Jun 30, 2019

Trailer: CHARLIE'S ANGELS (2019)

The latest incarnation of Charlie's Angels is a new feature film directed by Elizabeth Banks and starring Kristin Stewart (American Ultra), Ella Balinska (Hunted), and, after seeing her in Guy Ritchie's Aladdin, my pick for Modesty Blaise should any studio ever wake up and realize the world is running out of heroes, Naomi Scott. And, after McG's two movies in the early 2000s (especially the second one) dabbled in espionage, this version seems to dive full into spy territory. And it looks pretty awesome! Charlie's Angels, which co-stars Banks (Catch Me If You Can), Patrick Stewart (Smiley's People), and Sam Claflin (Any Human Heart) opens November 15. Check out the trailer!

Jun 28, 2019

First Look Video at BOND 25

MGM this week revealed our first look at Cary Fukanaga's upcoming James Bond movie starring Daniel Craig in a fifth outing as 007. It's not quite a teaser and it's definitely not a trailer, but whatever you want to call it, it's pretty awesome! Made of largely of behind-the-scenes (BTS) footage, the spot still gives a good idea of the look that cinematographer Linus Sandgren (First Man) is going for in this film. And it's quite a stylish look! There's some great imagery here. (I love that shot of Lashana Lynch in her sunglasses.) Bond 25 is still officially title-less, though fansite MI6 reported this week that for a while it was known as A Reason to Die. Apparently that title was dropped on the eve of the Jamaica press event for commencement of filming in April because studio execs found it not Bondian enough. I don't know... it sounds pretty Bondy to me! It's certainly easy to hear the theme song in your head while saying it, anyway. Check out the Bond 25 first look video:

Jun 22, 2019

Movie Review: ANNA (2019)

French director Luc Besson single-handedly revived the latent Eurospy genre, so prominent in the 1960s, for this century with popular series he produced like the Taken and Transporter movies. Now he finally turns his hand to directing a neo-Eurospy movie himself (his first outright spy movie since the one that put him on the map, 1990’s seminal La Femme Nikita—one of the very best action movies of its decade)… and the results are spectacular. Anna is a slick, sexy, action movie, as the trailers lead you to believe (a twist, in fact, on La Femme Nikita—though more of a “remix” than a remake), but it’s also so much more than that. And it’s a movie very specifically targeted at spy fans. The more you know about the genre, the more you’re likely to appreciate its surprising number of layers.

Like the matryoshka dolls the title character starts out selling in a Moscow market, Anna is a spy movie inside a spy movie inside a spy movie. We tend to divide the genre into the action-packed fantasy school of James Bond and Mission: Impossible and the gritty, more realistic tales of double- and triple-crosses like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Homeland. Anna is both at once. Like you might see a novel that amounts to a le Carré-esque spy tail set in a sci-fi setting (like an intergalactic war), or in a historical setting (on the high seas or what have you), Anna is such a twisty spy tail set in the heightened world of fantasy spy movies. It’s Tinker Tailor set inside of Mission: Impossible, or, more appropriately, John Wick. Anna’s reality is a heightened one. This is a world where a skinny model can take on hordes of armed KGB troops in hand to hand combat… and firmly within that world, this is a gritty, twisty, “realistic” tale of double- and triple-crosses. “Realistic,” obviously, being a relative term.

Anna does not exist in a recognizable real world. It ostensibly occupies a historical setting—the late Cold War, specifically 1985-1990. But this isn’t a late Eighties or early Nineties that anyone who lived through those decades would recognize. Rather, it’s a deliberately inaccurate simulacrum. We might recognize fashions and music of the era, but in this alternate 1980s, we also see technology that did not exist then. Characters constantly use cell phones and pagers that behave like modern smart phones. They are not the obscenely chunky cell phones of the era, but the Nokias of the early 2000s—only chunky in comparison to today’s phones. There are laptops, too, and they, also, are chunkier than those we are used to… but again, the chunkiness of the early 2000s, not the early 1990s. Yet, while this technology didn’t exist in the real period, it might have existed in spy movies of that period, had they been thinking ahead along realistic lines. Other forms of tech—ones that never actually came to be—certainly litter Cold War spy movies. It’s artifice, and intentional artifice. But that’s only one layer—only the outermost matryoshka doll.

In that outer layer dwell recognizable characters from the fantasy spy genre. Foremost among them is Anna herself (Sasha Luss), the “female James Bond”/Modesty Blaise/Nikita archetype—the sexy, asskicking female superspy. (But she proves to have layers of her own.) In the movie’s middle layer lies a more complex, twistier narrative derived from the le Carré school. Here dwells a different kind of spy archetype—one based very obviously on George Smiley. But this archetype, too, has undergone a sex change. Helen Mirren plays the KGB spymaster Olga, and seems to be basing her performance on Alec Guinness’ BBC Smiley portrayal, right down to the distinctive, thick-framed glasses she wears.

All of the characters have inner lives—or inner layers. Most attention is paid to Anna’s—revealing, finally, the film’s innermost matryoshka doll—a cat-and-mouse character study hidden beneath the shoot ‘em up action. Because even within this heightened world of spy fantasy, people are complicated. No one is the simple “cardboard booby” Ian Fleming reductively described James Bond as being. But all three of Anna’s love interests over the course of the movie—Maude (Lera Abova), Alex (Luke Evans), and Lenny (Cillian Murphy)—also have inner lives. Maude’s is dealt with the least, but when a late scene between her and Lenny could cut away as he walks out, instead we dwell on her for several long moments as she cries. This is the classic innocent whose life is inevitably torn apart upon contact with the secret world, and it’s somewhat unusual for a neo-Eurospy-type movie to dwell on such a character at all. Lenny and Alex, both macho genre archetypes on the surface, are also allowed more introspective moments than we might expect. But they are very clearly supporting players in Anna’s story. “Never put your faith in men, Anna. Put faith in yourself,” Alex tells Anna early on. And from there, hers is a journey of female empowerment, with a very rewarding payoff.

In her most revealing speech (which Luss, until recently a model and not an actress, handles impressively), Anna admits, “When I was a kid I used to play with matryoshka dolls, way before I pretended to sell them on the street corner. I loved putting them up and looking at their beautiful faces. It’s a woman inside of a woman inside of a woman. If there would be a doll made of me, what would she be? A daughter? A girlfriend? Russian spy? Model? An American spy? If you go to the very smallest doll buried deep inside and say, ‘what is she?’… I never knew, and I would like to find out.”

But the matryoshka concept is not merely thematic. It’s also structural. Besson’s remarkable script is carefully constructed of different layers. It’s nearly (but not quite) palindromic, treating us to scenes that we think are complete the first time we see them, but later revisiting them and showing another half that reveals far more information, significantly altering the plot. If I’m being cryptic, it’s only because I don’t wish to spoil the actual plot elements revealed as Besson peels away layers; there’s a lot of satisfaction in watching that play out.

Lest I spend too much time on the fascinating inner dolls, however (which become clearer and clearer on multiple viewings), I should make it clear that that flashy outer layer is also terrific. And that may be the only layer some audience members choose to see… and that would be fine. They will still be satisfied. The action is spectacular.

For its first act, Anna plays like a fairly straight remake of La Femme Nikita, relocated from France to Soviet Russia (one setting not yet explored by previous remakes of the original concept, including American, Canadian, and Hong Kong versions of the story). On my first viewing, I thought that was what I was watching, and I was surprised it hadn’t been sold up front as a remake of that endlessly fruitful tale. It’s an interesting idea for a director to take another pass thirty years later at the film that put him on the map. What would he do differently? As it happens, Besson is telling a whole different story. But he makes the most of the Nikita foundation from which to do so. The basic concept is replicated intact: a woman involved with crime and drugs leading a seemingly dead-end life is taken off the streets by a secret government agency and given a new lease on life as a spy... but not given a choice. There are familiar characters (Alex is a version of Tcheky Karyo’s Pygmalion-like spy mentor figure Bob; Maude a gender-flipped variation on the innocent boyfriend Marco), and familiar situations, including the restaurant at which first Nikita and now Anna is given her first assignment—with a duplicitous catch. The catch in Anna is even more devious than the one in Nikita (where the exit she’d been briefed on turns out to be bricked up), and appropriate for the more heightened world in which this movie is set. The scenario escalates into a bloodbath, and it’s the most deliriously cinematic bloodbath I’ve seen in Western cinema in years. (And that includes the expertly choreographed action scenes of the John Wick franchise!) It's hyper violent, yet balletic in its execution.

It won’t be a spoiler to anyone familiar with La Femme Nikita that Anna does, indeed, survive her trial by violence, and impresses the not easily impressed doyenne of Moscow Centre, Olga (a frumped down Mirren channeling Guinness). Because of her beauty, she is assigned the cover of a model and sent to Paris. From there, Anna embarks on a dual career as rising supermodel and secret KGB assassin… and parts ways with Nikita’s path as the film’s further layers start to reveal themselves.

One interesting byproduct of making the movie a period piece is that, with the U.S.S.R. securely relegated to Trotsky’s “dustbin of history,” Western audiences can actually root for a character working for the KGB. Because the Cold War is an old enough conflict now that the specific ideologies no longer matter, we can accept a heroine with shifting loyalties without identifying too strongly with any single one. Call it The Americans Effect.

Of course, Anna has enemies within her own organization as well (including the fearsome director, Vassiliev (Eric Godon), who informs her at the wrong end of a pistol that there is only one way to leave the KGB), and that final layer of the film—the character layer—turns out to typify another favorite spy subgenre of mine, the internecine office politics thriller. Until the last frame of film, you’re never sure who Anna can trust and who she is betraying to achieve her ultimate desire (in fact, there may be just one twist too many)—to break free of the various intelligence services that have control of her, and take the time to get to that very smallest doll buried within herself. This is the story of an asset breaking free and becoming master of her own destiny—learning to put her faith in herself.

Anna is a gritty spy movie within a fantasy one, and a character-focused thriller within a flashy, surface, action picture. It’s a more mature work than many audiences will realize upon first viewing, and rewards repeat watching. It’s the crowning achievement of Luc Besson’s career, and one of the best spy films of this century.

Jun 20, 2019

Tradecraft: Bourne Spin-off TV Show TREADSTONE Sets Cast, Starts Filming

It's been a while since we've heard anything about Treadstone, the TV series spun off from the Bourne films and based on the secret super assassin program originated in Robert Ludlum's novel The Bourne Identity (review here), but that doesn't mean things haven't been happening! Yesterday, Deadline gave us a glimpse at some of those developments.

Reiterating what we already knew, the trade summarizes, "Treadstone explores the origin story and present-day actions of a CIA black ops program known as Operation Treadstone — a covert program that uses behavior-modification protocol to turn recruits into nearly superhuman assassins. The first season follows sleeper agents across the globe as they’re mysteriously 'awakened' to resume their deadly missions." Assuming the series takes place in the movie universe (which seems likely), then it would make sense for the present-day segments to feature a reactivated Treadstone under new leadership, and the origin sequences to serve as a prequel to the films set in the late 90s or early 2000s, theoretically opening the door for a new actor eventually being introduced as a younger Jason Bourne.

According to the trade, spy veteran Michelle Forbes (Berlin Station, 24) leads the cast in what sounds like a role similar to Joan Allen's in the movies as "Ellen Becker, a savvy CIA veteran trying to balance the demands of work and family while investigating a conspiracy with international implications." Patrick Fugit, who stood out in a small role in last year's First Man, "recurs as Stephen Haynes, a high school math teacher with a dark side that he’s struggling to keep under control." (I'm assuming that means he's one of the sleepers.) Michael Gaston, whose extensive spy credits include playing the President on Jack Ryan as well as turns on The Americans, 24, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Blindspot, and The Man in the High Castle, "plays Dan Levine, a no-nonsense senior CIA veteran overseeing an investigation that involves some of the Agency’s darkest secrets." Bollywood star Shruti Haasan "stars as Nira Patel, a young woman in Delhi whose waitress job serves as a cover for a dangerous double life as a trained assassin." Brian J. Smith (World On Fire, Sense8) stars as Doug McKenna, and Australian actress Tess Haubrich (Alien: Covenant) recurs as his wife Samantha, a nurse who must reconcile her husband's dark past. Jeremy Irvine, Omar Metwally, Tracy Ifeachor, Hyo Joo Han, Gabrielle Scharnitzky and Emilia Schüle also star. So it sounds like Treadstone will follow characters all over the globe, similar to series creator Tim Kring's previous series Heroes.

Kring produces along with Captivate Entertainment's Ben Smith. Smith's fellow Keeper of the Ludlum flame at Captivate, Jeffrey Weiner, will executive produce (as he does on the Bourne films) along with Ramin Bahrani, among others. Acclaimed Iranian-American helmer Bahrani will direct the pilot. Bahrani has directed such indie features as 99 Homes and Chop Shop, the latter of which late film critic Roger Ebert famously anointed the sixth best film of the 2000s. More recently Bahrani directed HBO's Fahrenheit 451, with Michael B. Jordan and Sophie Boutella. His involvement really elevates this series!

Perhaps the best news related in the Deadline article is that filming on this incarnation of Treadstone is already underway in Budapest! I say, "this incarnation" since, as long-time readers will be well aware, this is not the first attempt to bring Treadstone to television. Back in 2010, CSI creator Anthony Zuiker attempted a Treadstone show for CBS. But when Tony Gilroy came aboard to direct the theatrical spinoff The Bourne Legacy, he didn't want a competing version of the mythology on TV, and made it a condition of his directing that the nascent show be killed.

In Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity (review here), Treadstone 71 was the shadowy intelligence group that David Webb worked for (based out of a New York brownstone), with whom he created and assumed his more famous identity as assassin Jason Bourne. Nebulous and illegal though it may have been, in the book Treadstone's motivations were basically heroic. The Treadstone of the movies, which creates super-assassins through brainwashing and later drugs, is a much more sinister organization. It was also, I believe, officially shut down by Brian Cox's character, Abbott, in The Bourne Supremacy, and then reconstituted as Outcome by Ed Norton's character in The Bourne Legacy (review here). It will be interesting to see if the TV series mentions Outcome at all, and how closely it sticks to the mythology established in the movies.

Treadstone is not only keeping alive on the small screen, but also in print. As I reported yesterday, the Ludlum estate has commissioned author Joshua Hood to pen the first book in a new Treadstone literary series, The Treadstone Resurrection, which will be in stores this fall—I assume about the same time the show premieres on USA.

Jun 19, 2019

Bourne and Treadstone Live On in New Robert Ludlum Continuation Novels

After ten Bourne continuation novels (compared to just three by the character's creator), Eric Van Lustbader chose to hang up his proverbial holster last year, abandoning his previously announced eleventh series entry. But at the time I mused that probably wouldn't be the last we'd see of Robert Ludlum's bestselling character in print. And sure enough, it's not. The Ludlum estate isn't going to let that particular cash cow rest. In fact, they're doubling down! Not only will Bourne continuation novels resume next year under the stewardship of a new author, Brian Freeman (not to be confused with Charlie Muffin creator Brian Freemantle), but this fall will see the first book in a new series spun off from Ludlum's original Bourne trilogy, based on the Treadstone 71 program that first gave rise to the deadly Bourne identity. According to the Associated Press, Joshua Hood's The Treadstone Resurrection is due out September 17 as the first of the estate's new four-book deal with Putnam. It will be followed in 2020 by The Bourne Conspiracy by Brian Freeman. (If that title sounds familiar, it was also used for a Sierra videogame in 2008.) Hood is a veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division and author of two military thrillers with good ratings on Amazon. Freeman is the author of multiple psychological thrillers, with three different series characters. Jason Bourne (aka David Webb) was created by Robert Ludlum and first appeared in his seminal 1980 novel The Bourne Identity (review here).

According to the publisher's blurb for The Treadstone Resurrection:
The first novel in an explosive new series inspired by Robert Ludlum's Bourne universe, The Treadstone Resurrection introduces an unforgettable hero and the shadowy world that forged him...

Treadstone made Jason Bourne an unstoppable force, but he's not the only one.

Operation Treadstone has nearly ruined Adam Hayes. The top-secret CIA Black Ops program trained him to be an all but invincible assassin, but it also cost him his family and any chance at a normal life. Which is why he was determined to get out. Working as a carpenter in rural Washington state, Adam thinks he has left Treadstone in the past, until he receives a mysterious email from a former colleague, and soon after is attacked by an unknown hit team at his job site.

Adam must regain the skills that Treadstone taught him--lightning reflexes and a cold conscience--in order to discover who the would-be killers are and why they have come after him now. Are his pursuers enemies from a long-ago mission? Rival intelligence agents? Or, perhaps, forces inside Treadstone? His search will unearth secrets in the highest levels of government and pull him back into the shadowy world he worked so hard to forget.
Hm. I have to admit, I'm a little dubious.... First, this version of Treadstone seems closer akin to the version in the popular Matt Damon movies than the one established by Ludlum in The Bourne Identity novel. Which makes sense, I suppose, since more people today probably know the character and the organization from the films, but personally I would hope for the author's estate to hew closer to his books. Second, I worry that this book may fall into the same traps that ensnared the Jeremy Renner Bourne spinoff movie, The Bourne Legacy (review here). Namely, why do the same exact thing that we've seen with the actual Bourne—namely, putting another former agent on the run from his own people? Why not try something different and show an active agent working successfully with and for the program? At least that would be a fresh take. But we'll see! Maybe this book will prove completely fresh.

Treadstone will also be resurfacing soon as a new USA TV series spun off from the films. I'm sure that's the reason for the Treadstone books, but I have no idea if they'll actually tie into the show at all or not. I would guess not. Van Lustbader's continuation novels were completely separate from the movies (even if they were clearly more inspired by Damon's virile take on the character than Ludlum's aging, reluctant assassin last seen in The Bourne Ultimatum—a very decisive conclusion to the series and fitting swan song for the literary chracter), despite both sharing the title The Bourne Legacy. My guess is that will be the case with Treadstone as well.

Jun 18, 2019

Full Trailer for the Batman's Butler Sixties Spy Show PENNYWORTH

Following the brief teaser revealed in March, EPIX has released a full trailer for that Sixties spy show about Batman's butler, Alfred Pennyworth... long before he was Batman's butler. Hey, whatever it takes to get a Sixties-set spy show on the air today! (And clearly what it takes is some sort of popular superhero property branding.) While Pennyworth is not directly connected to any other specific incarnation of the Dark Knight (including Gotham, which hailed from the same creative team), it certainly seems as if the appealing star, Jack Bannon (Endeavor), is doing his best to channel a young Michael Caine. (Caine played Alfred in the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, and of course embodied the quintessential 1960s London spy, Harry Palmer.) Set in an alternate reality Sixties London, Pennyworth follows young Alfred's adventures as a budding private security contractor fresh out of the SAS working with Thomas Wayne (future father of Bruce) to stop a threat against Her Majesty's Government.

Jun 12, 2019


eOne Entertainment has released a trailer for the long-in-the-works movie about Katherine Gun, the GCHQ whilstleblower who exposed the faulty intelligence used to justify the second Iraq war. Official Secrets is based on the 2008 book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion by Marcia and Thomas Mitchell. The title pretty much says it all, but Gun leaked an email to The Observer exposing an illegal U.S./UK intelligence operation designed to influence U.N. approval of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game), Matt Smith (Doctor Who), Matthew Goode (Kingsman: The Great Game), Rhys Ifans (Berlin Station), and Ralph Fiennes (Skyfall) star, with Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) directing. Official Secrets was first announced back in 2016, at which time Justin Chadwick (Spooks) was set to direct Natalie Dormer in the lead role, with a cast including Harrison Ford, Anthony Hopkins, and Martin Freeman. Clearly things changed, but the resulting movie still looks intriguing!

Jun 5, 2019

Trailer for STARZ Series THE ROOK

STARZ has released a trailer for their upcoming supernatural spy series The Rook. Surprisingly, it doesn't look as supernatural as I was expecting, but does pack in plenty of spyish paranoia and betrayal. It looks like The Bourne Identity meets the X-Men. Based on the series of books by Daniel O'Malley, The Rook premieres June 30 on STARZ.

Jun 4, 2019

Lots of Big Screen Spy Movies at L.A.'s New Beverly This Month

The June line-up at Quentin Tarantino's L.A. revival theater The New Beverly Cinema has lots to offer for spy fans! Foremost among them, in terms of big screen rarity, is a Sixties Irving Allen spy double bill of the fourth and final Matt Helm movie, 1969's The Wrecking Crew (advertised as being a gorgeous new 35mm print!) and the highly entertaining 1968 Eurospy movie Hammerhead. (Read my review here.) Like all of the Dean Martin Helm movies, the former (also starring Sharon Tate, Nancy Kwan, Tina Louise, and the villainous Deadlier Than the Male duo of Elke Sommer and Nigel Green) has relatively little to do with the gritty Donald Hamilton novel whose title it bears, but the latter is a pretty faithful adaptation of James Mayo's debut Charles Hood novel, despite changing hero Hood from a Brit to an American (Vince Edwards). This swinging double feature plays two nights--Wednesday, June 12, and Thursday, June 13. The first feature starts at 7:30, and the second at 9:45.

They'll also be showing Alfred Hitchcock's two late Sixties spy movies on consecutive Wednesday afternoons as part of their "Afternoon Classics" matinee series. Since these aren't among Hitch's most famous titles, they're also relative rarities on the big screen. I wish they weren't only playing during the day when I'll be at work! But should you be lucky enough to have Wednesdays off, be sure to check out "vibrant" IB Technicolor prints of Torn Curtain (1966), starring Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, on Wednesday, June 19, at 2pm, and Topaz (1969), based on the Leon Uris novel and featuring a Eurospy all-star cast of Frederick Stafford (OSS 117: Terror in Tokyo), Michel Piccoli (Danger: Diabolik), and Karin Dor (You Only Live Twice), on Wednesday, June 26, at 2pm.

There's also a slew of spy-adjacent Sixties movies on the docket, including Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman's other giant Ian Fleming adaptation, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, playing as a 2pm matinee on Saturday, June 22, and Sunday, June 23, Sean Connery in another Wednesday matinee of Hitchcock's Marnie (1964) on June 12, Eurospy goddess Elke Sommer in the heist picture They Came to Rob Las Vegas (paired with another Gary Lockwood vehicle, Jacques Demy's mesmerizing love letter to Sixties L.A., Model Shop) on June 18 (one night only), and on June 19 and 20 a double feature of Frank Sinatra's second Tony Rome movie (essentially an attempt to reinvent the hard-boiled P.I. genre for the Swinging Sixties Bond-Age), Lady in Cement (co-starring Fathom's Raquel Welch) and the faux spy thriller Pretty Poison, wherein mental patient Anthony Perkins convinces Tuesday Weld he's a secret agent. That's quite a month!

It should be noted that both The Wrecking Crew and They Came to Rob Las Vegas both feature in the latest trailer for Tarantino's upcoming 1969-set Once Upon A Time... in Hollywood (the former in a clip and poster, the latter flashing by in a billboard adorning the Chinese Theater).

Tickets for all shows are available through Brown Paper Tickets.