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.

Booze, Bullets & Broads: Martini Required


I first heard about the Matt Helm films after my parents had gone to the cinema to see Murderer’s Row. I was very excited about the whole thing because Dean Martin was a Smith household favourite. I was crushed when my parents returned and told me that the film was a bit too risqué” for someone of my tender years.

What I did instead of sneaking out to watch the film was borrow one of my dad’s copies of the Matt Helm series written by Donald Hamilton. I fell in love with the books and I started trying to read every single one in the series.

Later when I was actually able to watch the Matt Helm films, courtesy of American television complete with censored bits and cuts to allow for commercials, I found that the producers had opted to make the films all “Action/Comedies.” With Dino as Helm, it worked.

Booze, Bullets & Broads by Bruce Scivally is a loving look at the four films made with Martin in them and a look at how they differed from the books they were “adapted” from. He also talks about the “players” and how they developed the idea for an American James Bond. He traces the beginning of the idea of an US equivalent to the English “shaken-not-stirred” martini man and how it evolved into the “spoof” format that it became.

Producer Irving Allen, the former partner of Cubby Broccoli and all around ‘Mr Personality’ – not, was the genius behind the idea of the films. He spotted a Matt Helm paperback in an airport. Contacting the author Donald Hamilton, he bought the film rights to all the existing books in the series. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Anyone who has had the pleasure of reading Mr Hamilton’s Matt Helm series will know that the literary version of the “super-spook” is a complete 180 degree turn from the celluloid Helm as portrayed by Dean Martin. As I said, I got hooked on the books at an early age and I still firmly believe that if they did a more “accurate” adaptation of them, the films would break box-office records.

Still, the movies were entertaining, not very well made (as Scivally points out) but funny, irreverent, and full of the most beautiful women at that time. I mean, seriously, who would not rate Stella Stevens or Ann Margaret (not to mention Cyd Charisse) as the most beautiful women..ever?

Scivally also charts the downward trend of the films and their falling box office receipts. If you watch the films today you’ll notice that they’ve not aged well at all and unless you are a die-hard fan of old Dino, you probably won’t know what all the fuss was about. I still enjoy them and will one day own all of them on DVD.

On a sad side note, Sharon Tate was in the third film The Ambushers. In-between that film’s release and the final film’s shooting started (she was meant to be in the fourth film as well) the heavily pregnant Tate was, of course, brutally slaughtered by members of the Manson Family.

This has always put a bit of a dampener on the film for me.

Still, if you are a fan of the films and the books, you’ll like this look at the franchise (s). This Kindle book sells for just over 2 pounds so it’s affordable enough and not too taxing a read. Be warned though, if you are already a Dean Martin fan, you’re not likely to learn anything new about the man or his films, but the bits of trivia that Scivally has included in the book is at least entertaining.

A 3.5 stars out of 5 with a temptation to give it a full 4 stars just because of the subject matter.

Dino and Ann Margaret.
Dino and Ann Margaret.
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