In recent cinematic history, action movies dominate. Whether it’s superheroes or buddy cops, mutants or fugitives our for blood, the tradition of dodging bullets ‘continue…for yet…ANOTHER year’. You have a spent John Wick rallying against the world, a generous bounty placed on his head. This week we look at some of the more noteworthy spy franchises around. Alert: there’s no superheroes this time.
1) 007. There are over 20 films to this brand, with seven actors portraying Bond over six decades. Scotsman Sean Connery was the original secret agent, with Brits assuming all iterations except for Aussie George Lazenby, who was Bond for a day. While the series can trace its origins to author Ian Fleming, the Cold War era was the main backdrop. Even though that epoch is mostly behind us, you have to give their producers credit. They’ve managed to expand the series through sustained globetrotting, high tech gadgets, and revolving nemeses. They’ve also featured a never ending cavalcade of Bond girls over time. I have to admit that I’ve only watched part of the franchise, mostly the last two Bonds. Decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, fans would have to wonder whether there’s still a place for the slippery, womanising, martini cocktail drinking assassin.
2) Bourne. Like 007, Bourne was previously a protagonist in novels. Unlike many adaptations, which don’t do justice to the original, the Bourne films are infinitely better than the books. Once I borrowed Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Ultimatum, but the overwhelming amount of needless description made me surrender. It’s encouraging to think though that the film series is rather loosely based on those reads. While Bond is a suave terminator, Bourne is equally adept at hand to hand combat. The fight scenes in Bourne helmer Paul Greengrass’s movies, complete with swinging handhelds, set a trend in future action flicks.
In addition, Bourne’s language skills are on full display, especially since he is every bit the globetrotter that 007 is. He’s cool enough that, as in Bourne Identity, he comes up with some perfect German while guards hound him in the still night. Catching them off guard, he puts them to sleep with well timed punches. He also knows enough Russian to say $$ while catching a cab, and some choice Spanish in Bourne tres allow him to slip away from the baddies. More than an enviable linguist and action star, Bourne is also an ingenious operator. There are numerous scenes across the series where he thinks on the fly, tipping the momentum to his favour. In all the cinematic spy universe, Bourne is the undoubted badass.
3) Jack Ryan. Again, based on the Tom Clancy books, this likewise involves the CIA. Unlike Bourne or Bond, Ryan rises through the ranks and becomes the Agency’s number two man. He is mostly not a fugitive, but rather a government sanctioned rifleman. Personally, I’ve only seen two or three Ryan movies, including one with Harrison Ford and another with Ben Affleck. A villain with a thick Scottish accent, as in Red October, is a disappointing watch. There are no splashy gadgets (like 007) and no surprising language skills (like Bourne). Indeed, as Bourne searches for his identity, Ryan conceals his own. The longevity of this series though, with sporadic offerings through three decades, is enough for third spot.
4) Mission Impossible. If it’s from Cruise, it’s overrated. His best days as a movie superstar are all but over. To put things in perspective, Jerry Maguire was released the same year (1996) as Mission Impossible. That’s almost two hundred years ago. In fairness, the latter revolutionised the industry with its stunts and unsuspecting plot twists. Three sequels later, they’re not fooling anyone.
Honourable mention: John Wick. I would have to include this because the first film exceeded my expectations. I’ve seen Keanu in Street Kings, and he’s just as sharp in this offering. Reeves’s character shows incredible resilience for someone who’s lost everything. The sequel, despite receiving glowing reviews, is an affront to the original. A super loud, overly serious production, the senseless gun battles make the drawn out film appear even longer than it already is. As a result, this chapter turned me off halfway through the slog. The lengthy wait for its release here was unwarranted.
So that’s my starter spy list, which might differ from yours. Whether scaling office buildings or speaking a foreign tongue, action is here to stay. Laters.