Jason Bourne franchise spin-off Treadstone states in its opening titles: “Based on an organization from the Bourne series of novels by Robert Ludlum”. It’s tediously exact and speaks to an exciting level of copyright protection that even the nature of fictitious organisations is jealously guarded for their IP potential.
Nevertheless, despite this pedantry, it’s still only partially true.
The Bourne novels are a curious thing of the 80s. If you’ve only seen the Bourne movies, you’d probably be surprised by how different they are, thanks to the modernising skills of The Bourne Identity‘s director Doug Liman, who set the template with writer Tony Gilroy for the tone of the later movies.
Without wishing to spoil them too much for those who haven’t read them, they’re not the youthful, “American student with a Euro railcard”, agonised liberal take on the grey shades of US spying and colonial intervention in other countries’ affairs. Instead, they feature a considerably older Jason Bourne dealing with Carlos the Jackal on behalf of a US government anti-terrorist organisation called Treadstone. This Bourne is no super-soldier and the initial idea that he is a superhuman assassin turns out to be government propaganda.
Even by the second book, he’s only able to hold his own against younger men through virtue of his training, as his reflexes are slowing and he’s not as strong as he used to be. Plus he’s got a family and a lecturing career to worry about.
The TV adaptation of The Bourne Identity starring Richard Chamberlain as Jason Bourne was thus a far more authentic depiction of the book Bourne than the later movie version.
It’s considerably more accurate than Treadstone‘s titles suggest to say that its Treadstone is based on the movies’ version of the organisation – a top-secret US government programme designed to create stealthy young assassins from ordinary people through the use of certain dodgy brainwashing techniques and the like.
But just to crank things up from comparative to superlative, it would be most accurate to say that this is Tim Kring’s version of the movies’ version of Robert Ludlum’s Treadstone. Yes, the man behind Heroes has got his hands on Jason Bourne.
In the US: Sundays, 9pm, BBC America
In the UK: Acquired by BBC One/BBC Three. Will air in 2018
These days, it’s perhaps hard to remember that the James Bond books were aspirational pieces of writing. Sure, they were about an MI6 spy – well, assassin really, given his licence to kill – but as well as being a classic example of ‘competence porn‘, their endless lists of foods, designer labels and airports were also windows on a world of luxury and international travel that a post-war generation of readers still on rations could never hope to see for themselves. Small wonder that the movies with their glossy location filming became huge hits for the pre-EasyJet generations, who now know full well that airports are not in the slightest bit glamorous.
Outside the John Le Carré world of spy realism, pretty much every male spy TV and film series has been the same aspirational idea, just redressed for a new generation or slightly different audience: the Bourne movie series is basically Bond again, but for liberal Americans, for example.
Aspirational female spies – and assassins – have been a little harder to find. Sure, there have been attempts, such as the Moneypenny books and Black Widow in comics, but possibly the best attempt so far has been Modesty Blaise, although the movie didn’t really set the world on fire, despite numerous charms.
One could argue about what an aspirational female spy/assassin would be, but BBC America’s new series, Killing Eve, offers one really good suggestion. Adapted from Luke Jennings’s Villanelle novels by Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, it sees Sandra Oh (Grey’s Anatomy) playing a bored MI5 desk officer who begins to suspect that a series of assassinations around the world are the work of a female assassin. Even though, it’s not her job, she defies orders and investigates, resulting in tragedy – and possibly a new job thanks to MI6’s Fiona Shaw.
Rather brilliantly, even though the books are about Russian orphan-turned-assassin Villanelle – played equally brilliantly here by Jodie Comer (Doctor Foster) – Oh is the clear protagonist of the piece. That means we aren’t asked to identify as much with Villanelle and her job and can instead aspire to her rather wonderful lifestyle. She lives in Paris, speaks multiple languages fluently, and has designer bed linen and clothes.
But rather than be a simple blunt, character-less tool of the state like James Bond, or a seductive femme fatale without any desires of her own, Comer’s Villanelle has fun. She’s also fun herself. When handler Kim Bodnia (Bron/Broen) shows up at her apartment, she’s faked her own suicide – but not too well, as she doesn’t want him to believe too much, since it’s just a joke.
She’s also no mere male spy with the pronouns changed or a male fantasy. She does things that no male spy tends to do: she plays with children, for example. Can you imagine Bond doing that? She’s also more gymnast than ninja or member of the military. She shins up drainpipes like she’s in the circus, and when she’s forced to hide in a room without exits, she literally folds up her diminutive stature inside a suitcase. She listens to cool music, wears cool clothes, zooms around on motorbikes and is a delight to behold, even when she’s stabbing someone in the eye.
Small wonder that Killing Eve is all about the mutual fascination that Oh and Comer end up having for one another, Comer and her fun life being something that Oh could aspire to having.
But Killing Eve is as much a comedy as it is a drama. Nevertheless, unlike most spy comedies, such as Austin Powers, Chuck, Spy or In Like Flint,it’s not a spoof. Instead, this is a comedy of everyday life, of the office and of relationships. Oh and work colleague David Haig are annoyed to have to come into work on a Saturday – and are still hung over from Haig’s birthday party from the night before. Oh snacks her way through this important meeting and is worried that she’s not making the right impression with Shaw. Important conversations happen while buying milk at the corner shop, rather than over a shark tank.
I have to admit to really loving Killing Eve, with its mixture of spy glamour and spy mundanity. Despite being made by BBC America, there’s location filming all over Europe and it looks great. Oh’s a great lead and fits in with the British tone and humour. Comer, meanwhile, is a revelation – I don’t remember ever seeing her in anything, but here she dominates every scene when necessary, while disappearing into the background whenever the story demands it.
Even if you didn’t like Fleabag, there’s a good chance you’ll like or even love this. And it might even make you want to become a top female assassin.
The words ‘Deep State’ and ‘Fox’ in near proximity should normally trouble you. For the uninitiated, the idea of the ‘deep state’ is that secretly, behind the scenes there’s a new world order of sorts, trying to ensure that specific policies happen. So far, so illuminati. However, in the US, Fox News, Donald Trump et al have used the phrase ‘deep state’ to suggest that anyone potentially working against President Trump – for example, to impeach him for various criminal offences he might have committed – is really a member of the deep state trying to frame him, is a traitor and should probably be executed. This includes members of the FBI and other government organisations who might be doing what others would call ‘obeying the rule of law’.
Want to know if someone’s a crackpot? If they use the phrase ‘deep state’ to talk about Robert Mueller, they’re a crackpot.
Fortunately, we’re in the UK, Fox UK isn’t Fox News and Fox Networks’ first European/African commission Deep State isn’t suggesting that Alex Younger is a pawn of Goldman Sachs. Sure, there are hints that the Iraq war was started by big business for its own needs and engineered David Kelly’s suicide, but that’s not really deep state or the government of the day, and at least it’s all fictionalised. Robert Mueller’s real. So’s Donald Trump.
Deep State sees Mark Strong (Low Winter Sun) playing a former MI6 officer who’s retired to France and is now living happily with his new French wife Lyne Renee and lovely moppets. Then he gets a spooky calling card from his spooky former boss (Alistair Petrie), demanding he return to London. There he’s told that son Joe Dempsie (The Fades, Skins, Game of Thrones) is dead, having decided to follow in his dad’s spying footsteps. Worse still, he’s been killed by Strong’s protégé Zubin Varla (Strike Back).
Strong’s mission, which he decides to accept: head off to Beirut to kill Varla and the rest of his team, as they’ve clearly gone rogue. But is everything as it appears to be? And whom can Strong trust?
Just like dopey old The State Within, Deep State has lofty ambitions to be a smart spy show, does its best, but ends up getting drowned in a sea of spy clichés. Filmed in both Morocco and London and with a supporting cast that also includes Anastasia Griffith (Trauma, Damages, The Cazalets) and Amelia Bullmore (Big Train, Scott & Bailey), Deep State has obviously had a lot of cash spent on it. True, although Morocco works fine as Iran or Beirut, it’s less fine as France, but it’s not Scunthorpe at least and they also hired a few French speakers. The fact there are references to ‘The Section’ clearly suggests that writer Matthew Parkhill is a fan of Callan, and thus an appreciator of the classics.
But it’s spy dramas, rather than spy fact that are the reference points here and if you’ve watched some decent spy shows, almost nothing about Deep State will surprise you – other than when it goes for something blindingly stupid that seems beneath it.
You can forgive stupid names for covert sections, such as ‘the Bank’. You could even forgive the ‘key to a safety deposit box containing top secret footage on a USB drive’. But if all it contains is a minute-long confession to camera, what’s the point of that, hey? What’s that going to prove?
Then you get supposed top-tier secret assassination units learning that a member of their team is in league with the baddies (thanks to a timely observation said member should have known about) and rather than heading off their own separate ways, falling back to plan B, etc, they decide to go back to the safe house their treacherous friend knows about to discuss all of this and then pick somewhere else to go to.
Worse still, every ‘twist’ is one you’ll see coming. Do the goodies all trust precisely the wrong people, every single time? Yep. Is everyone going to fall for every single trap laid for them? Yep. I’m hoping it’s all an elaborate bluff and later episodes will play on this, revealing how the audience have been fooled. But putting it all in the first episode? That’s either brave or stupid. Or more likely, it’s not a bluff.
So, sure, it’s smart. But it’s smarter than the average generic spy show in the same way a £4.99 bottle of wine is better than a £1.99 bottle of wine. That still doesn’t make it a premier cru.
Strong does his best to be a stoic puncher of bad guys, jumping across rooftops and beating up guys half his age, in decently choreographed but unsurprising fight scenes. He also does well being a stoic punchbag for various wives of his, current and ex, as they berate him for being a spy.
“Tough job being a man, isn’t it, hey? But the world needs stoic, manly spies, prepared to sacrifice and not cry for their dead sons, even if women won’t understand that – until we save them,” the show might as well have stamped on Strong’s forehead. It’s not quite the worst spy characterisation since we evolved from slime molds, but it’s getting there.
But that’s virtually all the characterisation anyone gets, as the show is more geared up to deploying nonsense plotting to suggest that the ‘deep state’ is everywhere. Think you’re safe in France? Ha, ha! We can get your bank card blocked and your utilities switched off! Ha, ha again!
They could have emailed to arrange an appointment, you know?
Strong and his strong Strong performance, as well as the production values, are the show’s main draws at the moment, although I quite like the fact that Varla’s probably a good guy for a change. But I’m not feeling enthused at all and I might not even bother with a second episode. Nevertheless, it could have been worse and given it’s already been renewed for a second season, some people clearly liked it.
Don’t go in expecting a new Bourne or even an old Bond and you might enjoy it. If The Night Manager is more your speed, again, this could be a show for you. Just don’t expect The Sandbaggers.
It’s “What have you been watching?”, my chance to tell you what movies and TV I’ve been watching recently and your chance to recommend anything you’ve been watching.
Redesigning and migrating TMINE took up quite a bit of my time this week, so I didn’t cast my net as wide as I’d hoped in watching new TV. All the same, you’ll be excited to hear that I’ve managed to give two other new shows at try, as well as a movie, and I’ll be reviewing The Mist (US: Spike) in the next couple of days, too.
After the jump, a look at the latest episodes of Doctor Who, Ronny Chieng: International Student and Twin Peaks, as well as the season finale of Silicon Valley. One of those could offer some of the finest visuals TV has ever seen.
Slightly weird half-hour comedy based on the genuinely real 80s phenomenon of GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling), which has already been the subject of movies and TV shows but here sees aspiring but really rather terrible actress Alison Brie (Community) almost as the point of doing porn to make ends meet before her agent gives her one last potential gig – a new cable TV sports show in which she would be a wrestler. Together with several other oddball women, she auditions to take part, but it’s not until she ends up in a catfight with best friend Betty Gilpin (Masters of Sex, Nurse Jackie) that she gets her chance to appear in the ring.
I got through the first episode without laughing much, except at the over-the-top attempts at 80s LA fashions, which all seemed to be takes on Jane Fonda aerobics videos. But it was amiable enough and silly enough that I’ll at least try episode two.
Riviera (UK: Sky Atlantic)
Glossy French-set, French-filmed thriller in which Julia Stiles (the Jason Bourne movies, Dexter) is apparently happily married to super-rich Anthony LaPaglia (Murder One, Without A Trace) when his yacht gets blown up off the coast of Monaco. The result is… revelations! Maybe LaPaglia got his money through dodgy means. Maybe he was having an affair and slept with ‘party girls’.
All the episodes have been released but I’ve only managed the first, rather insipid one so far. Stiles is fine, but spends most of her time having passive aggressive sit-downs with LaPaglia’s ex-wife Lena Olin or one of Olin’s kids (Misfits‘ Iwan Rheon and Les témoins (Witnesses)’ Roxane Duran). Attempts to inject excitement into all the iciness come from having Amr Waked (Lucy, Engrenages (Spiral), Marco Polo) run around a bit or by promising some excitement soon but never actually producing anything.
Basically, the usual glossy Sky fare with a good cast list (and Neil Jordan in the writing credits) but only two big names who actually stick around for the main action.
Logan (2017) The X-Men meet gritty reality and the cowboy genre, as we flashforward to 2029. Most of the world’s mutants are dead, with Wolverine and Professor X the only big names left alive thanks to a highly successful stamping out campaign. Even so, Wolverine’s dying from adamantine poisoning and Professor X has dementia over which he’s losing control, causing all manner of problems for anyone and any towns that happen to be in his vicinity. Into the mix comes a woman with a girl who has Wolverine-like abilities, asking our hero to protect her from evil Richard E Grant and the cybernetic Reavers.
It’s basically Shane with superheroes, but a clever piece of work that is sparing with the action but nevertheless has an awful lot of bloody stabbing. It pokes fun at its predecessors as being (literally) comic book fun, divorced from the real world in which people suffer and die, but manages to still enjoy the trappings of the superhero genre.
It’s all a bit bleak though and beyond a couple of cool scenes, nothing to really unique.