Tag: espionage (page 2 of 2)

Bond Basics

Courtesy MGM

You know what I like about this Skyfall poster? It juxtaposes the classic image of the camera lens/gun barrel of Bond’s films with the stoic, no-nonsense stride of Daniel Craig. It indicates to me that the filmmakers are taking extra steps to connect this 21st-century iteration of the British superspy with his roots. Since my favorite Bond is still Sean Connery, followed closely by Craig, I’m a big fan of the very notion. Between the two of them, they’re the closest the films have been to Ian Fleming’s original vision of James Bond.

Fleming’s Bond was, in the broad strokes, a very British version of the pulp hard-boiled detective popular in the 50s and 60s. Fueled by cigarettes and martinis, Bond was a professional assassin wrapped in a fine suit, maintaining his cover through flippant remarks and dalliances with women. Securely rooted in Fleming’s own real-world experiences with British intelligence and military operations, it had a sense of realism to it that underscored the action and raised the tension.

Sean Connery did a fantastic job balancing the stoic, professional interior and suave exterior required for Bond. Following Fleming’s death, however, the films began to change. With Roger Moore replacing Connery and the society of the time being all about glitz, glamour, and swinging, James Bond became all about the image, with cool gadgets and a parade of disposable women becoming his weapons against a rather colorful if somewhat shallow rogue’s gallery of cartoonish villains. While I’m never one to disparage camp, and think Moore’s Bond films are fine, it’s clear that they’re a departure from Fleming’s original intent for the character.

While Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan both made attempts to make the character a bit more grounded, elements of Moore’s years lingered. It wasn’t until Casino Royale in 2006 that James Bond returned to his basics, and in fact the very beginning. The film stayed very close to the thread of the novel, and Daniel Craig showed Bond as somewhat inexperienced, a little raw and unrefined; he isn’t wearing the suit until Vesper puts him in it, and even then he’s not comfortable with it at first. Even Roger Moore himself praised the new Bond. After re-establishing himself, though, Bond struggled to find his identity in the day and age of Jason Bourne, with this film and Quantum of Solace only standing out because of Craig and his character’s relationship with Dame Judi Dench as M.

While the last two films seemed to focus mostly on Bond being an international force for good, even if he is somewhat brutish in his ultimate methods, Skyfall looks to be bringing things home. Even the brief glimpse of the teaser released this week shows a Bond we may not have seen in years, if we’ve seen him before at all:

Other than the plethora of very British images, the fantastic word association bit lets us just a bit into Bond’s mind. When confronted with the word ‘Skyfall’, Bond does not betray emotion or flip the table; he simply, politely, and firmly ends the session and walks away. We see international locals with a very definite sense of identity (something Quantum of Solace was lacking) and Bond appears to be very calmly and confidently going about his business. I know it’s just a teaser, and it never does to get one’s hopes up, it seems clear to me that director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Jarhead) and cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo, Jarhead, True Grit) are on to something.

This is the most excited I’ve been for a Bond film in quite some time. I look forward to seeing it in October.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! The Avengers

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

[audio:http://www.blueinkalchemy.com/uploads/avengers_98.mp3]

When Marvel Comics set out to create an uber-film bringing together Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the Hulk (and SHOULD include the Wasp or Ms Marvel at the very least), there was something standing in their way. It was not the worried, furtive glances of fanboys or the daunting task of condensing decades of continuity into what amount to two-hour snippets. No, the problem was that another film called The Avengers already existed. Thankfully, most of the civilized world seems to have forgotten about it. I wish I could.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Based on a 60s spy-fi series of the same name coming to us from the BBC, The Avengers introduces us to John Steed, shining star amongst the good dozen or so secret agents we see in the employ of ‘The Ministry’. He is tasked with finding and questioning Dr. Emma Peel, an eminent meteorologist, on some strange goings-on in the atmosphere and the fact that she’s apparently killed someone. Mrs. Peel, since we’re not being quite so formal, is understandably curious as to how she could be in two places at once and thus joins Steed in tracking down the true mastermind behind the atmospheric shenanigans, a graduate of the Blofeld School for Evil Geniuses and recipient of the Dr. Evil Impractical Domination Plot Award, Sir August De Wynter. … No, it’s not a clever nom-de-plume.

The TV series was sadly before my time. I recall my father gushing about it from time to time, how Steed’s cool demeanor under fire lent a sort of tongue-in-cheek aspect to the action and intrigue, and Diana Rigg in a black catsuit was nothing to sneeze at. From what I understand, however, the premise of the show began somewhat grounded but eventually grew to incorporate some of the more esoteric aspects of the James Bond films while simultaneously delivering subtle parodies of eccentricities of the contemporary British lifestyle. For some reason, the writer and director of 1998’s Razzie contender seemed to be under the impression that all of this idiocy was to be played 100% straight. Maybe this confusion was caused by the apparent fact they need to share a brain.

Courtesy Warner Bros.
BEEP BOOP WE ARE EMOTING – CURRENT STATE: DULL SURPRISE

‘Straight’, by the way, here has the meaning of ‘straight as a length of rebar made from indestructible space metal and about as pliable.’ The actors tasked with modernizing these icons of their age, Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman, seem to be so mechanical and uninvolved in their actions and delivery that I had to wonder if I was actually seeing the actors or some very advanced animatronic doubles who had been programmed to emote by mole people who’ve only seen human beings through fractures in the earth’s crust, most of them under Madame Tussaud’s. Even Sir Sean Connery isn’t having fun in this thing, and he gets to preside over a meeting of evil masterminds while dressed in a bear costume. And before you think that’s a bit odd, let me expand on the scene by saying they’re ALL in bear costumes. It’s like they decided part of their world domination plot included cosplaying as the mascots for the Grateful Dead.

As for the British influence, I think the only things the monobrained writer-director superstar tag team know about the Brits is that they drink tea and have accents. It seems that every single opportunity they get these people are having tea. Steed even has a fucking spigot in his Bently for the stuff. With cream already added. Red phone booths, double-decker buses, no anachronistic, staid and trite Britishism goes unreferenced because that’s funny, right? Oh, this isn’t a comedy? It’s a big-budget blockbuster? Well, the action is at least engaging. At least it would be if there was ever the vaguest hint of danger, suspense or even excitement projected by our cast. I know it’s a lot to expect for a movie like this to verge towards realism, but last I checked lightning striking a metal rod extended in a man’s hand did not lift him into the air as if the gods of Olympus decided they wanted to raise the villain up just to personally dismember him with their immortal nectar-stained hands. But by then I’d pretty much given up on the movie making any sense whatsoever.

Courtesy Warner Bros.
Did you think I was kidding about this?

It only runs 90 minutes long but it feels a lot longer. It takes itself far too seriously to be campy and goes for too many idiotic laughs to approach the quiet desperation of truly British films like Trainspotting. Attempts at innuendo or chemistry fall flatter than the deck of an aircraft carrier and have about as much subtlety. The plot makes absolutely no sense and skips around without warning, the special effects are bland and uninspired and I couldn’t help but think you should be getting a lot more entertainment or at least some fucking fun out of Voldemort, the Bride and James Bond himself all being in a spy-fi movie together. It’s no wonder Marvel steamrolled this macaroon-smelling turd on its way to production. The Avengers from 1998 is best left forgotten. Find the TV series if you’re curious, and hopefully the movie of the same name coming out next year will be a better time at the movies overall, even if the inclusion of only one girl is a bit perplexing. The ’98 flick had a few more, including double Uma Thurmans. And if nothing else, at least Eddie Izzard got to wear some fabulous shoes. But when executive transvestite fashion’s the highest compliment you can pay the picture instead of just an amusing observation… you get the idea.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

Game Review: Alpha Protocol

Courtesy Sega & Obsidian Entertainment

One of the things that made Wing Commander such a memorable series of video games for me, beyond the cool spaceships and neat character design, was the branching campaign. You could choose to defend a particular asset for the Confederation, or take the fight right into the Kilrathi’s furry faces; you could completely botch a mission and the game would not end; you could lose wingmen and shipmates and life would go on. It was storytelling that felt open-ended even if the plot was rattling along on rails towards the final destination. At least those rails had junction points.

Alpha Protocol brought back some of those memories, mixed in with liberal doses of Deus Ex and Mass Effect, to produce a gaming experience that, quite frankly, surprised the hell out of me.

Courtesy Sega & Obsidian Entertainment
It’s a balcony hot tub in Rome. Eat your heart out, Mr. Bond.

We’re introduced to Mike Thorton, an American international operative candidate with a shady background recruited by an organization called Alpha Protocol. The organization is a covert unit attached not to the government per se, but to one of its biggest private military contractors. Mike is dispatched on his first mission to Saudi Arabia, but before things can be properly concluded, he’s betrayed and abandoned. With few resources to begin with, Mike must travel around the world to build a case against his former employers, or at least collect enough explosive devices to make the PMC’s stockholders very nervous and very angry.

More often than not, when a game declares itself to be an “action/RPG”, what they mean is that you can customize a few of your weapons and maybe put a different hat on your self-insertion military fantasy persona. The games that continue the traditions of System Shock 2 and Deus Ex are few and far between, allowing you to make a character tailored to your particular gaming tastes not just in terms of weapon mods. Alpha Protocol may not be as deep as those others in terms of game engine, and I’m not sure shotguns needed their own category1, but at least an effort is made to allow a player to guide Mike down a particular path, and not just through the medium of the thumbstick.

Courtesy Sega & Obsidian Entertainment
Well, I could beat it out of him with own vodka bottle… hmm.

Indeed, between the action set pieces players have opportunities to determine how the story will unfold, and without the benefit of a color-coded morality meter. Instead, Mike interacts with people through one of three attitudes, chosen on the fly: professional, aggressive and suave. They’re three distinctive flavors of one overarching attitude, however. Mike’s a bit of a jerk. I mean, sure, he’s been backstabbed by his government and the company trying to buy them2, and that’s likely to make anybody a little cross. Some of his antics are excusable under that circumstance while others are inexplicable in their maliciousness or mischeviousness, outside of just being a troll. This doesn’t stop them from being hilarious, but how professional can one actually be if they’re sending emails about bovine weaponization conspiracies to trigger-happy nutcases just for a laugh?

I don’t want to give the impression that moral choices don’t exist. Most of your conversations, however, are more personal matters. The choices you makes in how you relate to certain people will raise or lower their respect for you, and consequently can either make them inclined to help you or eager to put a bullet in your skull. However, there are moments where you must make a decision, and you’re not given a lot of time to make up your mind. Brilliantly, you will not always know the full ramifications of the choice you make when you make it. Only at the very end as the news is relating stories from around the world do you realize exactly what you’ve done3. Amongst games where choices are almost always squeaky-clean white or dastardly black, Alpha Protocol paints its plotlines in shades of gray. And they’re really attractive shades.

Courtesy Sega & Obsidian Entertainment
I told him what I’d do if he crossed me. He thought I was bluffing.

When the words stop flying to make way for bullets, Alpha Protocol still does a few things quite well. Like any good game with emphasis on stealth and gathering intelligence, it gives you the option to sneak past opponents rather than shooting them in the face, even if the “takedown” option still induces wincing on the player’s part. While it’s possible to play through without making a single kill, I can’t imagine getting punched in the throat by a professional martial artist is particularly pleasant. And the mini-games you must play to hack computers, pick locks and bypass circuits do a great job balancing a limited time-frame with puzzle-solving skills, for the most part.

It’s not a game without flaws. The engine occasionally goes a bit berserk with its rag doll physics, and you’re never 100% sure the wall or prop you’ve chosen to take cover behind will (a) conceal you or (b) allow you a clear line of fire to your foes. Some of the boss fights can make life very difficult for particular character builds, and on a couple occasions I set off an alarm trying to pick a lock when I distinctly hit the button to quietly cancel the attempt. I hear there are also conversational bugs but I can’t recall running into any, so if I did they were somewhat insignificant, not unlike the others. None of the bugs or hiccups I encountered felt game-breaking, and more importantly, none of them got in the way of the story. Indeed, the story is what keeps the action moving, even when nobody’s getting shot at. Here’s a case where the strengths of the game outweigh its flaws, and while I can’t blame some hardcore shooter fans for letting those flaws keep them from checking out Alpha Protocol, enthusiasts for this style of game are sure to be pleased.

Stuff I Liked: Weapon customization is pretty cool, and having be only one aspect of character building rather than the extent of it is even better. Every safehouse is distinctive for its area which was a great touch, as were the little trophies and mementos Mike keeps. Options to decrease difficulty of missions through gathering additional intelligence felt smart. No hilariously stereotypical accents – “ZEY HAFF GIVEN ME LEMON-LIME” is a thing of the past.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: Could have consolidated SMGs, shotguns and assault rifles into one category and spread out lock-picking, hacking and electronics. Some obtuse boss fights. The occasional bug that will break a lockpick, your cover or that gas canister next to you, but thankfully not the entire game.
Stuff I Loved: Writing and voice acting well above average. A conversational system that makes sense and works well without being tied to rigid morality. A sense of purpose and weight to choices made. Satisfying stealth gameplay. More than a few laughs when Mike starts trollin’.

Bottom Line: It could be because I’m a fan of good storytelling that drives the action, or decently balanced stealth/shooting gameplay, but for me, Alpha Protocol shines. As shooter-RPGs go, it’s around the same level as the first BioShock in terms of action, definitely inspired by the aforementioned superstar shooter-RPG tagteam. And in terms of plot and character, the plot adaptability and solid writing has it swinging from the same monkey bars as Dragon Age: Origins while Halo and Gears of War participate in a game of gay chicken over in the nearby sandbox.


1 Deus Ex filed them under “Rifles” for a reason, after all.
2 Just swap “Halbech” with “Bank of America” or “Wells Fargo” or any oil company and you’ve got the right idea.
3 I’m giving Sega & Obsidian the benefit of the doubt and thinking this was meant to promote better storytelling, not just a way to get us to play the game more than once. Which I think I may have to, now. Bastards.

Movie Review: Salt

Thanks to my friends at Geekadelphia, my wife and I were able to enjoy an advance screening of Salt. We walked out of it wondering the same thing: why is a movie dealing with a villain put to bed twenty years ago coming out now?

Remember how Yahtzee equated the United States to a prize fighter who keeps yelling at his old rival Russia because they didn’t have a proper title match? “Last I checked, it hasn’t been 1979 for at least 10 years.” In that case he was talking about Battlefield Bad Company 2, but it seems this unfortunate backwards-looking form of inspiration has reached Hollywood as well. Despite the fact that there are all sorts of punching bags for an espionage thriller that’s also a vehicle for Angelina Jolie, Kurt Wimmer’s Salt manages the feat of bringing the Soviet Union’s labyrinthine intelligence plotting back from the dead as an engine to drive the film’s plot.

Courtesy Columbia Pictures

The plot introduces us to Evelyn Salt, a CIA operative married to an arachnid expert. She’s getting ready to enjoy her anniversary when a Russian defector walks into her office claiming to have vital information. Placed in an interrogation room with Salt, the defector reveals that he has knowledge of a presidential assassination plot going down in New York City in 24 hours. He even knows the name of the assassin: Evelyn Salt. Pointed out as a possible mole, unable to reach her husband and trapped in her own office building, Salt needs to facilitate an escape and find a way to prove her innocence. Or carry out her role in the assassination plot. Or go on vacation. Or get her nails done. The question I asked myself while actually watching Salt was, “What the hell is she up to?” he desire to see what exactly her plan was kept me going all the way to the end credits.

A lot is made of the identity of Evelyn Salt, and to the credit of Wimmer’s script, Philip Noyce’s direction and Angelina Jolie’s acting, we’re never quite sure who’s side she’s on. She conveys emotion when she has to and turns it off when it’s time to kick ass – par for the course from the creator of Equilibrium. The film seems aware of the fact that it’s a vehicle for Jolie, and never really gets in her way. We’re never out of sight from our leading lady for more than a minute. Her performance here is definitely more in the vein of Wanted than Changeling, but she’s at least somewhat interesting to watch.

Courtesy Columbia Pictures

In fact, the cast isn’t uninteresting and does rather well all around. None of the performances feel forced, none of the actors gnaw on the scenery and they’re given interesting stuff to do. Liev Schreiber has quickly grown on me as a supporting actor, with a quiet intensity and growling voice that isn’t overshadowed by Angelina’s presence. Chiwetel Ejiofor isn’t bad, either, channeling a bit of the drive that informed his performance as the Operative in Serenity. The script is fine, never going into camp territory or stopping to wink at the audience. The action is at least somewhat inventive in places and it’s shot well by Noyce, never becoming too confusing or too loud, a tip some other directors could take. In fact, all of these elements make it a more-than-decent thriller, and a thrill ride besides.

But the best writing and acting in the world can’t overcome a bad premise. It’s like building a brilliantly designed and carefully constructed house on a beach with bricks of sand as your foundation. It’s not going to end well. Salt never completely collapses, but the idea that the spectre of Soviet aggression would rise up from the shadows of the past to seek revenge on America for a war that never got to the shooting stages and resolved itself almost two decades ago is pretty preposterous. I can think of at least a few people who will see this film, take it as at least partial fact, and use it as just another thing that we should be afraid of, in addition to terrorism, socialist medicine, communist market oversight and fascist environmental controls. BE AFRAID. WE ARE THE GOVERNMENT. OBEY US.

Dammit, there I go getting political again. I told my controller therapist very patient readers I wouldn’t do that any more.

*twitch*

Since posting this review on the Escapist the night I saw it, I’ve gotten some stick for apparently being ‘naive’ and ignoring the threat that Russia presents to America. The thing is, though, I know we’re going to get spied on. Espionage does not automatically mean open conflict. In fact, if it gets to the point of a car chase or a gunfight, the espionage has failed. So, when the US busted that Russian spy ring recently, was I surprised? Not really. I’m sure the US has spies all over the world as we speak. I do see the point made to me about not being naive in terms of espionage happening right now, but I have to opine the idea that espionage inevitably leads to open conflict is very far-fetched. To anticipate that sort of hostility is to live in perpetual fear, and that is something I refuse to do.

Courtesy Columbia Pictures

Stuff I Liked: Decent script, well-shot action and a brisk pace.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: Dammit, leave Russia alone. The war’s over.
Stuff I Loved: If I loved anything, it was seeing Angelina kicking ass and seeing how creatively she was dealing with the people she didn’t kill.

Bottom Line: It’s not a bad movie. It’s a decent little espionage thriller that suffers from the aforementioned idiotic premise. You’d be okay if you wait for it to come out on video. There are other movies out there that deserve to be seen in a cinema. Like Inception.

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