Monday, February 14, 2011

I spy with my little eye...

I watched a couple of spy movies, very different from each other, over the weekend. RED, starring Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren and Karl Urban, is a loud, in-your-face, illogical thrill-ride of a movie. I hadn't realized until the I saw the DC Comics logo in the opening credits that it was based on a comic book. Oh, excuse me. I mean graphic novel. No, forget that. The plot is strictly out of a comic book.

It has what I call the A-Team effect. Remember that old TV Show? Bullets flew everywhere, but none struck our heroes. RED has a hero who is able to physically disarm a whole platoon of trained commandos who have descended on his house in a suburban neighborhood, shooting it to pieces with thousands of rounds of machine-gun fire. As my wife asked while the gunfire roared, "Didn't his neighbors hear that?"

Bruce Willis, who is getting on in years, might be toward the end of his comic book hero roles, like Die Hard, of which RED is a lineal descendant. Willis is a known quantity as an action hero, so the audience has some character shorthand built into his part. We know he'll kick ass.

Malkovich is a quirky actor, and true to form he's quirky in this movie. Morgan Freeman is in so many movies he's like Michael Caine was for decades, in every other movie released. You wouldn't guess it by seeing him in this costume for this scene, but Freeman brings dignity and calmness to his parts.

The only actor who plays a surprising character is Helen Mirren, because she doesn't have a movie persona like the other actors. She can play any part. It looks like she took this part because a) it was fun; she got to shoot a .50 caliber machine gun and a sniper rifle and b) she got paid copious amounts of money.

Another surprise was the inclusion of Ernest Borgnine in a small part. Not a cameo, but a character part, which shows that Borgnine might be old--born in 1917--but he still has all his faculties about him.

New Zealand native Karl Urban plays an American CIA agent. I like Urban, but honestly, what is it about actors from Down Under playing Americans? Urban, Eric Bana, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe...the list goes on.

RED is silly, but it knows it, and plays much of the story for laughs while dolloping on the action scenes. I quite liked the movie, in that way I sometimes like goofy movies if they entertain me from start to finish.

One final note: the title is an acronym: Retired Extremely Dangerous.

On the other hand, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, starring Richard Burton and Claire Bloom, from the novel by John Le Carré, was made in gritty black and white in 1965, and showed a more realistic type of spy, the Cold Warrior who carried out his business in secret. It was released during the Sean Connery years of the James Bond franchise. Richard Burton was no Sean Connery, nor did he try to be. He is shown as worn and dissolute, the character of Alec Leamas probably more like the real-life Burton than Sean Connery was like James Bond.

The plot of Spy is complex, somewhat simplified for the movie. Le Carré, real name Peter Cornwell, was a diplomat and had worked in British intelligence. His novel, while not giving away any official secrets, caused his superiors problems and the release of the book was held up while they worked it out amongst themselves. They ultimately allowed its release as written.

In a lengthy interview on a second disk of this Criterion Collection DVD, Cornwell/Le Carré said he worked on the movie as it was being filmed. Burton, in one of his I-am-the-star tantrums, had insisted that only LeCarré write the dialogue for his character, Leamas. Le Carré admitted that he liked the script by Paul Dehn, and just jiggered Dehn's dialogue a bit, removing some commas and rearranging some sentences, to satisfy Burton. Burton and producer/director Martin Ritt had a personality clash. Burton was there for star power, but was not Ritt's first choice for the part.

Burton was in the midst of a turbulent time in his life and his career. He and his wife, Elizabeth Taylor, were the most famous movie stars of the era. They were splashed all over the tabloids every day. Burton, a hard drinker, not only drank in real life, but the character drank. It perfectly matched Burton's real-life looks, which was of a man whose bad habits show on his face. LeCarré called those looks "pocked beauty."

It's hard to believe Burton, born in 1925, was only forty when Spy was made in 1965.

Both movies, despite their more obvious differences, have something in common, which is a mistrust of government and intelligence programs. There is a paranoia about spying: do you know if the government is coming after you? I enjoy this sort of plot even if it makes me feel a bit creepy, and look around myself to see if anyone is watching.

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