Spy Hard: The Increasingly Fractured Subgenres of the Spy Movie, by Alexander Miller
In most genres, there seem to be two schools of thought regarding style and aesthetic. There’s hard and soft sci-fi, dark and high fantasy and now and it seems like the same case can be said for the spy genre. When you look at the recent output of spy films over the past few years, the genre seems as if it is becoming more dimensional with the inclusion of more literary adaptations, and classic television reboots.
2015 is going to host a wide variety of spy films ranging from commercially viable franchise entries, staunch realism, escapist fantasy, and comedic parody. Following the February release of Kingsman, this summer boasts some high-profile titles including Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation, Guy Ritchie’s reboot of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Paul Feig’s parody Spy. Following is the largely anticipated Spielberg project A Bridge of Spies, due for a release in October, and, of course, the eagerly awaited Bond film SPECTRE.
In contrast, to these high profile titles there’s also been a resurgence of John le Carré adaptations, whose work is known for portraying espionage as a psychologically wearisome and self-destructive profession. Most recently with Anton Corbijn’s 2014 film of A Most Wanted Man, and
Andrew Dominik’s Tomas Alfredson’s densely layered rendition of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Fans of le Carré’s work are fervently tapping their toes awaiting the release of Our Kind of Traitor, the latest film inspired by his work; US premiere is yet to be announced. Directed by Susanna White (mostly known for her award-winning television work) and starring Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgård, and Naomi Harris, the impending project looks promising.
Contrasting to the work of John le Carré but still in the same vein, the hard-edged Bourne series based on the work of Robert Ludlum invigorated the genre with powerful action sequences which appeared at a time when the James Bond films were wavering in credibility with the 2002 film Die Another Day, the same year as release of The Bourne Identity.
This summer is hosting two interesting titles in the spy film genre which happen to both be classic television reboots, Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and the latest Mission Impossible film, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. Ironically the MI series has picked up more critical acclaim since the third installment when the game of musical chairs put J.J. Abrams in the director’s chair. After Brad Bird’s confident direction of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, it seems like Christopher McQuarrie is up to the task given the high praise of MI5.
It is strange and a bit ironic that two accomplished directors, Brian De Palma and John Woo, known for action and suspense (one more so for the other but both adept at each) helmed the “lesser” entries, while the series took off when it was a debut feature for Abrams. One could argue that auteurs don’t have a place in franchise entertainment. However, if that is the case, how do you explain Sam Mendes steering one of the biggest franchises into blockbuster prosperity?
In a different light, Guy Ritchie’s undoubtedly stylistic reboot of the classic television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. has won the attention of many and has garnered international acclaim. Unlike the Mission: Impossible films, Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is not contemporized. However, one cannot tell if his latest effort will earn multiple follow-up features the same way the MI series became one of the most successful. Brian De Palma’s first Mission: Impossible was conceived prior to a franchise hungry film market, so one cannot be certain if there was supposed to be the runaway success we now know. Will the future be as bright for Ritchie, or will he return to Baker St. for another row with the famous consulting detective?
These adaptations and reboots provide us with a polarized reflection of what we have come to expect from the spy genre, thus creating a similar rift that we have with other categories in cinema; are we going to divide spy films the same way we do with sci-fi and fantasy? The spy genre has familiar territorial pitfalls. However, there’s new ground being broken in recent titles with comedy.
Earlier this year we saw Kingsman: The Secret Service, a frenzied interpretation of the many tropes of the genre that rejoiced in its subversive absurdity, boasting an elite cast and enough action to satiate the thirst of any adrenaline junkie. Recently, Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy took an amusing jab at the genre with their latest film, Spy, an incredibly playful and vulgar parody with doses of action and comedy making it a fun diversion. Both films take their jabs at the tropes but pull their punches enough to show respect for it as well, more so with Spy than Kingsman. Though I can be a proponent for deflating weighty material, it’s significant to recall the more actualized films in the genre.
Ironically, fictional narrative can serve as a historical record since films frequently reflect the social climate in which they were made. With our political climate seized in post 9/11 anxieties, our attentions become tuned to thrillers of allegorical hysteria concerning our societies wavering trust in government as well as our interpersonal trepidations.
The result of our current political climate enables us to reevaluate the past. For instance, the Cold War era paranoia during the 1960’s now hits a similar chord, widening the interest of themes of paranoia and conspiracy. This shifting tone could result in the heightening popularity of dense, psychological espionage movies. Two titles of interest include Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a very period specific story; the other (both le Carré adaptations) last year’s A Most Wanted Man. Pairing these narratives reflects the cultural/administrative miasma permeating their environment, despite their spanning over forty years. Hopefully, Our Kind of Traitor will be in the same class as these two titles.
Another example of renewed interest in the Cold War can be seen in current titles such as Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. The plot of an everyman lawyer driven into negotiating terms with Soviet forces seems intriguing; the other intriguing element is that of Steven Spielberg directing a script written by Joel and Ethan Coen. A fascinating creative union if there ever was one, A Bridge of Spies is another one of the most eagerly awaited films of 2015.
Of course, there’s the reigning champion of spy movies. James Bond, whose timelessness frees his character from historical constraints, finds himself squaring off against the titular organization of the evil SPECTRE. Interestingly enough Spectre (Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) hasn’t appeared in a Bond film for over 40 years; their presence was mainly a result of The Cold War.
While exploring the divisive nature of the genre, it’s hard not to take note of the pendulous tones within the James Bond franchise, problematic since the series began presenting Bond as hard-edged and tenacious, only to devolve him into a joke-spinning punster and recently (with the return to form with Casino Royale) Bond is a no-nonsense, blunt instrument whose license to kill is regularly exercised for believable villains, and not the cartoonish foes from the lesser titles in the series.
Thankfully, the recent James Bond films have shed the tiresome wordplay (or mostly limited it), and SPECTRE looks like another vivid entry in the Daniel Craig series. The pairing of Sam Mendes seems to have injected the franchise with the terseness of Ian Fleming’s original character. Mendes’ return to the director’s chair could prove him capable of ironically graduating from auteur status to working within a franchise. However, his influence has reinvented one of cinema’s longest running series unlike anyone has anticipated.
Spy films have been a part of our cinematic grammar for years, and their inception could be traced back to the early days of private eyes, detectives and WWII spy novels but the genre took on a shape of its own through the medium of cinema. And now we have a plethora of films to enjoy, ranging from serious, flamboyant, comedic and sometimes all of the above. Variety is the hallmark that makes genres definable; comedic intonation, escapist fare and somber realism are key to the genre. Others have maximized these elements, applying these aesthetics to their films and the marriage has resulted in some truly interesting titles.
We can rest assured that this genre will continue to mature over the years. Even if with its blemishes and ventures into familiarity, there’s enough firepower to keep us interested for more globe-trotting espionage.