Dec 21, 2013

Bethlehem Trailer

American distributor Adopt Films have released an English language trailer (via Deadline) for Bethlehem, a stunning le Carré-esque spy movie set against the present day Israeli-Palestinian conflict that examines the psychological toll of espionage on its practitioners. Bethlehem, which already bagged six Ophir Awards (the Istraeli Academy Awards), was Israel's official submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, but shockingly didn't make the final cut. Directed by first-time helmer Yuval Adler and co-written by the Israeli Adler and Palestinian journalist Ali Wakad, Bethlehem tells a very Cold War type of spy story set in the titular city, about an agent of Israel's Shin Bet and his Palestinian asset torn between two masters and two worlds, the teenage brother of a wanted terrorist with ties to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades and Hamas. And it's a truly fantastic movie, one of the best serious spy films in years. I saw a festival screening earlier this year, and in a Q&A afterwards the director cited le Carré as an inspiration - and when I say the influence was obvious, regular readers will know that I mean that as high praise indeed! U.S. spy fans should definitely check this one out when it's released in limited markets on February 21, 2014.

Another Teaser For AMC's Turn

AMC has released the another teaser trailer for their Revolutionary War-era spy series Turn. This one reveals more of the show's espionage aspects. Turn is based on the book Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose. With a pilot directed by Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), Turn tells the story of The Culper Ring, America's first spy network. It stars Jamie Bell (Tintin), Kevin McNally (The Contract), Burn Gorman (Torchwood), Seth Numrich, Heather Lind, Meegan Warner, Angus MacFadyen, J.J. Field, and Samuel Roukin. It airs this Spring.

Dec 20, 2013

Archer Season 5 Poster, and Another Teaser

After a series of highly entertaining "ISIS training film" viral videos, FX has released a more substantial teaser for the upcoming fifth season of Archer. Instead of revealing a lot of new footage, however, it's mostly comprised of stuff we've already seen, but rehashed in a typically hilarious manner. The season poster, which has been online for a few weeks, takes its queue from Miami Vice this time around instead of James Bond or Burt Reynolds. Archer returns Monday, January 13.

Dec 18, 2013

Trailer For 3 Days to Kill

Here's the first trailer for 3 Days to Kill, Kevin Costner's bid for a Liam Neeson-like late career revival as an action hero in a Luc Besson-produced neo-Eurospy movie. This is another riff on Besson's successful Taken formula about an ex-CIA agent with a teenage daughter, but this time the agent (Costner) has been pulled back into his dirty business, and he's trying to keep it a secret from his daughter in order to foster a normal relationship with her. Adding another twist, the way the Agency lures him back in to kill for them again is by giving him an experimental drug that might cure his life-threatening condition - at the expense of hallucinogenic side effects. Besson co-wrote the script with his From Paris With Love collaborator Adi Hasak. Charlie's Angels director McG seems like the perfect orchestrator for Besson's brand of over-the-top spyjinks. I was let down by Besson's last effort, The Family, but I think this trailer looks very promising! And Costner looks a hell of a lot more invested in the role than Bruce Willis does nowadays in this sort of thing.

Dec 14, 2013

Two Teasers for the New Season of The Americans

Last year's best new spy drama, The Americans, doesn't return to FX until February, which still seems forever away! But the network has released two conceptual teaser spots (via Vulture) to whet our appetite. (Neither one seems to contain any actual footage from the upcoming second season.) Until February, though, we'll have to rely on ABC's Americans-inspired true story miniseries The Assets to slake our thirst for 1980s Cold War espionage and wigs.

Dec 13, 2013

Tradecraft: The Missionary Dead at HBO

This is some bad news. I was looking forward to the prospect of a Berlin-set Cold War spy series from (in part) Malcolm Gladwell, but apparently it's not to be. Deadline reports that the cable network has decided not to move forward with its pilot The Missionary, which has been in the works since 2010. C'est la vie. At least we've got a lot of other Cold War spy series on the way right now to keep us preoccupied, what with The Americans returning to FX, The Assets debuting on ABC, The Game on BBC One, Legacy on BBC Two (which has already aired in the UK as part of their fall Cold War season), and of course that epic 18-part adaptation of Len Deighton's Bernard Samson series that's in the works! (If that one happens, it will eclipse all others anyway...)

BBC Plots Cold War Spy Dramas Set in the Seventies

It's not just American television that's getting swept up in the Cold War these days. (See yesterday's news.) The success of FX's 1980s period spy drama The Americans on TV and Tomas Alfredson's 2011 feature version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in theaters have also spurred the BBC to revisit the era of its greatest ever spy series, the original miniseries version of Tinker, TailorDeadline first reported last July that BBC Two ordered a one-off spy drama entitled Legacy from the team behind the 2009 Nelson Mandela telefilm Endgame. Written by Paula Milne (who also scripted the upcoming Sean Penn neo-Eurospy contender The Gunman) and directed by Pete Travis, Legacy is based on a 2001 novel by Alan Judd. Charlie Cox (Stardust) stars as fledgling MI6 agent Charles Thoroughgood, who is ordered to reconnect with Viktor, a Russian diplomat he knew at university (played by Sherlock's Moriarty Andrew Scott) in order to turn him. Both the mission and Viktor prove to be more than they appear, and soon, according to the BBC Two blurb, Charles "is catapulted into a dangerous personal odyssey to uncover the truth but finds himself drawn into a lethal KGB plot to mount an attack within the UK." Meanwhile, he's conducting an affair with the wife of a fellow agent (The Hour's Romola Garai) as his own family history comes back to haunt him. Christian McKay (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and Simon Russell Beale (BBC Radio's Smiley) co-star. Legacy aired in the UK last month as part of their Cold War season, and there is no news yet about a U.S. airdate. Endgame was broadcast stateside on PBS' Masterpiece, so I hope they run Legacy as well. Here's the trailer:

But that's not the only period spy drama cooking at the BBC. Late last year, BBC Cymru Wales announced The Game, a six episode Cold War spy drama from Being Human creator Toby Whithouse (who also penned one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who, "School Reunion"), and this summer casting was firmed up. Filming is underway and the series is scheduled to air in 2014 on BBC One. Tom Hughes (Page Eight), Brian Cox (The Bourne Supremacy, RED), Paul Ritter (Quantum of Solace), Shaun Dooley (The Woman in Black), Chloe Pirrie (Black Mirror), Victoria Hamilton (What Remains), Jonathan Aris (James Bond videogames) and Judy Parfitt (The Avengers) star. According to the BBC, "when a defecting KGB officer reveals the existence of a devastating Soviet plot, codenamed Operation Glass, the charismatic but paranoid head of MI5, known simply as Daddy (Cox), assembles a secret committee to investigate." In the tradition of such shows, each team member has a unique specialty. Every week the team uncovers a new traitor, another piece of the puzzle that is Operation Glass. I like it! More than just a period version of Spooks, it sounds like something in the vein of Mr. Palfrey of Westminster, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, or possibly even Mission: Impossible. Once again there's no information yet on a U.S. airdate, but I'd be surprised if BBC America doesn't pick this one up.

Dec 12, 2013

Trailer for ABC's Cold War Spy Miniseries The Assets

The Americans won't be the only 1980s Russian agents on the small screen this winter. The success of FX's incredible Reagan-era spy series (review here) has caused ripples on both sides of the Atlantic, resulting in new serious Cold War spy dramas in the works from ABC and the BBC. And more Cold War spy dramas is nothing but a good thing, no matter what the networks' motivations in buying them. In July Deadline reported that ABC greenlit The Assets, an 8-part miniseries (or "limited series" as they now call them) based on based on the book Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed by Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille, the CIA counter-intelligence officers who caught Ames. Aldrich Ames was one of America's most notorious and damaging traitors of all time, a Soviet mole who fed valuable intel to the KGB that led to the deaths of at least ten CIA assets. And like The Americans, The Assets also stars an Englishman named Rhys doing an American accent. Not Matthew Rhys, but Paul Rhys, who once played Simon Templar in a series of Nineties BBC radioplays and also guest-starred on Spooks (aka MI-5). Paul Rhys plays Ames, while Jodie Whittaker (who was truly excellent in BBC's Broadchurch earlier this year) plays Grimes and Harriet Walter (who also guest-starred on Spooks, and happens to be the niece of Bond villain Christopher Lee) plays Vertefeuille. Foyle's War's Julian Ovenden also stars. The Assets premieres Thursday, January 2 on ABC. Morgan Hertzan, Rudy Bednar and Andrew Chapman executive produce. Here's the trailer:

Interestingly, this isn't the only project in the works based on Circle of Treason. In October Deadline reported that the screen rights to the book (evidently separate from the television rights) had been acquired by Focus Features. While the trade blog (oddly) didn't mention The Assets in its story, it did offer a nice summary of the movie's approach to the story:
The movie is a dramatic thriller based on real events in the late 1980s and early ’90s in which sounds like Zero Dark Thirty-like dogged hunt for a CIA traitor. The authors methodically took down America’s most notorious traitor, and had to battle against the CIA’s institutional hierarchy and chauvinism to do it. Vertefeuille, who passed away, rose in the CIA from the position of typist to taking foreign postings in places like Ethiopia, Finland the The Hague before working in counterintelligence. That’s where she met Grimes.
After seeing how a coterie of agents and assets — some they knew personally — were assassinated or imprisoned in the Soviet Union, they became convinced there was a mole in their midst. The movie is the methodical hunt that brought down Ames, who received millions of dollars for  his treachery and nearly got out of the country before he was caught.
Barry Josephson is producing, Adam Schneider is co-producing, and Anne Waterhouse and Joe Shrapnel are writing the script. Personally, I'm eager to see both versions of this deadly real-life mole hunt! If the film version is anywhere near as good as Billy Ray's Breach (which told the story Ames' equally damaging contemporary mole in the FBI, Robert Hanssen), then it will really be something to look forward to.

Dec 10, 2013

Tradecraft: A Most Wanted Man to Premiere at Sundance

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Anton Corbijn's John le Carré adaptation A Most Wanted Man (a movie I've been eagerly anticipating and following for 2 1/2 years now) will debut at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival in January. As previously reported, Lionsgate will release the film in America. Here's the official capsule from the festival line-up:
A Most Wanted Man / Germany, U.S.A. (Director: Anton Corbijn, Screenwriter: Andrew Bovell) — Based on John le Carré's bestselling book, Anton Corbijn directs this modern-day thriller with Academy Award–winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, and two-time Academy Award nominee Willem Dafoe headlining an ensemble cast. Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright.

Trailer For AMC's Revolutionary War Spy Series Turn

AMC has released the first trailer for their upcoming Revolutionary War-era spy series Turn, based on the book Washington’s Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose. Directed by Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), Turn tells the story of The Culper Ring, America's first spy network. It stars Jamie Bell (Tintin), Kevin McNally (The Contract), Burn Gorman (Torchwood), Seth Numrich, Heather Lind, Meegan Warner, Angus MacFadyen, J.J. Field, and Samuel Roukin. It airs this Spring.

Tradecraft: Fast and Furious Director Justin Lin Takes On Bourne Legacy Sequel

Deadline reported last month that Justin Lin, the man who turned the lackluster and flailing The Fast and the Furious series into a stellar, unmissable international heist and car chase action franchise, is turning his attention to Jason Bourne. Er, sorry, to Aaron Cross, the Jeremy Renner character who inherited the Bourne mantle (but not name) in the disappointing 2012 spinoff The Bourne Legacy. After that one, the Bourne series could really use some of what Lin injected into the Fast and the Furious movies. He's probably also the most traditionally mainstream action guy (despite his indie roots with Better Luck Tomorrow) to land a Bourne gig to date. Will this mark some sort of weather change for the franchise? Personally I think the director of Fast Five (a way, way better action movie than it ever had any right to be) can probably craft a top-notch Bourne movie (or faux-Bourne movie anyway), but we'll have to wait until 2015 to see. A subsequent Deadline story added that the new film is slated to open on August 14, 2015, which means that in 2015 spy fans will be treated to new entries in the Bond, Bourne and Mission: Impossible franchises all in the same year! What a year that will be...

Trailer: The Adventurer: The Curse of the Midas Box

No, it's sadly not a new feature version of the hilariously risible 1970s ITC series starring Gene Barry, but there is a new movie on the way called The Adventurer. The full title of this Adventurer is The Adventurer: The Curse of the Midas Box. It seems to be a sort of Alex Rider-meets-Indiana Jones period teen fantasy spy movie, and it's got a surprisingly stellar cast for this sort of thing including Sam Neill, Michael Sheen, Keeley Hawes, Lena Headey and Ioan Gruffudd. The film opens in limited release January 10, when it will also become available on iTunes.

Dec 8, 2013

Great Deals On Spy TV

When Paramount first released The Wild Wild West: The Complete Series back in 2008, many fans were upset because it included the two reunion movies Wild Wild West Revisited (1979) and More Wild Wild West (1980). The problem was that neither of those had been included with any of the individual season releases, and the disc they were on was never released on its own, so their inclusion on the pricey complete series was seen as a slap in the face to fans who had diligently bought each season as it was released. But now as part of their Cyber Monday Deals Week (yes, they made up a day and then they made that made-up day a week), Amazon is offering the all-inclusive box set for a truly affordable price. What originally retailed for $100 is now just $29.99 for this week only! For that money, it's worth finally making the upgrade for fans who bought all the seasons but always wanted the reunion movies as well. I'm sure you can make back thirty bucks by selling off your single-season sets and break even. And if you never bought any of the individual sets, this bargain is a no-brainer. The Wild Wild West is one of the best spy series of the Sixties, and The Wild Wild West: The Complete Series is an essential part of any spy library.

Speaking of essential parts of spy libraries, there's another must-have complete series set on sale today (and this one is today only at this price): Foyle's War: The Home Front Files Sets. The Homefront Files collects seasons 1-6 (that's all but this year's post-war seventh series) of Anthony (Alex Rider) Horowitz's espionage-heavy and completely fantastic WWII mystery series starring Pierce Brosnan's Bill Tanner, Michael Kitchen, and today the set which regularly retails for $150 is just $39.99! Buy it for yourself or give someone an awesome Christmas gift... or send a strong hint to someone who's buying you a Christmas gift. Foyle's War is great stuff.

Dec 3, 2013

Tradecraft: Transporter Director Boards Sacha Baron Cohen Spy Spoof

Looks like Paramount is serious about that Sacha Baron Cohen spy spoof we first heard about in August. According to Variety, the project now has a title and a director. Louis Leterrier, who made his name directing the first and best of the neo-Eurospy wave with The Transporter (co-directed with Corey Yuen) and Transporter 2, will bring his action experience to the action-comedy Grimsby. Baron Cohen wrote the script with Phil Johnston (Cedar Rapids), and the story follows a Bondian supserspy forced to go on the run with his long-lost brother, a moronic soccer hooligan. As far as I know Baron Cohen has not yet committed to star, but I think it's a safe assumption he means to play at least one of the two brothers if not both. Leterrier most recently directed Baron Cohen's wife, Isla Fisher, in Now You See Me. Apparently Baron Cohen was insistent on landing a director with serious action experience, which would seem to indicate that this action comedy will be heavy on the former, which should separate it from other spy spoofs like Johnny English or Austin Powers. I absolutely love Transporter 2, and I'm excited to see Louis Leterrier return to the action-comedy spy genre.

Another Archer Training Video: How Lana Deals With Ninjas

Here's another one of those great Dharma Iniative-style ISIS human resources training videos (this time courtesy of Vulture) promoting the upcoming fifth season of Archer on FX! Last time Sterling Archer taught us about gun safety; this time Lana shows the correct way to handle ninjas in the office:

Nov 21, 2013

Simon Pegg Returns for Another Mission

We have our second confirmed team member for Christopher McQuarrie's Mission: Impossible 5 (following last May's obvious announcement that Tom Cruise would once again star as Ethan Hunt). When asked by MTV (via Dark Horizons) if he'd be back for a third round as IMF agent Benji Dunn (Pegg debuted in the franchise's third installments), Pegg enthusiastically replied, "Yes, absolutely! I'm looking forward to that. I've already started eating one carrot a day in order to be in shape." Great! I really hope that McQuarrie brings back as many of the team members from Brad Bird's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol as possible. That was the first film in the theatrical franchise that actually did a decent job of capturing the team dynamic that made the TV show so great.

Nov 20, 2013

The Muppets Go Spying

The new Muppet movie, Muppets Most Wanted, has a distinctly spyish flavor. Not only does this UK trailer feature fake James Bond music, but Sam the Eagle plays a CIA agent! (Of course the film is also tipping its hat to the best Muppets movie ever, 1981's The Great Muppet Caper, which featured Diana Rigg.) While we're on the subject of Muppets and spies, it's worth remember than Roger Moore appeared on the original Muppet Show (which was, of course, an ITC series like The Saint and The Persuaders!) and Pierce Brosnan appeared on the Nineties revival Muppets Tonight. In 1999, Brosnan was even attached to a Muppet movie that sadly never came to be. Frequent Kevin Smith collaborator Brian Lynch sold a spec script to The Jim Henson Company which would have seen the Muppets lured to solo Hollywood careers. Gonzo was to replace Brosnan as James Bond, and Brosnan would have played himself. It's a pity that film didn't happen.

Nov 13, 2013

Tradecraft: Olympus Has Fallen Goes Spy for Sequel

Deadline reports that the first of this year's dueling Die Hard-in-the-White House movies, Olympus Has Fallen, will get a sequel. And unlike the first one, the sequel will be a spy movie. According to the trade, "this time around POTUS (Aaron Eckhart) and his trusted Secret Service bodyguard Mike Banning (Gerrard Butler) plus an English MI6 agent are the only ones who can stop a plot to take down London during the Prime Minister’s funeral." Since the threat is within England, I'm assuming they mean an MI5 agent, but then again I doubt accuracy is very high on the producers' list of priorities. "Angela Bassett and Radha Mitchell also reprise their roles in London Has Fallen as the director of the Secret Service and Mike’s wife, respectively, while [Morgan] Freeman is back as Senator Allan Trumbull." The first film's screenwriters, Katrin Benedikt and Creighton Rothenberger, are also penning the sequel, with filming expected to begin in May 2014. The project is currently out to directors, so hopefully that means that Antoine Fuqua (Shooter) will not be returning. (He's gone on to helm the feature film version of The Equalizer.)

Upcoming Spy CDs: OSS 117: Murder For Sale Soundtrack

While the first four movies in Andre Hunebelle's OSS 117 Eurospy series were scored by Michel Magne, the fifth film, whose many titles include OSS 117: Murder For Sale, OSS 117: Double Agent and No Roses for OSS 117, saw changes both in front of and behind the camera, including the composer. John Gavin (who later signed on as James Bond for Diamonds Are Forever before Sean Connery was lured back) stepped into the lead role, taking over from Frederick Stafford, and joined a dream-team spy ensemble that included Curd Jürgens, Luciana Paluzzi, Margaret Lee and Rosalba Neri. While Hunebelle still produced, Renzo Cerrato and Jean-Pierre Desagnat assisted with directing chores, and veteran Eurospy composer Piero Piccioni (The 10th Victim, Matchless, From the Orient With Fury) took over the scoring. This meant (obviously) that no music from this film was included on the excellent Michel Magne OSS 117 compilation CD from Universal. But this month, as first reported on the Spy Bob Royale website, Beat Records will release Piero Piccioni's complete score for this film as Niente Rose per OSS 117. It's available for pre-order from Amazon and, more reasonably, Screen Archives Entertainment. It will be great to have this elusive OSS 117 music at last! I hope Beat Records follows it up with further complete OSS 117 scores.

Read my review of Niente rose per OSS 117 here.
Read my overview of the OSS 117 Eurospy series here.

Tradecraft: Idris Elba Takes Lead in Bastille Day

We haven't heard about the neo-Eurospy movie Bastille Day in quite a while - in a year, actually. Last we heard, Taken and From Paris With Love director Pierre Morel was attached, but he's moved on to other stuff since then. (Namely, The Gunman, starring Sean Penn.) Now, however, Bastille Day seems to be moving forward once more, with a major star attached: the awesome Idris Elba (who also co-stars in The Gunman). Variety reports that Vendome Pictures and Anonymous Content will produce, and no director is currently attached. According to the trade, "the story revolves around a U.S. operative who is tasked with interrogating and eventually making a young American boy 'disappear' in order to avoid embarrassment to the U.S. government after the boy is linked as the prime suspect to an attack on the Paris metro. After several more attacks, the operative realizes the boy is innocent and may be the only link to the person actually orchestrating the attacks."

Nov 12, 2013

Tradecraft: Spooks Feature Film Cast Expands

Deadline reports that Kit Harington (Game Of Thrones) and Jennifer Ehle (Zero Dark Thirty) have joined the previously announced Peter Firth in Spooks: The Greater Good, the feature film continuation of the popular and long-running UK spy series Spooks (known in the U.S. as MI-5. According to the trade, "Harington plays an ex-MI-5 operative brought back in by Ehle’s deputy chief to uncover how a terrorist escaped custody during a routine handover." The feature, directed by frequent series helmer Bharat Nalluri, is scheduled to shoot early next year. Further cast announcements are expected soon; it's still unknown if any other series cast members whose characters survived will be joining Firth. I have yet to see Game of Thrones (I know, I know...), but I saw Harington on a panel at Comic-Con and he exuded leading man charm. Ehle is always good (and especially in Zero Dark Thirty), so I have no doubt she'll make a good addition to the Spooks team too.

Read my review of MI-5: Volume 1
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 2
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 3
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 4
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 5

Spyship Finally Sails Onto DVD

Spyship, the critically revered 1983 BBC Cold War drama from (in part) Callan creator James Mitchell, is finally available on DVD for the first time next week in the UK courtesy of distributor Simply Media. I've never seen this series, but as a huge fan of Callan (and of 1980s UK spy dramas), I've long wanted to and happy that now I finally can. Here's how Simply Media describes the plot:
Enter a nightmarish world of political cover-ups of international consequence in the last decade of the Cold War in this six-part BBC drama. 
When an ordinary British fishing vessel and its 36-man crew mysteriously disappears off the coast of Norway, journalist Martin Taylor (Tom Wilkinson) is determined to find out why. His father was on board, and is now missing. 
His investigations soon lead him to run up against the twin barriers of Royal Navy stonewalling and an impenetrable Soviet Politburo.
The notorious finale shocked audiences when it was first aired in 1983. 
Spyship is based on the fictional novel by Brian Haynes and Tom Keene, former reporters who researched the real life sinking of the FV Gaul in 1974 which was shrouded in mystery.
The Region 2 PAL 2-disc set is available to pre-order from Amazon UK for £15.82; it comes out on November 18.

Steve Coogan Shows Off His Bond Impressions on The Jonathan Ross Show

In The Trip, we saw Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden attempt to outdo each other with their hilarious Michael Caine impressions, and we saw Coogan do a terrific Roger Moore. On The Jonathan Ross Show last week, the British actor/comedian showed off his impressive impressions of other Bond actors. Coogan's Dalton leaves a lot to be desired (and sadly he doesn't do a Lazenby even though he claims to have every Bond actor but Craig in his repertoire), but his Moore and Brosnan are particularly spot-on. Check it out:

Coogan can currently be seen starring opposite former M actress Judi Dench in the Oscar-touted dramady Philomena. At one time he was linked (along with Ben Stiller) to play the Roger Moore role in a feature film remake of The Persuaders!, but sadly that never came to be. Coogan's career is littered with Bond reverence and references. His signature character Alan Partridge is obsessed with Roger Moore, and it's a running joke on the premiere of Coogan's first Partridge-centric series Knowing Me, Knowing You, that Moore fails to show up for an interview on Alan's chat show. In one of the most memorable episodes of the subsequent series, I'm Alan Partridge, Alan hilariously re-enacts the entirety of The Spy Who Loved Me for his friends when the VCR breaks.

Sterling Archer Teaches Gun Safety

I love Archer's viral video campaign leading up to the January premiere of the fourth season of the hilariously irreverent animated spy spoof. We've already seen an Archer remake of Kenny Loggins' "Danger Zone" music video (it makes sense if you've watched the series) and an HR film on conflict resolution featuring Pam Poovey and her puppet. The latest video promoting the FX series is another Dharma Iniative-like ISIS training film with Archer himself teaching gun safety to new recruits. Check it out:

Nov 1, 2013

Tradecraft: Spooks/MI-5 Revived For Theatrical Movie

BBC's Spooks, known in America as MI-5, ran for ten seasons and concluded in 2011, making it one of the longest running spy series in television history. Now it looks like the show may find a new life in feature films. Variety reports that series star Peter Firth, who played spymaster Harry Pearce, will star in the theatrical feature Spooks: The Greater Good for Shine Pictures and Kudos. Series producers Jane Featherstone and Stephen Garrett will team up with Ollie Madden (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) to produce the film, from a script by series writers Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent. Bharat Nalluri, who helmed both the series pilot and the series finale as well as lots of episodes in between, will direct the movie as well. The producers are seeking international distribution partners at the American Film Market. According to the trade, "In the film, a terrorist escapes from the custody of MI-5, the British intelligence service, during a handover. The head of counter-terrorism is blamed, and then disappears himself. His protege is called in to help uncover what happened." So far Firth is the only actor attached, but I'm sure a few more familiar faces from the series (well, from the few who survived all the way through anyway) will turn up, probably joined by some heavy-hitting guest stars. Personally, I'd love to see Hugh Laurie reprise his Season 1 role as Firth's condescending MI-6 counterpart Jools Siviter!

Read my review of MI-5: Volume 1
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 2
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 3
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 4
Read my review of MI-5: Volume 5

Oct 22, 2013

Tradecraft: Jason Statham Joins Melissa McCarthy and Bridesmaids Director on Comedic Female-Driven Spy Franchise

In June, The Wrap (via Dark Horizons) reported that Bridesmaids and The Heat director Paul Feig was plotting a female-driven spy comedy, Susan Cooper, and hoping it had the makings of a franchise. Now Deadline reports that Feig's frequent collaborator Melissa McCarthy is set to star, and the Transporter himself, Jason Statham, is in talks to join her. Feig wrote the script, and described the project to The Wrap as "a two-hander." According to Deadline, Statham will be playing a spy on the same side as McCarthy's titular agent, so perhaps he's the other hand in this comedic spy movie. If so, I'm sold! While I'm always happy to see Statham do his thing, it will be nice to watch him stretch himself a bit with something slightly different. The tough-guy actor actually excels in comedic action movies like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and The Italian Job, though it's been quite a while since he's done one. (Statham also made a cameo appearance in the 2006 version of The Pink Panther.) Feig told The Wrap that Susan Cooper will be "a realistic comedy about a female James Bond" rather than an out and out send-up like Get Smart or Johnny English. He said he was inspired to write the script by the 2006 Casino Royale, which he counts among his favorite movies.

Oct 15, 2013

Title Sequence From a Peter Graves Spy Series that Never Was

Watch this credits sequence and tell me this wouldn't have been the best show ever. No! You're wrong. It clearly would have been.

Call to Danger was filmed as a pilot in 1973 for CBS and would have seen Peter Graves follow up his successful run on Mission: Impossible with another spy series. Had the show gone to series, it would have once again seen Graves as a team leader recruiting citizens to spy week after week. He played a government agent who used a supercomputer (those were big at the time) to find ordinary citizens whose unique abilities qualified them to take on specific missions. The premise is indeed similar to the original premise of Mission: Impossible (after seven seasons, it was easy to forget that Willy and Barney and Paris and Cinnamon and the rest of the gang were not meant to be professional spies, but amateurs enlisted for their unique talents), and to the short-lived 1980s spy series Masquerade, with Rod Taylor. It was also more or less the premise of Warren Ellis' popular comic book series Global Frequency, which was filmed twice as a pilot (the second time with 24's Michelle Forbes) but never went to series. Apparently this concept lends itself well to multiple interpretations, because the Call to Danger pilot was actually filmed three times!

A half-hour version in 1961 starred Larry Blyden in essentially the same premise. According to Patrick J. White in his essential Complete Mission: Impossible Dossier, producer Perry Lafferty described it by saying, "If you had perfect pitch, could speak Spanish, and ride a unicycle, you'd be in this computer bank. When there was some kind of situation they couldn't solve with their own personnel, they would go to this computer agency and see if any of these people could match their plan." Though the half-hour version didn't sell, the concept was revamped as an hour-long black and white pilot in 1966, produced by Paul King and starring Graves. (You can see the opening credits for that one, with a theme by Hawaii Five-0's Morton Stevens, at 4:05 in this video.) That version didn't sell, either, but it was his performance in that pilot that landed Graves his starring role on the second season of Mission: Impossible! And when the handwriting appeared to be on the wall for Mission after seven seasons, this third attempt was commissioned, again starring Graves and this time written and produced by Mission: Impossible's Laurence Heath. As it happened, Mission: Impossible was cancelled, but sadly Call to Danger wasn't picked up. CBS ended up airing the third Call to Danger pilot as a TV movie in 1973. Man, what I wouldn't give today to have another Peter Graves spy series to work through on DVD! In some alternate dimension, Graves kept right on spying on the Syndicate throughout the Seventies.

Director, Cast Changes on Le Carre Adaptation Our Kind of Traitor

I was worried when director Justin Kurzel, previously attached to the film adaptation of John le Carré's 2010 thriller Our Kind of Traitor, committed to a new film of Macbeth earlier this year. What did that mean for Our Kind of Traitor? The Daily Mail's Baz Bamigboye (via Dark Horizons) reports that the le Carré movie continues to move forward, but with a change at the helm. Producer Simon Cornwell (son of David Cornwell, aka John le Carré) told Bamigboye that Susanna White, who directed the BBC/HBO co-production Parade’s End starring Benedict Cumberbatch, has replaced Kurzel as director of Our Kind Of Traitor. The cast, which at one point was rumored to prospectively include Ewan McGregor (Haywire), Ralph Fiennes (Skyfall), Mads Mikkelson (Casino Royale) and Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), seems to also be in flux. While Cornwell says that McGregor is still interested in playing Perry, a disillusioned academic who along with his lawyer girlfriend is drawn into a web of espionage involving MI6 and a Russian gangster, Mikkelson has had to back out of playing the gangster, Dima, due to scheduling issues. (Probably because he stars on the American TV show Hannibal.) That's too bad; he would have been good. But it's such a great, showy role that it's bound to attract an equally great actor! Cornwell also told Bamigboye that they intend to start shooting "in the first half of next year" (of course, we've heard that before) and that writer Hossein Amini (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) was currently revising his script with an eye to bulk up the role of Perry's girlfriend, Gail. "She won’t be Charlie’s Angels," he said, "but she’ll be stronger than in the book." Frankly, I'm surprised to hear the author's son speak so dismissively of the novel's Gail. I thought she was already one of the strongest and best female characters le Carré has ever written, and I really hope they don't change her role too much! Meanwhile, the next le Carre film we'll see in theaters will be Anton Corbijn's A Most Wanted Man, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rachel McAdams, which Lionsgate will release in the U.S.

Oct 14, 2013

Hilarious A View To A Kill Video

This first came to my attention a few years ago via a memberon the CBn forums (Trevelyan 006). I meant to post the link then, but somehow never got around to it. Since then I've watched A View To A Kill twice (it's probably the Bond I watch the least often after Quantum of Solace), and every time I see it now I can't help but flash back to this video and laugh. Intrepid video editor m0gdred has made a particularly dated scene from that movie featuring Christopher Walken and Roger Moore quite hilarious. Enjoy.

Oct 11, 2013

Tradecraft: Dylan McDermott Joins Survivor

The other day we heard about Survivor, a new spy movie starring Milla Jovovich, Emma Thompson, Angela Bassett and Pierce Brosnan. Now Deadline reports that Dylan McDermott (The GridOlympus Has Fallen, Hostages) has landed the male lead in the film. Hm. It's too bad they couldn't have found someone a little bigger. That somewhat dilutes an otherwise stellar cast. Oh well. I'm still excited for this one. Survivor is written by spy novelist Philip Shelby and directed by V for Vendetta's James McTeigue.

Archer Flies Into the Danger Zone

I suppose it was in some way inevitable, yet I never saw it coming. Those magnificent bastards at the brilliant FX animated spy comedy Archer have created this Archerized version of Kenny Loggins' "Danger Zone" video from the Top Gun soundtrack. And, of course, it is awesome. This was made for the Archer presentation at the New York Comic Con this weekend, but FX were kind enough to share it with the world to help tide us over until January, when Archer returns with a new season.

Oct 9, 2013

Young Bond Returns in 2014

It's been a big week or two for fans of the literary 007! Yesterday, William Boyd's James Bond continuation novel Solo (set in 1968) was published in the United States (after debuting in the UK a few weeks ago), and today Ian Fleming Publications announced that the Young Bond spin-off series (targeted at Young Adult readers) will resume in 2014 under the stewardship of a new author! Between 2005 and 2008, author Charlie Higson penned five novels for IFP (beginning with Silverfin) about the adventures of James Bond as a boy, long before he ever became a spy. Since Higson was working in the timeline of Fleming's novels (originally published in the 1950s and 60s), these boyhood adventures took place in the early 1930s while the future 007 was a student at Eton. This premise, clearly designed to cash in on the young adult fiction boom that came in the wake of Harry Potter's success, seemed ludicrous to many Bond fans when it was first announced, myself included. But somewhat improbably, Higson pulled it off with astonishing success. His novels were highly enjoyable, respectful of the original Bond canon, and huge hits in the UK. One thing we always knew about Bond's childhood, thanks to the obituary M writes in Fleming's You Only Live Twice, was that he was kicked out of Eton after an "incident" involving a maid. Higson's Eton-set series, therefore, was headed inexorably towards that moment, and sure enough, in his final volume, By Royal Command, James Bond is expelled from Eton.

The new series, therefore, will pick up after that, presumably following the teenage James to Fettes. According to IFP's press release, Random House will publish a quartet of brand new Young Bond adventures starting in fall of 2014. Unfortunately Charlie Higson isn't back for this round. Instead the new Young Bond novels will be written by Steve Cole. Cole is the author of the Atrosaurs books (a children's series I'm not familiar with, evidently geared towards younger readers than the Young Bond novels), as well as several Doctor Who tie-ins and, most relevantly, a teen spy series called Tripwire (the latter co-written with Chris Hunter). According to IFP, he is also a lifelong fan of Fleming's Bond novels. Here's a quote from Cole along with some pertinent details from the press release:
‘I first encountered Bond in print as a teenager, when I read "From a View to a Kill." Fleming´s writing was so vivid and authentic, Bond and the world he inhabited seemed suddenly real to me – and the danger and glamour led me through book after book. It´s both a thrilling privilege and an exciting challenge now to be shaping a new era in the life of such an iconic character – with many firsts and surprises to come as James´s life in the dangerous 1930s develops.’Cole’s first Young Bond novel will launch with a bang in Autumn 2014. It will be published in hardback on RHCP’s highly respected Jonathan Cape children’s imprint.
So these ones will all be published in hardcover in the UK. Higson's first three books debuted as paperback originals before switching to hardcover with the fourth book, Hurricane Gold. (Though the first three were subsequently reprinted in hardcover limited editions.) Those were published by Penguin children's imprint Puffin in Britain, and by Miramax/Hyperion in the United States. No U.S. publisher has yet been named for the new quartet of Young Bond novels. Well.... here's hoping Steve Cole has what it takes to live up to Higson's superb start! I can't wait to find out. (And in the meantime, I've just ordered the first book in the Tripwire series for a taste of his spy style!)

Read my review of Higson's third Young Bond novel, Double of Die, here.
Read my review of Higson's fourth Young Bond novel, Hurricane Gold, here.
Read my review of Higson's fifth Young Bond novel, By Royal Command, here.
Read my review of The Young Bond Rough Guide to London here.

Oct 8, 2013

Tradecraft: Busy Pierce Brosnan Spies Another Day

It looks like there will be more espionage in Pierce Brosnan's future after The November Man! Deadline reports that the former Bond star is among the impressive ensemble cast of Survivor, a new spy thriller directed by James McTeigue (V for Vendetta, Ninja Assassin). Milla Jovovich (The Fifth Element) stars as "a State Department employee newly posted to the American embassy in London where she is charged with stopping terrorists from getting into the U.S." She quickly finds herself at the center of an international conspiracy. Discredited and framed for crimes she didn't commit, and pursued by assassins, she's forced to go on the run and attempt to clear her name while preventing a large-scale terrorist attack on New York's Times Square New Year's Eve celebration. I love it! The plot sounds very, very Ludlumy. (Particularly similar to The Aquitaine Progression.) Hm, perhaps that's no coincidence. Irwin Winkler, who is currently adapting Ludlum's The Sigma Protocol, produces, with Charles Winkler, and Phil Shelby wrote the script. Could this be the same Philip Shelby who penned some of the Ludlum-inspired Covert One novels? (That's a paperback series published under the Ludlum brand with his name splashed across the cover in huge letters even over a decade after his death, but written, obviously, by other authors.) I wonder. Brosnan and his Love Punch co-star Emma Thompson round out the cast, along with Angela Bassett (Alias). I absolutely loved one McTeigue movie so far, V for Vendetta, but felt quite the opposite way about his follow-up, Ninja Assassin (review here). Hopefully he'll be in V form for Survivor! Shooting is scheduled to get underway January 20 in London.

Before then, Brosnan will shoot The Coup in Thailand, with cameras scheduled to finally roll later this month on a project we first heard about over a year ago which was originally supposed to film last fall. Owen Wilson stars in that one, as a father trying to get his family to safety when the Southeast Asian country they're living in erupts in a violent coup. Brosnan plays some sort of mysterious government operative... and you know I love it when Brosnan plays government operatives! Lake Bell joined the cast this week as well, according to The Hollywood Reporter. At some point between those two movies, Brosnan will also find time to squeeze in the dark comedy How to Make Love Like an Englishman, in which he plays a womanizing professor who finally meets his match. His After the Sunset co-star Salma Hayak just signed on this week to play that match (according to Deadline); Jessica Alba and Kristen Scott-Thomas also star. And some time in the future (presumably after Survivor), Brosnan will also star (Deadline reported last week) in I.T., a thriller he's co-producing through his company Irish DreamTime for Voltage Pictures. In that one, Pierce plays a successful book publisher who finds himself the target of a young disgruntled I.T. consultant who uses his tech savvy to ruin the publisher's life. Meanwhile, the busy Brosnan has two other films already wrapped and awaiting release (the aforementioned Love Punch and A Long Way Down, which reunites him with his Die Another Day co-star Rosamund Pike), made a scene-stealing surprise appearance in one of this summer's best comedies (due out on DVD this fall), and starred in the really wonderful Swedish romantic dramady Love Is All You Need, which just came out in America on DVD and Blu-ray. (Seriously, check this one out. It's surprisingly good.) And he found time to star in a Bondian pictorial (pictured) promoting fall 2013 menswear for Hackett of London shot by frequent 007 photographer Terry O'Neill! (That's also worth checking out, as it finally pairs a modern Bond with a modern Bentley, a match I've wanted to see for years.) Whew! That's quite an active schedule. Go Pierce!

Oct 7, 2013

Tradecraft: ABC Developing New Female Spy Series Clandestine

Once again this year, there are a lot of spy pilots flying around the networks these days! (Bear in mind as always with pilots this time of year, few of them will actually be shot, and fewer still will make it to series come next fall.) The latest, according to Deadline, is a female-led spy series at ABC (where the ultimate female-led spy series, Alias, aired for five seasons last decade) from producer Melissa Rosenberg (The AgencyTwilight) and writer Matthew Sand (Ninja Assassin). The trade blog reports that "Clandestine takes a look into the CIA world through the perspective of an unlikely asset: the hard-partying daughter of the American ambassador to the UK. As her work grows more dangerous, she discovers skills and talents no one ever thought she possessed — especially not her father, from whom she is keeping a dark secret." I love the premise! And while I know a lot of spy fans will no doubt roll their eyes at the Twilight connection, bear in mind that Rosenberg is actually an old hand at TV, with producing credits including short-lived spy drama The Agency as well as Dexter, The O.C. and a personal favorite of mine, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. I'm rooting for this one!

Oct 3, 2013

Trailer for Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Well, how do you like that? This makes three Tom Clancy-related posts in a row. (Granted, one of them was relating very sad news.) After sitting tight on it all summer, Paramount has finally begun the publicity push for its Jack Ryan reboot, which the studio hopes will re-launch the iconic Nineties spy franchise for the modern age. Yesterday we saw the poster, and today we have the trailer for Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.

Well, that was... hm. What was that? It's really hard for me to separate the action from the character, but I get the feeling that if it were a trailer for a new Chris Pine spy movie with no baggage, I'd be really into it. But a Jack Ryan movie? It doesn't really feel like that to me. There's a lot I find appealing in this trailer, but it doesn't have any of the stuff I really associate with that franchise. No techies staring at satellite imagery, no fetishistic beauty shots of military hardware, no political shouting matches. Instead, it looks like someone yelled, "Make a movie with Jack Ryan in Casino Royale. With lots of Bourne stuff, too!" Now, anyone who regularly reads this blog will know that I love Casino Royale, and I love Bourne stuff. So in general I'd have no problem with that. But... it's really not Jack Ryan. Mr. Clark was Jack Ryan's "dark side" in the Clancy novels, and he was the one who took care of this sort of thing. Ryan himself was more cerebral. He was an analyst and a strategist, and that made it more interesting when he did find himself in risky situations. Last year we heard that Paramount planned to develop simultaneous Clark and Ryan franchises, and have Kevin Costner's character as a Nick Fury-like link between the two leading up to them eventually meeting and teaming up, following the Marvel model. But based on this Ryan trailer, I can't imagine that the Clark movie would be different enough to register as its own animal.

But, of course, this is a reboot, and specifically a cinematic reboot. The Bourne of the movies bears very little resemblance to the Bourne of the books, yet the movies became huge hits, so why should Paramount feel anymore beholden to the literary source material than Universal did? I guess the key to enjoying this movie will be to go into it expecting a whole new thing, and to leave all Jack Ryan preconceptions at the door. (Obviously this doesn't work as a prequel to The Hunt for Red October, since that Jack Ryan certainly hadn't been forced to "go operational" years prior!) I didn't like Doug Liman's The Bourne Identity the first time I saw it because I brought too much baggage from my love of the books. While I'd still like to see the book Bourne filmed faithfully one day, I've since learned to enjoy the Matt Damon movies (and enjoy them quite a lot!) for what they are. I will try to bear the same thing in mind when seeing Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. (Plus, it is pretty cool to see Kevin Costner as some sort of Smiley-type!) As of now, it's scheduled to open Christmas Day.

PS: Also, it's kind of funny that Casino Royale reset not only James Bond but the spy genre at large so thoroughly that whereas after Dr. No the quintessential spy imagery was a sophisticated agent in a suit arriving at an exotic international airport (that's the scene that every imitator took, not the 007's iconic casino introduction), now apparently the quintessential spy imagery is a gritty fight in a men's room.

Oct 2, 2013

Jack Ryan Reboot Poster

Where there is death, there is rebirth. Following today's sad news of author Tom Clancy's passing, Paramount has unveiled the first poster for the new movie that aims to reboot Clancy's signature character, CIA analyst Jack Ryan. As Deadline first reported, the new film is entitled Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. That doesn't sound remotely like a Clancy title to me, which is too bad. The film is not based on any existing Clancy novel, but is said to find its inspiration in the clues the author provided about Ryan's past in The Hunt for Red October and other books. (Except I'm pretty sure the CIA analyst described in that novel hadn't already been in a situation that required him to carry a firearm in Moscow...)
I'm honestly quite excited for this movie, which is directed by Kenneth Branagh and co-stars Branagh, Kevin Costner and Keira Knightley (what, she doesn't rate a poster mention?), but I have to say I don't like this poster one bit. I suppose the point is to evoke the equally unimpressive campaign for Pine's other big Paramount hit this year, Star Trek Into Darkness? Whatever, it's only a poster. We should get a better sense of what the movie itself will be like when Paramount unleashes the first trailer tomorrow at 7:30 Eastern/4:30 Pacific on Yahoo! I hope the film does well by Tom Clancy's legacy.

R.I.P. Tom Clancy

Numerous outlets, including Deadline and The New York Times, are reporting the death of author Tom Clancy at the age of 66 following a brief illness. Clancy was one of the biggest names in spy fiction—certainly one of the genre’s bestsellers in the Eighties and Nineties. He was also one of the indisputable founding fathers of the modern genre dubbed the “techno-thriller,” well-researched page turners based on cutting edge technological concepts. (The techno-thriller and spy thriller genres often dovetail, as they did in Clancy’s books.) Clancy was the creator of one of the most recognizable spy franchise characters of modern times, CIA analyst Jack Ryan. Ryan first appeared in Clancy’s 1984 Cold War classic The Hunt for Red October, the first work of contemporary fiction ever to be published by the Naval Institute Press. (The initial print run was just 5,000 copies, and in the mid-Nineties, this was one of the most desirable modern first editions out there.) Part of what made the book such a success was its impressively accurate technical details, which won the author many fans among the U.S. military and intelligence establishment. Like Ian Fleming before him, Clancy got a huge boost in sales when an American president endorsed his work. Ronald Reagan told White House reporters that he was losing sleep because he couldn’t put down The Hunt for Red October, calling it “my kind of yarn.”

Red October was followed by other thick Jack Ryan thrillers, including Patriot Games, The Cardinal of the Kremlin (my favorite), Clear and Present Danger and The Sum of All Fears. These giant, daunting literary bricks were such a part of Eighties and Nineties pop culture that it’s impossible to imagine a Waldenbooks or B. Dalton of my childhood without picturing them prominently displayed in the front of the store. They were intrinsic to my own discovery of the spy genre when I was in middle school. Many hundreds of pages long and often weighing more than all my textbooks combined (in hardcover, anyway), each new Clancy book I read was a challenge to be conquered. Yet despite their dense technological details, they moved quickly and (in those days) always proved a rewarding read. The dense technical data was never boring, because Clancy made it exciting! Reading a Clancy novel, I always felt like I was privy to fascinating top secret information about high-tech weaponry and the inner workings of our military and intelligence services. Honestly, learning about submarine warfare and sniper skills and satellite technology was as thrilling and sometimes even as suspenseful as the roller coaster plots that Clancy concocted. (Some of those plots proved harrowingly prescient, particularly terrorists’ use of airliners to attack America in Debt of Honor.) I loved those novels, and I find it hard to believe that now all three of my favorite thriller writers of my youth are dead before their time: Ludlum, Crichton and now Clancy.

Tom Clancy’s cultural impact was not limited to the bestseller lists. He was also a trailblazer in videogames. His second novel, Red Storm Rising (chronicling WWIII), formed the basis for a war game the author was actively involved in developing, and in the Nineties he co-founded his own videogame company, Red Storm Entertainment (subsequently subsumed by Ubisoft). Clancy lent his name and expertise to three extremely successful Ubisoft series, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon and Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell. As in his fiction, he insisted on a high level of technical accuracy in these games, and reportedly that realism led to the military actually using some of them in training.

Clancy also made his mark on film and television. The Hunt for Red October was made into a superb movie by John McTiernan in 1990 starring Sean Connery as Soviet sub captain Marko Ramius and Alec Baldwin as Jack Ryan. With James Bond out of commission for half the decade, Jack Ryan became the cinematic spy hero of the Nineties, played by Harrison Ford in two further films (both directed by Philip Noyce), Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. The latter Ford film also introduced movie audiences to Clancy’s other primary hero, Black Ops mastermind John Clark, played by Willem Dafoe. The series was rebooted in the early 2000s with Ben Affleck playing a younger Ryan at the start of his career in The Sum of All Fears, and will be rebooted again later this year with Chris Pine playing Ryan at an even earlier point in his career, if that makes sense. I enjoyed the movies (well, except for Sum), but as a teenager felt frustrated that they never seemed to do the books justice. (How could they, cramming that many pages into a standard theatrical running time?) Clancy himself was often the most outspoken critic of the movies based on his books.

Even though miniseries would seem the perfect medium to adapt Clancy’s books, only two were made: Tom Clancy’s OP Center (1995), starring Harry Hamlin, and Tom Clancy’s NetForce (1999), starring Scott Bakula. It was reported in late 2011 that Clancy was working on a new TV series about Homeland Security. I was excited by the prospect, and I hope it might still see the light of day.

The most controversial way in which Clancy impacted the publishing industry was by turning his name into a brand, and that brand into a cottage industry. He lent his name to numerous series of paperback originals (some of which were tied in with videogames or miniseries), including Tom Clancy’s Net Force, Tom Clancy’s Op-Center, Tom Clancy’s Power Plays, and Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell. But despite his name being by far the largest thing on the cover, the actual books were written by other authors. While some of those authors were quite talented in their own right (including James Bond continuation author Raymond Benson), it seemed a bit disingenuous to market their books as something they weren’t. But there’s no arguing with the financial success of the model. While consumers might have the right to gripe, publishers loved the results. Soon, Robert Ludlum, Clive Cussler, James Patterson and others were following the same formula. (It’s proven very lucrative for the Ludlum estate, enabling them to keep publishing new material with the late author’s name splashed across the cover for more than a decade after his death, and will no doubt do the same for Clancy’s heirs.) In later years, Clancy even started turning over his signature Jack Ryan series to ghost writers, co-writing recent novels with Grant Blackwood and Mark Greaney. (There’s much debate among fans over how much co-writing Clancy actually did, as the author’s signature attention to detail certainly dwindled. It certainly seemed as if his heart was no longer in it, even in the last books he wrote on his own.)

Even without his numerous spin-off series, Tom Clancy’s legacy is assured. His early Jack Ryan books are bona fide classics of the genre, and Ryan himself will live on for as long as spy novels are read. This December will see the publication of a new Jack Ryan novel co-wrtitten with Greaney, Command Authority, as well as the long-awaited cinematic reboot of the character in Kenneth Brannagh’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Deadline’s obituary is the first place I’ve seen that title), starring Chris Pine. (Though there are rumors that Paramount may push the movie to next spring.) But beyond Jack Ryan, Clancy’s impact will be forever felt in the works of new authors and screenwriters he inspired. Like Ian Fleming and John le Carré, Tom Clancy forever changed the genre, and every techno-thriller author to come will owe him a debt of honor.

Sep 25, 2013

TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Pilot (2013)

“What does S.H.I.E.L.D. stand for, Agent Ward?” asks S.H.I.E.L.D. honcho Maria Hill (guest star Cobie Smulders, familiar to audiences from playing the role in Marvel’s The Avengers). And this brief exchange isn’t just in there for the sake of exposition. It is a crucial bit of exposition, of course, at the beginning of a show called Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. designed to appeal to far broader audiences than ever picked up an issue of Jim Steranko’s groundbreaking 1960s run on the comic book Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., but it also serves to brilliantly set the tone for executive producer Joss Whedon’s take on the concept. Whedon, who also directed the Marvel Avengers movie, directs the pilot episode of the series, and co-writes with Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen.

“Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division,” replies the vaguely Bondian super-agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), who we’ve just watched retrieve a MacGuffin (a Chitauri neural link, for those who care) from a bad guy’s Parisian apartment while taking enough time to flirt with the villain’s lingerie-clad mistress and dispatch a team of thugs before dangling from a helicopter to make his escape over the rooftops of the City of Lights. There’s the exposition, telling people what, exactly, they’re watching. (And reminding long-term fans that the acronym’s meaning has changed over the years.) Except… well, that’s really no answer, is it? What are audiences to make of that assembly of non sequiturs? Agent Hill presses further.

“And what does that mean to you?”

“It means someone really wanted our initials to spell out S.H.I.E.L.D.,” he responds. pausing before adding more seriously, “It means we’re the line. Between the world… and the much weirder world. We protect people from news they aren’t ready to hear. And when we can’t do that, we keep them safe.” And so the exchange serves to set the tone for the whole series. This is a S.H.I.E.L.D. series, fully subscribing to both the premise of the comics (an U.N.C.L.E.-like espionage agency taken to comic book extremes, tasked with taking on super powers and super science that would be laughable in a Bond movie), but it’s also a Joss Whedon series (he previously created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly), self-aware and referential, with a clear sense of humor even in the face of inevitable tragedy. (Whedon loves tragedy.) It’s a Whedon take on S.H.I.E.L.D. As a fan of both, I found it difficult to reconcile the two based on the somewhat schizophrenic promos for the series, but that one exchange makes it entirely clear to me what that will be like, and that it will work.  

Whedon’s sense of humor (apparently shared with his co-writers) elevates the entire pilot episode, and clearly differentiates this acronym show from the CBS acronym shows like CSI and NCIS in all their iterations. Yes, those shows have humor too, but not the Whedonesque brand of postmodern, self-deprecating humor. Interestingly, rather than distancing the show from the comics, as I feared that style of humor might do, it serves to make the show feel more like a comic book. Everything in this world is heightened—the jokes as well as the action—and that’s exactly as it should be.

Hill is interviewing Agent Ward because he has been selected to be on a new mobile task force whose purview includes all the new superheroics and alien technology popping up around the world after the apocalyptic events of Marvel’s The Avengers (generally referred to as “the Battle of New York”). He’s not happy about it. “Why was I pulled out of Paris?” he demands.

“That you’ll have to ask Agent Coulson,” Hill replies. Coulson, filmgoers will recall, is the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent created specifically for the movies, who first popped up in Iron Man (2008). Since then, the fan-favorite character played by Clark Gregg has gone on to appear in Iron Man 2, Thor, various Marvel short films, and, of course, the Whedon-directed megahit Marvel’s The Avengers. And in the last one (spoiler alert, for the two readers who still haven’t seen that movie), he died. Audiences know that, and so does Grant.

“Uhh, yeah,” he says. “I’m clearance Level 6.  I know that Agent Coulson was killed in action, before the Battle of New York. Got the full report.”

At that point, Coulson himself emerges from the darkness and intones, “Welcome to Level 7.”  Here another show might queue the bombastic music and go to commercial, but Whedon being Whedon adds a comedic zinger, explaining the dramatic entrance. “Sorry, that corner was really dark and I couldn’t help myself,” Coulson explains apologetically. “I think there’s a bulb out.”

The rest of Coulson’s hand-picked unit includes ace pilot Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), who’s clearly no stranger to combat, either, and geeky tech duo “Fitzsimmons,” which really refers to male nerd Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and his inseparable female counterpart Jenna Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge). Their first mission is to track down and hopefully aid a new superhero who’s just popped up in Los Angeles, dubbed by the papers “the Hooded Hero” and played by Angel’s J. August Richards. To do that, they’ll need to enlist the aid of a sexy, sassy-but-slightly-vulnerable female “hacktivist” (oh how I hate that word!) Skye (Chloe Benett). Over the course of the pilot she’ll go from wanting to expose the secret government agency through her one-woman Anonymous-like “organization,” The Rising Tide, to becoming their newest recruit.

The Hooded Hero turns out to have a connection to this summer’s Marvel blockbuster Iron Man Three, and his storyline proves a very effective dress form on which to hang the character interactions that serve as the fabric of the pilot. I was impressed with the relative ease with which Whedon & Co. managed to work an introduction to the world, introductions to a whole slew of characters, seeds for ongoing plotlines, and a mission-of-the-week story into one cohesive narrative. At this they succeed better than many pilots. 

Those characters are clearly meant to be the series’ heart, though, and for the moment they remain its most problematic aspect. From the pilot alone, I’m not sure who’s meant to be the lead. I presume that it will be Skye, but while Bennett is a very appealing actress, she’s probably the most hackneyed character of the batch, a Standard Whedon Type. It also struck me as a bit odd to have two young, white, brunette female geeks on the show, the science geek Simmons and the computer geek Skye. So far they seem quite similar, and of the two, Henstridge’s Simmons scored a much bigger impact.

But perhaps the lead is supposed to be Coulson. He’s the recognizable face right now, and certainly afforded the most on-screen awe in the way he’s shot and talked about—and possibly in screentime too. But what made that character work so well in the movies was, as a friend of mine put it, that he was completely square. He was the quintessential faceless government agent, and the humor came from the fact that as the films proceeded, he was given a face—a very likable face, in fact.  But likable works better in small doses in movies than it does as the agent in charge on a S.H.I.E.L.D. show.  Comics readers are used to having Nick Fury in charge, and though the cigar-chomping, eye-patched “S.H.I.E.L.D. ramrod” (as Stan Lee dubbed him in his inimitable and incessant word-packed caption bubbles) may have started out as more caricature than character, there’s no denying his utter gravitas. Samuel L. Jackson plays a version of Fury more based on Marvel’s Ultimate line of comics from this century (which was in turn based on Jackson himself, making it an easy enough part for him to play) than on the Sixties hero, but there’s no denying his gravitas either. An organization like S.H.I.E.L.D. needs a Nick Fury, and Coulson doesn’t fit the bill. For one thing, Gregg smiles way too much to be a “ramrod!”

Or perhaps Ward is meant to be the lead in this ensemble. He’s the one we’re first introduced to, in a nifty little mini-movie that showcases the heightened espionage action of the S.H.I.E.L.D. world. (I really appreciated that like the David Goyer-penned telefilm of a decade-and-a-half prior, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. really goes for that blend of espionage and super-science, rather than just settling for being an X-Files-style paranormal investigation squad.) And he’s the closest thing to a ramrod in the bunch. (Well, actually Melinda May has that potential, too, but we don’t see enough of her in the pilot to know for sure.) But Dalton seems a bit too unsure of himself in the role, so far, to be leading man material. (He excels, however, when afforded a chance at light comedy thanks to a truth serum. For me, the comedy always worked in this pilot.)

So we’re left with a S.H.I.E.L.D. in need of a Nick Fury, but given the unlikelihood of luring movie star Jackson to television, that was always the challenge. (Though I fully expect him to cameo at some point.) My friend pondered the point of a superspy show without superspies, but I think Whedon and his cohorts have adopted an interesting alternative take. This is the rare spy show that has more Marshalls than Sydneys, more Q’s than 007’s. What are we to make of all these nerds running around? Well, in this geek-chic/Wiki-leak era of nerds as heroes, perhaps that’s precisely the right take for our time. Given how much I like the framework and the humor, I’m certainly willing to go with them on this ride and see how it pans out, though I really would like a clear ramrod for all these geeks to support.

Futuristic, out-there spy-tech has always been a hallmark of S.H.I.E.L.D., since you could get away with a lot more out-there concepts in a comic book than you could on the big screen (Bond) or television (U.N.C.L.E.). With no budgetary constraints, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and especially Jim Steranko were able to create crazy gadgets that Q could only dream of. So how do those gadgets which owe their very existence to “you can’t do this on television” imaginations fare when finally translated, five decades later, to television? Foremost among those incredible creations of the Sixties was the mobile S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, a massive flying aircraft carrier dubbed the helicarrier which hovered high above the earth. Since the helicarrier was superbly realized in Whedon’s Avengers movie, I was hoping we might see it on TV as well. The CG models were already made, and perhaps they’d saved some standing interior sets. Sadly, there’s no sign of the helicarrier in the pilot. Instead, this unit uses a huge black transport plane as its mobile base of operations. (Oddly, it’s emblazoned with a huge S.H.I.E.L.D. logo, as are their Hummers, which seems strangely conspicuous for a secret spy agency!) Logo aside, the plane actually makes a lot of sense, given that it only needs to convey a small group of people, not all of S.H.I.E.L.D. (It’s also pretty impressive in itself for a TV budget.) Other S.H.I.E.L.D. tech fares well, overall. Ward utilizes some cool spy gadgets in his caper at the beginning, and Fitzsimmons have their own array of future-tech they use to investigate the scene of an explosion. But the best of all comes at the episode’s conclusion. [Minor SPOILERS follow!] Agent Coulson drives a red ’62 Corvette convertible. Other characters make fun of him for clinging to an antique, but in the final moments of the pilot, he demonstrates just how cool an antique can be when he pushes a button on the console and (Steranko and Kirby fans will see this coming), the wheels fold horizontally out of the wheel wells, becoming hover platforms, and the car lifts off and zips away toward the camera!

I’ll be honest.  All I really wanted out of a S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series was to see that Kirby concept of a flying spy car realized on screen, and it’s realized beautifully. (Nick Fury’s Sixties hovercar was a Porsche 907, and later hovercars in the comics have paid blatant homage to the vehicle that inspired their forebear by using Aston Martin bodies, but the classic ‘Vette works just fine for me!) I actually clapped out loud, alone in my living room, when that happened. And then I rewatched the scene several more times. I want the toy! Whatever minor quibbles I had with the show up till then, I was completely sold in that moment, and am eagerly on board for the rest of the season. I just hope ABC has the budget to give us an awesome flying car chase during Sweeps.

For a less favorable opinion on the S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot from a man who has more right to criticize it than anyone else in the world, you can read a review at The Hollywood Reporter by Jim Steranko himself! I do agree with most of his points, though they didn’t diminish the overall impact of the show for me. In an incredible coup for THR, Steranko (who has recently become a Twitter superstar) will be providing weekly Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. recaps at the trade site. Based on the first one, Marvel should really consider hiring him as a consultant for the series! (He’s given a special thanks at the end, along with Ultimates creators Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are also given credit up front for creating the comic book concept.) Of course thanks to THR, they’ll be able to read his characteristically candid advice for free every week (that must be daunting for the writers!), so maybe they’re better off saving the dough for that flying car chase….

ABC will re-air the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot on Thursday, September 26 at 8pm EST.