'Condor': A '70s Spy Classic Meets the Tinder Era

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Max Irons in "Condor."
Max Irons in "Condor."Credit: MGM Television Entertainment Inc

When the Soviets first watched the U.S. thriller “Three Days of the Condor” back in 1975, they were so shocked by what they saw, so scared that the Americans had thought up an espionage ruse that they hadn’t, that they immediately created their own top-secret KGB unit based on the one depicted in the film.

Yet this cinematic CIA unit – a small team of analysts studying “everything published in the world,” looking for details of CIA operations or potential new ideas, as Robert Redford’s researcher explains in the film – was actually a completely made-up idea by a rookie writer, James Grady, who was inspired by two simple “what if” notions: What if the nondescript Washington, D.C. townhouse he walked past daily that had a plaque saying it was the offices of the “American Historical Association” was really a front for the CIA; and what if he were to return from lunch one day and find everybody in his office murdered?

Amazingly, in response to the film, the KGB hired 2,000 people to work at its new, clandestine “book club” in Moscow: I’d love to think that the Russians still operate it and have spent the past decades trying to decipher the true meaning of the Red Room in the “50 Shades of Grey” trilogy and whether Azkaban in the “Harry Potter” series is somehow referencing a one-time communist region.

“Three Days of the Condor” was a film very much of its decade, revelling in the paranoia, unease and outrageous sexual politics of the time. The only things that could have made it any more 70s-esque were casual racism and if Redford’s character used a hoppity hop (aka space hopper) as a getaway vehicle.

I was never a huge fan of the film – although it has some terrific shots of the World Trade Center and a hypnotic performance by Max von Sydow as a lethal agent-for-hire – much preferring the previous year’s even bleaker “The Parallax View,” with Warren Beatty. Indeed, for years I’ve been expecting someone to remake “Parallax,” which, with its depiction of an all-powerful corporation controlling world affairs, seems more prescient with every passing season – or so some Russian bot told me on my Facebook feed (although, in fairness, another Russian bot just told me the exact opposite).

But it is “Three Days of the Condor” that, over 40 years on, has belatedly been given the small-screen remake treatment – even though its theme of an innocent man being forced to go on the run in a desperate attempt to clear his name has by now become such a staple of modern storytelling.

The good news is that when the Russians see the Audience Network's “Condor,” they will not need to open up a new counterintelligence agency – although they may be tempted to make their own version for domestic audiences, given the universality of the concept. (The Russians do have a healthy tradition of remaking American shows, as anyone who has witnessed “Law and Order: Division of Field Investigation,” “Everybody Loves Kostya” (aka “The Voronins”) and “It’s Always Sunny in Moscow” will confirm.)

There is absolutely nothing mold-breaking in “Condor,” but it zips along swiftly and smartly enough to let you overlook most of its flaws. There is no heft here, but it is a perfect summer divertissement. Besides, it also offers the distinct pleasure of seeing the likes of William Hurt, Mira Sorvino and Brendan Fraser gracing our small screens, in some of the show’s most interesting roles.

The film’s basic premise is retained – there is a hit on a CIA unit in which only one person survives, and he then basically takes a young woman hostage as he attempts to decode his nightmarish predicament. This element of the original was always disconcertingly rapey, for want of a better word, and the remake handles this in a far more sensitive manner – mainly because the female protagonist, Kathy Hale (Katherine Cunningham), actually has a life here and doesn’t serve simply to gaze wonderingly into the hero’s eyes and fall for his charms.

Techy stuff

Where the original had the central character of Joe Turner reading books to uncover possible CIA leaks, the remake has Joe (Max Irons) in a high-tech startup that’s also a front for CIA activities – working on algorithms and other unexplained techy things involving computer monitors and colorful graphs.

Please feel free to play “Updated Remake Bingo” as the plot unfolds: Tinder date? Check. False flag operation? Check. Gender of antagonist switched? Check. Moustache-twirling villain from the private sector? Check. Three episodes in, the only thing missing so far is a cameo from a star of the original – and looking at Dunaway’s depressing resumé over the past 20 years, she seems in more need of a (financial) check than Redford.

You can feel the show’s cookie-cutter nature as soon as the opening credits roll, featuring lines of redacted text: Yes, this truly is a show that likes to revisit old ideas. But it’s all done with just enough verve that the creators don’t need to consider having their own names redacted.

As well as Hurt, Fraser and Sorvino elevating every scene they are in, there’s also a fun turn from another screen veteran, Bob Balaban, whose weedy CIA chief gets the best line of the entire show when he declares, “There is a plague out there – and I’m not talking about locusts or liberalism.”

The other compelling presence is Israeli-Arab actor Leem Lubany, who portrays sociopathic killer Gabrielle Joubert (i.e., the part played by Von Sydow in the original). The Nazareth-born Lubany first came to prominence in Hany Abu-Assad’s 2013 film “Omar” and the Bill Murray comedy (I use the term generously) “Rock the Kasbah” in 2015. But “Condor” is her biggest role to date and she really seizes her chance, aided by a very eye-catching on-screen introduction. Now that Inbar Lavi’s “Imposters” has been canceled by Bravo, I’d like to pitch a show in which Lavi and Lubany team up and create mayhem across America.

The biggest hurdle facing “Condor” is its bland leading man. British actor Max Irons, the son of Jeremy Irons and Sinéad Cusack, is a rather inert blob at the heart of proceedings; there are iron railings out there with more charisma than he brings to the screen. Sure, he’s meant to be kind of geeky, but that doesn’t mean this Joe has to be quite so average. Sure, it’s a relief that his scenes with Cunningham don’t have the problems of the original, but we need some chemistry between them if “Condor” is to have any chance of really taking off and soaring.

“Condor” was the only show I managed to watch this week, with all eyes otherwise on the World Cup in Russia. I live in hope that when the pre-game sequence introduces the VAR assistants at the video operations center in Moscow, once, just once, we will find one of the assistants watching a cute cat video on YouTube or ordering something on Amazon instead of analyzing the soccer action, to the chagrin of his colleagues. Mind you, a Russian agency has probably already become suspicious of these scenes and is, as I write, setting up its own espionage unit to study sports action for its own nefarious ends.