Apr 18, 2015

Trailer for HBO's The Brink

To lighten things up a bit from this week's stories about torture tactics and other CIA debacles, here's the trailer for HBO's new comedy series The Brink... about, uh, a CIA debacle in the making. There's more than just espionage here, but the Intelligence Community doesn't escape the satirical scrutiny of this dark satire about the world pushed to the brink of WWIII. Roberto Benabib (Weeds) and Kim Benabib created the show, which is executive produced by Jerry Weintraub (The Avengers), Jay Roach (Austin Powers) and produced by stars Jack Black and Tim Robbins.



Apr 17, 2015

Massive New S.H.I.E.L.D. Omnibus Collects All the Classic Sixties Nick Fury Comics

The complete run of the classic Sixties spy comic Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. will be collected in one massive hardcover tome due out from Marvel this fall. Though in keeping with current branding, it won't actually be released under its original title, but just "S.H.I.E.L.D.," dropping the Nick Fury. This is obviously in part to tie in with Marvel's current TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which doesn't feature the one-eyed superspy, and in part because Fury himself has largely been written out of the Marvel Universe at the moment. (The Nick Fury featured in these stories has been banished to the moon, believe it or not.) The name change is regrettable, but it's still nice that these classic and essential comics will all be collected together.

Historically, S.H.I.E.L.D. collections have focused on Jim Steranko's undeniably definitive run on the title. That's as it should be, since those Steranko comics are essential reading for any fan of the character or the medium at large, but by focusing on Steranko alone they leave out a lot of good stories by other writers and artists. This Omnibus will be the first time that the entire run of original stories from Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been collected in one place, not just the three issues that Steranko drew. (Most of Steranko's contributions to the character came earlier in the anthology book Strange Tales, though that run began in the hands of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Even the Kirby material is often left out of Nick Fury collections.) This 960-page tome, S.H.I.E.L.D.: The Complete Collection, collects the Fury material from Strange Tales issues 135-168, Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1-15, Fantastic Four #21, Tales of Suspense #78, Avengers #72, Marvel Spotlight #31 (featuring a story drawn by Howard Chaykin that explains why WWII vet Fury didn't seem to be aging much by the 1970s), and relevant material from Marvel's self-parody 'zine Not Brand Echh #3, 8 and 11. As far as I can tell, that means the only content not already collected in three volumes' worth of Marvel Masterworks (out of print high end, hardcover collections) is Tales of Suspense #78, a Jack Kirby-drawn story which sees Fury teamed with Captain America to defeat "the macabre menace of THEM." So if you've got the three volumes of Marvel Masterworks: Nick Fury, you might not need this collection. Then again you might, as it is the first time all of this material has been collected in a single volume. The only glaring omission that I can spot is Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos Annual #3, which saw the eye-patched Fury (the patch distinguished the contemporary version of the character from his WWII self, star of a long-running series) and his WWII unit reconvened by President Johnson for a special mission in Vietnam. That one didn't make any previous S.H.I.E.L.D. collections either.

The Steranko stories are all conveniently collected in a much cheaper, much easier to hold trade paperback called S.H.I.E.L.D. by Steranko: The Complete Collection. That might be the best place for beginners to turn, eager for their first exposure to Steranko's groundbreaking artwork or Nick Fury's spy adventures. And Fury's whole Sixties run is collected in those three very nice, very readable Marvel Masterworks hardcovers, though those are out of print. But S.H.I.E.L.D.: The Complete Collection Omnibus brings everything together in one convenient place. So if you think you're apt to get hook, this might be a good starting place after all. It will certainly save time in hunting down all of these issues individually! And the Sixties S.H.I.E.L.D. oeuvre is as essential a part of any good spy collection as Ian Fleming paperbacks or The Man From U.N.C.L.E. DVDs.

Marvel will also release a trade paperback this fall collecting the first six issues of their current S.H.I.E.L.D. comic, based loosely on the TV series. (It's surprisingly good!) And the final trade paperback volume of Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Classic, collecting the comic's early Nineties run, is due out in June. Between them (and especially when combined with Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D., Wolverine & Nick Fury: Scorpio and Garth Ennis's Fury MAX: My War Gone By), Nick Fury's Marvel legacy is now pretty well covered in trade!

Retail on this behemoth is $99.99, but it's considerably less on Amazon. It will be available with a Steranko cover or a new Alex Ross cover.

Apr 16, 2015

Tradecraft: Three Rival Benghazi Movies in the Pipeline

There are at least three rival projects in the works chronicling the harrowing and deadly September 2012 siege on the U.S. diplomatic compound and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya in which U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, diplomat Sean Smith, and two CIA contractors lost their lives. The latest, according to Deadline, comes from Alcon Entertainment. Zero Footprint tells not the story of the siege itself, but a more macro tale of events leading up to it. "This about why it happened and the siege of the embassy is the last part of the third act," says Alcon co-founder and co-CEO Andrew Kosove. "This is about everything that led up to that attack." Scott Charnick (The Wake), Charley Parlapanides (Immortals) and Vlas Parlapanides (Immortals) penned the script in close consultation with an ex-Special Forces operator who must remain anonymous. The complex story of deniable operators, secret missions, and shifting allegiances in the ongoing war on terror is told from his perspective.

If Alcon's approach is comparable to Syrianna or Zero Dark Thirty, the other two sound more akin to Black Hawk Down, focusing on the siege itself. Another project (currently untitled), Deadline reported separately, will focus on the two fallen CIA contractors and comes from Relativity Media, who have optioned "the life rights of former U.S. Navy SEALs-turned CIA contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, who rescued thirty Americans in the attacks on the U.S. Diplomatic Compound." The studio also acquired the life rights to Woods’ wife Dorothy Woods and Doherty’s best friend and estate executor, Sean Lake, and will work closely with them in developing the film. Matthew Sand (Ninja Assassin) is writing the screenplay for the untitled drama, and Dana Brunetti (Captain Phillips) will produce.

Michael Bay is ahead of them, though, with his own Benghazi drama at Paramount, 13 Hours, already shooting in Malta and Morocco. Bay's version, scripted by Chuck Hogan (The Town), is based on Mitchell Zuckoff's book Thirteen Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi. In a story earlier this year, Deadline reported that James Badge Dale (Rubicon) "will play the leader of the security team that tries to protect U.S. lives in the assault." Freddie Stroma (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) plays an undercover CIA agent in Libya, and John Krasinski (Aloha) and Max Martini (Captain Phillips) also star.

Apr 15, 2015

Tradecraft: BBC Cold War Spy Drama Close to the Enemy Sets Cast

Deadline reports that BBC2 has announced the cast of a new Cold War espionage drama from playwright Stephen Poliakoff ("Soft Targets," Dancing On the Edge). The six-episode drama Close to the Enemy takes place in the earliest days of the Cold War and immediate aftermath of WWII, a new popular period for exploration on TV following the likes of Agent Carter and the last two seasons of Foyle's War. According to the trade, Jim Sturgess (Cloud Atlas) stars as Callum, an intelligence officer charged with ensuring that a captured German scientist, played by August Diehl (Inglorious Basterds), brings his jet engine know-how to the RAF and not the Russians. The drama unfolds against the backdrop of a bomb-damaged London hotel, whose other occupants include Freddie Highmore (Bates Motel), Charlotte Riley (London Has Fallen), Alfie Allen (John Wick), Charity Wakefield (Any Human Heart), Angela Bassett (Survivor) and Alfred Molina (Matador). Producer and frequent Poliakoff collaborator Helen Flint told the trade, "Close To The Enemy is set in the transitional period of 1946 — the brutal Second World War is finally over but the destruction of families and cities permeates everyone’s lives. As the Cold War takes its hold in Europe and the public realization that the atom bomb could be used by any government, our hero Callum passionately believes that to safeguard the future you mustn’t heed the past regardless of how terrible it has been." Hopefully PBS or BBC America will pick this up for U.S. broadcast.

Apr 14, 2015

HBO Explores CIA's Psychological Torture Tactics

After a brief period where fact-inspired spy dramas like Argo and Zero Dark Thirty portrayed some of the CIA's wins, we seem to be returning to the ever popular exploration of the Agency's disastrous missteps. While the Jeremy Renner drama Kill the Messenger sank quickly last fall (despite an exciting and truly harrowing first half reminiscent of All the President's Men), there are currently two Iran-Contra scandal movies in the works, two Edward Snowden movies, two three(!) Benghazi movies, and now two TV project's about CIA psychological torture techniques. We've already heard about ABC's MK Ultra miniseries from the writer of The Assets, which will examine the Agency's Scientific Intelligence Division's notorious 1960s experiments in human "behavioral engineering" using methods including sensory deprivation, hypnosis, torture and, most famously, LSD. But that kind of "enhanced interrogation" techniques are old hat now. To the U.S. government's unending embarrassment, Langley has continued to push the boundaries in that field. Deadline reports that HBO Films will examine today's brutal torture techniques used in the war on terror and popularized (if that's the word) late last year by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's so-called "torture report." According to the trade, Scott Z. Burns (whose many spy script credits include The Bourne Ultimatum, The Informant! and Steven Soderbergh's unfilmed version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) will write and direct Rorschach and Awe, based on the 2007 Vanity Fair article of the same name by Katherine Eban. Per Deadline, "Rorschach and Awe will explore how the CIA hired two psychologists to build a torture program with the full knowledge and cooperation of the American Psychological Association. In her article, Eban shed light on the roles of psychologists James Elmer Mitchell and Bruce Jessen as architects of the coercive interrogation tactics. For their services, the duo were rewarded with $180 million in CIA contracts, $81 million of which had been paid before the agreement was terminated in 2009."

Apr 13, 2015

Tradecraft: Transporter Refueled Delayed Until Fall

EuropaCorp's neo-Eurospy series reboot The Transporter Refueled is going to spend a little bit more time at the gas station before reaching its destination in theaters. Deadline reports that Luc Besson's distribution company has decided to move the film out of its original, busy mid-June frame (where it would have been competing with Jurassic World, Pixar's Inside Out, and the original Transporter himself, Jason Statham, in Spy) to September 4, where it will go up directly against the Pierce Brosnan action movie No Escape, which opens the preceding Wednesday. Historically, fall has been the traditional time frame for Transporter releases. The Transporter Refueled stars relative newcomer Ed Skrein in the role originated by Statham and played on TV by Chris Vance. Watch the trailer here.

Tradecraft: Clooney Acquires Cold War Spy Story Three Minutes to Doomsday

Variety reports that George Clooney and Grant Heslov's Smokehouse Pictures has acquired the film rights to a forthcoming non-fiction book by Joe Navarro and Howard Means called Three Minutes to Doomsday. According to the trade, "the book follows the FBI’s leading body language expert Navarro, who was sent to track down Rod Ramsey to report on his knowledge or association with Clyde Lee Conrad, an U.S. Army officer who sold top-secret classified information to the People’s Republic of Hungary. It documents Navarro and Ramsey’s relationship and interviews against the backdrop of the Cold War." I find that description a little frustrating because it neither tells who Ramsey was nor when during the Cold War all this went down. So for some more background, according to SpyMuseum.com (a very cool online resource on espionage history), Conrad was an NCO stationed in West Germany and "tasked with maintaining and protecting top secret documents related to the military plans in case of a war with the Soviet bloc." In 1975 he was recruited by Zoltan Szabo, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Hungary and Sergeant in the U.S. Army who was really a Colonel in the Hungarian Military intelligence, to pass along the documents he was charged with protecting. Over a ten year period, he passed along more than 30,000 documents, among them NATO strategies, troop positions and nuclear weapon sites. In 1983, he recruited his then assistant, Sgt. Roderick Ramsey, to assist him in his treason as well as his army work. A CIA asset tipped off the Americans that they had a leak, and Conrad was finally arrested in 1988 and convicted in 1990. So presumably Navarro's investigation happened during the mid-Eighties.

According to Navarro's website, he was recruited by the FBI at the tender age of 23 as one of their youngest agents ever (this would be 1976 or '77), and "spent the next 25 years at the FBI, working both as an agent and supervisor in the areas of counterintelligence and counterterrorism. Through his work he was able to study, refine and apply the science of non-verbal communications. His acumen in this field, and his success as a spy-catcher, led Joe to begin training FBI agents and the intelligence community." He retired in 2003.

Means previously collaborated with former CIA agent Robert Baer on the books See No Evil and Sleeping with the Devil, which served as the basis for the Clooney movie Syriana. Scribner recently acquired U.S. publication rights for Three Minutes to Doomsday.

Apr 12, 2015

Bond Producers, Oliver Stone Behind Rival Edward Snowden Movies

Last year's powerful, Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour chronicled the story of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and the ramifications of his revelations about domestic spying in the United States. It's a fascinating film, and together with the Frontline report "United States of Secrets" actually managed to change my opinion of Snowden. But audiences don't turn out in droves for documentaries, so most moviegoers will have to wait for the feature version to form an opinion. Make that feature versions. There are two rival Snowden movies in various states of production/development, and one of them comes from the most famous producing team in all of spydom.

It's extremely rare that James Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson tackle anything other than 007. (Broccoli produced the HBO movie Crime of the Century back in 1996, and the pair were attached to produce the spy movie Remote Control back in 2009, but that project never materialized.) But last year Deadline reported that they're doing just that, and in stark contrast with the fantasy spy world of James Bond, they're planning to tell one of the most famous real-life espionage stories of our age. According to the trade, Sony acquired Glenn Greenwald‘s book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State for Broccoli and Wilson to produce. The book narrates Greenwald's work with Snowden to expose the NSA's domestic spying operations in The Guardian. "No Place To Hide is a terrifying personal account of one of the most relevant political events of our time," Wilson and Broccoli said in a statement. "We are thrilled to be working with Glenn to bring this important story to the screen." But they won't be the first people to deliver a movie about these events.

Broccoli and Wilson are not alone in their passion for the Snowden story. Oliver Stone has them beaten to the punch with a Snowden project of his own for Open Road Films and Endgame Entertainment, which is already filming in Munich and on schedule to be released this year. Stone's Snowden stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the controversial whistleblower. Stone's movie is based on another Guardian journalist's book, The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World's Most Wanted Man, by Luke Harding, and a novel by Snowden's Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, called Time of the Octopus. (That should be the title of the movie!) Harding and other Guardian journalists and staffers will serve as consultants. "This is one of the greatest stories of our time," Stone said in a statement published on Deadline last year. "A real challenge. I’m glad to have The Guardian working with us."

Shailene Woodley (White Bird in a Blizzard) stars opposite Gordon-Levitt as Snowden's girlfriend, Lindsay Mills. Timothy Olyphant (Hitman) plays a CIA agent; Clint's son Scott Eastwood (Fury) plays an NSA agent, and Nicholas Cage plays a what Deadline describes as "a former U.S. Intelligence official." Anyone who's seen Citizenfour or "United States of Secrets" can probably guess that this character is likely based on NSA whistleblower William Binney, who plays a crucial role in the story. Zachary Quinto (Hitman: Agent 47) plays Glenn Greenwald (good casting!), Melissa Leo (The Equalizer) plays Citizenfour filmmaker Laura Poitras, and Tom Wilkinson (Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol) plays Guardian defense and intelligence correspondent Ewen MacAskill. Joely Richardson (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and Rhys Ifans (Elementary) round out the impressive cast. A few weeks ago, Deadline revealed the first photos of Gordon-Levitt as Snowden (above).

Snowden is currently slated to open Christmas Day. It will be interesting to see if Stone's film clicks with audiences like All the President's Men or flounders in its proximity to the events it's portraying like Bill Condon's 2013 Julian Assange movie The Fifth Estate and fails to find viewers. If it's a hit, will Broccoli and Wilson still proceed with their Snowden movie? Presumably they won't be turning their full attention to it until after SPECTRE comes out, and it's possible that more time passing from Snowden's exposure of classified material and subsequent flight to Russia will give them the perspective necessary to make a better film. It's a complex news story, and there is certainly room for multiple films with multiple perspectives on the issues and events surrounding the divisive Snowden. Personally, I hope both movies become a reality. I'd really like to see Broccoli and Wilson's take on real world espionage.

Upcoming Spy Music: The President's Analyst Finally Gets a Soundtrack Release

Quartet Records recently announced the first ever official soundtrack release of Lalo Schifrin's score for Theodore J. Flicker's peerless James Coburn spy satire The President's Analyst—one of my very favorite spy movies. (One day I'll get back to doing that series of reviews of My Favorite Spy Movies, and The President's Analyst and Otley will probably be next.) It's paired with Schifrin's score for the Cliff Robertson suspense drama Man on a Swing. (I've never seen that one.) The President's Analyst follows Coburn as a psychoanalyst selected by the heads of the thinly disguised CEA (Central Enquiry Agency) and FBR (Federal Bureau of Regulation) to be the President's personal analyst. But soon the pressures of the job become too much to bear, and the man with all of the nation's secrets in his head goes on the run, making himself a target for spies of all nations (including Russia and Canada) and, worse than the KGB, the omnipresent Phone Company. It's a hilarious film that deftly treads the line between Pink Panther-style absurdity and smart, prescient satire. Its prescience, in fact, is somewhat scary, as the film neatly predicted our current surveillance culture and willing surrender of our privacy in exchange for the latest communications gizmos. Rather unfortunately, it remains as relevant today as it was when it was made in 1967. Per Quartet's copy, "the terrific Schifrin score, one of his most imaginative from the period (and one of the most desired by his fans), is a kaleidoscope of parodic patriotic music, throbbing spy/suspense sound, pop, jazz, Christmas songs and a catchy 'paranoid' theme." Sadly, the soundtrack appears to be missing the folk epic "Inner Manipulations" by "Eve of Destruction" singer Barry McGuire that scores the movie's best setpiece, as well as The Clear Light's "She's Ready to Be Free." (The latter at least is available elsewhere, but the movie version of the former is the piece of music from this film I, frustratingly, most want to own!)

Rock songs aside, though, Schifrin's score is also terrific and I've long desired it as well, and am very happy I'll finally be able to own it! Quartet does offer connoisseurs a word of warning about their source material, however: "Sadly, the only available source for The President’s Analyst was the mono music stems, but we have made a big effort to restore them as much as possible. We have evened out the up-and-down shifts in volume and minimized the small bits of dialogue that bled into the audio masters. We think the end result is satisfactory—and the music is well worth the effort!" I'm sure it is. I've always been quite happy with Quartet's releases, including their epic, 2-disc, as near-definitive-as-possible version of Burt Bacharach's score for the 1967 Casino Royale. And if that release, which went out of print, started commanding astronomical prices, and eventually earned a rare second printing due to popular demand, is any indication, you may want to get your hands on The President's Analyst sooner rather than later. Like the first printing of Casino Royale, it's limited to just 1,000 copies. And without the juggernaut affiliation of James Bond, I suspect that in this case, when they're gone, they're gone. And if you need one more reason to pull the trigger, the record company promises that "the lavish package includes a 20-page booklet with in-depth liner notes from film music writer Jeff Bond." Man on a Swing/The President's Analyst is available for pre-order from Screen Archives Entertainment for $19.95. You can listen to samples from it on Quartet's website. Here's the complete track list:

MAN ON A SWING

1. Maggie’s Theme (0:23)
2. Source Muzak #2 (1:06)
3. Source Muzak #1 (0:34)
4. Maggie’s Theme (0:56)
5. Evelyn Story (1:42)
6. Source Muzak #3 (0:41)
7. Wills’ Trance (5:56)
8. Source Muzak #5 (1:21)
9. Source Muzak #6 (1:41)
10. Source Muzak #7 (0:35)
11. Rosehaven Motel (1:54)
12. Maggie Retraced (1:49)
13. Source Muzak #9 (1:20)
14. Choked Up (1:48)
15. Juke Box Source (1:25)
16. Radio Source (1:39)
17. Dialatone / Empty Porch / Mailman / Phone Voice / A Wet Nothing (3:25)
18. Penultima Trance (4:11)
19. Wills’ Last Trance (1:14)
20. Forest Finale (0:21)
21. End Credits (1:17)

THE PRESIDENT'S ANALYST

22. Paramount Seal and Opening / Main Title (4:46)
23. Hey Me (2:24)
24. The Long Walk (1:02)
25. The Nest (1:27)
26. On Call (1:58)
27. Lonely Hours (1:29)
28. Paranoid Starts / Cocktail Lounge (3:14)
29. Spies Paranoid / Dream Paranoid / Suspicious Paranoid (0:43)
30. Sidney Plans Escape (1:30)
31. Car Radio / More Car Radio (2:12)
32. Total Sound (1:15)
33. Stinger #1-2-3 / Cooler and Sweater Number (1:10)
34. Sidney’s Flight (2:02)
35. Fast Boat to Moscow (1:40)
36. Telephone Trap (1:09)
37. T. P. C. / Cerebrum Communicator (1:47)
38. End Title (3:05)

Apr 11, 2015

Entertainment Weekly Reveals Cool Man From U.N.C.L.E. Movie Details

In its summer movie preview, Entertainment Weekly has revealed some very cool details about Guy Ritchie's upcoming movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. We already knew that it was a period piece set in the era of the TV show (and the height of spymania), the 1960s, and we knew from the trailer that East/West checkpoints play a role. But until now I hadn't seen anything to indicate that the movie would feature one of my very favorite tropes of Cold War spy fictions both fantastical and realistic—a Berlin wall crossing! According to the magazine, "In one extended chase sequence, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Gabby Teller (Alicia Vikander) elude Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) by zip-lining across the Berlin Wall." This, of course, happens before the American and Russian agents eventually team up, as the movie serves as an origin story for the famous partnership. I would guess the zip-lining leads into the sequence we've seen in the trailer (albeit clearly edited out of order) in which Illya pursues the pair in a nighttime car chase. EW provides some terrific concept artwork for the sequence, too (above). "What we’re trying to capture are iconic memories of the East-meets-West scenario,” Ritchie told the magazine. "Getting over the Wall is part of that world." The stunt, EW reports, was inspired by a real-life incident in 1983 in which Michael Becker and Holger Bethke fled East Berlin in the same manner. "We looked up every conceivable way of getting over the Berlin Wall," said Ritchie. "That was the most plausible." (But did he consider Jason King's method of being transported across in a shipping crate lined with luxurious cushions and stocked with champagne?) As well as the series itself, Ritchie was inspired by the Sixties Bond movies and the Harry Palmer films starring Michael Caine. Wall crossing plays a major role in the second of those movies based on Len Deighton's novels, Funeral in Berlin. And the concept of escaping an Eastern Bloc nation also recalls one of the very best episodes of the TV show, Season 1's "The Dove Affair." I would be very happy if it turns out that the movie leans heavily on that Robert Towne-penned classic! Henry Cavill News has scans of additional illustrations from the print version of Entertainment Weekly, including a cool storyboard image of the zip-lining sequence.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. opens August 14.

Gary Oldman's Tinker Tailor Sequel Headed to HBO?

It's been quite a while since we've heard anything on the Smiley front about a follow-up to Tomas Alfredson's fantastic 2011 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (review here). More than two years ago, StudioCanal Chairman and CEO Olivier Courson revealed, "We are working on Smiley’s People with Working Title. It’s still at the development stage - but, yes, the old team of Peter Straughan and Tomas Alfredson is back together." Now, Tinker co-writer Straughan has just scripted Wolf Hall, the popular and well received miniseries adaptation of Hilary Mantel's bestselling novels about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII. The Writers Guild of America's official magazine, Written By, interviewed Straughan about the miniseries for their current issue, and in the course of the article casually drops this previously unreported tidbit: "Currently, [Straughan] is adapting the Le Carré novel Smiley's People for HBO. It's another huge task...." HBO? That's interesting! HBO was not involved in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which was produced by StudioCanal and Working Title Films, and distributed in the U.S. by Focus Features. The film performed better and made more of a critical and cultural impact in Britain (where it won two BAFTA Awards) than the States, so I suppose it's possible that StudioCanal couldn't find a theatrical partner in the U.S. and instead opted for TV.

HBO has indeed proved a refuge lately for A-list filmmakers with adult projects. Steven Soderbergh famously made his dream project Liberace there after every film studio in town reportedly passed on a theatrical version despite the attachment of stars Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. It's also possible that HBO Films might be involved in a theatrical venture. While most of their theatrical features, like this summer's Entourage, are based on existing HBO shows, they did offer a limited run of the documentary Going Clear last month. The involvement of HBO also raises the intriguing question of whether the Seventies-set sequel, which Straughan has previously said would incorporate some elements of the second novel of the "Karla Trilogy," The Honourable Schoolboy, with the bulk (and title) of the third, Smiley's People, might emerge as a miniseries instead of a feature. It was, of course, previously filmed that way by the BBC in 1982. Personally, I would bet not. I would hazard a guess that we might be looking at a StudioCanal/Working Title/HBO co-production released theatrically in Britain and Europe and airing on HBO (perhaps in conjunction with a limited, Oscar-qualifying theatrical run) in the United States. But I would sure love some sort of official announcement that might shed some more light on the subject! It's a pity Written By didn't ask a follow-up question for clarification.

As long as the key team of Alfredson (Let the Right One In), Straughan (The Debt) and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (SPECTRE) all return, and key actors like Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ciaran Hinds are involved, I don't much care if I see the sequel in a theater or on TV. Just so long as we get to see another Oldman Smiley movie! If HBO were to bring substantial extra funding to the equation, though, what I would really like to see would be the Hong Kong-set Honourable Schoolboy as that follow-up before concluding the trilogy with Smiley's People. Alas, it seems unlikely we'll ever see that masterpiece properly adapted due to cost issues. And I can hardly complain about a new version of Smiley's People, which is also a wonderful novel!

Read my article "George Smiley: An Introduction" here.

Apr 8, 2015

Support Assassin 9 on IndieGoGo

My friend Chad Jones has created what promises to be a really cool spy comedy web series, Assassin 9, and he and his partners have turned to Indiegogo to raise finishing funds. I've read the script, and personally I can't wait to see Chad's somewhat warped vision realized. The five-part series follows Agent J9, Janine, an "offensive security specialist" in the SPECTRE-like S.E.R.P.E.N.T. Corporation, a multinational conglomerate whose business model happens to include world domination. Janine is an expert when it comes to killing, but never lands the big assignments because she doesn't have the seduction skills necessary for more delicate missions. She's got to get her act together or face termination—literally. To overcome her shaky relationships with HR director Gladys and sociopathic CEO the Komodo, Janine will have to seek help from her chief rival, Bogdana, an Eastern-European vixen with nothing but contempt for J9. Assassin 9 has something for just about everyone who's ever toiled as a corporate drone to relate to: disagreeable coworkers, nondisclosure agreements, insurmountable corporate bureaucracy, lasers, ninjas, sexy spy babes, evil acronyms... you know, the daily grind. Think of it as The Office set inside Hydra. Go poke around the project site, check out the videos, read the pitch, peruse the premiums, take seduction tips from Bogdana, and if you like what you see, please support Assassin 9 on Indiegogo! After all, global domination is always a good cause, right?

Apr 2, 2015

Trailer and Poster for Pierce Brosnan's Survivor

At last! We've been hearing about this movie for what seems like years, and now we've finally got our first look at Pierce Brosnan and Milla Jovovich in the new espionage thriller Survivor, directed by James McTeigue (V for Vendetta, Ninja Assassin). It's interesting that even though Jovovich is top-billed, the poster clearly makes Brosnan the main attraction. I think Brosnan is always great playing bad guys, going back as far as his turn as a cold-blooded KGB assassin opposite Michael Caine in The Fourth Protocol. It looks like Survivor affords the former Bond the opportunity to put his own spin on the Edward Fox role from another Frederick Forsyth-based movie, The Day of the Jackal. I can't wait to see the results! Robert Forster (Jackie Brown), Angela Bassett (Alias), James D'Arcy (Agent Carter), Roger Rees (If Looks Could Kill) and Dylan McDermott (Olympus Has Fallen) round out the cast. When the movie was first announced, Emma Thompson was also listed as part of the cast, but I see no sign of her here, so perhaps that didn't work out. Survivor is written by Phillip Shelby and is apparently quite similar to, if not actually based on, his 1998 novel Gatekeeper. As reported last month, Survivor will be receive a multi-platform release later this year from Alchemy (formerly Millennium Entertainment), in partnership with Lionsgate.

Big Finish to Produce New Steed and Mrs. Peel Audio Dramas; Classic Sixties Avengers Comics to be Reprinted

For the past two years, UK company Big Finish has been producing top-notch, full cast audio dramas (what we might have once called radio shows) recreating the lost episodes from the almost entirely missing first season of The Avengers. These episodes predate any of gentleman secret agent John Steed's more famous female partners like Cathy Gale or Emma Peel, and find him teamed with a male amateur instead—Dr. David Keel. On TV Dr. Keel was played by Ian Hendry, and Steed was of course played by the incredible Patrick Macnee. In the Big Finish audio dramas, Anthony Howell (Foyle's War) and Julian Wadham (Double Identity) step into those respective roles and do so as perfectly as any fan could hope for. Steed in particular is at once instantly recognizable as Macnee's Steed, and yet at the same time very much Wadham's. It's a brilliant interpretation.

Last month the company (who made their name producing quality Doctor Who audio adventures) announced the next phase of their Avengers license. Alongside the continuing Lost Episodes line of recreated first season episodes, they will introduce Steed's most famous partner, Mrs. Emma Peel (originated on the series by the frankly inimitable Diana Rigg). Wadham will continue to play Steed, and the company are currently searching for an actress to play Emma. Presumably it has not escaped their attention that the perfect choice would be Dame Diana's daughter, Rachel Sterling (The Game)! She actually sounds quite a lot like her mother while being a supremely talented actress in her own right, who would no doubt bring the same blend of new and old to the role that Wadham does with Steed. I suppose it's possible that Ms. Sterling might not wish to step into her mother's most famous role, but she's shown no qualms in the past about aligning her career with Rigg's. She played Rigg's role from the film in a stage version of Theater of Blood, and appeared alongside her mother in familial roles on a recent episode of Doctor Who. Yes, Rachel Sterling would be the perfect choice to revive Emma Peel in new audio dramas! I hope it happens.

But what are these dramas based on, if all the Emma Peel era episodes thankfully survive? In an interesting choice, Big Finish will adapt them from the Avengers comics that ran in the UK children's magazine Diana (not named after Rigg) from 1966-67. That's... an interesting choice. The Diana comics are highly sought after and well worth reading, but that's for their gorgeous artwork (by Emilio Frejo), not for their stories. The storylines tended to be rather sophomoric, relying on the cliches of kiddie comics of the era rather than the sophisticated wit of the TV series. (One adventure saw Steed and Emma protecting England from a new wave of Viking invasions, a theme that seemed to weigh heavily on the minds of British children in the Sixties. That plot was, if you can believe it, used twice in Avengers comics, and also in comics based on other popular spy shows of the decade!) Since the artwork can obviously not be translated into an audio drama, the story is the aspect that will carry over. Luckily, each of the eight Diana storylines ran for only six pages, spread out over the course of three issues. So Big Finish's writers will have plenty of room for embellishment and improvement in the course of adapting them into hour-long audio dramas! The advantage the comics had over the TV show was that they weren't restricted by budget, and so we saw things like ski chases and helicopter crashes that simply wouldn't have worked on the series. The best place to learn more about these comics, including complete synopses of each one, is on the wonderful website The Avengers Illustrated. You can even read my reviews (as a contributor, before I had my own spy blog) on the first two Diana stories there! (My review of Story 1, and Story 2. And for fun, but with no bearing on this news story, you can also read my reviews of some New Avengers comics here.) You can also see examples of Frejo's beautiful artwork.

Which brings me to the other exciting aspect of this venture. In addition to putting out audio dramas based on the comics, Big Finish will also publish a graphic novel collecting all of those rare and sought after Diana comics for the first time ever! This is huge news in its own right. None of the Sixties Avengers comics have ever been reprinted before. (Though Boom! Studios have done a great job of collecting the 90s Steed and Mrs. Peel comics by Grant Morrison along with several volumes of their own current take on the characters.) It will be great to have all that beautiful Frejo Avengers artwork bound together in a single bookshelf volume! (I wonder if it would be possible for Big Finish to secure the rights to the terrific black and white comic strip "The Growing Up of Emma Peel," which ran in the comics anthology June and followed the adventures of 14-year-old Emma Knight long before she ever married pilot Peter Peel or met the mysterious John Steed? It would make a fantastic bonus feature in such a collection!)

Now for the bad news: all of this is a long way off. A whole year away in fact. According to Big Finish's website, the eight episodes of The Avengers - Steed and Mrs Peel: The Comic Strip Adaptations will be released over two box sets in April and November of 2016, and the graphic novel will also be out that November. All of them can currently be pre-ordered in various configurations, as either digital downloads or lavish CD box sets. There are also cost-saving deals on various bundles. (And you always save money by pre-ordering with Big Finish.) In the meantime, though, be sure to pick up the continuing releases of The Avengers; The Lost Episodes! Volume 4 is due this July.

As previously reported, Big Finish also have new audio dramas based on The Prisoner in the pipeline. I hope they continue to add other classic British spy and adventure series from the Sixties to their roster! It would be great to hear new adventures of Jason King or Man in a Suitcase... though what I'd like most of all would be to hear audio adaptations of the lost episodes of Adam Adamant Lives! and Callan.

A big thanks to Phil for the tip on this exciting news!

Apr 1, 2015

The Americans Renewed for Season 4

Happily, we'll be getting more of the best spy series on television! Deadline reports that FX has renewed The Americans for a fourth season with four episodes remaining in the third. And that is fantastic news, because this unbelievably good series just keeps getting better and better and better as it goes along. It started off strong, but has only gotten stronger with each successive season, with each successive episode. The Americans follows Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), two KGB spies posing as a normal American husband and wife in suburban Washington D.C. as Cold War tensions escalate in the Reagan-era Eighties. It's a brilliant condensation of the East/West spy game boiled down to one very unusual family and the ever-growing spiderweb of people they affect. (It's tough to keep track of how many different women Philip is juggling relationships with—each relationship fraught with impossibly compelling drama. The Americans has yet to be recognized with all the Emmies it deserves, but hopefully this amazing season will change all that. And hopefully the renewals will continue and we'll be able to follow Philip and Elizabeth (and their fascinating wigs) all the way to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Season 3 finale airs on April 22. Welshman Rhys recently appeared on an episode of FX's other great spy show, Archer, where they made a joke about his Americans accent.

New Trailer and Poster for Spy Starring McCarthy and Statham

Fox has released a new trailer and new poster for Paul Feig's summer spy comedy Spy, starring Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Jude Law, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale and Peter Serafinowicz. Personally, I can't wait to see Statham do a spy comedy. And the new poster is interesting, too. All of Spy's posters so far have been James Bond parodies. The first one saw McCarthy imitating Daniel Craig's firing-from-his-back pose from the Skyfall 1-sheet, and more recently we saw Statham sporting a turtleneck in a send-up of the just-unveiled SPECTRE teaser poster. We have yet to see Craig strike the classic Bond pose of Dalton and Brosnan (gripping a Walther with two hands next to his head), but now we can see McCarthy give it a try in this gold-hued Spy poster. And on top of that there's the pretty clear nod to Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger. I think it's a pretty clever—and amusing—campaign. Spy doesn't open until June 6, but bolstered by positive reviews in the trades, Fox have already begun having sneak previews to build word of mouth. And all the word I've heard so far has been pretty positive!

Mar 30, 2015

Tradecraft: EuropaCorp Goes Bulletproof

EuropaCorp, Luc Besson's company that nearly single-handedly reinvented the Eurospy genre with the Transporter and Taken movies, has extended its neo-Eurospy style into TV with the Transporter series. Now they're putting together another one in presumably the same vein, according to Deadline. Written by Corey Miller (CSI: Miami) and produced by Matthew Gross (Body of Proof), the assassin drama Bulletproof is being developed on spec at EuropaCorp for either cable or network television. The trade reports that "Bulletproof is about a complicated former female Marine sniper, turned assassin, who is hired to kill someone who turns out to be innocent. When she finds out the truth, she turns the tables on the person who ordered the hit." We'll assume they mean the lead's a former Marine sniper and not a former female. The latter might be more original, but the former seems more likely. And, as we know, snipers are very popular right now. EuropaCorp also produced the female assassin neo-Eurospy movie Colombiana (review here).

Mar 29, 2015

Tradecraft: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers Accepts Damascus Cover

Jonathan Rhys Meyers has dabbled in spying before in Mission: Impossible III and From Paris With Love, but now he's going deep cover - Damascus Cover. While a Syrian-set spy adventure would seem very timely right now, this is actually set in the past. Variety and Deadline report that the actor will topline a new spy thriller based on Howard Kaplan's 1977 novel The Damascus Cover. (The movie version is dropping the "The.") Writer/director Daniel Zelik Berk is keeping it a period piece, but (somewhat confusingly) changing the period. Rather than the novel's late Seventies setting, the movie will be set in 1989 and follows, per Variety, a veteran Israeli agent "sent undercover in Syria to smuggle a chemical weapons scientist and his family out of Damascus. Within days of his arrival he realizes he’s being followed. His partner doesn’t show, his local contact disappears, and a group of men are trying to kill him. It’s not long before his routine mission unravels to reveal a string of murderous conspirators."
Rhys Meyers set the historical context for Deadline, telling the trade, "This was a hugely significant time in the conflict in the Middle East, post-cold war and with the collapse of the Berlin Wall when spies were redeployed [there], where the theatre of covert operations would now take precedence." Well said, Jonathan! It certainly is an interesting setting. Olivia Thirlby (Dredd), John Hurt (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Igal Naor (Green Zone), Jurgen Prochnow (24) and Navid Negahba (Homeland) round out the pretty impressive cast. Filming began last month in Morocco. Kaplan wrote a sequel to The Damascus Cover, Bullets of Palestine, so I suppose it's possible this movie has franchise potential.

Mar 27, 2015

The SPECTRE Teaser Trailer is Here!

Well, here's the one we've all been waiting for! Here's the one that Paramount was clearly trying to beat to the punch when they released the Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation trailer last weekend. And you know what? It turns out the two trailers could not be more different.

Check it out:



Sure, both are introducing audiences to a shadowy criminal organization for their respective heroes to go up against, but they do it in such different ways. (And I love both.) Rogue Nation is all phenomenal, over-the-top action and stunts, and says the name "the Syndicate" again and again and again. (To my unending delight each time.) The SPECTRE teaser, on the other hand, is all subtlety, nuance and menace, and no character ever mentions "SPECTRE" by name. Instead we glimpse a ring with the familiar octopus logo first seen in From Russia With Love. We're treated to certain iconography associated with the Special Executive fr Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion in its classic Sixties incarnation: a "board meeting" of mysterious figures gathered around a wooden table in a luxurious, Old World setting, a shadow, silhouetted person presiding. Everything but a white cat. (Had I cut a trailer reintroducing SPECTRE, it would have just been a close-up of a white cat being stroked by the hands of an unseen villain. But then again, we're still not sure if Blofeld is even in this movie, and if he's not... then I guess there wouldn't be a cat, either.) I love the slow build. I love the beautiful cinematography, courtesy of Hoyte van Hoytema (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). I love that shot of Bond on the boat, tiny and alone in the vastness of that Austrian lake. And I love the use of the Bond Theme played on... is it a cimbalom? A xylophone? Whatever it is, it's stark and effective, like this teaser. And of course I love the final reveal of the logo, and all the franchise history packed into that logo: the octopus logo, Tracy... and a friend pointed out to me that that even looks like the pointed ears of a cat the way the glass is broken around the bullet hole. It's brilliant.

I'm also surprised at how much this teaser seems to reveal in its relatively brief minute and forty-two seconds. Although they've played coy with his actual character since the initial press conference, here they certainly seem to be hinting that Christoph Waltz is playing Blofeld. Or maybe it's all a clever misdirect. But that seems to be his silhouette we see in shadow, and his collar even seems carefully arranged to recall the silhouette of a Nehru jacket! Then there's all that about Bond's childhood. It feels like a very direct continuation of Skyfall (right down to Moneypenny's name-check in the opening moments of the teaser), and it looks like SPECTRE will continue to explore 007's formative years. Freeze on that document, and you'll find that it's a transfer of guardianship from James' Aunt Charmian (a character first mentioned in Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice, and fleshed out by Charlie Higson in his Young Bond novels) to Hannes Oberhauser, James' childhood ski instructor and a surrogate father figure introduced in Fleming's "Octopussy" and fleshed out in Higson's By Royal Command. Finally, there's the return of Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), the villain from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace whose escape has bothered many Bond fans. Judging from his ragged, unkempt appearance, Mr. White has come down in the world since we last saw him, but he remains as enigmatic as ever. (His advice to Craig's Bond in the teaser hardly seems helpful.) Christensen's involvement in SPECTRE had been rumored, but wasn't officially announced at the press conference last December that revealed other key cast members. Presumably his appearance indicates a connection between the villainous organizations Quantum and SPECTRE, as many fans have hoped for.

What surprises me most, though, is the complete lack of action! Has there ever been a James Bond teaser before that showed actual footage from the film, but no stunts? I can't recall one off the top of my head. But it works! In fact, it works so damn well! I don't think they could have done a trailer like this in the Brosnan era. I think it's specific to Daniel Craig's tenure as 007 that they can get away with a James Bond trailer based entirely on character and drama and suspense rather than bombastic action. Of course we know the action will be in the movie, but I like the confidence that it's not needed to sell the film. Because it's really not in this day and age. As I said up front, the SPECTRE trailer and the Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation trailer could not be more different in how they introduce audiences to their respective revived villainous organizations. But both work in their own right, and both seem very true to the current conception of their respective series. I can't wait for both of these movies! Between them and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., it looks like spy fans are in for one fantastic year.

SPECTRE opens November 6 worldwide.

NOTE: Please speculate all you like in the comments; after all, this teaser trailer leaves us with plenty to speculate about! But, since the script for this movie was leaked in last year's Sony hack, it's necessary for me to implore readers to refrain from making comments with actual spoilers in them, as many fans (myself included) are still trying to go into this movie knowing only what EON and the studios want us to know. Thank you!

Cool Spy Toys: S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier Gets Lego-ized

ComicBook.com reports (via Blastr) that Lego will release a nearly 3,000-piece set to construct the famous S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier. This has to be one of the coolest spy toys in a long time! Of course the toy is meant to tie in with Marvel's Avengers: Age of Ultron movie, not with the classic Sixties Jim Steranko or Jack Kirby Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. comics from which it originates, but it's cool either way! Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. was Marvel's way of cashing in on the Bond-based Sixties spy boom, and S.H.I.E.L.D. was essentially their version of U.N.C.L.E. But because Marvel was making comic books, not movies or television (and largely because the creative genius Steranko was drawing them), they ventured further into the realm of the fantastic than even Ken Adam could realize on screen. Aston Martins with ejector seats didn't go far enough; Nick Fury drove an invisible Porsche capable of flight. And a building with a secret entrance through a tailor shop would hardly do as S.H.I.E.L.D.'s HQ (although they did have one of those, too); Fury needed a flying aircraft carrier from which to direct his intelligence operations! The helicarrier is perhaps the ultimate symbol of Marvel's unique take on spy-fi, which blended espionage with superheroics and science fiction. And though it's remained a mainstay of the Marvel Universe in comics ever since, it seemed so outlandish that I never dreamed we'd see a big screen version. But Joss Whedon proved me gloriously wrong in Marvel's The Avengers (2012), realizing the improbably airborne spy headquarters with as much realism as possible. So much so that with that set-up, audiences had no problem with a whole fleet of helicarriers in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)! And now, at last, we've got ourselves a Lego helicarrier. Oh, how I want one! But the price is likely to be prohibitively steep, and the size would pose a display problem. But take a look at this video to see how detailed and all around awesome it is, and you'll probably want one too! Owing to its enormity, the helicarrier isn't in scale with standard Lego figures, so Lego have created a cast of even smaller figures to assemble on its deck. Among, naturally, are superspies Nick Fury (in his Samuel L. Jackson incarnation) and Black Widow (based on Scarlett Johansson).

Read more about the helicarrier in my S.H.I.E.L.D. primer, here.

Mar 26, 2015

Full Trailer for Spooks: The Greater Good

Just two days ago I belatedly posted the teaser trailer (and posters) for Spooks: The Greater Good; today the full trailer arrives—no doubt timed, like Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, to preempt the previously announced debut of the SPECTRE teaser tomorrow. This is the big screen spinoff of the popular BBC TV series Spooks (broadcast in America as MI-5) that ran from 2002-2011. The full trailer looks great, and very much in keeping with the series. (Not surprising, given that director Bharat Nalluri helmed six episodes of the show, including the pilot.) Kit Harrington (Game of Thrones) stars along with fellow newcomers to the franchise Jennifer Ehle (Zero Dark Thirty), David Harewood (Homeland), Elyes Gabel (Exit Strategy, A Most Violent Year) and Tuppence Middleton (The Lady Vanishes). Peter Firth (The Hunt for Red October), the only consistent regular cast member throughout all ten seasons, Lara Pulver (Sherlock) and Tim McInnerny (Johnny English Reborn) reprise their roles from the TV show. As for Harrington starring, it is completely in keeping with the series to introduce a new male lead. The show had a shockingly high mortality rate among its key players (though not everyone to leave was killed off), and went through a succession of leading men. Bringing in someone entirely new also helps make the movie accessible for viewers who might not have seen the series. Spooks: The Greater Good opens May 8 in the UK. Frustratingly, there is still no release date or confirmed distributor for the U.S.

Tradecraft: CW Orders Teen Spy Pilot

Deadline reports that the CW has given a pilot order to the teen spy school drama from Desperate Housewives' Marc Cherry and Law & Order: SVU's Neal Baer that we first heard about late last year. Written by Cherry, Baer and Blue Bloods' Dan Truly, the "Heathers meets Alias" drama follows a disgraced CIA agent turned Washington D.C. prep school teacher who tries to get back in the Agency's good graces by training his well-connected students to be his own personal network of agents. Alan Van Sprang (Reign, The Tudors) plays the agent, Stone, and Gia Mantegna (And Soon the Darkness), Pepi Sonuga (General Hospital) and Abbie Cobb (Intelligence) play the mean girls he trains to be spies, Grace, Ursula and Maddie, respectively. Speaking of mean girls, the actual Mean Girls helmer, Mark Waters, directs. Newcomer Aylin Bayramoglu also has a role. Regular readers know I'm a sucker for the teen spy subgenre, so I'm really rooting for this one to get picked up to series!

Mar 25, 2015

Tradecraft: Legends Undergoes Changes in Season 2

Deadline reports that TNT's Legends will undergo some significant changes in its second season. Ken Biller (Legend of the Seeker) will take over from David Wilcox as the new showrunner on the Sean Bean spy series executive produced by Howard Gordon (24, Homeland). According to the trade, "Biller is taking the reins of Legends as part of a creative revamp." Biller himself says "reimagining" and Fox 21 TV Studios president Bert Salke says "reshape," so it's pretty clear that something transformative is planned. When the series was renewed (rather late in the game, in December), it was reported that there could be some supporting cast changes. Since then it's been announced that Morris Chestnut, who was a regular on the first season, would only appear in several episodes of Season 2 as a guest star, and another Season 1 regular, Amber Valetta, has booked a new pilot. I really liked Season 1 (though it did take a few episodes to come into its own), so I hope they don't change things up too much (please find a way to keep Tina Majorino!), but the first season ended with a cliffhanger that gives them the ability to shake things up pretty thoroughly in an organic fashion and reshuffle the supporting cast dramatically. I have faith in Biller, because I loved Legend of the Seeker, and I think it would be pretty cool if he brought in some of the actors from that series... particularly Bridget Regan (Agent Carter).

Legends went through a very rough road to production before its first season, too, switching networks and stars in the process. It will be interesting to see what new direction this series, based on the novel by Robert Littell, takes. When Legends returns in August, it won't be TNT's only spy series. The cable network also has a 10-episode season of Agent X in the pipeline.

Ned Rifle Trailer

Here's the teaser trailer for the Kickstarter-funded final film in Hal Hartley's quirky, tragicomic, indie quasi-spy series that began with Henry Fool (1997) and continued with Fay Grim (2006). Ned Rifle, starring Aubrey Plaza, Parker Posey, James Urbaniak, Martin Donovan and Thomas Jay Ryan, opens theatrically in New York (at the IFC Center), and on Vimeo On Demand April 1. It expands theatrically to Los Angeles (CineFamily), San Francisco (The Roxie), and Toronto (The Royal) on Friday, April 3, then to further markets on April 10. Read my review of Fay Grim here.

Mar 24, 2015

Posters and Teaser Trailer for Spooks: The Greater Good

Mission: Impossible 5 (now known as Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation) isn't the only spy movie spun off from a successful TV series with the initials "MI-5" coming out this year. As we first learned back in late 2013, the popular BBC series MI-5 (as it was known in America; Spooks to UK viewers), which ran from 2002-2011, is also getting the big screen treatment this year. Spooks: The Greater Good is set for release in Britain on May 8 (lucky Brits!), and two posters and a brief teaser were unveiled at the end of January. They somehow slipped by me until now. So far there is unfortunately no U.S. release date set. Presumably in the States it will be titled MI-5: The Greater Good, so you would think that Fox (who are distributing in the UK, but not confirmed for North America) would want to get it out here prior to Rogue Nation to capitalize on spy fans' confusion. I admit, that's a rather cynical position to take on a movie I'm really excited about, but I'm trying to think like a distributor. The only confirmed regular cast members from the TV series are Peter Firth (featured on the poster above), returning as Security Service spymaster Harry Pearce, and Lara Pulver (Sherlock), who was introduced in the 10th and final season as Erin Watts. Tim McInnerny reprises his recurring role as Oliver Mace, while the rest of the cast is rounded out by newcomers. (The movie is designed to be accessible to first-time viewers as well as dedicated fans.) Kit Harrington (Game of Thrones) leads the pack (and is pictured on the poster below), along with Jennifer Ehle (Zero Dark Thirty), David Harewood (Homeland), Elyes Gabel (Exit Strategy, A Most Violent Year) and Tuppence Middleton (The Lady Vanishes). Check out the teaser:


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


Mar 23, 2015

Tradecraft: Neil Burger to Direct Olen Steinhauer's All the Old Knives

Deadline first reported last October that Divergent director Neil Burger would helm an adaptation of Olen Steinhaur's new novel All the Old Knives for Chockstone Pictures partners Steve Schwartz and Paula Mae Schwartz and Nick Wechsler, who preemptively optioned the novel a whole year before its publication. Last week the trade updated their story, adding that The Mark Gordon Company and Entertainment One have come on board as financers and distributors, making All the Old Knives the inaugural picture for their new joint studio. This is terrific news. I'm only about three quarters of the way through the book right now, but so far I'd say it could well be Steinhauer's best book to date. (A far slimmer volume than last year's The Cairo Affair, it's simultaneously a denser work.)

The brilliant concept, indicated in the text itself (Steinhaur often tips his hat to his influences in his novels), is Christopher Reid's The Song of Lunch meets Len Deighton's Berlin Game. It's the search for a mole (as in the latter) played out in flashbacks over the course of a dinner between two ex-lovers (as in the former). A man and a woman meet to relive old times and go over an intelligence debacle in Vienna they were both party to six years prior. The novel trades off first person narration between the two of them. Each is apparently suspicious of the other, and both are potentially unreliable narrators. It's a complex spy game formulated by a writer at the top of his craft and played out in a relatable and intensely emotional scenario. It should make a wonderful movie if Steinhauer (who is writing the screenplay himself) can find a way to make the flashbacks and framing structure cinematic. It's the best sort of two-hander, and the complex characterizations should attract top talent in both primary roles. Burger recognizes that, telling the trade, "As a director, I love that it’s a tightly woven puzzle, a mystery involving counter-terrorism and also a mystery of the human heart. Best of all are the two very clever and calculating characters at the center of the story who are dealing with issues of loyalty, sacrifice and a lot of sexual tension. I can’t wait to start casting them.”

Now if only we could get some movement on the long overdue adaptation of Steinhauer's excellent Milo Weaver trilogy.... Last we heard, Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) was attached to direct the first novel, The Tourist, with his Covert Affairs partners Matt Corman and Chris Ord penning the script. But there hasn't been any news since September, 2012. Come on, Hollywood! This is a surefire blockbuster franchise!

Mission: Impossible: What is The Syndicate?

After watching the trailer for Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, many viewers may be asking themselves, "Who or what is this Syndicate?" Longtime fans of the TV series, however, are probably already grinning. The Syndicate has a long history with Mission: Impossible... though not in quite the same context as this new movie iteration.

Although the later seasons of Mission: Impossible are commonly referred to as "the Syndicate years" since the organization became the Impossible Missions Force's primary antagonist, the Syndicate actually first reared its ugly head as early as the very first season. Bob Johnson, the iconic voice on the self-destructing tapes who gives Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) and Dan Briggs (Steven Hill) before him his missions, first mentioned the Syndicate in a mission briefing in Episode 17 of Season 1, "The Frame" (though an "International Narcotics Syndicate" was referenced ten episodes sooner). We're told, "The Syndicate has a finger in every legitimate business. Now they're moving into government." Yes, this Syndicate was organized crime. Essentially the Mafia, though that word wasn't spoken much on American TV in the Sixties. The Syndicate also popped up frequently on another Bruce Geller TV show of the era, Mission: Impossible's sister series the private eye drama Mannix. It was a polite way to talk about the mob on television.

The Syndicate made a big splash going up against Phelps and his IM Force in the second season two-parter "The Council." This was a significant appearance, because the two episodes were edited together into the first theatrical Mission: Impossible movie, Mission: Impossible vs. the Mob, for release in foreign markets, Jim's mission was, according to the recording, to "put an end to [new Syndicate boss] Frank Wayne and his organization." The crew may have succeeded in ending Wayne's career, but clearly they didn't accomplish the objective of smiting the organization, because the Syndicate would return again and again. In "The Council," the scope of the plot is still international (the Syndicate is laundering its money in Swiss banks), keeping the IMF's purview fairly CIA-like and foreign-oriented, but that would change. From the very beginning, the IMF always took on the occasional homegrown criminal between spy missions (everything from large scale con men to armored car robbers), but eventually they would turn their focus more towards domestic crime and the Syndicate behind it.

By Season 4's "Mastermind," the writers had learned to stop having the team go up against the Syndicate's top man every time. You could only take out so many leaders before it all got implausible. Henceforth, the IMF's Syndicate-based missions would mostly be against local leaders or men with specific roles in the vast organization that was the Syndicate. (An organization big enough to have its own convention in "Mastermind.")

It was in Season 5 (the 1970-71 season) that the show's producers made a conscious decision to focus less on Cold War politics with fictional Iron Curtain countries (story consultant Lawrence Heath expressed frustration about not being allowed to use real countries and current events). In his essential book The Complete Mission: Impossible Dossier, Patrick J. White explains that the change was a reaction to plunging ratings. The writers felt that the show had become too predictable in its old format. Since only two episodes of Season 4 had taken place in the United States, a decision was made to shift the series geographically. And the primary enemy on the homefront was the Syndicate. Even with this mandate, however, a good chunk of Season 5 episodes still took place overseas and focused on traditional espionage. It was in Seasons 6 and 7, after Leonard Nimoy left, that the Syndicate really came to the forefront.

During the final two seasons, we hear Bob Johnson talk about "the Syndicate" so often that it becomes a whole new trope for the show. It's almost as familiar as "your mission, should you decide to accept it," or "this tape will self-destruct in five seconds." Because of that familiarity, it came as a delight to many fans of the TV show when the fourth Tom Cruise film, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, mentioned the Syndicate in an offhand manner. At the end of the movie, once the action is over, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) gets a new mission briefing about "a new terrorist organization calling itself 'The Syndicate.'" This is only one of many Easter Eggs in that movie for TV fans, but it made me clap out loud in the IMAX theater. Still, the question remained. Was it just an Easter Egg? Or was this briefing laying the groundwork for the next movie? Happily, we now have an answer. It was laying the groundwork alright, for a ferociously reinvented Syndicate who's back in a big way in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation.

Appropriate to our times, the new Syndicate feels a lot more threatening than the old one, which eventually boiled down to a lot of sweaty men in ill-fitting Seventies suits who sometimes seemed beneath the talents of the IMF. But the reinvented Syndicate is an equal to the IMF. It's a "rogue nation" unto itself according to the trailer, "trained to do what we do," in Ethan's words. "An anti-IMF," as Benji (Simon Pegg) puts it. Furthermore, it's shrouded in secrecy. According to Alec Baldwin's character, "the CIA has never discovered any intel regarding this Syndicate." When he poses the possibly rhetorical question as to why to Agent Brandt (Jeremy Renner), Brandt brashly asks, "Do you want the polite answer, or the truth?" Does this exchange indicate that the Syndicate might have infiltrated the CIA itself? Or just that it's so good at covering its tracks it's managed to elude them? I tend to favor the former. This new Syndicate certainly seems to owe a lot to Marvel's Hydra (particularly as seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where the evil organization had managed to fully penetrate intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D.) and James Bond's SPECTRE. But with that resonant name, it still holds a uniquely Mission: Impossible identity. I love every twist that manages to bring the movies closer to their small screen antecedent, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how this new Syndicate plays out.

Read my reviews of the Syndicate-heavy seasons of Mission: Impossible:

DVD Review: Mission: Impossible: The Seventh TV Season
DVD Review: Mission: Impossible: The Sixth TV Season
DVD Review: Mission: Impossible: The Fifth TV Season