Jan 31, 2013

New Jeremy Duns Spy Book Due This Summer

On his blog The Debrief yesterday, spy author extraordinaire Jeremy Duns debuted the cover art for his new book, Dead Drop, due out in June in the UK. The twist this time (one which regular readers of his blog have known for a while) is that unlike his previous Paul Dark historical espionage books, this one is non-fiction. Dead Drop: The True Story of Oleg Penkovsky and the Cold War's Most Dangerous Operation is, in Duns' words, "an investigation into one of the most remarkable espionage operations of the Cold War: the running of Colonel Oleg Penkovsky by MI6 and the CIA in the early Sixties, including during the Cuban Missile Crisis." Dead Drop will be available from Simon & Schuster in the UK this June; there's apparently no U.S. release date set as of yet.

Tradecraft: Pierre Morel Circles Sean Penn Neo-Eurospy Flick

Late last year, The Hollywood Reporter reported that Sean Penn was circling the assassin thriller Prone Gunman, based on what the trade called an "existential" novel of the same name by French noir specialist Jean-Patrick Manchette. (Existential enough for the current edition of the book to be published by San Francisco's highbrow City Lights Press.) The Oscar-winning actor was apparently hoping to find the same after-50 action stardom that Liam Neeson achieved with Taken. According to the trade, the novel (and the script by Peter Travis) "centers on an international operative named Martin Terrier (Penn) who is betrayed by the organization he works for and must go on the run in a relentless game of cat-and-mouse across Europe." So, basically, it's the plot of every assassin story ever (in recent memory The American springs readily to mind), but in the hands of the right director that could still feel fresh and original with a leading man with the chops of Sean Penn. And now... it looks like the right director has been found! If you're going for a Taken vibe, who better than the director of Taken? This week, the trade reports that Pierre Morel is in negotiations to helm the movie. Morel has carved a niche for himself as something of a neo-Eurospy specialist, having served as cinematographer on The Transporter and Transporter 2 and directed Taken (review here) and From Paris With Love (review here), both of which also starred aging Hollywood leading men in action roles. Action veterans Joel Silver and Andrew Rona are producing, so if Morel signs on, this should indeed be the right team to turn Penn into an action star. According to the trade, "Silver and Studio Canal, which is fully financing the picture, are looking at a spring 2013 production start in several locales across Europe."

Jan 30, 2013

Interview: The Americans Executive Producer Graham Yost Reveals His Spy Influences

Earlier this week, FX promoted their new spy series The Americans in a big way in Los Angeles. The Americans follows a married couple, Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) who are really Russian KGB agents spying on the United States at the dawn of the Reagan era. Therefore, to promote it, a full-size Soviet submarine "surfaced" in the middle of the courtyard at the busy Hollywood and Highland shopping mall, manned by a full crew of Russian sailors who later marched around the complex as a Russian helicopter flew overhead. ("I think that explains how the Soviet Union lost the Cold War," quipped series executive producer Graham Yost. "Their submarine surfaced in a shopping mall!") It was a pretty impressive spectacle—especially considering FX's publicity people got the sub fully constructed and then fully removed in the course of a single day.

The submarine was just the public spectacle, however. More privately, Graham Yost was on hand to talk to press at a Russian-themed luncheon. I was lucky enough to attend, and had the opportunity to grill Yost on his own favorite spy shows and literature as part of a round table. First, however, Yost made sure to talk up the creator of The Americans, Joe Weisberg. According to Yost, he first worked with Weisberg on a CIA pilot called The Station which didn't go to series. (I'm not sure if this is the same Station I was so excited for during the 2009 pilot season, or a different spy show of the same title that also didn't get picked up.) At any rate, Yost loved collaborating with Weisberg, and knew he wanted to work together again. They briefly teamed up on the first season of Falling Skies, but it took a big news story to set them on their path towards The Americans.

After the Anna Chapman Russian spy ring was busted in the summer of 2010, every writer in Hollywood was trying to figure out how to capitalize on it. Yost knew that Weisberg was the guy to write that story, since Weisberg had himself been a CIA officer prior to becoming a writer. In fact, Yost thinks the Agency may have played a role in Weisberg's post-spook career. During one of their routine polygraph tests, a Langley staffer asked him if he only wanted to be in the CIA so that he could one day write about it. The way Yost tells it, that hadn't really occurred to Weisberg until he was asked that question! The upshot, however, is that everything Weisberg writes now has to be vetted by the CIA. (Redacted sentences were turned into a good gimmick in his debut spy novel, An Ordinary Spy.) That means, of course, that on some level the CIA has endorsed The Americans! (It's not clear, however, whether episodes not penned by Weisberg must also be submitted because of his producing role.) Anyway, Weisberg did indeed crack the Russian spy plot, with a little help from a studio executive who had the brilliant idea of setting the story in 1981. "Make it a period show," summarizes Yost. "The last great gasp of the Cold War. Reagan's just been elected; he's calling the Soviet Union 'the Evil Empire.' And the stakes just ratcheted up. The tension, the stakes, was the highest it had been in the Cold War since the Cuban Missile Crisis."

Beyond the period setting, the next key to success was focusing on a marriage. "It's not just a show about KGB spies in Washington in 1981," Yost explained. "It's also a story about a marriage." The Soviet agents have been married for 15 years because they were assigned to do so, but only as the series opens are they just beginning to fall in love. Both the removed time period and the relationship/family aspect make it easier for audiences to relate to Russian agents on The Americans. But they shouldn't completely forget which side these characters are on. "We want the audience to be rooting for Phillip and Elizabeth and then halfway through each episode say, 'Wait a minute! We're rooting for the KGB?!'"

Yost himself may not have been a CIA agent, but he's no stranger to spies, either. In the 1980s (while Phillip and Elizabeth were stealing our nation's secrets), Yost penned several non-fiction books about spying. One title, about cutting-edge espionage technology circa 1985, was a favorite of mine as a kid. I had Spy-Tech (part of the young adult-friendly "Facts on File" series) on near permanent loan from the local Waterford Library until my parents eventually bought me a copy of my own. I told Yost that I'd grown up reading that book, along with his volumes on the KGB and the CIA in the World Espionage series, and asked if he'd been looking for a spy story to tell ever since he wrote those guides.

"You know my secret!" he said. "I grew up on James Bond films, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., reading other spy-related books, reading James Bond books as well as watching the movies. There was a toy in the Sixties called Secret Sam, and it had a gun in a briefcase and there was a little button on the outside so you could shoot the gun from the outside and a little plastic bullet would come out. And I would set the gun up in my room on a piece of string and my mother would come in and I'd shoot her in the back! (But she bought me the toy.) At any rate, as a start of production gift, Richard Deutch, my assistant, tracked down two of these on Ebay and got them for [fellow executive producers] Joe [Weisberg] and Joel [Fields]. And now I need to get one for myself. So, yes, to answer your question really long-windedly, I love the spy genre. I remember being a teenager and watching Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy from the BBC, which John Irvin directed, and just being really riveted. And that started me off on John le Carré books, and yeah, I read as much spy stuff as I can."

Another journalist asked prudently if another British spy show, Sleepers, had been an influence, since the story about two Soviet sleeper agents "awakened" in Britain after they've fallen in love with Western culture shared a similar premise. Surprisingly, however, Yost wasn't familiar with Sleepers. "I don't know if Joe saw it or if Joel Fields saw it; I didn't see it."

Asked to what do he attributes the current popularity of the spy genre, Yost answered, "I would say that post-9/11 people understand how important good intelligence is." He sang the praises of Zero Dark Thirty, and said that he admired how it depicts intelligence work as cross-referencing files, tracking down a name. But The Americans, he's quick to point out, isn't quite that reality-driven. "I think for this show that it's that heightened reality. The movie Tinker Tailor did that quite well. I couldn't believe that they could take that book, and that miniseries, and squish it into a 2 1/2 hour film. It might not even be that long. They did a great job. There's just something about that intensity. That everything counts. That it is life and death." He aspires to that same level of intensity on his show.

So there are plenty of serious spy shows that influenced The Americans. But what about lighter fare? Personally, I can't imagine spies operating in a D.C. suburb in the 1980s without thinking of Scarecrow and Mrs. King (review here). I asked if that influenced The Americans in any way, and Yost let out a fond chuckle. "I watched so many episodes of that show in the Eighties," he said, "and I never thought of it in connection with The Americans." Hm. So maybe I'm the only one! That doesn't mean, however, that Yost and his colleagues aren't inspired by any less than serious spy fare. "We do take a lot from FX's other great spy show, though," he admitted, alluding to the hilarious animated genre send-up Archer. "We should have an agent from ISIS or ODIN show up." I concur!

Yost concluded his session by quoting the FX Networks President. "John Landgraf said something that I thought perfectly sums it up: 'We know who won the Cold War. We don't know if Phillip and Elizabeth will survive. And that's the story. Will the marriage survive? Will the children survive?'" To find out, tune in to The Americans on FX, Wednesdays at 10/9c.

Read my review of The Americans pilot here.

TV Review: The Americans

I’ve been excited for The Americans, which debuts tonight at 10/9c on FX, ever since it was first announced. A period spy drama set in the early 1980s, at the second height of the Cold War, about deep cover KGB agents living in suburban America! Created by former CIA officer turned spy novelist Joe Weisberg and executive produced by Graham Yost, whose 1985 non-fiction book Spy-Tech I had permanently checked out from the local library when I was in middle school! It seemed tailor-made to suit my interests. And, I’m very happy to report, it fully lives up to my high expectations.

In the hour-and-a-half pilot episode, we’re introduced to Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), an All-American husband and wife with two kids, living in a quiet Washington D.C. suburb… who happen to be long-term, deep-cover operatives for the KGB’s S Directorate. Originally I’d expected this series to be a totally realistic, deliberately slow-paced spy drama in the vein of the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy miniseries, but as it turns out, it’s more akin to Len Deighton’s (excellent) Bernard Samson novels in tone. It is very realistic, with lots of examples of professional tradecraft… but these agents also see their share of action. Yost describes it as a slightly heightened reality, and that proves to be the perfect mixture for modern American television. It’s grim and gritty, but there’s also a welcome touch of Alias to the proceedings. Phillip and Elizabeth have the training to be kick-ass when duty calls for it. In the first two episodes (provided by the network as a screener), those skills are called for quite a bit. This couple aren’t moles, working government jobs and passing along whatever intel they glean. They’re more utility players. When called upon in the pilot to kidnap a high-profile KGB defector and return him to Moscow for interrogation and execution, they’re prepared to get into knife fights, foot chases and car chases. And when called upon in the second episode to place a bug in the home office of Reagan's defense secretary Caspar Weinberger, they’re prepared to do some real black bag work, and to make use of one of the most notorious weapons in the KGB’s infamous arsenal. They’re also trained in disguise (which, given the era, allows for a succession of entertainingly awful early Eighties hairdos by way of wigs) and seduction. In fact, I was surprised at just how sexually explicit the show managed to be on basic cable.

Even if Phillip and Elizabeth are capable of behaving like James Bond and Sidney Bristow on the job, at home they have to live their cover. These two agents never met and fell in love and got married; instead they were assigned to each other as partners by the KGB, and instructed to have children in order to keep up appearances. As the show begins, they’ve lived together for years, but they are not in love. (Nonetheless, it clearly disturbs Phillip to listen to the tapes of his wife seducing an FBI official to extract valuable information.) Their children, of course, have no idea that their parents are anything other than average Americans. It clearly pains Elizabeth to listen to her daughter repeat a teacher’s assertions that the Soviets are undermining arms negotiations with their sneakiness, but all she can do is lash out passive aggressively; she must maintain her cover in front of her child. Phillip, meanwhile, finds himself cheering along with his flag-waving son at a patriotic school assembly in honor of an Apollo astronaut. But while they’re hiding their true feelings in these circumstances, they’re also struggling with the same issues as any parents… and just possibly, becoming a little seduced themselves by the decadent, Capitalist American culture they live amidst.

Meanwhile, the Jennings' lives are made all the more stressful when their new neighbor, Stan Beeman (Fair Game's Noah Emmerich), turns out to be an FBI counterintelligence officer! Is he there to keep tabs on them because they’re under suspicion, or is it really just a coincidence? Rather than drawing out the improbable, Weisberg wisely deals with this possible coincidence head-on, and audiences and characters alike get a pretty definitive answer by the episode’s end. Beeman is a regular character, and through him and his partner, Agent Amador (Maximiliano Hernandez), we get the American perspective as well as the Soviet one. In short order, he’s got an informant inside the Russian embassy and they have one inside the FBI, setting up what should prove an interesting cat-and-mouse game for the duration of the season.

The hardest sell going into this series must have been the question of making modern American television audiences root (to an extent, at least) for KGB spies working against the United States. Weisberg, Yost and director Gavin O'Connor achieve that feat quite brilliantly, as it happens. In part, it has to do with being 30+ years removed from this point in history (while still close enough in memory to stimulate nostalgia among viewers of a certain age, especially when we’re treated to actual 1981 news broadcasts), and in part it has to do with the comfort of knowing how the Cold War turned out. (Though, as Yost points out, we don't know if Phillip and Elizabeth or their family survive it, ensuring that the series still generates suspense.) But it also has a lot to do with the characters themselves and the circumstances they’re living in. We’ve seen enough spy shows over the years to be able to quickly relate to anyone living in these stressful circumstances, no matter what side they're on, and some of those circumstances (the domestic ones) are easy for most audiences to identify with anyway. Russell and Rhys are both excellent, and make it easy to relate to these characters even when (particularly in her case) they present a cold veneer. Flashbacks integrated throughout the pilot revealing their training period in Russia win our sympathies even further. Overall, I don’t think audiences who warmed to brutal Mafiosi over six seasons of The Sopranos will have any trouble identifying with Phillip and Elizabeth.

The Americans is off to a great start, and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here. In many ways, this is the spy show I’ve long been dreaming of, and so far, I’m not disappointed. It covers so much of the spy spectrum that I think le Carré fans and Alias fans alike will all find something to entertain them.

Stay tuned for an interview with The Americans executive producer Graham Yost discussing his own spy influences later today.

Tradecraft: ABC Orders Spy Pilot; Rob Corddry to Star

Sure, sure... there are a lot of spy pilots every year. But, according to Deadline, ABC has ordered the pilot for Spy (that's what it's called!), the previously announced remake of the UK sitcom of the same name. In a follow-up story, trade blog reports that Rob Corddry (Operation: Endgame, Upright Citizens' Brigade, Childrens Hospital) is set to star. The British version, which airs on Sky, tells the story of a single father, Tim (the part set to be played by Corddry) who tries to win the respect of his young son by quitting his dead-end job and (accidentally) becoming a spy. He then has to juggle his family life and his professional life without his secret being discovered. The original Spy was created and written by Simeon Goulden, who has also developed the American remake. The UK version was a hit in America on Hulu, and finally came out on Region 1 DVD last week. Deadline compares the workplace comedy/family comedy hybrid to Get Smart, which sounds good, though the description always reminded me more of The Piglet Files.

Jan 29, 2013

New, Longer Trailer for The Berlin File

There's a new, longer trailer for the Korean spy film I blogged about last week, The Berlin File. I was already sold on the movie, but this trailer manages to make it look even better! The Berlin File opens February 15 in select U.S. cities.

Jan 28, 2013

Upcoming Spy DVDs: Spies of Warsaw

It hasn't aired yet on BBC America (they've just announced that that will happen in two parts on April 3 and April 10), but there's already a release date for the DVD of the Alan Furst adaptation Spies of Warsaw: April 16. SRP is just $19.98, but it's available to pre-order on Amazon for far less. As previously reported, David Tennant (Doctor Who) stars in the miniseries adapted from Furst's historical spy novel by the veteran team of Dick Clement and Ian Lafrenais (Otley, Never Say Never Again). Tennant plays French agent Jean-Francois Mercier, posted to the Polish capital in the months leading up to WWII. Mercier mingles and tangles with his German, Russian, Polish and League of Nations counterparts, but even late-night incursions across the border into Germany prove easy compared to dealing with his superiors back in Paris (including Julian Glover). I enjoyed the book a lot and am really looking forward to this miniseries! It's already aired in Britain and Poland (where it was shot on location), and will soon be available on R2 DVD as well.

Jan 27, 2013

Upcoming Spy DVDs: The Man in Room 17 (1965)

Last year, UK DVD company Network, who had put out so many great ITC spy series over the years, seemed to have eased up on espionage entertainment a little bit, and I was worried. There were still a lot of cult UK spy shows MIA on DVD. But in 2013, they've come roaring back! Hot on the heels of the recently announced Virgin of the Secret Service (a title I've been dying to see for years), Network have announced that they will release another ITV rarity on June 10: The Man in Room 17 - The Complete First Series. Kind of like The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Man in Room 17 really focused on two men: Mr. Edwin G. Oldenshaw (Richard Vernon) and Ian Dimmock (Michael Aldridge); E.G.O. and I.D. Oldenshaw was the boss and the true titular Man; he had been one of Churchill's close advisers and an architect of D-Day. Now he's been employed by Her Majesty's Government to head up the Department of Special Research in Room 17 at Whitehall, answerable only to the Prime Minister. Said department consists solely of Oldenshaw and his younger partner, Dimmock, and they never leave that room. Like Nero Wolfe, they prefer to do their crime solving and spy smashing from the confines of a cozy office while engaging each other in the Japanese board game Go (the same one enjoyed by Nicolai Hel in Shibumi), leaving it to other agents to handle the legwork while they reach brilliant deductions in Room 17. Only the most perplexing cases make it to Room 17, after they've already baffled Scotland Yard and the Security Services. Some of the cases in The Man in Room 17 (which ran from 1965-67) focus more on crime than espionage, but even those ones tend to have international ramifications. Eventually, the series was spun off into The Fellows (Late of Room 17), which is already available on DVD from Network, but by then the espionage angle was greatly diminished. The Man in Room 17 features a number of familiar faces to spy fans among its guest stars, including Peter Wyngarde, Roy Marsden, Geoffrey Keen and the ubiquitous Vladek Sheybal. Denholm Elliott (A Murder of Quality) later replaced Aldridge when the latter became sick, playing another sidekick with the initials I.D. (albeit this time standing for a particularly unlikely name!), Imlac Defraits. Network's four-disc PAL Region 2 set will include all 13 episodes of the black-and-white show's first season and retail for £29.99; it can be pre-ordered on Amazon.co.uk.

Jan 26, 2013

Upcoming Spy DVDs: The Great Spy Chase (aka Les Barbouzes)

Olive Films will release the 1964 Eurospy classic The Great Spy Chase (aka Les Barbouzes - French slang for "secret agents" as Frederick Forsyth readers are no doubt aware) on Region 1 DVD and Blu-ray on February 26. If you're familiar with the film, let that sink in a moment. Did you ever think you'd see an official American release? If you're not familiar with it, start getting really excited! Les Barbouzes, directed by George Lautner, is one of the all-time great Eurospy movies. And I don't mean that in the way that in an insular way, like it's one of those low-budget slices of cheese that we fans of the genre enjoy so much, but which your average modern movie viewer might scoff at. No, Les Barbouzes is the rare Eurospy film that you can show to your film snob friends and impress them with, too. It's a genuinely great satirical comedy, irrespective of its genre. It's also, unlike a lot of terrific Eurospy movies, not a James Bond imitator. If anything, Les Barbouzes plays more like a parody of the Dr. Mabuse movies, or of the espionage genre as a whole. Full disclosure here: it is a black and white, French language film that takes place mostly in one big house. (Well, a chateau.) While those elements might not sound like the ingredients for a top-shelf Sixties spy spoof, let me assure you that they all gel perfectly. (And just because it's set mainly in one location doesn't mean there isn't any gadgetry or kung-fu fighting!) The premise finds spies of all nations descending (under preposterous covers) on the home of a recent widow who inherited the patent to a new, top secret weapon when her scientist husband died suddenly. Each secret agent wants to secure the weapon for his own nation, and all are pretty much aware of who their competitors really are. Soon people in the house are dying at an alarming rate, frequently in rather hilarious ways. It's a great send-up not only of the spy genre, but also of Cold War politics at large—and America's role in a rapidly changing Europe. Lino Ventura leads the cast as the French agent vying for the widow's affections. Olive's DVD and Blu-ray will present the film in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, in French with English subtitles. It's hard to tell from the Amazon listing whether Olive will also include subtitled versions of the bonus material that appeared on the French DVD (including a half-hour documentary and a Lautner commentary), but that's probably unlikely. And if they're not there, I won't be griping. Because the amazing thing is that we're seeing any American release at all of this overlooked gem! Retail is $24.95 for the DVD and $29.95 for the Blu-ray. Both are available for pre-order on Amazon for slightly less.

That same day, Olive will also release on DVD and Blu-ray an earlier Lautner/Ventura collaboration, Monsieur Gangster (aka Les Tontons Flingueurs), which spoofs the gangster genre and laid the groundwork for Les Barbouzes. (I haven't seen that one.) I'm glad that Olive's release slate is starting to really expand, because between Les Barbouzes and the previously announced Innocent Bystanders (as well as the David Niven Euro-caper The Brain, released last year), they're really becoming a savior for spy fans fearing that some of their favorite obscure movies would never see DVD release in the U.S. I hope they've got more Eurospy titles up their sleeves!

Jan 23, 2013

DVD Review: The Holcroft Covenant (1986)

For an author who dominated the bestseller lists for three decades, there have really been surprisingly few film or television adaptations of Robert Ludlum’s novels over the years. Of the ones there have been, John Frankenheimer’s film of The Holcroft Covenant stands as what I would call the “Ludlumiest” of them. Which is to say that, while not exactly faithful to the word of the book (review here), it retains that essential Ludlum feel as a film. In fact, it might even Ludlumier than the novel! ("Ludlumier" might be my favorite word ever, so expect me to use it a lot.) By which I mean that it checks most of the boxes that I expect from a Ludlum adventure: There is an innocent man—an amateur—thrust into the world of international intrigue. There is globetrotting. There are lots of great European locations—including the requisite Geneva—and there is Swiss banking. There are multiple parties after our hero for unknown reasons. There are double-crosses. There are triple-crosses. There is sex. There is violence. There are gunfights and car chases. And there is a plot so labyrinthine that I’m not sure even veteran spy screenwriters George Axelrod (The Manchurian Candidate, The Fourth Protocol), Edward Anhalt (The Satan Bug, The Salzburg Connection) and John Hopkins (Thunderball, Smiley’s People, Codename: Kyril) could explain exactly what happened.

Their script departs fairly radically from the book’s plot in specifics, but keeps the basic overall premise intact: Noel Holcroft (Michael Caine) is told by an enigmatic Swiss banker (Moonraker’s Michael Lonsdale) that his father, a notorious Nazi, left him a fortune ($4 billion) to be used to make amends for the Nazis’ horrible crimes. This money is the product of a covenant between Holcroft’s father and two other Nazi officers who supposedly turned on Hitler in the final days of the war. The terms of the covenant dictate that Holcroft must locate the eldest offspring of the others to access the vast sum, but as the only British-born American citizen of the trio, he will be the chairman. The book was not one of Ludlum’s finest, its plot dense and clunky. Most of the changes are expedient and necessary, some really improving the storyline. A lengthy sojourn to South America is excised altogether, keeping the action limited to New York and Europe. The various factions after the money (there were tons of them in the novel) are condensed into a manageable few (though it’s still not entirely clear who is working for who), and a messy subplot involving an international assassin is wisely cut, along with the uncharacteristically clumsy setpiece it culminated in in the novel. I was disappointed, however, with the decision to conflate the two daughters of the Nazi Von Tibault (another member of the Covenant) into one character, Helden (Victoria Tennant), as their characters were very distinct in the book and would have worked well on film. Caine’s Holcroft is also, happily, a far less annoying protagonist than his literary counterpart! He whines a little, but overall he’d prefer to take action against his predicament than to complain ceaselessly about it.

Caine himself is, of course, the consummate spy movie actor, and even when he’s just doing a picture for the money (as one suspects he was with some of his Eighties spy flicks), he still elevates any material he works with. James Caan was originally slated to star, and he would have probably been great in the role, but Michael Caine nails it. In Caine’s finest moment here, following a grisly murder that hits close to home, a trained agent assures Holcroft that he’ll kill the person responsible. Seeing the look on Holcroft’s face, he amends his offer, “Or you can, if you like.” A bereaved Caine glowers up at the camera, and growls, “I like.”

Caine is ably supported by an ensemble of the caliber that could be described as too good for this movie, but like Caine they elevate the material to their own level by their presence. Tennant is not only ethereally beautiful, but convincing in a part made much trickier by the screenwriters’ decision to roll two very different characters into one. Anthony Andrews is in full sneering villain mode, but what else would you expect of a man who wants to bring about a global Fourth Reich? The august Lilli Palmer (Hitchcock's Secret Agent, Lang's Cloak and Dagger) stands out as Holcroft's strong-willed mother, Althene, and Eurospy veteran Mario Adorf (The Dirty Game, That Man in Istanbul) lends a commanding presence as the final member of the present-day Covenant, Erich Kessler. A lot of spy vets round out the cast, including multi-picture Bond alumnus Shane Rimmer (who turns up in the small role of a New York cop who played a much larger part in the book), Carl Rigg (the assassin who tangled with Timothy Dalton in the opening of The Living Daylights, here playing a very similar part), Andy Bradford (Octopussy’s ill-fated 009, as an agent attempting to help Holcroft) and Bernard Hepton (Toby Esterhase to Alec Guinness’s George Smiley; The Contract) as a slick MI-5 operative whose role is successfully expanded from the book.

Caine’s real co-star, however, is director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Ronin). Like Caine, Frankenheimer could frequently be found slumming in the Eighties, but, like Caine, he brings his all to this film—mostly, anyway. The director’s gritty style and sharply honed sense of pacing are perfect matches for Ludlum’s story, and I credit Frankenheimer with translating the spirit of the author’s work so directly to the screen. It’s too bad he didn’t do more Ludlum titles in that era. In a stroke of genius, Frankenheimer relocates the book’s carnival chase scene to Berlin’s infamous Love Parade (though he could perhaps be accused of dwelling a tad longer than necessary on all the glittery, naked flesh), creating the film’s most successful setpiece bearing his unmistakable imprint.

Reflecting the director's sense of humor, the man who attacks Holcroft in that scene (one of the book’s many interchangeable, faceless hitmen working for various factions) is now a scantily clad transvestite named Fritzl!

A pretty terrific (and unambiguously Eighties) synthy soundtrack by Russian-born composer Stanislas (that’s right, just one name) perfectly complements this sort of sleazy opulence. (I would love to get my hands on that score, but it was sadly never released, not even as an LP.) Where Frankenheimer lets us down, unfortunately, is in the car chase department. A promising setup involving a speeding Mercedes, a helicopter, and several motorcycles sadly never builds to what we know the director is capable of. (Perhaps Ronin was his apologia.)

The film’s ending is radically altered from the book’s unforgettable finale… but then the book’s conclusion probably wouldn’t have worked in a movie. The drama in the film’s closing moments, unfortunately, depends a little too much on a largely unconvincing (and until that point underdeveloped) love story. But that doesn’t detract too much from what’s really a pretty enjoyable viewing experience. Overall, The Holcroft Covenant is fairly great spy entertainment if you’re looking for that unique Eighties European flavor, for Second Stage Michael Caine spyishness, for underrated Frankenheimer direction, or for some rare, genuine, on-screen Ludluminess.

This is one of those odd titles that's recent and fairly big, but somehow ended up in the public domain, probably because someone at the studio didn't do their due diligence. That means that there are a lot of budget DVDs available, but all the budget versions I've seen should be avoided. Most are fullscreen. The version to get is the official MGM DVD . It isn't anamorphic, but it is at least widescreen, and it looks decent enough. (That said, this film could really stand a new high-def transfer!) Also, it's got some good special features, including an audio commentary with Frankenheimer, the original theatrical trailer, and one of those 8-page booklets MGM used to include with all their DVDs, which is actually quite informative.

The Ludlum Dossier
Read my book review of The Janson Directive (2002) here.
Read my book review of The Bourne Supremacy (1986) here.
Read my book review of The Holcroft Covenant (1978) here.
Read my book review of The Bourne Identity (1980) here.
Read my book review of The Sigma Protocol (2001) here.

Jan 22, 2013

Trailer: The Berlin File

Here's a very cool looking spy movie opening next month in America that I wasn't even aware of until I saw this trailer this weekend at a Koreatown movie theater. Like Istanbul, I'm a sucker for just about any Berlin-set spy movie, but this one actually looks particularly good. According to Deadline, The Berlin File opens in Korea at the end of January and in select cities in the U.S. on February 15.

Jan 21, 2013

Book Review: The Janson Directive by Robert Ludlum (2002)

Is there a character called Janson? Yes.
Is there a directive? Hm. Not specifically. No, I can’t think of any directives issued by name.

It’s hard to say how much of The Janson Directive was actually written by Robert Ludlum, since it was published the year after he died, but the book certainly feels Ludlumy, so I’m personally guessing quite a bit of it. While novels kept appearing attributed to the late author for as many as five years past his death, those ones were written by ghost writers based on outlines or notes the master storyteller had supposedly left behind. This one was apparently (according to The Book Reporter) assembled from a nearly complete manuscript by the author’s long-time editor, Keith Kahla, and his literary agent, Henry Morrison. And they did a great job because, as I just wrote, The Janson Directive absolutely feels like a Ludlum novel. (The same cannot be said of all the ghostwritten efforts.) Which is to say, it’s thoroughly gripping and entertaining from cover to cover. It doesn’t rank too near the top of his pantheon, but it’s not at the bottom either.

Paul Janson is a former agent of the top secret American spy agency Consular Operations (ConsOps), the same fictional branch of the intelligence community that features in many of the author’s novels going back at least as far as The Matarese Circle (1979). That’s not the only sign of a shared universe here; there’s also a direct (if subtle) connection to the Bourne novels, carefully coded in such a way to only reveal itself to fans of the novels, not the films. That part actually seems like something that might have been the work of hands other than Ludlum’s, but even if that’s the case, it’s well handled and quite appropriate for this book. The Janson Directive hinges on a highly complex, long-term, deep-cover intelligence operation quite similar to the one Jason Bourne was involved in (making it appropriate that the two operations shared an architect), but the story this time is told from a very different point of view and the author takes the similar premise in a radically different direction.

In a passage shockingly similar to one he uses in The Sigma Protocol (review here), Ludlum writes in The Janson Directive about grief that “clichés came out at such moments—no less true for being so.” (Was he reusing a phrase he liked, or did the editors assembling the final manuscript decide to complete the work with some choice lifts from other novels?) So it could be said that Ludlum himself trades largely in clichés, but they are no less entertaining for being so. As in The Sigma Protocol, The Janson Directive revisits some of the author’s favorite themes and topics—and as in that novel, they feel fresher here than they have in years. After coasting through most of the Nineties in apparent decline, Ludlum seems to have been reinvigorated toward the end of his life and the results are some thoroughly entertaining spy novels. Some of the familiar themes and plotlines on display here include (of course) the man-on-the-run protagonist trying to clear his name (here of the disavowed professional school, as opposed to the rank amateur caught in way over his head), the vast global conspiracy through which an elite cabal controls world events (also of course), the sins of the father (so to speak), the globetrotting adventure (from a fictional Southeast Asian nation similar to Myanmar to Vietnam to Greece to London to Geneva to New York and beyond) and the resourceful methods of traveling between all those countries without a passport. In other words, everything you want in a thick Ludlum spy novel.

The pace is excellent. Whereas some of Ludlum’s lesser efforts seem to drag, The Janson Directive moves along through 768 pages at a whirlwind speed. The first 200 pages or so unfold quite differently than most Ludlum novels, as the hero assembles a Mission: Impossible-like team and embarks on a precise paramilitary covert extraction in a single location. Before long, however, things go terribly wrong, and amidst the fallout we’re left with the familiar lone hero on the run around the world.

The characters are also top-notch. At his worst, Ludlum could be accused of sometimes utilizing cookie-cutter Everyman heroes and childlike women who were little more than damsels in distress. At his best, his protagonists are compelling, multidimensional characters, and that’s what we have here. Paul Janson is a fairly complex character with a particularly compelling backstory that unfolds throughout flashbacks to Vietnam over the course of the book. The flashbacks reveal a parallel story that directly affects events in the present, and don’t bog down the narrative as lengthy flashbacks in this sort of novel sometimes can. The female lead, ConsOps sniper Jessica Kincaid, is also well-drawn. She’s of the New School of Ludlum Woman, like The Sigma Protocol’s Anna Navarro—a first-class skilled professional in her own right, fully capable of contributing to the adventure rather than impeding it, tagging along screaming to be saved.

If there’s a weakness in this novel, it would be the denouement. While the flashbacks pay off neatly, and the conspiracy itself is brilliantly revealed, some of its details fail to add up. The systematic murders of some of the requisite cabal’s members, for example (a standard Ludlum subplot) don’t make a whole lot of sense in the end. (Perhaps that can be chalked up to Ludlum dying before he could finish the book.) It wouldn’t be unfair to call the final showdown between the hero and villain a tad simplistic (a “Join me!” moment right out of Return of the Jedi), but personally I ate it up. It felt exactly right for this sort of fast-paced beach read. And that’s exactly what The Janson Directive is in the end: the sort of wildly entertaining beach read that passes the time thrillingly, but doesn’t leave a very lasting impression for too long after it’s finished. That’s just what I wanted out of it, and it delivered in spades.

Interestingly, The Janson Directive is the only non-Bourne solo Ludlum title to spawn a follow-up by another author—The Janson Command by Paul Garrison. (I’m not counting the cottage industry of the Covert One novels, a series Ludlum created specifically for other authors to write.) Perhaps this explains an odd coda in the original novel lifted directly out of The Holcroft Covenant for, apparently, the sole purpose of setting up a sequel. While that particular bit also feels like one that might not have originated with Ludlum, I wonder if it’s possible that the author always intended Paul Janson as another franchise hero? Besides its value as a literary property, I assume it’s in the estate’s interest to perpetuate a series in order to make the character more attractive to film studios. If that’s the case (and The Janson Directive has been optioned, by Universal), it seems kind of odd to do it with a hero in his fifties whose origin is so inexorably tied to Vietnam (which seems antithetical to what Hollywood is looking for; after all, they reinvented Bourne as a much younger man), but then again Liam Neeson has proven that there’s a market for older action heroes. I could easily picture The Janson Directive reinvigorating the career of another aging star and finding similar success to the Taken movies. Here's hoping!

The Ludlum Dossier
Read my book review of The Bourne Supremacy (1986) here.
Read my book review of The Holcroft Covenant (1978) here.
Read my book review of The Bourne Identity (1980) here.
Read my book review of The Sigma Protocol (2001) here.

Jan 20, 2013

Upcoming Spy DVDs: Virgin of the Secret Service (1968)

I'm thrilled to report that Network will release one of the most elusive ITC spy series of the Sixties on R2 DVD on April 1, 2013: Virgin of the Secret Service! Ever since I first read about this one in The Rogers and Gillis Guide to ITC, I've been dying to see this series, and always hoped that Network would unearth it. I'd begun to despair since the company didn't really release any spy rarities in the past year, but now it's on the schedule and I'm very happy! From what I can gather (largely thanks to Rogers and Gillis), Virgin of the Secret Service is a tongue-in-cheek spy adventure series very much a product of its late 1960s era even if it's set in Edwardian times. It follows the exploits of Captain Robert Virgin (Clinton Greyn) and his progressively emancipated partner Mrs. Virginia Cortez (Veronica Strong) as they traipse across the entire British Empire (in the days when the sun never set upon it) and beyond,  from India to Africa to Russia to Arabia to South America to Texas and back, spying for England and thwarting the dastardly plans of enemy agents Karl Von Brauner and Klaus Striebeck. Guest stars included the likes of Desmond Llewellyn and Roger Delgado. It sounds very much like an Edwardian Avengers, a British Wild Wild West, an Adam Adamant who never got frozen, or even a proto-Jack of All Trades, and if it lives up to any of that, I'll be very happy indeed. I'm already happy that at least I'll at last have the opportunity to see! The 4-disc, Region 2 PAL DVD set will contain all 13 episodes of this rare TBC series and retail for £28.00. I was under the impression that it was a color series, but Network's listing says black and white. That may be an error, or it may mean that only black and white recordings exist, as was the case (for the most part) with Spyder's Web. Or it may be that it was actually filmed in black and white after all. In any case, I'm still eager to see it. It can already be pre-ordered from Amazon.co.uk, and will also be available directly from Network come April.

James Bond Parody Video Featuring an Aston Martin

One of the moments that gets the biggest crowd reaction in Skyfall is the look on Daniel Craig's face when something bad happens to his beloved Aston Martin DB5. It's a great look. But some people take issue with 007 showing more visible reaction to what happens to his car than he does to the fate that befalls a woman he beds earlier in the film. It's certainly a moment ripe for parody. And my friends Brad Hansen and Athena Stamos (huge Bond fans both) at Crave Online have seized that moment and produced an excellent parody video, "The Spy Who Loved His Car!" But it's a parody with serious production values. Not only do they have some pretty cool effects (I love the moment Bond drives through the invisible wall in the parking garage), but they have an actual vintage Aston Martin! (It's a DB6 and not a DB5, but it's still the right color and it's still beautiful and it's still an Aston Martin... so that works just fine.) This is awesome. Check it out:

Jan 18, 2013

Book Review: The Bourne Supremacy by Robert Ludlum (1986)

Is the lead character named Bourne? Yes. (Sort of, anyway.)
Is there a supremacy? Yes! The title makes sense.

The Bourne Supremacy is a highly worthy sequel to Robert Ludlum’s most famous book, The Bourne Identity (review here). The original novel was certainly left open to a continuation (though the author had never revisited a character before), but Ludlum does not go the expected route and deliver another round of Bourne vs. Carlos. Instead he puts the Carlos plot on hold for the time being (that would be resolved in The Bourne Ultimatum), and delivers an entirely new sort of Bourne adventure in a different direction with an unexpected catalyst and an unexpected antagonist. The result is a highly satisfying follow-up with no rehashing.

Readers of The Bourne Identity will be well aware that the assassin known as Jason Bourne never actually existed. Bourne was an identity assumed by David Webb, a grief-stricken veteran of a Vietnam-era Black Ops outfit known as Medusa, in order to draw out the real assassin Carlos the Jackal as part of an ultra-classified intelligence operation called Treadstone 71. After the events of the first book, Webb has retired from the spy game to a tranquil academic life as a professor of Oriental Studies at a liberal arts college in Maine. He’s now married to Marie, the woman who helped him discover his true identity. But the tranquility of his new life is quickly disrupted by that old thorn in his side, Jason Bourne.

The deadly assassin Bourne has resurfaced in the Far East, using all his old methods and leaving all his old calling cards. Clearly it’s an imposter, but Webb is once more caught up in the world he thought he left behind when Marie is abducted and spirited off to Hong Kong. A mysterious and powerful Tai-Pan is using Webb’s wife as collateral to force the Webb to once more assume the Bourne identity in order to trap the younger man who’s masquerading as him and causing chaos that could disrupt the 1997 turnover of Hong Kong from the British to the Chinese and plunge the world into war. Whew!

Last time Bourne was a man alone, with only Marie to aid him. This time, he has the support of some of the very people who were after him in the first book, most notably CIA agent Alexander Conklin. Conklin became convinced in The Bourne Identity that Bourne/Webb had gone rogue, and tried to kill the amnesiac agent who had once been his close friend. Now he’s a drunk, but eager to atone for his past mistakes, he readily answers David Webb’s call for help. Conklin’s expanded presence really benefits the sequel, because he’s one of Ludlum’s greatest characters. Thanks to a Vietnam injury, Conklin walks with a cane, which gives him a huge chip on his shoulder. On top of that and being a drunk, he’s the best at what he does and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. From that combination comes his humor; nearly every line he delivers to anyone he thinks is incompetent (which is pretty much everyone except Bourne and Marie) is a cutting putdown laden with colorful language—and hilarious. Conklin is the sort of character that the author must have had a blast writing. Fill a room up with typical Ludlum stuffed-suit bureaucrats and then set Conklin loose on them: finding out what happens next must have been as rewarding for Ludlum as it is for his readers!

There are a lot of other interesting characters populating the pages of The Bourne Supremacy as well, from Conklin’s fellow Bourne Ally Dr. Morris Panov to Britain’s top intelligence officer in the territory, the enormous Chinese-born Major Lin Wenzu, to Marie’s Hong Kong connection at the Canadian embassy, Catherine Staples, to Bourne’s fellow Medusan and sometime mentor Phillipe D’Anjou (another refugee of the first novel) to the impostor himself. All of these characters are well-developed and a pleasure to spend time with. The final crucial element is the city of Hong Kong itself. Ludlum always excels at transporting his readers to exotic locations, but Hong Kong seems to have struck a nerve with the author like few other cities. His vivid descriptions of the city and its various sections, rich and poor (especially its infamous Walled City within), certainly succeeded in making me want to travel there when I was first reading this book at 13, and they still do today.

The reader is aware that the Tai-Pan controlling Bourne is running a classic false flag operation, making Bourne think he’s working for one party in order to achieve the aims of another. Pulling the strings of the whole affair is an American diplomat of the slimiest sort, Ambassador-at-Large Havland. Whenever a refined old white man with an Ivy League background is introduced in a Ludlum novel, you can be reasonably sure he’ll turn out to be part of some horrific conspiracy. And that goes double if the author ever describes him as part of “the best and the brightest.” Ludlum despises the so-called “best and brightest,” and the class that ruled America for the entirety of his writing career. Havland is the ultimate example of a classic Ludlum villain—even if he’s not filling the role of “villain” here in its purest sense, merely “manipulator.” The fact that the reader knows more than the protagonist doesn't hurt the novel's suspense (as it did in The Holcroft Covenant); instead here Ludlum expertly uses that formula to make readers turn the pages even faster, eager to see Bourne discover the subterfuge and exact punishment of some sort.

All of these characters give Ludlum a much wider number of stories to tell and people to cut away to, so even though The Bourne Supremacy is notably longer than its predecessor (Ludlum novels ballooned in the mid-Eighties to those bookstore bricks I tend to think of them as), it never feels wayward or padded, despite Ludlum's fondness for repeating certain phrases and mantras as Bourne recalls his dimly remembered past. (The same cannot be said, sadly, of the final novel in the trilogy.) In fact, more characters open up more narrative possibilities to the author, who was stuck cutting between a mere handful in the first book.

Like its characters and locations, the setpieces in The Bourne Supremacy are also memorable, and the action is vivid. There’s an excellent sequence in which Bourne tracks down the imposter’s contact at a Macau casino and then fights him, a thrilling shootout in Mao’s mausoleum in Beijing (where Bourne creates a macabre diversion so shocking readers aren’t likely to ever forget it!) and a chilling confrontation in a Chinese bird sanctuary where the real Bourne, Webb, finally comes face-to-face with the impostor. (The travelogue aspects to these Beijing and Macau visits are just as appealing as those in Hong Kong.) It’s a shame, however, that the impostor, who’s been set up as being such a deadly adversary, turns out to be more of a clown in person, played largely for humor. (At one point he even gets shat on by a duck. Seriously. No, Ludlum isn’t above using a cheap gag like that.) He’s not, however, the real villain of the book either, merely a stepping stone on the way to the true mastermind.

Whereas the “Bourne Identity” of the first book’s title was an elusive part of the puzzle Webb was trying to assemble of who he was, in the second book it becomes an entire aspect of Webb’s character. There’s a real Jekyll and Hyde dynamic at play. The married professor, mild-mannered David Webb, fears what will happen to him when he lets Jason Bourne take over completely, but at the same time he knows that he needs Bourne’s fine-tuned assassin’s skills to rescue his wife. He thinks of Bourne as an entirely different character, and worries about losing all of the identity he’s forged for himself in the years since the events of the first novel if he slips completely into the Bourne Identity once again. Each moment he spends as Bourne threatens to erase Webb forever, and indeed by the novel’s climax, Webb is once again unsure of who he really is. This Jekyll and Hyde aspect allows Ludlum to have his cake and eat it too: he gets both a cold-hearted professional and a wide-eyed amateur at once as his protagonist. While he varied between the two sorts of lead characters, Ludlum never seemed to completely trust professional spooks. I suspect that having the audience surrogate David Webb to comment on some of Bourne's deadly expertise allowed him to be more comfortable with an expert assassin as a hero. And, of course, it's a great premise—almost as great as the original amnesiac assassin premise of the first novel and almost as frequently copied. (Remember that short-lived Christian Slater TV show My Own Worst Enemy?)

The Bourne Supremacy is a first-rate Ludlum novel and a nearly perfect follow-up to The Bourne Identity. An ideal sequel, it further develops themes and ideas from its predecessor while setting its protagonist loose in a whole new world and an entirely different sort of adventure. It succeeds on every level, combining fascinating characters, colorfully depicted exotic locales, and a fresh, original and compelling story. I can’t help thinking it would make a great movie… except it’s already been one that bears zero resemblance whatsoever to the novel it’s ostensibly based on. Whenever I read an interview with Matt Damon lamenting the lack of ideas for another Bourne movie, I want to shout at him, “Go back to the books!” They have a perfect Bourne sequel right there in their hands if they’re willing to swap female leads (since the Tony Gilroy-scripted movie made the mistake of killing off Marie), along with fresh locations we never saw Damon’s Bourne operating in. Go back to the books, Greengrass! The result would be amazing.

The Ludlum Dossier
Read my book review of The Holcroft Covenant (1978) here.
Read my book review of The Bourne Identity (1980) here.
Read my book review of The Sigma Protocol (2001) here.

Pre-Order In Like Flint on Blu-Ray Today!

Following up on this month's release of Our Man Flint on Blu-ray, specialty label Twilight Time is releasing the 1967 sequel, In Like Flint, on February 12. And pre-orders for this limited edition begin today, exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment! Like Our Man Flint, the In Like Flint Blu-ray (which is region-free) comes loaded with special features. And like on the first release, I'm on some of them, discussing (under my actual name, Matthew Bradford) the impact of the Flint movies and their star, James Coburn! Bonus material on In Like Flint includes an audio track featuring Jerry Goldsmith's complete isolated score, an audio commentary with Cinema Retro's Lee Pfeiffer and film historian Eddy Friedfeld, trailers, a rare screen test, and the featurettes "Derek Flint: The Secret Files," "James Coburn: The Man Beyond the Spy," "Designing Flint," "Flint vs Zanuck: The Missing 3 Minutes," "Take it Off," "Puerto Rico Premiere," "Future Perfect," "Feminine Wiles," "Spy School," "Musician's Magician," and "Spy Vogue." Some of these are retained from the previous DVD edition, but some are brand-new documentaries created exclusively for the Blu-ray release by John Cork, co-producer of those wonderful documentaries on the James Bond Special Editions. Sadly what's missing from the DVD release (apparently) is the attempted Seventies TV revival of the character, Our Man Flint: Dead On Target, starring Eurospy leading man Ray Danton as the irrepressible Derek Flint. It's true that the TV movie is far from essential (in fact it bears little resemblance to the Sixties films, and Flint himself is a mere private eye, not an international playboy superspy) and poor Danton (who was excellent in some of his Eurospy work) struggles to fill Coburn's large shoes, but as a spy completist I still want to own it. That means I'll have to hang onto my DVD set despite buying these new Blu-rays. Oh well. The new special features on Twilight Time's edition certainly make this Blu-ray a must-buy for Sixties spy fans even without the TV movie! (And even despite the steep $29.95 price tag.) Like all of the label's releases, In Like Flint is a limited edition of just 3,000 units. These titles sell out, so order soon! Luckily, the first movie hasn't sold out yet and is still available to order through the site.