5 posts categorized "spy thriller"


Lethal weapons of a certain age

When a high-tech hit squad shows up with weapons blazing to take out the former CIA agent played with the familiar catawampus smile by Bruce Willis, "Red" shows its hand as an action-comedy about -- and possibly for -- 21st century active seniors.

At 55, Willis is more likely to be the target of AARP mailers than flying bullets.  In movie star years and probably CIA operative age as well, though, Willis and his character Frank Moses can certainly be dubbed "old fellas."

The fact that Baby Boomers Willis ("The Expendables"), John Malkovich ("Secretariat") and Helen Mirren ("The Last Station"), not to mention excellent-actor-of-a-certain-age Morgan Freeman (73 playing 80 here) are suddenly taking on rat-a-tat "Bourne" identities is amazing enough.  The notion that "Red" is based on a graphic novel -- usually the superhero stuff of Batman and Spider-Man -- is completely askew of the usual radar.

Yet here they all are, victims of some sort of vaguely construed hit list from previous black ops work down in Guatemala in the 1980s.  Moses, the soft-spoken cool guy, drops by the retirement home to recruit mentor Joe (Morgan).  Eventually, extremely jumpy tech nerd Marvin (Malkovich) and sharpshooter Victoria (Mirren) are lured back in action.

Or as Joe puts it:  "We're getting the band back together."

German director Robert Schwentke ("Flightplan") and sibling screenwriters Jon and Erich Hoeber ("Whiteout") have their hands full getting the audience to sit still for semi-over-the-hill heroes blasting away with semi-automatics.

For Schwentke, the challenge is slightly less daunting than getting an audience to believe "The Time Traveler's Wife," a previous project.  In that one a time traveler always arrived safely enough, but for some reason he always landed sans clothing.

Oddly, a warm, tender heart thumps throughout "Red."  Moses, while constantly getting the best of the determined current CIA guy William Cooper (Karl Urban) out to kill him (He has his orders), also has a tag-along girlfriend.

Like Cameron Diaz in "Knight and Day," Mary Louise Parker ("Weeds" on TV) plays an innocent (Sarah Ross) dragged into the mayhem.  Sarah falls for shy guy Moses right along with the danger.  That's a nice touch.  It helps balance out the scenery-chewing bad guy played by Richard Dreyfuss and a repetitive barrage of action fireballs.

"Red," probably not unlike some of its senior actors, grows weary before quitting time.

Thirtysomethings calling their foes "old man" and "grandpa" grows whiskers in a hurry.

That's no way to treat your elders, even those you're trying to kill.


'Salt' implodes in the gender blender

The "Salt" talks have begun, and my inner voice won't stop jabbering about how old fashioned, clunky and preposterous Angelina Jolie's new action flick turned out to be.

Jolie's over the top woman-of-action extravaganza isn't quite enough to make me wish she'd just resurrected Lara Croft for a little more fantasy tomb raiding, but it's darn close.

"Salt" benefits from some great timing.  The movie studio publicity mill is probably downright gleeful about opening a movie about deep-cover spies when the evening news mirrored the theme with busted Russian spies in this country who were outed and traded for detained Americans (also accused of spying).

That's not my beef with "Salt."  In fact, good for them on the timing issue.  My problem is that this tale of a CIA operative on the run after being accused of being a deep-cover operative was originally written for a male star.  In fact, Tom Cruise's name has been mentioned a couple of times.

I have no problem with the gender switch, except that Evelyn Salt (Jolie), originally named Edwin Salt, kicks some very serious male buttocks almost constantly in one of the summers most action-packed thrillers.  Think "Iron Man" without the suit.

Make no mistake about it, Salt is one bad dude.  Sorry, woman.  But as she goes rogue and fights for her life she's not duking it out with untrained yokels.  She's enraged because of a plot twist I won't reveal here, so Evelyn's obviously pumped with adrenaline.

But Ms. Salt assaults and takes down highly trained CIA operatives, Secret Service agents and Russian assassins in groups, not just one at a time.  I had a little problem with that, especially since it happens over and over.

Liev Schreiber and British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor play constantly squabbling government agents in hot pursuit of Salt quite well.  Better than this star vehicle with the pedal to the action metal deserves, really.

Australian director Philip Noyce, who put Harrison Ford through his Jack Ryan paces with  "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger" in the early and mid '90s, hasn't made a movie since "Catch a Fire" in 2006.  He's worked with Jolie before, though.  She co-starred with Denzel Washington in "The Bone Collector" with Noyce in the director's chair in 1999.

What have you done for me lately is what matters when the screen lights up these days, of course.

Noyce puts his camera in all the right places and the action is spectacular at times.  But Kurt Wimmer's ("Law Abiding Citizen," "Ultraviolet") script often feels cobwebby.

And Jolie?  She's a very capable actress; an Oscar winner, in fact. ("Girl, Interrupted").

She's just not a guy.  Unfortunately, this actioner cries out for a male anti-hero.


It takes an exiled world figure to know one

"Who are you?"

"I'm your ghost," Ewan McGregor's character says to Great Britain's former prime minister in Roman Polanski's crafty suspense-thriller "The Ghost Writer."

Perhaps by accident, perhaps not, Polanski and one of the key characters in his first contemporary thriller in more than 20 years are mysterious public figures in exile.

Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) is conveniently on a U.S. lecture tour as news begins to leak in Great Britain linking the former prime minister with unscrupulous  activities including unauthorized torture of terrorist suspects.

Polanski, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker, is currently under house arrest in Switzerland.  The acclaimed director of "Rosemary's Baby," "The Pianist" and others continues to fight extradition back to the United States on an old charge of taking flight after pleading guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old girl in the late 1970s.

Old news or not, Polanski's chess game with international justice remains in the news.  Because of the exile/exile connection, it constantly spices up the mystique of "The Ghost Writer."

Oddly, Polanski's latest film unfolds primarily in the United States; in a chilly, well-guarded seaside island fortress of Martha's Vineyard.

McGregor's ghostwriter, who remains unnamed throughout, hops over from London to hunker down for a whirlwind, one-month rewrite of the former prime minister's memoirs.

Polanski, of course, did not venture stateside to the Boston area for reasons made clear above.  So what we get with "The Ghost Writer" is a danger-around-every-corner suspense-laden tale set in the U.S., but filmed over three months on location in Germany and at Studio Babelsberg in  Berlin.

Polanski's creative heart, however, resides somewhere in "Chinatown," U.S.A.

Not since the brilliant cat-and-mouse game that was "Chinatown" in 1974 has Polanski -- or cinema in general, really -- examined political power boiled down to this raw state of hubris.  Aided by an eerie musical score that wails bouncy imminent danger, suspense literally pops off the screen.

The ghost has no interest in politics, really.  He's just out to make a quick $250,000 if he can rewrite a politico's memoirs in the unreal deadline time of one month.  Once he meets Lang, however, skeletons begin falling out of the closet almost literally.  The previous ghostwriter died suddenly and mysteriously a couple of weeks before the new one arrives.

Danger lurks, whiskey swirls in glasses and Lang's frosty wife Ruth (superbly performed by Olivia Willams) warms up to the point of toastiness to the hired wordsmith while hubby is away having dinner with U.S. heads of state.

What a cast.  Brosnan, last seen as the front end of a horse (actually a Centaur) in "Percy Jackson & the Olympians," is pitch perfect as the slithery prime minister.  McGregor ("Amelia") is on target as well.

And they have stiff competition from the ladies in the cast.  In addition to Williams (also superb as Miss Stubbs in "An Education"), Kim Cattrall, of "Sex and the City" fame, struts her dramatic stuff beautifully as the prime minister's all-too-personal personal assistant.

Polanski fashioned this fascinating intersection of danger, conspiracy and more danger from the 2008 best seller "The Ghost" by Robert Harris.  Harris, who conspired with Polanski on the screenplay, has said the movie improves on his printed work.

"The Ghost Writer" is a major film from a hugely talented filmmaker.  Earlier this week, Polanski took best director honors at the Berlin Film Festival.  


'Inglourious Basterds' any film buff must meet

It took Quentin Tarantino two episodes to "Kill Bill," but only one glorious -- or "glourious" -- one to change the course of history.

"Inglourious Basterds," as skewed in style as the misspelled title implies, is a devilishly clever, sometimes comic and brutally violent fable that envisions a revisionist outcome of World War II as only Tarantino can.

Who else but the movie fanatic-turned-filmmaker who gave us the stylized heist drama "Reservoir Dogs" (1992), the comic crime-thriller "Jackie Brown" (1997) and Tarantino's first masterwork, "Pulp Fiction" (1994), would take it upon himself to serve up World War II revenge cinema for the Allies in general and Jews in particular?

I call "Pulp Fiction," which raised the bar on crime-comedy, Tarantino's first masterwork.  That's because "Inglourious Basterds" -- all two hours and 32 minutes of it -- is the outrageous writer-director's second.

Brad Pitt is the marquee name at the top of a brilliantly selected cast list.  The Oscar nominee earlier this year for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is only part of this story, though.

Tarantino rolls out his larger-than-life comic-drama in chapters.  By the time the end credits roll, you'll be wanting to know more about Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, who portrays Nazi Jew hunter Col. Hans Landa, and French actress-filmmaker Mélanie Laurent, just to mention a couple.

Laurent portrays Shosanna Dreyfus, owner of a Paris movie house.  She escapes Col. Landa once only to become entwined in his deadly spider web a second time.

When we meet Pitt, he's Lt. Aldo Raine.  Sporting a mustache, a goofy grin and a hillbilly accent, Lt. Raine heads what might today be called a "special ops" team of Jewish-American soldiers.

The mission is not only to infiltrate enemy lines in Occupied France.  It even goes beyond brutally killing any German soldiers they encounter.  Aldo wants Nazi scalps.  Lots of them.  And when his "dirty dozen," including "Hostel" filmmaker Eli Roth and B.J. Novak of "The Office," aren't gleefully taking scalps, The Bear Jew (Roth) is beating Nazis to death with a baseball bat.

Welcome to Quentin Tarantino's heightened reality redux of World War II.

As the story unfolds in what can only be described as the filmmaker's unique, signature grandiose style, the gifted ensemble is headed for shared screen time at -- what else? -- a glamorous movie premiere.

Tarantino's love for the art of cinema permeates every frame.  An early scene where Col Landa inspects a French farm house that might be hiding Jews is, without a doubt, the finest scene on any movie screen in years.  The Col., portrayed to perfection by Waltz (who could march right into an Oscar nomination), toys with his prey like a cunning fox in no hurry to pounce.

The closing sequence, which will not even be hinted at here, elevates Tarantino and his cast to an unsurpassed artistic level blending an operatic style and visual perfection with kill-thrill mayhem.

Excuse me while I gush, which I rarely do, but:

Gloury, gloury, halleluujah!  "Inglourious Basterds" is Quentin Tarantino's new pulp fiction masterwork.


'Duplicity' a double-cross semi-treat

In addition to being too complicated for its own good, "Duplicity," which teams Oscar winner Julia Roberts and dashing British leading man Clive Owen, can't quite decide if it wants to be a cagey spy caper or a romantic-comedy.

It tries to be both, of course. By doing so writer-director Tony Gilroy, a directing Academy Award nominee for the 2007 law firm psychological thriller “Michael Clayton,” proves he’s vulnerable to over-kill even when no bullets are involved.

Gilroy also had a hand in writing the three “Bourne” action-thrillers. He borrows the cat-and-mouse spy intrigue for this one, but climbs out of the international spy arena for perhaps an even dirtier, back-stabbing story trench: corporate America.

It’s very good to see Roberts back in a starring role after family nurturing and spotty appearances in “Ocean’s Twelve” and some delicious scenes opposite Tom Hanks in “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Roberts is a bona fide movie star. Better yet, she’s a big-time movie star with real acting chops, thus her Oscar for “Erin Brockovich” (2000).

CIA spy Claire Stenwick (Roberts) meets, seduces and steals some Egyptian Air Defense codes from MI6 operative Ray Koval (Owen) following a Dubai Fourth of July consulate party in 2003.

From that point forward – and often backward as well – the spies with marquee appeal squabble and globe-trot to places like Rome and the Bahamas.What we get for our money is more spy stuff and romantic interludes from Roberts and Owen.

“Duplicity,” perhaps staying true to its title, doubles up on almost everything.The stars are convincing enough as a couple in a love-hate-untrusting relationship that perhaps only they can understand.Gilroy provides convoluted dramatic intrigue that worked much better in “Michael Clayton.”

And here’s something I never thought I’d say: Near-brilliant character actors Paul Giamatti (an Oscar nominee for “Cinderella Man”) and Tom Wilkinson (an Oscar nominee for “In the Bedroom”), who shared the small screen in the HBO miniseries “John Adams,” almost bored me to tears as ego-driven corporate pharmaceutical CEOs determined to one-up each other.

If you’re looking for screen steam heat, you’re a little out of luck. Roberts and Owen, not unlike the characters they’re portraying, don’t quite let their guards down enough to sell the relationship sizzle.

They are gifted, of course, and fun to watch. It’s just that this over-extended corporate spy caper over-stuffs the intrigue and packs a little light when it comes to relationship folly.