Jun 29, 2012

Daniel Kleinman Returns For Skyfall

MI6 has managed to get the answer to the Skyfall question that's been at the forefront of my own thoughts for some time: who will create the title sequence for the 23rd James Bond movie? And the answer is indeed good news: Daniel Kleinman, who created such memorable opening credits for GoldenEyeTomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough, Die Another Day and Casino Royale, but sat out the last movie, will return! I'm so glad. Kleinman does fantastic work. For Quantum of Solace, director Marc Forster brought on his own preferred title creators, a firm called MK12, and they in turn delivered a strong contender for the weakest opening title sequence of the entire series. It's a relief to have Kleinman back in the driver's seat after that debacle. I'm very curious to see whether he returns to the classic silhouetted nude women dancing or swimming that Maurice Binder pioneered, or instead follow up on his own impressive departure from Daniel Craig's debut film, which featured cool rotoscoped animation. Either way, I'm confident he'll deliver the goods! The reliable fan site previously reported that the sequence has already been shot, and unsuprisingly involved female models.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is currently running an installation exhibit featuring all of the James Bond title sequences playing on giant video screens.

Jun 28, 2012

Review: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century: 2009 Featuring Some of the 20th Century's Greatest Fictional Secret Agents

Famous fictional spies have made appearances in several recent volumes of Alan Moore's epic literary mash-up comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. James Bond got rather unfairly skewered in 2007's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, which also featured appearances from Hugo Drummond, George Smiley, Q, Callan's Lonely and a young Emma Peel—as well as references to Felix Leiter, John Drake and Callan's Toby Meres. Last year, Simon Templar, Jason King and the Sean Connery incarnation of 007 made cameos in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1969. And even more spies turn up (in more substantial roles, too) in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century: 2009, out this week!

For regular readers of this series, which began as a sort of Victorian-era Justice League teaming the likes of Mina Harker, Allan Quatermain, Dr. Jeckyll and Captain Nemo before spanning centuries to incorporate scores of other characters from fiction, film and television, part of the fun is spotting all the cameos and figuring out who certain characters (sometimes remaining nameless due to copyright regulations) are supposed to be. If you count yourself in that category, then you may wish to read no further until you've perused the book yourself, because I'm going to reveal some of the spy characters populating the latest volume. But I'm not planning to spoil any plot details.

Century: 2009, the final part of the "Century Trilogy," takes place (obviously) in 2009. In keeping with the modern Bond films, M (the nomenclature is a fixture of the series) is now a woman. In a rather delightful twist, however, we soon piece together that this elegant older woman is Emma Peel! (She even keeps a framed photo of Steed on her desk.) Em (get it?) has grown disillusioned over the years with the original James Bond (Moore's supposed take on the literary 007, whose character actually bears no resemblance to Ian Fleming's creation, even if artist Kevin O'Neill nails the physical appearance), but because of his notoriety it's suited her to continue to employ "increasingly younger stand-ins" who carry on his name and number. These stand-ins, codenamed J1 through J6, of course bear the respective likenesses of Sean Connery (the version of 007 seen in the last volume), Roger Moore (perhaps supposed to be Simon Templar himself recruited to fill the shoes of James Bond?), Timothy Dalton (in the weakest likeness), Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig (in the best likeness). Later in the story, Emma comes to the rescue in a Rolls Royce along with appropriately aged companions Tara King and Purdey! (This version of Purdey is a clever amalgamation of Purdey and Joanna Lumley's Absolutely Fabulous character Patsy.) In what reads as a very nice sort of epilogue to The Avengers, Emma explains that they're all very loyal to each other, adding, "I suppose it's that we all used to be in love with the same man." Soon enough Cathy Gale is also in the picture, but this version of Cathy also owes something to another famous Honor Blackman spy character: she "has some experience as a flight instructress" as well as some lesbian tendencies! Lesser spy cameos in the book (I mean lesser in that they don't have speaking roles) include Spooks' Harry and Ruth, 24's President David Palmer and Burn Notice's Michael Westen (by reference, anyway) and, in a particularly amusing single-panel appearance, The Prisoner himself, Number 6.

Moore is clearly fond of The Avengers, so he treats them pretty well. As I said above, the portrayal of the ladies of The Avengers is really quite moving, making this comic a must-buy for fans of that series on the eve of Steed and Emma's official return to comics in Boom!'s upcoming Steed and Mrs. Peel series. As he made abundantly clear in Black Dossier, however, Moore has no love whatsoever for James Bond, and therefore treats him rather ruthlessly. (I have to say, I was disappointed that someone who's clearly so well read and such a lover of classic adventure fiction as Moore would rely on preconceived notions about Fleming's Bond based more on trendy, ill-informed lit-crit and some of the early movie appearances than the actual novels themselves. Among the myriad slanders he levied against 007, he made the character a habitual woman-beater. Had he read Fleming's short story "The Hildebrand Rarity," Moore would know that Fleming's Bond disdains such men.) The original Bond, now in his 90s, is subjected to one final insult... but nothing so bad as in Black Dossier. In fact, I was quite amused to see a nonagenarian "Sir James" wheelchair-bound and breathing through an oxygen tank (thanks to "cirrhosis, emphysema and syphilis..." all in all a much fairer portrayal of the original Book Bond!), but still looked after by a comely nurse nonetheless.

In this volume, Moore's misdirected outrage is mainly reserved for Harry Potter. Poor Harry is portrayed as something much worse than 007, and jabs at J.K. Rowling about "sloppily-defined magical principles" like "a child's idea of how [things] work" take on a definite pot-kettle quality coming from the creator of this very universe we're reading about, equally brilliant and equally flawed—especially when it comes to sloppily-defined principles. (See: the "Blazing World" in Black Dossier, a haven for fictional characters within an entire universe populated exclusively by fictional characters!) Despite these jabs, however, the jeers at Harry Potter's expense seem a bit more good-natured than those directed at James Bond. Alan Moore's primary problem with both of them, it seems, is that they're too modern for his liking, and therefore part of a declining culture that's "fallen apart... by becoming irrelevant."

I love Alan Moore's writing. He's produced some of the greatest literary works of our modern declining culture, among them Watchmen, V For Vendetta and even the aforementioned Black Dossier, every bit as brilliant as it is flawed and the true masterpiece of the League series. But he's become a grumpy old man. (Okay; perhaps he was always a grumpy old man.) His recent outrage at the idea of DC producing new comics without Moore's involvement about the characters he created in Watchmen seemed more than a little hypocritical coming from a man who's made a career out of appropriating other authors' characters (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Lost Girls) and putting them in predicaments that almost certainly would have appalled those authors! And if he truly believes that Harry Potter represents the nadir of Western Civilization, then I suspect he's either suffering from a bout of jealousy or else he really does believe that culture of the past will always remain infinitely superior to culture of the present day. And if that's the case, then I'm not sure it's culture that's fallen apart by becoming irrelevant... or the author himself. I think there's a tendency among cultural historians and particularly pop culture historians (especially those who write blogs about it, speaking of pots and kettles) to elevate the past at the expense of the present. I'm as guilty of it as anyone; I admit that I, too, would generally prefer a spy film or TV show from the Sixties to one from this decade. However... that doesn't mean that I completely close my mind to the idea that a great one could come along again at any moment. (See: Homeland. Or Casino Royale.) I don't think anyone should ever do that. Because when you close your mind that much, that's when culture truly falls apart. Not when a woman with a ridiculously fertile imagination creates a magical world that resonates so much with an entire generation of children that her books succeed in luring them away from their consoles and back into bookstores for the first time in ages.

But I digress. Am I reading too much into this comic book? Perhaps; perhaps not. Moore's writing encourages such obsessive analysis. But at the end of the day, whatever the author's agenda, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century: 2009 still rates among the most entertaining comics I've read this year. And despite his thinly coded complaints about the state of popular culture, I believe that entertainment is still Moore's primary goal with this series. Here, he succeeds admirably, and I would recommend this book (indeed, the whole Century trilogy) to any spy fans (especially Avengers fans) or fans of classic literature and popular culture in general.

Jun 26, 2012

Tradecraft: Another Tom Clancy Property Might Become a Movie

Deadline reports that videogame publisher Ubisoft is talking to studios hoping to develop the Tom Clancy game franchise Splinter Cell into a film. Paramount is seen as the frontrunner, as they are already home to Clancy's Jack Ryan franchise (the latest reboot of which seems perpetually in limbo) and have spent decades developing Without Remorse. The Splinter Cell series revolves around Sam Fisher, top covert operative for an ultra-secret U.S. spy agency known as Third Echelon. He's basically licensed to kill, which makes it particularly appropriate that former James Bond continuation author Raymond Benson wrote two novels in the series of Clancy-endorsed paperback originals based on the game, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell and Operation Barracuda. The books, told in the first person, are well worth seeking out for fans of Benson's Bond novels, but probably won't serve as the basis for a film version. According to the trade blog, "Ubisoft will be very involved and retain control over how the game is translated into a film."

Jun 25, 2012

Another New Taken 2 Poster

Last week we saw the international poster for Taken 2; today the Imp Awards reveal the U.S. 1-sheet for the Liam Neeson neo-Eurospy sequel. This one hasn't got that succinct tagline, but it still manages to say pretty much all there is to say about this eagerly anticipated film with just one stark image.

Tradecraft: Hayley Atwell and Michelle Dockery Team Up For BBC Spy Miniseries

Captain America's Hayley Atwell (the best part of that lousy Prisoner remake, which she later disowned) and Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery (seen briefly in Hanna) are teaming up with Michael Gambon (Page Eight), Charlotte Rampling (The Avengers episode "The Superlative Seven") and Rufus Sewell (The Tourist) for a BBC spy thriller based on a novel by future James Bond author William Boyd (Any Human Heart). Wow! I like those elements. (For the record, I'd happily back either Atwell or Dockery as future Bond Girls.) Deadline reports that Boyd has penned the screenplay for Restless, based on his own novel of the same name. He also adapted his novel Any Human Heart in 2010; that miniseries also starred Atwell and featured Tobias Menzies as Ian Fleming. Boyd, who was announced earlier this year as the next James Bond continuation novelist, has written screenplays that ended up starring three different 007 actors: Mister Johnson, with Pierce Brosnan, A Good Man in Africa, with Sean Connery (as well as Diana Rigg!), and Sword of Honor, with Daniel Craig.

I haven't read Boyd's 2006 novel Restless, but it seems to be well-regarded. According to the trade blog, "Dockery plays a young woman in 1979 [in the book, it's '76] who learns that her mother (Rampling) has been living a double life and is really a former spy for the British Secret Service. In flashbacks to 1939 Paris, Atwell plays Rampling’s younger self who’s recruited into the service by and falls in love with Sewell’s spymaster. After a crucial mission collapses, she must go into hiding, but 30 years later wants to resurface and enlists her daughter to track down her former lover, now played by Gambon." Sounds good! The 3-hour drama is co-produced by BBC One, The Sundance Channel (where it will presumably air in the United States) and Endor Productions. Shooting is scheduled to take place this summer in South Africa and the United Kingdom.

Jun 21, 2012

Taken 2 Trailer

We just saw the first poster; now Yahoo! has the first international trailer for Taken 2! It looks like Luc Besson and his team (including returning co-writer Robert Mark Kamen and new director Olivier Megaton) are sticking closely to a formula that proved successful the first time around: the cheesy daughter dialogue before the action kicks in ("Isn't Dad the best dad?"), the phone call where Liam Neeson's ex-CIA agent Bryan Mills gives his daughter very precise instructions... and then Mills doing "what I do best" (as he puts it here) and kicking a whole lot of ass. Works for me! (In fact, just about any movie with a chase across Istanbul rooftops works for me. I'm there!) Taken 2 opens October 4.

Read my review of Taken (2009) here.

Jun 20, 2012

Taken 2 Poster

The international quad for the Luc Besson-produced neo-Eurospy sequel Taken 2 has hit the web, and the tagline pretty much tells us what we're in for. Sounds good to me!

Read my review of the original Taken here.

Upcoming Spy DVDs: Nikita: The Complete Second Season

According to TV Shows On DVD, Warner Home Video will release the CW's Nikita: The Complete Second Season on DVD and Blu-ray on October 2. Extras include deleted scenes, an audio commentary on the season finale with writer/producers Craig Silverstein and Carlos Coto, the featurettes "What if? Writing the Fate of Division" ("series creator Craig Silverstein and other series writers explore the impact of the show's strong female lead characters") and "Living the Life: Maggie Q," ("behind the scenes with the star") and a gag reel. Retail is $59.98 for the 5-disc DVD set and $69.97 for the 4-disc Blu-ray edition (which also comes with access to an UltraViolet digital copy, for those who care). Naturally, both will ultimately be much cheaper than that from Amazon and other online retailers.

Tradecraft: Agent Zigzag Reports to Muppets Director

Variety reports that Agent Zigzag is in new hands. Last we heard, Mike Newell was attached to direct the Tom Hanks-produced film adaptation of Ben Macintyre's book Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal, which has been in development since New Line won an intense bidding war back in 2007. Now, though, the trade reports that Muppets director James Bobbin is helming the project. Mark Bomback and Rowan Joffe previously worked on the script under Newell; it's unclear whether Bobbin will oversee a new pass. The true story of Edward Arnold Chapman—a charming criminal who was trained by the Germans to spy on the British, but instead offered his services as a double agent to the British—previously inspired the 1966 spy movie Triple Cross, directed by James Bond auteur Terrence Young and starring Christopher Plummer, Gert Frobe, Claudine Auger and Romy Schneider. This new version has a Bond connection of its own: Ben Macintyre also wrote the book For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming + James Bond.

Jun 17, 2012

Upcoming Spy DVDs: Homeland: The Complete First Season

TV Shows On DVD reports that the best new spy series of the last season, Homeland, will be released on DVD and Blu-ray from Fox Home Entertainment on August 28. Claire Danes stars as an obsessive CIA agent on anti-psychotics (a fact she's forced to hide from her superiors in order to retain her security clearance) who's convinced that a newly freed American POW (Damien Lewis) is not actually the war hero he's celebrated as but a turned Al Qaeda sleeper agent. Mandy Patinkin excels as her Agency mentor, who reluctantly turns a blind eye to her illegal surveillance operation. It's a thoroughly addictive, multilayered series not just about spies but spying itself, and the effect such a career and the responsibilities that go with it have on its practitioners. All of the characters are extremely well drawn, and all of the actors are compelling to watch. Homeland was fully deserving of its Best Series, Drama Golden Globe award, and I heartily encourage any spy fans who weren't able to see it on pay cable station Showtime to check out Homeland: The Complete First Season on DVD or Blu-ray. Trust me, after watching the exemplary pilot episode, you'll be hooked. Extras include at least one audio commentary (the participants aren't specified), deleted scenes, the featurette "Under Surveillance: Making Homeland," and "The Visit: A Prologue to Season 2." Retail is $59.98 for the 4-disc DVD set and $69.99 for the 3-disc Blu-ray edition, though both versions are available for pre-order on Amazon at cheaper prices than that.

Jun 15, 2012

Tradecraft: Besson's EuropaCorp Has Three Days To Kill

Deadline reports that Luc Besson's EuropaCorp, the company that's almost single-handedly revived the Eurospy genre with mid-budget actioners like Taken and The Transporter, has struck a deal with Relativity Media to co-produce and co-finance their next neo-Eurospy title, Three Days to Kill. Written by Besson and Adi Hasak (his From Paris With Love co-writer), the trade blog describes it as "an action tale with a sense of humor." It sounds so bonkers, even for the Eurospy subgenre, that I think I'd better repeat their plot description verbatim: "It’s about Secret Service Agent Ethan Runner who discovers he’s dying and decides to retire in order to reconnect with his estranged family but is offered access to an experimental drug that could save his life but has hallucinatory side-effects." That's what I love about these EuropaCorp movies. They combine cliche with originality in perfect doses. They start out sounding so run-of-the-mill ("A disgraced secret agent has to save the President's daughter..."), only to throw out some wonderfully ludicrous twist ("...in space!"). In this case, that retiring agent trying to reconnect with his family part sounds kind of trite, and then they through in hallucinogens! Just like the wilder Eurospies of old. I can't wait to see the result... and who they cast. I'd sure love to see Pierce Brosnan in one of these movies...

Jun 14, 2012

DVD Review: Our Man in Casablanca (aka Killers Are Challenged) (1966)

Thanks to Njuta Films, finishing up where Fin de Siecle left off, we now have the complete trilogy of Bob Fleming Eurospy movies on DVD. For the uninitiated, Eurospy movies were cheaply-made James Bond knock-offs produced at the height of 1960s Bondmania in Italy and Germany and France and wherever else they could scrape together a girl and a gun against a fairly exotic backdrop. Since these movies were expressly designed to cash in on the 007 phenomenon, they usually had titles and heroes evocative of that series—titles like From the Orient with Fury or Goldginger and heroes like OSS 177, James Tont, or, in one of the most egregious examples, Agent 077. (Bob Fleming, whose own name is clearly intended to recall James Bond’s creator, was sometimes referred to as 077—especially on the posters—but these movies are unrelated to the rival Eurospy series in which Ken Clark essayed the “original” 077, Dick Malloy.)

The Bob Fleming series (all entries in which were penned by future giallomeister Ernesto Gastaldi) kicked off with 1965’s Secret Agent Fireball starring the agreeable but aggressively bland Richard Harrison. It wrapped up a year later with the (2006) Casino Royale-like franchise reboot Fury in Marrakesh, in which Stephen Forsyth took over the role playing a younger, leaner Fleming fresh out of spy school. (I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek giving it credit as a prequel; in all likelihood the only real thought that went into it was that by using the same name the producers could at least piggyback on the moderate success of their first two films. I don’t know why Harrison was unavailable.) Those two movies were both released on DVD in crisp widescreen transfers by Swedish company Fin de Siecle. (Reviews here and here, respectively.) In between them, however, came another Harrison entry called Our Man in Casablanca (also known as Killers Are Challenged), and now it’s finally made an appearance on another impressive widescreen Swedish DVD, this time from Njuta Films.

The other two Bob Fleming pictures were directed by Luciano Martino, but for this entry Italian horror specialist Antonio Margheriti stepped in. (He’s credited on this print by his frequent English pseudonym Anthony Dawson, and shouldn’t be confused with the actor of that name who appeared in Dr. No.) Marghereti (who was hilariously name-checked in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds) made surprisingly few Eurospy movies, but his other primary entry in the genre (excepting the solid giallo Naked You Die, which takes a strange spy twist only in its final minutes), Lightning Bolt, is one of my favorites, so I was quite keen to see his take on Bob Fleming. Unfortunately, Our Man in Casablanca is probably the weakest entry in the series, and while it appears to have a bigger budget than Lightning Bolt (or maybe the beautiful North African locations just give that impression), it lacks the wild creativity that made that film so much fun. Nevertheless, those locations, serviceable lead Harrison, and a veritable all-star roster of the genre’s most beautiful women (not to mention Njuta’s high-quality transfer) all make it still worth watching for fans of the genre.

Killers Are Challenged (in his review at 4DK, fellow blogger Todd pointed out that it seems rather unsporting for a spy to take on killers who are challenged) begins in a very confusing manner: there’s a man in a cemetery with a flashlight and a toy helicopter that blows up and a plastic surgery patient wrapped up in bandages and some ladies (Janine Reynaud and Mitsouko) in some sort of command center, and then there’s Richard Harrison chasing the guy with a new face. Only after all that do we finally cut to the standard spy briefing (held, as per Eurospy tradition, in the standard room with the standard curtain subbing for one wall; boss’s offices with four walls were well beyond the budgetary limitations of most Eurospy flicks), in which we finally learn that the guy with a new face (called Coleman) is a scientist who was “doing research on the structure of molecules.” Okay, now we’re getting somewhere!

These productions could rarely afford four solid walls for their office sets
Evidently Coleman’s made some real breakthroughs in the structure of molecules (we learn later that he’s fashioned them into that perpetual spy Macguffin, an alternative energy source), because “all-American agent Bob Fleming” (as Harrison’s character is introduced) and his boss want to keep him alive. To do that, they immediately kill him. Well, not really. They give him an elixir that simulates death long enough to transport him in a coffin. Coleman understandably has a few misgivings about this plan, so Fleming reassures him by telling him, “We’ll treat you like a ton of dynamite we don’t want to explode.” Um, okay. Is that a good way to be treated? Evidently it’s not quite good enough an assurance for Coleman, who still checks the drink he’s given with his very clever gadget first. It’s a ring that detects poisons.

“If there had been arsenic in the drink,” he explains, “the synthetic jewel in my ring would have lit up.” In other words, the prop department had an ordinary ring and wanted to make it an impressive gadget, so they did so with dialogue! And it’s precisely that kind of ingenuity that makes Eurospy movies so enjoyable. This movie’s full of that sort of gadget, like an impressive little doohickey that’s really a bomb.

But really-really, of course, it’s just a doohickey. Like something you might find in that drawer in your kitchen where you’ve stuck random things and parts of things that you have no idea what they are, but are fairly certain you’ll need one of these days. (We’ve all got a drawer like that, right?) Whatever it is, it’s small and has a moving part. Okay, I’ll buy that that’s a bomb! Well played, prop department, well played.

Fleming sets out impersonating Coleman, figuring that since everyone knows he had plastic surgery, the muscle-bound former peplum star can pass easily for the sickly-skinny scientist. Sure enough, this ruse succeeds; it makes everyone else want to kill him. Fleming plays the same trick on one of these would-be assassins at an airport that James Bond later plays on such a man at a different airport in Miami: he manages to covertly slip the guy’s bomb (which he’s just planted on Fleming) back onto the assassin himself, then smiles at him from a safe distance, raising a toast as the bomb goes off, blowing up the challenged killer instead of the spy.

In the noble Eurospy tradition of heroes who are jerks (brilliantly sent up in Michel Hazanivicius’ modern OSS 117 parodies), Bob Fleming is as suave as ever. In the film’s opening moments, when a hospital orderly tries to stop him from entering Coleman’s room by explaining that it’s past visiting hours (in other words, just doing his job!), Fleming lifts the little man up and hangs him by his coat on a handy coat rack, chuckling at his expense. You can tell he was the jock in high school who liked to give nerds like Coleman a good flushing.

Later, when he accidentally offends a local in a club and the man approaches him threatening, “Why, I’ll teach you…” Fleming cuts him off with a quick karate chop to the face, quipping to the man’s date (who’s naturally impressed by this alpha male display, rather than distraught about her unconscious boyfriend), “I’ve had all the elocution lessons I can stand.” While this sort of line in Eurospy movies usually demonstrates that no one but Sean Connery or James Coburn can pull them off without coming off like a jerk, Harrison actually acquits himself better than most. He even gets credited by a poolside beauty (Black Sabbath’s gorgeous Susy Anderson) with “the best opening line I’ve heard all week.” The line (a groaner about always carrying the “tools of his trade” when he goes swimming) wasn’t that great, but if she’s been listening to rival Eurospies all week (like maybe Kommissar X) then perhaps her standards have been dulled. I guess it is a better line than they usually come up with. Later, to put him back in his place after building him up so much, she also tells him, “I’ve been kissed better by my dachshund.”

Fleming even puts the moves on the real Coleman’s wife! (So much for that dynamite business.) He walks in on her while she’s showering in her hotel room, in fact, which was apparently bound to happen to any beautiful woman staying in any hotel in the Sixties (at least after Thunderball). So often, in fact, that they all became inured to it—including Mrs. Coleman, who’s played by Lightning Bolt knockout Wandisa Guida. Despite all his womanizing, however, when Fleming talks in his sleep, he doesn’t call out a girl’s name. Instead he cries, “Johnny Walker!” (Maybe that only happens after he’s been knocked out.)

"Don't mind me spying on you in the shower. I'm a professional spy."
Bob Fleming isn’t only a jerk to women. He also gives enemy agents a hard time. In a riff on Dr. No’s Professor Dent scene, he’s not content with a simple, bad-ass quip like, “you’ve had your six.” Instead, when an assassin enters Fleming’s hotel room armed with a machine gun and shoots up the figure in the bed, Fleming childishly taunts, “Missed me!” The confused assassin fires more. At that point, Fleming approaches him from behind (surprised?) and reveals the figure in the bed to be a creepy dummy. (Where he got it is unclear.) “You sure fell for that old chestnut,” he snarks. Fortunately, a surprisingly impressive fight ensues as the two men tear up the small hotel room, the assassin dons some nasty spiked knuckledusters, and Harrison performs some very commendable backflips. That fight alone is worth the price of admission. Seriously, this is what Richard Harrison does, and he does it well. It's not his doofy leer that got him cast, it's his first class fight moves.

Besides good action, Killers Are Challenged also boasts some good comedic moments. When Fleming instructs the local comic-relief cab driver to “take us some place with a little charm,” if you’re not already expecting a cut to a belly dancer then you’ve obviously never seen a Eurospy movie before. As it turns out, this proves to be one of the better cuts to belly dancing that I’ve seen, as when the camera pulls out, the belly dancer is soon joined by furiously boogying clubgoers, boogying in that particularly amusing and unbridled manner in which they do only in Sixties movies.

The satisfying comedic moment comes when we’re treated to some great shots later of these revelers dancing with no music, because Fleming’s got a receiver in his ear to listen to the bug he planted on Mitsouko. It’s pretty funny watching those herky-jerky Sixties dance moves to the barely diagetic soundtrack of an ordinary conversation.

Fleming probably wouldn't care anyway, but the unfortunate side effect of that conversation is that it puts Mitsouko’s character’s loyalty in question, and results in her being stripped and whipped by Reynaud for allowing herself to be so easily bugged.

The ostensible villain is introduced with a close-up of a sunbathing beauty and luxury hotel patio reflected in his mirrored shades, which makes for a pretty cool introduction. We then pull out to reveal that he’s a wheelchair-bound, cigar-chomping Texas oilman, complete with a hilariously dubbed “Texan” drawl. Coleman’s “damned invention” apparently makes petroleum obsolete, hence the ire of the Texan oilman. (And here the bashful scientist had us believe it was all just about molecules!)

Once Bob starts tangling with the Texan, the action begins to heat up. The comic relief cab driver turns out to be former Scotland Yard, which evidently means he gets his cab equipped with gadgets like a horn that sprays cement on pursuing cars and people. And a novelty box with a fake snake that pops out is submitted for the audience’s approval as a real snake, and a deadly one at that, meant to kill Fleming.

"This is what I think of your foreign culture!"
This bit leads to a shootout in a crowded Arab market (inevitable for a Middle-East set Eurospy movie) and a chase across scenic North African rooftops (also inevitable, but no less spectacular for its inevitability).

If all this is sounding pretty good to you, then besides being a person after my own heart, you’re probably wondering why I opened up by stating that Killers Are Challenged proves to be the least of the Bob Fleming movies. Well, besides the initial confusion, that mainly comes from one horrible scene. One horrible, interminable scene.

Towards the end, there’s an elaborate (and reeaaaly long) barroom brawl for absolutely no reason. Okay, it’s a delaying tactic, but it still hardly seems necessary, and it plays like the editor accidentally spliced on the last reel from one of Harrison’s Spaghetti Westerns instead of a spy movie. On the plus side, it does include a midget wearing a fez (and dubbed with a “hilarious” incongruous Bluto voice), and the befezzed midget does bite someone on the ankle, which is the very least you can hope for if you’re stuck watching a barroom brawl in a Eurospy movie.

But the audience is also asked to endure even more cringe-worthy jokes like a guy getting his pants set on fire, food fights, and a huge man with his head stuck in a chair frame charging like a bull to give Fleming the chance to yell “Ole!” And a player piano that starts going when someone rams into it. All of this goes on quite literally forever, and it really takes the wind out of the film’s sails in the third act. On top of the lameness of the barroom brawl, there’s no real classic spy finale to make up for it and erase its memory, leaving us feeling good about the film. Instead, you leave remembering that awful, interminable bar fight, borrowed from another genre! An interminable underwater sequence ripping off Thunderball would have been fine, because at least it’s the right genre. A cavernous villain’s lair with an interminable self-destruct countdown, ala Margheriti’s other Eurospy entry, Lightning Bolt, would have been even better. But this Spaghetti Western castoff is unacceptable, and no way to end a spy movie. Furthermore, Coleman decides that the world isn’t ready for his discovery anyway (I guess that’s why we don’t drive around in molecule-fuelled vehicles these days), basically negating everything we’ve just watched.

Wandisa Guida

Killers Are Challenged has a lot going for it: Harrison is a pretty likable spy-guy, the women are plentiful and all stunning to the number (Anderson takes the top spot, with Guida close behind), the locations are suitably breathtaking (especially the rooftops), that hotel room fight is fantastic, and the jokes are (mostly) actually funny—particularly the silent dancing bit, and also a gag where the villainess steals some poor sucker’s car, and when someone else stops to help him, Fleming steals his car while they commiserate. And I’ll even admit to a certain lowbrow taste and say that midget in a fez biting the guy’s ankle was the single highlight of the awful bar fight. But, man, that bar fight…

Susy Anderson

The movie’s cons are equally numerous. There’s no satisfactory denouement, that horrible, horrible barroom brawl that goes on forever, the plot’s hard to follow at first and doesn’t really come together all that well at the end, either; the villain is lackluster, and there’s basically only one location (barring a quick car chase in Geneva at the very end), even if it’s a good one (Casablanca). And did I mention the barroom brawl? All in all, I’m afraid the cons outweigh the pros. But if you just turn it off before its final act, you’ll be treated to enough good spy action and such an amazing abundance of beautiful women (even for a Eurospy movie, which are always packed with them) that genre enthusiasts with Region 2 players are still encouraged to track down Njuta’s impressive DVD (which also makes ample use of the spectacular original poster art on its menu screens). If you haven’t seen any Bob Fleming films yet, however, then I’d recommend opting for the thoroughly enjoyable insanity of Fury in Marrakesh first.

I'll leave you now with three final examples of Richard Harrison demonstrating typical Eurospy suaveness:

The Region 2 PAL DVD of Our Man in Casablanca (Killers Are Challenged) is available in America via importer Diabolik DVD. (It goes in and out of stock, so keep checking back.)

For other opinions on this film, you can watch a video review at Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill, and Jeremy Duns, author of the Paul Dark spy series, left his own thoughts on the movie in a comment on my post about its DVD release here.

Read my review of Secret Agent Fireball, starring Richard Harrison as Bob Fleming, here.

Read my review of Fury in Marrakesh, starring Stephen Forsythe as Bob Fleming, here.

Former Russian Spy Models Spy Looks On Catwalk

While history's most successful spies usually go unsung (their success in no small measure due to maintaining a low profile, and in the best cases never being exposed), the failures tend to enjoy a certain notoriety or popularity long after their deaths thanks to scholarly books and analogues in fiction. One of the most famous unsuccessful spies in recent memory, however, is trailblazing a new kind of notoriety in her own lifetime. Anna Chapman, the would-be Russian sleeper agent whose whole network was rolled up by the FBI in 2010 and shortly thereafter traded back to Russia, has since enjoyed celebrity status in her home country and around the world, appearing in Russian editions of Maxim and Playboy. Now the AP (via Yahoo!) reports that the photogenic spook is making a splash on the catwalk as a model. What makes that story of interest to readers of this blog is how she's been decked out and accessorized to live up to the image of the sexy Russian spy as portrayed in film and fiction over the years. Posing in elegant gowns and less elegant tight leather with accessories including a gun and two male "handlers," Chapman is indeed the spitting image of the femme fatale!

Jun 13, 2012

Boom! Reveals Avengers Comic Covers

Boom! Studios has revealed some of the covers available for the first (#0) issue of their new, ongoing Avengers comic book, Steed and Mrs. Peel. (The actual title The Avengers is conspicuously already taken on comic shop shelves.) As previously reported, the series will be written by Mark Waid. Waid is most famous probably for the DC epic Kingdom Come (which featured a one-panel cameo from Steed and Emma), but perhaps more germain to Steed and Mrs. Peel is his outstanding work on the Crossgen series Ruse, which was essentially Sherlock Holmes crossed with The Avengers--and a whole lot of fun.
Previews has posted the main cover for Waid's upcoming series, which will be drawn by Athena Voltaire artist Steve Bryant. As previously discussed, issue 0 will be a direct sequel to the infamous Avengers TV episode "A Touch of Brimstone," in which Steed took on the villainous Hellfire Club and Emma donned a dominatrix costume to become the Queen of Sin. Years later, Chris Claremont and John Byrne paid homage to that episode in Marvel's X-Men comics, appropriating the Hellfire Club as their own villains, and even borrowing actor Peter Wyngarde's likeness (albeit closer to his Jason King character than his "Touch of Brimstone" character) and name as Hellfire Club member "Jason Wyngarde." Emma Peel herself, in her Queen of Sin incarnation, spawned the popular X-Men character Emma Frost, whose White Queen outfit was the inverted twin of Mrs. Peel's own costume.

Bleeding Cool has some of the variant covers by Josh Corvey, which take the homage full-curcle and specifically reference X-Men covers that originally referenced The Avengers' Hellfire Club.

Jun 12, 2012

Book Review: Dead Line by Stella Rimington

Stella Rimington’s Dead Line, part of a quartet of novels that kicked off Vintage’s Pocket Lizard line (distinguished by their distinctive black page edging) last summer, might very well be my favorite Liz Carlyle book yet. I’ve enjoyed them all so far, but Secret Asset and even the highly enjoyable Illegal Action lacked the oomph of the former MI5 Director General’s debut novel, At Risk. Happily, Dead Line is just as thrillingly page-turning as that one, and offers a wide array of equally memorable characters. In fact, while her previous novels tended to trade off points of view between MI5 agent Carlyle and her usually unidentified antagonist (and occasionally her able assistant Peggy), Dead Line expands its points of view to encompass tons of characters, all making up the same grand tapestry and all coming together as pieces of the puzzle and the plot, forming a huge panorama of the London spy scene. We get inside the head of not only Liz and some of her colleagues, but also agents of the CIA’s London Station (new territory for Rimington, who’s thus far eschewed the Cousins in her novels), Syrian intelligence operatives, Mossad agents, a couple of innocents caught up in the spy game, and of course that nebulous antagonist.

The action begins when an asset in Cypress gives the MI6 station chief there credible intel on a threat to an upcoming Mideast peace conference to be held in Gleneagles, Scotland, which will be attended by the Prime Minister, the American President and the leaders of Israel and Syria, among other distinguished dignitaries. The asset hasn’t got much information, however—just the names of two British citizens somehow connected with the coming attack. He doesn’t even know how they’re connected. That’s up to Liz to suss out—once the intel has finally made its way from MI6 to MI5 in a manner not quite as timely as taxpayers would probably hope for, but probably sadly accurate given Rimington’s career experience. It’s fascinating to track the disbursal of this intelligence to other parties. Rimington demonstrates well what a valuable commodity good intel is in the intelligence community, and how jealously guarded it is by those who possess it. MI6’s Geoffrey Fane, a character familiar to regular readers of this series who shares a shaky professional history with Liz, is the man who controls it. He then doles it out in small doses to his colleagues in MI5 (since it pertains to a domestic threat, which falls under their purview), the CIA (since the threat also concerns the American President), Whitehall, and eventually the Mossad. Fane doesn’t give any of his supposed allies quite the whole picture, withholding different bits from different parties—partly to protect his sensitive source, and partly to ensure that his own agency remains in control of this information for political reasons. Naturally, had all the parties had total access to the details all along and cooperated, it would have taken them a lot less time than it does to piece together exactly what’s going on. Regrettably, I suspect this lack of full cooperation or trust between various agencies on the same side still goes on in both Britain and America, even more than ten years after 9/11 and the ensuing overhauls of the Intelligence Community. But while the real-life scenarios are frightening, this sort of inter-agency politics makes for wonderful reading!

Rimington demonstrates not only her intimate knowledge of the spy profession, but also her knowledge of spy literature with some nice nods to le Carré, Graham Greene and others. I particularly appreciated the Greene reference. Anyone who’s read or seen the movie of Our Man in Havana will have a good guess as to the true value of the intelligence received by Syrian agent Ben Ahmad from an asset at secret rendezvous in a vacuum cleaner shop!

Dead Line moves along at a brisk pace not because it’s wall-to-wall action (although Liz is the victim of a harrowing assassination attempt this time around), but because of the characters themselves and their relationships with each other. The solution to the mystery depends not only on Liz assembling clues in the right order, but also on her cracking the code of how to deal with each of her colleagues in such a way as to get all the information she needs out of them. That’s a slow and tedious process, but it doesn’t read that way. All of the characters are interesting and well-rounded. As in the other books, we’re treated to glimpses into Liz’s personal life as well as her professional one. A subplot in Dead Line, for instance, involves her apprehension about and eventual acceptance of the new man in her widowed mother’s life. All of Rimington’s spies are human beings as well as secret agents, attempting to balance their social and professional lives in the same way as anyone else with a demanding job.

Perhaps because of her persistence in portraying realistic intelligence operations as opposed to Bondian world-in-peril plots, Rimington’s books tend to fizzle out a bit in their denouements rather than explode. That’s true again to some extent in Dead Line (though less so than in the preceding two books), and probably keeps it from reaching the heights of At Risk. But even if we guess the enemy’s plot before Liz does, it’s still a satisfying finale and an even more satisfying journey to get there.

For the third time in four books, Dead Line once again features a rogue intelligence agent turning against his or her service and aligning him/herself with terrorists. Whereas previously I’d groaned a little bit at that 24/Spooks-ish device, this time it actually solidifies itself as an intentional theme in Rimington’s writing, and not an accidental cliché. Liz herself summarizes this theme when she wonders, “Who said the Age of the Individual was over?”

“What I always find surprising,” muses another character, “is that with all our sophisticated technology and the big bureaucracies we work in, a single person can still do so much damage.”

Liz ponders this and replies, “Well, when you think about it, so much of our work is about the actions of individuals—not governments or bureaucracies. That’s what makes it so fascinating. If it were just about process or gizmos, do you think you’d want to be doing the job?”

“Absolutely not,” concludes her colleague emphatically. “And neither would you.” And neither would readers. Ultimately, it isn't the process or the gizmos that keeps fans returning to the genre time and again. It's the characters. The individuals. And with a keen insight honed by years spent observing and analyzing such individuals and their behavior for a living, Rimington always manages worthy contributions on this front to the spy fiction genre.

Dead Line is as exciting and satisfying a contemporary spy novel as I’ve read this year. While readers of the whole series will be rewarded with developments in long-term personal relationships and character growth from book to book, there’s no reason why a first-time reader couldn’t plunge into the world of Liz Carlyle with this book. In fact, I’d recommend it. If you’ve never given Rimington a try but enjoy the less spectacular, more realistic side of spy fiction and find well-written political in-fighting as exciting as car chases and gunfights (as I do), you’ll find a lot to enjoy in Dead Line. And it doesn’t hurt that the American paperback edition comes wrapped up in a particularly satisfying physical package, either! I’m a big fan of the Vintage Pocket line on a judging-a-book-by-its-cover level alone. These books are a good size (smaller than your average trade paperback, but larger than a mass market one), a good texture (yes, that matters to me) and very attractive thanks to that black page edging. I hope all of Rimington’s novels end up reissued in this line.

Jun 11, 2012

Upcoming Spy DVDs: Person of Interest: The Complete First Season

TV Shows On DVD reports that Warner Home Video will release Person of Interest: The Complete First Season on DVD and Blu-ray/DVD combo sets on September 4th. The CBS show, produced by J.J. Abrams and Jonah Nolan, is basically The Equalizer meets Batman... and that's pretty cool. I still find star Jim Caviezel (the 2009 Prisoner remake) and his Batman voice kind of hard to take, but the show's got enough going for it that I can get past that. Besides, co-star Michael Emerson (Lost) is awesome. Caviezel plays a former CIA operative looking to atone for his shadowy past by helping the helpless (those with the odds against them) with the aid of Emerson's tech billionaire, who controls a massive surveillance network that can predict what people will be involved in violent crimes. Extras on both sets include an unaired extended pilot episodes with audio commentary as well as a commentary track on the broadcast pilot, a gag reel and the featurette "Living in an Age of Surveillance." The 6-disc DVD set will run you $59.98 retail, and the 10-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo set (which also includes Ultraviolet digital copies) is just a bit more at $69.97. Of course, both are available to pre-order for less on Amazon.