series that took their inspiration from popular movies and did just fine with that, eventually becoming very much their own things. Would we have had The Man From U.N.C.L.E. without the success of the early Bond movies? Battlestar Galactica without Star Wars? Tales of the Gold Monkey without Raiders of the Lost Ark? No, but those are all good shows (if not all successful ones). Missing owes more to Taken than simply its title and premise, in which a mother who’s a former CIA agent jets off to Europe to use her spy skills to find her kidnapped teenager (in this case a son instead of a daughter) at all costs. Missing also replicates Taken’s structure—and its flaws. Luckily (well, as long as you’re still watching, anyway), all of those flaws are up front, and once you get past them, there’s too much exciting action to really dwell on them. Assuming audiences can get past them, that is, because the first act is pretty wretched.

As with Taken’s first act, the moments spent establishing the former spy’s relationship with his or her teen offspring can only be described as cheesy—cheesy and saccharine, which isn’t a very appealing combination of tastes. A secret signal established between son and mother early on and used later in exactly the way you’d expect may induce not only groans, but actual vomit—depending on your tolerance for Aspertine. Furthermore, both ex-spook parents’ overprotectiveness and initial unwillingness to let said offspring travel to Europe seems laughable—until all of their worst fears come almost instantly true. Where Taken had Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills exchanging groan-worthy dialogue over steaks and beers with his former CIA colleagues, Missing has the equivalent stock character for a female-driven TV show: the unbearably annoying sassy best friend (who’s basically Alias’ Francie with a flower shop instead of a restaurant). Luckily, there’s very little of that character once heroine Becca Winstone (Ashley Judd) leaves America at the end of the first act… though I do get the sneaking suspicion that the plan is to bring her back.

The Taken similarities don’t end with Act 1. Once in Europe, Becca basically follows the same game plan as Bryan Mills, following a trail of fairly clever clues, chasing down and fighting mysterious bad guys (and then regrettably killing them before they can provide any useful information), and hooking up with old contacts from her intelligence days. Some of these contacts are merely glimpsed in flashbacks in the pilot, but seem likely to turn up in person down the line. One who does materialize in the present, an Italian Interpol agent named Giancarlo, is a great role ably filled by the son of a famous Giancarlo—Adriano Giannini, who inherited his father’s charm (on ample display in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace) and puts it to good use. I hope we see more of his character. The always reliable Cliff Curtis (Colombiana) turns in an equally engaging performance as a Paris-based CIA official who’s under orders to bring in the rogue former agent creating chaos all over Europe.

Becca Winstone is a strong character, but at this stage I’m still reserving judgment on Judd’s performance. She oozes a bit too much of a Lifetime vibe when required to play up the Soccer Mom or Concerned Mother angle, but excels at conveying the more badass aspects of her character. (I particularly liked it when Curtis’ character threatened to cancel her passport and she snapped at him, “Are you an idiot? I have passports hidden all over the world!”) Hopefully now that that initial exposition is out of the way and she doesn’t have to pretend to be an ordinary suburban soccer mom anymore, this is the side of her character the scripts will play up. Done properly, she conveys the desperation of mother who loves her son best through action anyway, just as Liam Neeson conveyed the corollary by showing the shocking lengths to which he was willing to go to find his missing daughter.

As in Taken, by the pilot’s final act Becca’s quest has brought her to upscale Parisian apartments on the Seine and even into the shadow of the very Eiffel Tower Neeson threatened to tear down if he had to. But this is just the pilot, of course, and there’s a lot of room for Missing as a series to stretch well beyond its derivative set up. (For one thing, Becca ends the episode being pursued by the CIA and Italian intelligence as well as the mysterious bad guys she’s after. Bryan Mills never had to put up with that!) Until it does, though, most of the derivations are likely to please fans of the Pierre Morel film. Shill’s action sequences are fairly spectacular for network television, and the actual European locations are even more spectacular. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen an American network spy show actually filmed overseas on a regular basis (maybe even since I Spy in the Sixties!), and for me the Rome and Paris settings were a highlight of the show.

After the cliff-hanging conclusion to the pilot, I found myself eager to see where this story goes and what happens next. While not quite realized in its premiere (hampered primarily by that off-putting fist act), Missing has the potential to be great escapist spy television of the turn-off-your-brain variety—like Taken. Sure, it’s purely derivative, but when the sources you’re deriving from are essentially Taken and Alias, there’s nothing wrong with that in my book!

Read my review of Taken here.

Mar 19, 2012

Upcoming Spy DVDs: Burn Notice Season 5

Fox Home Entertainment announced last week that Burn Notice: Season Five will be out on DVD on June 5. The fifth season of USA's flagship spy series was certainly an interesting one. The creators finally shook up the formula, which had honestly become a little stagnant, by having Jeffrey Donovan's formerly burnt spy Michael Westen finally rejoin the CIA... at least as a consultant. This new role opens up the scope of Michael's missions, and finds him on assignment overseas as an actual spy rather than just helping people in need in Miami. He also strikes up a somewhat uneasy partnership with his Agency handler, Agent Dani Pearce (Lauren Stamile), and finally comes face to face with the shadowy nemesis who burned him all those years ago. Overall, I thought it made for a marked improvement over the previous season for a show that's never less than thoroughly entertaining to begin with.

If a solid season alone weren't enough reason to buy this release, Fox has packed it with lots of exclusive bonus content including an extended episode, deleted scenes, a gag reel and a featurette on the memorable villains of Burn Notice featuring "unique insights from the actors who play them along with a snarky rebuttal on their deeds from [Sam Axe actor] Bruce Campbell!" As fans know already, Campbell long ago staked out his place as one of the most entertaining contributors to DVD features in the business, so any bonus content with his involvement is guaranteed to be worth a watch.

Retail is $49.98, but that price will no doubt drop on Amazon as we near the release date.

Read my exclusive interview with the fifth season's newest cast addition, Lauren Stamile (Agent Pearce), here.

Mar 18, 2012

Upcoming Spy DVDs: Criterion Revisits Hitchcock's 39 Steps

I've been waiting for this ever since Criterion revisited their original release of Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes nearly five years ago! This June, finally, they will revisit the master's other essential prewar spy movie, The 39 Steps, with new Blu-ray and DVD editions. At the very least, that one was in dire need of an artwork update, and indeed this new cover is far more stylish and in keeping with the company's current Lady Vanishes disc. But I'd never been entirely satisfied with the transfer on the old 39 Steps, either, and expect big improvements with this Blu-ray's new high-definition digital restoration. In addition to the new transfer, the Blu-ray sports a typically impressive array of new and old supplemental material (all of the features from the previous edition appear to be present and accounted for), including (per the Criterion website) an audio commentary by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane, a 2000 British documentary covering the director's prewar career called Hitchcock: The Early Years, original footage from British broadcaster Mike Scott’s 1966 television interview with Hitchcock, the complete broadcast of the 1937 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation, performed by Ida Lupino and Robert Montgomery, original production design drawings, excerpts from François Truffaut’s (deservedly) ubiquitous 1962 audio interview with Hitchcock, and a new "visual essay" by Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff. I'm actually really looking forward to that one, as Leff's visual essay on The Lady Vanishes (a sort of combination featurette and select scene commentary) proved to be a far more substantial extra than the name would imply. In addition to all that bonus material on the disc, there will also be a booklet featuring an essay by film critic David Cairns. The 39 Steps hits Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion on June 26, retailing for $39.95 and $29.95 respectively. Don't be misled by any of the many public domain versions of this title that are floating around out there; this Criterion edition is definitely the one you want.

Mar 16, 2012

DVD Review: Man in a Suitcase - Set 2

For the first-ever Region 1 DVD release of the classic Sixties ITC series Man in a Suitcase, Acorn opted to split the show’s single, plus-size season into two 4-disc sets. I reviewed Set 1 last year, here, and rather than reiterating the show’s background, I’ll refer you back to that original review. If you’re new to the series, that’s the set to start with anyway—though Man in a Suitcase - Set 2 probably has a higher concentration of top-notch episodes. The quick refresher recap is that Richard Bradford plays McGill (or sometimes Mac for short, but no other name is ever given), a disgraced former secret agent wrongfully ejected from American Intelligence and now bumming around Europe living out of his suitcase (hence the title), his services for hire to anyone who can pay—governments, politicians, corporations, or even the occasional private citizen. McGill is cynical, but not without scruples. He’s pretty moral for a spy-for-hire, a trait that tends to land him in trouble. Man in a Suitcase, while still a fairly light adventure series in the classic ITC mold, tends to be a bit grittier than its stablemates like The Saint or The Baron—and McGill rarely escapes an episode without taking a pretty severe beating. Sometimes things turn out okay, but while the series isn’t as bleak as Callan, sometimes they don’t. Happy endings aren’t as assured as they are for Simon Templar.

Acorn’s second set of Man in a Suitcase DVDs kicks off with a truly excellent episode about Africa. And, honestly, how many ITC programs about Africa can be called excellent? There are a few (one particular Danger Man comes to mind), and often they at least have their heart in the right place, but the majority turn out pretty embarrassing. “The Whisper,” however, is all-around great. It’s also got black actors in multiple roles (a rarity for Sixties ITC), and what look remarkably like actual African locations! A lot of the scenery is second unit stuff, and there’s definitely some stock footage, but there are also scenes that appear to depict guest stars in real African settings. Perhaps they’re just sets from a bigger budget movie that was filming at Elstree at the same time, but whatever the case, they’re impressive nonetheless.

On top of that, there’s a truly stellar guest cast, including Patrick Allen (Dial M For Murder) as Marcus Spencer, a plantation owner in an unnamed African country, and Colin Blakely (for the second time on this series, but in a different role—though one again with ties to Africa) as a local Jesuit missionary (supposedly) named Father Loyola who’s negotiating on behalf of the native workers. Spencer sees Loyola’s negotiating tactics as threatening, and suspects he’s not what he claims to be. On a trip to London, he calls on McGill to look into the supposed priest’s past.

That investigation takes McGill from the Jesuit mission headquarters in England to a swinging London nightclub where he meets (and dances with) a sexy, miniskirt-clad Vatican representative(!), to an Africa-obsessed spiritualist eccentric enough for The Avengers, and eventually to Africa itself. This being Man in a Suitcase, things don’t wrap up in a tidy package the way they might for Simon Templar or John Mannering. McGill’s involvement in the whole situation leaves almost everyone worse off than they were before, despite his best intentions. But downbeat is what we want from Man in a Suitcase, and the script for “The Whisper” by Morris Farhi delivers it along with some biting social commentary. ITC television doesn’t get any better than this, and we’re only at the beginning of the set!

Like all spies of his era, McGill isn't immune from the occasional bad fashion
“The Boston Square” has a lot going for it, too: speedboats off Corfu (via rear projection), duplicitous American intelligence officers, doubly duplicitous Albanian intelligence officers, submarines, and knock-out fist fights on the docks of picturesque Greek fishing villages. Of course the one getting knocked out in the latter is McGill (decked by a hulking Albanian he dubs “King Kong”), who’s caught up in the middle of all this.

McGill’s been hired by a big London company to find an oceanographer who suddenly went missing while in possession of a valuable report on deep water fishing in the Adriatic. McGill catches up with him in Corfu, and finds the affable English scientist in the company of spies from both sides of the Iron Curtain. The report has significant industrial value, but why would Albania’s intelligence apparatus be after it—especially when they already employ a far more renowned oceanographer themselves? Everything comes together quite nicely in a good espionage plot that combines the sunny, exotic locations of James Bond with the bleaker realities of Callanesque espionage in which the innocent are nearly always doomed. It’s a good mix, and director Don Chaffey integrates the scenic stock footage of the Greek coast with the studio shots to much better effect than many ITC efforts. Furthermore, we get to see McGill golfing.

Unfortunately, we also see a whole lot of that blue velour shirt he’s become so fond of in the second half of the series, and it wouldn’t really be fair of me not call attention to it after giving Peter Graves such a hard time over his Mission: Impossible wardrobe. Come on, McGill, you can find yourself classier spywear that better complements your ever-present cigarette! Seriously, that cigarette almost never leaves his lips—even when he’s golfing. (Or when he gets knocked into the water face-first.) These DVDs ought to carry a Surgeon General’s Warning!

“Somebody Loses, Somebody… Wins?” is a first-rate ITC spy story. This is McGill’s “escape from East Germany” episode, and I tend to love those episodes of Sixties spy series (like the Saint episode “The Paper Chase,” the Danger Man “Time to Kill,” the Sentimental Agent story “Express Delivery” and even that goofy Jason King episode where he crosses the Wall in a packing crate with a luxurious interior). Here it’s even identified as East Germany, too, and not an analogue with a made-up name.

McGill is hired by a German-born, London-based camera dealer to make a trip to Dresden, ostensibly to meet with a manufacturer, but really to locate his missing brother. McGill knows such a trip will be particularly dangerous, given his background, and quotes and exorbitantly high fee to get out of it… but the merchant agrees to pay it, so he’s left little choice but to go. Even though part of him probably suspects that he’s being put up, which, of course, he is. The camera seller is really a British Intelligence operative. But why does he want McGill to go East? When he gets to Dresden, McGill realizes there’s more to this assignment than meets the eye when the “brother” flees from him and he finds himself mixed up with British agents, American agents, double agents, state security and supposedly “reformed” Nazis. He’s but a small cog in a larger Intelligence operation designed to lend Spy Who Came in from the Cold-like credence to a phony defector operation… and McGill’s unwitting role in the scheme is, apparently, to get caught. There’s lots of great behind-the-curtain intrigue, all building up to a breakneck car chase (in which McGill even deploys a 007-like smoke screen!) and high-octane escape attempt at the border. This may be the quintessential Man in a Suitcase episode, and the title certainly sums up the series’ ambiguous view of the espionage game.

When it begins, a viewer could be forgiven for fearing that “Web with Four Spiders” would turn out to be a boring, run of the mill blackmail plot along the lines of Set 1’s “Essay in Evil.” However, this episode goes off in a very different, far more interesting direction from its familiar set-up in which McGill is hired by a Dr. Norbert (Ray McAnally), a bigshot American lawyer chairing an international space legislation committee to find out who sent him some seriously embarrassing photographs and what, exactly, they want of him. He thinks of McGill as a “seedy little man” and hires him rather than going to his own security detail with his problem because he knows McGill’s reputation isn’t worth a damn, and nobody would believe him if he decided to make his own claims about the pictures. That point of view will come back to haunt him in one of the bleakest, most nihilistic episodes in the series. It turns out that seedy little McGill might be the only person who still puts any stock in values and reputation (on his own sliding scale, like his rate) in a world where government, big business, criminals, lobbyists and intelligence agents all converge. As usual, McGill will emerge from it all physically worse for the wear—but at least with his dignity intact. Not that anybody else cares about that.

“You’re both up against the machine!” one slick character (played by Simon Oates) warns McGill. “No one beats the machine. Not you. Not me. Not Norbert. No one.” McGill knows he’s right, but that doesn’t stop him from trying his hardest and getting beat up for his troubles. And that’s the bleak overall message of Man in a Suitcase put succinctly: you’re never gonna win, but you have to keep fighting for what you believe in, no matter what the odds.

While in Sweden at the behest of an exiled and endangered Arab revolutionary in “The Revolutionaries,” McGill has the audacity to actually drive the Saint’s trademark white Volvo P1800! (At least it hasn’t got the distinctive ST1 license plate.) He even gets in a car chase in it.

The appearance of the car proves appropriate, and not just because of the Nordic setting; “The Revolutionaries” plays much more like a Saint episode than the typical Man in a Suitcase. However, this being the latter, there’s always the very possible fear of the sort of downbeat ending that you rarely see on The Saint.

McGill’s employer, Dr. Maza, dwells with his grown daughter at a cool lakeside house (that does, indeed, look convincingly Swedish to my untrained eye) complete with a water wheel. (Okay, perhaps the house is on a river, not a lake.) He entrusts McGill with a manuscript containing his account of a revolution that left the dictator of a North African nation dead—and, according to him, installed a new leader just as bad. McGill is to escort Maza’s manuscript—and his daughter—safely to London, but the new regime’s secret police are hot on his trail. None of the many Arab characters (at least the main ones) are played by remotely Arab-looking actors. I suppose that because so many wealthy Arabs at the time were educated in Britain and carefully cultivated British accents, ITC must have thought it could get away with Ferdy Mane and Hugh Burden playing them. Unconvincing as they are, the episode is still a good one. Highlights include a very atmospheric, snowy airport finale and an honest-to-goodness shootout with McGill killing people (not something he does that often, really) with a machine gun. He even manages to climb up the water wheel, pistol in hand, which is a pretty cool way to make an entrance.

This episode also marks the first time in the series, as far as I can recall, that the CIA is actually mentioned by name rather than obliquely referred to as “American Intelligence,” ITC’s preferred euphemism. “I often wonder how far the CIA were involved in our… democratic revolution,” Dr. Maza ponders.

“Well, that sort of backfired on us, too,” McGill admits. That reference to America’s unwelcome covert involvement in toppling left-leaning regimes in the Fifties and Sixties is about as close to actual politics as any typical ITC adventure show ever gets.

Donald Sutherland, who made a very memorable impression as a hard-partying college buddy of McGill’s in one of the best episodes on Set 1,  “Day of Execution,” is back in “Which Way Did He Go, McGill?,” but in a very different role. This time (as usual in his UK television days), he’s playing a bad guy—a bad guy with a really weird accent, and a genuinely creepy (and unforgettable) laugh that sounds somewhere between an orangutan and a croup cough. The espionage-free plot is a standard crime story, but well enough told. Sutherland plays a criminal released from jail after five years who hunts down the other members of his gang, killing them off one by one in a quest for his share of the loot from their bullion heist. McGill gets involved in a convenient, roundabout manner, and forces his services on the bullion company in exchange for the standard 10% finder’s fee. His investigation takes him into contact with some interesting people including, since this is the Swinging Sixties, a fashion photographer in the middle of a psychedelic photo shoot with a bikini model.

There isn’t any spying in “Castle in the Clouds,” either, but it is a particularly fun episode and the best of the batch on the final disc of the set. McGill gets himself involved in a very convoluted plot surrounding a diamond brooch when a politician hires him to retrieve said article. The brooch belongs to the politician’s wife, but he made the mistake of lending it to his mistress, Magda, to wear… on the night she chose to leave him, with the brooch still attached! The politician wants McGill to retrieve the brooch before his wife finds out, but unfortunately it goes through many hands fairly rapidly, and all of those hands belong to would-be blackmailers with different motivations. For the most part, though, they’re pretty likable blackmailers. There are no out-and-out bad baddies in this one (well, there’s a gangster, but even he pales in comparison to some others McGill’s come across), just a bunch of eccentric characters, each one looking for an angle. And they’re played by good, charismatic guest stars, like Edward Fox, Sydney Tafler and especially Gay Hamilton as the tale-spinning fantasist Magda, who you can’t help but root for even if she’s a gold-digger and an inveterate liar.

Besides memorable characters, McGill’s odyssey also takes him through some very memorable locations, including a few trips to the swingingest disco in all Swinging London. “Castle in the Clouds” is uncharacteristically lightweight for Man in a Suitcase (though that doesn’t mean McGill doesn’t get beat up), but it’s charming nonetheless, and one of the series’ best episodes.

Less distinctive is its finale, “Night Flight to Andorra”—although it does mark a return to espionage plots. We’re plunged into the thick of things in this one, with McGill holed up with a team of crooks plotting an elaborate heist using a glider. The glider’s cool and the poor man’s Ocean’s 11 set-up is always a reliable one, but unfortunately none of the members of his crew have any memorable personalities. The script treats it like a big mystery as to why McGill, always (more or less) on the side of the angels, has thrown his lot in with criminals, but it’s pretty obvious to any astute viewer that he’s working for British intelligence again, with the goal of recovering some plans for some sort of military McGuffin. Slightly less obvious is which character is a traitor, and which is also working for MI6, keeping an eye on McGill to make sure he accomplishes his mission. Just writing about it makes “Night Flight to Andorra” sound better than it really is, but unfortunately it’s a pretty unspectacular last hurrah for such a good series.

Other episodes in the set run the gamut from spying to bodyguarding to detecting to breaking strikes in African diamond mines (and that old chestnut about a wife whose husband may be driving her mad), but even the worst among them have one thing going for them: the brooding but indomitable McGill, so compellingly played by Richard Bradford. In an interview included on Disc 4, Bradford reveals that there was a lot of tension on the set and he didn’t always get along with his crews and co-stars, but the mixture of this cucumber-cool, chain-smoking Texan amidst so many eccentric and excitable ITC mainstays is pure gold. Man in a Suitcase is must-see entertainment for ITC fans and fans of more serious Cold War spy dramas alike. (Burn Notice fans, as well, will find themselves in surprisingly familiar territory.) Though the storylines can be bleak, McGill’s determination in the face of any odds is always inspiring. And things don’t always turn out badly for McGill…. Sometimes he even gets the girl.

Unlike Set 1, Acorn’s second set of Man in a Suitcase DVDs includes a welcome and sizable bonus feature: an hour-plus interview with Richard Bradford originally recorded for Network’s Region 2 release. Bradford (whose appearance has changed considerably since the Sixties) mumbles a lot, and can be kind of hard to understand at times (especially when he goes off on unexpected tangents), but his frank, uncensored anecdotes make it worth the effort. The interview covers his earliest acting days in high school, first jobs in Hollywood, the influence of Marlon Brando on his career, (Brando was instrumental in getting Bradford his first big movie role in The Chase) and, of course, his experience filming Man in a Suitcase. He's got no illusions about it (he rightly calls Set 1's “The Bridge” a lousy script), but he clearly put his all into the series to make it the best it could be. Unfortunately, that meant ruffling some feathers, and indeed he doesn't portray himself as the easiest person to work with. (He regrets now that his method acting kept him from becoming friendly with Donald Sutherland when he came back as a villain.) Bradford becomes most animated when discussing his bad relathionship with producer Sidney Cole, who essentially tricked the actor into climbing on the titular bridge of that episode despite not having proper insurance waivers. From the sound of it, Man in a Suitcase wasn't the smoothest production to work on, but the results prove that the effort of Bradford and the crew were not wasted. It's a great show and, with the inclusion of this fascinating supplement, Acorn's Man in a Suitcase - Set 2 is a great set. Set 1 might be a better introduction to the character and the series, but there are more great episodes packed into Set 2.

Read my review of Man in a Suitcase: Set 1 here.