Saturday, June 23, 2018

'I.G.I.-2: Covert Strike': An Overlooked Masterpiece

A long time ago when video games were gaining newer grounds among worldwide entertainment mediums, they were becoming less arcade-oriented and more cinematic-inspired in the late 1990s and early 2000s, before the Call of Duty franchise came to exist. One of these video game franchises was the Project I.G.I. series that only spawned two video games, both developed by the Norwegian-based late Innerloop Studios.

The first video game itself was described by the developers as "GoldenEye 007 on Windows PC," bearing the difficulties of a hard-edged first-person shooter (minus the blood and gore a la Wolfenstein and Doom, for instance) while involving a plot centering around military espionage. It challenges the player to move quick, think strategically, and fire the weapon accurately without being reckless as the enemies are themselves quite the marksmen. Each level has to be completed in one go where mid-game saves do not exist. Although, it did garner a lot of fans back in the day, the game received mixed reviews from the critics for a number shortcomings including the aforementioned lack of save option and a multiplayer mode that is demanded by the general audience of the video gaming world. Project I.G.I.: I'm Going In was published 15 December 2000 by the late Eidos Interactive, whose current parent company, Square Enix, hold the rights to this particular title.

Three years later, we've had a sequel to the millennium game, that is vastly updated from its previous effort, adding more agility, a lot of functionalities and further induced development and programming into the heart of the project. I.G.I.-2: Covert Strike arrived on the shelves on 3 March 2003 by the same development team, albeit with a different publisher - Codemasters. A game that was different yet the same, although better - a debatable matter among the fans - as it introduces new arrays of strategies that would lead the player to tackle each of the levels, objectives and given missions. But, of course, the game's military strategy and other set of technicalities were consulted by ex-SAS officer and Bravo Two Zero survivor turned author and novelist Chris Ryan. A fact that's very apparent in this game and why is it so great (perhaps even better) compared to many stealthy shooters that came before and after, hence the sub-title as it suggests "covert strike."

The story sees the return of I.G.I.'s most trustworthy agent, and ex-SAS operative, David Jones is sent to collect stolen modified EMP device smuggled from NATO by the Russian Mafia in and around the Carpathian mountains and Romanian borders, but overtime he discovers that things are not as they seem, having himself caught amidst the crossfire as he hovers around the globe, evading the dangers of betrayal in the process, and uncovers a plot by Chinese rogue military General to start World War III. And it's up to Jones to prevent the chaos.

The gameplay reflects on realism, albeit differently than the likes of Call of Duty gave birth to at the time. You, as the player character, are allowed to carry one primary weapon, one secondary weapon, a combat knife (always present by default), a hand grenade and sometimes other optional instruments of kill and first-aid kit rarely making appearances. Equipped with a GPS map tablet computer (called map computer, a product of its time), you can observe and decide where to make the attack or sneak in if you want it stealthy. Putting on the complete undetected stealth mode requires a lot of experience. But, if you're going to burst in with full attack mode, you are going to have to be very quick. Especially when confronting the Chinese troops face to face. Their level of accuracy in marksmanship is very high.

Now, what is my opinion of this video game? Let's see...

It is designed rather greatly, if I'm quite honest. Chris Ryan's influence on how to infiltrate a base, engage with the enemy (or disengage for the matter), balance your accuracy and learn to control your subtlety is evident throughout the experience. It is up to the player to dictate one's own movements and method in a sandbox map, allowing you to move around the area in your preferred order, delude the enemy, and pave the way in for your own advantage if you play your cards right. It's a lot more atmospheric, in my opinion, than the first installment, and draws the world around you as if it were real. Imagine the experience in virtual reality, it could be a commando's survival simulator, if you will, as opposed to its predecessor which relied on the player's accuracy and quickness of the hand - namely, a generic shooter (albeit a great one!). I could describe David Jones a more "hands-on and gloves-off Sam Fisher" minus the acrobatic agility and the nightvision goggles.

Each mission one tackles places the player in somewhat a huge responsibility, if one isn't an expert in the game. I myself am not an expert, despite my years of playing the game since it came out. A large part of what makes this game fun is that you are given the option to be rewardingly stealthy, but it would require a huge amount of patience, bravery and strategical thinking for you to go through with it. Otherwise, you could play the game just like Project I..G.I.: I'm Going In, blast the doors open, and leap in with guns blazing, provided you're as careful and quick as you were in the first game. As for me, I fall in the middle - Half stealthy, half confrontational, depending on my situation.

What also makes the game outstanding in its tone is Kim Jensen's music as I stated above who has upped his game and gave every level its own specific track which could get to your nerves and spawn anxiety if you will - the fear of getting caught. That is, of course, if you are to take the game seriously, which I do. Without the soundtrack, half the game's fun would be taken away, truthfully speaking. For a spy experience, you need quite the ambiance to keep you away from the fourth wall and treat the missions accordingly, it's supposed to be haunting even for someone as professional as David Jones. Then, there's also one element in each of the levels (well, most of them, anyway) I rather like - in each of their beginnings, the first thing the player sees is the landscape overview of the map from afar, and the world around it is silent, thus paving you the way in for an atmospheric infiltration.

A sample of the soundtrack by Kim Jensen - I.G.I.-2: Covert Strike main theme

...And then, there's the spooky level at the Romanian borders where you are to evade hordes of hostile border patrols with Dragunov sniper rifles. Good Heavens! That's one level where you can't simply barge in full action commando with your gunbarrel flashing the muzzle. It's even more petrifying than the first game's level of the same name (both called "Border Crossing") where you start off with no weapon but your combat knife.

Overall, while the first game is a tactical shooter, this one is a strategically stealthy shooter. Personally, I prefer the latter. The storyline for Covert Strike is also more appealing to my tastes, as I could see it easily being a James Bond thriller, something that is indeed noticeable this time around in the characterization of David Jones who differs quite than that of his previous incarnation. No disrespect to the great Philip Morris (Jones's voiceover in the first) in the slightest, but I do like Boris Sosna better as I find him more suited to the veteran ex-SAS turned IGI covert operative character with his deep voice and the confidence that oozes in the lines he delivers without overdoing it. Then again, being a lifelong Bond fan myself, I do like Jones better as a Bond-like rather than something akin to a young and yet-inexperienced Jason Statham type. While I love Project I.G.I.: I'm Going In very dearly, the second game is by far higher in my book as it is in my top five spy video games list (all of them being shooters, mind?) that I yearly revisit, at least once.

Is there a future for this series? Luckily, yes. Sometimes, good things come to those who wait, as they say. Video games developer studios named Artplant purchased the intellectual property regarding Project I.G.I. as well as the character of David Jones and others in January, last year. Artplant is in itself founded by former employees of the now-defunct Innerloop Studios, who officially announced a third game in the series, named Project I.G.I.: We're Going In is in development by May 2017. While the general fans of the franchise prefer the first game by a wide margin over the second, I personally hope the third installment is akin to I.G.I.-2: Covert Strike which is more atmospheric, in my opinion. We're yet to get a first look at the third game or any reports for the matter, but Artplant revealed that it will continue building up on the feature of "the freedom the series has become known for." Well, I can hardly wait!

Thank you for reading! Feel free to discuss the topic below!

Monday, June 18, 2018

Going Back In Time: Dynamite Entertainment Presents James Bond Origin

Ever since assuming the license from Ian Fleming Publications back in 2014, eligible for twenty years to use and produce comic books centering on the character as well as the universe that surrounds him, we've had twelve installments from Dynamite Entertainment based on Ian Fleming's intellectual property, three of them being spinoffs, while the rest are original stories by various artists and a faithful graphic novel adaptation of Fleming's first novel, Casino Royale that came out only a couple of months ago to positive reviews.

But, that isn't all. Dynamite made a whole new revelation today that they've announced back in 2017 during the Diamond Summit event, originally scheduled for Fall 2017, only to be pushed back to Spring 2018, which didn't materialize but now.

The original announcement image by Ian Fleming Publications
James Bond Origin is the title unveiled today, depicted as a whole new series that takes the readers back to March 1941 where James Bond is a 17 year old boy making the decision that will change his life forever. But, before I further come to discussing the details, I'd like to mention that despite Fleming's given birth of year of Bond's, novelist Charlie Higson settled on 11 November 1920 as the character's date of birth while writing the Young Bond novels, which would make him over 20 years old by then. Anachronistic, sure. But, it's all in a minor factor that changes over the years with fictional characters. Writer and comics veteran Jeff Parker reflects on the experience:

“It’s a weighty challenge to reverse-engineer this icon into a young man on a life’s journey of danger, but Nate Cosby paired me up with Bob Q, who not only brings the gravitas of war in 1941 Europe, but nails the promising hero in his youth,” Parker said in a statement. “James doesn’t have the vast experience of a double-O agent yet, but he’s tenacious and a lightning-quick study. Bob and I work to show the full force of Bond’s spirit.”

James Bond Origins #1 F-Retailer Exclusive cover by artist Bob Q

The official blurb proposes this:

Introducing a 17 year James Bond, a restless student in Scotland, who is eager to leave his mark on the world, a sudden but unfortunate series of events coincides the visit by an old family friend with devastating Clydebank Blitz, thus forcing a young Bond to fight to survive.

Written by Jeff Parker and illustrated by Bob Q, the first issue is set to come out sometime in September, later this year, resulting in the debut of a new series in the franchise. The first issue - of course - will come in various selection of covers illustrated by several artists, a treat that VARGR had seen back in November 2015. It's worth to mention that one of the covers is brought by Kev Walker, who himself worked on various artworks for the Young Bond novel series as well as the graphic novel adaptation of Silverfin, the first book in the aforementioned sub-franchise within the main franchise.

Variant covers for James Bond Origin feature materials delivered by
(left to right) John Cassaday, David Mack, Kev Walker
Gene Ha, Ibrahim Moustafa, and Bob Q in collaboration with Jordan Boyd.

Thank you for reading! Feel free to discuss the topic below!

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Agent 47 Returns In 'Hitman 2'

With E3 2018 at the doorstep, IO Interactive announced the upcoming installment in the globally renowned video game franchise, Hitman in a new title, conveniently called Hitman 2, taking after the sixth entry in the series which was simply named after the franchise's label, thus serving as a continuation of its predecessor and bearing a very similar gameplay style.

Hitman 2 (not to be confused with the actual second game, Hitman 2: Silent Assassin that came out in 2002) puts the world's deadliest assassin, Agent 47 against the shadowy backdrop of conspiratorial conflicts as he pursues the mysterious figure only referred to as 'The Shadow Client' who has ties to his past while also looking into the organization known as Providence who meddle with world affairs without anyone in the know.

When IO Interactive bought themselves out of the holdings of Square Enix as well as purchasing the rights to the Hitman franchise last year, what was supposed to be an episodic release in the form of Season 2 in the title that made its debut in March 2016 was canned in favor of a complete retailer release only unveiled a few days ago. Only this time, Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment will be publishing and distributing the title rather than Square Enix that has cut ties with the intellectual property regarding Hitman. It is scheduled for release on 13 November 2018 on Microsoft Windows PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in various editions.

Aside from the six-level official missions narrating the plot, the concept of weekly Elusive Targets will return, downloadable contents will be available in each of their respective schedules, features from the fourth installment in the series, Hitman: Blood Money, will also be making comebacks, including the briefcase to hide a carbine rifle in, and the Sniper Assassin mode is available to those who pre-order the game, added by the cooperative multiplayer feature in it, as well. There will be further two expansion packs in the future, that include new sniper maps, locations, weapons, outfits and side missions unrelated to the plot of the game.

On side notes, after two unsuccessful efforts to bring Hitman to the big screen with an established film franchise, a television series commissioned by Hulu is in the pipeline, with the pilot episode being written by Derek Kolstad, the famous creator of another assassin franchise, John Wick, announced back in November 2017. Although, it is not yet known when it will be airing as production on the episodes is yet to commence.

Friday, May 25, 2018

BOND 25 - OFFICIAL NEWS: directed by Danny Boyle, written by John Hodge, distributed by MGM and Universal


Production on Bond 25 will begin in December with Danny Boyle directing Daniel Craig’s 5th outing as Bond. EON Productions and Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios (MGM) have reached an agreement with Universal Pictures to partner on the worldwide release of the 25th James Bond film.

Daniel Craig returns as 007 and Academy Award-winning director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Steve Jobs) will direct from an original screenplay by Academy Award nominee John Hodge (Trainspotting) with production set to begin on 3 December 2018. Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures will release the film theatrically in the US on 8 November 2019 through its new joint venture for domestic theatrical distribution with Annapurna Pictures, and Universal Pictures will release internationally commencing with the traditional earlier release in the UK on 25 October 2019.

Producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli commented, “We are delighted to announce that the exceptionally talented Danny Boyle will be directing Daniel Craig in his fifth outing as James Bond in the 25th instalment of the franchise. We will begin shooting Bond 25 at Pinewood Studios in December with our partners at MGM and thrilled that Universal Pictures will be our international distributor.”

“Under the leadership of Michael and Barbara, we couldn’t be more thrilled than to bring the next 007 adventure to the big screen uniting the incomparable Daniel Craig with the extraordinary vision of Danny Boyle,” said MGM’s Chairman of the Board of Directors, Kevin Ulrich. MGM’s President, Motion Picture Group Jonathan Glickman added, “It has been 16 years since Die Another Day was distributed by MGM and it’s incredibly gratifying to be releasing this film alongside the powerhouse team at Universal.”

“Universal is extremely proud to collaborate with Michael, Barbara and MGM on the international marketing and distribution of Bond 25,” said Chairman of Universal Pictures Donna Langley. “The unparalleled combination of Danny’s innovative filmmaking and Daniel’s embodiment of 007 ensured we simply had to be partners in the next chapter of this iconic series.”

Thursday, May 24, 2018

'Forever And A Day' review: 007 is Dead, Long Live Bond

While the cinematic James Bond is doing some silence, the literary James Bond is back. Altough, in this case, we could say he's back... in time! Anthony Horowitz second Bond novel Forever And A Day is a prequel to Ian Fleming's Casino Royale, which introduced the British secret agent to the world, marking the beginning of a timeless legacy.

(Mild spoilers below this point)

Taking place around 1950, one year before the events of the first Ian Fleming novel, Forever And A Day begins with the death of 007. But don't worry, altough this 007 wears Saville Row suits and was a very much regarded agent by M, he's not James Bond. The anonymous 007 has been sent to Marseille to investigate the surprising stop on the narcotic production. The region is a battlefield between the Corsican and Sicillian gangs because of the drug business, so the Secret Services tought someone could be planning something bigger and they sent 007 to survey the French Riviera underworld. There are little leads and no explaination on how the secret agent was unarmed when he was shot at point blank at La Joliette, unarmed, on daylight. There are also no clues on his research, except that he made contact with one Madame 16 or Sixtine, a rogue agent that went freelance selling secrets after being captured and tortured by the Germans during the war. So far, Madame 16 seems the prime suspect of 007's death.

Vintage postcard featuring the Casino de Monte Carlo, where Bond has his first encounter with Madame 16

M resolves to send someone to replace the deceased agent. 008 is recovering in the hospital. 0011 is on a mission in Miami. The head of the British Secret Service turns his eyes to a new recruit, the operative next in line for the 00 section, a man recommended by the Chief of Staff: Bond... James Bond.

Taking the place (and number) of 007, who was a close friend of his, James Bond goes to France and in the following chapters he'll have to face many exhilarating dangers: an infiltration on a film processing plant (used for dark purposes) in the middle of a forest filled of bobby traps, the escape from a sinking luxury yacht rigged with explosives, a downhill escape on jeep and a heroin-based torture. Of course, the perks of his job will also allow him to visit the Casino de Monte Carlo for a Blackjack match against the pretty Madame 16, that will turn out to be a rather memorable woman in Bond's life.

Forever And A Day has -like Trigger Mortis- original Ian Fleming material as the main source, in this case is the TV serial pilot Russian Roulette. The narrative of this book is rather similar to the one of its predecessor, too: very straightforwarding and short in descriptions, but with some subtleties that make it an enjoyable read. In this novel we learn, for example, how Bond started preferring the Morlands cigarettes and why his Martini should be "shaken, not stirred". The second chapter also describes, in full detail, how he eliminated the Norwegian man that spied for the Nazis during World War Two. While the James Bond of Forever And A Day is around 30 years old and a recently promoted 00 agent, he's very smart and definitively not less lethal than Fleming's Bond.

Horowitz deserves a lot of credit for this novel, considering the fact that precedes Casino Royale and every other James Bond novel. The challenge is huge: with the 1953 book defined as the one where Bond went trough emotional and physical hell in the hands of Vesper Lynd and Le Chiffre, the one that shaped him up as the one we know, a precuel for Casino Royale had to be carefully written in order to avoid overshadowing the important characters that meant so much for the secret agent. The girl and the villain can't be emotionally more important than Vesper or Le Chiffre or what Fleming had created would seem fake. 

The French Riviera, where agent 007 was shot dead in mysterious circumstances

At the same time, the elements in Forever And A Day shouldn't be completely weak and uninterested. Yet, the author managed to balance the elements in an exemplar way: the villain, Corsican gangster Jean Paul-Scipio, makes the new 007 feel very uncomfortable during his stay putting him in perilous situations. On the other hand, and despite her protagonism goes a little over the top near the climax where she almost opaques Bond, Sixtine proves to be a very well written character as an experienced agent 10 year older than Bond. She's smart, resourceful and with epic characteristics. Of course she wasn't meant to be over Vesper when analiyzing Bond's life, yet one has the impression he will never forget this girl.

A story of death, betrayal and brutality, Forever And A Day also provides good quantities of elegance and romance (the title itself, as read in the book, has a romantic connotation). At the same time, the action feels very "cinematographic" in a way and there are some elements that are reminiscent to the movies, with a plot somewhat similar to Live and Let Die and Licence to Kill, and some very tiny nods to GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies. The exotic locales are an effective setting for the story, and the fact that the book is set in the 1950s gives it a special touch: the French Riviera, a sunny turistic spot darkened by the occupation of the Corsican and Sicilian gangs, fighting each other for the drug business and using the beautiful locale as a battlefield.

Forever And A Day is a good pre-introduction to the literary James Bond in the same world of intrigue, violence and elegance Ian Fleming created for his hero. Everything in the right balance to avoid overshadowing Casino Royale, but bringing up an exciting product in terms of narrative -and bondian- quality.

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Nicolás Suszczyk

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Beauty and Ugliness of James Bond

Promotional artwork for Dr. No, the first James Bond film, showcasing the attributes of 007's female interests

The Oxford Living Dictionary defines beauty as "a combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight" and ugliness as "the quality of being unpleasant or repulsive in appearance." Without a doubt, in over 55 years of history the cinematic James Bond franchise has played with beauty and ugliness in 24 official movies. Even the two unofficial films, Casino Royale from 1967 and Never Say Never Again in 1983 have echoed these topics, the first one prominently teasing audiences with a tattooed woman holding two guns. 

The good looks of Sean Connery in 1962:
Dana Broccoli's female instincts told
her she was the right man for the job.
In Ian Fleming's novels, Bond was described as a handsome man resembling musician Hoagy Carmichael. The beauty of his women were thoroughly described by the author (their hair, skin, eyes and body shape) as -by opposition- the ugliness of the villains with their bad plastic surgeries or swollen heads. The first cinematic Bond adventure Dr. No, rather faithful to the source material, has respected the Fleming standards for beauty with a handsome and virile protagonist like Sean Connery and three handsome girls coming from different parts of the world: British gambler and playgirl Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson), the exotic and deadly oriental secretary Miss Taro (Zena Marshall) and the Jamaican native Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress). The film's nemesis were represented by the "three blind mice" assassins, corrupt Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) and the evil mastermind Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman), who of course couldn't match the elegance and physical traits of Sean Connery's 007. Something different, tough, could be said of his future opponents Red Grant (Robert Shaw) and Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) in From Russia With Love and Thunderball, who could perfectly match Bond's poise and looks. 

An interesting insight on how beauty was of the essence for producers Albert R "Cubby" Broccoli and Harry Saltzman for their shaping of the long-lasting 007 series was the way Sean Connery and Ursula Andress landed in their roles. Cubby and his wife Dana were watching Darby O' Gill and The Little People and when Connery had appeared in the film Dana thought he was an incredible handsome man. The producer followed the female instincts of his wife and on November 3rd, 1961, the then little-known Sean Connery was announced as the star of the adaptation of Ian Fleming's Dr. No. In the case of Andress, it was producer Harry Saltzman who felt absolutely stunned by a photo of the girl in a wet shirt (taken by her husband John Derek) and that eased her way into the role of the native woman Bond meets in Crab Key who doesn't become his love interest until the very last seconds of the film. 

Claudine Auger in a photoshoot for
Thunderball, showing the deadly
side of her character Domino.
Flash forward 55 years later and it looks as if beauty was an uncomfortable word when promoting the Bond films. Since the late 1980s and particularly in the 2010s, probably because of the resurgence of feminist movements, the intelligence of the Bond girls (sorry, Bond women) is emphasized to the point every one of the female leads in the series has become "Bond's equal": a cliché that now feels as a publicity tactic more than an actual definition of the new generation of Bond's ladies. Maybe only Camille Montes of Quantum of Solace can fit the description and only Anya Amasova from The Spy Who Loved Me or Wai Lin from Tomorrow Never Dies can more faithfully fulfill that definition. The other Bond women could be an intellectual or emotional match or even have some knowledge of handguns. But that doesn't make them "Bond's equal" for sure. 

Probably some people would think Bond girls are mere sexual objects when they're not. They never really were and the James Bond saga has empowered much more than other action films. Take into account Honey Ryder wielding her knife and trying to defend herself of No's guards, or Domino Derval (Claudine Auger) saving Bond's life at the end of Thunderball. In You Only Live Twice, all three girls were far more than a pretty body or face: two skilled Japanese secret agents (Akiko Wakabayashi and Mie Hama) and a deadly redhead vixen (Karin Dor) who pretends to commit to Bond's charm only to attempt against his life shortly later. Don't forget how Andrea Anders (Maud Adams) and Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto) dared to betray their dangerous lovers in The Man With The Golden Gun and Licence To Kill, risking their lives to help Bond (Andrea is ultimately terminated by a golden bullet). A good example is also given in The Living Daylights, where Kamran Shah (Art Malik) and his Afghan men look astonished as Kara Milovy (Maryam d'Abo) rides her horse in the desert with an AK-47 rifle in hand to help Bond, surrounded by the Russian army. Needless to say the Afghan troops weren't used to a woman in their troops and -much less- a woman disobeying a man and going on her own. 

Prelude of an all-girl fight: Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike)
threatens Jinx (Halle Berry) in Die Another Day.
Elektra King (Sophie Marceau) from The World Is Not Enough is a proof that female leads in the Bond films have been empowered by the James Bond series: she used both men for fools: her former kidnapper terrorist Renard (Robert Carlyle) and Bond himself, who believed her to be Renard's target for a second time and a woman who lost her in a terrorist attack, when she was actually the mastermind who employed and seduced Renard to kill her father in revenge for not paying her ransom. The following film, Die Another Day, is the first 007 film to feature a well-choreographed fight between the good and the evil Bond girl, and Pierce Brosnan's 007 debut in GoldenEye had an action scene only with the leading lady Natalya (Izabella Scorupco) escaping from all kind of explosions and finding her way out of the doomed workplace attacked by General Ourumov (Gottfried John) and Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen). 

Daniel Craig in a publicity still for 2015's
SPECTRE. His muscular body was displayed
prominently in his James Bond films.
"I wonder why I'm not seeing people comparing six different actors who played James Bond," said an Alicia Vikander fan Twitter account lately complaining on the fuzz provoked by those who preferred Angelina Jolie over the Swedish actress as Lara Croft in the recent Tomb Raider reboot. However, the six men who played James Bond were compared through their looks and acting skills ever since Sean Connery was replaced by George Lazenby in his one shot 007 flick On Her Majesty's Secret Service, released in 1969, almost half a century ago. Some said Lazenby was handsome but not in the scale of Connery, others that he was a complete failure and talked in retrospect of a "forgotten Bond". Roger Moore was labelled as attractive, but it was always pointed out his lack of virility and strength in comparison to Connery, particularly in his last three films where -despite looking very good at 57- he was "too old to play Bond". Then came Timothy Dalton, who received the tag of being too tight for the role and some humour was needed for Bond. Lately, Dalton was very much vindicated by the fans, but there were those who considered his second and last appearance Licence To Kill killed the franchise. The opposite happened with Pierce Brosnan: applauded and admired during his four films where he reinvigorated Bond as an action hero for the 1990s and the new millennium, but now slammed as being too cheesy, soft-spoken and slim built for a man of action as his replacement, the muscular Daniel Craig, who even tolerated the dishonour of a web site boycotting his choice as the rebooted 007 of Casino Royale. 

Ian Fleming's James Bond always had thoughts for appearances and looks: Donovan Grant's Windsor knot on his tie gives him bad feelings in From Russia, With Love and he suggests Honeychile Ryder not to fix her broken nose with plastic surgery in Dr. No. Moreover, in the John Gardner novel For Special Services, he comforts Nena Bismaquer after learning she had one breast removed. For Bond, reason is not always the answer and a lot is given to intuition, that's why someone's look, attitude, beauty or ugliness can tell him something. 

In the case of the EON Production's franchise, despite their political correct production notes, they always knew a reason why men go to watch James Bond films are the attractive women like Ursula Andress, Jill St. John or Britt Ekland. And a reason why women watched them is because they also felt attracted for the physique of Sean Connery, George Lazenby and Daniel Craig, not forgetting the bon mots of Pierce Brosnan and Roger Moore and the virility of Timothy Dalton. 

Never judge a book for its cover, they say. But it's always better when a good book has a great looking cover indeed. 

Nicolás Suszczyk 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

'Red Sparrow': From Russia, without love

Poster artwork for Red Sparrow, featuring Jennifer Lawrence as Dominika Egorova.

Nostalgics of the good old days where "Russia was the enemy" may be pleased with the cinematic adaptation of Jason Matthews' Red Sparrow, starring Jennifer Lawrence and directed by Francis Lawrence, from the Hunger Games saga and with no relation with the leading actress except directing her for a fourth time in a cinematic production.

Vanya offers Dominika a place in the Russian SVR
Any good Ian Fleming fan would notice that the essence of the film is reminiscent to From Russia With Love, dealing with a civillian sent to a training school to become an operative whose primary body is her sex and body. While Fleming's heroine Tatiana Romanova worked for the state in the 1950s Soviet Union and was sent to seduce and turn James Bond to the Russians, Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) faces a more complex situation.
A Bolshoi ballerina who is incapacitated after an accident on stage, Dominika might lose her main income and the pension paid by the theatre, which includes the modest apartment she shares with her ill mother (Joely Richardson). Feeling she has reached a dead end, she is forced to accept the help of her lascivious and greedy uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), a member of the SVR (Russia's secret service). First he asks her to perform a small job, to investigate Dmitri Ustinov (Kristof Konrad) a corrupt politican who ends up almost getting raping her. She is saved by a Russian operative sent by her uncle, who brutally strangles the aggressor, but since the SVR wants no witnesses of the death of Ustinov -a word that directly involves Dominika- she feels forced to integrate the ranks of Mother Russia's Red Sparrows, a group of women exhaustively trained (phisically, emotionally and psychologically) to get into the mind of their targets, discover their witnesses, seduce and kill them.

Dominika's target, in this case, Nate Nash (another From Russia With Love connection in the name) a CIA operative assigned to protect a mole in the Russian intelligence known as 'Marble'. Joel Edgerton's character is very good agent for the Americans but is known to have some vices, like drinking in excess, hiring prostitutes and watching pornographic videos with frequency - a situation that may facilitate Dominika's job. Nevertheless, she has started questioning the bases of her devotion to the state and sees in Nate the posibility of a escape route for her and her mother from Vanya and the SVR. 

CIA's Nate Nash comforts Dominika.
Is he a trustworthy escape route?
There are those who may agree that Red Sparrow is not a perfect movie and it has a rather morbid taste for violence and sadism. Over its 160 minutes a good deal of blood ("ten pints of blood" one could say to add more Fleming references) is splashed on the screen. It is, perhaps, the kind of film no-one should invite her girlfriend to watch unless she's really into the spy genre and has a very good stomach. However, the action scenes are not continuous and there is more space for intrigue and psychological introspection, a good example is offered by the scene where the Sparrows are trained by a Rosa Klebb-like matron (Charlotte Rampling) and are ordered to perform overtoned tasks as practising oral sex to fellow Russian soldiers because their body belongs "to the state". The kind of situations that are morally questionable but interesting to get us inside the cruel world of an agency who had their roots in the old KGB or NKDV, yesterday's enemy of civilized order. It may feel offensive to some viewers but perhaps the trick is, indeed, that the audience could be offended by Russia so that we can understand why America (and agent Nash) is the only salvation for this poor and extorted girl.

Jennifer Lawrence proves to be a very effective choice for the main role as a woman who is not the femme fatale the poster campaign for the film tried to sell and it's actually victim of her own country instead of a "black widow" victimizer of the opposition. Charlotte Rampling and Matthias Schoenaerts stand out in very believable performances as the deadly representatives of Mother Russia, while Ukranian actor Sergej Onopko perfectly embodies the lethal Simyonov, a skilled torturer that resembles all the dangers of Russia previously described in the Ian Fleming, Len Deighton and John Le Carré stories. Past meets present.

The technical aspects of the film are very well handled, particularly the use of Mozart and Tchaikovsky compositions and the score by James Newton Howard whose overture resembles Lalo Schiffrin's work for The Fourth Protocol (1987) and enhances drama with the use of violins and other wind instruments. The departments of Jo Willems (cinematography) and Maria Djurkjovic (production design) can transport the viewer to Moscow and Vienna making him forget he's actually located in the middle of a theatre.

Red Sparrow is an entertaining story dealing with intrigue and psychology. A story about survival and resistance more than an action film. A story about relatives, love interests, personal interests and Russian state dealing with all these intimate assets.

Nicolás Suszczyk