Circles of Deceit
by Jef Burnham
Available May 17, 2011 on DVD from Acorn Media.
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In these four, feature-length dramas from ITV Studios Limited in the UK, Dennis Waterman (Minder, The Sweeney) stars as ex-SAS operative, John Neil, now working as a secret agent for the British government. Originally airing between 1993 and 1996 in the UK, these immensely engaging spy thrillers are being presented here for the first time on DVD in North America.
The suspense is at a consistent high in Circles of Deceit as Neil goes undercover to take on the IRA, trained assassins, and a drug trafficking ring. Lengthy passages of relative calm combined with the knowledge of the films’ predilection toward graphic violence enhances the constant air of foreboding that surrounds the various missions. However, we quickly learn that Waterman’s Neil is a hard-ass capable of pulling himself out of any scrape. And like any good British agent, he courts a different woman on every mission.
The violence, although admittedly brief when it occurs, is indeed worth elaborating upon further. The second film in the series, “Sleeping Dogs,” depicts some of the more intense violence the series has to offer. It opens with some terrific effects of a soldier getting his leg blown off when he steps on a landmine, and later features an incredibly disturbing fight scene, which is particularly disturbing in that the fight opens comically but results in the truly vicious murder of one of the participants. The first violent sequence in this series of films is in fact at a circus, blown up by a bomb in the stands mid-performance. What’s curious about this scene is that it provides us with necessary back story for Neil, whose family died in said bombing. Thus, he becomes the perfect spy, as his handler in the first episode (Derek Jacobi, Cadfael, Doctor Who) notes, for no one would miss him if he were killed in action. Flashbacks throughout the first episode to this circus mayhem and the blood-soaked, crying clown therein, beleaguer the viewer until it becomes somehow immensely comedic. This unfortunate side effect of the repetition of his family’s deaths is really the only major qualm I had with the films. They are otherwise solid examples of the British spy genre.
Additionally beguiling is the packaging design for this release which depicts Derek Jacobi on the spine of the outer cardboard sleeve and Leo McKern (Rumpole of the Bailey) on the spine of the inner artwork. However, both of these men appear in but one of the four films in the series. Why then not the films’ star Dennis Waterman? I can’t say for certain. Granted, Jacobi and McKern are far more likely to be recognized than the bearded Waterman within, but it seems inconsiderate to me.
Other notable actors appearing in these films include Peter Vaughan (Straw Dogs, Brazil), John Hannah (The Mummy), Susan Jameson (New Tricks), Kate Buffery (Trial & Retribution), Corin Redgrave (Enduring Love) and Clare Higgins (Hellraiser). Special features on this two-disc set are sadly limited to six cast filmographies.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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