Apr 26, 2018

Tradecraft: Marvel Seeks Female Directors for BLACK WIDOW Movie (UPDATED)

Apparently the standalone Black Widow movie we heard chatter about in January is indeed quietly moving forward with women in key creative positions, even though Marvel Studios has resolved not to officially announce any future movies until after their fourth Avengers film premieres next year. (Just to clarify, I mean Marvel's Avengers, obviously, not the real Avengers, and I mean the next Marvel Avengers movie, not Avengers: Infinity War, which opens tonight and is expected to break just about every box office record.) But we still heard in January that Jac Schaeffer, a female screenwriter, had been hired to pen the script, and now, buried at the end of an article about Paramount hiring a female director for the next Star Trek movie, The Hollywood Reporter lets slip that Marvel are keen to hire a female director for female superspy Black Widow's solo debut. The trade reports that the studio has met with such filmmakers as Deniz Gamze Erguven (the acclaimed Turkish movie Mustang), Chloe Zhao (The Rider) and Amma Asante (A United Kingdom), among several others, but there is no clear frontrunner and the search remains ongoing. Asante's name may stand out for spy fans, as she's just signed on to direct a film of the popular book about legendary Cold War spy Adolf Tolkachev, The Billion Dollar Spy.

Presumably Scarlett Johansson would reprise her role from various Marvel Studios movies as Russian superspy Natasha Romanoff in any Black Widow movie. Despite Johansson being the only Avengers cast member to gross $450+ million in her own original movie outside of that franchise, it has taken Marvel much too long (and probably the success of Wonder Woman and Atomic Blonde) to realize the potential for a female-driven film. (Their first will be Captain Marvel, due next year.) Now that they are finally taking notice of the massive audience for such a movie, it's nice to see them lining up women behind the camera as well as in front.

Read more about the Black Widow comics the film will likely draw from and the character's screen history here.

UPDATE: According to a report on The Playlist, Marvel has actually met with upwards of sixty directors about the potential Black Widow gig! At least we know three of them....

Tradecraft: Amma Assante to Direct Tolkachev Movie BILLION DOLLAR SPY

Variety reports that British director Amma Asante (Belle) will helm a movie about legendary Cold War spy Adolf Tolkachev, based on David E. Hoffman’s book The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal. Tolkachev was the chief designer at the USSR’s Research Institute of Radio Engineering and became one of the CIA's top assets, delivering to the Agency tens of thousands of pages of highly classified documents about Soviet radar and other technologies between 1979 and 1985. Asante's most recent film, A United Kingdom, starred David Olyelowo (Spooks/MI-5) and Rosamund Pike (Die Another Day). Benjamin August, who penned Atom Egoyan's 2015 holocaust revenge drama Remember, starring Christopher Plummer and Martin Landau, will write the script. Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind) will produce with Walden Media and Weed Road Pictures.

Apr 25, 2018

Comic Book Review: THE PRISONER #1

Titan are off to a promising start with the first issue of their new Prisoner comic, which came out today. Writer Peter Milligan (X-Statix) crafts an intriguing new spy story about a new Prisoner, but begins outside the Village giving us far more background on this modern-day agent, Breen, and his elite MI5 department known as "The Unit" (which evidently operates both overseas and within the United Kingdom). We don't just meet Breen as he's resigning; the entire first issue speedily sets up his life as a spy in a more or less recognizable contemporary world (albeit one with hints of the fantastic). Unlike with Patrick McGoohan's iconic Number 6 in "Arrival," the first episode of the classic 1960s ITC series The Prisoner, we're treated to Breen's final mission as a secret agent before, inevitably, waking up in the mysterious Italianate confines of The Village on the final page of this issue. (Oh come on; that can hardly be considered a spoiler in a comic called The Prisoner!)

The extra information is both the best thing and the worst thing about this new take on The Prisoner. On the one hand, one of the things I love about the original TV series is how little background we're given. We learn bits about Number 6's spy career throughout the series as his interrogators in his mysterious, baroque prison attempt to break him and divine his secrets. We learn as they learn, occasionally glimpsing intriguing flashbacks which may or may not be real. But Number 6 mostly keeps his precious secrets. Of course, the reason that set up worked to begin with is because of the extra-textual baggage McGoohan brought with him having just starred on three seasons (and change) of the popular spy series Danger Man, later re-titled Secret Agent (review here). Fans have argued for fifty years about whether or not Number 6 is, in fact, John Drake, McGoohan's character from Secret Agent, but the fact is that it doesn't really matter. What matters is that McGoohan played Drake, and therefore brought with him for television audiences the world over immediate associations of a world-weary, globe-trotting secret agent with no love for authority. Blurring lines further was the fact that the final two episodes of Danger Man (and only ones to be shot in color) aired in the UK in the exact same timeslot The Prisoner would occupy, in the same season. And they carried over a number of crew members from the earlier show (though not its creator, Ralph Smart; The Prisoner was created by McGoohan and script editor George Markstein).

Titan doesn't have the benefit of a previous comic book series featuring a secret agent who shares the features of our hero, so instead they provide his spy background in the first issue. My biggest problem with Milligan's take on the material is that he spoon-feeds us too much information. Part of me feels like the hero should have been left un-named, and that an explanatory text piece at the beginning demystifies The Village far too much by assuring readers that "it is perhaps the intelligence community's darkest secret, aligned to no one political system or state, an autonomous institute, free of state manipulation." Part of the mystery that compelled viewers in the 1960s was wondering which side controlled The Village. Was Number 6 a prisoner of the East, or a prisoner of his own side because he knew too many secrets to be allowed to resign into free society? (And if that was the case, could that society really be considered "free?") Ultimately, that's not the show's central mystery, but it made a wonderful red herring. Granted, today the world is not so neatly divided, but questions about what power, if any, controls The Village could have still provided mystery and speculation.

All that said, the chance to explore The Village from outside as well as within can also be viewed as a creative opportunity. (After all, what would be the point of a contemporary sequel if it merely tread the same exact hallowed ground as the original?) So far, I'm willing to give Milligan the benefit of the doubt and eagerly follow him wherever he takes us. In the first issue, he sets up an intriguing premise sure to tantalize spy fans. I could be wrong, but it certainly seems like he's using John le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (review here) as a narrative device with which to explore The Village from a new and uniquely privileged viewpoint. We meet Breen out in the cold, completely blown and on the run from his own service. In a flashback, we see a meeting with his boss, known as "Section," in which we learn that "in all its 'known' history, only one agent has managed to escape from The Village." ("Then I'll be number two," Breen asserts in a cute bit of scripting.) "The agent who escaped went mad. And you haven't heard what we have planned for you."

"When he tells me what they want me to do," Breen narrates (conveniently skipping over the exact plan), "I only just manage to keep my temper." Whatever Breen worked out with his control, we know for sure that he's actively seeking The Village. There is a personal angle as well as a professional one. Breen's colleague and lover, Carey, has already disappeared, and he believes she's been taken to The Village. Unlike the original Number 6, this agent is on some level aware of The Village, and wants to get himself imprisoned there. That opens up many interesting narrative possibilities in the issues to come, and I'm looking forward to seeing where the story goes.

Happily, Colin Lorimer delivers the goods in the art department. He didn't blow me away with any uniquely creative artistic choices to match Milligan's narrative ones, but why should he when we're still in the outside world? Presumably subsequent issues set within The Village will offer ample opportunities for trippy, Steranko-esque surrealism. Readers of comics based on licensed properties are all too used to sub-par art, and I'm happy that Lorimer rises well above that, with breakdowns that flow naturally and characters who are consistently recognizable, even in various disguises.

Overall, Titan's The Prisoner comic is off to a very promising start! I'm more intrigued from the get-go than I was by DC's 1980s Prisoner comics sequel, "Shattered Visage," and far more involved than I was by the tepid AMC TV miniseries remake from 2009 (review here). In fact, Milligan seems determined not to fall into the traps that befell that show, and from the point of view of this blog, I was happy that he hews closely to the original series' espionage roots, something the TV remake more or less eschewed. As with Big Finish's well-made Prisoner audio dramas, I am happily surprised and eager for more.

Watch a trailer for Titan's Prisoner comic book here.

Order The Prisoner #1 for Kindle here.

Order The Prisoner #1 physical copy here.

Apr 19, 2018

Tradecraft: xXx Rides Again

Xander Cage will return again. Apparently, you just can't keep an extreme spy down! Variety reported on Tuesday that a fourth film featuring Vin Diesel's extreme sports athlete turned secret agent will go before cameras this December, with xXx: Return of Xander Cage director D.J. Caruso returning at the helm. To make this possible, Diesel's One Race Films and Chinese-backed, U.S.-based finance and production company The H Collective have acquired the xXx franchise rights from Revolution Studios, who produced the first three films. Revolution will retain its rights to those movies, and Diesel & Co. can proceed with the further adventures of Xander Cage.

If you guessed that the reason for this sequel happening was China, you'd be right. (We heard as much a year ago.) Said The H Collective CEO Nic Crawley, "The response from the Chinese box office [to the third film] was unprecedented. Bringing the next installment of the xXx franchise to The H Collective complements our diversified slate and mission to produce content for a global audience." Deadline added some further financial details, pointing out that while the first three films have collectively grossed nearly a billion dollars, their popularity has waned Stateside. The original xXx raked in $142.1 million domestically in 2002; the latest one topped out at $44.8 million domestically in 2017. But it set box office records in China, pulling in more than $164 million in the Middle Kingdom and contributing mightily to its $346.1 million worldwide haul. This, of course, was the intention; in his third outing Xander was backed up by a diverse, Fast & Furious-style team of international stars, including Chinese box office idols Donnie Yen (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) and Kris Wu (Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back), who were both featured heavily in advertising there. There's no official word yet on any cast beyond Diesel, but it seems like a good bet that those Chinese stars will be back as well. (Personally, I'd like to see Indian actress Deepika Padukone and Aussie Ruby Rose return, too. They were highlights of the last movie.)

While the first two xXx movies were distributed by Sony (where Revolution Studios had their deal at the time), the third was released by Paramount. Yesterday, Deadline ran a second story shedding some light on the fourth film's possible distributor. It looks like Xander Cage will be headed back to Sony. The trade reported that The H Collective has made a pact with Sony for the studio to distribute up to four of their films per year. xXx 4 (or whatever it's ultimately called) will likely be a flagship title among those films. So one day, xXx: Return of Xander Cage may well be the odd title left out of Blu-ray (or whatever format we're on by then) box sets... the Return of the Pink Panther of the xXx series. if you will.

While I had little interest, initially, in seeing the return of an extreme hero so firmly (and hilariously) rooted in such a specific time as the heady, Mountain Dew-fueled X Games era of 2002, xXx: Return of Xander Cage caught me by surprise with a ridiculous but effective reinvention that proved the definition of dumb fun. There's something amusing about watching a 50-year-old man in Capri pants do skateboard tricks and hit on twenty-somethings... it all felt very Octopussy to me. (Which I should clarify I mean as a compliment, as others might not.) I think Caruso proved he's the right person to spearhead another xXx movie. I just hope there's more of Ice Cube and Samuel L. Jackson in the next one...

Tradecraft: James Gray to Direct I AM PILGRIM

MGM is moving forward with their feature version of Terry Hayes' bestselling spy novel I am Pilgrim. Deadline reports that James Gray (The Lost City of Z, We Own the Night) has closed a deal to direct. Kingsman helmer Matthew Vaughn was previously attached, but opted to focus on the Kingsman sequel instead. Hayes, who was a prolific screenwriter before turning novelist, has adapted his book himself. I Am Pilgrim follows a Nicolai Hel- or Derek Flint-like perfect super-agent, code-named "Pilgrim," who comes out of retirement to solve an engrossing locked room mystery (where the killer has used Pilgrim's own obscure book on forensic science to create the perfect crime), and simultaneously save America from a terrorist threat of astronomical proportions and a terrorist mastermind, "Saracen," capable of carrying it out. It's an exciting, globe-hopping adventure in the Ludlum vein with the action mainly taking place in New York, Turkey, and the Middle East. According to the trade, the James Bond studio is interested in launching another spy franchise, though so far, there have been no sequels to the book. (Follow-ups have been rumored, but not confirmed. Hayes' next book is apparently unrelated.) I suppose the implication could be that the studio plans to turn the existing book into more than one movie. It's long enough, and packed with enough subplots, that you could probably get three movies out of I Am Pilgrim alone. In fact, it's difficult to imagine how the entire book could be packed into just one feature without losing a whole lot. (And I fear the first to be jettisoned would be the second locked room mystery, in Turkey, which was actually my favorite part.) Whatever route they choose, however, this book certainly has potential to launch a major spy franchise. This is definitely a project to keep an eye on!


Robert McCall is back! Sony has released the first trailer for Denzel Washington's first ever sequel, The Equalizer 2. Director Antoine Fuqua and writer Richard Wenk also return in their respective roles behind the camera from the first film, as do Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman in front of the cameras. This time Pedro Pasqual (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) and Ashton Sanders (Moonlight) also gets in on the action, and cinematographer Oliver Wood brings his Bourne experience to the look of the film. The Equalizer movies are, of course, based on the 1985-1989 TV series created by Michael Sloan and Richard Lindheim, which starred spy icon Edward Woodward (Callan). Like the series, the premise of the movies finds former secret agent McCall attempting to atone for his past sins by using his espionage skills to help those with the odds against them. The revenge-driven story in the sequel, however, seems to be more motivated by McCall's spy past than any present client. (Such storylines were also a staple of the show, though less frequent.) With the revenge storyline and (at least partial) Turkish setting, this trailer does bring to mind Taken 2, but hopefully this spy sequel will prove more original than that one, which basically rehashed the plot of the first Taken movie. The first Equalizer proved to be a surprisingly solid TV-to-film adaptation. The Equalizer 2 opens July 20.

Apr 5, 2018


Universal has released the first trailer for the third Johnny English movie starring Rowan Atkinson, Johnny English Strikes Again. I think it's hysterical. For me, the English movies have always been superior to the Austin Powers (though the Jean Dujardin OSS 117 movies take the cake as far as spy parodies go), and I'm glad they keep coming. There are some Pink Panther-level gags in this trailer that crack me up. (And, of course, that no doubt intentionally resonant title.) I'm also very happy to see Ben Miller's Bough (English's straight man assistant, a highlight of the first film) back in a larger role.. though also sorry to see no sign of Daniel Kaluuya, the sidekick from the second film. (Obviously he's gone on to bigger things.) As usual, there's a stellar supporting cast including Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace), Emma Thompson (The Love Punch), Jake Lacy (Miss Sloane), and a beautiful red Aston Martin V8 Vantage.

Johnny English Strikes Again opens September 20, 2018.

Apr 4, 2018

Future of EuropaCorp's Neo-Eurospy Movies

After the disappointing box office of Luc Besson's sci-fi epic Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, EuropaCorp is in trouble. Deadline reported in January that several suitors are lining up with aims to buy Besson's French studio, or at least its library of titles, with Lionsgate at the time chief among them. (Lionsgate itself has also been the subject of buyout rumors, with Amazon a potential buyer.) According to the trade, the company was "expected to discuss the sale of its assets, which includes its film library — consisting of movies such as Taken and The Transporter — with buyers at a Paris-based presentation" to be held in February.

According to a later Variety story, Netflix also entered the fray as a potential partner. The trade reports that when discussions between the streaming giant and Besson began, they were just about him directing several movies for Netflix, who have made a major push into original features in the past year. But apparently the scope of the conversations broadened, and now "as part of the deal, Netflix could also buy into EuropaCorp’s library, which has an estimated value of €150 million ($186 million) and includes such franchises as Taken, Taxi and Transporter."

This week, The Hollywood Reporter reported that EuropaCorp shares jumped 30% following French news reports that Netflix was closing in on a deal. According to a report originating in the French financial paper Les Echos, "the deal would see Netflix take over control and operation of EuropaCorp, but Besson would stay on as creative head of the company." The paper foresaw a deal being announced as early as next month's Cannes Film Festival. Deadline chimed in with a story that EuropaCorp itself is downplaying the coverage, confirming only that "indeed discussions are taking place with several potential industrial and/or financial partners," but neglecting to name Netflix or any other entities specifically. (The trade reports that Warner Bros, Sony, TF1, Vivendi and current EuropaCorp investor Fundamental Films, from China, are all in the mix as well.)

How does all this affect spy fans? Well, it could actually mean revivals of some of EuropaCorp's popular neo-Eurospy franchises, like the Transporter or Taken movies. (EuropaCorp probably ranks as the number one purveyor of neo-Eurospy content in the past decade, with other titles including From Paris With Love, 3 Days to Kill, Columbiana, and Lockout.) These intellectual properties are among the more appealing elements of the EuropaCorp catalog, and while the current regime at EuropaCorp has chosen to forgo further Liam Neeson Taken movies or Jason Statham Transporter movies in favor of an NBC television series (in the former case) and an under-performing prequel starring Deadpool's Ed Skrein (in the latter), a new owner might not feel the same way. It's possible, for instance, that Netflix might recognize the value in luring Statham back to the Transporter franchise. (The Skrein reboot, which was supposed to be the first in a new trilogy, reportedly happened because the studio refused to meet Statham's asking price.) Liam Neeson has publicly stated that he wouldn't reprise his Taken role of former CIA agent Bryan Mills again... but as another aging spy star once learned, never say never. (Neeson has also repeatedly forsworn further action movies in general, yet keeps coming back to them.)

Luke Evans appeared on Late Night With Seth Meyers earlier this year and revealed a few details about Besson's own next directorial effort, Anna. The project has been shrouded in secrecy besides the fact that, like Besson's hit Lucy (and the brilliant spy movie that put him on the map, La Femme Nikita), it will be a female-driven action movie. Evans confirmed that it's also a spy movie, saying it's about Russian assassins and he plays a KGB agent. (I don't know if this means it's a Cold War period piece, or if he's using "KGB" interchangeably with SVR or FSB.) Cillian Murphy and Helen Mirren also star, while Russian model Sasha Luss (pictured, who also appeared in Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) plays the title role. Lionsgate will distribute the English-language thriller. It seems possible that Anna could launch yet another lucrative EuropaCorp neo-Eurospy franchise.

Tradecraft: UK Period Spy Drama JERUSALEM Casts Up, Lands Director

Deadline reports that actors Emma Appleton (The Nun), Michael Stuhlbarg (The Looming Tower, The Shape of Water), Keeley Hawes (Spooks/MI-5), Matt Lauria (Friday Night Lights), and Luke Treadaway (Ordeal by Innocence) have been cast in Channel 4's 6-episode period spy series Jerusalem (no relation to the 2013 contemporary spy movie Jerusalem). As the trade previously reported, Jerusalem, from Boardwalk Empire and Masters of Sex veteran Bash Doran, follows Feef Symonds (Appleton), "a bold 20-something woman who joins the Civil Service in 1945, just as the Labour party sweeps to victory, defeating Winston Churchill in an unexpected landslide. Her ambition to make something of her life goes unrecognized by her family, and is further complicated by her American lover."

"Feef agrees to spy on her own government for the Americans, who have a hidden agenda in making sure England’s burgeoning Socialist ambitions don’t play into Soviet hands. Struggling to work out what she stands for, and what she’s capable of, Feef must learn to think for herself and play by her own rules at a time when knowledge becomes power and nothing and no one is what they seem." Lauria stars as Feef's American lover Peter, Stuhlbarg plays an American zealot named Rowe, Hawes plays Feef’s demanding civil service superior, and Treadaway plays a newly elected Labour MP.

While this setting and these characters have all the makings of a great spy series, they are also personal to the writer, who tells Deadline that Jerusalem is, "my perspective on a defining moment in British history when the nation was divided and there was a fight for Britain’s soul. I left England for America not long after I graduated. This show has always been for me an exploration of why I left and my way of coming home."

In a separate story, Deadline also reports that Dearbhla Walsh has been hired to direct. Walsh has experience helming both U.S. and UK television, including episodes of Penny Dreadful, Fargo, The Punisher, and Shameless. She directed all five episodes of the acclaimed 2008 BBC miniseries Little Dorrit.

No American broadcast partner has yet been announced, but with so many names both in front of and behind the camera known to U.S. audiences, such a deal seems inevitable.