Spy games

Two films based on classic sixties TV spy shows are in cinemas at the moment. I loved both of them but for very different reasons.

The latest instalment of the Mission Impossible franchise has been out for a while now. Both its box office takings and reviews have been impressive. I’m certainly not going to dissent from this chorus of approval: I had a riot watching it. All of these points have featured in pretty much every review and I agree with all of them:

  • It’s fun;
  • The action sequences look cool;
  • Rebecca Ferguson steals the show; and
  • The stunts are impressive. All the more so because Cruise does them himself.

In addition to that there were a fair number of smaller detail that made me smile:

  • It understands that villains and people who are potentially villainous have English accents;
  • Simon McBurney and Tom Hollander reprise their partnership from Rev only this time Hollander is PM, so it’s McBurney who has to grovel and scrape;
  • The trailers largely avoided showing anything from the film’s final act. That’s a nice change from promotional campaigns like the ones for Terminator: Genysis and Age of Ultron that revealed way too much; and
  • That the opening credits cleverly pastiched the iconic title sequence of the TV series.

Indeed, such is the dependability of the franchise that it shows that a frequently criticised aspect of blockbuster films can in the right hands become one of their strengths. The Mission: Impossible films are undoubtedly filmmaking as a business but done by businessmen whose approach to making money is to find something people want, advertise that that’s what they are offering and then deliver it in great quantity and at high quantity. In this case that’s watching Tom Cruise doing steadily more ridiculous things in order to save the world whilst Simon Pegg, Ving Rhaimes and Jeremy Renner provide comedic commentary. If those businessmen could go on delivering it for a while longer I would appreciate it.

Similarly, one can without great difficult understand the commercial reasoning that lead to the Man from UNCLE. Warner Bros presumably looked at the $2Bn and counting Paramount have taken from the Mission: Impossible films and thought ‘are there any other 60s TV shows about spies we can remake’. Indeed, it even appears that at one point Tom Cruise had been cast as Napoleon Solo.*

The “we want something <insert name of currently profitable property>” school of commissioning generally does not produce great results. It’s generally cynical and allows films that have no business being made to get greenlit because they feature vampires, teens in a dystopian future or whatever is considered to be ‘in’ at that moment. It also results in a fair amount of herding.

Fortunately, the Man from Uncle isn’t like this. Far from being a clone of Mission: Impossible it strikes out in a quite distinctive direction. Techno mumbo jumbo is replaced by masses of retro charm. It positively luxuriates in its sixties setting making full use of the style, music and historical context that allows. And while the M:I films are now essentially big action set pieces held together a thin cartilage of plot, the Man from Uncle is all about the characters. Indeed at one point rather than watching one of the leads engage in a death defying speed boat chase, we watch the other lead watch the action. The scene that follows lasts only about a minute and has no dialogue yet we get to see a central character (amusingly) realise that he doesn’t see the world the way he thought he did. It’s a fitting microcosm for the film as a whole. It has a genuine sweetness and elicits real warmth for its characters. It does action well but uses it for a purpose rather as an end in itself. And it generally avoids doing what you expect. Nothing in the way Guy Ritchie directs the film is revolutionary but he nonetheless avoids it ever feeling derivative; he always appears to be doing his own thing rather than copying anyone else.

Summary: both films are solid 8/10s. Despite their similar conceits they take very different approaches to delivering popcorn entertainment yet both succeed admirably.

*That was probably a bullet dodged.

One thought on “Spy games

  1. Pingback: My top 5 blockbusters of the year | Matter Of Facts

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