Monday, January 5, 2009

The many layered pleasures of Reilly Ace of Spies

I didn't watch the British series Reilly Ace of Spies when it originally aired 25 years ago, but I've picked it up on Netflix and I've very much enjoyed the first three episodes. If you saw it all those years ago, you might enjoy re-watching it now. If you didn't, it has many things to recommend it.

1. "Based" on a "true story":The book Reilly Ace of Spies told the exploits of Sidney Reilly, a very resourceful British intelligence agent from the early 20th Century. On Wikipedia, some of the stories in the book by Robin Bruce Lockhart, an agent who worked with Reilly, are disputed, and then once the stories are dramatised, important details are changed and what remains is not a real historical document. Even so, it's an interesting take on the era, and Ian Fleming admits that he took many aspects of Reilly's life as the model for James Bond.

2. Sam Neill: Neill has all the attributes needed for playing a spy. You can easily believe he's the smartest guy in the room and morally ambiguous. Since the real Sidney Reilly was a devil with women, it doesn't hurt that Neill is very good looking, too. If you wonder how a guy who looks like Sam Neill with the name Sidney Reilly could have been so good at infiltration jobs in Germany and Russia, the real Reilly was born Georgi Rosenblum in Odessa, as far as research can tell, and while he was good looking, he didn't look much like Sam Neill.

3. The theme song: The intro tune to Reilly Ace of Spies may be the prettiest piece of music ever to be used as a TV theme song. It's a very lush and romantic orchestral piece by Dmitri Shostakovich, originally penned for the 1955 Soviet film The Gadfly. It could easily have been written a century earlier.

4. The "OMG! It's That Guy!" factor: It's the old trivia player in me, I'm sure, but I love watching a movie or TV show with a big cast and spotting people who I have seen before, and this show hired nearly every British actor with a paid up union card. Some very recognizable people have small roles, some whose characters are only used in one episode.

For example, the first episode takes place in Baku on the Caspian Sea. Some local guy thinks Reilly might be a spy and so detains him. The local guy is played by John Rhys-Davies.

In the second episode, Reilly is in the Manchurian city of Port Arthur, spying for the British and their allies the Japanese. A local guy thinks Reilly might be a spy and detains him. The local guy is played by David Suchet, best known to viewers as Hercule Poirot.

In the third episode, Reilly is in Hamburg, and there is a character in jeopardy Reilly is supposed to deal with named Goschen. Goschen is played by Bill Nighy.

The cast is full of British actors who range from very recognizable, like Leo McKern as an armaments tycoon, to more obscure, like the ship captain who played General Dodonna in the original Star Wars movie.

5. The Snog Objects: Since Reilly is a devil with women, the cast needs women for him to be the devil with. In the first episode, Jeananne Crowley plays a woman trapped in a loveless marriage to an older man, seduced away by Sidney Reilly. In the second episode, she plays a woman trapped in a loveless marriage to Sidney Reilly, seduced by a co-worker. In the third episode, the daughter of the man who runs a Hamburg boarding house that Reilly lives in is played by Joanne Whalley, who was a super fine honey back in the day. This isn't HBO or I, Claudius, so people don't get nekkid or anything, but there is a heck of a lot of snogging going on. As the action changes and gets to the Soviet era, I don't expect Reilly to keep up this James Bond level pace of conquests, but he should be able to keep up a per episode average that keeps him in the James Kirk level of cads.

Matty Boy says check it out.


jolie said...

matty, your taste is way impeccable. I have loved sam neill and reilly all these years - even rented it recently (I'm a blockbuster gal) and was glad to see it pretty much stood the test of time. and it was great seeing the young sam neill all over again.

score matty-boy.

Matty Boy said...

Thanks, jolie. I was taught that self-praise is no praise at all, but I'm going to agree with you and say that my taste IS impeccable. I've been reading professional critics' list of the best movies of the year and I am appalled by how many people put movies like The Dark Knight, Slumdog Millionaire and Synecdoche, NY on the lists of best films, while leaving off more worthy films like The Visitor and Bigger, Stronger, Faster.

You of course may disagree, because this is just one expert's opinion. ;^]

namastenancy said...

I'm with jolie; your taste is impeccable - especially as comes to Sam Neil and Reilly, The Ace of Spies. I remember when it was first shown. I could not wait for the next episode - a class act all the way. Like you, I played the "It's THAT Guy" game and adored the music. I hadn't listened too much of Shostakovich before that but I started to appreciate his music. But mostly I watched for the delectable Sam O'Neill and the equally yummy actresses he seduced each week. The series gets darker and darker as it goes along; the episodes set during the Russian Revolution capture the chaos and idealism of the time - followed by the grim aftermath. Sam Neill is up to the challenge. You'd never know how good an actor he can be by his current work; this showed his full range and then some. Plus, it also shows that you don't have to get nikked and make loud sounds for a love/sex scene to be sexy. Neill can do it with a look across the table.