Aug 31, 2015

Alex Rider to Return... in Print and on Screen?

Author and TV producer Anthony Horowitz (Foyle's War) gave a spoiler-filled interview with The Mail promoting his new James Bond novel Trigger Mortis, and in it he says that his popular teen spy character Alex Rider may soon return. Rider was very publicly retired in Horowitz's 2011 novel Scorpia Rising, which was subtitled "The Final Mission" and billed as a definitive swan song for the boy agent. But now the author tells the tabloid he will return in a surprisingly political (and now historical) scenario. In the midst of discussing his disillusionment with Tony Blair and disgust with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Horowitz told the Mail, "I’m going to write a new novella – my 'Octopussy.' A five-chapter story set in Iraq. Nobody knows that, so you’ve got a scoop. It has Alex penetrating the mountains in northern Iraq to discover the weapons of mass destruction."

"There are some, then?" interviewer Cole Moreton probes.

"Not after Alex finishes with them. That’s why Tony Blair never found them!" replies Horowitz. Moreton treats this as the very scoop Horowitz promises (and, indeed, the timeline fits; Alex's literary adventures spanned from 2000-2011), though to me it sounds like dry humor, so I'm not sure whether to take that "scoop" at face value or not. A new Alex Rider story would certainly be welcome, however!

Horowitz also teases that the teen spy could return to film. There was a movie made of the first book, Stormbreaker, back in 2006 (review here), but it was unceremoniously dumped by its American distributor and consequently flopped at the U.S. box office, despite a cast that included Ewan McGregor, Damian Lewis, Alex Pettyfer, Bill Nighy and Stephen Fry. Owing to the novels' immense popularity, though (especially in the UK), the franchise would seem one ripe for rebooting a decade later. And apparently there's someone, at least, thinking along those very lines. All Horowitz will reveal is, "There is interest from producers about making another but it is way too early to be able to talk about a film without putting a curse on it." That would be great! In fact, I would rather see Alex Rider get another shot cinematically than make a comeback in print. Let's all cross our fingers.

The whole interview (in which Horowitz makes some controversial statements about Ian Fleming and Skyfall, among other Bondian topics), as well as an exciting excerpt from Trigger Mortis that accompanies it, is well worth reading—but perhaps not until after you've read Horowitz's Bond novel. As I noted above, it certainly appears to be shockingly full of spoilers for the novel, and I wish I hadn't read it prior to reading the book. So proceed at your own risk.

Aug 24, 2015

xXx 3 to Shoot in December?

Rumors of a third xXx movie have abounded for as long as I've had this blog. Vin Diesel starred in the vapid 2002 original, only to have his character, extreme sports athlete turned spy Xander Cage (if you think the early 2000s are still too recent to be dated, meditate for a moment on the phrase "extreme sports athlete turned spy!") unceremoniously killed off in a DVD special feature. (Which has to be just about the most insulting way ever to off a character!) He was replaced in the even more vapid 2005 sequel, xXx: State of the Union, by Ice Cube. Since at least 2008, all the rumors of a third movie have focused on Diesel returning to the franchise, despite his character's ignominious death. And since 2013, Diesel himself has been banging the drum loudest for that to happen. And yesterday he banged pretty loudly, stating in an Instagram post (reported by Collider, via Empire) that "While I was filming XXX, guys on set called me Air Diesel... The time to return has come. Filming starts December in the Philippines." Will the threequel actually come to pass this time? While Rob Cohen, who helmed the original, had at one point flirted with returning, no director has been formally announced. But there's still time for such an announcement between now and December.

While it's true that the series has yet to produce a movie that's actually any good, I'm still kind of excited for a new entry. After all, Diesel's other big franchise, The Fast and the Furious, only really came to life with the fifth movie, suddenly becoming so much more than what it had been! If Diesel could entice the director who enlivened that series, Justin Lin, to similarly vivify xXx, I would honestly expect greatness. (But Lin, who was attached to a second Jeremy Renner Bourne movie which now seems to be history, is currently doing the next Star Trek, and consequently won't be free in December.) Still, I'm at least mildly intrigued at the prospect of more Xander Cage.

In a mostly unrelated, non-Diesel xXx coincidence, I have to admit that the ever so brief footage of Ice Cube in xXx: State of the Union included in the spectacular Straight Outta Compton (a movie everyone should see, regardless of their interest in or familiarity with NWA) actually made me kind of want to watch Lee Tamahori's terrible sequel again. I know it will still be terrible, but maybe the decade since has made it also kind of fun. Maybe?

Aug 19, 2015

Tradecraft: Fox Buys Spy Pilot From Undercovers Producer

Deadline reports that Fox has ordered a spy pilot script from Peter Berg’s (The Kingdom) company Film 44. The untitled hour-long drama was written by novelist and producer Elwood Reid (Undercovers, Hawaii Five-0). According to the trade, the "high-octane character drama ... follows the woman with the most lethal mind in America, a brilliant and ruthless military professor who is recruited by a former student to help a covert branch of the CIA deal with high-priority targets."

Aug 18, 2015

Tradecraft: Carlton Cuse Espionage Thriller Colony Coming to USA

On the TCA Summer Press Tour, producer Carlton Cuse (The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.) told critics (including Deadline's Lisa de Moraes) that he approached his upcoming USA alien invasion drama Colony not as science fiction, but as "an espionage thriller." Written and executive produced by Cuse and Ryan Condal (Hercules), the drama (with a 10-episode order at the cable network) stars Josh Holloway (Intelligence, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol) and Sarah Wayne Callies (The Secret Service, The Walking Dead). According to the trade, "Colony takes place in Los Angeles in the near future, in a state of occupation by a force of outside intruders. Some locals choose to collaborate with the authorities and benefit from the new order; others do not, and suffer the consequences." Even though the setting is modern Los Angeles, Cuse told reporters that in crafting the series, he and Condal had in mind Nazi-occupied Paris during WWII. I wasn't interested in another sci-fi alien invasion show, but Cuse's "espionage thriller" description suddenly has me very interested indeed! We learned last year that Len Deighton's similarly themed SS-GB, a spy novel about life in Nazi-occupied Britain in an alternate timeline where Germany won WWII, will also soon be a 5-episode series on BBC from James Bond screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade.

Trailer: Dad's Army

1970s UK sitcom Dad's Army has been reinvented for the bigscreen as an all-star spy comedy from Johnny English Reborn director Oliver Parker. Bill Nighy (Page Eight), Michael Gambon (Page Eight), Toby Jones (Wayward Pines), Tom Courtenay (Otley), Mark Gatiss (Sherlock), and Catherine Zeta-Jones (RED 2) star. In the film, the outcome of WWII suddenly depends on the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard discovering the identity of a German spy for MI5. Check out the trailer:

DK Previews Bond by Design: The Art of the James Bond Films

We're coming up on Autumn of a James Bond movie release year... which means collectors can look forward to plenty of new books about 007 timed to tie in with the film's release! DK Publishing has posted a preview of one of the most anticipated ones, their eagerly anticipated follow-up to 2012's beautiful, slipcased art book James Bond: 50 Years of Movie Posters (which will be getting a new paperback edition). The new book, Bond by Design: The Art of the James Bond Films, showcases concept art and storyboards from EON Productions' 24 James Bond films, right up through SPECTRE. Here's the official blurb from the publisher: "Featuring the work of legendary Bond film designers such as Ken Adam, Peter Lamont, and Syd Cain, Bond by Design brings the James Bond art department's story right up to date with behind-the-scenes artwork from the latest film, SPECTRE. With two exclusive prints and authoritative text by EON's own archivist, Meg Simmonds, Bond by Design provides unique, spectacular, and fascinating insights into this hugely successful film franchise." Retailing for $50.00, the 320-page, large-format hardcover will be published on October 6, and is available for pre-order now at a substantial discount on Amazon. Here are some gorgeous sample pages:

First Image of Dominic Cooper as Stratton

Empire (via Dark Horizons) has unveiled the first photo of Dominic Cooper (Fleming, Agent Carter) as titular special forces operative Stratton, a role he inherited from Man From U.N.C.L.E. star Henry Cavill when Cavill dropped out at the last minute. Clearly Cooper didn't have time to grow as full a beard as Cavill had carefully cultivated (seen during the early days of his U.N.C.L.E. press tour), but he still looks the rugged part armed to the teeth with a slightly scruffy chin. In the film directed by Simon West (The Mechanic, The Saint) and based on the novels by Duncan Falconer, SBS (the Royal Navy commando unit which Empire snarkily describes as "like the SAS, only with extra canoeing") Intelligence Detachment operative John Stratton must chase down an international terrorist cell through Central Asia, Europe and London, all while contending with the damage done by a mole inside MI5. Austin Stowell (Bridge of Spies) co-stars as a heroic, hardened American Navy SEAL who teams with Stratton on his mission. Derek Jacobi (Circles of Deceit), Thomas Kretschmann (24), Tom Felton (Harry Potter), Gemma Chan (The Game) and Connie Nielsen (3 Days to Kill) also star.

Aug 14, 2015

Movie Review: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

In The Man From U.N.C.L.E., director Guy Ritchie concocts a slick, hugely entertaining paean not only to the TV series he’s re-working, but to Sixties spy movies (and, indeed, European cinema of the era) in general. The result is a real treat for fans of the genre, full of knowing nods to specific films, but not merely a succession of references. While he could have used the same exact ingredients of gorgeous Sixties fashions, stunning locations, and sexy stars to simply recreate a typical spy film of that era (and I admit, I probably would have settled for it), Ritchie instead mixes up a whole new cocktail with those familiar flavors. Before we discuss that appealing tipple, however, let’s examine those ingredients on their own.

The sexy stars in question are Henry Cavill (The Cold Light of Day) stepping into the shoes of Robert Vaughn as American agent Napoleon Solo, Armie Hammer (J. Edgar) taking over from David McCallum as Russian agent Illya Kuryakin, Alicia Vikander (The Fifth Estate), and Elizabeth Debicki (The Night Manager), playing, respectively, the somewhat stock roles from the TV series of the scientist’s daughter (a common variety of “the innocent” who was swept up in the espionage each week) and the femme fatale. Even U.N.C.L.E. boss Mr. Waverly (played on the series by octogenarian Leo G. Carroll, essentially reprising his spymaster role from North by Northwest) cuts a debonair figure this time around, as played by suave 55-year-old Hugh Grant. All of them look spectacular, and show off costume designer Joanna Johnston’s (Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation) incredible Sixties-styled fashions to maximum effect… but they’re also all quite good in their roles!

Cavill demonstrates all the charm and good humor necessary to play Napoleon Solo (a character first dreamed up by none other than James Bond creator Ian Fleming*) and consequently manages to come off as a roguish ladies’ man rather than a leering Eurospy-type creep. He’s clearly studied Vaughn’s cadences, and is up to the task of delivering all the verbal sparring the script (by Ritchie and Lionel Wigram) supplies him with, whether bickering with Illya or flirting with Debicki’s deliciously villainous villainess Victoria Vinciguerra. Hammer’s Illya Kuryakin is a much different character from McCallum’s, affording him the opportunity to really make the role (in this incarnation) his own. He, too, proves up to the task. This Illya is a man of great passions. Imbued with as much DNA from Robert Shaw’s psychopathic Bond baddie Red Grant as McCallum’s Illya, he has a violent temper (which may disturb some fans of the series), but also a charming vulnerability. Hammer finds a great balance between the two, and makes his Illya a convincingly complex character when he easily could have come off as a Russian stereotype. Cavill and Hammer have a great rapport, and neither makes the deadly mistake of confusing cool with careless. This was the undoing of top tier actors Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman in the 1998 movie of The Avengers. The best Sixties spy heroes could retain their composure and decorum in the worst possible situations without defusing those situations of their suspense, and that was a quality fairly unique to the decade. But happily, Cavill and Hammer manage to recapture it.

Coming off of Ex Machina and already lined up to play opposite Matt Damon in the next Bourne movie, Alicia Vikander is undoubtedly one of the most exciting and talented young actresses out there right now. Her role as Gaby Teller, the scientist’s daughter who seems to harbor a secret agenda of her own, may not be as demanding as playing a newly sentient machine in Ex Machina or a grief-stricken student turned WWI nurse in Testament of Youth, but the uncommonly talented Vikander imbues Gaby with enough strength and moxie to elevate a somewhat underwritten role to scene-stealing proportions. And her fellow female Debicki accomplishes the same feat, really relishing her role as the movie’s primary antagonist. Victoria is no mere henchwoman; she is the mastermind behind a nefarious organization’s nuclear terrorism. James Bond never faced a female mastermind in the Sixties, but they were more common on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and Debicki stands right alongside the best of them (the very best of them being Anne Francis as Gervaise Ravel in two first season episodes). She’s a treat to watch, and I wanted more of her character on screen. Finally, Grant is just fantastic as Waverly, doing more of an homage to Carroll than I would have imagined, and turning a small part into a very memorable character.  

Besides the stars and the Sixties fashions, the thrilling locations are key to any great spy movie, and Guy Ritchie seems well aware of that, making the most of Rome, the Italian countryside, and, in an opening sure to please spy fans everywhere, divided Berlin. Cinematographer John Mathieson is no stranger to recreating that Sixties film look, having done so on X-Men: First Class, and he juggles a number of disparate styles of the era in this film and makes them cohesive. But my favorite look may have been the grainy, gritty approach to Checkpoint Charlie and East Berlin. The opening climaxes in a spectacular wall crossing, which, as I’ve said often, is pure catnip for this spy fan.

If the Checkpoint Charlie business automatically recalls the second Harry Palmer movie with Michael Caine, Funeral in Berlin, a scene between Solo and his CIA boss, Sanders, played by Jared Harris (remember, this movie is an origin story, and at the beginning Napoleon and Illya work for rival services, not U.N.C.L.E.) recalls The Ipcress File. In gourmet Palmer style, Solo (in apron) cooks a truffle risotto for Gaby. Sanders walks in and chews him out, reminding him he’s serving out the equivalent of a prison sentence for the CIA (like Palmer’s indentured servitude to MI5)—and remarking that the Agency doesn’t pay him enough to put truffles in his risotto. If this interplay reminds you of that between Palmer and Col. Ross (Guy Doleman), it’s assuredly not coincidental! In fact whole chunks of the first act come directly from The Ipcress File. (The third Palmer movie, Billion Dollar Brain, is not left out, either; the end titles deliberately reference Maurice Binder’s main titles for that film.) And, amazingly, this bit of business isn’t the only shout-out to Doleman in Ritchie’s movie! His Thunderball character, Count Lippe, also gets a namecheck later (albeit with a slightly different spelling), sure to elicit guffaws from knowledgeable Bond fans in the audience.

From Russia With Love, GoldfingerThe Quiller Memorandum, and the Eurospy genre as a whole are also among the numerous filmic allusions on display. (From Goldfinger alone we get a vault door, a helicopter, and an Aston Martin, with DB5's proving a unifying factor in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and, based on the second trailer, SPECTRE!) But as I said in my introduction, Ritchie isn’t interested in simply blending together classic bits into a straight pastiche. While the Eurospy presence is undeniable (particularly in Daniel Pemberton’s John Barry-meets-Ennio Morricone score, whose screaming vocals in later tracks would have been as at home in an Italian spy movie as a Spaghetti Western), Ritchie hasn’t constructed his own Italian-style spy movie in the same way the Italians themselves did it in the Sixties. Instead, his stylistic approach seems to be more “What if Fellini had made spy movies?” Ritchie’s camera luxuriates in the La Dolce Vita-style decadence of Roman high society (Vikander takes a sip at one point from the Trevi Fountain), and gauzy filters in loving close-ups of Debicki recall Antonioni more than James Tont. (It should be noted that these homages are purely aesthetic and not artistic; Ritchie has no interest in the themes explored by these Italian auteurs. Indeed, his Man From U.N.C.L.E. is so thematically slight as to be ethereal.)

Other stylistic influences come from the French New Wave, though some feel filtered through Quentin Tarantino’s modern day appropriation of them. There are many cleverly-edited flashbacks and time shifts throughout the movie (useful for revealing little bits of information after the fact, necessary in any good con or caper flick), and when we learn about Napoleon Solo’s background, it’s courtesy of the KGB’s dossier on him as presented to Illya. This comes in flashback as he watches the calculating Solo tracking him in the present, and since the briefing is in Russian, the information is delivered to audiences largely in subtitles (cutely designed in a font evocative of the original Man From U.N.C.L.E. title treatment). It’s an odd choice, but effective. I suspect it will pay off even more on subsequent viewings. I also suspect that the pockmarked Jared Harris, in his gray fedora, is intended to resemble Eddie Constantine, who, in the role of Lemmy Caution, straddled the worlds of Eurospy and French New Wave when Jean-Luc Godard elected to make one entry of the Caution series into an art film, as Alphaville

One thing Ritchie isn’t particularly interested in is action scenes, and he makes this clear from the start. While he knows he’s got to deliver his audience a few bona fide Bond-style setpieces in this genre (like the escape from East Berlin and a car chase that precedes it), he’s much more interested in the luxurious and tactile trappings of the spy genre. In the movie’s best sequence, Solo enjoys fine food and drink, to the accompaniment of an Italian ballad, in the cab of a truck as Illya engages in a furious, fiery speedboat chase behind him. The chase (itself a nod to From Russia With Love) plays out entirely in the background, seen through the windshield or in the truck’s rearview mirror, while our focus remains with Solo enjoying his meal. It’s a hilarious sequence, but also clearly outlines Ritchie’s own priorities and his fairly shrewd deconstruction of the spy genre (Sixties variety) down to its basest elements. Genre fetishes like good living and bespoke tailoring take priority here over fisticuffs. (Solo’s impeccable fashion sense makes for a good running gag, and in one hilarious scene that actually [probably inadvertently] ties in with The Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E., he and Illya pit their senses of style against each other while critiquing Gaby's wardrobe.) Another key action scene, late in the film, is presented in elaborate Thomas Crown (or Woodstock)-style splitscreen. This technique again takes the emphasis off of the action itself and onto style—in this case cinematic style rather than culinary or sartorial. All this isn’t to say that there aren’t entirely satisfying legitimate action sequences in the film, but to illustrate that they aren’t Ritchie’s priority… an approach I found refreshing, and one which clearly sets U.N.C.L.E. as far apart from Bourne and Bond and Mission: Impossible as its period setting.

Those hoping for nostalgic reminders of the TV series may be a bit disappointed. Those things are all there (the gun, the theme, the acronym), but all in basically blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos rather than lovingly fetishized. (Jerry Goldsmith’s theme gets literally only a few bars, played on a radio—and not even from the most recognizable bit.) But that’s okay. Because while every little detail may seem like the most important thing when viewed through the filter of childhood nostalgia, the real essence of U.N.C.L.E. is very much on screen. It’s a Russian and an American working together at the height of Cold War tensions. It’s rich characterizations and onscreen chemistry. And it’s style. Oodles and oodles of style. Guy Ritchie recognizes this, and because of that he’s delivered one of the most satisfying TV-to-movie remakes since The Fugitive.

*While Fleming's role in developing The Man From U.N.C.L.E. has been often exaggerated over the years, one contribution that was undoubtedly his was the name "Napoleon Solo." Interestingly, some elements of his Solo (from a memo reproduced in Time Life's DVD box set of the series) that didn't make it into Norman Felton and Sam Rolfe's TV show, like his penchant for cooking, manifest themselves in Ritchie's Solo.

Aug 13, 2015

Video: The Bond Women of SPECTRE

MGM and Sony have released a new SPECTRE video blog, this one focusing on "The Bond Women of SPECTRE." And by "women of SPECTRE," they don't mean Helga Brandt and Fiona Volpe, or even Madam Spectra (obscure reference); they mean Léa Seydoux and Monica Bellucci, the female stars of the 24th James Bond movie. And by "Bond Women," they mean what used to be called "Bond Girls," appropriately updated for the 21st Century.

New Transporter Refueled Trailer

EuropaCorp has released a new trailer for their upcoming Statham-less neo-Eurospy reboot The Transporter Refueled. The Luc Besson-produced movie opens September 4 in the U.S.

Here's the official description: Frank Martin (played by newcomer Ed Skrein), a former special-ops mercenary, is now living a less perilous life - or so he thinks - transporting classified packages for questionable people. When Frank’s father (Ray Stevenson) pays him a visit in the south of France, their father-son bonding weekend takes a turn for the worse when Frank is engaged by a cunning femme-fatale, Anna (Loan Chabanol), and her three seductive sidekicks to orchestrate the bank heist of the century. Frank must use his covert expertise and knowledge of fast cars, fast driving and fast women to outrun a sinister Russian kingpin, and worse than that, he is thrust into a dangerous game of chess with a team of gorgeous women out for revenge.

Aug 6, 2015

Final Trailer for Agent 47

Fox has released a final trailer for their video game-based neo-Eurospy reboot Hitman: Agent 47. It looks better than the previous ones, at least, but still makes it look like the hero is too much of a superman. Still, this could offer some fun end of summer action. Hitman: Agent 47 opens August 21.

Aug 4, 2015

Tradecraft: Dates for 2016 Spy Movies

We're only a little more than halfway through the unbelievably spy movie-packed 2015, in which we've gotten at least one every month, but Studios are already locking down their spy films for next year. Adding to Universal's next Matt Damon Bourne movie (the fifth total), which has July 16 staked down, Sony's Sacha Baron Cohen/Mark Strong comedy Grimsby (directed by Transporter 2 helmer Louis Leterrier), set for February 26, and Millennium's London Has Fallen on January 22 (both the latter two were originally slated for 2015, but fled the stiff spy competition), Deadline reports two more dates have been set. Summit's Criminal, starring Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Kevin Costner (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), Ryan Reynolds (Safe House), Tommy Lee Jones (Bourne 5) and Gal Gadot (Fast Five) will open on April 15, displacing the studio's Jason Statham assassin sequel Mechanic: Resurrection all the way to August 26. The sequel is already better than the original remake, as Statham is supported by the ubiquitous Tommy Lee Jones (Criminal) as well as Michelle Yeoh (Tomorrow Never Dies) and Jessica Alba (Barely Lethal). Two main takeaways: 1) we've already got five months covered for next year in terms of spy releases, and 2) Tommy Lee Jones is in almost all of them.