Sunday, June 10, 2012


Even before Daniel Craig took over the role of James Bond in CASINO ROYALE (2006), everyone knew James Bond needed to be reinvented for a modern era. So many spoofs and parodies later (ironically the first being 1967s CASINO ROYALE), Bond lacked credibility. You'll get more raging nerd debates over which is the worst Bond flick than the best, and for my money, Bond still hasn't been brought up to speed. In Bond's wake many imitators have tried to update Bond and ditch the goofy villains and quiche-making camp of the Roger Moore days and make something more realistic. Most recently THE BOURNE IDENTITY (2008) re-invented Robert Ludlum's trilogy of intricately plotted espionage thrillers and turned them into a vision of what James Bond would be without the MI5 safety-net in a completely butchered plot.

The Scandinavians took it one step further and figured out how to reinvent Bond, cleansing him of pretensions and gimmiks like field-stripping a SIG Sauer pistol. While we've had an exceptional example (if not totally traditional) in Anders Nilsson's Johan Falk series starting with ZERO TOLERANCE (1999), the most famous and iconic would have to be Jan Guillou's series of 12 novels about Swedish secret service agent Carl Hamilton. Loosely defined as a Swedish mirror-image of Tom Clancy (Guillou being extreme left and Clancy extreme right), Guillou used decades of experience as a journalist to create his ice-cold, highly efficient killing machine, code-named Coq Rouge. Film adaptations started three years after the publication of the first book (Coq Rouge, 1986) with Stellan Skarsgård in the lead in CODENAME: COQ ROUGE (1989). Following that Hamilton has been portrayed by pre-BECK Peter Haber, Stefan Sauk, Peter Stormare, and finally post-BECK Mikael Persbrandt.

The Swedish intelligence service has no agents who are licensed to kill. It must not happen under any circumstances.
Unless it's in self-defense or... In the Interest of the Nation

Using the title, themes and parts of the third novel in the series, Hamilton finds himself working undercover with Russian arms dealers who are set to sell some stolen Swedish Sky Shadow missiles to a terrorist group on the border of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. After setting a tracking device on the truck, everything goes pear-shaped when a squad of paramilitary mercs, lead by Rob Hart (Jason Flemyng), turns the exchange into a bloodbath, slaughtering everyone except Hamilton, who narrowly escapes with his life. All this is before the title hits the screen.

Hamilton finds himself frequently on loan to other departments, and after being chewed out by his new boss (Peter Andersson) for losing a shipment of deadly weapons into the hands of terrorists, his old boss (Lennart Hjulström) supports him, but needs to evaluate the situation and check out his resilient girl-friend. Meanwhile an American security firm with ties to the CIA, named Sectragon, is working covertly for Dallas military arms corporation to undermine the thread of political stability in the Middle-East by committing terrorist acts and framing terrorist organizations in an effort to create a boom market (so to speak) on weapons sales and contract mercenary groups. When a Sectragon merc, Benjamin Lee (Ray Fearon), conveniently for the good guys, decides to bail from the operation due to the killing of innocents, he and the Swedish weapons company liaison, Martin Lagerbäck (Gustaf Hammarsten), find themselves on the wrong side of the border, in a Somali prison. Hamilton is tasked with cleaning up the mess and in the process uncovers a greater plot to destabilize the free world.

That is actually only half of the plot for the film. While many grumble and gripe about the fact that the 1988 book was actually about the Soviets building sub-oceanic military installations, and the movie is about rogue American paramilitary terrorists, I have one thing to say: get over it. Screenwriter Stefan Thunberg crafts a great, twisting plot that is complex without being complicated, taking Hamilton's character, themes and subplots and working them into a mainstream action/espionage thriller that is exactly what the James Bond movies should have become. Interestingly the James Bond films with Daniel Craig (particularly the trailer for SKYFALL), actually feel a little more like Hamilton than they do Bond. Bond is now a rather Scandanavian-looking, ice-cold killer with emotional scars that drive him forward. Flemming's books had some of that, but most of the films sidestepped the baggage for a lighter touch. Thunberg also smartly eschews Guillou's strong political views and steers straight into the waters of modern action/espionage thrillers, not only reinventing the James Bond mythos, but reinventing Carl Hamilton as well.

I also like the fact that Danish director Kathrine Windfeld isn't afraid to let things get bloody in the tense action scenes that she sets up and she likes to shoot big shots that use a wide frame. She doesn't envision a TV screen, she's thinking cinema and it shows in the cinematography and the big panoramic shots of the multiple global locations. I also liked how the female characters are handled, something many action films fumble with, either trying too hard to prove that have the politically correct point of view by making the character essentially an alpha male with a woman's body or being a total wallflower waiting to be bagged and tagged and carted off as someone's trophy. Nothing really wrong with either one of those, but Windfeld is able to get solid performances out of the three women in the film that is in line with their characters without feeling forced. Jordanian actress Seba Mubarak plays Hamilton's contact in Beirut, where there are moments of an implied deeper connection, is not only very easy on the eyes, but plays the action and the brief, but obligatory, pathos equally well without going overboard as would be demanded by Hollywood filmmakers. Kind of refreshing, for a change.

If I had to pick a few things to bitch about, one would have to be the casting of  Jason Flemyng. I've never been a big fan, and here he does nothing to win me over here. He plays the same paper-thin, snarling villain that he's played many times before, without any attempt to bring an added dimension to the role. It's particularly jarring here, as the Swedes love understated acting (the kind that Americans used to embrace, pre-1980s) and Persbrandt manages to convey quite a bit through subtle facial expressions while playing a cold, stoic character. The other big gripe is Windfeld's constant use of the much-loathed hand-held camera and zoom lens. Granted, her use of it isn't anywhere near as obnoxious as say, THE EXPENDABLES (2010), but it does get a bit trying at times, particularly since they actually take the time to set up some great sequences. For example, the hand-to-hand fight scenes have a bit of the Hollywood tight-shot / quick-cutting school of filmmaking which is a little disappointing. Persbrandt went to train with the Navy Seals in San Diego and the Karlsborgs fortress with the Särskilda Skyddsgruppen (the Swedish Delta Force) to prepare for the role, and it seems a shame not to properly show off his mad skills with wider shots and longer takes. Even so, it's a minor quibble. What we have is still massively entertaining; this is the movie I want to see on a hot summer night in a cool, air-conditioned theater with a spiked slurpee (What? Oh, like you've never done that). Fast paced, and action packed, but with an engaging plot and most importantly, no pandering to the teen crowd. Is that too much to ask? There's even a plot twist early on that damn near made me take a header out of my chair, but you'll get no spoilers out of me, see it for yourself.

Being shot as a trilogy with the awkwardly titled HAMILTON 2: BUT NOT IF IT CONCERNS MY DAUGHTER (2012), and HAMILTON 3: IN HER MAJESTY'S SERVICE (2013), even with all of the hubub over this film overseas, it will probably never see the light of day here in the States. Of course, if it does flirt with US cinemas I'm sure it will be one of two scenarios: either the Weinstein's will buy it, cut it to pieces, and then sit on it until their rights expire or someone will buy the remake rights, changing the villain's ethnicity (British, I'd guess), add lots of yelling and cast Mark Wahlberg and Eva Mendez in the lead (not that there is anything wrong with Eva Mendez, physically). Dammit.

3 Reactions:

  1. Long time reader, first time commenter etc etc

    Love the reviews, but unfortunately my first comment is going to be a complaint. Windfeld is Danish, and I think maybe you're confusing Denmark (Danish) and the Netherlands/Holland (Dutch) as you included a Dutch movie in the previous Scandinavian marathon.

    Apologies for nitpicking, and keep up the good stuff.

  2. Oops! I actually am aware that she is Danish, but apparently my fingers don't always listen to my brain. I try to thoroughly proof-read all my stuff, but I guess I overlooked that. Thanks for the heads up, glad to hear that we are doing ok otherwise.

  3. Entertaining fast paced. And YES Bond deteriorated to a kids afternoon matinee, complete with popcorn and fizzy drink - and a PG rating. Despiriting. Recent Bonds with Daniel Craig better but not much. Bourne series was great as it was a return to the spy movies of the 60s. No CGI with 'emoting 'actors against a green screen which run as lightweight dross. Bond is capable of better .... if the producers were prepared to let it have an 'MA' or a'R' rating: 'for grown ups', and allow Bond to be the cold and ruthless psychopath assassin.


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