Filling the Gaps Opened by SKYFALL and GHOST PROTOCOL: A Look at Old School Espionage from KINGSMAN to U.N.C.L.E.
Like clockwork, studios duke it out to prove who reigns supreme, both in the box office and the critics’ circle. But what’s interesting among these eight-to-nine-figure budgets are the films that breed or revive a new category entirely: one might call it a trend or a phase, wherein studios all submit a film that fits into a niche that hadn’t previously been being explored. For example, in 2014, viewers were treated – or mistreated if you want to be a whiny teenager about it – to an onslaught of religious epics thanks to the likes of NOAH, SON OF GOD and EXODUS: GODS & KINGS, as well as a number of low-budget faith pictures such as GOD’S NOT DEAD and HEAVEN IS FOR REAL. Whilst the latter two might have been the products of coincidence, the fact that three highly publicized epics based on the good book all came out the same year from different studios seems about as coincidental as finding a cobra in your mailbox the day after you evict a notorious Mexican drug lord by the name of El Serpiente. So in short, yes, it could be a coincidence, but word of mouth is a thing and it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that studios like to invest in similar products to beef up competition and satisfy demand in the case that one of the films becomes a financial success.
And with DUCK DYNASTY’s Willie Robertson starring, how could it not be?
Naturally, every year is chock full of reboots, sequels, and spinoffs, and although 2015 has boasted quite a number of these already with MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, JURASSIC WORLD,TERMINATOR: GENISYS, and more superhero pre-cum to lead up to the ejaculation of the next AVENGERS film, the argument could be made that 2015 is possibly the year of the western revival. All the evidence seems to be pointing in the direction after all, with the release of THE SALVATION, SLOW WEST, ECHOES OF WAR, BONE TOMAHAWK, FORSAKEN, THE HATEFUL EIGHT, JANE GOT A GUN, and THE REVENANT rapidly approaching. But despite the fact that there are in fact eight notable Westerns due for release in 2015, these films don’t seem to carry the same competitive nature, and multi-million dollar financial backing as the espionage-movie trend that has hit the 2015 circuit.
Establishing what’s in vogue this year was 20th Century Fox, with their January release of Matthew Vaughn’s KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE, a film that was greeted with open arms by viewers across the globe because apparently everyone is blinded by the lie that anything British has to be intelligent, but I digress. 20th Century Fox promptly followed their success story with the release of SPY. But of course genres are not eligible for copyright, so China jumped right into this race and pulled a trademark name in order to increase the odds of profit through Alibaba Pictures Group’s release of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION. With the release of Warner Bros. THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E, audiences are being treated to a spy film that’s as aesthetically saturated as the genre is saturated this year, and of course Columbia Pictures and MGM are in the running with SPECTRE, destined to blow all of the prior contenders out of the water on a critical level, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Now first and foremost, one might ask if ROGUE NATION and SPECTRE really even fit into this trend. After all, these are long running franchises and aren’t just shoed into the summer or winter season as last-minute entertainment. And whilst this is a valid point, it can easily be argued that the other three films in question have intentionally been set for a release during the same year as their big brothers. After all, now that audiences got their taste of some campy British action and Melissa McCarthy awkwardly profiting off of an audience’s desire to hear fat-jokes, viewers are tuned into a genre that has mostly been ignored since AUSTIN POWERS IN GOLDMEMBER.
How could we forget ‘im?
To this, one might naturally respond that it’s unreasonable to compare ROGUE NATION and SPECTRE to three films that set out to parody these very franchises. Wrong: In fact, now is better a time than ever to draw these comparisons, because of the way ROGUE NATION was executed. Many often forget that MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE is a film franchise built on the success of a 1966 television series of the same name. Naturally, this 60’s series was nothing like the high-octane thrill ride viewers have come to expect from a MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE film, and was mostly a battle of wits between good and evil. Henceforth, although ROGUE NATION isn’t exactly the most bombastic, over-the-top film in the canon, it most closely resembles its television counterpart, relying on brains over brawn for almost every major action set piece.
Naturally, this is a welcome change of pace, and a smart decision when considering that Brad Bird’s GHOST PROTOCOL will probably go down as the epitome of the series’ visual spectacle. Consequently, ROGUE NATION’s antagonist is the most cleverly diabolical villain Tom Cruise has had to face, often drawing similarities to BBC’s fantastic depiction of Moriarty in SHERLOCK. Indisputably cartoonish, ROGUE NATION sticks to the genre conventions of last-minute escapes, over-the-top gadgetry and Simon Pegg’s comedic levity, but trades in the blockbuster action established by John Woo’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2 for some far more old school good guy / bad guy mind games.
And that’s the catch: ROGUE NATION decided to go old school this year, albeit in the most subtle way possible.
Now if the trailers for SPECTRE are anything to go by, one can see that even Bond is taking a step away from the modernized ideology established by 2006’s CASINO ROYALE. What was revamped as a franchise starring Daniel Craig as more of a sexy, ruthless, killing machine, is tackling an origin-story formula this year in order to pit Bond against a shady organization of baddies that comfortably eat well-done steak on a huge wooden table, because well-done steak is an attack on humanity. Furthermore cementing the traditional 007 formula are a series of gadget-heavy car chases that feel distant from the realism that viewers have come to expect in the Daniel Craig films, even going so far as to making Q a more relevant character and having him use his sophisticated lingo to introduce an actual Bond mobile for the installment, all in all making for a trailer that seems to carry a lot of narrative potential, but is undeniably rooted in the old school tradition that the prior three installments have tried to willfully avoid.
And what’s more old school than black and white?
Where this newfound adoration for old school espionage came from is not easy to pinpoint. 2015’s filmmakers have systematically moved further away from the humorless era of spy films that was ushered in by CASINO ROYALE, which in return came to fruition as a response to the negative backlash towards the over-the-top Pierce Brosnan 007 installments. So in short, cinema really is just seesawing between two extremes.
Maybe it’s the interest in BBC’s SHERLOCK that allowed for the makers of ROGUE NATION to realize that good guys and bad guys don’t have duke it out physically, but what’s actually a source of inspiration that surely holds a lot of weight in the studio system is the success of Marvel. With the campy nature of 2011’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, and the tongue-in-cheek banter between Tony Stark and his cohorts in 2012’s THE AVENGERS, one can definitely see that the superhero genre has garnered a certain popularity for a lightheartedness that studios were trying to avidly avoid with spy films. And even though the latest 007 and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE outings maintained short bursts of comedic levity, they were still rooted in a serious tone that strayed from the childishness of their ancestors.
It could be argued that Marvel and DC – most notably Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT series and Jon Favreau’s IRON MAN – allowed for superheroes to replace the superhuman accomplishments of spies entirely, rooting the genre of James Bond and Ethan Hunt in something that is driven by humanity rather than gadgetry. Now it seems that spy films have come full circle, and even if SPECTRE does retain the grim, poignant nature of the last three 007 films, 2015 has boasted a sudden surge of campy espionage films that have not only parodied the genre, but also realized that playing their cards with a whimsical twist can allow for new entries in a genre that’s been dominated by two cinematic goliaths.