Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Avenger X (1967)

I used to have a small yellow afghan (blanket, not hound).  It would be more accurate to say that my family used to have a small yellow afghan.  It was about two feet by three feet, and it was as plain as an afghan could be.  Its yellow was not brilliant, more like the color of lemonade, maybe a shade deeper.  When it wasn’t covering up sick kids or cold feet, it substituted as the cape to my own personal superhero costume (add one safety pin and go).  It didn’t matter if the color didn’t match whichever character I was playing.  What mattered was that it was just the right size for me at that time.  For me, this is the encapsulation of what made American comic books great when I was a tyke.  They were for kids, and they didn’t make much sense, but they were loaded with imagination, and that counted for a lot.  

On the other hand, my experience with European comics isn’t nearly as extensive, but they tend to be far more mature in content if not necessarily in approach (look at the ultra-popular work of creators like Crepax, Jodorowsky, Manara, et cetera).  But what they also had is an emphasis on criminals (costumed and non) as protagonists.  Everything from Diabolik to Kriminal and back again, these are characters who we in the States would likely read about battling against a superhero like Batman and getting locked up in Arkham Asylum.  Of course, the atmosphere in American comics today has swung closer to this European model, mostly because the readership is generally older than they used to be.  By this I mean that comics were aimed at about an eight to twelve-year-old male readership for many decades, and this audience would turn over and restart, but then more and more readers didn’t stop reading comics.  These older readers then became comics creators, and they consequently started making books for people their own age and so on.  It’s a bit more complex than that, but we’re not here to spend the whole day on this.  I’m just pointing out that there is a cultural difference between American and “World” comics which results in films like Piero Vivarelli’s Avenger X (aka Mister X), for better or worse.

George Lamarr (Armando Calvo) is a CEO and a drug kingpin whose subterfuge is discovered by secretary/sexbomb Veronica (Nieves Salcedo).  When she tells him that she wants him to marry her in order to keep her quiet, she winds up dead, an X stamped in her forehead.  Naturally, Inspector Roux (the gloriously-named Franco Fantasia) recognizes this as the mark of master criminal Mister X (Pier Paolo Capponi), who was believed dead.  Also naturally, the very much alive X takes offense at someone using his modus operandi, and worse, using it incorrectly (he would never stamp his X on a woman’s head).  So, gangsters gotta pay.

Disguises for comic book characters are generally used to hide a secret identity, to protect a character and the people he/she knows who may be hurt by their enemies.  It can be argued whether the costume and the alter ego are one and the same (which they can be, though they almost always behave differently, the amplification of certain personality traits over others being kind of the whole point), whether they are different personae, which one is the “true” self, and which is repressed.  And depending upon the character, you would come up with different interpretations (or even multiple interpretations for any given one).  X does wear a costume from time to time (essentially a knockoff of Lee Falk’s The Phantom with a large “X” on his belt buckle), but it doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things.  This is because he acts exactly the same in or out of costume.  He changes not at all, plain-clothed or not.  If anything, his comic book costume is merely one more affectation, a way to draw attention to himself rather than to deflect scrutiny.  You can argue that so many of these types of characters are the same way, but somehow it just falls completely flat with this one.  By that same token, X is a master of disguise (like Fantomas, Sherlock Holmes, or Pistachio Disguisey), and he uses these skills to walk among his enemies.  This illustrates for us exactly how he regards his lifestyle, and that is blithely.  He couldn’t care less about the lives of anyone around him (maybe with the exception of squeeze Timy [Gaia Germani]), and further, all of this is little more than a game to him, a lark.  His “good” name gets sullied, and he starts killing people (as well as trying to turn a tidy profit).  

Naturally, this brings up the debate over whether fictional characters need to be likable, and I don’t think they do.  However, they do need to be interesting enough to want to follow, and I think X is not.  He is a poor imitation of Diabolik with none of Diabolik’s more charming attributes.  Diabolik is all but a mute.  X talks constantly and says sweet fuck all.  Diabolik’s plans are clever and engaging.  X barely makes plans at all, his scheming more a hammer than a scalpel.  Diabolik’s haughty attitude is loaded with sexy style.  X’s haughty attitude is loaded with repulsive smarm.  Bearing this in mind, the characters in this film are divided into three social levels.  The working men are represented by characters like Roux, and they are generally dim-witted and gullible, ineffectual and harmless.  The gangsters are lower class, playing at their patrician machinations.  They have lavish, chic parties, and they sit around playing at pulling strings.  But at the drop of a hat, they would turn on one another, and whether this marks them as proletarian or bourgeois is up for discussion (as much as anything in this film can be).  X is the only truly upper class person in the film.  He considers the work of people like Lamarr to be “vulgar.”  He has tea served by a geisha.  He is a world-class golf champion.  He knows that going to Capri in March is out of season and oh-so-common.  Unfortunately, he’s also not nearly as witty as he thinks, and he’s insufferably snobby.  

I blame a lot of the problems with this film on the wretched screenwriting, which apes the genre in which it’s set, but like a voice actor (or any actor, for that matter) who can’t do accents, it winds up just being embarrassing in execution.  For example, it took over twenty minutes of screen time for the first action scene to hit.  It took more than twenty more for the next one.  The plot, such as it is, is little more than a series of plot conveniences, and it follows a flat line rather than the standard peaks and valleys (witness: the intermittent snooping of Roux simply for the sake of being a monkey wrench and sucking up some time).  Likewise, the direction is bland and truly uninspired (like so much else on display here), and the aforementioned action scenes aren’t exciting, period.  Instead of being stylish and sexy like the Bond films it is clearly influenced by, Avenger X manages to be patently unattractive.  How else do you explain a film where the women, played by some genuinely lovely ladies (including the dazzling Helga Line), are treated as nothing more than humdrum arm candy with an emphasis on the fashions they wear rather than on the tease of their disrobing?  The old saw says, “X marks the spot.”  Not so much with this one.

MVT:  X’s costume is the most interesting thing about the film, and considering how weak it is, that ain’t saying much.

Make Or Break:  The break is not a scene.  The break is that the film is loaded with tepid scenes of people lounging, and talking, and swilling booze rather than anything happening for lengthy periods of time.  What you see and what you get are two totally different things with Avenger X.

Score:  4/10

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Instant Action: Sin-se-gae (New World, 2013)



This world doesn't seem like it's much better than the old one!

Screenplay By: Hoon-jung Park
Directed By: Hoon-jung Park

South Korean cinema has been a favorite of many a cinephile for a few years now. A bevy of high quality films and great directors have made the country of South Korea a bastion of cinema for the majority of cinephiles. A film like Sin-se-gae fits into the mold of what is dominating South Korean cinema at the moment. It's a smartly made crime thriller with a wee bit of a nasty side. It's not as mean and nasty as some of the more popular recent South Korean films, but it substitutes a wry sense of humor for meanness. In Sin-se-gae the story, characters, bursts of violence, and comedy all come together to form one heck of a motion picture.

I didn't expect to laugh as much as I did during Sin-se-gae. If one were to pay attention to the faces of every character, sans Jeong Cheong, Sin-se-gae comes across as the dourest of films. Everyone is so serious all the time, but when contrasted against the antics of Cheong the seriousness of the rest of the characters becomes kind of funny. Cheong is a killer, he's nowhere near a good guy, but he has an odd charm about him that makes him easy to like. He livens up the picture and his mere presence helps the other characters to find a comic middle ground. Sin-se-gae isn't ra ra funny, rather it's funny in an offbeat and deadpan manner. The humor in Sin-se-gae is the sort that's not served up for the viewer on a plate. But, if the viewer pays attention to the film they will find plenty to laugh about.

Sin-se-gae is as exhilarating as it is funny, probably even moreso. The majority of the film is calm, but peppered around said calm are bursts of violence and energy. One in particular that will catch the attention of any action minded cinephile is a gang fight that winds up with one guy against many in an elevator. It helps that one of the characters in the elevator is supremely magnetic, but the direction of that sequence is top notch as well. The end result of the violence doesn't really matter, it's the way that sequence manages to capture the essence of a character and provide bloody good energy that makes the scene special.

Hoon-jung Park's film makes good use of story and character to make sure that the story twists aren't ever actual twists. At first they appear to be twists, but thinking back about the time I spent with these characters their ultimate fates isn't a surprise twist at all. The screenplay of Sin-se-gae digs its claws into its main characters and makes their interactions matter. They are tropes, but because we delve so deeply into what makes them tick they transcend their trope origins. The story in Sin-se-gae is strong, and it takes its time to present characters who take their place in life versus being part of a twist.

Another great movie from South Korea, who would of thunk it? Sin-se-gae is well made in every way and a very enjoyable time at the movies. Park-ssi's film is full of energy, well thought out characters, and a story that is as satisfying as it is daring. While America is stuck churning out the same mob movies over and over again, Sin-se-gae proves that Asia is still where the best, and most inventive, crime movies are coming from.

Rating:

9/10

Cheers,
Bill Thompson

Friday, April 18, 2014

Episode #283: That's the Way on Terminal Island

Welocme to another episode of the GGtMC!!!

This week we cover Terminal Island (1973) directed by Stephanie Rothman and selected by good friend of the show Andy (Sammy couldnt make this review, he was detained sadly). We also cover That's the Way of the World (1975) directed by Sig Shore and chosen by Shaun (Sammy did make this one, just barely).

Direct download: ggtmc_283.mp3 
 
Emails to midnitecinema@gmail.com

Adios!!!



Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Ministry Of Vengeance (1989)



There are certain things in life for which we all have an instinctual preference, and these preferences are usually of a binary nature.  Even when they are not, however, there is still a strong predilection to dislike one rather than simply tolerate all.  For example, you may like brunettes and dislike blondes, or you may like blondes and redheads but dislike brunettes, and so on.  But I would wager damn near all of you favor one more strongly than the others, and for the life of you, you can’t quite explain why (but I’m sure many have tried).  Maybe it’s some psychosexual thing going back to your upbringing and bizarre Oedipal/Electra issues.  That’s not the point.  The point is that anyone who has ever spent any length of time following the adventures of a couple of “good ol’ boys” from Hazzard County is partial to either Bo (John Schneider) or Luke (Tom Wopat) Duke.  You don’t know why.  It doesn’t make sense.  They were essentially the same character, but there it is for you.  Which one of the Brothers Duke do I root for more?  That’s for me to know, and for you to find out.  But just to give you a hint; Peter Maris’s Ministry Of Vengeance didn’t garner Schneider any points from me.

Deep in The Shit in Vietnam with his platoon, David Miller (Schneider) is the stalwart among Colonel Freeman’s (James Tolkan) soldiers.  After going down into a tunnel to try and clear out the enemy, he winds up blowing it up and bringing it down.  Years later, Miller is a well-adjusted reverend in Rome with his beautiful wife Gail (Meg Register) and daughter Kim (Joey Peters).  A group of terrorists from “The People’s Army” led by Ali Aboud (Robert Miano) shoot up the astoundingly-bingo-hall-looking airport, killing Miller’s family.  Miller ordains himself as the Ministry Of Vengeance!  Boom!

There are some interesting base thoughts in this film, key among them, of course, being that of the Holy Warrior.  By and large, this trope deals with the idea that there was some pivotal defining occurrence in the life of a Man of Violence which caused him to renounce his old life and seek peace and solace in a religious life.  And while the good parts of world religions teach us to be kind to our fellow man and so on (and this is the part our protagonist fools himself into believing is the totality of this life), it is impossible to deny the fact that the holy tomes of most religions are filled with violence, acted out by both gods and men.  But we’re not here to discuss theology.  We’re here to look at how (if at all) theology can be used in Action films and how (if at all) it does here.  So, the Violent Man who became the Holy Man is almost invariably drawn back into his former life.  The key is in which path he takes or if he tries to merge the two (witness: Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, Pale Rider, El Topo, et cetera).  Miller’s discovery is that he is not made out to be a man of the cloth, and even though we never find out if he is even still religious-minded (the crucifix he wore in Nam is never seen again, if my memory serves), he knows that his faith isn’t what he thought it was.  This disillusionment is only reinforced by what he encounters on his quest to find Aboud, but it is not only the duplicity of those thought to be devout which shakes him.  He also has to deal with the government on whose behalf he once fought.  Essentially, both worlds Miller lives in are artificial and untrustworthy on some level, so he chooses a third route away from both.  Of course, this is only after he has shot up a nice chunk of the Middle East.

Of course, being a soldier first and foremost, Miller knows all about violence in the mechanical sense.  However, being a veteran of one of the most unpopular wars in American history, he can make distinctions about the righteousness of violence (basically, does the end justify the means; something rarely, if ever seen in films pre-Vietnam War).  Having seen and been ordered to participate in acts of aggression counter to most peoples’ innate compassion, he understands the idea of an eye for an eye, and he sees his mission against Aboud as one of punishment for a killer.  This also presents the viewer with a notion of duality in the film (above and beyond that of Warrior/Priest).  Normally in this type of film the former warrior is typically pared off against a fellow ex-warrior, and he is the exact opposite number of our protagonist (think: Matrix and Bennett in Commando).  In Ministry Of Vengeance, Miller’s opposite is Aboud, obviously, but unlike what we are used to, Aboud is almost characterless.  He is as devoid of personality as any of his minions are.  The only thing we know about any of them is that they are Middle Eastern and terrorists, so in the realm of the Eighties Action film, they are as legitimate a group of candidates for cinematic villainy as anybody else (certainly in the fact that they are foreign).  But let’s make no mistake, Miller is also as flat an Action hero as has ever been, so in this way, I suppose you could say he and Ali are like a five-and-dime version of Matrix and Bennett.  It’s just extremely difficult to drum up any investment in their conflict due to the film’s shortcomings.

This is the sort of film where advocates tell you that you need to turn off your mind in order to like it.  I would say I’m fairly adept at this method of viewing, though I also have problems with it, because I don’t think it’s possible to do completely (at least I can’t; maybe it’s a sickness), and I certainly don’t feel it’s beneficial when you’re watching a film in order to write about it.  With that in mind, Ministry Of Vengeance is a hot mess.  Even looking past the unenthusiastic acting across the board (and from such talents as Ned Beatty, George Kennedy, and Yaphet Kotto) and the actual sight of excitement draining off the screen like a gas tank siphoning out, there are coincidences going on in this film that just made me shake my head.  For instance, after asking government agent Mr. Whiteside (Kotto) for help in identifying the man who killed his family, David goes home, opens a magazine, and just happens to find a photo of Aboud.  Later, he sneaks into a village, and his guide takes off to locate our villain.  Glancing around, Miller spots the very man in a house directly across the street from him.  It feels as though Maris and company may as well have simply filmed the first and last scenes of the film, since none of the scenes in between build off one another.  They’re simply filler to suck up screen time, and the script dismisses obstacles with offhanded facility.  But worse than being insulting to one’s intelligence, the film is boring, and for that reason alone, you can give this one the last rites.

MVT:  The template of the film is for your standard Action/Revenge film, and it is as predictable as expected.  Everything else is largely a waste of time and celluloid.

Make Or Break:  The Break is the aforementioned scene in the village.  Coincidence in film is a funny thing.  We can usually accept one (okay) or two (well, maybe) incidences of it.  But when the entire plot and action of a film is a neverending series of coincidences (oh, c’mon, already), it reeks of amateur hour.

Score:  4.5/10    

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Lock In (2014)







Directed by: no one was listed at time of writing.
Produced by: Holy Moly Pictures 
Runtime: 98 minutes

I learned about this movie from an online news site that likes to report on the more offbeat things. The headline for this movie compared this movie to The Room. Being an idiot I went out and bought this movie expecting a train wreck just like The Room.




This is The Room. It is an amazing train wreck of a movie. It is incompetently edited, has insane direction and things happen without rhyme or reason. It also has lots of passion and charm that makes it a memorable train wreck.


This is The Lock In. Or rather this is me holding an empty bourbon bottle because The Lock In is streaming on demand and does not have a dvd release. This is a competently made film that understand the horror genre, and understands how to make a believable found footage film. Yes The Lock In has a different message but it conveys this message better than The Room could ever hope to do. Well I bought the ticket so let me take you on the ride that is The Lock In.

Since this movie is not twenty years old, I usually try to write a spoiler free review. However, four minutes in to the movie it spoils itself. So just to let you know the rest of this review is full of spoilers.

The movie opens with former youth pastor Chris explaining that the footage the viewer is about to see is disturbing. So disturbing that he quit being a youth pastor and took up selling insurance. Then he says the most horrifying thing in the whole movie, all the kids involved in the footage live.

This leads into the movie's title card and introduces the main characters. Due to not really caring and the rushed pace the movie introduced the main characters I did not really get the characters names. So I will just use the nicknames I gave them from my notes. The movie rapidly introduces Born Loser, Camera Guy and Mr. Mugging. Born Loser get lectured a lot for things he either didn't do or for things that are not as big an issue. Camera Guy is behind the camera eighty percent of the film and then there is Mr. Mugging. Every time the camera goes near Mr. Mugging this tool is trying his best to be annoying and is a great success at this. Most of my notes about this movie involve wanting this character to die horribly in this film.

The trio are going to a church lock in. A lock in is where a bunch of kids get locked in a church overnight and play games and do youth related stuff. Mr. Mugging thinks that this night will be epic and wants the events filmed. So Camera Guy and Mr. Mugging go pick up Born Loser and Mr. Mugging proceeds to cause problems for Born Loser. Mr. Mugging nearly shouts about how Born Loser had pizza and studied with a girl. This leads to Born Loser's parents taking him aside and giving him a lecture about the evils of premarital sex.

The plot starts to move again as the trio make their way to the church lock in. However, Mr. Mugging hasn't been annoying in two minutes and guilts the other two into cleaning his car. So they pull up to the nearest dumpster and end up finding an adult magazine.Mr. Mugging thinks it is a brilliant idea to hide the magazine in Born Loser's stuff. This plan goes about as well as most barely thought out ideas, the magazine is found and the trio get in trouble. Though Mr. Mugging does make himself human and likable by admitting it was his stupid idea but youth pastor Chris is blaming all three of them for the magazine.

So youth pastor Chris and the three protagonists go outside and burn the magazine. Back inside the church, the trio are amazed that they only got a lecture instead of being sent home and ending the movie early. This amazement is brought to an end when the adult magazine returns unexpectedly in Camera Guy's stuff. So the trio run upstairs to throw away this new magazine when everything goes wrong. The trio throw the magazine in the first trash can they can find and the trash can starts moving. Scared the daylights out of them, the trio run down stairs to find all the doors locked and there is no one else in the church.

This starts the bulk of the movie were the protagonists running around the church with the demon appearing at random to scare the trio to another part of the church. I liked how you never get a clear look at the demon in this part of the movie but it would have been better if the demon hurt some of them. Like Mr. Mugging for example, he could have used several needless beatings.

My pettiness and blood lust have nothing to do with the plot so back to the plot. As the trio are trying to escape the church and the demon they run into the girl that Born Loser likes. There is more running and not a lot of Mr. Mugging being injured. At one point they hide in a kitchen and Token Female Interest reveals that her parents divorce was caused by the images pornography put in her father's head. After some pointless dialog and a short nap, Token Female Interest hears her friend at the door and foolishly opens the door and is pulled out of the scene and the rest of the movie.

The idiots three decide to go running around some more and end up in a office with video camera setup. Like all normal people trapped in a church with a demon they do the most logical thing and watch the footage on the camera. The camera is being used to record a counseling secession of some guy who is dealing with porn addiction. After a few minutes of the addict explaining his on going problems with porn addiction the pastor leaves the frame and then things get weird. The guy looks into the camera and starts talking to the trio by name with a demonic voice.

This leads to the best part of the whole movie, Mr Mugging gets so scared that he leaves the group. Sadly this act does not lead to his grisly destruction but I will take victory where I can. Camera Guy and Born Loser run away and take shelter in a broom closet. The camera is running low on power at this point so the light on the camera goes out and the two of them take a quick nap. When Camera guy gets the camera up and running he find that Born Loser is gone.

Now Camera Guy is on his own and goes wandering around to find a way out and other people. Instead he finds and confront the demon, none of this is shown. There is  lots of yelling and growling but nothing is shown. Somehow Camera Guy gets away and runs into the main part of the church where everyone is sitting looking sleep deprived. They are all puzzled as to why he is talking nonsense about everyone missing an demons. As far as they know, he was with the group of kids the entire night and just left to go to the bathroom only to come back ranting and raving crazy nonsense.

The final scene is of the trio talking in the not dead Mr. Mugging's car. Born Loser and Mr. Mugging don't doubt that Camera Guy what he had experienced but they don't remember any of the events he is talking about.  He gets dropped off at his house and films himself throwing out his collection of adult magazines that he collected by dumpster diving. Then the movie just abruptly ends without credits.

MVT: Underneath the message there is a horror film begging to be let out. The writer of this movie understands horror and with a rewrite or two and a budget this would be an amazing horror film.

Make or Break: What makes this movie for me is the technical competence. Cgi is used sparsely and only when there is no budget for practical effects. Character conversations are framed so that you can see who is talking to who. As for breaking, the purpose and tone is what broke this movie for me. This is a film aimed at teenagers and goes out of it's way to try to speak to teenagers. This makes watching for entertainment rather difficult especially if you are in your thirties.

Score: 1.4 out of 10  


 



Covert Action

Between the release of Goldfinger in 1964 to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969, the James Bond films inspired hundreds upon hundreds of spirited, colorful, often nonsensical European spy films about smarmy super-agents trotting the globe to foil the dreams of assorted madmen megalomaniacs. These films took the Bond template and ran with it, and thanks to the inexpensive access to glamorous locations that Europe offers, even the films that couldn’t afford a proper office set could still afford to pop down to the Amalfi Coast or Monte Carlo or Paris for a couple days of filming. By the end of the 1960s, however, even though the Bond franchise was still going strong, the Eurospy films inspired by 007 all but vanished from screens, much in the same way as the sword and sandal films of the early 1960s.

It was no mystery where they went. Part of it was simply a case of over-saturation, the gluttonous overkill European cult cinema (usually led by the Italians) always bring to the table when a genre becomes popular. But even more so, the social and political climate of the 1960s rendered these frothy, goofball spy fantasies not just anachronistic, but even insulting to a generation that was now in the midst of civil unrest, warfare, and terrorism. When Red Brigades and Baader-Meinhof are running through the streets, it’s hard to work up much interest in some smirking spy in a sharkskin suit chasing after a dude who invented a spore gun. In 1972, against the backdrop of Black September terrorists massacring Israeli athletes at the Olympic games in Munich, the breezy fun of the Eurospy era gave way to the grim, nihilistic vision of the poliziotteschi film.

Still, much of the crime in Europe was politically motivated -- or at least so the criminals claimed -- and although tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union had relaxed a little, there was still a Cold War on. The spy films of the 1970s were a very different beast than those spy fantasies of the previous decade (even though that previous decade had seen the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis). More paranoid, more realistic, reflective of a world in which authority figures were no longer trusted or given the benefit of the doubt. Given the cross-over potential, it’s surprising how few times poliziotteschi and espionage met. Covert Action (Sono stato un agente C.I.A.) is one of the higher profile examples, if not one of the better ones, because it stars Maurizio Merli, the poster boy of the entire poliziotteschi genre.

American David Janssen (The Green Berets, O’Hara: U.S. Treasury) stars as retired CIA man Lester Horton, who spends his disgruntled retirement as a failed fiction writer and occasional author of scandalous tell-alls about the CIA (the character was allegedly based on real life CIA dirty laundry airer Philip Agee, who even sued the production company). When he pops up in Greece, for vacation he says, the CIA gets nervous, and before too long Horton is caught up in a convoluted plot revolving around murder and a taped confession that would be particularly damaging to the CIA.

Despite coming from two action-packed genres, and having “action” in its title, Covert Action isn’t an action film. It’s more of a brooding espionage thriller, paced slowly but not boring. Director Romolo Guerrieri was fairly low-key in the world of Eurocrime, compared to the big names like Lenzi, Massi, and Castellari, but he directed a few really good crime films in the 1970s (The Police Serve the Citizens?, City Under Siege, and Young, Violent, Dangerous), and Covert Action is similarly low-key. It’s about the paranoia and hopelessness one faces when trying to get out from under an organization that basically has carte blanche to do anything, anywhere in the world. When the action does heat up, it’s pretty damn good, including a good car chase, a harrowing interrogation scene, and a fight between co-star Maurizio Merli and a gang of hired killers. Merli co-stars as Lester’s friend, a man who is finding himself pushed out of the CIA and targeted for permanent retirement. Merli brings the intensity for which he’s known from cop movies, but this a more complex and vulnerable role than what’s he’s known for.

Covert Action isn’t essential viewing except for Maurizio Merli completists, and unless you’re predisposed toward appreciated slow burn spy films and character studies, it might try the patience a little. But if a measured pace doesn’t stick in your craw, then Covert Action is a deceptively intense thriller with some great performances, a few good stunt sequences, and a relentlessly bleak and exhausted mood. If you enjoy films like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold or Three Days of the Condor, Covert Action will slide in nicely as a lesser but still plenty enjoyable example of the genre.

MVT: Although I’d love to give it to Merli for getting to do something other than grimace and box ears, it has to go to David Janssen. “Understated” is sometimes used when people don’t want to say “dull,” but it truly applies here. Despite maintaining his cool as best he can, Janssen’s performance bristles with a mix of intensity, frustration, and weariness. If James Bond was the spy who made people want to go out and have adventures, Janssen’s Lester Horton is the one that makes you want go home, collapse on the couch, and stare pensively at a tumbler of J&B.

Make or Break: Merli slaps some fools in a Greek amphitheatre. We all love watching Merli smack around criminals in his many cop films, but when he finally gets to bust out the backhand in Covert Action, it’s an entirely different sort of experience. Instead of the aggressor, he is the defender, and there is a savage desperation and sense of “the good man’s final stand” doom that lends the scene a melancholy air.