At the start of this year, I was intrigued by what looked like a fairly spy-heavy line-up for this year's theatrical releases, and now that we're at the other end of the year, it seems like a good time to look back and see how the year actually played out versus how we thought things might go.
One thing that's clear is that there were a ton of spy movies in 2015. If Sony hadn't pushed back the release of “The Brothers Grimsby,” it would have been one more, and it makes it obvious why they pushed that film back to next year when you look at just how many spy-themed movies have been released since January. It's an unusual number, and I think it's just one of those flukes of timing. But when you look at all of them stacked up next to one another, it's interesting to see what worked and what didn't, and why.
In my opinion, the best of the bunch is “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” and small wonder. The “M:I” films have done a tremendous job of building off of one another, adding cast members, trying different team combinations, and getting better and better at building set pieces that play to the strengths of Tom Cruise's hilarious and knowing Ethan Hunt. While I think there are a few things about the film that feel a little thin, Christopher McQuarrie makes it all go down easy with a real wit and elegance. It doesn't hurt that the movie featured a real discovery in the form of Rebecca Ferguson, either.
That thrill of discovery is part of why “Kingsman: The Secret Service” plays so well. Taron Egerton gives a breakthrough performance in the film as Eggsy, the rough-and-tumble kid who ends up inducted into a secret English spy organization. He plays a number of his scenes with Colin Firth, and they have a tremendous chemistry. Using Mark Millar's comic series as inspiration, Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman once more start from a familiar pop culture place, then turn the whole thing inside out. One of the things that “Kingsman” does so well is lay bare just how racist, sexist, and fascist these fantasies normally are, and it's careful to refuse to paint the main characters as easy heroes. Instead, the film plays rough, and it takes some big satirical swings. My only complaint is that it felt like a real mistake to have killed Firth. There's more gas in this tank, and I look forward to seeing what the sequel looks like. Will they continue to demolish the formula by playing right to it? Here's hoping.
For most of my twenties, I was fascinated by non-fiction books about the real history of intelligence gathering, both in America and overseas. I have always loved stories of the “little grey men,” the anonymous spies who aren't anything like the action heroes we see in most movies. It's one of the reasons I was so fond of Robert De Niro's “The Good Shepherd,” and it's certainly part of the appeal of “Bridge Of Spies,” which is one of the more subdued and subtle Spielberg films. He can't resist some of his signature moves, and he leans real hard on painting the Russians a certain way, but overall, “Bridge” does a great job at demonstrating just how delicate and absurd diplomacy is in a world where no one trusts anyone. Tom Hanks has become our biggest pop culture historian, and does really good work here in Atticus Finch mode.
And while I like “Bridge Of Spies” for the way it tries to tell the truth about what spy work was like at a particular moment, I also enjoy “The Man From UNCLE” for the sheer cheeky absurdity of it. Even the things that are ridiculous about it, like Armie Hammer's accent, are charmingly ridiculous. It does such a good job of being light and sunny that it's no surprise it doesn't really stick to you as a viewing experience, but that's not what they were making. While James Bond appears to be wrestling with the legacy of the character and can't really make peace with the difference between then and now, “UNCLE” feels like it knows exactly what it wants to say about the pop culture of the Cold War era, and it does it well.
If we're being honest, I even enjoyed Paul Feig's “Spy” more than I enjoyed “SPECTRE,” and that is sort of remarkable. The difference between the two is that Feig seems to genuinely love spy movies and the conventions of the genre, and he made his film to play with those conventions by throwing the least likely person into the center of things. I also wish there was even one character in “SPECTRE” drawn as memorably as the spy played by Jason Statham in this movie. He is completely and unrepentantly insane, and Statham's done enough of this stuff to know how much fun he was going to have playing the part.
I haven't seen either “Barely Lethal” or “American Ultra,” but both are on the jokier end of things and not deadly serious spy movies. But out of the spy movies I have seen so far in 2015, I'd rank “SPECTRE” at the bottom of the stack. That's not to say it's the worst movie of the year or that I hate it. As I said in my initial review, I thought it was a disappointment, but at least some of that was based on some fairly lofty expectations on my part. I think it's a middling James Bond movie, though, and when fans yelled at me for “missing the point,” I think it's more a case of people being very accepting with this series. As long as you tick off the boxes on the checklist, fans seem fine with the movies not even attempting to make sense.
The thing is, there was a time when James Bond was the best, the gold standard of movie spies, and it felt like the Daniel Craig films had done a terrific job of putting Bond back on top of the stack. But while some fans love the checklist and they love sitting there waiting for each of the Bond signifiers to go by, I am much more interested in seeing the series evolve. That's the real heartbreak of this latest film for me, and seeing how the rest of Hollywood played with the iconography and the history in various films this year only underlines just how frustrating “SPECTRE” is.
I'll be curious to see where the genre goes in the near-future. Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass have talked about how the next Bourne film will be taking clear cues from what's going on in the real world, and it certainly feels like there are great films to be made about some of the developments in data gathering over the last decade or so. But I hope there's still room for the wish-fulfillment fun side of the spy genre as well. It seems like the people who had the most fun playing with formula are the ones who made the movies that worked the best overall this year.
“SPECTRE” is in theaters now.