Feb 25, 2014

Book Review: Trevayne by Robert Ludlum (1974)

Note: There is no call for my usual LTA, or Ludlum Title Analyzer, because this is one of the few books that doesn’t follow the classic title formula.

What would a Robert Ludlum novel be like with all of the conspiracy, but none (or very little) of the action?  It would be like TrevayneTrevayne is still an expertly crafted detective story as the self-made hero Andrew Trevayne heads up a Senate subcommittee to unravel massive malfeasance in government defense contracts, but it’s not exactly the page turner that most of Ludlum’s novels are.  (In case the words “Senate,” “subcommittee,” “malfeasance” and “contracts” didn't already tip you off.)  Sometimes it’s easy to get bogged down in page after page of conversations discussing various views on government spending, but overall I still found the novel quite compelling.  While this post-Watergate diatribe (written in fury and originally published under the pseudonym of Jonathan Ryder) is quite dated in some ways, it remains unfortunately applicable today in many others. 

Andrew Trevayne is a wealthy and successful businessman with a loving, devoted wife and two teenage children.  His life is upended when he’s recruited to chair a new bipartisan Senate subcommittee on unchecked military spending, a task he initially wants no part of, partly because his own firm is a defense contractor and partly because he realizes it’s a thankless, no-win position.  But he’s essentially forced to accept, and as soon as he does bad things start happening to his family.  His son is arrested on trumped-up drunk driving and hit-and-run charges.  His daughter is set up in a drug bust.  And his wife is drugged and very nearly raped while waiting for him in a posh New York hotel.  Obviously, someone doesn’t want him reaching any damaging conclusions in his investigation. 

Politically, Trevayne is the very model of the Independent.  I don’t get the feeling that Ludlum did this so as not to alienate readers on whichever side, but because the author himself was genuinely disgusted with the two-party system and with just about everyone in Washington following the Watergate revelations.  Independent or not, the military are naturally suspicious of this outsider scrutinizing their spending, afraid he’ll recommend killing programs they see as crucial.  The Army assigns a disgraced Major, Paul Bonner, to be Trevayne’s liaison, but they also task Bonner to spy on his boss for them.  Bonner seems as surprised as the reader when the two men don’t fall neatly into the expected hawk and dove stereotypes (a relationship Ludlum attempted much more directly in another pseudonymous novel of the same era, the overtly comedic Road to Gandolfo, with its co-heroes Hawk and Dev).  The issues that Trevayne is investigating and Ludlum is exploring are complex ones, and hence the relationship between these two men proves complex as well—and ultimately one of the things that makes the novel so rewarding. 

The author is less successful at nuance when it comes to Trevayne’s teenage children.  I appreciated that he wanted to get the younger point of view into his story at a time when youth movements and anti-war protests were an undeniable force in American politics, but I wish he hadn’t attempted to capture what he saw as the youth “voice” as well.  Sure, some of the terms like “far out” and “with it” seem rote today because they’re so dated, but I have a feeling that actual teens of the time didn’t speak even then in quite the way Ludlum has them speak, which sounds decidedly more like a middle-aged man trying to write for a youth demographic.  (Sort of like when Paris goes undercover as a hippie student on Mission: Impossible.) 

Some Ludlum readers complain about the comparative lack of action in Trevayne.  It’s true that the novel falls far short of the explosion and gunshot quotient we expect of the author, but it’s no worse off for that.  It still manages to feel undeniably and gloriously Ludlum even without those elements.  (And when they do come, they have more impact in this kind of story.)  I was completely drawn into the procedural elements of Trevayne’s committee’s investigation, and found them every bit as compelling as the car chases and shootouts I’m more used to from the author. 

While short on car chases, Trevayne still packs all the plot twists readers expect from Robert Ludlum.  The political intrigue is genuinely engrossing, and many of the twists (which come fast and furious in the book’s final third) just as genuinely surprising.  In my opinion, the author stopped one twist short though.  Here I am going to discuss the ending of the book in broad strokes, but perhaps not broad enough if you’re about to read the book yourself, so if you’re particularly concerned with potential spoilers you may wish to skip the rest of this paragraph.  Not all of Ludlum’s novels end happily, and a few pack some final surprises calculated to leave the reader alarmed or stirred to political action—or at least awareness. But for a moment toward this novel’s conclusion, I actually thought the author might go even further in that direction than ever before and have his hero actually become the very thing he’d spent the course of the story crusading against.  I thought Trevayne might fully succumb to the Dark Side, to speak in Star Wars terms.  Had he, Trevayne might pack enough satirical punch to be regarded as a subversive classic.  Instead, Ludlum pulls his punches just a bit at the finale.  The conclusion is still designed to leave readers unsettled, and the character is forced to compromise but allowed to maintain the integrity of his convictions.  Perhaps I’m happier that way as a reader.  The conclusion is satisfying and the book completely works as a thriller, the details of its complex plot destined to become murky in my overall positive memories of the book.  Had it gone that other direction, I probably would have been pissed off at end and tempted to hurl the paperback across the room.  But days, weeks, and months later, it would have stuck with me and grown in import in my mind.  Of course it’s unfair to criticize the author too much for what he doesn’t do.  For what he does do, he accomplishes very successfully.

Trevayne is a bit of an oddity in the Ludlum oeuvre, from its non-standard title to its pseudonymous origins to its comparative lack of action to its atypically political bent.  But all of the author’s favorite themes are present and accounted for, as are his patented labyrinthine plot construction and myriad twists and turns.  It’s an interesting—and ultimately quite successful—experiment, and should be required reading for the author’s fans.

The Ludlum Dossier
Read my book review of The Bourne Ultimatum (1990) here.
Read my book review of The Parsifal Mosaic (1982) here.
Read my DVD review of The Holcroft Covenant (1986) here.
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 Sigma Protocol (2001) here.
Read my book review of The Bourne Identity (1980) here.

Feb 21, 2014

Movie Review: 3 Days to Kill (2014)

3 Days to Kill is a fun spy movie that might be the most Besson of all of the Luc Besson-produced neo-Eurospy movies to date. (Since the success of The Transporter, his company, EuropaCorp, has reliably churned out mid-budget spy/action movies made with European locations and at least partly European money, most starring slightly over-the-hill Hollywood stars looking for a late career comeback as an action hero. In other words, they’re following the reliable formula of the Sixties "Eurospy" genre, and generally doing an entertaining job of it.) That’s not to say that it’s the best Besson-produced action flick; it’s to say that it’s the most. Besson did not direct 3 Days to Kill, but he co-wrote it (with his Taken collaborator Adi Hasak) and produced it. McG directs, in a style that feels like an homage to Besson. Introducing last week’s Hollywood premiere, the director said that Besson’s early movies like La Femme Nikita and Leon were huge influences on him, and nowhere is that more evident than in 3 Days to Kill. Unlike Besson’s usual go-to helmer of late, Olivier Megaton, McG is a director who understands how to make a comprehensible action sequence to begin with. Add to that a stylistic nod to Besson, who’s one of the all-time masters of the action setpiece, and we’re left with a number of excellent action scenes in 3 Days to Kill. But also true to Besson’s own proclivities, we’re left with a wildly uneven tone that veers haphazardly between spy action and family dramedy, odd ethnic-based comedy, unbelievable coincidences, and schmaltzy, never quite credible, almost creepy scenes between a father and a teenage daughter. Yes, all of the best and worst of Luc Besson is present and accounted for in 3 Days to Kill, hence its claim to the title of the most Besson movie to date. That dooms it to inevitably negative reviews, but if you’re a fan of the French director/producer, you’ll find a whole lot to like. Not only has McG crafted an undeniably Besson action film, but he’s also made a better Besson movie than the last real Besson movie, The Family!

Kevin Costner (No Way Out), fresh off a solid supporting spy role in the somewhat underwhelming Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, steps into the limelight again as top CIA assassin Ethan Renner. (Now there’s a name contrived to conjure images of Mission: Impossible!) In the highly impressive opening action scene (which is never quite equaled), Ethan is part of a mission to take out a ruthless international terrorist arms dealer, The Wolf, and his sadistic henchman, The Albino, at a Belgrade hotel. Both baddies are played by superbly cast career Euro villains, the former by Richard Sammel, who has previously menaced both James Bond (as the eyepatched baddie Gettler in Casino Royale) and OSS 117 (as the Nazi Moeller in OSS 117:Cairo Nest of Spies), the latter by the supremely creepy Tómas Lemarquis. The mission goes spectacularly wrong, but Ethan still puts in a good showing until he’s felled by some sort of seizure, and the villains get away.

The cause of the seizure is revealed to be advanced terminal brain cancer, effectively putting an end to Ethan’s CIA career. Retired and dying, he heads to Paris to reconnect with his estranged wife and daughter, Christine (Gladiator’s Connie Nielsen) and Zoey (True Grit Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld). Going through her difficult teenage years without a dad (and unaware of his condition), Zoey is naturally resistant to her father’s attempts to reinsert himself into her life. Christine gives Ethan a similarly cold reception until he’s forced to reveal that he’s dying (in order to get her to sign the proper papers to put his affairs in order), at which point she allows him to take care of Zoey for three days while she flies to England on business. From Zoey’s attitude (and her preference to spend time with her older boyfriend instead of her dad, or to go to raves with her friends instead of the amusement parks Ethan took her to when she was 9), it’s clear these will be a challenging three days for Ethan already. But they’re made all the more challenging when the impossibly glamorous CIA agent Vivi Delay (Machete Kills’ Amber Heard) roars into his life in a Peugeot RCZ. (I’ll bet anything her driving scenes were added after Besson or McG saw her on Top Gear!)

Vivi wants Ethan back on the job, because he’s the only man who’s ever seen The Wolf in person and can identify him. And she offers him about the only incentive a man in his position can’t possibly pass up: a new lease on life, via an experimental drug with unstable side effects. So he accepts this final mission, and she tasks him with killing The Wolf. It’s left entirely unclear why a sick man taking a drug that leaves him prone to sudden hallucinations is sent on this mission alone. Surely another agent in better condition could accompany him to pull the trigger when Ethan identifies the target—even Vivi herself, who’s presented as more than capable. (In my imagination, every time something like this comes up in a story conference on a Besson movie, the discussion ends with an exaggerated Gallic shrug and a thickly accented “’oo cares?”… and I don’t really have any problem with that!) Vivi is a bit of an enigma. In her first appearance at Langley she’s dressed roughly how one might expect an ambitious young female case officer to dress, but in every subsequent scene she’s glammed up like Fatima Blush designed her wardrobe, and accompanied by music that nearly a century of sound cinema has conditioned us to associate with human incarnations of the Devil. While these clues might seem like incredibly unsubtle hints that she’s some sort of double agent, that’s not the case. It’s just how she’s presented, and it’s another one of those odd little touches that left me scratching my head, but which prove entirely forgivable in a Besson film.

When Ethan accepts the CIA’s offer, this sets into motion the movie’s central conflict: balancing his spy life with his dad life. There are shades of Taken here, but unlike Maggie Grace (who at 24 played Liam Neeson’s teenage daughter in the first film like she was a developmentally challenged 10-year-old), actual teenager Steinfeld imbues her character with a credible teenage angst no matter how much Ethan (and the script) chooses to infantilize her. All of the usual antics occur. Ethan is late for the dinner he had promised to prepare (tuna) because he was doing spy stuff. Then it turns out Zoey hates tuna anyway. Ethan is interrupted on more than one occasion by a phone call from or about Zoey while he’s smack in the middle of torturing someone for information in his best Jack Bauer style. And, of course, Ethan uses his spy skills and contacts to delve deeper into his daughter’s personal life than she’d like. (Though, like Taken’s Bryan Mills, his overprotective instincts prove correct.) There’s also a running gag about him buying her a purple girl’s bike and wanting her to ride it when she’s of an age when she’d much rather ride the Metro with her friends or ride in her boyfriend’s car.

The thing is, hackneyed as they might sound, many of these scenes prove genuinely funny! The bike gag is a good one, since her refusal to ride it results in Ethan himself having to haul it around Paris with him while he’s doing his spy stuff. The bike even plays a starring role in the movie’s second-best action sequence, in which he waylays a motorcade with the aid of an explosive he sneakily applies to the undercarriage of an SUV with his shoe while passing it on the bike. More successful comedy comes from Ethan’s decision to stow a bound informant he was in the middle of torturing in his trunk when he’s called by Zoey’s principal to pick her up early because she’s gotten into a fight. How do you lecture your child about violence when there’s a loud, suspicious banging noise emanating from the boot of your car?

The dramatic aspects of his daughter bonding are somewhat less successful. It turns out she doesn’t want to ride a bike because, growing up with an absent father, she never learned how to ride one. (I guess her mother didn’t know how either?) This leads to a Butch Cassidy sequence of Ethan teaching his nearly grown daughter how to ride a bicycle. Then there’s that overprotectiveness. When he uses his espionage know-how to track Zoey to a rave when she had told him she’d be spending the night at a friend’s house, he arrives at this dangerous dance party just in time to save her from being gang raped. While we all like watching old spies beat up would-be rapists and I appreciated the sly nod to Costner’s famous Bodyguard role when he carries his daughter out of the club, I was less comfortable with the way the movie then passes off that potentially scarring incident as trifling for the sake of comedy.

The spy and family storylines come together in the third act as you knew they would—but thanks to pure coincidence rather than any ingenuity of plot. Half-baked or not, though, the ensuing action sequence is, like all the action in this movie, highly entertaining to behold. And that sums up the movie as a whole (and perhaps all of Besson’s neo-Eurospy flicks) as well: half-baked, but highly entertaining. It veers all over the place with no clear rhyme or reason, but I kind of wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s no Taken, but it’s a lot better than Taken 2. (And it’s also a vast improvement on McG’s last spy/comedy hybrid, This Means War.) Making the most of the combined talents of Luc Besson and McG (and if the more cynical among you are waiting for a punchline to that setup, be advised that I’m being entirely earnest), the action is top-notch (better than the vast majority of today’s favored incomprehensible fight scenes), and Kevin Costner makes a thoroughly compelling spy lead. Like Neeson, age lines and a grizzled demeanor suit him well, and I sincerely hope that this movie launches him on a similar late-career detour as an action hero.

Watch the trailer here.

Feb 18, 2014

Book Review: The Bourne Ultimatum by Robert Ludlum (1990)

Is the hero named Bourne? For all intents and purposes.
Is there an Ultimatum? Hm… Not really, I guess. Sort of. More of a supremacy, but that’s already been used. Still, it’s a great title, so I won’t quibble.

After two fantastic entries (read my reviews here and here) in what ultimately became a trilogy, Robert Ludlum made a rare misstep with the third novel. The Bourne Ultimatum delivers the epic Bourne vs. Carlos payoff audiences have desired ever since the first book (in which American agent David Webb assumed the role of a deadly assassin known as Jason Bourne in order to ensnare the real assassin, Carlos the Jackal), but it fails to maintain the furious energy of the previous books in getting there. Too many coincidences, too much filler, and Ludlum’s weakest conspiracy (so half-baked it doesn’t even really fit in with the rest of the story) doom this final Bourne novel. However, it’s still a chance to spend time with characters we’ve grown to like and in whose fate we’re now invested, and we do—eventually—get a definitive and more or less satisfying conclusion to the plight of David Webb that began a decade earlier in Ludlum’s masterwork, The Bourne Identity. So The Bourne Ultimatum is certainly worth reading for fans of the series who have read the other two novels, but they must be braced for a bit of a letdown, comparatively.

Most of The Bourne Ultimatum’s fatal flaws are tied in with the fact that it’s simply too long. Ludlum’s novels grew longer and longer throughout the Eighties, but were usually so packed with twists and turns and slam-bang action that they generally earned that length. (See: The Bourne Supremacy.) With Ultimatum, however, it feels like he was struggling to equal the page count now expected of him, and augmented a decent central story with superfluous subplots that never entirely gel.

Thirteen years after the events of The Bourne Identity (which was published in 1980, but actually took place a few years earlier), David Webb’s worst fears have come true. Somehow, the Jackal has tracked him down. The assassin knows the identities of Webb’s two closest friends, retired CIA agent Alexander Conklin and Washington-based psychiatrist Dr. Morris Panov. He proves it by luring them to a trap at an amusement park, which makes for a terrific opening to the novel. They get away, but then that was the point. It conveys a message to Webb that will force him to surface: Carlos is close to discovering your true identity, and consequently the identities of your wife and children. (Webb’s wife, Marie, has been a main character in both previous books; their young children are new additions.)

Carlos is a very different character than he was in The Bourne Identity. In that he was truly scary: a believable psychopath charismatic enough to control an army of old men. (Carlos only trusts loyal veteran soldiers who are already close to death anyway.) In The Bourne Ultimatum, he’s a cartoon, a raving lunatic hell-bent on revenge at any cost. He even laughs maniacally as he guns down his own supporters, and if he had a mustache he’d definitely twirl it. I suspect that this change may have come about because Ludlum did not want to risk glorifying the real-life terrorist who formed the basis for his fictional namesake. In a 1986 interview* promoting the second novel in the series, he explained why he hadn’t included Carlos in that book’s plot. The real Jackal (whose life was chronicled in Olivier Ossayas' 2010 miniseries Carlos) was still at large, so he couldn’t have Bourne kill him off. But if he had the assassin escape once again, then he risked adding to his ill-gotten legend rather than tearing it down. By making his Carlos into a ludicrous Bond villain caricature in Ultimatum, the author got to take control of his fact-based creation. This Carlos was so far removed from the real one that Ludlum probably felt less compunction about engineering his demise, and in doing so was very careful not to glorify him at all. If those were the reasons, then they make sense. But they also make the character a far less appealing villain since he’s so ridiculously over the top.

To paraphrase a very complicated plot (and to attempt to make it make more sense than it does in the book), the introverted academic Webb reverts to his Mr. Hyde alter-ego, Jason Bourne, and packs Marie and the kids off to a not-so-secret island retreat they’ve established in the Caribbean so he can flush out the Jackal in America and kill him so as to eliminate the threat to his family. In doing this, he serendipitously stumbles upon a completely unrelated conspiracy involving the remnants of the Vietnam-era Black Ops program from whence he sprang, Medusa. His brilliant plan, in which even the brilliant strategist Conklin sees no flaw, is to shake the tree of this new Medusa so hard that they resort to hiring his old enemy, Carlos, to kill him. Now, Carlos already wants to kill him, so all this really accomplishes is getting a whole new powerful enemy to want him dead at the same time. And I’m not sure why Bourne automatically assumed that Medusa would go to Carlos to make this happen, because… well, in fact, they don’t! Instead they bring in the Mafia, who send their own best hitman after Bourne (apparently just to add to the parties chasing him).

Ludlum’s attempt to link the two plotlines together is just as ill-conceived as his character’s. They never successfully tie in with each other. Even when they finally appear to thanks to a surveillance photo showing Carlos and the leader of Medusa in one place, it turns out that that meeting was merely staged for the camera by a third party entirely ancillary to either storyline. (Don’t worry; I’m not giving anything away because that plot thread goes literally nowhere.) Meanwhile, what Ludlum himself describes as a “French farce” plays out in the Caribbean, involving two old men with similar names arriving on the island in quick succession. Like Bourne’s plan, what ensues there is far too reliant on coincidence—so much so that the author himself freely acknowledges it within the text with that “French farce” comparison!

Some of Ludlum’s more irksome traits as a writer are forgivable in better books, but become painfully annoying in lesser ones like this. As his page count ballooned in the late Eighties and particularly in the Nineties, he developed a tendency of repeating himself ad nauseam. Ludlum was always guilty of that to some degree (though it’s fair to assume that with books that long, readers might need the occasional in-story recap), but in The Bourne Ultimatum it’s simply egregious. Schemes are hatched and then instantly recapitulated. The entire plot to date is frequently summarized for each character not yet privy to all the details—usually after they annoyingly insist upon it.** Even individual sentences are repeated and unnecessarily drawn out at every opportunity. Characters frequently yell at one another that they don’t have time for this, and in doing so make everything take so much longer. And again and again and again, they ask, “What?” Seriously, “what” (in italics) seems like the most used word in this book. (That problem is exacerbated in the audio version by the otherwise unparalleled narrator Scott Brick saying it with the same sharp delivery on each occasion.) And every time someone asks, “What?” you can expect a lengthy recap of whatever was just said along with everything else that’s been said to date in the whole novel. Along those same lines, characters are also always asking for clarification of “spyspeak” and then verbosely berating the characters who used it for doing so—even when, in many cases, the character asking should have known the terminology himself! It all gets old fast. So do repeated or similar phrases.

At one point, Ludlum writes, “Then the impossible happened” and then, “Then the incredible happened” on the same page, before repeating the latter statement verbatim mere paragraphs later. The book could easily be half as long if an editor had simply struck through every repeated piece of information! (Or even a third of them.) Whereas audiences know the Bourne of the movies as a man of few words, the book version (here, anyway) never uses five of them when he can use fifty. Marie even calls him on it at one point, asking, “Why do you use twelve words when one would suffice?” Her husband lamely replies that it’s because he’s an academic… but takes far more words than that to say so. I’m not buying it, Ludlum!

Another Ludlum staple that serves him well in better books but becomes annoying here is the overuse of italicized phrases like, “Madness! It was madness!” and “Then, it happened!” (One of his favorite phrases.) The author has always done that, but in better books, it generally serves his narrative, and even when it doesn’t, it’s easier to overlook. The habit becomes much harder to overlook when it’s done with the regularity it is here.

Like Carlos’ mania, Bourne/Webb’s Jekyll and Hyde syndrome (explored quite wonderfully in The Bourne Supremacy) is also cartoonier here than before, and far more exaggerated. The character doesn’t even seem as sharp as he did previously. How on Earth, for instance, can Bourne not understand how someone else could leave a fake calling card blaming him for an assassination he didn't commit after the same exact thing has already happened in two other books?

To be fair, though, some of Bourne’s slower reactions can be attributed to his feeling his age. The best parts of the novel have to do with Bourne dealing with being 50—thirteen years older than he was in Identity. He no longer has some of those amazing action hero reflexes he was so surprised to discover back then. David Webb makes a point of staying in shape, but even in the best shape it’s not as easy to scale walls and take falls and recover from brutal fights at 50 as it was in his thirties. One of the most intriguing aspects of the Bourne series, to me, is the fact that the character (unlike many other series heroes in this genre, like Ian Fleming’s James Bond) ages in real time. Luckily for Bourne, Carlos has aged as well, and the central story of these two titans attempting to bring to a close a battle for supremacy that’s driven them both since they were much younger men is highly compelling.

There are other good things about The Bourne Ultimatum, too. Conklin’s still a wonderful character, for instance, and his colorful language remains hilarious enough to overlook the fact that black characters are still using the phrase “honkies” in 1990. (Though the best bluish outburst belongs not to Conklin, but to an irate general who berates an underling by calling him a “ball-less scrotum." I’m surprised we don’t hear that one more often!) The gay Mafia capo is a good and unique character, and Panov’s escape attempts after getting captured manage to be both exciting and amusing at once. And man can Ludlum write an action scene! The shootouts and smash-ups remain as compelling as ever.

The book gets better as it goes on, too. Once Bourne’s cross-continental pursuit of Carlos takes him behind the Iron Curtain into the Soviet Union, things are finally firing on all cylinders. The climax, which is the part I remember most vividly from my first time reading this book as a middle schooler, takes place in a KGB training facility in Novgorod where key Western cities (including my own stomping ground of that era, New London, Connecticut) have been recreated in scaled-down versions for the purpose of espionage training. The complex is like a diabolical Epcot Center, and makes a spectacular setting for the finale as Bourne continues to battle Carlos across continents—but all in the span of a few miles now. That epic confrontation alone is worth the cover price. The Bourne Ultimatum definitely has its pluses, but ultimately it’s undone by all those minuses. Reading Ludlum’s better books, it’s very easy to overlook that sort of minuses. But reading a repetitive, overlong work like this one, unfortunately, they all stand out and call too much attention to themselves. Still, by its final page, The Bourne Ultimatum has at least brought the story of Jason Bourne (aka David Webb) to a fairly satisfying conclusion.

Of course, that wasn’t totally the conclusion. The author’s estate elected to hire Eric van Lustbader to continue the series, and he’s since penned way more Bourne novels than the character’s creator ever did. I’m not sure why. Unlike James Bond, whose job entails one new assignment after another, thus lending the series to continuation, Bourne doesn’t scream out for more novels after Ultimatum. His story is complete. Lustbader might write terrific thrillers about the character for all I know, but personally I have no interest in finding out. It would stretch credulity too much to have this former fake assassin lured back into the game he despises again and again and again. Furthermore, from what I gather, Lustbader eschewed many of my favorite aspects of Ludlum’s series. I know he quickly killed off the best characters, and I suspect he did away with the compelling real-time aging. (If not, then his latest book would focus on a seventy-something assassin, and that seems unlikely.) Ludlum may not have nailed the final volume, but he told a complete story in his Bourne trilogy and as a reader I’m quite satisfied to leave it at that.

*"Ludlum on Ludlum"
**In the same 1986 interview, Ludlum quite soundly sang the virtues of heavy rewriting, adding that he tried to clarify everything in his labyrinthine plots further with each rewrite. That’s very practical… but it seems that by the time of The Bourne Ultimatum, he was over-clarifying. 

The Ludlum Dossier
Read my book review of The Parsifal Mosaic (1982) here.
Read my DVD review of The Holcroft Covenant (1986) here.
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 Sigma Protocol (2001) here.
Read my book review of The Bourne Identity (1980) here.

Feb 17, 2014

Tradecraft: Ed Skrein Replaces Jason Statham in Transporter 4

For a franchise built solely around its original star (well, and his car), the Transporter series (first of EuropaCorp's many neo-Eurospy franchises and movies) has spawned a surprisingly high number of Frank Martins. After Simon Vance already stepped into the role originated by Jason Statham for the Transporter TV series (which is currently in production on its second season, and set to air this fall on TNT), Variety reports that Ed Skrein will take over the role in the film series beginning with Transporter 4. Skrein had a supporting role in The Sweeney in 2012, and that same year starred in his Sweeney co-star Ben Drew's directorial debut, Ill Manors. He played a recurring role on The Tunnel (the UK version of The Bridge), but he's probably best known to American audiences (if he's known at all) from his recurring role as mercenary Daario Naharis on Game of Thrones. (However, he's been replaced by another actor for Season 4.) He's 30 years old, roughly fifteen years Statham's junior. Word has it that Transporter 4 will be something of a prequel, focusing on a younger Frank Martin before he became the man we know from the Statham movies. (Does that mean he won't have established his rules yet? Or will we see him in his Special Forces days, before he even went private to start transporting?) Variety uses the term "reboot." The new movies are not expected to be related to the TV show.

EuropaCorp CEO Christophe Lambert told the trade that the new film (first in a projected trilogy co-produced with China's Fundamental Films) will return Frank to the French Riviera, setting of the first movie (and some of the TV series). He said the writers Bill Collage and Adam Cooper (Tower Heist, Exodus) have "given more depth to the character of Frank Martin." To that end this film will explore his relationship with his father, for whom they're looking for a prominent actor. This will mark the first entry in the series not written by Robert Mark Kamen and EuropaCorp co-founder Luc Besson (also the team responsible for the Taken movies). The trade reports that Camille Delamarre, who edited EuropaCorp's Transporter 3, Taken 2, Colombiana and Lockout, directed second unit on the Transporter series, and made his feature directing debut on Brick Mansions, the company's upcoming English language remake of their French hit District B13, will helm all three new Transporter movies. So far, an American distributor hasn't yet been lined up. (Fox distributed the first two movies, Lionsgate the third.)

Hm. I'm not sure how to feel about this. I'm excited that there will be new Transporter movies, but I really wish they had just stuck with Jason Statham! He is fantastic in that role. I'm also sorry that Besson and Kamen won't be writing it, but I guess every writer probably has only so many stories in him about a guy driving something from one place to another. The injection of fresh blood into the series is kind of exciting, and I hope that the modest $30 million budget (down from Transporter 3's estimated $65 million) will inspire Delamarre to take the series to new levels of practical lunacy. I just hope that "reboot" doesn't automatically mean turning the series darker, as it has for other series. I enjoy these movies for their completely preposterous, totally daffy action, and their tone akin to Roger Moore Bond movies.

Read my review of Transporter 3 here.

Feb 16, 2014

TNT's Agent X Adds to Cast

A few weeks ago we learned that Sharon Stone would topline TNT's spy pilot Agent X playing a newly minted U.S. Vice President who discovers that her job comes with a top secret sideline: protecting the Constitution in times of great crisis with the aid of her Chief Steward and a secret operative designated 'Agent X.' Now the cable network has rounded out the cast, filling the other leads—some with notable spy veterans. According to Deadline, Jeff Hephner (Chicago Fire) will play the title role of John Case, codenamed Agent X. Gerald McRaney (who even managed to be awesome in the lackluster Undercovers, his last spy series) will play Malcolm Millar, "the refined Chief Steward of the Vice President’s mansion, and keeper of its many secrets." (Her Alfred?) Homeland's Jamey Sheridan will play FBI Director Stanton, who's described as "patronizing and disdainful" towards the VP. (Perhaps he's just resentful, since he himself held that office on his last spy show.) The trade blog also reports that Mike Colter (Zero Dark Thirty, Salt) will play the Speaker of the House, tasked with oversight of the ultra secretive Agent X project, and (in a separate story) that Peter O'Fallon (Leverage, House) will direct the pilot.

Los Angeles Spy Fans: A Rare Opportunity to See Never Say Never Again on the Big Screen This Week!

Attention Los Angeles area spy fans! This week marks a very rare opportunity to see Sean Connery's 1983 return to the role that made him famous on the big screen. It's not often you'll have this opportunity. I'd hazard that thanks to this city's robust revival circuit (there are at least five full-time theaters dedicated to playing older movies in town, not to mention universities and special screenings), L.A. affords cineastes more chances to watch old movies projected in 35mm (or, more and more commonly now, in DCPs) on the big screen than just about any other city in the world. Yet, in the fourteen years that I've lived here, this is the first time that Never Say Never Again has ever screened at one of those revival houses. For comparison, I'd estimate that every other James Bond film (including that other black sheep of the series, the 1967 Casino Royale) has played at least twice in all that time. The vast majority of them have been shown many more times than that, and Connery's earlier entries average about once a year. (Less often for You Only Live Twice, sadly, but more often for Goldfinger, so they even out.) But, let me repeat, Never Say Never Again has never screened here in at least the last decade and a half. That makes this week's showing at the New Beverly Cinema roughly the cinematic equivalent of a first edition of Casino Royale for its obscurity. (Okay, maybe not quite that rare, but damn close!) So if you're a Bond fan, even if you don't rate that rogue entry particularly highly, I definitely recommend making a trip out in the next three days to see this elusive unicorn of a Bond film.

Personally, I really like Never Say Never Again a lot. Sure, the plot is a rehash of Thunderball; (but let's face it: that can actually be said of quite a lot of movies over the years!) sure, it may not have the Bond Theme for legal reasons, and sure, there are unfamiliar staff holding down the fort at MI6 (though I get a huge kick out of Edward Fox's quarrelsome M and Alec McCowen's cockney Q), but it does have SEAN CONNERY back in the role he had abandoned twelve years priorand looking fitter and more interested than he did in his last official picture (Diamond Are Forever, which is also on the docket at the New Bev)! And it's got Barbara Carrera as one of the best (and best costumed) Bond villainesses ever (and a virtual prototype for Xenia Onatopp, another contender for that crown), Klaus Maria Brandauer as a superbly unhinged villain, Bernie Casey as a terrific Felix Leiter, and stellar cinematography (all the better in glorious 35mm!) by the man who shot Raiders of the Lost Ark, Douglas Slocombe! And it's got the immortal line, "I wouldn't know. I've never lost." (Old spy hands Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, writers of one of my favorite spy send-ups, Otley, did an uncredited dialogue pass on the script, and the dialogue generally sparkles.) Yeah, I really love it.

It was also my own frustrating White Whale for a long time in one intangible, experiential aspect of my personal Bond collection: collecting big screen viewings. My first cinematic Bond experience as a kid was Licence to Kill, but over my years living in Los Angeles I managed eventually to rack up all the others in theatrical screenings. (Most far more than once.) But Never Say Never Again eluded me until 2012, when it played in New York while I just happened to be visiting that city. Unfortunately, I took the wrong train, and ended up missing the first half of the film. So I've only seen half of it in a theater to date, and that doesn't really count. Hence, I'm looking forward to striking it off my list tonight and completing my virtual "collection"... and then probably seeing it once more for good measure on Monday or Tuesday.

As I mentioned above, Never Say Never Again isn't playing alone. It's on a double feature bill along with Diamonds Are Forever (nowhere near as rare, but also not among the more commonly screened Connerys), so for one low price you can see Sean Connery's last two Bond movies at the New Beverly Cinema February 15 through the 18th. (Yeah, I'm a day late in getting the word out here, but you've still got three chances!) Both titles are screening in 35mm (as do all movies at that wonderful theater), which I'll take over a DCP any day of the week. Tickets are $8 (what a bargain for two Bond flicks!) and can be purchased at the door or online here. On Sunday, Diamonds Are Forever starts at 5:10pm and Never Say Never Again at 7:30, and on Monday and Tuesday Diamonds Are Forever plays at 7:30 with Never Say Never Again beginning at 9:50. Make the trip! It will be well worth it. (Also, while there's no guarantee, the New Beverly usually programs thematically related vintage trailers with their double features, so hopefully we'll get a taste of some other Bond and spy films, too.)

Incidentally, in other Never Say Never Again news (and more helpful news for people who don't happen to live withing driving distance of Los Angeles), the Blu-ray, which has been out of print for some time and was commanding prohibitively steep prices last year, has recently come back into stock at Amazon through third part sellers for reasonable prices. I don't know if this actually means that it's back in print (doubtful), or just that someone uncovered some unsold stock. In any case, if you don't own it already on Blu-ray (and it's a shockingly good high-def transfer for a film EON would rather MGM bury somewhere and forget), you might want to grab it now while the grabbing is good, because in a few months the supply might dwindle and it might go back to being a $60 disc.

Feb 15, 2014

Tradecraft: BBC Two Picks Up Tom Rob Smith Series London Spy

Deadline reports that BBC Two has picked up London Spy, a new 5-part espionage drama from Tom Rob Smith, bestselling author of Child 44, for which he won the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award in 2008. According to the trade, London Spy focuses on "an innocent young man drawn into a dangerous world of espionage." Here's the official synopsis from BBC:
In the center of London is a street with the headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Service on one side and the headquarters of gay clubbing on the other. London Spy is the story of a chance romance between two people from opposite sides of that street.
Danny - gregarious, hedonistic, romantic and adrift, falls for the anti-social enigmatic and brilliant Alex. Just as the two of them realise that they're perfect for each other, Alex disappears.
Danny, utterly ill-equipped to take on the complex and codified world of British espionage, must decide whether he's prepared to fight for the truth.
Deadline reports that the series will shoot this year and air in 2015. No U.S. broadcaster has been announced yet. Smith is producing; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy's Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner executive produce for Working Title Television along with Juliette Howell, and Polly Hill exec produces for BBC Two. Hill added to the synopsis, saying, "This is a beautifully written love story, caught up in a spy thriller – a wonderfully complex and surprising story, of one man’s search for the truth.” Sounds great to me! I love that we're in the midst of a spy renaissance on British TV (particularly on the various BBC channels), what with this, Legacy (which has already aired in Britain), the previously announced Page Eight sequels, The Honourable Woman, and the especially intriguing Brian Cox series The Game, among others. (Not to mention the in-the-works adaptation of Len Deighton's Samson novels!) It's like the late Seventies all over again! I also particularly love the title London Spy.

While this is his first contemporary spy story, Tom Rob Smith is certainly no stranger to the genre. Child 44 (which is being adapted into a film by Safe House director Daniel Espinosa starring Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman and Noomi Rapace) is the first book in a successful and acclaimed trilogy of decades-spanning Cold War novels about KGB agent Leo Demidov. The other two are The Secret Speech and Agent 6.

Feb 14, 2014

Valentine's Day Book Review: The Parsifal Mosaic by Robert Ludlum (1982)

Is the hero named Parsifal? Nope. It is, however, a codename given to the unknown enemy, with a tenuous connection to the Wagner opera.

Is there a Mosaic? Well, not literally, no, but in the same metaphorical way there is in all of Ludlum’s conspiracy novels. Who cares? It’s a great title!

The Parsifal Mosaic may be the ultimate break-up novel—at least within the spy genre. Basically, it’s about a guy, Michael Havelock, who makes a really, really bad mistake in his relationship (he believes evidence that supposedly proves his girlfriend, Jena Karas, is a Russian spy), breaks it off in the worst way imaginable (he, um, tries to have her killed—and even believes he succeeds), and then realizes he can’t live without her. After his first attempt at a rebound goes typically awry (he ends up getting a KGB recruitment offer at gunpoint instead of the one-night stand he expected), Havelock sees the error of his ways and spends the first half of the book trying to get Jena to just so much as speak to him again (the problem is now she wants to kill him, too... rather understandably), let alone realize that they’re right for one another. He knows he messed up, and he wants to apologize to her for that, and give her everything he should have given her to begin with. Unfortunately, there are a whole lot of people who want to see them both dead, which makes all of his efforts at reconciliation considerably more difficult. But that doesn’t stop Havelock from pursuing his elusive former love all over the world (from Madrid to Rome to Paris to New York and beyond), fighting all sorts of adversaries, and getting to the bottom of a vast global conspiracy along the way. (Would it be Ludlum without a vast global conspiracy?)

Havelock is an agent of Consular Operations, the fictitious intelligence branch of the U.S. State Department that features in many of Ludlum’s novels. (I suspect its creation came about because the author, in the post-Watergate, post-Church Committee 1970s, couldn’t stomach making a CIA agent a hero in The Matarese Circle.) Or rather, as the novel opens, he’s a former agent, having turned in his resignation following the messy operation that resulted in the supposed death of his lover. He watched it play out, too, observing on a beach on Spain’s Costa Brava as Jena was gunned down by members of the Red Brigade, per his own elaborate set-up. It was more than he could handle. He resigned, and now he’s wandering around Europe, visiting all the places where he previously operated (with her), but never got to enjoy as a tourist. Then, one day at a train station in Rome, he sees Jena. Alive. He tries to go after her, but she flees. This sets into motion his relentless pursuit, which in turn sets agents of various intelligence agencies (as well as freelancers) on his trail. Everyone realizes that he’s now back in the game, but no one’s sure who he’s working for. Neither the Russians nor the Americans can afford to let him live, and he finds himself cut off from his greatest resource back in the States—his mentor, hailed the world over as a “great man,” the Kissinger-like, Czech-born, horn-rimmed glasses-wearing Secretary of State Anton Mathias. Ludlum had a great distrust for the self-proclaimed “best and brightest,” so anyone identified as a “great man” comes under instant suspicion, but Mathias’s story takes some interesting twists and turns and doesn’t necessarily lead where seasoned Ludlumites might expect.

Meanwhile, there is a Soviet mole somewhere at the heart of the American government, close to Mathias and close to the President. This really messes things up for Havelock, because the mole believes that Havelock’s relentless pursuit of Jena may lead to his or her exposure. So even if Havelock can convince someone in the U.S. government that he hasn’t switched sides, the mole is still in a position to call the shots and send American-backed hit squads in his direction.

I first read The Parsifal Mosaic, like most Ludlum novels, when I was in middle school, and I’ve remembered it ever since as being one of the author’s best. After revisiting it recently (via Audible audiobook), I now realize that those impressions must have been based largely on the thick novel’s first half, which is as gripping and exciting as anything Ludlum’s ever written. Unfortunately, the story loses some of that momentum when Havelock and Jena are reunited about halfway through—too soon when it was the prospect of that reunion that was driving the story. The focus in the second half shifts to the wider conspiracy that Michael’s pursuit of Jena has uncovered. The nature of this conspiracy (a mosaic which ensnares the President, the mole and the Secretary of State among others) is highly creative, but unfortunately the untangling of it mainly involves Havelock and Jena, thus far the book’s protagonists, holed up in a safe house making phone calls while others do the legwork. (Though regular Ludlum readers know that in his world, “safe houses” are usually anything but.) The unrestrained force that propelled the novel through its breakneck first half is lost a bit in the second. Overall, The Parsifal Mosaic is definitely a good read (and an essential one for the author’s fans), but not quite in a league with Ludlum’s best, like The Bourne Identity or The Chancellor Manuscript. Still, the set-up is there for it to make a truly fantastic movie, and I'd love to see that happen! (Chinese director Zhang Yimou just signed on to direct an adaptation for Universal.)

The Audible edition is read by Scott Brick, one of the most reliable narrators in the business, and like all of his Ludlum readings it’s first-rate—with one glaring caveat. This may just be a personal issue, but my frame of reference when I first read this book for the name “Havelock” was the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only. Therefore, the hero’s name has been locked in my head for years as the name is pronounced in the film—“have a lock.” But Brick drops the middle syllable, pronouncing it “have lock” throughout his narration. That drove me nuts. But on all other fronts, he does his usual, excellent job! Overall, I find the audio versions a fantastic way to revisit the works of Robert Ludlum and a great way to kill time in Los Angeles traffic. I highly recommend an Audible membership.

The Ludlum Dossier
Read my DVD review of The Holcroft Covenant (1986) here.
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.

Tradecraft: Zhang Yimou to Direct Robert Ludlum's The Parsifal Mosaic for Producer Ron Howard

Wow! Just... wow. This is incredibly exciting news. Deadline reports that not only is the long dormant Robert Ludlum adaptation The Parsifal Mosaic once again happening, but acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou  (Raise the Red Lantern) is now at the helm in his Hollywood debut. Ron Howard, who was previously attached to direct back in 2009, will produce the film along with his Imagine Entertainment partner Brian Grazer and Captivate Entertainment's Jeffrey Weiner and Ben Smith. (In 2008, producer Frank Marshall and writer George Nolfi briefly considered adapting The Parsifal Mosaic into the basis for the next Bourne movie. That didn't happen.) Zhang's Raise the Red Lantern was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1991. In the last decade, he's demonstrated his action acumen with historical martial arts epics like Hero and House of Flying Daggers. He's taken surprising detours before, like remaking the Coen Brothers' Blood Simple as A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop in 2009. But I don't think anyone expected him to sign onto a Robert Ludlum movie in Hollywood! It's unexpected... but I think the results could potentially be amazing. I can't wait to see! The trade adds that this is the first time a mainland Chinese director has ever signed to make an English language film with an American studio. David Self (Road to Perdition, Thirteen Days) penned the most recent draft of the script for Howard, but it will now undergo another rewrite with Zhang's input.

Ludlum's 1982 novel, considered by many to be one of his best, centers on an Michael Havelok, an American spy drawn out of a voluntary retirement when he sees Jena Karas, the woman he had loved and long believed dead, very much alive. But that's not necessarily a good thing when she was an enemy agent, and he was the reluctant engineer of her death! What follows is the most interesting romance Ludlum ever concocted, a truly twisted tale of myriad betrayals both personal and political. Boy meets girl, girl betrays boy, boy has girl killed, girl comes back to life, girl tries to kill boy... it's the ultimate post-break-up story, perfect for Valentine's Day! How do you tell the ex- you thought you'd killed how badly you want her back? Ludlum's tale was set against a Cold War backdrop and made excellent use of the author's regular European stomping grounds. With Zhang's involvement, I can't help but speculate (without any legitimate grounds to do so) if the updated version might be relocated to the Far East with the Jena character changed from a Russian agent to a Chinese agent? Doubtless Universal wouldn't want to risk alienating the massive Chinese audience by vilifying the Chinese government (and nor would China allow Zhang to direct such a movie), but it's no spoiler to reveal that the true villains of Ludlum's book were not acting on behalf of any government, but fanatical elements within the U.S. and Soviet elite. That scenario would work. To expand this pure speculation to its logical next step, it occurs to me that the actress Zhang Ziyi, who starred in Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers and Hero, would make an excellent Chinese Jena...

Read my review of Ludlum's The Parsifal Mosaic here.