Jan 30, 2014

Spy Character Posters for Captain America: The Winter Soldier

While we have yet to get a full-on Marvel spy movie, their secret agent characters do seem to get heroic individual character posters a lot. (We've seen them previously for Iron Man 2 and Marvel's The Avengers.) Today Yahoo! (via Coming Soon) revealed two such posters for April's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, featuring S.H.I.E.L.D. superspies Black Widow and Nick Fury (Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson, respectively). Directors Joe and Anthony Russo have promised that The Winter Soldier (based at least loosely on a terrific comic book story by Ed Brubaker) will be a "political thriller" in the vein of Seventies spy classics like Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View. And in keeping with that theme, Condor star Robert Redford plays a S.H.I.E.L.D. honcho in the film. The question remains, though: when will Black Widow get her own film??? It's about time Marvel offered a solo female film hero, and that Emma Peel-inspired character would lend herself well to a full-blown Bondian spy adventure. Furthermore, Marvel has just started publishing a new ongoing Black Widow comic book series by Nathan Edmondson and the great Phil Noto (again, about time!), so the timing seems right...

Read my "S.H.I.E.L.D. Primer" here, with suggestions of good comic book collections to introduce yourself to Black Widow and Nick Fury.

Jan 29, 2014

Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond Premieres Tonight on BBC America

The Sky/BBC America co-production Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond premieres tonight on BBC America at 10pm Eastern. The four-part miniseries first announced a year ago stars Dominic Cooper (Captain America, Agent Carter) as 007 creator Ian Fleming, focusing on his wartime exploits in Naval Intelligence. John Pearson, author of The Life of Ian Fleming, serves as a consultant on the miniseries, which is written by John Brownlow (who previously chronicled the life of another famous 20th century author in Sylvia, which co-starred Daniel Craig) and Don Macpherson (who penned the 1998 feature film version of The Avengers, but shouldn't be blamed for the end result, as his original script was, in my opinion, quite a good tribute to that classic spy series). Mat Whitecross (who helmed the odd Spooks/MI-5 spinoff Spooks: Code 9) directs. Rupert Evans (Hellboy) plays Peter Fleming; Lara Pulver (Sherlock) plays Ian's future wife Ann, and Samuel West (Cambridge Spies) plays Fleming's Naval Intelligence boss Admiral Godfrey.

Fleming's life story was previously covered in two 90s telefilms, Goldeneye (starring a perfectly cast Charles Dance) and Spymaker: The Secret Life of Ian Fleming (starring Jason Connery), as well as in 2005's Ian Fleming: Bondmaker, starring Ben Daniels. In supporting roles, Tobias Menzies played Fleming in Any Human Heart (2010), James D'Arcy played him in Age of Heroes (2011), and Jeremy Crutchley played him in an episode of Marple scripted by Young Bond author Charlie Higson.

Watch the BBC America trailer for Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond or the intriguing Sky trailer (which makes excellent use of the fantastic AwayTEAM remix of Shirley Bassey's "Where Do I Begin" from the Bassey remix album) below. Or watch a very promising making-of featurette (better than either of the trailers) here.

Jan 28, 2014

Tradecraft: Transporter TV Series Finally Comes to America

Deadline reports that the Transporter TV series is finally coming to America! TNT has acquired the first season of the Chris Vance series based on Luc Besson's neo-Eurospy Jason Statham film trilogy, along with the upcoming, retooled second season. The first season aired in many countries around the world last year, and is already widely available on Region 2 DVD and region-free Blu-Ray in foreign markets. (I broke down and imported a Region 4 set from Australia last year since it looked unlikely to air here.) We've been hearing about a Transporter TV series since way back in 2009; it was officially greenlit in late 2010, and in early 2011 it was reported that Cinemax would partner with EuropaCorp to air the series in the United States. Later that year Vance (best known to spy fans from an arc on Burn Notice) was tapped to star as Frank Martin, the role originated by Statham, and subsequently joined by Andrea Osvárt as his handler, Carla, a former CIA operative and a character who didn't appear in the theatrical films. François Berléand signed on to reprise his role from the films as Inspector Tarconi, Martin's friend and occasional fishing partner, and Delphine Chanéac (the 2006 Pink Panther) and Rachel Skarsten (Birds of Prey) rounded out the cast as, respectively, Olivia, a reporter tracking Martin’s work, and Delia, the mysterious daughter of a man from Martin’s past. That fall, the trouble started, with the original showrunners departing over creative differences. Before the first season's twelve episodes would wrap, their replacement would also ankle, and production would shut down when Vance was sidelined with an injury. The first trailer came out in the summer of 2012, heralding airdates in Europe and elsewhere, but another year went by with still no announcement of a Cinemax premiere. In August of last year it was announced that the cable network had backed out, and the show's international producers were seeking a new U.S. partner. Undaunted by all these setbacks, they were still pressing forward with a second season, and had tapped a heavy hitter to oversee a retooling: X-Files vet Frank Spotnitz, who had shepherded two hit international action co-productions on Cinemax, Hunted and the first American season of Strike Back. Vance's option had expired, but was being renegotiated. Apparently that's happened, because Deadline reports that production on the second season will begin at the end of February, shooting in Canada, Morocco and the Czech Republic. TNT (where Vance is a familiar face from a recurring role on Rizzoli & Isles) is on board to air both seasons.

The first season of Transporter was a bit of a mixed bag (perhaps not surprising, given its difficult production history), with iffy plots and occasionally sub-par acting offset by some truly incredible car chases and stunt sequences, high production values, and spectacular locations. While the movies were rated PG-13, the TV show was designed for Cinemax, and therefore featured copious nudity and occasionally brutal violence. Obviously, that will have to be trimmed for a TNT audience. (Apparently a sanitized version was already aired in some territories.) But honestly, its unabashed grindhouse sleaze appeal was part of the charm of the show, and I hope it doesn't lose that in the cutting process. At any rate, I'm happy that the series will continue, and that it finally has a U.S. network home!

While Besson's EuropaCorp licensed the property out to another production outfit, Atlantique, for television, that hasn't stopped them from pressing forward in the meantime with further feature films. Last year it was announced that EuropaCorp had struck a deal with China's Fundamental Films to co-produce not one but three more entries in the theatrical series. Still unknown is whether those films, which will be set at least partially in China, will star Statham, Vance or another actor altogether. Personally, I'm rooting for Statham, who last played the part in 2008's Transporter 3 (review here), to return to the role that really put him on the map as an action star. But until that happens, Chris Vance is not a bad television substitute.

Tradecraft: TNT Snags Sharon Stone for Spy Drama Agent X

TNT is packing serious star power into their spy shows. They've already got Legends percolating with Sean Bean (watch the trailer here), and now they've tapped Sharon Stone to star in a pilot from Bourne Identity co-writer William Blake Herron provisionally entitled Agent X. While she's made some memorable guest appearances over the years (I loved her turn on Magnum!), this marks Stone's first TV series commitment since Bay City Blues in 1983. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the spy drama follows a mysterious secret agent "who works to protect the country and its citizens from all manner of threats by any means necessary in times of extreme crisis when traditional law and government aren't in a position to help ... deployed only at the careful discretion of the vice president." (I love the shades of late period Mission: Impossible!) Stone will play America's first female VP, Natalie Maccabee, who "soon learns that [her new job] comes with a top-secret duty: protecting the Constitution in times of great crisis with the aid of her Chief Steward and a secret operative designated 'Agent X.'" Apparently this secret duty was conceived by the founding fathers and kept secret for hundreds of years. The trade aptly describes the premise as "National Treasure meets The Bourne Identity." Well, I'm intrigued!

Tradecraft: Millers Director Boards Ed Helms Spy Comedy

The Hollywood Reporter reports that Rawson Marshall Thurber, who directed last summer's hit comedy We're the Millers, will direct the Ed Helms spy comedy Central Intelligence. Thurber (who demonstrated his action chops when he penned a surprisingly good unmade Magnum PI feature a decade ago) will also rewrite the script.

Jan 27, 2014

Sean Bean in Legends Trailer

Somehow I missed this, but a trailer came out last year for TNT's 2014 Sean Bean spy series Legends, from Homeland and 24 executive producer Howard Gordon. We've been following this for quite a while (since it was first developed for NBC in 2010, and then when it got a new lease on life at TNT in 2012, when Brenden Fraser was first set to star, then dropped out opening the way for the infinitely preferable ex-Bond baddie Bean), and it will finally reach our TV screens this summer. This trailer looks quite promising (as expected), though I'm disappointed to read in the network's official description of the show that Bean's deep-cover agent Martin Odum has been changed from a former CIA agent in Robert Littell's novel to an FBI agent on the show. I guess they wanted to keep costs down by sticking to domestic flashback locations? Oh well; it still looks cool!

Thanks to Ava for calling my attention to this!

Tradecraft: Aronofsky Abandons Red Sparrow

According to The Hollywood Reporter's Heat Vision (via Dark Horizons), Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) has opted not to direct the spy movie he'd been flirting with, Red Sparrow, based on the novel by Jason Matthews. This is too bad. Not only am I a big fan of the director who was looking forward to seeing what an Aronofsky spy movie would look like, but I'm also a fan of the book, and eager to see it become a movie. Luckily, the trade blog adds that "Fox is still high on the project, which it picked up in a seven-figure deal in April 2013 for Steve Zaillian and Garrett Basch of Film Rites and Peter Chernin of Chernin to produce." So hopefully the project will continue to move forward even without Aronofsky. There's even a chance, according to Heat Vision, that the studio could re-approach Aronofsky in the future once it has a viable script. For now, they'll focus on hiring a screenwriter. (Hand goes up.)

I enthusiastically recommend the novel Red Sparrow. Matthews spent a whole career in the CIA before turning his hand to fiction, and his book benefits from all of his experience, dripping with apparent verisimilitude. The characters are rich, and the locations exactly what I want from a good spy yarn, jumping the globe from Moscow to Helsinki to Washington to New London to Rome and beyond. There are moles and double agents and betrayals and tradecraft aplenty. There is also, in the proud tradition of Ian Fleming, lots of good food consumed, and in a neat gimmick unlikely to be included in the film, Matthews provides a recipe at the end of each chapter for one of the dishes discussed. It's a two-hander between Russian SVR agent Dominika Egorova and CIA golden boy Nate Nash (yes, it sounds like a name concocted by Stan Lee), but Dominika is the juiciest part. With Aronofsky on board, I previously speculated that he might reteam with his Black Swan star Natalie Portman (who would definitely be good in the role), but perhaps without him the door will be left open for former Bond Girl Olga Kurylenko. I actually pictured Kurylenko in the role as I read the book. I just hope the project continues to move forward.

Jan 17, 2014

Tradecraft: ABC Pulls The Assets

In some particularly discouraging news, Deadline reports that that ABC has pulled their fact-based Cold War miniseries The Assets after just two airings. It's disturbing because after a shaky but promising premiere, The Assets had really come into its own with the strong second episode. (It's somewhat tempting to compare the network to the notorious CIA traitor Aldrich Ames, focus of the miniseries, as they have both now killed The Assets.) I had hoped that an eight episode miniseries would run its course no matter what, but ratings went from dismal to... well, according to the trade blog, the worst... ever. In the history of network television. Even the normally cynical Deadline jumped to its defense, however, pointing out that the miniseries (which was slotted into the highly competitive Thursday night 10pm slot while the top-rated Scandal was on hiatus) had no stars (well, no American stars anyway) and received no marketing push from the network. There's no word yet on whether the remaining six episodes will be burnt off on Saturday nights or made available On Demand or on the network's website (where you can currently watch the first two) or what. While the upshot of the mole hunt to expose Ames is a matter of historical record, I still hope to see the rest of The Assets! In the first episode, Ames seemed so obviously a traitor that it was difficult to foresee how it would take eight episodes and nearly a decade to catch him. (Sadly, by most accounts, that's a fairly accurate portrayal, and blame lies with the CIA and not the writers.) But in Episode 2, the story expanded to include the hunts for other moles of that era (who served as a smoke screen for Ames), and Episode 3 promised us the race to catch Edward Lee Howard. Additionally, the choice to focus on the Russian CIA assets Ames exposed to the KGB looked set to provide lots of meaty material for those remaining six hours. I liked what I saw enough that I'm still hoping for an eventual DVD release, because I would like to have The Assets on my shelf.

Jan 16, 2014

Tradecraft: Cold War Spy Thriller The Game Coming to BBC America

Americans, too, will get to see The Game, BBC One's previously announced Seventies-set spy series from Being Human creator Toby Whithouse (who also penned one of my favorite Doctor Who episodes, "School Reunion")! Deadline reports that BBC America will air the six-episode Cold War series in the fall. (As far as I know BBC One has not yet announced a UK airdate.) The Game stars Brian Cox (The Bourne Supremacy, RED) as the Smiley-esque spymaster "Daddy," along with Tom Hughes (Page Eight), Paul Ritter (Quantum of Solace), Shaun Dooley (The Woman in Black), Chloe Pirrie (Black Mirror), Victoria Hamilton (What Remains), Jonathan Aris (James Bond videogames) and Judy Parfitt (The Avengers) as his team of MI5 spycatchers. In the Mission: Impossible tradition, each team member has a unique specialty. The Game will straddle the worlds of episodic and serial television by following an overall mission to expose the mysterious Soviet-backed "Operation Glass" being run against Britain, but focusing each week on taking down a single Russian operative playing a part in the larger operation. It sounds like a throwback in the vein of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or Mr. Palfrey of Westminster, and I can't wait to see it!

Jan 10, 2014

3 Days to Kill Poster and Photo

Kevin Costner hasn't spied since No Way Out way back in 1987 at the height of his career. But in the first two months of 2014 alone, he'll be seen in two new high-profile spy movies! First up, he mentors a young Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, out this month. (Costner himself was offered the Ryan role in The Hunt For Red October, but turned it down to make Dances With Wolves.) Then, next month, he toplines 3 Days to Kill, the latest neo-Eurospy offering from Luc Besson's EuropaCorp in a bid for the same sort of late career action revival that worked so well for Liam Neeson after the success of Taken, but eluded John Travolta following the disappointing U.S. box office of From Paris With Love (a movie I found quite entertaining). Will Costner's effort succeed? Personally, I'm rooting for him! I've always liked him, and I tend to love Besson's neo-Eurospy actioners. 3 Days to Kill is written by Besson and Adi Hasak, the same team behind From Paris With Love. McG (Charlie's Angels, This Means War) directs, and Amber Heard (Paranoia, Machete Kills), Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) and Connie Nielson (Gladiator) co-star. Here's the official plot summary, and the first official photo:
In this heart pounding action-thriller, Kevin Costner is a dangerous international spy who is determined to give up his high stakes life to finally build a closer relationship with his estranged wife and daughter, whom he's previously kept at arm's length to keep out of danger. But first, he must complete one last mission - even if it means juggling the two toughest assignments yet: hunting down the world's most ruthless terrorist and looking after his teenage daughter for the first time in ten years, while his wife is out of town.
3 Days to Kill opens February 21.

True Lies Anniversary Blu-ray On the Way

Even though James Cameron has made the two highest grossing movies of all time, both for Fox, the studio has shown very little love on home video for his 1994 spy movie True Lies, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger with Jamie Lee Curtis, Tia Carrere, Eliza Dushku, Charlton Heston, Art Malick, Bill Paxton and Tom Arnold. It's never been on Blu-ray in the U.S., and the existing DVD is so bare-bones that it proudly boasts as it's sole "special" feature "Original Theatrical Trailer." But that's set to change in 2014 for the movie's 20th anniversary, when, according to The Digital Bits, the studio plans to release a special edition Blu-ray. Although we're still awaiting an official announcement from Fox, co-star Tom Arnold recently confirmed that he and the rest of the cast shot new interview material for the release. True Lies has never been among my favorite Bond rip-offs, but I admit I still look forward to watching that opening tango/snowmobile sequenceand watching Charlton Heston do a great Nick Fury impressionin high definition!

Jan 7, 2014

TV Review: Intelligence (2014)

CBS’s new spy series Intelligence stars Josh Holloway (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Lost) as a secret agent with a microchip in his brain that gives him special powers. (I’ll get into those in a minute.) The logline sounded like Chuck played straight (or a Six Million Dollar Man for the cyber era) when it was first reported, and that’s essentially what it is. Which, on its own, is neither a bad thing nor a good thing. The pilot is expectedly exposition-heavy, but when it comes down to it I suspect the success of this series will depend more on its stars than its not-entirely-fresh (and not entirely successful) premise. And, fortunately, Holloway seems born to play a cocky superspy! (As evidenced in his five minutes of screen time in Ghost Protocol.)

Holloway plays Gabriel Vaughn, a former special forces soldier who’s had a microchip implanted in his brain to… Well, for all the clunky exposition we’re treated to in the pilot (and that makes up about half the episode’s runtime), I have to confess I’m not entirely 100% sure exactly what it does. It kind of seems to have the amazing power to suit the writers’ specific needs at any given moment. But for starters, we meet Gabriel in the middle of the Himalayas at a remote military compound on the India/Pakistan border. By looking at a giant satellite dish, he’s able to “see” the SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) it’s recently transmitted. Not only that, but he’s able to pause the scene of a major terrorist attack that seems right out of Strike Back and then walk through it, observing every detail from every angle. And in those details he discovers that a CIA agent (who we later learn is his wife, who’s been in deep cover for two years!) apparently took part in the attack. Then some soldiers turn up and capture him, and he gets to do some cool old-school spy stuff that doesn’t depend on any chips… and then he somehow opens a door with his mind. Granted, it’s a door controlled by an electronic keypad, but still, he seems to open it with his mind. So that’s where we get the whole thing about his powers being at the whim of what the writer thinks would be cool in a given moment. And, personally, I’m not so into the superhero stuff. I prefer my TV spies to rely on their wits and their fists and a few believable gadgets, but not something that basically amounts to magic. And after this brief magic moment it’s mercifully back to regular spyjinks, and the cold open ends up competently marrying the pre-credits sequences from Tomorrow Never Dies (military compound in Pakistani mountains) and GoldenEye (jumping off of a giant, dam-like cliff).

Once we’ve seen Gabriel’s amazing powers in action, the pilot switches back to the States determined to fill us in on what exactly is going on. To do this, we’re introduced to audience surrogate Riley Neal (Meghan Ory of Once Upon a Time), a Secret Service agent summoned to a secret facility (the U.S. Cyber Command, which the show takes great pains in assuring us is not related to the CIA) where she’s offered a job she never applied for by an enigmatic spy boss named Lillian Strand (CSI’s Marg Helgenberger). That job is using her experience from the Presidential Protection detail (we learn that she wasn’t just a Secret Service agent; she was the best Secret Service agent!) to protect, as Lillian puts it, “the most valuable piece of technology this country’s ever created.” Or, as Gabriel puts it, “following around a charming devil with a microchip in his brain.” Gabriel doesn’t want a babysitter (“So that girl’s supposed to keep me in line, huh?”), and Riley doesn’t want the job (for no particularly compelling reason that I can tell other than checking the “refuse the call” box on the writer’s Hero’s Journey worksheet), but by the end of the episode they seem firmly paired.

Lillian and her team of scientists outline the Clockwork Project (as Gabriel and his enhancements are known) for Riley, explaining, “We connected a human being directly to the information grid. Internet, wifi, telephone, satellite…” (That single line would have sufficed for all the exposition in the episode. The more detail they try to go into, the less credible it all sounds.) So he’s basically a one-man NSA. Not great timing there, CBS, as the NSA isn’t exactly popular right now… but then again the faceless NSA doesn’t have Josh Holloway’s charming-devil eyes.

The actual plot of the week kicks in when the neuro-Geppetto scientist who ran the project (Gabriel’s cyber “father”) is kidnapped by the Chinese. You see, he also created another chip, and now the Chinese want him to implant that into one of their (female) agents, conveniently creating a beautiful femme fatale antagonist for Gabriel. (You can’t have The Six Million Dollar Man without the Bionic Woman, can you? Or Archer without Bionic Barry?) For a minute it looks like they’re actually playing U.S. vs. China spy games on Intelligence, of the sort that can’t be depicted in movies anymore because Hollywood is so desperate for those all-important Chinese dollars… but then it turns out that TV is after that market as well. This bad Chinese agent just happens to have been recently disavowed by his government (just like Wo Fat on the new Hawaii Five-0) and gone rogue, so his actions absolutely don’t reflect those of the benevolent Chinese government! (Absolutely, China, we promise!) At this point we also meet Gabriel’s requisite techie backups, including a fat, long-haired geek named Amos and a skinny, spectacled geek named Nelson. Unlike Chuck’s scene-stealing Nerd Herd, however, neither manages to break out of hackneyed stereotype territory in the pilot.

Gabriel spots a cyber-clue that takes him and Riley to Chinatown. In keeping with the post-Alias spy TV tradition (Undercovers, Exit Strategy, etc.), we’re alerted to foreign (or even just quasi-foreign) locales via localized hip-hop. Mandarin (possibly?) rap fills the speakers as our half-bionic duo takes on Chinese gangsters in an exciting gunfight and eventually an exciting hospital fight. Intelligence is at its best when engaging in traditional action-adventure stuff like this, and not trying desperately to explain its inexplicable high concept. Hopefully the pilot proves the only time they bother with attempts at exposition, and the Intelligence brain trust will just have fun with their silly premise from here on in! Because it is fun if you allow yourself to just go with it and take a ride with the appealing leads. Holloway perfected the charming devil act on Lost and puts it to good use here, and Ory (a brunette, in stark contrast to the recent tradition of pairing impossibly young blond female agents with irascible males on Fringe, Alcatraz, The Black List and more) sometimes channels a young Sandra Bullock. Their chemistry together is promising, and because his ongoing story arc involves a search for his missing wife (whom he refuses to believe has really turned traitor), any sexual tension should convincingly remain just that (in Avengers territory) and not jump the Moonlighting shark anytime soon.

Without being weighed down by nonsensical quasi-scientific exposition, Holloway and Ory should be able to keep Intelligence watchable and entertaining. The constant (and constantly deficient) exposition in the pilot put me off, but there’s an enjoyable spy series with compelling leads itching to come out, so I’ll be tuning in again next week in hopes that that happens.

Jan 3, 2014

International Trailer for Le Carre's Most Wanted Man

Dark Horizons has posted an international trailer for Anton Corbijn's eagerly anticipated John le Carré adaptation A Most Wanted Man. Unsurprisingly, it looks great! And while there are some obvious changes to certain characters' ages and nationalities, it still looks pretty faithful to the excellent source material. While it doesn't seem to divulge as much as the Cannes reel that leaked briefly online last summer, this trailer still seems to reveal a little too much... but luckily that will probably only be noticeable to readers of the novel. Lionsgate will release the contemporary Hamburg-set espionage thriller in America sometime this year, but we still don't know when. (It's set to debut at the Sundance Film Festival this month.) It's certainly among the 2014 releases I'm most looking forward to! Directed by Corbijn (The American), A Most Wanted Man stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Robin Wright and two of my favorite contemporary German actors, Nina Hoss (Barbara) and presumptive Oscar contender (for Rush) Daniel Brühl (The Fifth Estate).

NOTE: The original version I embedded was taken down, so here's a new one from Rope of Silicon, thanks to Bob's keen tradecraft!