Treadstone 2019 ****

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“This is war, and the human mind is the new battlefield,’ explains one character in Treadstone, which takes its name from the sinister black-ops operation featured in Robert Ludlum’s Bourne novels and films. After being brought to the screen as Richard Chamberlain in some 1980’s tv movies, Jason Bourne was successfully rebooted in the form of Matt Damon for The Bourne Identity, before Paul Greengrass took things to another level for Supremacy and Ultimatum. Things flagged when few of the creative team returned for the shonky Bourne Legacy, and even the re-teaming of Damon and Greengrass couldn’t spark life into the redundant reprise Jason Bourne.

It’s obvious that audiences dig the Jason Bourne universe, though, and this USA Network tv show, now steaming widely, manages to expand the universe without making much use of Bourne himself, mentioned in the opening scene-setter and discussed once. Tim Kring’s ten-episode thriller wraps around the original story by showing the roots of Treadstone in a 1973 narrative that features Jeremy Irvine as a spy who has his mind thoroughly messed with, and a number of 2019 stories in which various sleepers awake in Korea, Greece, Kentucky and Moscow. Most of these narratives are compelling enough; the notion of activation, as featured in The Manchurian Candidate, makes for some good twists, and the level of action, whether fights or car chases, is efficient and effective, if not quite rising to the operatic heights of the original trilogy of movies.

The titles of each episode are amusingly retro; The Berlin Proposal, The Paradox Andropov and, cheekily, The Seoul Asylum, as is arguably the central character, Petra, played in older and modern timelines by Emilia Schüle and Gabrielle Scharnitzky. A veteran operative who survived the deadly games, she makes a different kind of focus to Jason Bourne, and a morally ambivalent one; the universe is a reassuringly complex one, and pulling in big name directors like Brad Anderson helps to keep the diverse threads alive.

Treadstone doesn’t blow the Bourne films away, but doesn’t try to; as an act of universe expansion, it’ll provide fans of the franchise with some welcome service in the form of tit-bits of information, as well as filling in some fringe narratives in a way that’s far more stimulating than the treading water featured in the last two movies.

Callan 1974 ****

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One piece of intellectual property that’s positively begging for rediscovery is Callan, a tv show, a book, a franchise beloved in the UK in the 1970’s, and the jumping-off point for Edward Woodward’s starring role in The Equaliser, which has become a Denzel Washington signature role. Each of these off-shoots is more ridiculous than the next, but boiled down to its origin story, James Mitchell’s kitchen sink spy-craft has a studious zing that would be well-worth recapturing.

Having already launched a popular tv show, Mitchell had adapted the pilot into a novel, A Red File for Callan, and this provides the basis for this 1974 film by Don Sharp. David Callan (Woodward) is a polite and friendly man who has violent tenancies, some of which seem to link to his service in the Malayan war. His handler, Hunter (Eric Porter) offers Callan a wet job, to murder a prominent businessman, but Callan takes his time about this to an almost existential degree, frustrating his bosses as he sources a gun and prepares himself by thrusting his hands into bowls of hot, wet sand.

Callan took The Ipcress File’s drab riposte to James Bond and took it a stage further; although there’s a Range-Rover chase and some cinematic action, it’s the tiny details of trade-craft that work best here, like the casual way the government sweeper-ups are disguised as ambulance-men. If you’re expecting Mission Impossible-style stunts, look elsewhere; Callan stealing a postman’s bicycle outside a High Street John Menzies is the limit of the athleticism here. And fans of 70’s dowdiness will enjoy the large cardboard boxes of Ryvita that form a backdrop to a dramatic scene.

Marked by an excellent performance by Woodward, no brooding Rambo but a well-disciplined man with still waters running deep in his psyche. The way his shunning of alcohol hardens his resolve is one of the details that give Callan such strength; espionage rarely goes out of fashion, but Callan is one forgotten name that really deserves to be brought back from the dead. And Dave Prowse, sporting an unfamiliar moustache, has a brief but memorable bit as a heavy who is no match for our hero’s dour strength.

 

When Eight Bells Toll 1971 ****

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The title is from a sea-faring term; Alistair MacLean’s adaptation of his own novel makes appropriately salty use of the author’s own experience in the navy. Filmed in and around the Scottish coastal village of Tobermory, here fictionalised as Torbay, Etienne Perier’s actioneer was intended to spark a new series to rival if not succeed the James Bond films, which were in mid Connery/Lazenby contractual free-fall when this was being made. Alas, no other film featuring Phillip Calvert (Anthony Hopkins) were made, but this gives a good flavour of what a potential franchise might have been like.

Calvert is introduced storming a hi-jacked ship; he’s a professional secret agent for the British Treasury, and clearly knows his stuff. MacLean gives Calvert plenty of animosity against his London-based superiors, notably Robert Morley as Uncle Arthur, Calvert’s handler and a man who seems more consumed with the availability of egg sandwiches than solving the mystery of the missing gold bullion. The nearby boat of shipping magnate Sir Anthony Skousas (Jack Hawkins) suggests who might be responsible, but Skouras’s wife Charlotte complicates things by getting attached to Calvert.

There’s a couple of duff-process shots, but for a film made in 1969, When Eight Bells Toll looks amazing today, with great location work in and around the Isle of Mull, terrific use of boats and Westland helicopters, and action that derives directly from the narrative, rather than feeling tacked on. The way Calvert attaches a live grenade to a rope and swing-balls it backwards into his enemies during the final confrontation is genius; without being a super-hero, he’s an ingenious, likeable hero.

When Eight Bells Toll is surprisingly modern in outlook and scope, and the presence of Hopkins, a versatile and thoughtful leading man, lends it a real sense of gravity. This is derring-do and Queen and Country stuff, but leavened with a healthy air of cynicism; enjoy a grand old action movie that still works in 2020.

 

Spies in Disguise 2019 ***

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“I call it Fifty Shades of Yay!’ shrieks an exuberant Tom Holland in Blue Sky’s new animated film, a vehicle that pairs the Spiderman star with venerable character actor Will Smith for some espionage capers. This Fox/Disney co-production is cannily placed in the festive market to mop up an audience of kids who are too young or unwilling to debate the ins and outs of Emperor Palpatine’s sex life circa Xmas 2019.

Troy Quane and Nick Bruno’s film is based on a short called Pigeon Impossible, which offers a title which shoe-horns pigeon-based humour into a spy theme. And that is where Spies in Disguise goes, unexpectedly; a good forty minutes of the film sees superspy Lance Sterling (Smith) transformed into a humble pigeon. He’s helping do-gooder scientist Walter Beckett (Holland) as the two come into conflict with super-villain Killian (Ben Mendelsohn, typecast beyond redemption) and his metal hand. Killian has a drone army in place for nefarious purposes, and has set-up Sterling as his patsy; transformed into a pigeon, Sterling fights to clear his name and save the world.

Spies in Disguise pretty much drops the pigeon angle for the last half an hour and becomes a straight spy spoof, but not before it’s generated a few good lines. ‘I don’t think that subtitle was in my favour’ Sterling quips as foreign henchmen gather around him. Better still, although the production has a sleek Incredibles look, the film doesn’t rely on big guns and weapons; Walter prefers glitter bombs and holographic kitten distractions, and the conflict between the boy and the older, more experienced Sterling attempts to defuse macho stereotypes.

It’s notable that Spies in Disguise also offers a more hawkish stance towards geopolitics than other kids films, with Sterling teaching Walter about the need to interfere in foreign affairs. It’s a moot point, but this Blue Sky production doesn’t labour it, and with a notably slick car chase that gets off to a slow start when Sterling can’t get into his own car, plus some cool character designs, it’s a satisfying cinema outing for families who just want a quick sugar-rush and a few laughs rather than the final confusing instalment of a forty year old story.

Our Man Flint 1966 ****

Our-Man-Flint-posterPerhaps a ‘franchises of yesteryear’ tag is required for the Derek Flint IP, now forgotten, but originally conceived and executed with the aim of giving James Bond a run for his money. The two Flint films are parodies of the Bond universe, but not out-and-out parody like the Austin Powers films; for the many who grew up with Our Man Flint as a Saturday night tv staple, there wasn’t much to choose between the laconic due of Flint and Bond.

Certainly, Fox got the right man for the job in terms of James Coburn. Already a household name from The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, Coburn was a lithe, charismatic leading man, ideal for a super-spy like Flint. Flint is portrayed as a ladies man, obviously, but also a martial arts guru, a fitness freak, a master of weapons and has a Holmesian gift for science and detection. Most significantly of all, Flint is American; in the first film, he notes an eagle used for nefarious purposes ‘An Anti-American eagle, that’s diabolical!’ he muses, and it’s clear that Flint is a home-grown US studio riposte to the Bond stiff-upper lip.

Our Man Flint takes a while to get going, with Flint engaging in a number of minor side-missions in his efforts to represent ZOWIE, the Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage in their battle against the fiendish GALAXY, who are using the weather to hold the world to ransom; strangling a thug named Hans Gruber in a toilet stall in Marseilles is probably the highlight. But once the action shifts to Galaxy island, a remote encampment where women are hypnotised into being pleasure units as a brand extension for Galaxy, whose motto is “Communication and Control’, Our Man Flint hits a more swaggering gear. Derek Flint infiltrates their compound and whispers ‘You are not a pleasure unit’ to the many bikini-clad girls inside, a white male saviour to lead a feminist revolution.

Our Man Flint is one of the best off-brand Bond variations, with an excellent leading man, a slightly different angle, and a climax that’s certainly in the right ball-park in terms of combatting excess with excess; the Galaxy compound, complete with an aerial monorail, is something to beyond, as are the rather cool jumpsuits that Coburn wears. On this evidence, there’s plenty to suggest that Flint could have rivalled Bond, but alas, a cut-price sequel cut off the oxygen before Our Man could really breathe.

The Jigsaw Man 1983 ***

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Are YOU looking for daily updates on Arthur Negus? Almost certainly, the answer is no. And yet, I have news of the ancient, long-passed BBC antiques expert, because he drifted across the stream of my Amazon Prime account like the answer to a madman’s prayer during last night’s perusal of Terence Young’s forgotten 1983 thriller The Jigsaw Man.

As a teenager, The Jigsaw Man seemed exactly like the kind of drab espionage fare best avoided, but either the film or my tastes have changed because this critic found himself drawn to such musty charms. But how to persuade others to join me? After an exchange with no less august a figure than Derrick from excellent review site The Ferguson Theater ( http://derricklferguson.wordpress.com/) about films that have merits outside of their conventional values, I came up with this shortlist of ten further reasons to watch The Jigsaw Man, an all-star spy caper very loosely based on the Cambridge Five. Michael Caine plays a Soviet defector who returns to the UK to play a cat and mouse game with British authorities, but no simple summary can capture the many facets of such an enterprise….

  • Would you like to see Donald Pleasence’s house? For indeed, it is the Chiswick maison of the British character actor that forms the backdrop to key scenes here.
  • There are no cameos from Captain America or the Hulk here, but how about a brief nod and a wink from British household entertainer Max Bygraves to add value?
  • While we’re talking cameos, would a brief hello from composer and national treasure Sir William Walton help seal the deal?
  • Would you like to see screen titan Sir Laurence Olivier face to face with David Kelly, best remembered as Basil Fawlty’s Irish builder in Fawlty Towers?
  • Have you ever hoped to see a car chase through Royal Windsor safari park, with monkey and giraffe action included in the fruit-stand-toppling action?
  • What kind of cultural value would you put on seeing James Bond and Rocky Horror star Charles Gray without his wig?
  • Talking of Bond, how about reuniting classic Bond director Young with regular stars in his films like Gray, Sabine Sun and Vladek Sheybal, instantly recognisable via From Russia With Love, and his impeccable musical performance in The Apple?
  • Speaking about reunions, how about bringing Olivier back in tandem with Michael Caine, years after their brilliant combination in Sleuth?
  • Why not have Michael Caine speak, not only in a comedy Russian accent, but a third comedy voice which is supposedly an Oklahoma oilman? Or dress up as a priest?
  • And why not throw in any other available British character actors, lets say, Robert Powell, Susan George and Michael Medwin to fill out the cast?

The takeaway is; there are other reasons to watch a film other than because it’s good by some definition. The Jigsaw Man had various, well-documented production problems, and key scenes are rushed and garbled; the flashback seems to have been lifted from another film. If you’re seeking thrills, don’t bother. But is you’re interested in Britain, film-stars, nostalgia or any number of cinematic ephemera, The Jigsaw Man is well worth exhuming from whatever dusty crypt it has lain in since 1983. The link is below…

The Amateur 1981 ****

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Reputed to be in development as a reboot for Hugh Jackman for a good few years now, Charles Jarrott’s The Amateur is a tense, effective revenge thriller than makes the best of its mix of cold-blooded espionage and hot-blooded anger. A sense of righteous grievance is harnessed by a shocking opening as a terrorist gang storm the American embassy in West Germany and execute an American (Sarah Kaplan) while being filmed by live-tv crews. Widower Charles Heller (John Savage) is no secret agent, his speciality is mathematics and decoding messages, but when the CIA intelligence forces that he works for don’t respond for political reasons, Heller takes things into his own hands by infiltrating Eastern Bloc spy-networks in the hope of finding who killed his wife. This is all rather more plausaible that usual, Heller uses his ability to hack into the CIA files to find declassified information and force the CIA to offer him some grudging support by blackmailing them; The Amateur makes a virtue of its savvy view of dirty black ops. Christopher Plummer, Marthe Keller and Arthur Hill are all names familiar to genre fans, and Robert Littell’s screenplay ducks many of the clichés expected. The Amateur seems to have been taken out of the system for some reason; just for fun, below is included a link to purchase a DVD for a cool $100 plus. Why that should be so high is an interesting question; The Amateur does a violent but professional wet job that should have left more of a cultural imprint than it did.

https://www.amazon.com/Amateur-John-Savage/dp/B0007WQGW2/ref=sr_1_3?keywords=the+amateur&qid=1564310377&s=gateway&sr=8-3

https://trakt.tv/movies/the-amateur-1981

The White Crow 2019 ***

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Ralph Fiennes clearly digs Rudolph Nureyev; for his third film as director, he’s attempted to capture the story of one of the world’s greatest dancers, which some success. Fiennes’ previous efforts (Coriolanus and The Invisible Woman) were real duffers, but with a leading man who looks the part in Oleg Ivenko, The White Crow is more than passable. The title refers to the Russian notion of otherness, of an individual who is separate from the pack; a black sheep in our parlance. Flashing back and forward to key moments in Nureyev’s life as he ponders defecting during a tour to Paris, the attempts to get under the waxen skin of the individual are fairly shallow; Nureyev rages at a toy-shop owner whose range of toy trains bore him, or glowers as his patient tutor (Fiennes) refuses to acknowledge his genius. But things pick up in the final stretch when Nureyev faces a choice to defect to the West or return to his family in Russia; the facts are compelling in these final scenes, and the choice is presented with some gravity. Anyone with a feeling for dance, and Nureyev in particular will be interested in this, and Fiennes doesn’t short-change us with the ballet scenes, which looks authentic and feel right. But much of the presentation is dull, the photography of Russia and Paris is so grim and deliberately out of focus that it’s hard to watch, and Hare’s script is dry and lack insight. But a bit like the Queen biopic, a film about this subject only needs to be halfway good to be watchable; the legend of Nureyev carries the film.

Madame Sin 1972 ***

sinProduced by Robert Wagner, this nutty spy caper takes place largely on the rather lovely and certainly picturesque Scottish island of Mull, and the tiny town of Tobermory, recognisable from the children’s tv show Balamory. Released in 1972, David Greene’s feature reflects a growing problem in Scotland; the creation of Thought Factories by criminal geniuses like Madame Sin (Bette Davis), where sound waves can be used to cleave the unwitting into two like apples, and thoughts can be implanted into unwary Polaris submarine commanders like the one played by Gordon Jackson here. For a tv movie, released to cinemas when no execs bought into the daftness on show, Madame Sin is pretty lavish stuff, with classy support from Dudley Sutton, Denholm Elliot and Space 1999’s shape-shifter Catherine Schell, and the story, while on the brisk side, is reasonably fresh, But Davis is the highlight here, clearly having fun as a Fu Manchu-style super-villainess and spitting out truly outlandish dialogue like “How would you like your submarine, gentlemen, gift wrapped?’

https://www.amazon.com/Madame-Sin-Bette-Davis/dp/B07JMM8888/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=madame+sin&qid=1562234022&s=gateway&sr=8-1

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The Looking Glass War 1970 ***

Something of a curiosity in the John le Carre stakes, this 1970 thriller gets quite a few elements right, notably the personnel at The Circus; George Smiley is dropped from the original book, but Anthony Hopkins, Sir Ralph Richardson and Paul Rogers all fit the bill as the crumpled espionage handlers with the power and life and death in their hands. The film’s centre is Leiser (Christopher Jones) a Polish defector who becaomes a pawn in international espionage games when he’s recruited to spy on East German missile sites. The first half of the film does well to suggest how and why Leiser accepts the offer, but things get a little simplistic once the mission begins, and a final bookend doesn’t quite work. Hopkins seems to have been none too impressed by Jones and his James Dean mannerisms, but it kind of works for the film that Leiser is so much of a fish out of water. The Looking Glass War feels like a compromised efffort, but with a script by le Carre himself, it springs to life whenever Hopkins and Richardson are on screeen, and Frank Pierson, director of the 1976 A Star Is Born, creates some striking compositions.