The notion of Keri Russell, still fixed in the minds of so many as the namesake star of small screen college drama “Felicity,” playing a deep-cover Russian operative in a period piece spy drama like “The Americans” always seemed like something of a stretch. But, opposite costar Matthew Rhys, Russell reliably helps anchor FX’s chess-game serial, returning this month for its second season. Created by Joe Weisberg, an ex-CIA agent of four years and the brother of Slate Group editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg, “The Americans” is a meat-and-potatoes show whose classic conflict set-up and intriguing explorations of moored (and unmoored) personal identity amidst chronic, ingrained deceit win out over some occasionally soapier instincts. As such, it seems poised to build on the gains of its debut run, and perhaps inherit some viewers who’ve over the last couple years fallen in love with AMC’s hearty fare.
The series unfolds in 1980s Washington, D.C., where Ronald Reagan’s inauguration has pricked the sensitive ears of Moscow, and quietly escalated long-simmering Cold War tensions. With two kids and a house in a sleepy Alexandria, Virginia cul-de-sac, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Rhys and Russell) seem like ordinary suburbanites, but they’re actually sleeper-cell KGB operatives who have established American identities as part of a long-term plot to not only monitor actions of the United States government but steal secrets and bring it down. Complicating matters are their new neighbors from across the street — Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), a FBI agent working in counter-intelligence, and his wife Sandra (Susan Misner).
In short order, “The Americans” turns into a roundelay of coerced sources, overlapping operations and cat-and-mouse intrigue. Stan catches a young Soviet embassy employee, Nina (Annet Mahendru), in a compromising position, and turns her into an asset. Meanwhile, Philip and Elizabeth have also taken lovers of their own, who they use as pawns in their attempts to meet directives they alternately receive in late-night encoded dead-drops and from their new KGB handler, Claudia (Margo Martindale). Philip, in another guise, carries on a relationship with Martha Hanson (Alison Wright), a secretary for Stan’s boss who works in the same FBI office; Elizabeth, meanwhile, has revealed her true identity to Gregory Thomas (Derek Luke), a young African-American radical who uses ties to unwitting low-level criminal types to run interference for her.
For better or worse, “The Americans” seems poised between programmatic procedural and something a bit artier and more ambitious. The basic set-up — law-breakers living a secret life against a fairly quiet domestic backdrop, under the nose of a law enforcement officer who is both a close friend and tasked with direct investigation into the area of their transgressions — definitely feels like it owes something to “Breaking Bad.” Well… a lot to “Breaking Bad,” really. But some of its subplots (its arc with Gregory, for instance, who becomes a compromised asset) aren’t quite as fascinating or successfully interwoven as its writers believe them to be.
What gives the series some elevation and an additional layer of psychological involvement is Philip and Elizabeth’s backstory, and differing relationships they have with the United States. The two were thrown into this arranged marriage as part of their cover, never having met previously (there are plenty of flashbacks, but it’s not abused as a device), and Elizabeth remains a hardcore ideologue and ardent patriot to her homeland. Philip, on the other hand, is slightly more of a pragmatist, and concerned with what the future holds for their children (ages 13 and 7), who know nothing of their double lives. This leads him to make an offhand comment about defecting, which throws even more turmoil and suspicion onto his relationship with Elizabeth.
Since, in the long run, the Cold War is history, “The Americans” is at its best when milking tension from the untenable positions that Philip and Elizabeth often find themselves in, and rooting down into the general stew of distrust in which its necessarily duplicitous characters all live and operate. Even if some of these situations are a bit ridiculous (tracking down an assassin tasked with killing American scientists after Russia has a change of heart but is unable to contact their killer), they help connect Philip and Elizabeth to geopolitical events in an interesting and even gripping way. This is most embodied in the first season’s best episode, which finds Philip and Elizabeth desperately utilizing a variety of resources in an effort to get real-time information after John Hinckley, Jr.’s shooting of President Reagan. At first the Jennings’ KGB handlers are paranoid about Russia being framed for the attempted assassination, but when Secretary of State Alexander Haig makes comments about being “in control here” at a television news briefing, there’s a momentary belief that a full-scale coup is underway.
“The Americans” is also an interesting study of marriage as a partnership, since Philip and Elizabeth’s relationship goes from cold and unblinking to amorous and back again (and again) over the course of the first season. “It never really happened for us, but I feel like it’s happening now,” says Elizabeth at one point. A couple episodes later she catches Philip in an inconsequential lie, and the clock resets.
Where the series struggles a bit is in sometimes believably integrating Philip and Elizabeth’s kids into the proceedings (there’s an inane bit in one episode in which the kids don’t get picked up from the mall, hitch-hike home and fall victim to a would-be rapist), and also in making Beeman a more worthy adversary. The FBI agent is good at his job, and he and especially his hard-charging boss (Richard Thomas) give “The Americans” a potentially strong, complementary “American” point-of-view, to counterbalance its Russian subjects. But Weisberg and the writers seem obsessed with making Beeman “flawed” in corresponding fashion. While they press Beeman’s professional doggedness, it would be interesting to further exploit, on an institutional level, the gap between public voice and private reality in this silent war of considerable subterfuge. Also, while I realize that sexual trading and the exploitation of libidinal pressure points is part of true-life spycraft, some of it here feels like little more than highlighted metaphor. A little of this goes a long way, and it feels overplayed. Still, one gets the feeling that there’s plenty of interesting future grist for the mill with “The Americans,” if only “House of Cards” fanatics make room for another (slightly bloodier) political drama in their lives.
“The Americans” comes to DVD and Blu-ray in advance of the second season’s bow on FX this week, and is presented in the latter format across three 50GB dual layer discs. The colors in its 1.78:1 widescreen transfer and 1080p treatment are consistent, but with a flushed-out palette and more muted hues that eschew loud primary colors (a marker of later in the decade) and underscore the suburban ennui, which in turn stands in stark contrast to the high stakes of its spy games. The DTS-HD master audio 5.1 track that anchors the Blu-ray release is solid in its tone and breadth, but honestly seems mixed a bit low across the board. There aren’t any wild spikes during action sequences, but you’ll likely have to play it back two to four clicks higher than your normal volume in order to register dialogue cleanly. Spanish, French and English SDH subtitle options are also available.
As for bonus features, a collection of deleted scenes is spread out over each of the discs relevant to the episodes they contain, which is fine, though I know some folks prefer a more curated approach. These dwindle (in both number and significance) as the episodes wear on, though there’s a weird strand with Sandra having broken her leg. There’s also a commentary track with Weisberg, Emmerich and producer Joel Fields on the episode “The Colonel,” plus three separate featurettes which cover a surprising amount of ground. They have monikers which indicate a nominal partitioning, but honestly there’s a lot of crossover between creative decision-making and production information within the pieces. The nice thing is that these featurettes, running six to 16 minutes apiece, are all edited smartly, avoiding the sort of repetitive, desultory clip-fests that too many supplemental short-form pieces utilize. Weisberg talks about the show’s roots in the odd 2010 outing and deportation of a Russian spy ring, and also shares some of his own work experience at the CIA. Interviews with Russell, Rhys, Emmerich and others, meanwhile, are artfully interwoven into segments that examine everything from the fighting style used in the series (krav maga, with some cheating) to its production design and old-school technology. Fields and a couple other behind-the-camera talents get screen time, too, like producer-director Adam Arkin, which is cool, but a bit of input from some of the more interesting “hired hand” directors (like John Dahl) would have been a nice bonus. (Maybe for next season’s set, one hopes.) Wrapping things up is a three-and-a-half-minute gag reel. In addition to the expected line flubs, some cheeky editor puts faux-binoculars around a bunch of dancing and goofing off; there’s also a good number of food-related screw-ups of takes, and a bus taking out a signpost during an establishing shot.
Some folks may still (only? mainly?) register Tsui Hark as the director of 1997’s “Double Team” — a certifiably nutso actioner starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dennis Rodman and Mickey Rourke, and a movie basically made for communal dorm room viewing involving mood-altering beverages. But Hark is a seminal figure in the Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema, and has crafted some of the more fantastical action extravaganzas to come out of Asia over the last decade-plus. One of his latest, Mandarin import “Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon,” belies the notion that Chinese productions haven’t absorbed the sensationalist blockbuster mentality and methods of Hollywood.
A prequel to the genre mash-up “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame,” Hark’s film is billed on its back cover box as “the Sherlock Holmes of 7th century China,” which is a good if ultimately rather reductive shorthand. Telling the tale of the beginnings of Dee Renjie (Mark Chao, replacing Andy Lau) in the Imperial police force, this blend of martial arts, mystery and fantasy has… an enoromus amount going on, no doubt. The central case, as one might surmise from the title, involves an aquatic monster terrorizing a seaside town, but there’s also a sinister conspiracy linked to a dynastic family. Hark’s delirious sense of action staging and editing — along with the unusual blend of styles — make portions of this film quite arresting. This is a huge production that gets a lot of money up on the screen, to strange effect. At over 130 minutes, though, the movie drags quite a bit; like a lot of mad showmen, Hark needs someone to sit on some of his more outlandish instincts. “Young Detective Dee” comes to Blu-ray presented in 1080p in a 2.40:1 widescreen transfer, with DTS-HD 5.1 and Dolby digital 2.0 audio tracks and (naturally) English subtitles. It’s housed in a complementary cardboard slipcover, but apart from extra previews for the movie and other Well Go USA Entertainment titles there are unfortunately no supplemental materials.
Between ridiculous History Channel programming and all that Thor slash-fiction that Chris Hemsworth swears he isn’t pumping out on message boards, it doesn’t seem like Norse sword-clanging is going to be leaving the public arena any time soon. Amongst the latest entertainment spin-offs laying claim to the trend is “Vikingdom,” an awkwardly titled but forgivably serviceable foreign-produced action adventure that is decidedly not of the Marvel Universe. Penned by James Coyne and directed by Yusry Kru, the film stars Conan Stevens as a power-hungry Thor, the God of Thunder. Thor’s mission is to gather three ancient relics — the Helheim Horn, the necklace of Magdalene from Mitgard, and his own hammer from Valhalla — and then rule over all of mankind. Standing in his way is Eirick the Bloodletter (Dominic Purcell), who… well, he lets some blood, don’t you know.
This isn’t high art, or even great B-movie ridiculousness, but Kru’s film does have a decent enough budget to cut loose with some nicely apportioned mayhem, and Purcell lends it some gravity. For sword-and-cudgel aficianados, there are certainly worse ways to while away the time, especially given that easy-on-the-eyes Natassia Malthe also stars. Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case in turn stored in a complementary cardboard slipcover, “Vikingdom” comes to DVD with a couple trailers and a moderately awful music video, but also 25 minutes of behind-the-scenes and interview material with cast and crew.
Anime fans, meanwhile, can find purchase in Masahiko Murata’s “Naruto Shippuden: Blood Prison,” from VIZ Media. The story centers around Naruto, who’s convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sent Hozuki Castle, an inescapable prison. The warden there, Mui, seals away Naruto’s chakra to prevent him from rebelling. But Naruto, after befriending fellow inmates Ryuzetsu and Maroi, finds his mind unlocked, and working overtime to uncover connections regarding their motivations and his fate. The story here is borderline rote, but definitely strongly appealing to headstrong adolescents grappling with identity and authority issues, and the rich colors and streamlined style additionally works in its favor. Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, “Naruto Shippuden: Blood Prison” comes to DVD in a cardboard slipcover with different cover art, presented in a 16×9 transfer with both English and Japanese language 5.1 and 2.0 audio tracks. In addition to a clutch of trailers and some production art galleries, the animated short “Chunin Exam on Fire!” is included as a special featurette.
On the documentary front, a pair of recent releases throw worthy attention on art and artists slightly outside of the mainstream spotlight. While “Dancing With the Stars” continues to deliver solid ratings for ABC on the small screen, there’s little focus on what sort of lives the instructors lived as adolescents — or, conversely, what sort of opportunities await those interested in even more structured and classical forms of dance. Sylvie Collier’s “To Dance Like a Man” gives a bit of a window into that world, but also works smashingly as just a cinematic delivery vehicle for childlike wonderment as yet unwrecked by puberty. Clocking in at a brisk one hour, the film tells the story of identical 11-year-old Cuban triplets Angel, Cesar and Marcos, who are passionate about becoming ballet dancers and all want the same thing — to be picked for a role in an important production in Havana. The kids are extraordinarily talented and make personable subjects to boot, so when ballet superstar José Carreño pays them a surprise visit late in the movie, it warms the heart to witness their reactions. “To Dance Like a Man” comes to DVD packaged in an environmentally-friendly, thin but full color cardboard case, made from certified green components.
Winner of the director’s prize in the U.S. documentary competition at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, meanwhile, “Cutie and the Boxer” is an engaging, playful and ultimately uplifting study of art and painting as filtered through the decades-long marriage of Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, a pair of Japanese-born artists living in New York City. In spotlighting the mostly sweet-natured but still slightly bruised give-and-take of this unusual codependent relationship, director Zachary Heinzerling’s movie sidesteps doctrinaire concepts of nonfiction art films and expands its core audience, imparting glancing lessons about the uncertainty of love and the almost necessary dance of responsibility and care-taking involved. Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, “Cutie and the Boxer” comes to DVD presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, with a Dolby digital 5.1 audio track. Most hearteningly, there’s a nice slate of supplemental features, anchored by Rod McCall’s 23-minute vintage documentary “Shinohara: The Last Artist.” There are also around nine minutes of deleted scenes, an eight-minute Q&A sesssion from the movie’s Sundance presentation, and a slow-motion clip of Shinohara creating one of his works.
Written by: Brent Simon
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International, Newsweek Japan, Magill's Cinema Annual, and many other outlets. He cannot abide a world without U2 and tacos.