I saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy last week (phenomenal, by the way) and it got me thinking about the dichotomy of the two spy movies we most often see on the silver screen.
On one hand there’s the realistic portrayal of spies. It’s dour looking bureaucrats acting suspicious, stealing manila files, using double speak, and rarely (if ever) using guns.
The other type of spy movie is high thrills action, exotic locales, and secret agents bedding beautiful women.
Both types have a track record of producing great movies. Both can exist at the same time. (As evidence by Mission: Impossible IV: Ghost Protocol and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy being in theaters at the same time. And they both got great reviews to boot.)
But which one is the more proto-typical spy movie? Which one is what we, the audience, think of when a movie is described as being a spy movie? When John Q. Public says “I want to watch a spy movie,” what is he thinking of?
Despite the unrealistic nature. Despite the fantasy elements. I’d say that a spy movie is a movie with high action, lots of guns, handsome leading man (or beautiful leading lady), exotic locations, and a strong element of sexiness.
This is partially because there are some 50-odd years of James Bond movies in the cinematic lexicon. When Dr. No was released in 1963 it was a revelation. Cinematic scholars tend to refer to Jaws as the first summer blockbuster, but the James Bond movies that came out before 1977 definitely laid the ground work for the typical summer tentpole action movie.
Dr. No (and the Bond series in general) is the patient zero of spy movies. You can trace back any sort of style or action from modern spy movies like Mission: Impossible or The Bourne Identity to its Bond roots.
So why are movies like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy thrown to the wayside? Usually movies like this are critically acclaimed. However, the audiences might not be as warm to them. Part of the reason people go to movies is for escapism entertainment. Spies, in my opinion, are the closest thing we have in our world to superheroes. Even though James Bond’s gadgets are laughable. Even though Ethan Hunt’s stunts are ludicrous. These spies are still the closest we have to a superman.
The James Bond series has built up this branding and marketing of spies for 50 years. When a movie like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy comes out, that ruins the illusion that we all have bought into. It ruins the escapist fun. No matter how great the movie is, there’s still a tinge of regret that you didn’t see any fun shootouts or larger than life villains.
I still think both the low-key and guns a blazing spy movies have a place at the cinematic round table. It’s just interesting to me that movies like Mission: Impossible are more openly received than Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. (You also may have noticed I have far more examples in this article of high action spy movies than examples of low-key spy movies.)
What do you think? When someone says they just watched a spy movie, where does your mind head? Is your idea of a spy movie something like Three Days of the Condor or are you more of a Bourne Ultimatum person? Chime in below.