Tag Archives: spy

Kick Ass Assassins: Salt on Blu-Ray and The American on DVD


The world lacks a female super spy. Angelina Jolie has perhaps come closer than most to filling the void with her all action portrayal of sexy video game Tomb Raider Lara Croft, but this was ultimately more Indiana Jones than James Bond. Last year Phillip Noyce’s Cold War conspiracy thriller Salt, originally earmarked for Tom Cruise, morphed into a very different project altogether with the casting of Jolie as CIA agent Evelyn.

I may be veering into sexism here, but because of Jolie’s casting my expectations were drastically lowered. However I’ll defend myself with two qualifications; firstly I think of Jolie as more than merely an internationally coveted sexual icon, but as a fine and capable actress, particularly after her powerhouse performance in Clint Eastwood’s excellent Changeling. Secondly I believe I expected disappointment because of the film industry’s own sexist view of women playing action leads, rather than my own narrow and intolerant perspective on the “fairer sex”.

What I mean by this is that women rarely seem to be cast in serious mainstream action films. They’re a common feature in action comedies, such as the dire Knight and Day and Jolie’s own light-hearted romp with her equally famous and sexy spouse in Mr and Mrs Smith. But there’s no realistic and gripping female equivalent to the Bourne series, for example. Filmmakers are reluctant to showcase women, even today, as ruthless and professional killers without elements of fantasy. Watch a film about what is essentially a paid, female murderer (a “hitwoman”) and expect lots of ninja style, silly high kicking and unbelievable martial arts, alongside tight costumes, to offset such a horrific notion.

Sadly this is a formula that Salt eventually and perhaps inevitably, conforms to. The opening of the film is promising. Once we get some god awful dialogue out the way, probably ripped straight from the “how to script a film in the espionage genre” handbook, along with some forced flashbacks, we get Salt interrogating an apparent Russian defector. He drops the bombshell that there’s a sleeper agent in the CIA, and that agent is called Evelyn Salt.

Salt is dismissive at first, but all the high tech brain scans and probably some ingenious pad questioning his balls from his seat, says that he’s telling the truth. After a bit of dithering Salt decides to run, apparently out of concern for her husband, but it still seems rather daft if she really is innocent. Once she does run however, it looks as if Salt is going to be a decent film.

With the shadowy, backstabbing premise of the plot and some tense evasion of security cameras by a grey suited Jolie, Salt seems very Bourne-esque at first. And a female Bourne film would not have been such a bad thing. Boxed into an interrogation room, Salt constructs a makeshift weapon from chemicals and chairs and table legs to allow her to escape. She then flees for home to look for her husband and just avoids capture by climbing around the outside of her building. Finally she escapes the city after a standoff by jumping from truck to truck on the freeway.

During all of this action it’s easy to get swept up and the character remains believable. You sympathise with her apparent innocence and will her to succeed. But once Salt heads to New York based on information that someone will attempt to kill the Russian President at the Vice President’s funeral, the plot completely loses its way. It utterly surprised me on several occasions but purely because it becomes so absolutely ludicrous. You can no longer relate to Salt as a character and the action degenerates into ninja Jolie implausibly kicking the asses of trained security personnel in seconds.

At first I thought it was refreshing that Salt was a spy thriller based on the old Cold War rivalries and tensions. Cinemagoers could do with a little more entertainment courtesy of grand, evil schemes, rather than grim and realistic takes on Al-Qaeda. There’s nothing wrong with fantastical plots based on extravagant conspiracies and the destruction of the world, providing they’re executed plausibly. But Salt is just too farfetched and has too many holes, mainly surrounding the believability of its characters. It also strays into the absurd and hilarious; supposedly a “master of disguise” Salt looks fairly obviously like Angelina Jolie dressed as an effeminate man infiltrating the White House.

As usual with Blu-Rays, there’s a whole host of meaty special features to devour about the making of Salt. There’s a baffling section on Salt’s supposed genius as a “master of disguise” and a separate “in screen” interview with the costume designer explaining the selection process behind Jolie’s grey suit earlier in the film. Apparently it was really beneficial to visit the CIA and presumably discover they wear boring and generic corporate power suits like everyone else. The most revealing sections are interviews with Noyce and Jolie about the fact Salt was originally written for a man, which might account for some of the script’s rough and unfinished feel.

There are some pleasing references to classics of the genre in the film, for example when “defector” Orlov escapes using a blade concealed in his shoe, like Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love. But in the end Salt resembles a mishmash parody of everything it has taken influence from. It lacks originality, quality and entertainment for most of its thankfully brief 100 minute runtime.

THE AMERICAN is the sort of serious and sombre story that sadly wouldn’t get made with a woman in the title role. It’s a slow-burning meditation on the nature of being an assassin and on loneliness itself. It’s an exercise in minimalist storytelling from writer Rowan Joffe, adapting Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman, and particularly, director Anton Corbijn. With the lightest of brush strokes he paints what was, for me, an incredibly evocative and captivating picture. 

I had meant to see The American on the big screen but sadly its lack of success at the box office resulted in a short stay at my local multiplex. For critics the problem with The American is that it never truly ignites following such a tantalisingly drawn out simmering of tension. Many find it boring to sit through. But for anyone that loves the genre, the intoxicating idea of the lone assassin, or anyone that likes understated and subtle films, The American is wonderfully watchable.

In many ways George Clooney shouldn’t work in the title role. He is such a recognisable face across the globe, a brand rather than a name, that he shouldn’t convince as an unknown and elusive assassin. But Corbijn needed someone who could act without words and Clooney delivers a master class. When there is dialogue Clooney enthuses it with charisma; it oozes enigmatic intrigue. When the camera is entirely reliant on Clooney’s movements a pained expression, a cold glance or a precise gesture speaks more than a page of script ever could.  This has been hailed by some as the best performance of Clooney’s career for a reason. We’ve never seen him laid bare like this; robbed of the charm and the cheeky grin.

More than anything else The American is beautiful. Its soundtrack is haunting, atmospheric and touching. Every other shot would make an arty still in a gallery; in Corbijn’s second picture after the acclaimed biopic Control, his background as a photographer is constantly evident. Clooney’s character chooses photography as his cover and there’s something about the parallels of precise skill and solitude between pictures and killing that’s endlessly fascinating. Indeed the subtlety of the storytelling really lets you think about its themes whilst enjoying the gorgeous visuals and the sexy girls.

The loneliness of existence is there in every furrow of Clooney’s focused face; the life of the assassin is the perfect lens for examining anyone’s existential angst. His character makes meagre relationships that wouldn’t satisfy many human beings, and yet they prove too much and too risky for his secretive profession. Despite the reports of boredom and never-ending build-up, I thought that the restrained action punctuated the plot well and the climax of the simple story was suitably engrossing.

In many ways Salt and The American both take “old school” approaches to a familiar genre; Salt with its outlandish Cold War plot and The American with its focus on an age old character, complete with soul searching scenes with a priest. The undoubted difference between the films though is a sumptuous and sexy style and quality that makes The American infinitely more interesting than Jolie’s briefly entertaining foray into the world of espionage.

Bond’s first lady Judi to return


Judi Dench has confirmed to reporters at the South Bank Sky Arts Awards, where she bagged an award, that Daniel Craig’s James Bond will be getting his number one girl back in the forthcoming adventure. She confirmed her involvement after the film was officially announced earlier this month. Pressed for any inside news at all about the production, the chief of MI6 remained characteristically secretive. All she would say was how excited she was to be working with Daniel Craig again, and Sam Mendes, who has directed her in theatre.

This will be Dench’s seventh Bond film as his severe, disapproving boss, M. Prior to her appointment for Pierce Brosnan’s 1995 debut, Goldeneye, M had always been a man. Producers, writers and directors all grappled with the idea of M as a woman. Perhaps ultimately the decision was made because no man could live up to the figure of Bernard Lee, who simply became the embodiment of Fleming’s creation of M in the first eleven Bond movies.

Since her first moments on screen, reprimanding Bond’s bravado and warning she’ll only use the 00 section sparingly, Dench appears to have justified the filmmaker’s decision and won over fans. Producer Barbara Broccoli, daughter of Cubby, said of Dench’s casting:

“Our instinct was if we were going to cast M as a woman, we needed to find an actress who could be totally believable and not cartoonish. Our fear was that it would be laughable and the big thing was to get someone of the calibre of Judi Dench to play the role. And because M is the only authoritative figure in Bond’s life, the casting of a woman as M gave the relationship a whole new dimension.”

Dench’s opening scene with Brosnan in Goldeneye left the audience in no doubt that a female M was not laughable, at least in itself. The script was wise not to gloss over the fact as if nothing had happened, with Bond’s teasing lines humorously, but brutally knocked back by M: “If you think for one moment I don’t have the balls to send a man out to die, your instincts are dead wrong”. She also tells Bond he’s a “relic of the Cold War”.

Director Martin Campbell was aware of the pros of having Dench as M. He was told by studio head John Calley prior to Goldeneye, after floating the prospect of a female M, that “You need a star! You need someone with incredible screen presence, how about Judi Dench?” Campbell was so impressed with her performance in his first film that there was no question of dropping her, despite the complete reboot of the franchise, when he helmed Daniel Craig’s first outing Casino Royale in 2006. Costume designer for that film, Lindy Hemming, hailed Dench as a “brilliant piece of casting” and reveals in The Art of Bond by Laurent Bouzereau, that they made M’s costume “a bit more sexy” for Craig’s first film. Bond changes with the times and by this stage, not only was it modern for women to be in positions of power, but it was the norm for them to be expressive and natural in these roles.

What more can be done with Dench’s character though? Even Daniel Craig is slowly outgrowing the franchise, so surely Dench cannot stay in the role indefinitely? This could even be her last film. Glowing comments about her performances as M, like those above, make it difficult to consider replacing her though. Would M become a man again, played by an actor of similar clout? In The World is Not Enough, Pierce Brosnan, according to director Michael Apted, repeatedly asked for M’s role to be “beefed up” to give him more screen time with Judi. This led to the ambitious plot of M being kidnapped by terrorist Renard, played by Robert Carlyle. If M were to leave, she’d need a suitably huge story.

Bond needs a proper adventure and challenge anyway, after the gap between the disappointing Quantum of Solace and the as yet untitled, Bond 23, due to start filming later this year for a 2012 release. Casino Royale made it clear the best stories come when built upon Fleming’s original tales in a modern context. One tantalising, but difficult to execute, story never realised by filmmakers is a brainwashed Bond attempting to assassinate M. This comes from Fleming’s final Bond book, The Man with The Golden Gun, and was never used in the drastically altered film of the same name. This set-piece in the novel is the highlight of an otherwise disappointing final bow for the literary 007. It would need revamping, rooted as it is in the Cold War era of Soviet mind tricks, but you get the feeling a gritty, deluded Bond storyline would suit Daniel Craig’s hungrier acting abilities down to the ground if properly set-up. It could also be fantastic and bold on film. But the problem for the franchise would be how could Bond continue as 007 after being demoralised and duped into trying to kill his own boss?

Whatever the script writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan come up with, the trend has been more and more M in recent years. I look forward to some frosty and prickly dialogue in Bond 23.

James Bond will (FINALLY) return…


Big news. Bond is back. Well he’s on his way. After all the financial uncertainty surrounding the fall from grace of MGM, the 23rd Bond adventure, and Daniel Craig’s third outing as the suave secret agent, will be released on the 9th of November 2012. Yup it’s still quite the wait for 007 fanatics, myself included. But on the plus side a larger gap between films in the past tends to produce more satisfying results.

The recent road has undoubtedly been rocky for the seemingly unsinkable franchise. Few ever seriously feared it was the end of Bond forever, but it was looking a real possibility that Daniel Craig might not get the chance to make amends for the disappointments of Quantum of Solace in the famed tuxedo. The actor who kicked 007 back into shape with a leaner, moodier spy in 2006’s Casino Royale reboot, following Pierce Brosnan’s dismal, ludicrously fantastical final straw Die Another Day in 2002 (complete with invisible car), has been in great demand and taking on heaps of work. This year Cowboys vs Aliens is an anticipated release and Craig is also due to play a key role in David Fincher’s reworking of Scandinavian hit The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.  He’s now finally confirmed to reprise his role as Bond to the relief of most fans.

Elsewhere production problems have also hit the most important ingredient; the script. Peter Morgan, writer of Frost/Nixon and The Queen, was signed to work on the 23rd adventure last year, only for his involvement to end before it really began due to the MGM crisis. Now attached to the project are regular scribes Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, as well as new addition American John Logan. Logan was responsible for the script for Edward Zwick’s Tom Cruise epic The Last Samurai and also helped with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator screenplay. He’ll replace Paul Haggis, who’s been the third contributor for the first two Craig movies. The fan community will have mixed reactions to the departure of Haggis. On the one hand he seemed to make a real difference for getting back Bond’s Ian Fleming roots in Casino Royale. But recently he’s only masterminded turkeys as a director in Hollywood and has sought to take his new emotional additions to Bond too far, with rumours of his preference for a plot involving a baby and lost son in 2008’s Quantum of Solace, which were rejected.

Most of the blame for Quantum of Solace is now pinned on director Marc Forster. He talked a good game about the importance of story prior to the film’s release, only for the 22nd film to look great and start well, but to ultimately lead to a disappointing villain and rushed plot. The criticisms aimed at him are probably too harsh and a recent article in The Telegraph makes a good point that Bond is not a director’s franchise; the producers, the writers and the cast are more influential to a film’s success. However considerable interest and opinion was still inevitably generated by the eventual confirmation of Sam Mendes as director for Daniel Craig’s third Bond picture. Mendes too was in doubt after initially agreeing to direct the picture, due to other work commitments, with an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach starring Carey Mulligan rumoured in the press and fuelled by comments from the author. Many Bond fans view Mendes as too arty like Forster and would rather see the film in the hands of a seasoned action director like Martin Campbell, who helmed Goldeneye and Casino Royale.

Having said this most fans recognise the franchise needs to continue along the new path set by Craig’s Casino Royale, whilst being considerably better than Quantum of Solace. The problem now is the lack of original Ian Fleming source material to work from, which leads to weaker, predictable plots. There’s a difference of opinion as to the best way of overcoming the weaknesses of Quantum: does the franchise return to a more classic format with a dastardly villain hatching world domination, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of first Dr No in 2012, or do something new again? Whatever the answer, with a release date now firmly set in stone, the rumour mill will once again start churning at full speed. So far the only concrete casting rumour is that of Simon Russell Beale in a “good guy” role. But these shall only multiply until every attractive actress around is linked to the untitled film. And of course that’s the biggest question of all; what will the latest 007 adventure be called? Only a handful of Fleming story titles remain unused; The Property of a Lady? Risico? My money’s on the former. Bring on 2012!

Spooks returns tonight!


With no Doctor Who to look forward to on British television screens each Saturday I have been despairing that there is no serial drama in which to immerse myself. A good weekly show with a strong, engaging narrative arc can allow me to escape the troubles of life for an hour, completely losing oneself in the characters and then having something to look forward to through the mundane disappointments and lows of the next week. With the return of the ever reliable and amusing New Tricks on Fridays to BBC1 my cravings were eased, but now the MI5 spy drama Spooks returns to our screens, starting this Monday at 9pm. Whilst New Tricks is well acted and comforting it is rather samey TV. Spooks has that rare dusting of glamour and exciting action for a British series, as well as being bold enough to reinvent itself each time it returns. In Spooks no character is safe from being killed off and the tense action usually plays out against tantalising shots of the sophisticated London skyline. Tonight’s opening episode of the ninth series takes place in Tangiers however and as ever introduces a raft of new characters and plotlines.

Richard Armitage, who played Guy of Gisbourne in the BBC’s Robin Hood series, has taken well to the spy drama playing Lucas North, a mysterious figure who returned from the cold of Russian imprisonment to effectively replace Adam Carter, Spooks’ long term leading man played by Rupert Penry-Jones. Replacing Jones was no mean feat but in the last series Armitage managed it, convincingly playing the disturbed, Bond like key man of Section D. This new series looks set to focus on the character of Lucas and may represent an interesting new direction for Spooks more focused on the personal story of one man, as opposed to new, distinct terrorist threats being dramatically thwarted each week. The exotic location of the first episode sets a more James Bond like tone of action and isolation for the spies, with Armitage saying in interviews that this series will delve into the questions of identity surrounding the operatives. The new series is also stripped of Hermoine Norris, who played Ros, a character I always found slightly annoying, and especially so by the end. Norris’ version of a spy always seemed a cold, uninteresting caricature. Constants like Ruth and Harry, and Harry’s relationship with his political masters are welcome leftovers however. Below is a trailer for the first episode, I hope it lives up to expectations!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vde3_saF0GE