Perhaps the most promising part of the dot.com boom of the late 90s was the notion of unlimited entertainment options. While the fileswapping facets of MP3 meant a brand new music revolution, the myriad of movie sites, catering to a new bumper crop of handcrafted cinema, seemed to stall before it even got started. Certain companies like Shockwave.com gave a wide berth to upstarts and stars such as James L. Brooks, Tim Burton and Ben Stein. But no matter how novel Stainboy seemed to be, or how clever the various video visions became, there was something missing from even the most magnificent examples of online amusement – mainly, a steady source of income. By the time Michael Ovitz's Scour.com and the Dreamworks backed Pop.com tried their time tested hand in the web-based waters, the bomb was defused and the climate for computer creativity had waned. Soon, layoffs and bankruptcies became the norm and much of the crazy content created as the "next big thing" disappeared from desktop monitors worldwide. Still, some companies stayed the course, hoping that after the rats retreated from the sinking ship, they'd have enough bold-faced ballast to stay afloat. One of the last bastions of outsider filmmaking is iFilms.com, a site which began its life committed to independent short films, but has recently expanded to carry a wide range of content. And thanks to alternative media outlet Film Threat magazine (home to critic Chris Gore and the infamous "we hate Premiere" party line of the publication's inception) we can witness one of ifilms' more novel concoctions, a spy spoof entitled Agent 15. Released on Threat's own periodical digital imprint, we can witness a clear indication of the genre's potential and reasons why the dot.com dynamo died out.
A shadow agency, involved in international espionage, has several undercover operatives at its disposal. But the best of the bunch is Agent 15. This long, leggy lady of the gun manages to overcome even the most impossible odds with skill, grace...and a little luck, to consistently meet her objective. Along with fellow male Agents X and 33, 15 fights for justice and peace, while always applying the perfect principles of survival. Back at Headquarters, desk jockey Chalmers worries about the spy chick, while reporting to Col. Lambert, who maintains complete faith in his top snoop's actions. Her assignments/episodes are as follows:
*Introduction – a Shirley Bassey inspired theme song video about Agent 15's particular talents
*Chemin-De-Fer – Agent 15 goes undercover at a casino to thwart the theft of some very valuable diamonds
*Operation: Trouble – Agents 15 and 33 must stop a nuclear meltdown before it can destroy the world
*A Stitch in Time – Agent 15 must escape a deadly trap and save a scientist, all with the help of her trusty exploding lighter
*A Good Day for Revenge – While on vacation, Agent 15 and 33 must thwart a band of hitmen who are out for blood...their blood.
*Spider to the Fly – Agent 15 must help Agent X download sensitive material during an embassy gala, while battling a big babe with a bullwhip.
Agent 15 is a schizophrenic slice of smart alecky fun. It is also an occasionally overreaching bore. For everything it gets picture perfect, it defeats its own purpose by overplaying its hand. Since we are only given six installments of this online series to sample (and one is merely a three minute visualized theme song) it's hard to get a true handle on the show's overall success. What is offered on this DVD though is very hit or miss, striking its intended target on occasion, but badly whiffing other opportunities for satire. It's safe to say that Agent 15 is a slick chick homage to James Bond and Matt Helm, utilizing the notion of an ass kicking super secret she-agent with just as much grace and sex appeal as Ian Fleming's government issue gigolo. There is also a desire on the part of this mini-movie marathon to recreate the tone and temperament of the early 60s spy saga, to spoof the glamour and glorify the Cold war clash of idiotic ideologies. But even then, this reimagining is short sighted. It utilizes far too many PC pronouncements (characters never EVER smoke, and sex is suggested, not sold wholesale) and there is not enough over-the-top production design to really cement its premise. For all of the talent and time taken to create each segment, we really just get a fleeting glimpse of Agent 15's potential. With an increase in budget and a broadening of scope, this could have easily been a very smart satire. As it is, we only get sketches of cleverness.
That being said, Paget Brewster makes a compelling Agent 15. Mostly relying on body language and facial gestures to sell her superior skills (there is little dialogue in these three minute motion pictures), we never once have our illusions of gal grandeur undermined. She has the features to be truly iconic and we could easily see her in the role Jennifer Garner moons through on Alias. In some respects, she is that old MTV anime Aeon Flux come to life. Long, lanky and statuesque, you always feel that she's in control of every situation. Too bad she is not given more to do except to be a puzzle piece in a paean to past propaganda. Director Augusta (have to love those artists of the single moniker) also has a few talent tricks up her sleeves. She can deliver a deft moment or two or mix a series of shots into something that flows with a fluency based in the era she is evoking. But she is also hemmed in by her riot grrrl ideals, to make this gal pal piece of pandering (after all, her film company is called It's a Chick Production) say something about the new millennium's idea of female superiority. You can almost hear this creator mumbling under her breath "screw the Spice skanks. I've got the real vagina vigor right here". Only problem is, this crotch concept implodes any reverence given to the old-fashioned scenarios this show is cribbing from.
The other problem with Agent 15 is a lack of clarity. The installments work best when the plot is kept pointed and the action is derivative of classic cliché moments in espionage movie making. "A Stitch in Time" a segment revolving around a missing scientist and a bomb in a lighter is a recreation of this archetypical moment brought magically back to life. Same can be said for the nuclear threat of "Operation: Trouble". But in a section like "Chemin-De-Fer" where we are supposed to be seeing the typical card game between hero and villain, an attempted twist on the tale falls rather flat. And when Agent 15 is confronted by a gang of bad guys while vacationing on the beach, the last minute save by a boyfriend with a gun seems stupid, not suave or sophisticated. Maybe that's the point, but it seems easier to envision a desire to stop with the sketching and flesh out Agent 15 into its own undercover mythology. But the first real attempt at this, "Spider to the Fly" is far too scattershot to be effective. While the wonderful whip-fu action scene is stellar, the rest of the routine is rote: computer screens coughing up warnings and whistles that far overstay their welcome. If Agent 15 had merely stayed with remaking old Bond films from the female fetish point of view, then this DVD introduction would be the beginning of something special: a lesson in the lensing of a sharp, smart lampoon. But that doesn't happen here. Instead, we get backwards glancing from people not old enough to understand what the spy meant to countries that felt a single button push away from oblivion.
Indeed, since Austin Powers more or less lopped the lug nuts off the entire super sexy school of intelligence, people have forgotten that the mole movie expressed a hidden desire on the part of every nation to see their government going all out to fend for its citizens. The debonair, urbane jet-setting playboy was a testosterone fueled cruise missile, a direct hit at the heart and soul of every corrupt Communist czar or renegade rogue nation. James Bond wasn't just an oversexed boozer with the ability to luck into an act of bravery: he placed his life, and more importantly, his national pride, on the line every time he took on a case. Agent 15 can find none of this adventure, and it's not because of the estrogen floating about. Indeed, what many who fancy the spy vs. spy ideal forget is that there is an entire era and outlook that is lost forever since the high tech took detection out of the hands of field operatives. More people are interested in watching the FBI track down a guy who eats people's faces than seeing a couple of battling agents attempt to track down a valuable piece of microfiche. Even if the result is World War III or complete nuclear Armageddon, unless we can link it to a sexually perverted maniac who sniffs the panties of potential victims before he vivisects them, no one cares. Agent 15 could be playing its put-on perfectly, but there seems to be very few in the audience taking notes.
Still, this doesn't mean Agent 15 isn't worth at least a single spin in your DVD driver. It's worth it just to see the kitten with a whip catfight in "Spider" or the Kill Bill like samurai swordplay by "A Good Day for Revenge's" seashore. And if you look very carefully, you can see what Agent 15 thinks it is. You can spot the perfectly composed couplets of cinematic synchronicity, a meshing of the past with the present to feature the future of super snooping. It's in there, hiding behind the stale jokes, the repetitive skit bits (apparently, Agent 15 is always about to die when she is "miraculously" saved by a specialist who understands her particular malady) and the limited logistics of online movie making. You can discover it, if you look real hard and forget all the glaring omissions. There is no denying that Agent 15 is built for the LCD, not the big screen. A home theater swallows this shallow showboat and sinks it to the bottom of the respectability sea. If you were watching it in a media player on a desktop while avoiding work, Agent 15 would seem like one cool sleuth. But blown up bigger than a megabit, this Internet series suffers from superficiality and a stubborn sense of self-inflicted specialness. Agent 15 is a nice idea, rendered redundant – if still somewhat watchable – by its own forced foibles.
When will DVD companies learn that slapping the MPEG files that customers could download for free (or for a fee) onto their hard drive does not guarantee a pristine digital reproduction? Agent 15 lo0ks lousy - filled with pixelating grain and solarizing colors, thanks in large part to the desire to not remaster this material. Indeed, you could probably burn your own 1.33:1 full screen image with more clarity and crispness than this disc has. At only 23 minutes of content and 31 minutes of bonus material, the space is not being saved for Superbit sound or vision. And since the transfer is so shoddy, it destroys the overall presentation of the series.
Surprisingly, the audio is above average. The music used (especially in Episode #1: "Introducing Agent 15") is reproduced with startling clarity and a great deal of Dolby Digital Stereo effect. What little dialogue there is can be easily understood and the overall aural outcome easily recalls the ribald, risqué routines of the 60s spy saga.
This is where Agent 15 gets a little weird. We are treated to a wealth of material, much of which supports how much time and effort went into the making of these mini movies. No actual episode here is longer than three-plus minutes (the added time coming from credits and intros) and yet we are treated to almost 40 minutes of material showing how the fight scene in "Spider to the Fly" was crafted. Don't misunderstand; the features are fascinating, filled with behind the scenes shots of Paget Brewster and her trainer going through the clever fisticuff choreography. But just like the menu for the episodes themselves, there is no "play all" feature, meaning you have to wait for the main screen to reappear, click down the various individual links and restart each sequence separately. This gets very old very fast. We also get some media material on Paget, director Augusta and several other cast members. There is a very intriguing glimpse of the Agent 15 filmmaker's next feature: a documentary about a modern burlesque house in Hollywood. Still, the one thing the DVD package lacks is commentary. It would be nice to hear someone speak to the inspiration, the subliminal hints and the future adventures of this broadband bad ass. But instead, it's more promos for Film Threat DVD titles and flashy photo galleries.
Agent 15 represents the promise of the computer era, a chance for creative filmmakers to realize their vision and then have a sampling readily accessible for the entire planet to peruse. Agent 15 also signals why so many of these Silicon Valley video channels went belly up. There is nothing here demanding your attention, just nicely conceived take-offs on the standard spy saga. The performances are pleasant and the direction is distinct, but so is the output of several thousand other inventive artists. Film Threat is to be thanked for giving this series a second life on DVD. But their attention to detail also underlines why this series just couldn't work online. The digital domain allows for a wealth of bonus material, readily accessible to fan and neophyte alike, while a website has to constantly think of the bottom line and server space. Indeed, DVD may just be the new frontier for the entertainment promise of the dot.com carnival. With editing, mastering and burning becoming laptop lessons in simplicity, more and more moviemakers will simply cut out the insolvent middleman and hawk their own aluminum disc wares over the Internet. At one time, it may have seemed visionary to provide a single place where the entire canon of creative talent could stop by and drop off a dream or two. But the days of the online series are mostly over and with much appreciation to Film Threat, we have this title (and other offerings like Image's recent Bikini Bandit Experience) to tide us over until the next technological boom is born. But a word of caution to the new future science: make sure that you have something very unique to offer, or you too will go the way of the Edsel, the dodo and the entertainment dot.com.
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