Tag Archives: Espionage & Spies

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Asambhav

It’s been said that in an effort to appeal to as massive a population as possible, the average Hindi film tries to cram every film genre into a single movie. Asambhav is the rare entry that maintains a relatively narrow thematic focus — this is an action film, stripped of the romantic comedy and estranged mother that appear in almost every other film, be they action or horror or whatever — but it makes up for its lack of schizophrenic genre-hopping by trying to cram every single editing and camera trick from the last fifteen years into one film, and often into one scene, and occasionally into a single shot. The result is a dizzying nightmare of over-direction that turns an otherwise average action film into a complete wreck that could almost amuse you if it wasn’t so busy inducing seizures.

Arjun Rampal plays Aadit Arya, super-duper Army commando and part-time international spy. When evil Kashmiri Muslims hatch a scheme to kidnap the President of India while he is in Switzerland, it’s up to Arya, and for some reason only Arya, to foil the dastardly scheme. You might think that the kidnapping of a country’s president would inspire a slightly more forceful reaction and better security, but I guess the security here is orchestrated by the same people who arranged the security for the transport of weapons-grade plutonium in James Glickenhaus’ The Soldier. I also thought by the time of this movie, the whole evil Pakistani/Kashmiri Muslim thing was played out. Didn’t Sunny Deol single-handedly defeat the entire Pakistani army and all radical Muslim terrorists groups simply by staring at them in an intense fashion with a flag waving behind him in slow motion? Years after the fact, however, Rai returns to that seemingly eternal well, though frankly, the whole Kashmiri/Pakistani thing is really little more than window dressing by this point. It doesn’t feel like the movie’s heart is really into it. I reckon they assume you pretty much got the gist of things at this point, so they throw the Kashmiri terrorists in as a way to get the ball rolling without having to explain motivation.

In Switzerland, Arya poses as a reporter and meets the obligatory hot female pop star, Alisha (Priyanka Chopra). Since this is a Bollywood film, we can’t have just one plot. So Alisha is the unwitting drug mule for slick Switzerland-based Indian criminal Sam Hans (Naseeruddin Shah, who steals the film, though that’s no big feat considering the rest of the cast), who works with her handlers to hide the drugs inside musical instruments. Having Alisha in the movie means that we now have our excuse for gratuitous musical numbers, though in all honesty, they’re pretty tame by comparison to many musical numbers. Most of them are just passed off as club performances or video shoots, which is kind of weak even if it is more “realistic.” None of the songs are all that catchy, and the choreography is pretty listless. In an effort to add to the realism, we frequently cut from people who do look hot and are able to dance to people who don’t and can’t. Seeing big hulking gangster henchmen beaming big, goofy smiles and doing that “I can’t really dance” dance is pretty funny, though.

Eventually, we learn that Sam is involved with the terrorists who kidnap the president, but he’s hardly in the scheme for political reasons. And since he’s the coolest character in the film, you can also figure that he’ll be the one with ulterior motives and depth of character that allow for the obligatory “moment of redemption.” There’s another subplot that unveils the fact that someone in the Indian Embassy has betrayed their country as well and is in league with the terrorists. Incidentally, the Indian Embassy in Switzerland is apparently staffed by a number of incredibly leggy bombshells in micro-skirts and cleavage-revealing tops. Let’s pray they never discover the boxy, ill-fitting pantsuit.

Naseeruddin Shah seems to be channeling a bit of Gary Oldman crossed with Graham Norton’s wardrobe in his portrayal of Sam Hans. He’s flamboyant but stops just short of scene-chewing or going needlessly over-the-top, though he does wear lots of lavender silk suits and whatnot. Whatever the case, he turns in a good performance made better by the fact that everyone else is pretty bad. The hitman in the long shiny blue trenchcoat is just silly, and he looks sort of like Benny Urquidez mixed with Christian Slater, but with none of the menace such an abomination would actually exude. Our hero Arya is pretty much a non-entity through most of the film. He shows up from time to time to kungfu the crap out of people, but Arjun Rampal really isn’t much of an actor at this point in his career. He looks good, he handles action believably, but his character is thoroughly uninteresting. Villains are always the better and more complex characters, and it takes an actor of tremendous talent or a very good (for the hero) or bad (for the villain) screenwriter to make the hero more interesting than the villain. Compared to Sam Hans, Arya barely even registers. For long stretches of film, you’ll forget that he’s even in it.

Priyanka Chopra has little more to do besides tag along, get captured, and look hot. She does all these things well, and also handles most of the movie’s musical numbers. The one that doesn’t involve her is also the only one that isn’t set in a club and grounded in some daft semblance of reality. Upon successfully kidnapping the president, the vile terrorist organization retires to their lair of villainy to celebrate with a musical number that involves a very hot, very scantily clad woman singing and dancing with a whole cast of bald gay guys in short shorts, combat boots, and chain mail. It’s like these terrorists pack an entire dance troupe of Right Said Fred clones with them. Maybe they should have just unleashed their nightmarish Right Said Fred army on the world. No one would be expecting some Islamic Fundamentalist to stand in front of a camera and broadcast through Al Jazeera that he’s “too sexy for this Jihad!”

But then, this terrorist organization does have a martial arts hitman in a shiny blue trenchcoat, and a squad that drives around Switzerland in generic “mercenary” fatigues, including a woman in camo booty shorts and a halter top. And you thought the revolution was all chadors and guys with scraggly beards. This is by far the battiest musical number, and as such, the best.

There are a couple things this film does differently than the average Bollywood film, and even the average Bollywood action film. Most noticeable is the more or less complete absence of a romantic subplot. Oh sure Alisha and Arya are going to fall in love, but the film spends hardly any time at all on this. There’s not even a musical montage of them set against the various famous landmarks of the world. No, they simply meet, and then we assume they’re in love because this is a movie and they’re the male and female leads. Some Bollywood films would spend a good hour on a romantic comedy subplot, but Asambhav is content to simply take the well-worn path all action films take, and just say, “Look, they fall in love, OK?” Then it’s on to some kungfu. There’s also precious little comic relief. Arya gets saddled with a comic relief sidekick agent in Switzerland, but his mugging is graciously limited.

Even with all that, the director must have thought that the real star of the film was the director, because he crams every cheap trick and technique he can into the film. It’s like watching distilled essence of 24 mixed with Mission: Impossible, which seems to be this film’s main inspiration, especially since “mission asambhav” translates more or less to “mission impossible.” Or if that’s too good for you, then Mission: Impossible 2. For starters, this film can’t go ten seconds without a split screen. Sometimes, it’s five or six different frames in one shot. And it’s not just in scenes where split screen might heighten the tension or give us an alternate point of view. No, much of the time, it happens when something as mundane as a guy reaching for a tissue is all that’s going on. Need to pick up a pencil? Show three different angles, and make sure one of them is in slow motion with thumping techno music in the background. This movie also loves that thing where you start in slow motion, then the action speeds up to super-hyper fast motion for a second, then goes back to slow motion. Once again, this is used at the drop of a hat, often with no meaning at all. Walking down the street? Why not shoot it slow-hyper-slow? And it’s not like anyone is walking to a fight or anything. They’re just walking down to the mailbox to see if their new issue of India Times has arrived.

There’s also the tendency to have “ghost images” of a person appear, again for no real reason. Rather than augmenting or working with the action in the movie, all these goofy tricks simply distract you. They muddy the waters. They stink of a first-time music video director getting final edit on a feature film, though Rai is not a first-time director. He’s just a bad director. The one thing I will say in his defense, however, is that as far as I remember, there was not a single instance of “bullet time.” And let that be a lesson to all other directors: if bullet time is too tired even for Rajid Rai, who has never seen a stupid editing trick he didn’t like, then it’s really past its prime. So let bullet time go, people. Let it go. Rajit Rai did, and he replaced it with doing four-thousand split screens in one shot.

It’s amazing just how crippling over-direction can be. Asambhav would not be an especially good film even if it had a good director, but Rajid Rai’s relentless over-indulgence really pulls the carpet out from under what was otherwise an unimpressive-but-enjoyable action film. At the same time, I might have been bored if this movie had been competently directed. The sheer insanity exhibited by Rai does, I must admit, turn this film into an absolute disaster, but one that is largely entertaining. I don’t like to pull the “so bad it’s good” card all that often, but it sort of applies here. You have an average film. It’s made awful by an over-indulgent director. But then, it becomes so over-indulgent, so awful, that it comes full circle and manages to be sort of entertaining in a way. It’s by no means much of a recommendation, but it’s the best I can do. The fight scenes are solid but uninspired. The acting is mostly below-average. The musical numbers are largely unengaging. But you know, the whole thing is such a hideous eyesore that it kept me watching.

Plus, Sam Hans was all right. Every single time he shows up on screen, no matter how mundane his appearance, the soundtrack blares with “O Fortuna.” And it can’t bear to stop the song. They thought it was so cool that even when Sam talks, they keep “O Fortuna” rolling, only at a nearly inaudible level. As soon as Sam pauses, the song volume rockets back up, then back down if he speaks again. So Asambhav really has few redeeming features (Naseeruddin Shah’s hamming is the only one I can think of at the moment. Well, that and Priyanka Chopra’s midriff, and that crazy-ass hard gay musical number the fundamentalist Islamic terrorists put on).

It’s a crummy action film with awful direction. It’s a completely soulless, paint-by-numbers action film that could have been churned out by a computer. It’s never thrilling, and the lead male and female character disappear for large swaths of film, and you don’t even notice or care because they were pretty boring anyway. This movie is a total bomb, and that didn’t stop me from enjoying it. Don’t listen to me, because I’m going to tell you to go ahead and see Asambhav. The near universal chorus of bad reviews this movie received are right, and I am wrong. Don’t do it. Why do you even trust me any more? For God’s sake, man, that’s the road to madness!!!

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Deadlier than the Male

The phrase “in the wake of James Bond’s success” is probably the single most over-used phrase in any examination of the flood of spy films that flowed freely onto screens worldwide in the wake of James Bond’s success. Unfortunately, facts are facts and while the Bond films certainly were not the first espionage thrillers to grace the silver screen, they remain to this day the most popular and influential. While many of the films that followed Dr. No and From Russia with Love were very different from those two seminal Bond movies, there’s little doubt that Bond opened the doors, paved the way, and made producers a lot more interested in green-lighting spy movies. Nowhere was this truer than in Europe, where spy mania swept the continent and resulted in hundreds of espionage and caper films taking full advantage of the wealth of gorgeous European locations and equally gorgeous European screen sirens.

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Sneak Peek: Bond Vivant

So the not-a-secret secret: work here at Teleport City has slowed down because I am writing a book. Building off the Bottled in Bond article I wrote some time back, I have spent the past few months doing research — sometimes at a library, more likely at a cocktail bar — on a more expansive study of James Bond’s drinks, the history behind some of his favorite sprits, and the impact 007 had on drinking culture. Prospectively titled Bond Vivant, I am so far pretty happy with the way it’s going, except for the fitful pace of my progress (that night of research at the Hotel St. Regis’ King Cole Bar really derailed me for a few days). In honor of Ian Fleming’s 106th birthday, I thought I would give readers here, who I hope will be patient with the way the book impacts the frequency of updates on Teleport City, a little sneak peek. It isn’t much — the first (very rough) draft of the introduction — but I hope it helps excuse my absence from Teleport City proper and gets two or three of you interested enough to stay on back about getting this thing finished.

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Gentlemen’s Blog to Midnite Cinema: Lightning Bolt

Frolicking Afield over at the Gentlemen’s Blog to Midnite Cinema again, the official companion to the Gentlemen’s Guide to Midnite Cinema podcast. And this time I’m talking Antonio Margheriti, James Bond rip-off Eurospy films, and Lightning Bolt, a thriller in which the hero tries to avoid conflict by offering to pay his nemesis off, then asks if it’s OK if he pays by personal check.

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Gentlemen’s Blog to Midnite Cinema: Covert Action

A new Frolic Afield at a new place. The Gentlemen’s Blog to Midnite Cinema is the written word supplement to the wildly popular Gentlemen’s Guide to Midnite Cinema podcast. And I am over there writing about Covert Action, the movie in which the Eurospy film collides with the Eurocrime film and brings Maurizio Merli along to slap some people.

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Ypotron

There’s a problem often faced by those of us who chose to both watch and write about the Eurospy films of the 1960s: as enjoyable as they can be, and fun and breezy and cool, there is often very little that can be said about them in the form of an article. When you try to put finger to key and review one of these movies, you suddenly realize just how much of its run time — which was probably under ninety minutes to begin with — was taken up by fluff and filler. Travelogue footage, nightclub scenes, guys just walking through hotel lobbies while swinging music plays — all great stuff, but the visual appeal of these de rigueur accoutrements of swingin’ sixties spy cinema doesn’t often translate to having very much to say about a film, even when you’ve enjoyed it. Such is the case with Ypotron, a light and airy espionage adventure with sci-fi elements and almost no interest whatsoever in its own plot, so enamored is it instead with low-budget globe-trotting and extremely large hats.

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The 39 Steps

Alfred Hitchcock’s original 1935 version of The 39 Steps is one of those films that’s so seminal that when watched today it can seem like little more than a parade of hoary old clichés; that is, until you consider that The 39 Steps is where many of those clichés originated. The film lays a foundation that countless espionage thrillers have built upon and continue to build upon to the present day. It’s all here: The innocent everyman abroad who’s drawn into a web of intrigue by an encounter with a mysterious and exotic woman; the shadowy international criminal organization whose reach is so extensive that it’s impossible to know who can be trusted; the ardently sought-after “MacGuffin” that sets the plot in motion despite ultimately being inconsequential to the outcome; the criminal mastermind with an identifying disfigurement who hides behind a genteel facade of upper-class respectability; the urbane, witty hero who has a way with the ladies, etc. And while it’s hero takes the train rather than hopping the globe on a luxury airliner, The 39 Steps is worth considering as a necessary precursor to the jet setting spy capers that would follow in its wake some thirty years later.

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The Fleming Files

It’s become popular in recent years for authors to write stories with the high concept of, “What if James Bond creator Ian Fleming had real-life James Bond adventures?” There have been several books published by several different authors using this as a premise, and two made-for-television movies (the most recent one airing on Sky in the UK and BBCA in the United States in February 2014). Certainly Fleming’s biography lends itself to such supposition. He was, after all, a notorious womanizer and drinker, a gadabout of the first degree from a well-heeled family that circulated in the rarefied airs of British society. And it’s true that he was a member of British Naval Intelligence during the Second World War and rightly earned a reputation for cunning and original planning (but no cunning plans as cunning as a fox that’s just been made professor of cunning at Oxford University).

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Interpol 009

Interpol 009 has everything you’d want in a 1960s spy movie–except for a memorable villain, a spectacular crime, and audacious action set pieces. On balance that leaves you with attractive stars, lots of nicely photographed scenes shot in glamorous locations, some nice cars, and a lot of fun gadgets. Fortunately, thanks to its amiable tone and sure-handed technical delivery, that’s enough to make Interpol 009, if far from a dazzling entertainment, at least a pleasant way to wile away an hour or so with a cocktail (or two).

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Cazadores de Espias

The Mexican film industry’s contributions to the 1960s spy craze tend to be on the whimsical side. If they don’t feature a masked wrestler in a pivotal role, they tend to be something along the lines of Agente 00 Sexy, in which heroine Amadee Chabot spends a lot of time wearing a Frederick’s of Hollywood-style cat costume. Given the overall zany-ness of the field, then, I do not say lightly that Cazadores de Espias (Spy Hunters) may very well be the silliest of them all. Strangely, though, it doesn’t start out that way–and that makes watching Cazadores de Espias sort of like watching a movie that’s gradually losing its mind.

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