Sunday, May 31, 2009

Review: THE MATT HELM LOUNGE

While I much prefer the books over the films, the Matt Helm movies are fun, too. Fortunately, a few years back, Sony was thoughtful enough to release all of the Helm flicks on DVD in a nice, four-disc boxed set called The Matt Helm Lounge.

Clearly the direct inspiration for Mike Meyer's "Austin Powers" series, the four Matt Helm movies are (very) loosely based on an excellent series of hardboiled novels by author Donald Hamilton. However, producer Irving Allen and star Martin managed to transform the cold-blooded assassin of the novels into, well, basically an extension of Dean Martin's established public persona. Womanizing, laid-back and liable to start crooning, drop a double entendre or down a double martini with the slightest provocation, Martin's super spy was a lounge lizard in an ill-fitting turtleneck, saving the world casually between cocktails.

Not to say the films are without merit, though; they may not be up to the standards of the rival Bond series, but they're fun and funny, loaded with Rat Pack in-jokes and populated with some of the most beautiful femme fatales in the genre. These include Stella Stevens, Daliah Lavi, Cyd Charisse, Ann-Margaret, Senta Berger, Sharon Tate, Tina Louise and Nancy Kwan, among many others.

Here's a quick rundown of the four films:

The Silencers (1966). The only flick in the box set previously released on DVD, this is the exact same disc Sony put out a few years previously – only now it's a lot cheaper. In the first of the series, directed by Phil Karlson, Matt Helm comes out of retirement, rejoins ICE (a top secret American spy agency) and sets out to foil the plans of Tung-Tze (Victor Buono) and his organization Big "O." The film is presented in a colorful, if slightly weathered 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and includes trailers for unrelated Columbia discs.

Murderer's Row (1966). In this second film, directed by Henry Levin, Helm heads for the Riviera and teams up with the incredibly sexy Ann-Margret to stop Karl Malden from destroying Washington D.C. with a heat ray. A rather fun hovercraft chase is the highlight of this one (well, that and Ann Margret's go-go dancing). Row is presented in a crisp 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and includes trailers for The Ambushers and a couple unrelated Columbia comedy discs.

The Ambushers (1967). This third film, again directed by Levin, is generally considered the weakest in the series, with Helm heading for Mexico in search of an American-built flying saucer that can only be piloted by women. Martin – and everybody else in this film – seems tired, and the plot plods along with very little pizazz. Martin's stunt doubles are more obvious than usual and the climactic chase is presented entirely with the stars in front of poorly-aligned rear-projection screens. The disc features a solid 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and assorted trailers.

The Wrecking Crew (1968). Things pick up a bit with the final Helm flick, as original director Phil Karlson returns to the series, and injects a little more wit and energy. This time, Helm's off to Copenhagen in search of a stolen trainload of gold, and is accompanied by the beautiful Sharon Tate. Future B-film star Chuck Norris has a blink-and-you'll-miss-him cameo as one of the villain's thugs and Bruce Lee was the movie's "Karate Consultant." Another film, The Ravagers, is announced in the end credits, but was never made, as Dean turned his attentions to his TV variety show (which only required him to work one day a week). The extras and technical specs are identical to the other discs: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and Columbia trailers.

The four movies come packaged in two space-efficient slim packs tucked into a cardboard slipcase. Be warned, though, the packaging has the four films in the wrong order. It doesn't matter much as there's no continuity to speak of, but the list above is correct.

• This review was originally written for my DVD Late Show column (now appearing at Forces of Geek) back when the DVD set was originally released.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Spy-Fi Flashback: MATT HELM

While I am a huge fan of Ian Fleming and his creation, James Bond, my absolute favorite fictional spy is American agent Matt Helm, created by Donald Hamilton within the pages of a long-running paperback adventure series. Suspenseful, fast-moving, with a decidedly dark sense of humor, the Matt Helm series is notable not only for its exceptional quality but its unusual longevity.

Beginning with Death Of A Citizen in 1960, and ending with 1993's The Damagers, Matt Helm starred in one of the finest hard-boiled adventure series ever written. Cynical, violent, and extremely well-plotted, the Matt Helm series outlasted its many contemporaries, with World War II veteran Helm moving beyond the Cold War intrigues of the Sixties to continue defending his country's interests (and bedding beautiful young betrayers) well into the Nineties. But despite the frequently applied label, Helm isn't a spy. He is, quite simply, a government assassin, and he's very good at his job.

Helm is introduced in the first novel, Death Of A Citizen as a World War II veteran who worked as an assassin behind enemy lines. Helm is brought back into government service when Communist agents attempt to manipulate the now-civilian author of Western novels (like Hamilton himself) and professional photographer into helping them in their sinister schemes by kidnapping his young daughter. Needless to say, Helm rescues his offspring, but in such a brutal, ruthless manner that his wife is shocked and terrified by the monster she's married. She leaves him and Helm returns to his old work, now for an unnamed government agency run by his former military commander, a man known only as Mac.

A series about a professional killer might present problems for some readers, but Hamilton's a sharp guy, and manages to keep the audience squarely in Helm's corner by making sure that the expert marksman stays firmly on the side of the angels. Rarely is Helm used as a political assassin; instead, he's designated as a "counter-assassination agent," assigned primarily to execute other professionals in his own field. In the Cold War Sixties and Seventies, these are usually Communist killers, whose targets are often American scientists; but come the Eighties and Nineties, his opponents tend to be in the employ of fictional terrorist organizations from around the world.

Fans of tough-guy protagonists won't find a harder hardcase than Helm; cold, efficient, and professional (with a professional's disdain for amateurs), but endowed with a wide variety of interesting – and consistent – character traits and quirks that keep him from being just an emotionless killing machine. Among the more notable: a strong affection for dogs, especially the hunting breeds; an aesthetic dislike of women who wear pants (although he softened his views on this as the series hit its third decade); little patience for idealistic young women (and men) who can't stand violence (and who usually end up betraying him before the book is done); and a remarkable, nearly superhuman, ability to withstand tremendous physical abuse.

During the James Bond craze of the mid-to-late Sixties, Columbia Pictures produced a quartet of "Matt Helm" spy spoofs, beginning with The Silencers (1966). Very loosely based on Hamilton's novels (using the titles, a few character names, and locations), these colorful, if ludicrous, comedy adventures starred Rat Packer Dean Martin as a perpetually inebriated American secret agent. Totally miscast, Martin bore no resemblance whatsoever to Hamilton's tall, lanky outdoorsman, (I've always felt that Clint Eastwood in his prime would have been perfect for the role) but at least two of the movies are genuinely entertaining as spy spoofs, and there's no denying that the featured femmes (which included Stella Stevens, Ann Margaret, Sharon Tate, Tina Louise and Daliha Lavi, among others) were of a very high caliber, indeed.

Now, the Matt Helm franchise might be poised for a comeback. According to the Hollywood trades, the long-rumored new Helm film series has fallen under the producing auspices of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, the writing team behind the recent Star Trek relaunch and the Transformers films. They do have some solid spy-fi cred, too, as they wrote the third Mission: Impossible movie and were the story editors/frequent script writers on J.J. Abram's Alias.

Although I'm (appropriately, I think) cynical about any updated film series being able to capture the distinct tone and unique characterization of Hamilton's work, I'm willing to keep an open mind on the subject. I can, after all, enjoy the Dean Martin films on their own breezy, swinging terms, and maybe a new movie will turn out okay. The key will be casting, I think.

Anyway, we still have the books. If you haven't read them, I highly recommend cruising the online booksellers and ordering a few.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Review: A MAN CALLED SLOANE - "Masquerade of Terror"

The fourth episode of A Man Called Sloane is a pretty good one. "Masquerade of Terror" begins when Jeremy Mason (veteran heavy Richard Lynch), a master of disguise and old enemy of T.R. Sloane's, escapes from prison. KARTEL hires him to impersonate a U.S. general in order to steal a top secret laser satellite system known as Seeker.

UNIT's only lead to Mason is a nightclub dancer he's obsessed with named Linda Daniels (LaVelda Fann). Sloane and Torque keep her under watch, waiting for Mason to make contact, but they don't have to wait long before Mason, in disguise, kidnaps her right from under their noses.

The episode has two intertwining plots: Mason wants revenge on Sloane for putting him away, and KARTEL wants to use Seeker to assassinate a visiting African dignitary. Actually, the realization of the Seeker satellite weapon is pretty cool. Unlike the laser satellites seen in Diamonds Are Forever or Real Genius, the Seeker homes in on its targets with small targeting discs. These discs have to be placed on or in the designated targets, but it makes it impossible for the orbiting weapon to miss.

Richard Lynch is awesomely evil as usual, and makes a very formidable foil for Sloane. His ability to whip up Mission: Impossible-styled disguises using only standard make-up is unbelievable, but it's a classic spy-fi trope. LaVelda (as she is billed in this episode) is a lovely woman and has genuine chemistry with Conrad. She dances great, too!

This one's a lot of fun, and probably the best in the series so far.

• Lavelda is Robert Conrad's wife, and according to her IMDb page, she has pretty much only acted in her husband's productions, including guest roles on The Duke, High Sierra Search & Rescue and the TV movie Sworn to Vengeance.

KNIGHT & GALE - Declassified

Here are some more drawings from the proposed Knight & Gale comic book series. These first two are the original character designs by artist Brad Gorby. Unfortunately, Brad retired from drawing comics shortly after agreeing to work up these sketches.

As you can see, these drawings are dated '97, which shows you just how long I've been trying to get this project off the ground. I'm nothing if not tenacious.

The next piece shows artist Rick Hoberg's interpretation of the characters – not only Derek Knight and Scarlett Gale, but some of their adversaries, as well. Rick's a veteran comic book artist (All-Star Squadron, Batman) and animation storyboard artist. He saw Derek Knight as less Sean Connery and more Rupert Everett (with blond hair).
The Russian chick in the Emma Peel catsuit was modeled after familiar Sixties spy vixen Daliah Lavi. Dr. Gologotha was our obligatory skeletal, albino mad scientist. As for Mr. and Mrs. Dragos, I thought it would be interesting to not only have married heroes, but married villains, as well. The Dragos command the international criminal empire called DOMINION.

That's it. I won't force any more of this stuff on you (unless, of course, I manage to resurrect it and sell it to a publisher!). I do have another spy-fi comics project gestating, however, and I may preview that here, one of these days...

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Review: NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN Blu-Ray

One of the biggest surprises of this year so far has been the unexpected release of the 1983 rogue Bond film, Never Say Never Again as a special edition DVD and Blu-Ray disc by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

The story behind the making of Never Say Never Again is a long and twisted one, dating back to 1950's and Ian Fleming's earliest efforts to bring James Bond to the cinema. But in 1983, entertainment lawyer/producer Jack Schwartzman managed to successfully navigate all the various legal hazards and lured Sean Connery back into Bond's tuxedo.

Originally intended to be released in direct competition with the Roger Moore 007 entry, Octopussy, in a "Battle of the Bonds," Never was ultimately released a few months after its rival, to moderate box office success. I fondly remember going to the see the movie in the theater, and how excited I was to see it, and still consider it to be one of the better Bond movies of the Eighties.

For legal reasons, the plot is more-or-less an updated remake of Thunderball, but in my opinion, it plays quite well, despite that. I actually like the creative choice to acknowledge the character's advancing years (Connery was in his early 50's at the time), especially since the official series was steadfastly ignoring Moore's obvious middle age. NSNA actually makes Bond's age a plot point, and ultimately makes a pretty strong anti-ageism statement as he proves that he may run a bit slower and get winded a bit more quickly, but can still get the job done – and get the girl. The pace is brisk (though it does drag a bit in the middle) and the cast is generally excellent. Klaus Maria Brandauer's Largo is a delightfully psychotic villain, the young Kim Basinger portrays a better-than-average Bond girl, and Barbara Carrera's sultry femme fatale, Fatima Blush, is one of the very best Bond bad girls ever. I also really enjoy Bernie Casey's portrayal of Bond's CIA buddy, Felix Lieter.

Because NSNA was a rogue production, it's always been treated pretty shabbily on video (aside from a nice Warners laserdisc), especially after it was acquired by MGM (holders of the rights to the official series). It's prior DVD release was a bare-bones edition with a very blah – if thankfully, widescreen – transfer. Unlike all the other Bond DVDs, there were no special features – no commentary tracks or behind-the-scenes featurettes. Fortunately, for this new edition, all that has been somewhat rectified.

The NSNA Special Edition features a stunning new, hi-def anamorphic widescreen transfer that appears to be flawless, accompanied by a new, robust, 5.1 DTS audio mix. There's a commentary track by director Irvin Kirschner and Bond expert Steven Jay Rubin, three behind-the-scene featurettes, the very 80's theatrical trailer and a photo gallery. Kirschner has annoying habit of just describing what's playing out on the screen, but Rubin does manage to draw some interesting information about the production out of the director. The featurettes gloss over the twisted legal history of the production somewhat, but they're informative and entertaining.

Personally, I'm thrilled that someone decided to revisit this title on disc, and grateful that they did such a fine job on the presentation. As I said, I like the film a lot – not necessarily a popular position among 007 fans – and really enjoyed visiting it again on Blu-Ray.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Video: Before He Was Bond

Around the time that Pierce Brosnan was first courted for the role of James Bond, he made this amusing commercial for Diet Coke. You know what makes it Eighties awesome, though?

Ninjas.

• Of course, a decade later, after Goldeneye, Pierce starred in several Bondian commercials, both domestic and foreign, including a famous Visa Check Card commercial that aired around the time of Tomorrow Never Dies, co-starring the late Desmond Llewelyn.

Review: A MAN CALLED SLOANE - "Tuned For Destruction"

In re-watching this series, I'm struck by just how bad Thomas Remington Sloane is at maintaining a cover. In each of the first three episodes, his undercover identities are completely blown within minutes of meeting his opponents — or sometimes even their underlings! Well, I guess it's difficult suppress your natural persona and pose as someone else when you're as cool as T.R. Sloane!

Anyway, in the third episode, "Tuned For Destruction," UNIT agents Sloane and Torque are pitted against a rogue ex-general named "Wild Bill" McAvoy (the always reliable Geoffrey Lewis), and his personal aide-de-camp, Corporal Comfort (pretty soap opera vet Denise Duberry), who are using a newly-invented sonic, amped-up tuning fork "Metal Debilitator" (which can create instant metal fatigue in metal objects like safes, gates, etc.) to penetrate the defenses of a government facility in order to steal a nuclear bomb.

Of course, Sloane attempts to infiltrate McAvoy's private army by posing as a merc, only to be exposed immediately, and moments later Torque – who had snuck into the villain's compound to back-up Sloane – is also captured... and his cybernetic hand disintegrated by the Metal Debilitator!

The boys ultimately escape and foil the plot, and there's a great helicopter-to-moving-halftrack transfer stunt by Conrad's stunt double to liven up the final act. There's also a pretty decent martial arts fight in the opening scene between Conrad (who appears to be doing most of the fighting himself) and an Asian mercenary.

Interestingly, McAvoy is revealed to be working for the organization KARTEL – a mysterious group of war profiteers and arms merchants first mentioned in the TV movie pilot, T.R. Sloane (a/k/a Death Ray 2000).

• This is one of two Sloane episodes penned by Dick Nelson, whose other spy-fi writing credits include episodes of It Takes A Thief and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Man From C.O.B.R.A.S.

Well, this blog has only been active for a week, and already I've been invited to join and subsequently inducted into a secret organization! Well, not so secret – C.O.B.R.A.S. (Coalition Of Bloggers wRiting Abut Spies) is pretty well-known among the more web-savvy espionage aficionados, but it does have a great spy-fi acronym!

Other members of this elite organization include Armstrong Sabian (Mister 8), "Tanner" (Double O Section), Paul Bishop (Bish's Beat), Jason Whiton (Spy Vibe), Wes Britton (Spywise), and our man down under, David Foster (Permission to Kill). Each C.O.B.R.A.S. agent has their own style and slant on the subject matter, and all of their blogs have been on my daily rounds for a long time.

Now, this site doesn't have the in-depth reviews, up-to-the-minute news and detailed analysis that those guys specialize in; all I have to offer are my very personal memories and gut reactions to the spy-fi stuff I love. Considering that, I'm honored that they consider me worthy to join their ranks.

KNIGHT & GALE - "A Cold Day In Hell"

For more than a decade now, I've been trying to bring to fruition a Spy-Fi comic book of my own. Sort of a "happy ending" version of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Knight & Gale is about an British ex-superspy who falls in love with and marries an American heiress. Inspired in large part by Dashiell Hammett's classic novel The Thin Man and the William Powell/Myrna Loy movies based on it, K&G was to chronicle the ongoing adventures of the couple as they kept finding themselves embroiled in world-threatening plots.

At various times, I persuaded different artists to draw up some character designs to help pitch the project, but it never sold. No publisher has ever shown interest in it, in part because it features a happily married couple.

Anyway, four years ago, I did manage to interest veteran comic book artist Rick Hoberg in drawing an online comic version, 16 pages of which were completed and posted online at a site called Komikwerks as part of a paid subscription plan. Matt Webb was the colorist. Unfortunately, the strip failed to generate any income and Rick went back to animation. The first story, "Cold Day in Hell," was never completed.

Oh well, maybe someday. In the meantime, those first 16 pages are archived here.

Spy-Fi Flashback: MOONRAKER

I am very fond of the James Bond film Moonraker, which made its debut thirty years ago this month. While it's generally regarded as one of the weaker films in the 007 canon, I find it difficult to find too much fault with it. It's just too important a part of my life-long obsession with spy-fi films and fiction for me to be too critical of it.

I was fifteen when the movie came out, already a die-hard fan of science fiction and space-oriented films, and coverage of the movie in Starlog truly whetted my appetite. I had also just recently seen my first Bond film, Goldfinger, on HBO, so the prospect of seeing a 007 flick on the big screen was very exciting.

In the weeks leading up to its premiere, I picked up the Warren tie-in magazine, the fold-out poster magazine published by the Starlog folks, and the Jove Books novelization by screenwriter Christopher Wood. I also purchased and built the Moonraker space shuttle model. So when I went to the theater that fateful evening in May of 1979, I was pretty much predisposed to love the film.

For this 15 year-old, Moonraker had everything I could possibly want in a movie: space shuttles, beautiful women, exciting stunts and special effects, and most of all, a cool, suave, unflappable hero with a decidedly juvenile wit.

Moonraker was the first Bond film I saw in the theater, and I haven't missed one since. And while Goldfinger made me a Bond fan, it was Moonraker that made me a fanatic. I still love it.

Sure, I wince now at Jaws' (Richard Kiel) ridiculous antics and his goofy romance sub-subplot, and Lois Chiles' performance as Dr. Holly Goodhead, NASA astronaut cum CIA agent, is astoundingly robotic... but she is quite lovely. And say what you will about the movie's faults – it looks spectacular (especially on Blu-Ray), with some of Ken Adam's most imaginative sets. Also, director Lewis Gilbert really keeps the film moving at a brisk pace. It's never boring and nearly always entertaining. On top of all that, it has John Barry's best Bond score of the 1970's.

Roger Moore looks great and has a couple of very effective scenes. The centrifuge sequence is a stand-out, and he even manages to give some weight and suspense to the video game climax.

By the time For Your Eyes Only came out two years later, I had seen many more 007 films on ABC TV, and had decided that I liked the more down-to earth, grittier Bond films better than the more fantastic ones. I had also decided that Sean Connery was the superior James Bond. I still believe that. But – you know, I really like Sir Roger, and sometimes I'm just in the mood for the more far out flix.

• I still have my Warren tie-in magazine, poster magazine and paperback novelization. In fact, I really like the novel a great deal. Wood follows his own screenplay, of course, but still manages a fair approximation of Ian Fleming's style and characterization. His Spy Who Loved Me novelization is quite good, as well.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Review: A MAN CALLED SLOANE - "The Seduction Squad"

In the second episode of A Man Called Sloane (although, from the amount of footage in this episode that is incorporated into the series titles, it was probably shot first), "The Seduction Squad," Sloane and Torque are investigating acts of industrial sabotage that threaten the country's defense contractors. Eventually, it turns out that important industrial and military figures have been seduced and hypnotically brainwashed by the supermodel operatives of a slightly fey fashion and cosmetics king played by I Spy's Robert Culp.

Sloane and Torque go through the usual motions here, and aside from an action-packed opening scene featuring Sybil Danning, explosions and a great stunt, it's not a particularly involving episode. The women are pretty hot, though, 80's big hair and all, and Culp's clearly having fun, camping it up as the heavy.

Anthony Eisley, of the Eurospy flick, Lightning Bolt, and Robert Conrad's co-star on Hawaiian Eye, shows up here as a Defense Department bigwig who is brainwashed into nearly starting WWIII.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Video: ONCE UPON A SPY (1980)


Here are the opening titles to the 1980 television movie/pilot Once Upon A Spy, starring Ted Danson (just prior to finding stardom on Cheers) and Mary Louise Weller, guest starring Christopher Lee (imagine this) as the villain.

The teleplay is by Hammer Films veteran Jimmy Sangster, who, along with his many horror credits, scripted a number of spy-fi projects, including the 1979 telefilm The Billion Dollar Threat and the 1967 classic Deadlier Than The Male.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Review: A MAN CALLED SLOANE – "Night of the Wizard"

In the debut episode of the 1979 series, A Man Called Sloane, top level UNIT agent Thomas Remington Sloane (Robert Conrad) is investigating the thefts of "K3" plutonium pellets from the U.S. government.

As it turns out, the thefts have been arranged by Manfred Baranoff (the great Roddy McDowall), a mad scientist building a private army of super-strong androids. Posing as a mercenary thief with K3 pellets to sell, Sloane attempts to infiltrate McDowall's organization, only to have his cover immediately blown, and is captured. With the help of pretty Sara Nightingale (Diane Stilwell), an artist employed by Baranoff to sculpt his android's faces, Sloane escapes from his force field prison.

In a nice twist, Sloane discovers Baranoff's body lying on the floor of a now-empty laboratory – the scientist has been murdered by one of his own creations, a "perfect" android named Alexander (Chris Marlowe). Alexander takes command of the other 'droids, and plans an assault on a scientific laboratory, where he plans to secure enough radioactive material to power himself and his army forever.

It's a fun little bit of Seventies spy-fi fluff, with a nicely layered performance – as usual – from McDowall. Sloane's towering, bionic partner Torque (Ji-Tu Cumbuka) has little-to-nothing to do in this episode, however.

Probably because I grew up as a science fiction fan in the Seventies (i.e. "The Roger Moore Years"), I find that I am very fond of the more sci-fi spy-fi; androids and death rays are so much more exotic (and fun) McGuffins than dreary old "secret documents" or mundane nuclear warheads. I love the more down-to-earth, realistic spy stories, too, but I'm not a snob.

The title of this Sloane episode is reminiscent of the episode titles on The Wild Wild West, which all began with the words "The Night of...," and specifically, the title of the first Dr. Loveless episode, "The Night The Little Wizard Shook the World." Coincidence?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I AM NOT A NUMBER!

A major hole in my Spy-Fi collection was filled this past weekend when I was finally able to purchase A&E's 40th Anniversary Collector's Edition of the Patrick McGoohan series, The Prisoner.

For years I've tried to collect the series – first on VHS and then on DVD, but for some reason, I never managed to accumulate more than a small fraction of the series' seventeen episodes. Fortunately, I finally managed to stumble upon a previously-viewed (i.e. "used") complete box set at a time when I actually had the cash to pay for it. My wife and I have been watching an episode each evening, and I'm finding the show even stranger than I remembered.

I first read about the series in Starlog magazine around 1977, and soon after, it started airing on our local PBS affiliate. I watched it whenever I could, but there are several episodes I have never seen. I'm looking forward to remedying that sad state of affairs.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Review: LIGHTNING BOLT DVD

Of the few Sixties Eurospy films I've seen, one of my favorites is Antonio Margherti's Lightning Bolt, which stars Anthony Eisley of Hawaiian Eye fame and Mighty Gorga infamy.

I've owned a horrible, hideously pan-and-scanned full-frame VHS copy of this flick for years, and even with that tape's low quality, I enjoyed the movie a lot. Still, I kept hoping that someone would put out a good version of the film on video, preferably in its correct aspect ratio. I didn't know what that ratio should be, but my tape certainly wasn't right.

Anyway, Media Blasters has just released an anamorphic widescreen version of this deliriously demented spy-fi romp on DVD. Unfortunately, to get it, you have to purchase the RareFlix Triple Feature Vol. 4 boxed set, which also includes two other movies, both of which are virtually unwatchable. Still, the retail price of the set is only around $20 bucks. I paid $15 at Best Buy, five bucks less than I paid for my crappy VHS edition back in the early 90s.

This 1966 Spanish-Italian thriller, also known as Operation Goldman, pits American secret agent Harry Sennett against a diabolical brewmaster (who looks like a cross between Goldfinger and Oddjob!) who is sabotaging the U.S. space effort from his secret underwater base somewhere off the coast of (a surprisingly mountainous) Florida. The villain is planning to place a laser cannon on the moon, and is making sure that NASA doesn't get there first.

Sleazy Sennett is an unusual secret agent; instead of a gun, he carries a checkbook, and backed by an unlimited expense account, he uses it to buy information (no dreary detective work for Harry) – and to bribe his adversaries (beats bruising his knuckles!). He does have a few nifty spy gadgets, however – the obligatory geiger counter watch that doubles as a homing transmitter, and a gas-spewing pen. He claims to hate violence – hence, no gun – but proves to be quite adept at Roger Moore-styled fake karate when pitted against ski-masked goons. Also, for some reason, Sennett narrates the film in a private eye-styled voice over!

The movie starts out a bit slow, but picks up nicely at the halfway point. The villain's geothermal-powered underwater lair is actually pretty cool, considering the low budget (and predating the underwater base of The Spy Who Loved Me by a decade). Less successful, though, is the Spanish seaside trying to pass for Florida's Cape Kennedy.

The print on new DVD from Media Blasters/RareFlix is considerably better than any previous version I've seen. The widescreen presentation improves the viewing experience considerably, and colors are bright (especially striking is Sennett's crimson Jaguar.). The print is far from pristine, with lots of specks, scratches and other minor print damage, but it's very watchable, on a par with Dorado Films' 077 Eurospy discs. The disc also includes the original theatrical trailer, and it's in good shape.

Now, as a fan of Eurospsy flicks and this Eurospy flick in particular, I felt it was worth the $15 bucks to add it to my library. I'm going to probably toss or trade the other two discs (some unfunny 70's comedy called Boogie Vision and a 2005 dull-as-dirt crime flick called Transformed, which sells itself as a Fred Williamson flick, though The Hammer's only got a cameo).

Here's the trailer (though not the nice widescreen one from the disc):

Review: THE RETURN OF THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. DVD

My first experience with secret agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin came in the form of several The Man From U.N.C.L.E. paperback novels that I acquired from used book stores as a teenager, shortly after discovering the world of spy fiction courtesy of Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm and Ian Fleming's James Bond novels. The U.N.C.L.E. books – especially those by author David McDaniels – were among my favorites, even if they lacked the steamy sexual content of those Nick Carter Killmaster paperbacks that so appealed to my adolescent prurient interests. Obviously, from those tie-in paperbacks, I knew that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had been a television series back when I was an infant, but it didn't air in syndication in our market, so I never got to see an episode until years later.

In fact, my first viewing of the characters on television was in the 1983 television reunion film, The Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E. – the Fifteen Years Later Affair, which was recently released on DVD by CBS/Paramount Home Video. Not knowing any better, I enjoyed the telefilm – I liked pretty much any spy-fi as a teenager (still do) – but it was the chemistry and camaraderie between stars Robert Vaughn and David McCallum that really appealed to me. When I finally got to see some original episodes on early morning cable airings as a twenty-something, I discovered that they were much better than that TV movie.

Many years ago, the TV movie was released on VHS tape, and I bought a used copy of it. The picture and sound quality were awful – soft and fuzzy – but I held on to it up until a few months ago, when I transfered it to DVD-R. Of course, only a few weeks later, CBS/Paramount announced the new, authorized DVD.

Thanks to them, I've now got the reunion movie on legit disc, and it looks much better. Since it was an early 80's TV movie, it's presented full-frame, but the picture quality is pretty decent. Still a little soft, but vastly superior to the old tape.

As to the story, writer/producer Michael Sloan decided to attempt a James Bond-scale plot on a TV budget, and failed pretty miserably. The basic plot rips off Thunderball and has plot elements that, oddly, foreshadow the much-later Bond flick Goldeneye. The story also makes the mistake of spending the first half of the movie getting Solo and Kuriyakin back into their old jobs, then splits them up and sends them off on separate missions.

The cool interior sets of U.N.C.L.E. HQ are long gone, replaced by what looks like cheap rental space that completely lacks the retro-futuristic coolness of the original show, while the over-familiar backlot exteriors of the 60's are replaced with a lot more actual location shooting, mostly in Las Vegas and New York. The direction is plodding and pedestrian, and the music score is horrendous.

On the plus side, the cast is full of familiar faces. Ex-Avengers star Patrick Macnee shows up as the new head of U.N.C.L.E. replacing the late Leo G. Carroll, and his presence is a welcome one, while Anthony Zerbe (Licence To Kill) and Geoffrey Lewis make decent enough villains. James Bond even makes an unauthorized appearance – in the form of On Her Majesty's Secret Service star George Lazenby!

The only extra on the new DVD is a so-called "trailer," which looks like it may have been made for that earlier VHS release. It's a shame, because a commentary track by Vaughn and/or McCallum would have probably been more interesting than the movie. The original TV promos would have been cool to see, too.

It's not a great example of the U.N.C.L.E. franchise, and not even a particularly great reunion flick, since it keeps the main characters un-reunited for most of its running time. Still, I have a fondness for it as it was my first taste of the series, and I'm excited to have a high-quality copy of it in my library.

Review: ALEX RIDER: OPERATION STORMBREAKER

I only discovered the "Alex Rider" teen spy novels by Anthony Horowitz about a year ago. I now own all of the books, and find them quite entertaining. They're fast-paced, reasonably credible espionage adventures featuring an English teenager who is recruited by MI:6 after his superspy uncle dies on a mission. I look forward to reading the next few volumes.

Once I learned that the inaugural novel, Stormbreaker, had been adapted into a movie, I became interested in seeing it. But none of the local video stores had a copy for rent, nor for sale. I was finally able to check it out through Netflix, however.

It wasn't bad.

Scripted by series creator Horowitz, the film, Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker (a bit cumbersome, that) closely follows the plot of the novel (which, in turn, borrows heavily from Ian Fleming's Moonraker in structure), and even improves on it slightly, with a bigger, more dramatic climax. Newcomer Alex Pettyfer is a decent Alex, and most of the casting is quite solid. The pace is good, the fight scenes (choreographed by Hong Kong star Donnie Yen) are great, and the production values are quite high. The plot – as in the novel – is a bit by-the-numbers, but serviceable. Oh, it has a few problems, primarily in the handling of the villains, who are portrayed in a very campy manner in the film, which severely undercuts their menace. Mickey Rourke is decked out in some sort of Eddie Izzard ensemble, henchwoman Missi Pyle – a talented, chameleon-like character actress – is a Cold War cliche sporting an outrageous Natasha Fatale accent, and Andy Serkis' "Mr. Grin" sports creepy-looking make-up, but isn't even much of a presence, never mind a threat.

Still, I liked it enough to order a copy from Amazon ($5.99 new) for my spy film collection, and thought it was a decent foundation for what could have been a fun action franchise for teens. Unfortunately, the film's U.S. theatrical distribution – and subsequent home video release – were badly mishandled by the Weinstein Company, and the movie was a box office flop, effectively killing any potential series.

It's too bad. The plots in the subsequent novels are much stronger, and the Alex Rider character develops in an interesting way, and it would have been fun to see those developments play out over a series of films.

It's not a classic, but it's entertaining enough, and better than, say, Agent Cody Banks 2.

Review: SPECIAL MISSION LADY CHAPLIN DVD

It took less than a week for my Special Mission Lady Chaplin DVD to arrive from Dorado Films. Certainly can't complain about the service.

Can't complain about the movie, either. It was, by far, the best Eurospy movie I've ever seen. Sure, the English dialogue and dubbing was pretty horrible, but the plot was solid (if a bit implausible), the direction was fast-paced, the cast was generally good (as far as I could tell with the dubbing) and Ken Clark made a fantastic, tough action hero.

Basically the plot is this: an American nuclear sub sinks with a full complement of Polaris missiles aboard. International salvage expert Kobre Zoltan (Jacques Bergerac) steals the missiles, intending to sell them to a foriegn power. Zoltan's top aide is the chameleon-like Lady Chaplin (From Russia With Love's Daniela Bianchi) a high-fashion designer and mercenary hit woman with a penchant for disguises. When the theft is discovered, CIA agent 077, Dick Malloy, sets out to retrieve the stolen warheads.

As I said above, the plot actually holds together, and the pacing is very much like a Connery-era Bond film. The ruggedly handsome, athletic Clark is flat-out awesome in the fight scenes, which are as brutal and well choreographed as anything in the early Bond flicks. Hell, I think agent Dick Malloy would give Jason Bourne a workout! There are none of the big futuristic sets or seismic pyrotechnics customary in the 007 series, but that's somewhat compensated for with authentic international locations and the aforementioned fight scenes. Bergerac is a great villain, and Bianchi seems to be having a lot of fun with her amoral role.

Now, don't get me wrong. Special Mission Lady Chaplin is no Goldfinger or Thunderball, but considering its budget and its exploitative raison d'etre, it's a winner.

Dorado's DVD is solid. The print is far from pristine, with plenty of debris, specks and the occasional missing frames. But it's very watchable, and presented widescreen. The sound is a bit muffled or fuzzy at times, but Dorado has – somewhat surprisingly, for such a small label – included subtitles. The disc also includes brief text bios of the stars and trailers for other Eurospy flicks, including several others with Clark.

Spy-Fi Flashback: A MAN CALLED SLOANE

Anybody else remember Robert Conrad's short-lived Seventies spy show, A Man Called Sloane?

All I really remember about it is that Conrad drove a vintage, cream-colored Cord and had a sidekick with a cybernetic hand. There was also a TV movie, alternately known as Death Ray 2000 and T.R. Sloane, which was the pilot for the series, but it starred Robert Logan as Sloane, and the metal-hand guy worked for the villains instead of the good guys. It originally aired in 1979-80, and was the last series produced by Quinn Martin's production company.

I'd really love to see Sloane again, but then, I'm strange that way.

I'd also like to see a few other made-for-TV spy-fi flicks/failed pilots that I remember watching when I was a kid, like Billion Dollar Threat, Once Upon A Spy, and S*H*E.

Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure that none of those will be coming out on DVD any time soon....

Friday, May 1, 2009

Review: BURN NOTICE S1 DVD

I've been looking forward to seeing the USA Network series Burn Notice since I first heard about it. Aside from the fact that it was ostensibly a spy show, it co-starred Bruce Campbell of Evil Dead and Bubba Ho-Tep fame. But, I don't have cable, and had to wait for the series to come out on DVD.

Well, the first season (a paltry eleven episodes!) is now available on digital disc, and I persuaded the wife, on the basis of our shared enthusiasm for Campbell, to let me pick it up. I've only watched four episodes so far (but, I guess that's nearly half of them, isn't it?), and I like it a lot.

Jeffery Donovan plays secret agent Michael Westen who – while in the middle of a sensitive mission in Nigeria – finds himself suddenly cut loose by his employers – "burned." He soon finds himself dumped in Miami with no job, lots of enemies, all of his assets frozen and no idea why he was burned, nor who's responsible. With very few other options, he finds himself taking on odd jobs for people that need help, jobs where he can employ his years of espionage tradecraft and combat training. With the help of trigger-happy former flame (and ex-IRA terrorist) Fiona (played by the always lovely Gabrielle Anwar, who looks particularly hot now that's she's got some maturity on her) and a burnt-out, boozing ex-agent (Campbell), Westen ekes out a living helping the helpless while trying to uncover the person behind having him burned, and why it was done.

It's kind of a hipper, younger take on The Equalizer, but instead of a middle-aged ex-spy and gritty New York locale, you've got a hunky ex-spy and lots of sunbathed Miami vistas.

And girls in bikinis.

The stories are good, but the dialogue – and Westen's voice-overs – really shine. The writing is smart, sarcastic and funny. The action is well-staged, and the stories move along briskly. It's good stuff.

The DVD set is fine. Picture quality is quite nice, considering that the show is shot on 16mm film ( a rarity these days), sound is strong, and there are a few decent bonus features. There are a couple of lame ones, too, but that's the way it goes.

The second season hits DVD in June.

Review: QUANTUM OF SOLACE

I don't recall being so underwhelmed and disappointed in a James Bond film since sitting through A View to A Kill in 1985. And at least then I liked the theme song.

Quantum of Solace isn't quite a disaster, but it's a remarkably inept piece of filmmaking, and a frustrating film to watch. The script clearly needed a few more passes through the word processor, but being rushed to completion just before last year's writer's strike prevented that. Also, the decision to hand arguably the most action-driven Bond film ever to a director whose sole previous credits are art house indie dramas was a major miscalculation. And that theme song! Inane lyrics can be tolerable if they're accompanied by a memorable melody, but Alicia Keyes and Jack White's "Another Way To Die" (a rejected film title?) has no discernible melody at all.

Much has been written comparing Quantum's action scenes to those in the Jason Bourne films, but they really have nothing in common besides frenetic, rapid fire cutting. In the various Bourne films, the action is fast and brutal, but it can be tracked. The action scenes in Quantum are so badly edited that the viewer is uncertain as to how many players are in the scenes (how many cars were chasing Bond in the teaser?), the geography of the sequence (the rooftop chase), or what's actually happening (can anyone tell me exactly what the grappling hook in the Haiti boat chase was actually hooked to?). Coupled with director Marc Forster's arty cut-aways, the action sequences of Quantum have no sense of place, no rhythm, no rise and fall, no cohesion at all.

The plot has tons of potential, but is riddled with subplots and elements that are introduced and then promptly forgotten, non-sequiter dialogue (what exactly was the hood in Haiti supposed to "pay better attention" to?), unmemorable supporting characters (Mr. Greene's henchman, "Elvis"), and tediously repeated exposition (how many times do we need to be told how our governments have to deal with bad guys or how M just isn't sure she can trust 007?). As in Casino Royale, Bond once again comes across as a thug, indiscriminate in his use of violence, and, now in this film, a klutz who can't seem to hang onto his gun. (Surprisingly, though, he's now invisible – able to tail suspects in plain sight and never be noticed!) The script also fails by not giving Bond and villain Dominic Greene (Mathieu Almaric) any good face-to-face confrontations – they only exchange dialogue twice; the first time Bond has two or three lines, and the second is at the climax.

Oh, and putting the gunbarrel at the end? Yeah, I know what they were going for there, but it was stupid decision. The whole point of that trademark sequence is to kick off the movie on a note of eager anticipation; here it just felt like a rerun of Casino Royale's closing scene. And what was with that horridly tepid title sequence? Daniel Klienman, where did you go?

So, did I like anything? Well, yeah. The cast, almost without exception, rises above the limitations of the script, delivering excellent performances across the board. Forster obviously knows how to work with actors. Daniel Craig, who has to work with probably the least amount of dialogue ever given to Bond, still manages to carry the film on his intense, thoughtful performance. The death of Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) is powerful stuff, well played and directed. Olga Kurylenko's Camille is one of the best and most interesting Bond girls in the series – a marred beauty with a mission and motive of her own, and her climactic scenes with Bond are magnificent. Jeffrey Wright returns to the role of Felix Lieter, even if this time his part mostly consists of silently scowling; his one scene with Bond in the bar shows great chemistry, though, and is a highlight of the film. Judi Dench, as usual, shines.

David Arnold's score was excellent – he seems to actually get stronger with each film.

And I do like the introduction of the Quantum criminal organization; it's almost like having SPECTRE back again, even if the name's not nearly as cool, and Mister White's (Jesper Christensen) a pretty humdrum substitute for Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Now, bear in mind that I've only seen the film once so far, and maybe upon subsequent viewings, my opinions will change. But, I've had mixed feelings about this "Bond: Year One" approach all along, and Quantum of Solace seemed to really emphasize the elements I've had the most misgivings about. All this talk about returning the character to his Ian Fleming roots is just a lovely-sounding PR routine – Fleming's Bond wasn't the near-sociopathic killer/imitation Bourne that Craig has been given to play. And, while I've always preferred the more down-to-Earth Bond films – From Russia With love, Thunderball, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, For Your Eyes Only, Licence To Kill – part of the charm of the Bond franchise has been its slightly bigger than life quality; it's what separates Bond from the other spies. Mister Greene's plot to corner the Bolivian water supply just doesn't seem worthy of 007's attentions.

I hope that they've got this tyro-Bond thing out of their system now, and that the next film opens with the gunbarrel, brings back Moneypenny and Q, and gives Daniel Craig's Bond a chance to save the world – or at least England – from a dire threat.

Then
Bond will truly be back.

Review: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III

Speaking of cinematic spies, I finally caught up with M:I:III (or, as Stephen Colbert calls it, "Mehhh") on DVD.

Now, I really liked the first entry in the Mission: Impossible film series, and thought that it was a surprisingly smart and relatively adult adventure film, well-directed by Brian DePalma. I still feel that way, especially as it's one of the few Tom Cruise films that actually enables me to overcome my inherent aversion to Mister Teeth and actually have a good time with it. I wish that Peter Graves had agreed to play Jim Phelps in it, though.

I was really looking forward to #2, especially when John Woo was attached to direct (I'd been a Woo fan since The Killer first hit VHS), but unfortunately, I found Mission: Impossible 2 disappointing. The clever, twisty plot of the first film was replaced with a simple chase after a generic McGuffin, and padded out with a lot of flashing teeth and slo-mo action scenes. It's nicely shot, but really, I can never remember anything about the story after it's done.

So, when M:I:III hit theaters early this Summer, I was conflicted. Early reviews were generally positive, but the box office wasn't very strong and Mr. Lookatme Cruise was just plain annoying in promoting the film. And, while I enjoy Lost, I'd never seen Alias, and had no real expectations for first-time feature director J.J. Abrams. So, money being tight, I passed on seeing it in the theaters.

But I picked up the DVD last week, and I was pleasantly surprised with the film. A good story, great stunts, strong villian and a surprisingly likeable Cruise added up to a pretty nifty spy movie with a tiny bit more emotional punch than either of the previous entries. Sure, there's a lot of chasing around after a silly McGuffin in this one, too, but Abrams and the screenwriters know it, and are canny enough not to dwell too much on the ambiguous "Rabbit's Foot," treating it much as Hitchcock intended when he invented the term, focusing on on the characters and their actions in obtaining it, instead. I also liked the return – if somewhat halfheartedly – to the "team" concept of the TV show. Sure, it's still all about Cruise's Ethan Hunt in these movies, but at least in this one (unlike #2), there's a bit of lip service paid to the original Bruce Geller IMF team concept.

And, frankly, team member Maggie Q is particularly pleasant eye candy.

I deliberately picked up the bare-bones DVD (I may collect the series, but there's only so much behind-the-scenes Cruise I'm willing to subject myself to) – the widescreen transfer is crisp and beautiful to behold, and the soundtrack is suitably explosive.

For what it's worth, I liked it. If you haven't checked it out, you might want to give it a try.