Countdown (2004)

Original Title: Lichnyy nomer
Country: Russia
Director: Evgeny Lavrentiev
Starring: Aleksei Makarov, Louise Lombard, Vyacheslav Razbegayev, Yegor Pozenko, Yuriy Tsurilo, John Amos

The globe hopping continues. In the past few weeks I have looked at two films from Japan, one from India, an Italian film set in Morrocco, and a French film set in Turkey. With Countdown, I move to Russia, and I must admit, apart from Battleship Potempkin, which I watched as a youngster at school, my knowledge of Russian cinema is piss-poor. During the Cold War, or watching films set during the Cold War, the Russkies were so often the enemy, it is strange looking at a modern Russian spy film where they are the good guys. And as ignorant as I am of Russian Cinema, I am even more ignorant of the current (well current being 2004, being when this film is set) political landscape of Russia. But to fill out a few of background details on which this film is based, here are a some salient points. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chechnya has wished to secede from the Russian Federation, resulting in two wars. As a show of support, the Taliban government of Afghanistan recognized independent Chechnya in 1999 and even opened an embassy in Kabul in January 2000. While watching this film, it helps understanding the connection between the Chechnyan Sepratists and the Taliban (it explains the bad guys). But having said all that, even if you don’t grasp these basics, Countdown is not hard to follow – there’s good guys and there’s bad guys and plenty of fights and shooting. What more could you ask?

The film open with FSS officer, Major Aleksei Smolin (Aleksei Makarov), who has been captured by Chechnyan terrorists, making a confession to a video camera. He says: “As commander of the special task force SENEZH I received an order from my superiors to blow up apartment buildings in Burnaksk, Volgodonsk and Moscow. My men and I carried out that order.” The screen then fades to black. Smolin, who has been badly beaten strung out on drugs, and had the life of his family threatened, is confessing to a crime that has not happened.

The film then moves to the North Caucasus in Chechnya, and two Land Rovers are widing around a mountains road toward the border. In the second Land Rover, Smolin is bound in the back. In the front is the leader of this terrorist cell, Saulus Boykis (Yegor Pozenko) . Boykis has with him a collection of video tapes — all featuring Smolin’s confession.

The guide, leading the tiny convoy, stops the first Land Rover nad gets out. He walks back to Boykis and suggests that he go on alone. Boykis reminds the guide that he was promised safe passage through Georgia and into Turkey. But still the guide refuses to go any further. Boykis picks up a radio phone and calls their superiors. The response is that the guide should continue to lead Boykis to the border. But the guide doesn’t get a further chance to lead, because Boykis pulls his pistol and shoots the guide for not being a team player. However, the radio call attracts the attention of one of the Russian security posts. They had been monitoring the signal on that particular radio phone. Now with a location and radio lock, they send two helicopter gunships to intercept the terrorists.

With radio guidance, the helicopters take out the first Land Rover. The second vehicle containing Boykis and Smolin makes a break for it with two air gunships firing after it. As bullets riddle the 4WD, Smolin realises he could become an innocent victim, so even though he is bound, he kicks open the back and rolls out onto the road. Further along the road, Boykis also bails out, grabbing one copy of the video confession as he leaps. The land Rover drives off a cliff and is mangles as it bounces down upon the rocks below.

Later, the Russian security forces find Smolin and take him to a station for processing. At the crash site, as security sift through the wreckage, they find copies of the video tape.

The film moves to an un-named Middle Eastern country, and to the Ansar Allah training camp in the dessert. The Master sends Hassan (Ramil Sabitov) on a special mission. He is to be working with the Chechnens in Moscow…but this mission is just a means to an end, and hides his real purpose. The Master adds: “Our long war with the infidels hasn’t seen the likes of the battle we’re about to begin. May the eternal city die eternally.”

More globe trotting as the film skips to Gibraltar, and here he meet the villain of the piece, exiled Chechnyan leader, Lev Mikhailovich (Viktor Verzhbitskiy). Mikhailovich is loosely based on Chechnyan Deputy Prime Minister Akhmed Zakayev, who is currently living under asylum in England. That’s one of the things with this film, many of the characters, and the events are loosely based on real events — later in the film there is a siege situation which is based on the Beslan school hostage situation — and as such presents the sanctioned Russian Federation point-of-view. Once again, I am not well versed in Russian politics, and as such I cannot attest to the veracity of these scenes, and as to whether this film is actually a propogancda piece. In fact, it could be argued that my ignorance allows me to enjoy this film more than somebody who is knowledgeable about the events re-created for the picture.


But on with the movie synopsis. Mikhailovich wants to go home, and here’s his plan. Teamed with terrorists supplied by Ansar Allah, Chechnyan terrorists intend to take control of the Moscow Circus, taking the performers and the audience hostage. The terrorist will then
demand that Mikhailovich is called to come back to Russian an negeotiate for the release of the hostages — making him appear as a hero.

Meanwhile at a Federal checkpoint in Chechnya, Smolin has been imprisoned by his own people. The video confession found in the jeep wreckage indicates that Smolin is a traitor. At that moment though, and American journalist, Catherine Stone (Louise Lombard) arives at the checkpoint. As she walks through the yard, Smolin calls to her from his cell. He speaks English and promises her exclusive information. The checkpoint superiors don’t like Smolin talking to the press, the the chief sends two guards to his cell to shut him up. As they open the door, Smolin leaps at them and clobbers them. He grabs one of their riffles and moves into the compound. The guards start to shoot, so he fires back — but he fires over their heads. He is not trying to kill them. Stone has made her way back to her jeep, and Smolin runs over and jumps into the driver seat. He drives off, with her in the back, and crashes through the front gates.

After the jeep has run out of petrol, Smolin cuts Stone free. He is now on his own. In some ways this film is similar to the Die Hard films (particularly the second). Smolin is wanted dead by the bad guys. The good guys don’t believe him and want him out of the way too. Leaving him alone in the middle – or to quote John McLane, he’s the ‘monkey in the wrench’. But Smolin has an inside running. He already knows what Boykis is planning. After all, he has already confessed to it.

This is the type of film where it may be more enjoyable, the less you know about the events mirrored from real-life within this film. It’s a bit like Rocky IV. Rocky IV as a boxing film was okay, but it had this jingoistic – almost propoganda piece – feel to it that effected the overall mood the film created. But if you can remove yourself from the reality of it, then thje film works fine. Same here. If you don’t understand the ra-ra-ism, then you can watch this film as a stand alone action film, and on that level, Countdown works extremely well. There are quite a few good action set-pieces. The airplane stunts — all done in front of camera with no CGI — are excellent. The film looks great too. The photography in the Caucasus mountains is pretty spectacular.

Countdown’s well worth a look.

Countdown (2004)

Countdown (2004)

Original Title: Lichnyy nomer
Country: Russia
Director: Evgeny Lavrentiev
Starring: Aleksei Makarov, Louise Lombard, Vyacheslav Razbegayev, Yegor Pozenko, Yuriy Tsurilo, John Amos

The globe hopping continues. In the past few weeks I have looked at two films from Japan, one from India, an Italian film set in Morrocco, and a French film set in Turkey. With Countdown, I move to Russia, and I must admit, apart from Battleship Potempkin, which I watched as a youngster at school, my knowledge of Russian cinema is piss-poor. During the Cold War, or watching films set during the Cold War, the Russkies were so often the enemy, it is strange looking at a modern Russian spy film where they are the good guys. And as ignorant as I am of Russian Cinema, I am even more ignorant of the current (well current being 2004, being when this film is set) political landscape of Russia. But to fill out a few of background details on which this film is based, here are a some salient points. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chechnya has wished to secede from the Russian Federation, resulting in two wars. As a show of support, the Taliban government of Afghanistan recognized independent Chechnya in 1999 and even opened an embassy in Kabul in January 2000. While watching this film, it helps understanding the connection between the Chechnyan Sepratists and the Taliban (it explains the bad guys). But having said all that, even if you don’t grasp these basics, Countdown is not hard to follow – there’s good guys and there’s bad guys and plenty of fights and shooting. What more could you ask?

The film open with FSS officer, Major Aleksei Smolin (Aleksei Makarov), who has been captured by Chechnyan terrorists, making a confession to a video camera. He says: “As commander of the special task force SENEZH I received an order from my superiors to blow up apartment buildings in Burnaksk, Volgodonsk and Moscow. My men and I carried out that order.” The screen then fades to black. Smolin, who has been badly beaten strung out on drugs, and had the life of his family threatened, is confessing to a crime that has not happened.

The film then moves to the North Caucasus in Chechnya, and two Land Rovers are widing around a mountains road toward the border. In the second Land Rover, Smolin is bound in the back. In the front is the leader of this terrorist cell, Saulus Boykis (Yegor Pozenko) . Boykis has with him a collection of video tapes — all featuring Smolin’s confession.

The guide, leading the tiny convoy, stops the first Land Rover nad gets out. He walks back to Boykis and suggests that he go on alone. Boykis reminds the guide that he was promised safe passage through Georgia and into Turkey. But still the guide refuses to go any further. Boykis picks up a radio phone and calls their superiors. The response is that the guide should continue to lead Boykis to the border. But the guide doesn’t get a further chance to lead, because Boykis pulls his pistol and shoots the guide for not being a team player. However, the radio call attracts the attention of one of the Russian security posts. They had been monitoring the signal on that particular radio phone. Now with a location and radio lock, they send two helicopter gunships to intercept the terrorists.

With radio guidance, the helicopters take out the first Land Rover. The second vehicle containing Boykis and Smolin makes a break for it with two air gunships firing after it. As bullets riddle the 4WD, Smolin realises he could become an innocent victim, so even though he is bound, he kicks open the back and rolls out onto the road. Further along the road, Boykis also bails out, grabbing one copy of the video confession as he leaps. The land Rover drives off a cliff and is mangles as it bounces down upon the rocks below.

Later, the Russian security forces find Smolin and take him to a station for processing. At the crash site, as security sift through the wreckage, they find copies of the video tape.

The film moves to an un-named Middle Eastern country, and to the Ansar Allah training camp in the dessert. The Master sends Hassan (Ramil Sabitov) on a special mission. He is to be working with the Chechnens in Moscow…but this mission is just a means to an end, and hides his real purpose. The Master adds: “Our long war with the infidels hasn’t seen the likes of the battle we’re about to begin. May the eternal city die eternally.”

More globe trotting as the film skips to Gibraltar, and here he meet the villain of the piece, exiled Chechnyan leader, Lev Mikhailovich (Viktor Verzhbitskiy). Mikhailovich is loosely based on Chechnyan Deputy Prime Minister Akhmed Zakayev, who is currently living under asylum in England. That’s one of the things with this film, many of the characters, and the events are loosely based on real events — later in the film there is a siege situation which is based on the Beslan school hostage situation — and as such presents the sanctioned Russian Federation point-of-view. Once again, I am not well versed in Russian politics, and as such I cannot attest to the veracity of these scenes, and as to whether this film is actually a propogancda piece. In fact, it could be argued that my ignorance allows me to enjoy this film more than somebody who is knowledgeable about the events re-created for the picture.


But on with the movie synopsis. Mikhailovich wants to go home, and here’s his plan. Teamed with terrorists supplied by Ansar Allah, Chechnyan terrorists intend to take control of the Moscow Circus, taking the performers and the audience hostage. The terrorist will then demand that Mikhailovich is called to come back to Russian an negeotiate for the release of the hostages — making him appear as a hero.

Meanwhile at a Federal checkpoint in Chechnya, Smolin has been imprisoned by his own people. The video confession found in the jeep wreckage indicates that Smolin is a traitor. At that moment though, and American journalist, Catherine Stone (Louise Lombard) arives at the checkpoint. As she walks through the yard, Smolin calls to her from his cell. He speaks English and promises her exclusive information. The checkpoint superiors don’t like Smolin talking to the press, the the chief sends two guards to his cell to shut him up. As they open the door, Smolin leaps at them and clobbers them. He grabs one of their riffles and moves into the compound. The guards start to shoot, so he fires back — but he fires over their heads. He is not trying to kill them. Stone has made her way back to her jeep, and Smolin runs over and jumps into the driver seat. He drives off, with her in the back, and crashes through the front gates.

After the jeep has run out of petrol, Smolin cuts Stone free. He is now on his own. In some ways this film is similar to the Die Hard films (particularly the second). Smolin is wanted dead by the bad guys. The good guys don’t believe him and want him out of the way too. Leaving him alone in the middle – or to quote John McLane, he’s the ‘monkey in the wrench’. But Smolin has an inside running. He already knows what Boykis is planning. After all, he has already confessed to it.

This is the type of film where it may be more enjoyable, the less you know about the events mirrored from real-life within this film. It’s a bit like Rocky IV. Rocky IV as a boxing film was okay, but it had this jingoistic – almost propoganda piece – feel to it that effected the overall mood the film created. But if you can remove yourself from the reality of it, then thje film works fine. Same here. If you don’t understand the ra-ra-ism, then you can watch this film as a stand alone action film, and on that level, Countdown works extremely well. There are quite a few good action set-pieces. The airplane stunts — all done in front of camera with no CGI — are excellent. The film looks great too. The photography in the Caucasus mountains is pretty spectacular.

Countdown’s well worth a look.

Countdown (2004)

West Coast Blues

West Coast Blues is not a spy story per-se. The main villain has a shady background (used to be in the Dominican Army as a member of the SIM, the Military Investigative Service), which if I was pushed, I am sure I could twist into an espionage thing, but in reality this is just a tough noir graphic novel. And despite the title West Coast Blues, which makes it sound very American, it is in fact French noir.

The story concerns a gentleman named George Gerfault and he lives in Paris, and it’s a classic ‘wrong place and the wrong time’ scenario. As Gerfault makes his way home from work one evening, a Citroen and a Lancia speed past him. The Citroen swerves off the road and gets wrapped around a tree. The Lancia speeds off. Gerfault stops and helps the smashed-up driver. He drives him to the hospital and dumps him — Gerfault doesn’t want to get involved.

Unfortunately for Gerfault though, he is involved because the two men in the Lancia were hitmen, and now that he has talked to the Citroen driver, well who knows what he may have learned? So now the hitmen have to take care of Gerfault. What follows is the story of a man who has his whole life tipped upside down. The story unfolds over a year and moves from Paris, to the beach, and up into the Alps.

West Coast Blues is a good tough read and very enjoyable. And if you’re a jazz music fan, it is littered with references.

The book should be available by the end of the week.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Jacques Tardi is the author of over 30 graphic novels and considered the leading European cartoonist of the generation that came of age in the 1970s. He lives in Paris, where he is currently working on another Manchette adaptation, Nada, for release in 2010.

Jean-Patrick Manchette (1942-1995) authored ten short, highly acclaimed crime novels (two of which have been translated into English by City Lights, including West Coast Blues, under the title Three to Kill), as well as a multitude other books and teleplays.


See Amazon’s entry for Three to Kill for reviews of the original prose version.

“Tardi brings a rough and gritty reality and an existential strangeness that makes his crime stories different than anyone else’s. I’ll read anything he draws.” — ED BRUBAKER

“To put it simply, this shit kicks ass.” — HOWARD CHAYKIN
PUB. DATE: OCT. 1, 2009
80 pages, Hardcover • ISBN 978-1-60699-295-1 • $18.99
Published by Fantagraphics Books, Inc. • 7563 Lake City Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115
West Coast Blues

Coplan Saves His Skin (1968)

Original title: Coplan sauve sa peau
AKA: Devil’s Garden / Requiem for a Snake
Country: France / Italy
Director: Yves Boisset
Starring: Claudio Brook, Margaret Lee, Jean Servais, Bernard Blier, Jean Topart, Hans Meyer, Klaus Kinski
Music: Jean-Claude Pelletier
Based on the book Coplan Paie le Cercueil by Paul Kenny

Coplan Saves his Skin is the first film I have watched in the Coplan series. I do have a copy of an earlier entry FX-18 Superspy directed by Riccardo Freda, but the print is so diabolical even I couldn’t watch it. It looked like a polar bear in a snow storm, rather than the beautiful glossy colours I know the film proper has. So I tossed that to one side waiting for the day when a better print surfaces (it’s been a long wait). But while I wait, Coplan Saves his Skin has landed in my lap.

Now this is one of the very few titles not covered in the indispensable Eurospy Guide — notice whenever I refer to ‘The Guide’, I always describe it as the ‘indispensable’ Eurospy Guide — and that’s because if you are spy film fan, you cannot do without this book. I remember when this book came out five years ago (that long ago, huh!). I used to scrounge around trying to find movies from just one or two grey market dealers. I didn’t really know how much was out there. I knew that there were spy films that I wanted to see, but I didn’t know their names — after all these films go by so many titles. As for series, it was almost impossible to link up films. For example, above I mentioned FX-18 Superspy — in some markets it was released as Agent 077 Summergame. I thought it was a part of the 077 series, where in reality it is a Coplan film. Even IMDb wasn’t much help back then — if you were lucky you could find a title, but there was no cast and crew information. But then the Eurospy Guide appeared, and suddenly everything changed. Films had names. Series could be traced, and even better, the flow on effect is now these films are slowly being released. Companies like Dorado, Fin de Siecle, Dark Sky, and Retromedia started releasing some of these films. And also fan projects are being put together by eager Eurospy fans, keen to fill in the blanks — which is fantastic (and I my thanks sincerely goes out to those who put in the hours to redub, or subtitle some of these films. Your work is appreciated).

The fact that I can watch a version of Coplan Saves his Skin, where as at the time of writing David and Matt (the author’s of The Eurospy Guide) couldn’t, says a lot about how things have changed. But onwards.

Often when I look at Eurospy films you will read the term ‘James Bond ripoff’. And on the whole that is true, particularly of the Italian films. But the French films often owed a great debt to Alfred Hitchcock. The French New Wave loved Hitchcock, and you’ve got to remember that after North By Northwest, they wanted Alfred Hitchcock to direct the first Bond film, Thunderball (for those who are unsure about what I am referring to, should check out Robert Sellers excellent book, The Battle For Bond). Anyway, Hitchcock’s shadow fell over quite a few Eurospy productions, and these films had a slightly more psychological edge to them, rather than the slam-bam action of those films which relied solely on the Bond template. Coplan Saves his Skin is heavily influenced by Vertigo (but without the dizzying heights).

The film opens in Istanbul on the streets. A fat, hairy beast of a man, while eating melon, watches a group of street performers go through their routines. There is a man lying on a bed of nails, a fire eater, and even a dancing bear. At that moment, world renowned scientist, Otto Eisner walks by, accompanied by his assistant Mara (Margaret Lee). The hairy beast begins to follow them, sneaks up and stabs Eisner. Then he runs off. Rather foolishly, Mara chooses to follow him. This doesn’t last too long because the hairy beast signals to another guy, and he begins to chase Mara. I don’t know why the hairy beast didn’t just stab Mara too, but what the heck, let’s just go with it!

This new minion chases Mara all over Istanbul, which is a great opportunity to show off some great location photography (got to get that ferry in there somewhere). Eventually she loses her tail and makes her way to some kind of public house. Waiting there for her is Francis Coplan (Claudio Brook). He has travelled half way across the world to be there. The back story is that three years prior, in Acapulco, Mara and Coplan used to be lovers. Then one day she disappeared without a word, leaving him heart broken. Now all these years later, she contacts him. She needs his help because he works for the CIA. He obviously still holds a torch for her, because he turned up. He presents her with a red rose.

Not one to waste time, Mara explains that an organisation called the ‘Consortium of Brains’ are trying to kill her. Apparently the ‘Consortium’ aren’t evil men — they work for the betterment of mankind — but still, they want her dead. It never is really explained why.

Later as Coplan and Mara walk in a garden, they are attacked by a group of thugs dressed in black. One of them is the hairy beast and he goes after Mara, while the others beat up on Coplan. Mara tries to fight back and slings candle wax into the beasts face – he goes berserk (ends up facially scarred) and appears to repeatedly stab her. Appears? Well his bulk hides the action, and it’s hard to tell what he has in his hand. It appears to be a knife, but who knows?

Coplan slowly regains consciousness on a pebble beach. He is pretty smashed up, and has a serious knife wound on his left arm. He is found by a girl named Yasmine who arranges help. Once Coplan is healed, Lieutenant Sakki of the Emniyet (Turkish Secret Police) wants him to leave the country. Of course Coplan doesn’t and begins a search for Mara (and/or her killers).

Most Eurospy films feature the same old cliches. They often start with a brilliant scientist killed or kidnapped. Then the beautiful daughter or assistant becomes tangled up in the investigation with the dashing secret agent. As this film begins, all those cliches are present which tend to indicate that this is going to be another formulaic Eurospy flick (and hey, I’m happy with that!) But then in the middle, this film becomes a little bit eery as Coplan’s search for Mara becomes more obsessive and the film subtly shifts towards being a psychological drama. And while I do love the corny Eurospy tropes, I thought that Coplan Saves his Skin was striving to be a bit more than that. The cliches are here, but there also something fresh and atmospheric (albeit lifted from Vertigo). Coplan Saves his Skin is one of the more affecting Eurospy films. People who are after empty action thrills may find the going a little slow in the middle, but ultimately for those willing to invest their time will find this film to be a rewarding experience.

Claudio Brook is not your standard square-jawed hero. He is not as handsome and debonair as a Connery, a John Gavin or even a Richard Whyler. And physically, he isn’t as packed as a Ken Clark, Louis Davilla or Brad Harris. Brook is an ‘everyman’, and with the psychological approach this film takes, that’s a big plus when it comes to selling the human, obsessive side of the story. And obsessive Francis Coplan is. Even when all the twists have played out (which I wont reveal here), Coplan doesn’t accept it. His mind is singular in it’s desire. If Coplan had been a smarmy, self confident playboy (like Tony Kendall in the Kommissar X films), then all the believability in the character would have gone out the window.

Klaus Kinski give an oddball performance as Theler, who is a sculptor that knows something about Mara’s disappearance. Kinski spends his time surrounded by naked women and nude sculpture. He appears to wander around in a sarong and holds the odd seance. His role (and performance) aren’t pivotal to the story, but it’s always great to see him in this type of flick — and for once he isn’t playing a psycho hitman, which is refreshing.

Hans Meyer, plays Hugo the villain of the piece. He strokes a black cat (I never said this film totally eschews the Bondian stereotypes), and has a leather side plate on the left side of his face to hide horrible facial scarring. He also has a pretty impressive lair, which is a castle located in the Devil’s Valley. Now while Hugo is evil, he is also one of those villains who carries out his scheme in the belief it is for the betterment of all mankind. So he is evil, without being totally evil. The true villainy comes from his number one henchwoman, Carole, you wields a whip. Now she is just plain nuts with a delicious cruel streak. At the climax she is in charge of a manhunt to track Coplan down — it is essentially a variation on the ‘most dangerous game’. The sequence is a bit drawn out — and there is a rather poor sequence with a large spider, but the sensational location footage really makes up for any shortcomings. The ending has a very different feel to most films of it’s type.

I am making this film sound like a masterpiece. it is not, but it is substantially more intelligent than most of the films of it’s ilk, while at the same time presenting all the requisite tropes of the genre.

Coplan Saves His Skin (1968)