Jun 25, 2013

Tradecraft: Cinemax's Hunted Continuation Takes Shape

We heard last November that the hit Cinemax/BBC spy series Hunted (a hit on Cinemax, that is, but not on the Beeb), would return to the U.S. cable network in a slightly different format after being formally cancelled in Britain by BBC One. In March, it looked like that new format would be a series of 2-hour TV movies. Now it looks like Melissa George's tough spy-for-hire character will instead live on in an eponymous spinoff series entitled Sam Hunter. Deadline reports that "Cinemax is planning to launch Sam Hunter as a four-hour miniseries," with Hunted creator Frank Spotnitz (Strike Back) and UK company Kudos (MI-5/Spooks) remaining on board as producers. "Doing the new series by itself," the trade blog reports, "would give Cinemax greater creative control and allow ... Spotnitz to push the boundaries on storytelling, tailoring the show to a pay cable network [meaning Cinemax] vs. a public broadcaster [meaning BBC]." I think what all that translates to is roughly "more nudity." (That seems to be Cinemax's hallmark.) Hunted earned weak reviews in the UK, but strong ones in the U.S. I don't get Cinemax, so I didn't see it when it aired. I'd been waiting and waiting for a Region 1 DVD release (which finally looks set to happen next month, but as an expensive MOD title from Warner Archive), but finally broke down and imported the R2 discs. I've only watched the pilot so far, but from that I find myself siding with my countrymen; I'm hooked! And I'm glad that there will be more Sam Hunter on the horizon.

Tradecraft: Neeson Signs On for Taken 3

Deadline reports that Liam Neeson "is closing a deal in the vicinity of $20 million" to reprise his role as Bryan Mills, the former CIA agent hero of Taken and Taken 2 in a third film. That will be his biggest payday ever for the unlikely action star at the age of 61. Neeson was originally reluctant to return for a second outing of neo-Eurospy mayhem, but when the sequel grossed a staggering $376 million, a third entry seemed inevitable. (Indeed, Part 2 left the door decidedly open for another follow-up.) I loved the first film. The second wasn't nearly as good, but I still found it quite entertaining. It would be great if Luc Besson's EuropaCorp could lure the first film's director, Pierre Morel, back for the third entry, but his commitment to giving Sean Penn's career its own Taken-style neo-Eurospy jolt in The Gunman probably precludes that possibility. Deadline suggests that Olivier Megaton, who helmed the sequel (as well as the third Transporter movie), is a likely candidate for the third one, too, but no deal is yet in place. Besson and Robert Mark Kamen are once again penning the script, as they did for the first two entries in the series.

Jun 10, 2013

Movie Review: Erased aka The Expatriate (2012)

The latest neo-Eurospy movie to hit American screens barely hit them at all; Erased (which came out in other territories last year as The Expatriate) was unceremoniously dumped in a handful of theaters with zero advertising by The Weinstein Company. And it’s a bit of a shame, too, because it’s a decent flick that might have done some decent business if given half a chance. When it comes to the neo-Eurospy subgenre, it’s no Taken, but it’s definitely better than Taken 2. It’s also a far sight better than star Aaron Eckhart’s last action movie, Olympus Has Fallen, and that managed to do impressive business. Of course, Eckhart shared the bill there with Gerard Butler. But despite being most famous for supporting turns (like The Dark Knight), he’s got the chops to carry a film and does well in a spy role here.

Eckhart plays Ben Logan, a former CIA agent who specialized in, well, killing people. He was drummed out of the Agency—and America—when terms like “kill squads” went out of favor, apparently—though I’m not completely sure that particular term was ever in favor. Isn’t that why euphemisms like “wetworks” and “black ops” were invented? Unable to return home, the titular (in Europe, anyway) expatriate now works for a private security firm in Antwerp, Belgium. He’s also trying to form a relationship with his estranged teenage daughter, Amy (Liana Liberato), who resents having to leave her school in Connecticut to come live with a dad she barely knows after losing her mom—Ben’s ex-wife—to cancer. The dialogue between father and daughter may be a little bit on the cheesy side (though nowhere near as egregious as in the first Taken), but Eckhart and Liberato have excellent chemistry and they sell the strained relationship easily.

Ben works late one night after discovering a patent discrepancy in one of his company’s security devices, and then, ignoring the friendly security guard’s advice to go home and hit the hay, makes a predictably late entrance to Amy’s school presentation. In an attempt to mollify his understandably angry (and hungry) daughter, he offers her some food, not realizing that she has a peanut allergy. They end up spending the night in the hospital, and she has no choice but to accompany him on a stop at his office the next morning. But the office is gone. All the furniture and equipment have been cleared out, and there’s no sign of any of the people. When Ben calls the corporate headquarters in Brussels, he’s informed that the company has no Antwerp office.

He runs into a coworker, but rather than collaborating to solve this mystery, his former colleague carjacks Ben and Amy at gunpoint. Ben’s spy instincts kick in, and he ends up in close-quarters combat with the colleague-turned-assassin as the car careens dangerously along the highway. Amy looks on in terror as the fight results in a spectacular wreck, the death of the assassin who might have been able to give them some answers, and ultimately father and daughter on the run from the local law enforcement.

Ben has no choice but to bring Amy along on his quest to find answers, and he teaches her some handy Jason Bourne-style tradecraft along the way. (Like how to blend in in a crowd.) That relationship is really the best part of Erased. When I first reported the logline way back in 2010, I somewhat snarkily remarked that it sounded like a cross between the Liam Neeson movies Taken and Unknown. But the daughter storyline in Erased is very different from that in Taken. Whereas in Taken father and daughter are separated and Neeson’s Bryan Mills demonstrates he’ll do anything to find his daughter, in Erased they are together. And that’s a twist I haven’t seen before in this sort of spy movie: an agent on the run with his daughter, bonding and bickering with her as he dispatches cadres of enemies.

The Ludlumesque setup isn’t as Unknown as it sounds, either. In fact, a disturbing trip to the morgue confirms to Ben that it’s much more of a Three Days of the Condor situation; the rest of his co-workers are all dead, as he would have been had he gone home that night (as the security guard suggested) instead of to the hospital. Ben’s investigation into this scenario takes him and Amy from Antwerp to Brussels, affording the audience some very nice European travelogue shots, and into contact with spy veterans Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace, Hitman) and Garrick Hagpn (The Adventurer, The Spy Who Loved Me). Kurylenko plays Ben’s former CIA controller, Anna Brandt, though her present loyalties are decidedly in question. I’ve been a fan of hers since before she was a Bond Girl, and I’m always happy to see her in a spy movie. But honestly her role here is somewhat limited; I would have liked to see more of her. Still, she’s good in the scenes she has, and her presence automatically elevates any spy movie! Hagon plays the enigmatic and somewhat sinister CEO of the company Ben believed himself to be working for. There’s also the friendly security guard from his old job to contend with, who proves himself to in fact not be very friendly, but a psychotic and seemingly unstoppable killer. The violent fight between Ben and him in a hospital is the film’s action highlight, easily rivaling the similar sequence in The Bourne Legacy. Late in the film, we’re also introduced to an even more unstoppable French “cleaner” played by Jean Reno lookalike Eric Godon. The role would have had more impact had the producers been able to secure Reno himself.

Erased has all the right ingredients: good actors, good action, good locations, and an intriguing premise. But somehow they don’t gel quite right. The pacing is off, and I can’t quite put my finger on why. The plot moves along from one turning point to another at more or less the right intervals, and the action scenes come in good succession. Nevertheless, it still manages to feel much longer than its actual 100-minute runtime. Overall, though, the good elements outweigh the bad. I can put up with slow pacing in exchange for engaging performances from likable stars and a good neo-Eurospy plot. Erased deserved a wider theatrical release with some real advertising behind it. It’s a more rewarding viewing experience than the last neo-Eurospy release, Taken 2, and that one managed to rack up a whopping $376 million worldwide! So this one deserved a shot. Well, hopefully viewers will discover it on demand (where it can currently be seen), or on DVD and Blu-ray come July. At least then it can justifiably put Liberato on the map; her performance here promises a career worth watching. And Eckhart’s shows he has what it takes to be an action star; let’s hope he gets another chance in a bigger movie.

Jun 7, 2013

Tradecraft: Colin Firth Joins the Secret Service in A Foreign Country

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy's Colin Firth is looking to renew his spy vows in two very different sorts of spy movies. The actor is in talks to star in both Matthew Vaughn's action comedy The Secret Service, based on the comic book by Vaughn, Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, and A Foreign Country, based on the 2012 thriller by acclaimed spy novelist Charles Cumming. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Firth is in talks to play the co-lead in The Secret Service. The Secret Service is a teen spy movie (a subgenre I'd love to see rejuvenated) about a rowdy street kid recruited into the secret service by his James Bond-ish superspy uncle (the character Firth would play) in order to save him from a life of crime. He doesn't exactly hit it off with his posh public school fellow students at the spy academy, but is able to hold his own thanks to his rough background. Like Millar's Kick-Ass, it's all very over-the-top, with flying spy cars and the like.

Meanwhile, Screen Daily reports that Firth's new production company, Raindog Films, is partnering with Zurich financier Silver Reel Partners on a $30 million adaptation of Cumming's A Foreign Country, a much more down-to-earth spy story. The book won the 2012 Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award for Best Thriller, and is the first novel of a projected trilogy, making it a potential screen franchise. Firth would play disgraced former MI6 operative Thomas Kell, who is tasked with finding Amelia Levene, a fellow spook who disappears on the eve of taking over as MI6's first female director. Locations include Paris, Egypt and Tunisia, where, according to the book jacket, "he uncovers a shocking secret and a conspiracy that could have unimaginable repercussions for Britain and its allies." I'll have to take their word on that, because I haven't gotten to the unimaginable repercussions yet. I'm actually in the middle of this book right now, and thoroughly enjoying it, so I'm excited at the prospect of a film! Interestingly, Firth starred in a (sort of) spy movie at the very beginning of his career with the similar title Another Country (about the formative years of Cambridge spy Guy Burgess).

Jun 6, 2013

Marvel to Reissue Steranko S.H.I.E.L.D. Comics to Coincide With Joss Whedon's New TV Series

I was hoping that we'd see some reissues of classic Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. comics to tie in with the debut this fall of Joss Whedon's new Marvel/ABC TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.... and it looks like we will! While there's still no sign of an Essential Nick Fury volume (something I would love to see, ideally compiling his guest appearances in other books as well as his own issues), the very best S.H.I.E.L.D. comics ever—those by acclaimed artist (and often writer as well) Jim Steranko—will be collected for the first time in a single volume. S.H.I.E.L.D. by Jim Steranko: The Complete Collection, a mammoth, 352-page trade paperback, will hit shelves on September 24, just in time to coincide with the TV show. While all of Steranko's Nick Fury material has been reprinted before, this new all-in-one edition will serve as a handy opportunity to have it in one spot, and make for the perfect introduction to Nick Fury and his secret spy network for new readers. Essentially, it will supersede the out-of-print collections Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury: Who Is Scorpio? I hope all sorts of new readers discover Steranko's groundbreaking, psychedelic pop spy art because they watch the TV show and then buy this book. I also hope that the show takes some inspiration from these classic Sixties comics.

Retail for the hefty tome is $34.99, but Amazon has it available for pre-order at a significant discount. A few weeks later, Marvel will also release a new trade paperback collection of the 1980s miniseries Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D., most recently available only in hardcover. The new, 304-page paperback edition will retail for $29.99, but it's also discounted on Amazon. S.H.I.E.L.D. completists will still want to own the three hardcover volumes of Marvel Masterworks: Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. They're pricey, but between them they reprint every single issue of Fury's appearances in Strange Tales and his own 1960s series (not just the Steranko material; Frank Springer contributed some fantastic artwork to Nick Fury as well, and rarely gets enough credit for it because he worked in Steranko's shadow), as well as copious bonus content like Fury appearances from Fantastic 4 and The Avengers, and his 1976 issue of Marvel Spotlight drawn by Howard Chaykin.

To learn more about Marvel's spy agency and its top agent, read my extensive S.H.I.E.L.D. primer here.

Tradecraft: Robert Rodriguez and Roberto Orci Team Up For Bondian Latino Spy Series

Sin City and Spy Kids director Robert Rodriguez recently founded El Rey, a new English language cable network targeting young Latino audiences in partnership with Univision and Comcast. It's scheduled to launch at the end of the year. Deadline reports that one of the network's inaugural series will be an action spy series the trade blog describes as a "Latino James Bond" created by Roberto Orci (Alias, Mission: Impossible III) and Rodriguez, with the former penning the pilot and the latter directing it. Orci and Alex Kurtzman's K/O Paper Products (Hawaii Five-0) will produce. According to Deadline, "the K/O series is a big-budget adventure drama that is Latino James Bond in tone, but with more of a levity than the recent Bond movies. It centers on a super-star soccer player and notorious playboy who doubles as a highly-skilled spy, carrying out covert missions for a special branch of the CIA." Well now, Mr. Rodriguez... that's how you launch a network! I can't wait to see this! With Burn Notice coming to an end (the final season begins tonight), we'll be in need of a new Bondian cable spy series. (Though we're lucky enough to have an embarrassment of riches on the serious side of genre these days.) And I like that the tone will be somewhat on the lighter side. Rodriguez has said before that his first three Spy Kids movies were inspired by the Roger Moore Bonds, so he's clearly a fan of that tone. And I've always wanted to see him tackle adult spies! A 13-episode order is expected for the first season, with a budget north of $40 million. (And Rodriguez can do a lot with a little, so he'll no doubt find ways to stretch that even further.)

First Trailer for John le Carre's A Most Wanted Man

What a great surprise! I wasn't expecting to see anything from Anton Corbijn's A Most Wanted Man (adapted from the 2008 John le Carré novel of the same title) for a while yet. But thanks to Bleeding Cool, here we've got a lengthy trailer! (Perhaps too lengthy; there are snippets of some crucial scenes from the book here, but if you haven't read it you're unlikely to pick up on them anyway.) This is one of the remaining 2013 releases I'm most excited for. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Nina Hoss and Robin Wright star.

UPDATE: That video has been taken down, but the trailer can still be found on YouTube.

Tradecraft: Javier Bardem Signs Up for More Spy Villainy

Javier Bardem is following in the footsteps of Adolfo Celi, going from Bond Villain to (neo-) Eurospy villain. Deadline reports that the Skyfall heavy has signed on to butt heads with Sean Penn in Taken director Piere Morel's international assassin thriller The Gunman (formerly known as Prone Gunman, and based on the existential French novel of that name). Penn vs. Bardem? Cool! Yet another reason to be excited for this movie, which comes from the producing team behind Unknown.

Jun 5, 2013

Paranoia Trailer

The first trailer is finally out for Paranoia, the corporate espionage thriller we first heard about last spring starring Liam Hemsworth (that's the other one), Harrison Ford (Patriot Games), Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Josh Holloway (Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol) and Julian McMahon (RED) based on the novel by Joseph Finder. And it looks good! I can't wait to see Jack Ryan facing off against George Smiley... again. (Ford and Oldman previously crossed swords in Air Force One.) In that office scene, I keep waiting for Ford to yell at Oldman to get off his chair!