May 20, 2018

Warner Archive Releases 1939 Joel McCrea Spy Flick ESPIONAGE AGENT

It's been a while since the Warner Archive has dipped into their spy library. But last week WB's MOD branch announced the first-ever DVD release of the historically notable 1939 spy film Espionage Agent, starring Joel McCrea (Foreign Correspondent) and the stunning Brenda Marshall. Espionage Agent is not a great film, but its historic significance makes it one well worth seeking out for scholars of spy cinema and espionage history.

Like McCrea's next (and far better) spy film, Foreign Correspondent (1940, review here), Espionage Agent is pure propaganda. But it's espousing the exact opposite sentiment of the later Hitchcock movie! While Hitchcock's film serves to warn America that the dawn of WWII is no time for complacency, and that America has an obligation to come to the aid of her allies in Europe and to stand up to the Nazi menace, Espionage Agent makes a case for isolationism. Yet it also makes a case that America needs a dedicated, international counter-intelligence service, which, of course, it didn't have at the time. So for students of spy history, it's a very interesting picture. The basic case is that if the U.S.A. has a spy agency along the lines of what the CIA would eventually become, then that will be enough to keep the country safe from overseas threats like Hitler's Germany, and there need be no more discussion about getting involved with the war in Europe - talk that's all stirred up by German agents anyway, according to the movie. (Why would Germany have wanted America to enter the war? Britain certainly had agents working that angle, but Germany was pretty intent on keeping us out....) Naive politics that have dated poorly aside, Espionage Agent is also worth watching for its place in film history when Hollywood was struggling with how to portray a heroic American "espionage agent." At the time, remember, spies were nearly always bad guys, and it was up to policemen and reporters (as in Foreign Correspondent) and costumed avengers (in the serials) and regular Joes to thwart their nefarious schemes. It wouldn't be until the Cold War and James Bond that we started to see proper, professional spy heroes on screen with any regularity, but Espionage Agent is a curious stepping stone worth checking out.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD retails for $21.99 but can, as always, be found at a discount on Amazon. (Remember, purchases made through links on this blog benefit the Double O Section, which takes up far more of my time than any small commissions will ever compensate for, but every little bit helps!)

Read my full review of Espionage Agent, written in the early days of this blog, here.

Tradecraft: H Collective Activates COUNTER SPY Comedy

The H Collective, a global film finance and production company founded last year, has been building an aggressive production slate recently. As we learned last month, the focal point in their production slate is a fourth xXx film with Vin Diesel following The H Collective's acquisition of the rights to the extreme spy franchise from Revolution Studios. That fits in with their eye to the Chinese market, where the xXx: Return of Xander Cage made the bulk of its overseas money. Continuing the China-focused strategy - and, more importantly, continuing with the spy genre - The H Collective last week set the CIA comedy Counter Spy to be the first film of a three-picture co-production and distribution deal with Chinese streaming giant IQiyi. According to Deadline, "Counter Spy follows a barista at the CIA headquarters’ Starbucks in Langley, Virginia. He has the highest security coffee job in the world and loves being close to the action. However, when he’s accidentally tangled up in a secret mission with an old-school CIA agent and his Chinese counterparts, his fantasy of the spy life comes crashing down." David Rothenberg and Lionel Enns penned the first draft of the script; former Marvel exec Craig Kyle is currently doing a rewrite. The H Collective recently struck a distribution deal with Sony, so it seems possible that studio could handle domestic.

May 16, 2018

TV Trailer: WHISKEY CAVALIER

ABC announced this week that it had picked up the previously reported spy pilot Whiskey Cavalier to series. And they also unveiled a trailer! Bear in mind, this is one of those long, sort of cumbersome upfront trailers (designed with advertisers in mind, not audiences)... but it still looks awesome! This is exactly what I want from a network spy series. I really hope the show turns out to be as much fun as the trailer! Fulfilling the ancient prophecy that all the stars of Felicity would one day be spy stars (hey, Scott Speedman had his shot in xXx: State of the Nation, remember?), Scott Foley stars as a mostly by-the-book FBI agent just coming off a breakup who's assigned to partner up with a freewheeling CIA agent played by Lauren Cohan (who also stars in the upcoming summer spy movie Mile 22, whose trailer also dropped this week). Action, hijinks, and sexual tension ensue. And based on his memorable several seconds in the trailer, Dylan Walsh (Nip/Tuck) looks to have reinvented his career, brilliantly transforming himself from a ho-hum leading man to a scene-stealing character actor. I can't wait to see the show!

Trailer: MILE 22

While it's likely to be eclipsed by the new Mission: Impossible trailer, STX is eager to make us aware that intense spy action is not the exclusive domain of Tom Cruise. The first trailer (a red band trailer) has dropped for Peter Berg's (The Kingdom) CIA actioner Mile 22, starring his frequent collaborator Mark Wahlberg (2 Guns) and envisioned as a franchise kickoff. And it's got lots of shooting, running, and blowing shit up in it. Mile 22 is co-written by Jack Ryan showrunner Graham Roland, who's clearly having a very spy-ish summer, and Lea Carpenter. John Malkovich (RED), Ronda Rousey (Furious 7), and Lauren Cohan co-star. This is, in fact, one of two Lauren Cohan spy trailers to hit this week! She also stars in the new ABC series Whiskey Cavalier, which looks great.

Trailer: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT

As promised, Paramount debuted the new trailer for Mission: Impossible - Fallout today. And it certainly looks like another winner! Will this be three great Missions in a row? Check out the trailer and judge for yourself.

May 15, 2018

New Poster and Trailer for MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT

Paramount has released a new poster for Tom Cruise's sixth Mission: Impossible movie, Mission: Impossible - Fallout. A new trailer will debut tomorrow. (If the waiting is killing you, you can still tide yourself over with the awesome first trailer!) Cruise once again stars as Ethan Hunt; the supporting cast including returnees Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Rebecca Ferguson, Alec Baldwin, Sean Harris, and Michelle Monaghan, and newcomers Angela Bassett, Vanessa Kirby, and Henry Cavill. (No Jeremy Renner this time around.)  Christopher McQuarrie, who helmed the last entry in the series, Rogue Nation, returns to direct. (A first for the series, which has historically used a different director for each film.)

May 1, 2018

Tradecraft: John Cena Replaces Dwayne Johnson in Ludlum Movie THE JANSON DIRECTIVE

It's been a while since we've heard about any movement on the Robert Ludlum film front. After the success of the Bourne franchise, there were all sorts of reports of new adaptations of Ludlum bestsellers like The Chancellor Manuscript (at one point Martin Scorsese was supposed to direct Leonard DiCaprio), The Matarese Circle (once set to team Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington before the Cruise-run United Artists imploded), The Osterman Weekend (a remake once set to be Simon Kinberg's directorial debut, and later a vehicle for RED director Robert Schwetke), The Sigma Protocol (long in development with producer Irwin Winkle), The Parsifal Mosaic (Ron Howard and, tantalizingly, Zhang Yimou had both kicked the tires as potential directors), and The Janson Directive. That last one seemed the most likely to move forward, as the world's biggest star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson was attached to topline, and because the Ludlum estate has kept a Janson book franchise going along the lines of the Bourne series, hiring other authors to pen continuation novels about Ludlum's sniper hero. (Even Ludlum's original Janson tale, The Janson Directive, was finished by another author, and published posthumously.) But it had been quite a while since we'd heard anything about this film, and I'd assumed it had gone the way of so many other projects (like Shane Black's Doc Savage) that Johnson attaches himself to but ultimately doesn't have room for on his busy slate. Apparently, that's not the case! Johnson must believe in the property, because he remains involved as a producer. But he's tapped a protege to take over starring duties on the Universal film.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, fellow wrestler-turned-actor John Cena will step in to star. Cena is hot right now, coming off of a major comedic success in Blockers after steadily building a mainstream comedy career with smaller roles in movies like Trainwreck, Sisters, and Daddy's Home 2 after first fizzling by following the typical wrestler path of paint-by-numbers action vehicles like The Marine (2006) and 12 Rounds (2009). He has, however, maintained his dramatic chops by appearing in Doug Liman's experimental Iraq horror movie The Wall. But most of all, he's proven himself to be an immensely charming and likable screen presence, much like Johnson. So it makes sense for the latter to anoint the former his successor. (Johnson first made the announcement on social media.)

In The Wall, Cena played a spotter for a sniper; in The Janson Directive he'll play a sniper himself - a former SEAL who now runs a private security firm and ends up taking on a younger female apprentice. The Ludlum novel (review here) saw Janson lead a team on a disastrous rescue mission that left him on the run from governments and terrorists alike. As he trotted the globe in an effort to clear his name, he ended up uncovering a conspiracy with ties to his own past military service and reaching (thrillingly) all the way to the highest levels of the U.S. government. Of course, in the post-Bourne Identity world there is no guarantee whatsoever that a Ludlum-based movie will actually follow much of the master plotter's plot. One key divergence is obvious already. The Janson of the book is the proverbial old gunslinger, a Vietnam vet now well past his prime and running form his past. That Janson would have been a great role for Liam Neeson. If any of Ludlum's plot is retained, presumably Janson's military service and the horrific incident that still haunts him will now take place in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The trade reports that James Vanderbilt (The Losers, White House Down) will pen the script from a story he and Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind) adapted together. (John Hlavin penned a previous draft for Universal.) The pair will also produce, along with Ludlum rights holders Captivate Entertainment's Ben Smith and Jeffrey Weiner and Johnson's regular producing partner Hiram Garcia. Johnson and Dany Garcia will executive produce. No director has yet been named.

With Cena set to star, I'm a lot more hopeful that this movie will actually happen! (His dance card isn't nearly as full as The Rock's, and he's at the perfect stage of his career to launch a new spy franchise.) And I always welcome any new Robert Ludlum based movies.

Read my review of Ludlum's novel The Janson Directive here.
Purchase The Janson Directive on Amazon here.

First Glimpse of Two-Eyed Nick Fury in CAPTAIN MARVEL

Hollywood Pipeline (via Dark Horizons) has snapped some pictures and even video of Samuel L. Jackson on the set of Marvel Studios' upcoming Captain Marvel. As previously reported, Captain Marvel (starring the studio's first female film title character) will take place in the 1990s, decades prior to other Marvel movies we've seen. (Though perhaps around the same time as the opening of Ant-Man, which featured aged versions of Agent Carter characters Peggy Carter and Howard Stark running S.H.I.E.L.D.) That means we'll get to see a younger version of Marvel's resident ramrod superspy, Nick Fury. (Read my Fury/S.H.I.E.L.D. primer here.) But he's still played by Jackson, who is expected to be digitally de-aged. (Clark Gregg's fan-favorite S.H.I.E.L.D. agent of big and small screen, Phil Coulson, will presumably get the same treatment.) The younger Fury will still have both eyes, thus won't sport his famous eyepatch look. Though, as we can see, Fury is in civilian clothes, indicating he's already traded his stripes for spy suits. We saw the original Nick Fury maintain this state (as a two-eyed spy) throughout an entire issue only once, in Fantastic Four #21 (which is collected in the S.H.I.E.L.D. Omnibus). Other than that, you could easily tell his soldier comics (Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos) apart from his spy comics (Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.) by counting his eyes. No doubt Jackson's Fury will lose an eye during his adventures in Captain Marvel. (In the comics, his missing eye has been explained several different times featuring several different circumstances.)

I have to admit, though, that I'm a little bit disappointed. I was hoping Marvel Studios would be cheeky enough to have Jackson replicate his most famous Nineties look, and sport Jules' Jheri curl from Pulp Fiction as the younger Fury!

Apr 26, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Tradecraft: Amma Assante to Direct Tolkachev Movie BILLION DOLLAR SPY

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

Apr 25, 2018

Comic Book Review: THE PRISONER #1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Order The Prisoner #1 for Kindle here.

Order The Prisoner #1 physical copy here.


Apr 19, 2018

Tradecraft: xXx Rides Again

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

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

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

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

Tradecraft: James Gray to Direct I AM PILGRIM

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

Trailer: THE EQUALIZER 2

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

Apr 5, 2018

Trailer: JOHNNY ENGLISH STRIKES AGAIN

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

Johnny English Strikes Again opens September 20, 2018.

Apr 4, 2018

Future of EuropaCorp's Neo-Eurospy Movies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 30, 2018

Stonebridge and Scott STRIKE BACK Again Tonight on Cinemax

While they're not part of the main cast of Cinemax's rebooted counterterrorism action drama Strike Back, Deadline reports that Sullivan Stapleton and Philip Winshester will return as the beloved and iconic Stonebridge and Scott in tonight's episode of the revived series. Stapleton and Winchester starred in the series' second incarnation when Cinemax first came aboard, following an initial UK season on Sky which starred Richard Armitage and Andrew Lincoln. The Stapleton/Winchester version came to an end after four seasons, and the two stars moved on to other shows. Then the cable network decided to reboot the show again, re-launching it with a new cast that includes Warren Brown, Daniel MacPherson, Roxanne McKee, and Alin Sumarwata. Tonight, Stonebridge and Scott will presumably show the new generation how it's done... assuming their appearance proves more satisfying than Armitage's incredibly disappointing guest spot on the first Cinnemax incarnation!

The sixth season (confusingly the fifth on Cinemax following the one on Sky) wraps up on April 6, but per Deadline the rebooted Strike Back has already been renewed by the cable network for seventh season to air next year.

Mar 27, 2018

Trailer for Titan's new PRISONER Comic

I'm a month behind on this, but Titan released a video trailer for their new Prisoner comic book series in February. Set to the theme music from Big Finish's Prisoner audio series, it looks pretty darn cool! As first reported last year, the series by Peter Milligan (X-Statix, Batman) and Colin Lorimar (Harvest) will serve as a sequel to the Patrick McGoohan's classic Sixties ITC TV show and focus on a new Number 6 in a contemporary Village. (I wonder if it will also take into account DC's 1980s sequel comic, Shattered Visage?) The art for all the different covers, however, clearly leans on the iconic original! There's even one variant that features Jack Kirby's original pencils from his legendary abandoned Marvel adaptation (which will finally see publication this summer, also from Titan--along with another previously unprinted adaptation drawn by Gil Kane) newly inked by Mike Allred! (Allred, who worked with Milligan on seminal runs on X-Force and X-Statix, and whose pop sensibility also landed him cover duties on comics like Batman '66 Meets The Man form U.N.C.L.E. and Batman '66 Meets Steed and Mrs. Peel, also provides his own original cover, below.) Let's hope this new take on the classic show will be better than the misguided 2009 AMC TV miniseries attempt. With Milligan at the helm, I have a feeling it will! Anyway, check out the cool trailer and see for yourself.

Mar 26, 2018

First Teaser Trailer: CONDOR TV Series

It was just over three years ago that we first heard Three Days of the Condor would be remade as a TV series. Last week AT&T's Audience Network released the first trailer for their upcoming series, Condor (a simplified title that, while lacking some coolness, conveniently avoids the potentially limiting question of a specified number of days altogether), a reimagining of one of the spy genre's cornerstone stories, based on James Grady's classic 1974 novel Six Days of the Condor and Sydney Pollack's iconic 1975 film of it, Three Days of the Condor. While the trailer doesn't look very familiar to fans of the movie or the novel, the description on the show's official website does:
Joe Turner has always been conflicted about his work for the CIA. But when something he’s discovered gets his entire office killed, leaving Joe as the only survivor and forcing him to go on the run, the theoretical reservations he’s always harbored turn into all-too-real moral dilemmas. Under life or death pressure, Joe will be forced to redefine who he is and what he’s capable of in order to discover who’s behind this far-reaching conspiracy, and stop them from completing their deadly objective that threatens the lives of millions. Inspired by Paramount’s Sydney Pollack 1975 political thriller Three Days of the Condor. Condor stars Max Irons, William Hurt, Leem Lubany, Mira Sorvino, Brendan Fraser, and Bob Balaban.
So, as we first learned a year ago, the series protagonist played by Max Irons (Crooked House) will be named Joe Turner, like Robert Redford's character in the film, and not Ronald Malcolm, as in the book. But the movie was close enough to its source material (despite a few key differences) that if the TV series is at all faithful to either, it should at least resemble both. Katherine Cunningham (The Playboy Club) takes on the Faye Dunaway role of Kathy Hale (again using the character's movie name rather than book name), and 20-year-old Israeli Arab actress Leem Lubany (Rock the Casbah) plays Gabrielle Joubert, a variation on the iconic role of the professional killer played so memorably by Max Von Sydow in the film.

When it was first announced, the project was described as a limited series (what we used to call miniseries). But that's changed, and now it's just referred to as a series. Should we get subsequent seasons, I would love to see them based on some of Grady's later Condor novels--especially the overlooked second one, Shadow of the Condor. I kind of doubt that will happen, but it would be cool.

My understanding is that the Audience Network was previously only available to DirecTV satellite subscribers, but now there is an app, DirecTV Now (similar to HBO Go, I think), that allows users to stream it on various set-top devices. I haven't done this myself, and can't vouch for it. But when Condor premieres this June, I will have to figure out how to see it, and this seems the easiest way.

Mar 22, 2018

Trailer: THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME

Lionsgate released the trailer yesterday, and posters today, for this summer's The Spy Who Dumped Me, starring Mila Kunis (Black Swan) and Kate McKinnon (Saturday Night Live) as best friends who become embroiled in espionage when one of them (Kunis) discovers her ex was a secret agent. Justin Theroux (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) and Gillian Anderson (Johnny English Reborn) co-star. The Spy Who Dumped Me was directed by Susanna Fogel and written by Fogel and my talented friend Dave Iserson (Mad Men, Mr. Robot). I know they'll knock it out of the park! Check out the trailer, which opens with some well done Casino Royale-style title graphics.



Mar 19, 2018

Ridley Scott to Direct QUEEN & COUNTRY?

Every couple of years we Queen & Country fans get another little nugget that maybe Greg Rucka is planning another comics series, or maybe something's happening with the forever stuck in development movie. Last week was time for the latest movie rumors. The Wrap reports that powerhouse director Ridley Scott (Body of Lies, Adam Adamant Lives!) is in talks to direct it for Fox. The Hollywood Reporter has confirmed the story.

For those who don't know, Queen & Country is a multi-media spy series by Greg Rucka, spanning a comic book series (handily collected now in four omnibus editions) and three novels. It's heavily inspired by the incredible Seventies TV series The Sandbaggers, but also distinctive in its own right with a cast of terrific, believable, flawed characters. Foremost among them are SIS field agent Tara Chace and her boss, spymaster Paul Crocker, representing, respectively, the field and desk sides of the story. As with The Sandbaggers, Crocker's bureaucratic and political entanglements back at HQ are equally compelling (if not more so) to Tara's life-and-death struggles in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Georgia, Uzbekistan, and other international hotspots. Queen & Country was one of the main inspirations for me in starting this blog, and the subject of my fourth ever post on the blog's first day of existence nearly twelve years ago, in which I called the series "the best current, ongoing spy saga in any medium." Sadly it hasn't been current for years (the last novel was published in 2011, and only a few more comic issues trickled out after that), but it remains one of the genre's all-time high water marks. And I would love to see Tara and her cohorts on the screen. Yet we've heard enough sporadic updates on that adaptation before over the years that I can't help remain skeptical until the cameras actually start to roll--or at least until the studio sets a start date.

Originally, Leverage creator John Rogers penned the script, and at one point Nicole Kidman was attached to star. Later, Ryan Condal (creator of the TV series Colony) came on board to write a draft. In 2013, Ellen Page was attached to star, hot off of Inception and Juno. A few years ago, Seth Meyers (a vocal fan of Queen & Country, who has also discussed the comic with fellow enthusiast Rachel Maddow when she was a guest) asked her if she was still attached and she said yes, but apparently that's now changed. In 2014 commercial director Craig Viveiros came aboard, but now The Wrap reports that "neither [Page nor Viveiros] is still connected to the project." According to their story, Scott, fresh off of All the Money in the World (a gritty 1970s period piece in which Mark Wahlberg plays a former CIA officer), is in talks to direct and produce. It's unclear from the story who the writer of note is at the moment, but their description makes it seem like his version would be based on Rucka's first Queen & Country novel, A Gentleman's Game. Previous drafts appeared to be based on the first two arcs of the comic book (again, just based on capsule descriptions in trades).

I really hope this comes to pass! Scott has the clout to finally get this movie made (though he is fickle and has abandoned other spy projects in the past, like a feature version of The Prisoner), and to attract a big star to play the plum role of Tara. In a 2007 post I chose my own fantasy cast and picked Kelly Macdonald (Trainspotting, Boardwalk Empire) as my ideal Tara, but she probably doesn't have the star wattage to get the film greenlit, and Scott may wish to cast younger. I think either Emily Blunt (Charlie Wilson's War) or Saorise Ronan (Hanna, Lady Bird) would be great choices. I still see Hugh Laurie (The Night Manager) as the only possible Crocker!

Read my review of the third Queen & Country novel, The Last Run, here.
Order Queen & Country: The Definitive Edition - Volume 1 here.
Order Queen & Country: A Gentleman's Game here.

Mar 12, 2018

Trailer and Poster for Final Season of FX's THE AMERICANS

FX has released a trailer for the sixth and final season of The Americans, which premieres on March 28th at 10pm EST. They've also released a typically stunning poster promoting the season. This series about Russian KGB spies living undercover as "illegals" in 1980s America started strong and went from strength to strength. In a word, it's been utterly fantastic throughout its run. Although a period drama set during the waning days of the Cold War, it's also become surprisingly more topical in recent years. The original plan was to see Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) through the fall of the Berlin wall. Unless the final season spans multiple years, I don't see how they'll get to that point in history, but there are plenty of other burning questions to keep us on the edges of our seats until the finale. When I interviewed producer Graham Yost on the eve of The Americans' debut back in 2013, he concluded the session by quoting the FX Networks President. "John Landgraf said something that I thought perfectly sums it up: 'We know who won the Cold War. We don't know if Phillip and Elizabeth will survive. And that's the story. Will the marriage survive? Will the children survive?'" Five years later, we're on the verge of those answers. I can't wait to find out! Get a taste from the trailer below:

Read my 2013 review of The Americans pilot episode here.
Read my 2013 interview with executive producer Graham Yost here.

Mar 9, 2018

Tradecraft: THE IRREGULARS TV Series Explores Wartime Espionage Exploits of Ian Fleming and Roald Dahl

Buried in an exciting Deadline article about Paramount's latest attempt to reboot the venerable Matt Helm spy franchise was another item of note to spy fans. The writer who will be tackling the Donald Hamilton spy series, Tom Shepherd, has already adapted another great spy tome—this one non-fiction. Giving background on Shepherd, the trade mentioned that along with an upcoming Dr. Dolittle movie with Robert Downey Jr. and a period action-adventure spec script teaming up a young Agatha Christie with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to solve a baffling mystery, Shepherd has already written an adaptation of Jennet Conant's terrific Roald Dahl biography The Irregulars for Anonymous Content and Paramount TV. No further information is provided, but I would assume the format would be a limited series. (Or miniseries, as we used to call them.) The Irregulars focuses on Dahl's period as a British spy operating in Washington D.C. during WWII. The future Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author and You Only Live Twice screenwriter worked for Sir William Stephenson's BSC (British Security Coordination) after he was shot down early in the war and unable to continue as an aviator due to his injuries. In Washington, he was basically a gigolo for England ("the things I do for England," as 007 would quip in You Only Live Twice), seducing society wives with the goal of getting them to convince their powerful husbands that America should join the war and come to the aid of Great Britain. Ian Fleming and his friend Ivar Bryce also figure prominently in the narrative, Fleming having worked for British Naval Intelligence at the time and Bryce, eventually, for the American OSS. There's an amusing account of Dahl and Fleming competing for the affections of the same woman, and the revelation that Fleming gave Dahl the idea for one of his more famous short stories that would later be adapted into an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The Irregulars is essential reading for anyone interested in Dahl, Fleming, James Bond, or wartime espionage (and a great companion piece to William Stevenson's famous Stephenson biography A Man Called Intrepid, or William Boyd's fabulous BSC novel Restless), and should make for great viewing as well. I'll definitely have my eyes open for more information on this project.

Tradecraft: Matt Helm Movie Reactivated

Paramount has been trying to make a new Matt Helm movie for nearly a decade, ever since the studio came away with the rights to the character in their split from DreamWorks in 2008. Prior to that, DreamWorks had been attempting a screen revival of Helm closer to Donald Hamilton's gritty novels than the spoofy Dean Martin movies ostensibly based on them in the Sixties. At various times director Robert Luketic, star Josh Duhamel, and writers Michael Brandt and Derek Haas had been attached. But Paramount started fresh. In 2009, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Alias, Mission: Impossible III), riding high on the success of the Star Trek reboot they'd co-scripted, came aboard to produce the Helm film, with veteran screenwriter Paul Attanasio (The Sum of All Fears, The Good German) scripting. Orci and Kurtzman told me at the time that their goal was a tone somewhere between the Hamilton novels and the Dino movies, but leaning toward the former—serious, but also fun. A few months later came the big bombshell, when Variety reported that Steven Spielberg (Munich) was circling the project to direct. Spielberg had long harbored a desire to make a popcorn spy flick. (Having approached the Bond producers in the late Seventies and been crushingly denied the opportunity to direct 007, he jumped at the opportunity to helm a project his pal George Lucas had dreamed up that he claimed was "better than Bond"—a little movie called Raiders of the Lost Ark.) Sadly, by that August, his brief flirtation with directing Matt Helm was over. A few months later, Seabiscuit director Gary Ross (fresh off of scripting another big project that never came to be, the fourth Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire Spider-man movie) was considered the front runner to direct Matt Helm, and for the first time Bradley Cooper (Alias) was mooted as the film's likely star. The script of note was still Attanasio's. But despite an apparently unanimous appreciation for that script, the movie, of course, never came to be. And the project seemed to go dormant.

Until today.

Today, Deadline reports that Paramount is once again attempting to revive the franchise, this time with Tom Shepherd penning a new script. Shepherd is the writer of the forthcoming The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle, starring Robert Downey Jr. as the beloved Victorian vet of children's book fame, as well as an action-adventure spec script teaming a young Agatha Christie with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to solve a baffling mystery, and a script about the real-life wartime espionage adventures of Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming. While the writer may be new, a lot of familiar faces are still attached in behind-the-scenes capacities. Bradley Cooper remains attached to star as Helm, and Kurtzman and Orci (though no longer business partners) remain attached as executive producers, now joined by Grant Heslov and George Clooney (who was, at one point, himself rumored for the lead role). Additionally, the trade tantalizingly (if nebulously) reports that, "Steven Spielberg is involved in some capacity."

I've long since learned not to hold my breath on a new Matt Helm movie, but I'm still happy every time I read about movement on the project. Hamilton's 27 novels, beginning with 1960's Death of a Citizen, are largely secret cornerstones of the spy genre, and they deserve wider exposure and a faithful screen treatment. I admit that I'm a fan (to an extent, at least) of the quartet of Sixties Dean Martin pictures, but they're so far removed from Hamilton's wonderful books that they might as well bear no relation. I've often said that only one of them, Murderers' Row (co-starring Ann-Margaret and Karl Malden) even really qualifies as a movie. The others are bizarre assemblages of Sixties genre tropes like motorcycle chases, copious cocktail consumption, gratuitous zoom-ins on bikini-clad bottoms, and even, in the case of the first film, The Silencers, Martin singing. Plots are secondary at best, and non-existent at worst, and production values are generally low. Hamilton's novels, on the other hand, are terrific gritty, cynical, and brutal espionage stories on par with Ian Fleming and deserving of much wider recognition. It's possible that they've never gotten the credit they deserve outside of cult circles because they were published as paperback originals (excepting the 11th novel, The Menacers, which was the only one published in hardcover... but only in England), but that shouldn't be taken as a value judgment. They're fantastic, and like the spy fiction equivalent of the music of The Velvet Underground, hugely influential on the genre from Tom Clancy to 24 to Taken. Every spy fan should read them, and hopefully if a movie more faithful to the books ever gets made, the books themselves will become as widely known as they deserve to be.

By the way, while the series is probably best read in order, if you're looking to try just one Matt Helm book for a taste, I heartily recommend the sixth one, The Ambushers. Packed with sexy Soviet agents and nefarious neo-Nazis and rifles and missiles and even sword fights, it's quintessential spy fiction. And, if you're listening, Tom Shepherd... it would make a hell of a movie! Especially done as a period piece.