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Case Number 18887

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A Cold War Spy Collection

Acorn Media // 1984 // 308 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart // May 12th, 2010

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge James A. Stewart drives a Trabant.

The Charge

"I'm just a contract man."

Opening Statement

Gerald Seymour covered some grim stories, including the Munich Olympics tragedy and Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland, while working for ITN news. Later, he used his experience in writing novels, including The Glory Boys and The Contract. He adapted both of those novels, which offer a cynical take on Cold War machinations, into Yorkshire Television miniseries. He did it just in time, too. With original air dates in 1984 and 1988, these got on television just before the fall of the Berlin Wall made them…well, irrelevant. Thus, they probably haven't been seen in years.

A Cold War Spy Collection unearths both miniseries, providing nearly six hours of Cold War drama. Is it worth a look, or would you be better off watching Anthony Bourdain test-drive a Trabant one more time?

Facts of the Case

A Cold War Spy Collection features two three-part miniseries, each on its own disc:

The Glory Boys
A Middle Eastern terrorist and an Irish terrorist get together to assassinate an Israeli scientist (Rod Steiger, On the Waterfront) in London. Jimmy (Anthony Perkins, Psycho), a washed-up spy with a drinking problem, is brought in to stop them. Joanna Lumley (The New Avengers) plays Jimmy's love interest.

The Contract
British agents help Mr. Guttman defect from the Soviet bloc, only to find that they've brought out the interpreter son, not the rocket designer father. Not to worry, though. There's an opportunity to bring home the father, with the help of Johnny (Kevin McNally, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl), a washed-up spy who shot a kid by mistake.

The Evidence

The Glory Boys hits viewers with a flurry of activity right off the bat: helicopters, brutal questioning of a prisoner, and a police chase that leads to the deaths of a couple of terrorists. Since you don't yet know who anyone is, this probably won't have any emotional impact. That's the main problem with Glory Boys, since Anthony Perkins takes a three-dimensional character and flattens him into a standard cardboard agent. Perkins occasionally spouts a weary line or takes a swig from his flask, but he doesn't really sound as world-weary as his character. He was apparently cast for name recognition, because this one got a screening on TBS. The casting of Joanna Lumley is equally misguided. She doesn't do a bad job, but she's wasted as a vaguely supportive love interest, rather than the woman of action that anyone who recognized her name from New Avengers would have expected. Bickering between the two terrorists also seems flat. With limited screen time, Rod Steiger makes the best impression, playing a scientist who's at first reluctant to go into danger but develops resolve as things get worse. The pacing also could make viewers climb the walls, since the first episode is devoted mainly to getting characters in place.

The Contract holds up better. The opening screw-up and the British attempts to make it work for them provide a more interesting plot framework than the standard race against time of Glory Boys. Kevin McNally actually shapes his washed-up agent into a complex character worth watching, and Johnny's knack for improvisation (he didn't actually trust his handlers to do anything right) adds to the excitement and tension. You can actually feel his doubt, his frustration as the carefully laid plan goes off course, and his conflict as he watches two young lovers stopped by police, unable to help without risking his charges. This one uses German actors (Hans Caninenberg and Stephan Meyer-Kohlhoff) and locations, and doesn't show them speaking English to each other, so there's more verisimilitude than in your typical TV spy drama. It's also interesting that the Guttmans—father, son, and daughter—are all reluctant defectors, not totally satisfied with their country but still uneasy with the idea of turning traitor. While both stories use similar ironic twists, only The Contract supports its ending with dramatic tension and strong performances throughout.

The picture quality is so-so, full of the fading and flaws typical of old prints, with the occasional murky night scene.

The extras are text: a biography of Gerald Seymour and filmographies of the stars.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

While The Glory Boys is a dud, the intriguing The Contract could be worth putting in your Netflix queue or renting if you can find it. The lack of star power works in its favor, making it rely on the story and the characters to draw an audience.

Closing Statement

I wouldn't recommend buying this one, unless you find it cheap in a remainders bin. The Contract is actually pretty good, but both miniseries show their age. If you're a fan of Cold War drama, I'd go with a set of Edward Woodward's Callan instead.

The Verdict

Not quite the Trabant of television drama collections, but still guilty, thanks to the misuse of star power in Glory Boys.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 80
Audio: 85
Extras: 50
Acting: 80
Story: 85
Judgment: 80

Perp Profile

Studio: Acorn Media
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Subtitles:
• None
Running Time: 308 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Genres:
• Drama
• Foreign
• Television
• Thriller

Distinguishing Marks

• Text Features








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