The Scandinavians took it one step further and figured out how to reinvent Bond, cleansing him of pretensions and gimmiks like field-stripping a SIG Sauer pistol. While we've had an exceptional example (if not totally traditional) in Anders Nilsson's Johan Falk series starting with ZERO TOLERANCE (1999), the most famous and iconic would have to be Jan Guillou's series of 12 novels about Swedish secret service agent Carl Hamilton. Loosely defined as a Swedish mirror-image of Tom Clancy (Guillou being extreme left and Clancy extreme right), Guillou used decades of experience as a journalist to create his ice-cold, highly efficient killing machine, code-named Coq Rouge. Film adaptations started three years after the publication of the first book (Coq Rouge, 1986) with Stellan Skarsgård in the lead in CODENAME: COQ ROUGE (1989). Following that Hamilton has been portrayed by pre-BECK Peter Haber, Stefan Sauk, Peter Stormare, and finally post-BECK Mikael Persbrandt.
The Swedish intelligence service has no agents who are licensed to kill. It must not happen under any circumstances.
Unless it's in self-defense or... In the Interest of the Nation
Using the title, themes and parts of the third novel in the series, Hamilton finds himself working undercover with Russian arms dealers who are set to sell some stolen Swedish Sky Shadow missiles to a terrorist group on the border of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. After setting a tracking device on the truck, everything goes pear-shaped when a squad of paramilitary mercs, lead by Rob Hart (Jason Flemyng), turns the exchange into a bloodbath, slaughtering everyone except Hamilton, who narrowly escapes with his life. All this is before the title hits the screen.
That is actually only half of the plot for the film. While many grumble and gripe about the fact that the 1988 book was actually about the Soviets building sub-oceanic military installations, and the movie is about rogue American paramilitary terrorists, I have one thing to say: get over it. Screenwriter Stefan Thunberg crafts a great, twisting plot that is complex without being complicated, taking Hamilton's character, themes and subplots and working them into a mainstream action/espionage thriller that is exactly what the James Bond movies should have become. Interestingly the James Bond films with Daniel Craig (particularly the trailer for SKYFALL), actually feel a little more like Hamilton than they do Bond. Bond is now a rather Scandanavian-looking, ice-cold killer with emotional scars that drive him forward. Flemming's books had some of that, but most of the films sidestepped the baggage for a lighter touch. Thunberg also smartly eschews Guillou's strong political views and steers straight into the waters of modern action/espionage thrillers, not only reinventing the James Bond mythos, but reinventing Carl Hamilton as well.
I also like the fact that Danish director Kathrine Windfeld isn't afraid to let things get bloody in the tense action scenes that she sets up and she likes to shoot big shots that use a wide frame. She doesn't envision a TV screen, she's thinking cinema and it shows in the cinematography and the big panoramic shots of the multiple global locations. I also liked how the female characters are handled, something many action films fumble with, either trying too hard to prove that have the politically correct point of view by making the character essentially an alpha male with a woman's body or being a total wallflower waiting to be bagged and tagged and carted off as someone's trophy. Nothing really wrong with either one of those, but Windfeld is able to get solid performances out of the three women in the film that is in line with their characters without feeling forced. Jordanian actress Seba Mubarak plays Hamilton's contact in Beirut, where there are moments of an implied deeper connection, is not only very easy on the eyes, but plays the action and the brief, but obligatory, pathos equally well without going overboard as would be demanded by Hollywood filmmakers. Kind of refreshing, for a change.
If I had to pick a few things to bitch about, one would have to be the casting of Jason Flemyng. I've never been a big fan, and here he does nothing to win me over here. He plays the same paper-thin, snarling villain that he's played many times before, without any attempt to bring an added dimension to the role. It's particularly jarring here, as the Swedes love understated acting (the kind that Americans used to embrace, pre-1980s) and Persbrandt manages to convey quite a bit through subtle facial expressions while playing a cold, stoic character. The other big gripe is Windfeld's constant use of the much-loathed hand-held camera and zoom lens. Granted, her use of it isn't anywhere near as obnoxious as say, THE EXPENDABLES (2010), but it does get a bit trying at times, particularly since they actually take the time to set up some great sequences. For example, the hand-to-hand fight scenes have a bit of the Hollywood tight-shot / quick-cutting school of filmmaking which is a little disappointing. Persbrandt went to train with the Navy Seals in San Diego and the Karlsborgs fortress with the Särskilda Skyddsgruppen (the Swedish Delta Force) to prepare for the role, and it seems a shame not to properly show off his mad skills with wider shots and longer takes. Even so, it's a minor quibble. What we have is still massively entertaining; this is the movie I want to see on a hot summer night in a cool, air-conditioned theater with a spiked slurpee (What? Oh, like you've never done that). Fast paced, and action packed, but with an engaging plot and most importantly, no pandering to the teen crowd. Is that too much to ask? There's even a plot twist early on that damn near made me take a header out of my chair, but you'll get no spoilers out of me, see it for yourself.
Being shot as a trilogy with the awkwardly titled HAMILTON 2: BUT NOT IF IT CONCERNS MY DAUGHTER (2012), and HAMILTON 3: IN HER MAJESTY'S SERVICE (2013), even with all of the hubub over this film overseas, it will probably never see the light of day here in the States. Of course, if it does flirt with US cinemas I'm sure it will be one of two scenarios: either the Weinstein's will buy it, cut it to pieces, and then sit on it until their rights expire or someone will buy the remake rights, changing the villain's ethnicity (British, I'd guess), add lots of yelling and cast Mark Wahlberg and Eva Mendez in the lead (not that there is anything wrong with Eva Mendez, physically). Dammit.