Atomic Blonde

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“Truly a nuclear option.”

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new action queen in town. With Angelina Jolie apparently abdicating that title after Salt, the throne was vacant. Theron had already made a very solid case in Mad Max: Fury Road, then solidified it in The Huntsman: Winter’s War. But there were still doubts: could she hold the true focus of a genuinely action-driven film? There are doubts no more, for Atomic Blonde gives us Theron in the role of Lorraine Broughton, the baddest-ass heroine since The Bride in the first Kill Bill.

She’s an agent of British intelligence, sent to Berlin in the very last days of the Communist regime. Her mission is to retrieve a list which details the identities of every Soviet agent in the field, provided by a Russian defector. Before she has even met her contact there, David Percival (McAvoy), chief at the Berlin station, Broughton has been made by the Russians. Turns out, they have a mole, codenamed “Satchel”, who will stop at nothing to prevent the list from making it into Western hands, thereby revealing their identity. The exhortation of one of her bosses on her way out the door in London, “Trust no-one,” proves to be entirely accurate, as she makes her way across a landscape formed largely of moral rubble from the imminently collapsing Berlin Wall.

The story unfolds in flashback, during a debriefing in London, in which a severely battered Broughton recounts the events that unfolded as she tried to track down the list – and when that proves impossible, the defector, since he claims to have memorized its contents. It’s a perpetually shifting quicksand of allegiances, not least Percival, who has been in the city so long as to have “gone native”. There’s also Delphine Lasalle (Boutella), a French agent for whom Broughton falls, though it’s never clear whether their resulting spot of canoodling is for the purposes of her mission. It’s certainly not difficult on the eye [Boutella may be an action heroine to watch in future, having impressed both as the spring-loaded Gazelle in Kingsman: The Secret Service and one of the better things about recent Tom Cruise vehicle, The Mummy].

If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll know why this was my most anticipated film of the year, and the action is every bit as slickly brutal as you’d expect from the co-director of John Wick – Leitch wasn’t credited there because the Directors’ Guild of America don’t like dual credits. This is ferociously hard-hitting stuff, clear from the opening scene, and escalating steadily thereafter. Broughton’s credentials are equally apparent immediately, as she escapes a kidnap attempt on the way from Berlin Airport, brawling her way viciously out of a car’s back seat. Yet this is merely an appetizer for what is to come, and one sequence in particular.

The scene in question sees Broughton escorting the defector, who has already been wounded. They take refuge in an apartment building only to be followed there by a bevy of Russian agents, whom she has to fend off with bullets, fists and even a convenient corkscrew. It’s nine minutes long, and appears to be shot in a single, unbroken take. Key word “appears” – if you look closely, you will likely be able to spot the moments where they cleverly blend the shots (about 20 or so, according to Leitch) together while the camera pans, tracks and zooms through the building. It’s still likely the most intense and hardcore battle in action heroine history, with the participants selling every blow impeccably. This is awesome, ground breaking stuff, and I haven’t enjoyed a scene so much since – again – Kill Bill, Volume 1.

For I’ve seen hard-hitting and inventively choreographed fights before. I’ve seen well-shot and technically impressive fights before. It’s the combination here which is almost unparalleled. Maybe the duel between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Zi Yi in Crouching Tiger is the only one that comes close, though it had a very different kind of artistry, one that was based on grace and fluidity. [Outside our genre, I was additionally reminded of the car chase in Children of Men, which was apparently an inspiration] This is Lorraine Broughton, doing absolutely whatever she needs to survive, from second to second and moment to moment. It’s raw, animalistic and moves the bar for future action heroines to an entirely new level.

This is actually a problem, because it there’s still a good chunk of the film to go, and nothing the rest of the way comes close. As a result, there’s a sense of letdown from the adrenaline high, even if the final attempt of the Russians to kill Broughton is by no means bad. I’m hard pushed to find anything else of much significance to criticize here. We’ve got an Oscar-winning actress going full-on into the old ultraviolence? What’s not to love? Admittedly, the actual spy plot is a good deal less inventive and original than just about every other aspect here. But it’s merely a backdrop, the canvas on which Leitch and Theron paint their bloody masterpiece. Oh, and if you can’t get permission to use Ministry’s version of Stigmata, find something else. Do not use Marilyn Manson to cover it. He is not Al Jourgensen.

Otherwise, though, I should devote a full paragraph to the soundtrack, since it kicked ass, almost as much as Charlize. I’m a child of the eighties. It was the soundtrack to my teenage and college years, and I even spent some time in Berlin, on both side of the wall, in the middle of the decade. While that would be a couple of years before the events depicted here, it still brought back a heck of a lot of memories. Part of this might be the music, which plays like they rifled my CD collection. It starts with New Order’s Blue Monday, then segues into the opening credits which play out over David Bowie’s theme from Cat People, as Broughton stalks through the London streets. If not the first time that has been purloined for another movie – Quentin Tarantino used it, inexplicably, for World War 2 movie Inglourious Basterds – it works a lot better here. Consider me sold.

This is an action heroine in its most literal of terms. Broughton has often been compared to James Bond, yet she’s even more cool, detached and almost emotionless in some ways. It absolutely deserves a franchise, with its central character chewing her way through post-Cold War history like a shark in human form, always moving forward – and if you get in the way, it will end up the worse for you. Every step is absolutely purposeful and deliberate, a means to an end, and that end is her mission. Broughton does not fuck around, and neither does this film. Such single-minded determination can only be applauded.

Dir: David Leitch
Star: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones

Angel With the Iron Fists

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“From Hong Kong With Love.”

Swinging wildly between the surprisingly smart and the brain-numbingly stupid, this 1967 Hong Kong film is, in the end, not much more than a bad James Bond knock-off, despite its female lead. The heroine, Luo Na (Ho), is unsubtly named Agent 009, and goes to Hong Kong, posing as the mistress of an imprisoned gangster, who supposedly knows where he hid his ill-gotten gains. This brings her to the attention of the Dark Angels, whose leader is played by Tina Chin-Fei. This is a surprisingly gynocentric organization, owning both a vast, sprawling, underground lair and fetching two-piece uniforms. Keen to find out what Lona knows, they recruit her – which was 009’s cunning plan all along.

As well as straight out lifting some Bond musical cues, the makers go with the same kind of gadgets, Luo Na being given an entire arsenal of lethal purses, perfume and jewels before entering the Dark Angels’ lair. She also has some nifty sunglasses which allow her to tell when someone has been in her room, and Ho plays her as smartly competent, not relying on her sex appeal to get the job done. Or, at least, not relying entirely on her sex appeal, for she has to lure in high-level minion, Tieh Hu (Ching), which doesn’t sit well with his girlfriend, nightclub singer Dolly (Fan). If you can detect the faint whiff of Eau de Imminent Catfight, you’re not wrong.

The problem is mostly the villains, who appear to have strayed in from Austin Powers. For instance, there’s one scene where Luo Na is on a reconnaissance mission. Surprised by three guards, she engages in fisticuffs with them for while, and only then pulls a gun on them. They simply slouch off, shame-faced, and she continues reconnaissancing. Perhaps they were too embarrassed at being beaten by a woman to, oh, RAISE THE GODDAMN ALARM? And if ever I become an Evil Overlord, I will be sure not to discuss specific details, down to the flight numbers, of my top-secret plan to flood the world with a new, powerful drug, in front of the most recent recruit, immediately following her initiation.

But there’s one thing I have to say: in terms of dealing with any treachery, the Dark Angels get the full 10/10 for style. Here’s what happens after the leader discovers one of her “branch managers” skimmed $100,000 off the takings. I laughed like a drain, at this hip sixties update to the staple of classical kung-fu film, the flying guillotine. Just a shame this kind of goofy invention is rarely found outside the lair of Evil, Inc., such as the leader’s Rosa Klebb-inspired footwear. It doesn’t help that Ho’s action talents are clearly limited – the lengthy “swimsuit show” of no purpose was particularly aggravating. The movie did prove successful enough to merit a sequel the following year, Angel Strikes Again. I’ll be tracking that down because, for all its flaws, if it contains one moment like the flying guillotine one here, it’ll be worth the investment.

Dir: Lo Wei
Star: Lily Ho, Tang Ching, Tina Chin Fei, Fanny Fan

Hunted

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“A four-episode story stretched over eight episodes.”

Sam Hunter (George) is an agent for a private intelligence agency, Byzantium. While on a mission in Morocco, she is shot and nearly killed, so opts to go off-grid for a year. She returns to her job, and is assigned the highly risky task of infiltrating a criminal family, who are one of the bidders on a lucrative Pakistani dam project. However, that may not be the biggest threat to Sam’s life, as she knows whoever was behind the attempt in Morocco may well try again, now she has come back out of the shadows. There’s also the question of her own past, involving a dead mother and some severely repressed memories.

Originally pitched as a vehicle for Gillian Anderson – creator Spotnitz was a head writer on The X-Files – the main problem here is likely a structure which demands a second season the show never received. This seems to have come as a surprise to the creators, since they had put together a writing team and planned out storylines. Then, the show was abruptly not renewed, in response to sagging British ratings (the series lost 30% of its viewers over the eight-week run). Even after the BBC pulled the plug, there were hopes Cinemax would continue the show, as it had sustained its audience much better in the US. Those failed to come to fruition either, and the story of Sam Hunter is left frustratingly incomplete.

It’s a shame, because the start and end of the first series had a great deal of promise. Hunter is quickly positioned as someone who is equally competent in both brains and brawn, with the action scenes here being impressively hard-hitting. George carries herself well, with a terse approach to combat that stresses efficiency over flamboyance. The main plot thread here, concerning corruption at the intersection between big business and high level government, is also well considered and not implausible. Kudos also to Patrick Malahide, as crime boss Jack Turner, who projects the right degree of barely-restrained malice, and also Spotnitz, for giving him a better motive than TV villains usually receive.

The problem is the middle episodes, where the show meanders off in half-baked directions likely intended for exploration in the second series that never happened. There are major segments concerning an even more shadowy conspiracy, named “Hourglass,” as well as a creepy-looking dude who takes over the identity of a scientist, and who has a fondness for jabbing syringes into people’s eyeballs. None of this ever comes anywhere close to being resolved, any more than the safe-deposit box key Sam is handed in the final episode. True, it’s not the creators’ fault the show was canceled. However, until the ink is dry on the contract for renewal, it’s probably a good idea to act as if every series will be your last. Otherwise, you run the risk of ending up with something like this, an infuriating mix of well-crafted elements, thrown away on a bunch of loose ends.

Creator: Frank Spotnitz
Star: Melissa George, Adam Rayner, Stephen Dillane, Stephen Campbell Moore

Scream of the Bikini

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“It is a regular adventure!”

This appears to have been filmed somewhere in South America around 1966, then “poorly translated and dubbed by Germans”. The truth? It’s a modern spoof, a loving re-creation of the sixties Eurospy thriller, featuring two gun-toting leggy lovelies, Bridget (supposedly “Jasmine Orosco”, but actually Wedeen) and Sophia (“Paola Apanapal”, Larsen), who are international fashion supermodels by day, and jet-setting bounty hunters and secret agents by night. They acquire a microchip, capable of storing a whole one kilobyte of data – more than all the computers of Interpol and the Pentagon combined! – which embroils them in an evil plot to unleash wholesale devastation on the world’s population. As you do.

It absolutely nails the tone on just about every level, from the fashion styles through the washed-out palette of an elderly print and super funky sixties soundtrack, to the poor dubbing and English-as-a-second-language translations. “A death cult!” burbles one of our heroines – “The worst kind of cult,” adds the other, helpfully. It’s a genre ripe for parody, but it’s clear that Scholl – a theater director – as well as his cast and crew, have an abiding affection for their subject. It probably will help to have seen at least some of these kind of movies, and it’s likely the greater your familiarity, the more you’ll get out. Though even those whose knowledge is no more than a viewing of, say, Barbarella, should still have enough expertise to mine a decent amount of amusement.

It definitely reminded me of The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, though the target there was 50’s SF/horror. That was also somewhat more polished, and perhaps did a slightly better job of sustaining itself over the entire feature-length; there are spots here, particularly in the second half, where the script seems to run out of ideas. But just when your interest drops to a dangerously low level, a line of dialogue or a scene will pop up out of nowhere, that’s laugh out-loud funny,  and you’re back to being engrossed once more. If you’re a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000, you’ll know the way this scatter-gun approach works, and that such an angle will generally result in considerable misses, as well as hits.

It can be a difficult task to pull off: when you go out there with the deliberate intention of trying to make a “cult” movie, more often than not, the results will end up self-absorbed and inadequate. [Compare, say, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the abomination which was its follow-up, Revenge of the Old Queen] I think the genuine affection mentioned above is a big help. While this is a parody, it’s a warm one, and you don’t get the sense it is laughing at this kind of film, so much as with it. In many ways, I probably found this more entertaining than many of its targets; an awareness of its own stupidity goes a long way to mitigating the flaws.

Dir: Kiff Scholl
Star: Kelsey Wedeen, Rebecca Larsen, Darrett Sanders, Kimberly Atkinson

A Shot Through the Heart, by J. C. Antonelli

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

shotheartThis book wasn’t on my radar until a friend recommended it. But it proved to be well worth the read –and further demonstrates that there are independent authors out there producing quality work, and who aren’t getting the notice they ought to. J. C. Antonelli is one of these! Hopefully, this review will give you an idea of whether or not the book would be up your alley. If so, the novel has the added advantage of being a stand-alone; reading it won’t suck you into a long series.

This is, unabashedly, modern pulp action-adventure, with a kick-butt female protagonist. That doesn’t mean it’s without serious moral reflection or psychological depth; it has some of both to offer. (Although it has a 17-18 year old protagonist, its significant bad language, sexual content, and violence mark it as an adult read, not a YA –though there are certainly teens of both genders who’d read it avidly.) It doesn’t stint on the physical action (with a high body count) though, nor on the gripping suspense. The snappy prose style and short chapters, and the storyline itself, compel the reader to keep turning pages; if I’d been able to, I’d have read it at one sitting. (And I did finish it in about a week, which is a pretty quick read for me!) It’s too bad fiction by independent authors is ignored by Hollywood as fodder for adaptations, because this would make a stem-winder of an action flick, which would probably be a box office smash.

We open with our heroine/narrator Samantha (“Sam”) wounded and bleeding in a fleabag Bucharest hotel room, waiting for shadowy killers to close in and try to finish her off. (But she’s got two pistols, and she’s not going down without a fight.) From there, she goes back a year to tell the story of how she got here, to the summer before her senior year of high school. Not having a driver’s license yet, to get out of the house and fight boredom, she got her dad to take her for an outing at a shooting range, using a coupon that came in the mail. That experience revealed that she has a natural talent for handling firearms: quick reflexes, a keen eye, and an instinctive ability to aim accurately, that would place her probably in the 99th percentile for naturally-gifted shooters. This evokes a LOT of attention, because this range happens to be a clandestine screening tool used for recruitment by a super-secret quasi-government agency. Its mission is the targeted assassination of large-scale evil-doers whose power and position makes them untouchable by legal channels –and they have a job in hand for which a pretty 17-year-old girl might actually be what the operation’s profile needs.

“Laid-back California girl” Sam’s a wonderfully drawn, complex, round and dynamic character, as real as any girl her age you might meet at your local mall. Yes, she’s flawed. She’s the product of her culture in some ways, with its prejudices and blind spots; she has a potty-mouthed speaking style, and has the issues that come from losing her mom at a very young age and growing up raised by an inept and emotionally distant dad (whom she truly loves, but whose faults she realizes). But she emphatically isn’t the borderline “sociopath” the organization’s psychiatrist considers her. True, when she thinks it’s justified, she’s quite capable of killing without any emotional distress.

However, she has genuine feelings and a conscience, a respect for innocent life, and people she cares about; and she approaches what she’s asked to do from within a serious moral framework. And while, like most of us, she can’t help taking pride in doing something she’s good at (which, in her case, is lethal combat), she doesn’t revel in hurting people as such –she’s compassionate even towards enemies’ pain. Having had to take a lot of responsibility from a young age, and natively smart (she scored 2200 on her SATS), she’s also more mature and grounded than many teens are. But she’s a believable teen, and a believable teen girl (I raised three, so I know something about the demographic) –not, as some critics snidely say about action-oriented female characters, especially those created by male writers, an essentially male figure disguised as female.

While Sam’s the only character whose head we get inside, Antonelli is able to make the rest of the cast (especially Tico) vivid and life-like as well. His plotting is taut, driving, well-constructed and twisty –complications, both logistical and emotional, are going to ensue. Though the book most definitely isn’t a comedy, he understands the uses of comic relief, and Sam’s wry narrative voice and quirky (sometimes off-color) humor provides it at times, as do the inherent incongruities of the situations. Being a keen and accurate observer both of herself and others enhances Sam’s effectiveness as a narrator. We have a variety of physical settings here, all brought to life pretty well, but the description is never intrusive.

The author clearly knows his weaponry (though he calls magazines “clips” –but that’s a common mistake), and writes clear, exciting action scenes; he doesn’t over-stress the gore of violent death –it is what it has to be, but he doesn’t rub our noses in it. Moral reflection about the ethics of extra-legal, vigilante killing in particular cases is serious, and adds depth to the book. (Though it’s not true that all or most religions have a blanket prohibition against killing.) Finally, the book puts Sam through a wringer of tough moral choices and emotional stresses that really challenge both her and the reader –I consider that a hallmark of superior fiction.

The idea of “insta-love” can be a problematic issue for readers, and there’s a romantic component here that develops in a quick time-frame. Honest love between two people has to have a basis, and that takes some time to develop and build. But the amount of time can vary with the people and circumstances. For the two principals here, their prior experience with the opposite sex has been largely fallow and unsatisfactory, and there’s a mutual perception that they want something different than what they’ve been offered in the past; the attraction is based on personal qualities rather than just physical appearance, and the circumstances are of the sort that would stimulate quick bonding. I don’t automatically believe in relatively “insta-love” just because an author wants to throw it into the plot; but I didn’t have a problem believing in it for this couple.

Notes: (Although there’s no explicit sex in the book, some non-explicit unmarried sex does take place; but it came across to me as being loving rather than exploitative and lewd. Bad language is pervasive; I lost count of the f-words, though there’s no religious profanity. Devout Catholic readers will be apt to be very offended by a passing thought of Sam’s about the Mass, evoked by a stressful mental comparison between the sight of red wine and of blood (though to a girl ignorant of theology, the whole idea of deliberately drinking blood would appear “crazy”).

Prolifers will strongly disagree with her advice to a pregnant friend to abort the baby; but it was well-intended advice –and the fact that her friend has the baby anyway makes a statement of a different sort, as well. Also, Sam makes a passing comment near the beginning that it would be wrong to assassinate Mother Teresa, but okay to do Rush Limbaugh (and by implication, anyone with right-of-center views); that will sit poorly with those readers whose views are right of center.

Author: J. C. Antonelli
Publisher: Self-published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story

khanBorn three years before the Russian Revolution in St. Petersburg, Khan was perhaps the most unlikely of secret agents. Her father was an Indian of noble birth, descended on his maternal side from Tipu Sultan, and a noted Sufi mystic; her mother, a cousin of Mary Baker Eddy’s from New Mexico. The family also lived in London, before settling in Paris until the invasion of France in 1940, when Khan returned to the United Kingdom. Keen to help free her country from the Nazis, she joined the Women’s Auxilliary Air Force as a wireless operator. However, her additional talents as a native French speaker, brought Khan to the attentions of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), tasked with organizing resistance groups in France.

After being trained in undercover work, she was sent to France in June 1943, and began work in Paris, transmitting agent reports back to London. It was a ferociously dangerous job, with the average lifespan of radio operators only a few weeks. A sweep by occupying forces gathered up almost all her colleagues, leaving Khan the only operator still at large. She was the most wanted British secret agent in Paris, with her description widely circulated; wireless detection teams meant she was constantly on the move and could only transmit for 20 minutes at a time. According to a post-war commendation, “She refused to abandon what had become the most important and dangerous post in France and did excellent work.”

It eventually took betrayal from within the organization before she was captured after three and a half months in October 1943. Even then, she managed to escape custody, only to be recaptured once again. Another unsuccessful attempt followed. The Germans were taking no further chances, and shipped her from France to Germany, where she was imprisoned in solitary confinement, with her hands and feet shackled. After more than nine months she was transferred to Dachau concentration camp, along with three other female British SOE agents. On September 13, 1944, all four were executed. Khan was 30 years old. Her final utterance was: “Liberte”. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the second-highest British decoration – one of only four women to receive it – and also given the Croix de Guerre by the French government.

Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story
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khanScreened on PBS in 2014, this uses a combination of interviews, with scholars and Khan’s descendants,  as well as dramatic re-creations, to tell her life-story, touching on most of the aspects mentioned above. It also delves into her psychology, suggesting that the tenets of strong Sufi philosophy instilled during her upbringing were both a source of Khan’s strength and, potentially, her biggest weakness. She was, according to the film, almost incapable of telling a lie, which could be a literally lethal flaw for a secret agent in wartime. In his memoirs, cryptographer Leo Marks (played here by Isenberg) gives some blackly amusing anecdotes to illustrate this. But the film concentrates on how he used the trait to strengthen her encryption skills, another area of concern from her training.

Unfortunately, rather unimpressive are the interviews with her nephew, Pir Zia Inayat-Khan who delivers slabs of philosophical mumbo-jumbo that makes little sense and is even less interesting. I’d rather have seen more of the re-enactments of Khan’s time in occupied Paris, which manage to do a fairly good job of capturing the sense of danger and perpetual tension for an agent in those times. Srinivasan, as Khan, doesn’t appear to have anything of an acting resume in the IMDb, yet is successful in depicting Khan’s idealism, which ultimately led to her death. Curiously though, the film appears almost to soft-pedal the treatment received at the hands of the Nazis after her capture. Still, there’s no denying the impact of the final sequence, which cuts from the execution, shot almost in stark black-and-white, to Khan reading from the book of stories she had written, to two young children.

Though running little more than 50 minutes, it does highlight the cinematic potential in the story: the modern resonance of a Muslim woman taking up arms and participating in a Western war is particularly undeniable. There was word, back in 2012 [around the time a memorial statue of Khan was unveiled in London], that such a project was in the pipeline. Producers Tabrez Noorani and Zafar Hai announced they had bought the rights to Shrabani Basu’s book, Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan. You’d think a Hollywood-Bollywood partnership would be all over the story. Yet since then? Little or nothing. Maybe some day, Khan will finally receive the global recognition she likely deserves.

Dir: Robert H. Gardner
Star: Helen Mirren (narrator), Grace Srinivasan, Joe Isenberg, Mike Sullivan

Below, you should see another documentary on the same topic, Princess Spy. This formed part of BBC’s Timewatch series in 2006, and if perhaps a little dry, is also a good overview of a heroine who isn’t as well known as she should be.

Muñecas Peligrosas

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“Carlitos Angels”

munecasNot far removed from Peligro… Mujeres en acción!, this is actually a sequel to Con Licencia para Matar, which I’m still seeking in a subtitled format. Some day… While nominally starring Fernando Casanova as agent Jim Morrison (maybe The Doors weren’t big in Mexico?), this is really about the Tigresses, a freelance group of female bodyguards, with a fetching line in black catsuits. There’s leader Emily (Cranz), associates Barbara (Angela) and Diana (Monti) and Tigress in training, Leonor (Ochoa), experts variously with a gun, bow, sword and fists. Jim brings them on board to help protect scientist Professor Livingson, the inventor of a key ingredient in rocket fuel, K-20; he’s travelling to Mexico to update its manufacturing plant. That will expose him to Garrick (Armando Silvestre), a villain who wants the secret of K-20 for himself, and it’s up to Jim and the ladies to protect the Professor.

Despite the name of the group, the title actually translates as “Dangerous Dolls,” and this takes itself a bit less seriously than Peligro – a mixed blessing. There are aspects that are deliciously silly: Garrick’s minions all wear uniforms and hats with his logo on it, making it look as if he recruited en masse from a Devo convention. There’s also a (likely borderline offensive now) running gag involving an obviously not-Japanese karate instructor, speaking gibberish. However, the storyline doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny at all, such as the way Emily just happens to be going out with Garrick’s second-in-command. What are the odds? I could also have done without the musical numbers, and describing most of the actresses’ action abilities as “a bit crap,” would be kind. It’s clearly less about what you do, than about how cool you look doing it, except for Leonor, who is there for comic-relief purposes. Fortunately, the martial abilities of Garrick’s minions are worse still – near what you would get if you did recruit from a Devo convention.

That all said, I can’t claim I disliked this, and it’s certainly self-aware, so the flaws don’t stop it from being entertaining nonsense. If Garrick’s motivation is largely obscure – what, exactly, is he going to do with the catalyst? – he’s very well-dressed, and it’s nice to see a supervillain with a sense of style to match the good guys. He takes the time to come up with ingenious items like an “organic disintegrating agent” and chivalrously sets a countdown time for four minutes, to allow the Tigresses and Jim time for a final fight-back. Meanwhile, the ladies (outside of Emily) are largely independent-minded, and in no need of male attention or help, quite a laudable feat for 1969 Mexico. I was expecting Jim to bed his way through most of them, and was gratified to see this doesn’t happen: it’s likely less chauvinist than Bond films of the era. If only they’d put more effort into the action.

Dir: Rafael Baledón
Star: Barbara Angely, Leonorilda Ochoa, Emily Cranz, Maura Monti

Modesty Blaise, by Peter O’Donnell

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2actionhalf

modesty1British author Peter O’Donnell created the iconic character of Modesty Blaise in 1963 as the heroine of an action adventure comic strip. He didn’t do the art work for the strip (that was done by four successive artists altogether), but he was responsible for the storylines and printed matter during the whole 38-year run, continuing until 2001. (These original strips are currently being reprinted as a series of graphic novels.) It quickly proved popular enough that 20th-Century Fox enlisted him to write a screenplay for a spin-off movie, which he did. However, he approached the character and the project seriously; and the filmmakers decided that they wanted to produce a parody of the James Bond films instead.

So, they brought in another writer to rework his screenplay, and ended up only keeping one sentence of it. Surprisingly, though, they asked O’Donnell, not his replacement, to do the novelization. He did –but he used his screenplay as the basis. That became the book I’m reviewing here, which was published in 1965 and sparked a long-running series of novels and stories, all with original plots distinct from those of the comic strips. (Meanwhile, the movie, with its caricature of Modesty in the main role, hit the screens in 1966, but failed to spark any fan enthusiasm comparable to what the books and comics generated.)

O”Donnell’s Modesty is a fascinating, complex and layered character, with an unusual back-story that’s provided in its basics at the beginning of this book, but fleshed out more as the tale unfolds. Born about 1939 –she doesn’t know exactly when, nor what her real name and nationality is– she was orphaned as a small child in the chaos and atrocities of World War II, and wandered alone through the Balkans and Middle East, sometimes living in refugee or DP camps. Exposed to a lot of danger and brutality, she survived against all odds because she learned to defend herself and to develop a tough, pragmatic mentality. As a tween, she was mentored by another refugee, a former university professor (whom she protected, rather than the other way around) who taught her a great deal; intelligent and gifted with a good memory, she’s well-educated as a result.

Winding up in Tangier at 17, she soon succeeded to the leadership of a criminal gang, and built it into a substantial international organization, the Network, that engaged in art and jewel thefts, currency manipulations, smuggling, and intelligence brokering. She did NOT, however, engage in drug or sex trafficking (and sometimes provided the authorities with tips that enabled them to bust drug operations); her criminal activities violated the law, but never her own personal moral code and sense of honor. (It was during her Network days that she forged her abiding friendship with Willie Garvin, a skilled knife-fighter whose life had pretty much hit bottom until she saw his potential and recruited him; he would become her lieutenant and faithful sidekick.) Having amassed her goal of half a million pounds sterling by the time she was about 25, she turned the Network over to its regional bosses and she and Willie (also wealthy by that time) retired to a quiet life in England.

The book opens about a year later, when she’s bored and restive, increasingly aware that she’s psychologically geared to find fulfillment and purpose in high-risk physical action, and doesn’t feel really alive when she’s vegetating without it. At this point, she’s approached by Sir Gerald Tarrant, head of British Intelligence (who did business with her, through Willie, when she was brokering items of information that interested the British government). As partial payment to a Middle Eastern sheik for an oil concession, Britain is shipping ten million pounds worth of diamonds from South Africa to Beirut –and there are rumors that the secrecy of the shipment has been compromised, and that someone may be out to steal it. Being aware of Modesty’s unique wide knowledge of, and contacts in, the international underworld, Tarrant would like her to check this out for him. First, though, she’ll have another priority on the agenda –rescuing Willie (also bored and restive) from the South American prison where he’s awaiting execution, having been a mercenary on the losing side in a civil war.

modesty2O’Donnell is a master of characterization; not just Modesty and Willie, but all of the secondary characters here too, are wonderfully wrought, full-orbed and realistic. The plotting is taut and well-paced, with no unnecessary filler, and there’s a real sense of danger and challenge. It’s clear that the author has a very good working knowledge of traditional Arab culture, which adds texture here. Unlike Ian Fleming, he doesn’t go in for far-fetched gadgetry, but he does endow his heroine and hero with some believable gadgets and an ability to secrete them on their person. He writes action scenes that are clear, vivid and gripping; and he sets his action in the context of a moral framework –recognizable good is pitted here against genuine evil, and O’Donnell makes us root wholeheartedly for the former and despise the latter. Modesty herself is no plaster saint; I didn’t approve of everything she’s done in her life, or every aspect of her lifestyle now. But I could understand her motivations, and didn’t have any trouble liking and respecting her as a heroine –she has a lot of very real virtues, is a born leader and as valiant a fighter as ever lived, cares about others and treats them decently, and respects innocent life (and will spare adversaries’ lives at times when some people in her shoes probably wouldn’t).

At one point, O’Donnell makes use of a double coincidence in his plotting, which some critics might fault him for. (But that personally didn’t bother me much; I ascribed it to the action of providence.) And while he drops the names of various firearms models to lend verisimilitude to his narrative, he makes a couple of bloopers in his treatment of guns. Also, he describes technical processes at places in the narrative in more detail than I would (I have a low tolerance for that kind of thing), but he usually has a good reason to, and does it with reasonable clarity; some fans will actually regard this as a strength of the writing. One major character displays some sexist attitudes, but I didn’t think O’Donnell was sharing in or justifying them, just realistically depicting the way many males in 1965 thought (and still do).

There’s a high body count here, but the violence is handled quickly and cleanly; while some of the villains are sadists, O”Donnell isn’t. There’s some bad language, and a certain amount of religious profanity, but no obscenity. While there’s no explicit sex, it’s made clear that unmarried sex took place a few times, and will again; Willie and Modesty are single, but not celibate. (Their relationship with each other, though, is perfectly chaste and Platonic –they genuinely do love each other, and would die for each other, but as true friends, not as erotic partners.)

In this book, it’s noted in passing that Modesty has been raped twice in her life. As it stands, that’s just a reflection of the tragic fact that women in our world often do face a lot of sexual violence; and she isn’t defined by the experience, and doesn’t have a victim mentality that allows it to permanently scar her life, which is positive modeling. But I’m told by other readers that in the other books of the series (though not the comics) Modesty tends to be raped quite frequently. To me, that’s a disturbing amount of sexual violence for one character to have to undergo; and it does seem like a morbid overuse of the motif. But that said, I’m still invested enough in this heroine and her future adventures to continue reading the series!

Author: Peter O’Donnell
Publisher: Souvenir Press, available through Amazon, currently only as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Queen of the Desert

starstar
“Just deserts”

queendesertEccentric explorers with strong personalities facing the challenge of the wilderness is hardly uncharted territory for Herzog. Most famously, his pair of incendiary collaborations with fellow German, Klaus Kinski, Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, Wrath of God are both classics, so I had high hopes for this biopic about Gertrude Bell, who was, according to her Wikipedia page, “an English writer, traveller, political officer, administrator, spy and archaeologist,” operating in the Middle East during and after the first World War.

Daughter of an English baronet, she found the aristocratic English life stifling, and want to Teheran where her uncle was a diplomat. She fell in love with the region and its people, and spent almost the entire rest of her life there. It was a time of turmoil, as the ruling Ottoman Empire was collapsing, with other Western empires, including the British, seeking to take over the territory. In that setting, Bell’s expert knowledge of the region was invaluable, and she became an intelligence asset, working alongside T.E. Lawrence (Pattinson). better known as Lawrence of Arabia. But her personal life was more troubled; her father refused permission to marry her first love (Franco), who then committed suicide. After a long lay-off from love, she begins a relationship with soldier Charles Doughty-Wylie (Lewis) – who is already married.

Herzog’s work is at its best when he invests fully in it, such as Fitzcarraldo, where he told the story of a man who dragged a steam-boat over a mountain (for rubber plantation purposes), by actually dragging a steam-boat over a mountain – watch the documentary, Burden of Dreams, for more on this, and the psychological toll the whole production took on the director. Here, you don’t get any sense of personal cost; it’s probably the most slick and Hollywood film Herzog has ever made, and that takes away more than it adds. Kidman is decent enough, yet her depiction is likely too restrained. It peaks very early, with Bell’s barely-suppressed, seething hatred for the suitors who come to woo her in England, and there are not many occasions after, where you get any sense of emotion. The desert landscapes are impressive [not the first time Herzog has been there either; see his post-war documentary on the Kuwaiti oil fields, Lessons of Darkness], yet there’s only so often you can watch Bell riding across them while a vaguely epic score swells behind her, before the impact diminishes.

All told, you probably get a better insight into Bell’s life from reading the Wikipedia page mentioned earlier. The obituary quoted there is likely a better testament to its subject, than the two hours of scenic desert landscapes and unresolved sexual tension we get here:

No woman in recent time has combined her qualities – her taste for arduous and dangerous adventure with her scientific interest and knowledge, her competence in archaeology and art, her distinguished literary gift, her sympathy for all sorts and condition of men, her political insight and appreciation of human values, her masculine vigour, hard common sense and practical efficiency – all tempered by feminine charm and a most romantic spirit.

Dir: Werner Herzon
Star: Nicole Kidman, Damian Lewis, James Franco, Robert Pattinson

The Informationist, by Taylor Stevens

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

informationistThe jacket copy for this opening volume of the author’s Vanessa Michael Munro series gives the impression that our heroine’s adolescent career, as part of a gang of gunrunners in the African jungle, lasted for years. It didn’t –she fled from Africa at the age of 15, after about a year with the gang. (They also weren’t mercenaries, and their smuggling operations included drugs as well as guns.) Otherwise, the information is accurate as far as it goes. We meet her nine years later, when she’s 24 years old. Before we do, though, we’re treated to a two-page, attention-grabbing prologue, set somewhere in West Central Africa, describing a terrifying experience which we quickly realize is related to our main plot, and which gives us a little bit of information and a whole lot of tantalizing ambiguity.

Four years later, Michael is approached by super-wealthy oil tycoon Richard Burbank, who wants to hire her to trace the now four-years-cold trail of his adopted step-daughter, who vanished somewhere in Africa on the cusp of adulthood. Finding a missing person isn’t something she’s ever done; she’s an information broker, a compiler of deep background on foreign countries, for governments, NGOs and corporations. But she’s extremely good at this, blessed with a facility for learning languages, strong computer skills, a powerful intelligence and single-minded focus and determination.

She’s also a mistress of disguise, who (with her hair cut short and her bosom tightly bound) can pass for a male if she needs to. Some reviewers focus on this, and on her preference for using her middle name, to make “androgyny” a central aspect of her character. IMO, this idea has been overstated; her character comes across as essentially female, without any ambiguity (though she’s more in touch with her kick-butt side than many women are). Passing for a male is a tactical device that can come in handy in some situations (and she’s not the only fictional heroine to find it so; Madeleine E. Robins’ Sarah Tolerance, for instance, does it frequently), and doesn’t entail any repudiation of her femininity. As for preferring “Michael” over “Vanessa,” she’s not the first person in literature or real life to want to change the way she’s addressed after a major transition in her life –especially from a traumatic period that she’d like to forget. (Her African associates knew her as Essa.) Anyway, Burbank has been assured that these skills will be transferable to ferreting out the fate and whereabouts of a person, and that Michael can succeed where others have failed.

Combat-capable females aren’t as rare in literature as they once were, but her fighting skills aren’t what make Michael a rather unique fictional heroine. (Though she has few peers where those skills are concerned –she’s adept with both guns and blades, and could kill you with a set of car keys if she has to). She’s a very complex and nuanced character, with aspects of her personality that aren’t all pretty. Her missionary parents, who didn’t plan for or want her, raised her in a mindset that sees God as an angry and condemning Judge rather than a loving and forgiving Father. The experiences of her African adolescence left her with massive internal abysses of guilt and anger which she uses her work to keep at bay; she has hardly any friends, and walks a psychological knife edge between moral decency and a homicidal darkness she could easily plunge into for keeps. Now, with the quest for Emily Burbank taking her back into a world she left nine years ago, she’ll face external conflicts with some very nasty villains; but her most desperate and consequential battle will be inside herself, and she’ll come to a moral decision that may save her –or destroy her.

Taylor Stevens’ unique personal upbringing gave her a first-hand knowledge of a number of world locales; this is probably reflected in the vivid way settings in several countries on three continents are realized. (Some of Michael’s formative experiences may have something in common with Stevens’ own as well –though one hopes not.) The African milieu that forms the main setting is particularly life-like, with a you-are-there immediacy especially marked in the portrayal of the dangerous, paranoid Twilight-Zone nation of Equatorial Guinea, the model for Frederick Forsythe’s setting in The Dogs of War (a novel that Stevens references here –conditions there haven’t improved much since Forsythe wrote). Her prose style is crisp and quick-moving, with a wealth of realistic detail that lends verisimilitude. All of the major characters are fully three-dimensional, adding to the texture and emotional evocative quality of the storyline. Plotting here is a tour-de-force, with major twists and surprises in store; the quality of suspense is very taut through much of the book, and comes right down to the wire.

This is an action-adventure novel, so the reader should expect that it’s going to have some violence; more than a few people are going to get killed here. None of the violence is gratuitous, and it isn’t over-described for its own sake; but some readers might find one scene a bit disturbing. There’s no explicit sex, but some sexual encounters are noted without being described in detail, and Michael’s sexual behavior is, like every other aspect of her life, affected by the psychic damage she carries. Readers concerned about bad language should note that there’s a fair amount of use of f-word, and profanity/cursing. For perhaps the first third or more of the book, this isn’t so marked, but it gets worse. (A couple of the English-speaking characters could be expected to have barracks-room vocabularies, but it’s less realistic when English obscenities are put into the mouth of non-English speakers.)

In a couple of place, I have a quibble or two with details. (A camera affixed to the peephole of a hotel door, for instance, would register images directly in front of it –NOT the adjacent door. And one tactical action near the end seems to have no credible reason for being done, except that it serves the author’s ultimate plotting purposes.) But quibbles don’t interfere with the fact that this is, overall, a very strong first novel. And, although there are sequels in the series, this opener comes to a very satisfying conclusion in itself; for readers who don’t want to get sucked into another open-ended series, this book can function perfectly well as a completed stand-alone.

Author: Taylor Stevens
Publisher: Broadway Books, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Gooodreads.