Agent X: Matt Helm Without the Comedy (Review)


Admittedly the first half of the Agent X premiere, apart from the presence of Sharon Stone, felt a bit bland. The second half, felt like Matt Helm, without the comedy.  Donald Hamilton, author of the Matt Helm franchise would have been proud.  Granted, the whole Vice President’s personal agent feels a little Wild Wild West, the TV show and not the Will Smith vehicle, but it works…barely.

To be fair, Agent X, aka John Case (Jeff Hephner) is no dead ringer for the New Mexico secret agent that Hamilton created to challenge James Bond’s English double Oh killer. The author wanted to cut away from all the OTT champagne and quail’s eggs dressings of the Queen’s killer and created the tall Helm to show how the Yanks would do it.

Fans of the books will remember that Helm was nothing like Dean Martin’s comic interpretation, which was entertaining in its own right, and that the spy/assassin was wooed and had affairs with the enemy, and if not affairs, at least indulged in mutual attractions. A lot like Olga Fonda‘s  character (Olga Petrovka) and Case’s flirtatious, on her side anyway, relationship in the second half of the two hour pilot.

Hephner’s Agent X may be an American Bond without the foie gras and caviar-filled blinis, but he could  also  be the no nonsense Helm from Hamilton’s books.  With Sharon Stone filling in for the big guy, Mac. (Another nod and wink to the Ian Fleming books, Bond worked for “M”, Helm for Mac…get it?)

The new TNT series feels more like a National Treasure and I Spy mash up than a small screen Americanized James Bond rip off.  Although the Matt Helm theme is all too evident to an old fan of Hamilton’s answer to 007. Even the inclusion of Fonda as Petrovka feels a little like Helm’s old flames, Tina and/or Vadya. (Vadya would be more appropriate as the Russian agent works with Matt several times, Tina gets taken out rather quickly in the first ever book about Helm’s return to “government service.”)

Of course, this series has “hung its credentials around the neck of Stone, who has lost nothing on the small screen. Her portrayal of the new vice president of the USA may be a little serious, and even bland, but it is early days yet. Gerald McRaney as her “right hand man” is good as ever.

Hephner is more than adequate as the “secret” secret agent man, but unless everyone is careful, Fonda could rule this show.

Jeff Hephner in action as John Case, Agent X

It is interesting to note that Agent X also mentions the Dark Web, a presence mentioned on two other shows dealing with the FBI.  Blindspot and The Player both mention this nefarious part of the Internet. Is Hollywood trying to tell us something?

In terms of action and stunts, the new TNT offering is impressive but not as impressive as The Player or Blindspot with their snazzy shoot outs and Philip Winchester has no need to worry about losing his action crown just yet.

Agent X gave viewers a huge dose of gravitas with a guest spot filled by none other than James Earl Jones (Voice of CNN and Mustafa in The Lion King, to mention but two accomplishments by the grand actor and his mellifluous vocal talents.) and Sharon Stone in the “starring role” as boss of the hidden agent gives the series a good pedigree.

However, great bona fides do not a good show make and Agent X needs to up its game to catch up to another TNT series on offer that already gives the audience a palatable “agent” in the guise of Sean Bean’s Martin Odum on Legends.

Agent X airs Sundays on TNT and is, thus far, a slow entry but one that Donald Hamilton may have really enjoyed. While John Case is not Matt Helm, there are enough similarities that this reviewer will be watching to see if they continue. Tune in, if for no other reason than to feast your eyes on Stone or Olga Fonda and their performances.

Conan the Barbarian (2011): 3D Film, 2D Characters

Conan the Barbarian (2011 film)
Conan the Barbarian (2011 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With no less than three writers and a cheeky credit given to Conan’s creator Robert E. Howard I would have expected more from the most recent version of Howard’s creation. Directed by Marcus Nispel (The Texas Chainsaw MassacreFriday the 13th), who appears to make a habit of remaking horror films, Conan the Barbarian features enough CG blood to drown a Cimmerian village. Unfortunately the focus on the 3D aspects of the film leaves little room for character development.

Okay, I will admit that you aren’t going to get too much in the way of in-depth characterization in a film with ‘Barbarian’ in the title but a little depth would have gone a long way.

If you are old enough to have seen the 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger Conan at the cinema you will no doubt remember the ‘heavy hitters’ that appeared in the film with Arnold. Max Von Sydow, James Earl Jones and Mako (who had the dual task of narrating the film) not to mention the huge William Smith who played Conan Sr in the original. And the romantic interest was Sandahl Bergman who at least looked athletic and capable compared to the re-make’s Rachel Nichols as the new Conan’s love interest. Yes Nichols is very pretty but those matchstick arms don’t even look capable of lifting a sword, let alone be able to kill someone with it.

The film opens with the birth of Conan, ripped from his dying mothers womb by his father, Corin (Ron Perlman) after a battle. We then see Conan make his first kill, well, kills actually and then we see the young Conan (Leo Howard) training with dad and making his first sword.

This training period does not last long as Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang, Avatar) and his warriors ride into Corin’s village in search of a bone fragment that is the last piece of a powerful talisman that will bring back Zym’s dead sorcerer wife. Zym’s daughter Marique (played by Ivana Staneva as the young Marique and by Rose McGowan as the ‘grown-up’ Marique) has magic powers just like her dear departed mother and she finds the last fragment.

Zym tortures Corin and has set him up to die by having molten iron pour on him. Conan holds the heavy metal beaker until his hands bleed. After telling Conan that he loves him, Corin kills himself by pulling the chain attached to the beaker and covers himself with the hot liquid. Full of grief and rage the young Conan goes out into the body strewn village and grabs a sword.

The master of gravitas  Morgan Freeman, who opens the film, then goes on to tell us about the grown up Conan (Jason Momoa) and his travels and exploits in the pursuit of his father’s murderer. This ‘narrative’ obviously saved the producers from having to film more footage and special effects thus giving them more money to film in 3D.

The film then follows Conan’s attempts to thwart Zym’s rise to power and Conan’s falling in love with Tamara (Rachel Nichols). The plot dealing with Conan and Tamara is quite simple: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Oh and boy has gratuitous sex with girl before losing her to Zym and co.

Conan calls in a favour from a master thief, Ela-Shan (Saïd Taghmaoui) who helps him get into Zym’s stronghold. After much carnage and the death of pretty much all the bad guys, Conan gets Tamara back. Presumably they all live happily ever after until the sequel, if there is one.

The film has been said to be more like Robert E Howard’s Conan books and that may well be true, but, what they made up for in ‘loyalty’ to the books they lost in believability of the characters.

Now I have to admit that I don’t remember too much about the 1982 version. I remember Mako as some sort of ‘magic man’ and James Earl Jones who was bigger than life itself. I also remember special effects that have not aged well at all. I do know that I thought that Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan made perfect sense, The man looked like the strongest man alive, all brute strength and massive powerful muscles.

Jason Momoa has a good enough physique and a very deep voice but I never believed for a minute that he was Ron Perlman’s son. Perlman is a big man, Momoa looked more like a tackle for a professional football team.

The real surprise to me was Rose McGowen. I didn’t recognise her at all. I did keep thinking though, that if you took away that freaky hairdo, she looked so much like Judy Garland that she could star in a biopic of Garland’s life. She even sounded like Garland. Well she did when she was doing that hissing syllable thing which was slightly irritating and  a bit off-putting. I had to watch the end credits to find out who Rose McGowen was playing.

Conan 2011 took a long and bumpy road on it’s journey to being made into a film. Directors changed and then changed again. Actors were cast, re-cast and cast again. The script had three writer’s not counting Howard’s posthumous contribution. The end result is entertaining enough, despite it’s shallow characters and it’s shaky main plot. But even a Morgan Freeman voice over was not enough to push this film into anything other than just entertaining.

It’s definitely more of a Netflix or ‘free trial DVD’ than an owner or expensive blu-ray rental. I got to watch it free on a Netflix special deal. It’s just as well, if I’d actually paid money to see it? I would have been annoyed.

%d bloggers like this: