Stephen Arnell

Move aside, Mr Bond: the spy movies that rival 007

Move aside, Mr Bond: the spy movies that rival 007
Colin Firth, Kingsman - The Secret Service (Shutterstock)
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If No Time to Die and the inevitable 007 re-runs on ITV haven’t already sated your appetite for Bond-style espionage thrills, there’s a veritable smorgasbord of spy movies available to assuage your hunger.

Some of the actors who portrayed Bond also essayed secret agents of a different stripe, with Sean Connery (The Russia House), Pierce Brosnan (The Tailor of Panama), Daniel Craig (Munich, Archangel) and Timothy Dalton (Permission to Kill, The Rocketeer) all dabbling in non-007 cloak and dagger roles.

For such a long-lasting and successful franchise, it’s perhaps odd that the producers (Eon) haven’t yet contrived to release any 007 film spin-offs.

To my knowledge, the closest the series came was in 2002, when there was talk of a separate movie project for Halle Berry’s NSA agent Jinx from the awful Die Another Day.

This obviously came to naught, despite the flurry of press reports at the time.

A few years previously, after the release of Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) MGM tentatively ran the idea of a Chinese secret service agent Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) solo picture up the flagpole, but interest at the time was muted.

You may recall the early 1990s kids cartoon series The Adventures of James Bond Jnr (007’s teenage nephew) and Charlie Higson’s Young Bond novels, pitched towards a youthful demographic which didn’t really mesh with the appeal of Ian Fleming’s Vesper Martini-swigging spy.

Author Anthony Horowitz had more success with Alex Rider, a teenage spy for MI6 and the CIA; popular enough for a so-so movie (Stormbreaker, 2006) and an Amazon Prime TV series (2020-).

Who knows what the future will bring for the ‘Bondiverse’? In the meantime, here are 10 movies/motion picture series to fill the void before the next 007 adventure:

The Mission: Impossible series (1996-) Rogue Nation – Amazon Rent/Buy

Tom Cruise will be 60 before the release of next year’s 7th instalment in the M:I series, a testament to the longevity of this 1960s TV series spinoff.

The six pictures released to date have varied in quality and box office success; the relative failure of J.J Abrams’ MI:III in 2006 was felt by many to be the sign of a series in serious decline, with critics remarking that it resembled a bigger budget episode of the director’s popular TV series Alias (2001-06).

More power to Cruise then, as he took an extended break from the series to return with the superior Ghost Protocol in 2011, which established M:I as one of cinema’s most popular franchises.

MI has definite echoes of Bond, with Spectre-like adversaries and ever-increasing threats, although Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has a more collegiate approach than 007, despite sharing his habit of defying his overseers.

For me, 2015’s Rogue Nation is the best M:I picture so far, writer/director Christopher McQuarrie crafting a twisty thriller where Hunt goes head-to-head with the nihilist Syndicate, headed by former agent Solomon Lane, played by ‘Whispering’ Sean Harris.

2018’s Fallout was enjoyable, but to my eyes suffered from overkill and a bloated running time of 147 minutes, still shy of No Time to Die’s mammoth 163 min duration though.

The Bourne series (2002-2016) Identity – Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy

The bone-crunching action, shaky-cam and rapid-fire editing of Paul Greengrass’s quartet of Bourne pictures has now become a movie cliché, and its influence is easy to see on both Casino Royale (2006) and Quantum of Solace (2008).

Personally, I prefer the more traditional approach shown by Doug Liman for 2002’s Bourne Identity, the first entry in the series. The kinetic energy and well-staged action sequences/chases work just as well as the Greengrass movies, minus the migranal side-effects.

Matt Damon’s amnesiac CIA operative can come across as one-note, audiences tending to check their watches during Bourne’s PTSD reveries in the knowledge that there will be another punch-up within a few minutes.

The films proved successful enough to spawn 2012’s OK Jeremy Renner-led companion piece The Bourne Legacy and 2019’s single season TV series Treadstone.

Although many thought Jason Bourne (2016) laid the character to rest, 2021 has seen renewed talk of Damon’s return to role, as long as Greengrass and a suitable script are in the package.

In between The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and Ultimatum, Damon starred as a more sedate spy in Robert De Niro’s dour CIA epic The Good Shepherd (2006),

The Jack Ryan series (1990-) Clear & Present Danger – Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy

Another long-running film series, and a particularly tortured one, as no less than 5 actors have played Tom Clancy’s cerebral CIA analyst since 1990’s Hunt for Red October.

I would discount both Ben Affleck’s dull 2002 reboot The Sum of All Fears and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), Chris Pine’s forgettable attempt to launch yet another iteration of the character.

After these two misfires Ryan made the switch to the small screen in 2018, with Amazon Prime’s titular show, John Krasinski in the role.

The first season (2018) was watchable, but the sophomore effort the following year was criticised for its predictable plot and stock characters.

Back to the movies; Red October is a very watchable submarine thriller and Alec Baldwin is good as Ryan, but the picture is primarily a showcase for Sean Connery as defecting sub Captain Marko Ramius.

Harrison Ford stepped into the role for Patriot Games in 1992, but the risible depiction of Irish Republican extremism left me cold.

For me, Phillip Noyce’s Clear & Present Danger (1994) is easily the best Jack Ryan picture.

A meaty plot (drug cartels and an off the books US army hit squad), excellent set pieces, an undercurrent of cynical humour and a strong cast (including Willem Dafoe, Joaquim de Almeida and Donald Moffat) make C&PD a great Boy’s Own actioner.

Henry Czerny also featured in the picture, playing slimy Robert Ritter, the CIA Deputy Director of Operations, not a million miles from his smug IMF bigwig Eugene Kittridge in Mission: Impossible two years later.

The Kingsman series (2014-) Secret Service – Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy

Mark Millar’s graphic novel The Secret Service provided the source material for Matthew Vaughn’s spy action comedies starring Taron Egerton as chavvy agent-in-training ‘Eggsy’ and Colin Firth as his posh mentor Harry Hart aka Galahad.

Of the two pictures released so far (The Secret Service and 2017’s sequel The Golden Circle), the first is the best, benefiting from its novelty and tighter plotting.

The movie also found favour with some of the anti-woke brigade, who savoured the film’s main villain being a self-righteous eco-billionaire (Samuel L. Jackson as Richmond Valentine) intent on ridding the planet of global warming by exterminating most of humanity.

Some of the off-colour jokes regarding Crown Princess Tilde of Sweden (Hanna Alström) were felt to be jarring, especially since a woman (Jane Goldman) co-wrote the screenplay with Vaughn.

Mark Strong also appeared in the picture, presumably part of his agent’s campaign to place the hard-working actor in every mainstream action movie over the last 15 years or so.

The Golden Circle was OK but suffered from its ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ approach, including an extended Elton John cameo.

Pandemic-delayed prequel The King’s Man is released this December.

The Worricker Trilogy (2011-14) Netflix

A welcome change from the incessant sound of gunfire, explosions and torture scenes found in many spy thrillers, David Hare’s old-fashioned trilogy is a re-watchable treat.

Bill Nighy is superb and at his most Bill Nighy-iest as senior MI5 officer Johnny Worricker, an ageing roué with a complex love life, but also possessing of a code of honour and an empathy with the underdogs and victims of this world.

When Worricker’s attention is drawn to Blairish PM Alec Beasley’s (Ralph Fiennes) tolerance of American torture facilities and plans for a corruptly funded post Premiership ‘Second Act’, he is forced to flee the country and pit his wits against former intelligence colleagues.  And a vengeful exercise fanatic PM.

Although not without their tense moments, the three TV movies benefit from a relaxed pace, witty dialogue (case in point the lift scene with Michael Gambon – see link) and off the beaten track locations as we follow Johnny’s escape from the authorities.

Aside from Nighy, Fiennes and Gambon, an outstanding cast includes Rachel Weisz, Christopher Walken, Felicity Jones, Helena Bonham Carter, Rupert Graves, Christopher Walken, Winona Ryder, Judy Davis, Ewen Bremner and Olivia Williams.

The XXX series (2002-) STARZPLAY, Amazon Rent/Buy

Hard to believe, but on the release of the first XxX (which I hasten to add is not a porno flick) some critics were hailing the Vin Diesel action thriller as the natural successor to 007.

Nowadays though, these by-the-numbers tales of Xander Cage (Diesel), an extreme sports enthusiast/anarchistic provocateur turned reluctant CIA agent appear as dated as a Matt Helm movie from the 1960s.

The first picture in the series to date is the best, due to the relative originality of the premise and half-decent action, but its blend of hackneyed badassery, grinding Rammstein soundtrack, greasy Slavic villains and Death Metal strip club vibe make it something of a chore.

Diesel skipped the second picture (XxX: State of the Union, 2005), replaced by Ice Cube as Darius Stone.

Vin was at that time attempting to break free from the straitjacket of his other movie franchises (Fast Furious/Riddick) with a slew of films, all of which flopped.

2016’s XxX: The Return of Xander Cage saw Diesel don his oversized sheepskin coat for another underwhelming adventure. A fourth entry in the series is threatened to be in the works…

Salt (2010) Neflix, Amazon Rent/Buy

Presumably designed as the first of a series, Salt is an enjoyable entry in the high-octane female spy sub-genre, including titles such as Black Widow (2021), The Rhythm Section (2020), Ava (2020), Anna (2019), Red Sparrow (2018) Atomic Blonde (2017) and La Femme Nikita (1990).

After playing Lara Croft star Angelina Jolie can handle the action pretty well, but I tend to find her perceptible self-regard as a performer distancing, the incessant pouting, posing and casting of significant looks all getting a bit much after a while.

Saying that, director Phillip Noyce (again) makes sure the picture moves at a decent clip and Jolie is ably supported by the likes of Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Corey Stoll.

Salt made more than its nut at the box office, meaning the absence of a sequel was probably due to the usual blend of clashing personalities, studio executive exits and script problems.

If you enjoyed Salt’s female take on the spy thriller you may want to check out upcoming The 355, a Mission Impossible style actioner set for release in Jan 2022, with a cast that includes Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong'o, Penélope Cruz, Diane Kruger, Fan Bingbing, Sebastian Stan and Édgar Ramírez.

Knight & Day (2010) Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy

During the 5-year interregnum between Mission Impossible movies Tom Cruise tried his hand at a lighter kind of spy thriller with Knight & Day, directed by James Mangold, currently helming the 5th Indiana Jones picture.

The movie made $262m (on a $117m budget), which made it a comparative disappointment, and reviews were mediocre, but Knight & Day has since been re-evaluated as an enjoyably goofy action comedy.

Cruise stars as maverick CIA operative Roy Miller/Matthew Knight, with Cameron Diaz playing June Havens, his (initially) unwilling partner and eventual love interest.

As for the film’s title; Cruise’s surname is Knight, but there’s no-one called Day in the flick.

Go figure.

Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) is a genius scientist with the unfortunate name of Simon Feck, which may prompt chuckles amongst Father Ted fans.

Inception (2010) Amazon Rent/Buy

As Tenet proved, high-concept espionage pictures are difficult to pull off, even if director Christopher Nolan had previous success in the genre.

Best not to overthink Inception’s plot, which sets out to drag the viewer into the rabbit hole of its dream-driven labyrinth, where Leonardo DiCaprio’s industrial infiltration expert Dom Cobb steals corporate secrets from his target’s subconscious.

Nolan pays homage to Bond in the O.H.M.S.S. (1969) influenced ski-chase sequence, as well as Saito's (Ken Watanabe) castle, which nods to the Japanese setting of You Only Live Twice (1967).

Cobb’s sharply dressed crew also hark back to the fine tailoring of the Connery years, prior to Diamonds Are Forever (1971) when too many biscuits and a 1970s aesthetic took hold

True Lies (1994)

James Cameron both parodied and paid tribute to 007 in this mega-budget remake of Claude Zidi’s La Totale! (1991).

Arnold Schwarzenegger plays secret agent Harry Tasker, who poses as a computer salesman living a suburban life with bored wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis).

Even at the time, True Lies depiction of Muslim terrorists and Harry’s sadistic treatment of his wife when he suspects her of having an affair were problematic.

Nowadays even more so, but it does have its moments and you can see that the $100m+ budget (which was the highest yet) is all onscreen.

True Lies is being developed as a TV series for CBS, with Steve Howey (who?) in the Arnie role, under the aegis of ‘McG’ (Joseph McGinty Nichol), who was responsible for the two earlier Charlie’s Angels movies (2000, 2003) the dire spy comedy This Means War (2012) and two TV show spin-offs from movies - Lethal Weapon (2016-18) and Turner & Hooch (2021). Let joy be unconfined.