Skip to main content

I was in MI-5 just long enough to realise, you can do good, or you can do well. Sooner or later, they make you choose.

Spooks: The Greater Good
(2015)

(SPOILERS) The last time I watched Spooks (or MI-5, as it is known in many countries) can have been no more recently than 2007, as Rupert Penry-Whatshishyphenate was still starring, and he got blown up soon after (as is wont to happen in their risk-friendly business). As the series carried on until 2010, and I only sporadically watched it before that, you could conclusively say I was only ever the most casual of viewers. It was okay, very much what you might expect of a BBC with one eye on the US (and the success of 24), having lost confidence in how to make their own style of television. Spooks could never really getting that the same kind of scale or conviction of threat as its American cousins, which rather worked against it. At its worst, it all looked rather silly, which undermined what was always the best aspect of British spydom: the intrigue itself. Spooks: The Greater Good, suffers from exactly the same problems.


It even has coloned title, taking its cues from the Mission: Impossible approach. Those films work (well, except for the second one) because they are big, breathless, and have sufficient self-awareness to rattle on through their essential ludicrousness and make that a virtue. Spooks has no such luck; it's one nod to the less than earnest is a white cat as "evidence" of a suspect's villainy. Even 24 (okay, I ducked out of the last couple of seasons), which was desperately serious, generally succeeded by detaching its lead character from reality. Jack Bauer would be successively hurled into bubble realities where all he had to do was survive 40 minutes at a time. Spooks is unable to escape its limitations. Everything, from the roving camera mimicry to the thrall to London landmarks, is asking to be scoffed at for presuming it can compete with the big boys. Instead, when the umpteenth batch of terrorists arrive intent on blowing up a landmark, it invites derision.


Spooks: The Greater Good does understand, however, that the most convincing way to present the intelligence services is to show them as inherently corrupt. In decades past, this was always a result of moles, or the cynicism of those in command; today it’s simply about corporate respect and branding. The makers know there’s insufficient reason to buy into the threat from foreign powers; it’s a bit passé.  So, while The Greater Good comes replete with a stereotypical Middle Eastern terrorist (one who can be manipulated on account of his wife; very Bauer-esque), it can’t rely on that for sustenance. We the jaded public are so indifferent, we’d more need convincing that the intelligence services weren’t nefarious and working against out best interests. As such, there’s a notional recognition that out greatest enemy is really ourselves. While that’s also there in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Greater Good offers merely lip service, or rather gloss. Surface detail, rather than carefully hewn substance, and a wilful lack of political relevance.


The Greater Good builds its plot on a series of half-baked tropes that don’t hold up for more than several seconds when sweated under harsh lights. Instead of working from a baseline of what British spy fare does well (John Le Carré, Len Deighton) and building in a few grand set pieces, we’re asled to suffer a series of WTFs. So someone in the MI-5 hierarchy allows terrorist Adem Qasim (Elyes Gabel) to escape custody and the reason is… they want the agency to collapse and be taken over by the CIA. As plot motivators go, it’s on the wispy side. So too is stalwart Harry Pearce (Peter Firth), doing dodgy deals to get to the bottom of this conspiracy. He goes so far overboard that he gives Qasim the keys to intelligence community kingdom in exchange for calling off a planned bombing (the prize Harry has requested before this is no easier to swallow; a telephone number that may well be completely useless). It doesn’t help that everything takes place with a thunderously straight face.


Harry’s the kind of maverick, hard-choices taking fellow intended to function as a British Bauer. The guy who will make the sacrifices, take the risks no one else can, because he believes the ends justify the means. Such flagrant copying of the 24 modus operandi would be all well and good if Harry could muster an ounce of Jack’s grit and determination. Or even if he could merely summon the clipped severity of a Le Carré spymaster. But Firth is a drab, stodgy presence, and as commanding as a custard eclair. Obviously, Spooks devotees will disagree, and as a lead he’s admittedly more agreeable than someone as wet and non-present as Clark Gregg in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. But that’s hardly an endorsement. It’s particularly a problem for a small screen hero pumped up to movie size, where the attention is all on him. Firth hasn’t had to deal with this kind of scrutiny since Lifeforce.


Helping Harry out is special guest young buck Game of Thrones guy Kit Harington as Will Holloway. Will has history with Harry, inevitably of the “you knew my father” variety, and the movie’s to-and-fro “Can I trust you or can’t I?” poise quickly gets stale. The real question isn’t whether Will can trust Harry, it’s why/how Harry is continually given licence to get up to all sorts of unconscionable behaviour. Harington’s doing his best to score a succession of movie roles to ensure his post-Thrones longevity, but thus far they’ve been decidedly second-rate. He’s a likable presence, but not a weighty one. If he can’t galvanise himself towards a signature part equal to the agreeable Jon Snow, he’ll be consigned to supporting roles in no time.


This is Bharat Nalluri’s fifth feature. It’s perhaps telling that his best received is Mrs Pettigrew Lives for a Day, decidedly not of the action genre to which he has staked his name (including the third entry in The Crow series). He directed the Spooks pilot all the way back in 2002, so they presumably thought they owed him. Nothing about the direction is bad per se, but nothing about is more than standard issue for this kind of fare. Lots of handheld camera, quick cutting etc. 


To be fair to Nalluri, he has a better sense of spatial geography than many who do this kind of thing, but he can’t disguise the holes in the plot. The highlights are a chase round Heathrow and a desperate attempt to eliminate a sniper during a meet, although blowing up David Harewood and shooting TV regular Lara Pulver maintain the Spooks agenda for shock deaths (which makes them less shocking, if you’re expecting them).


Jennifer Ehle is in there; she’s always note-perfect, it’s just a shame the parts don’t tend to equal her talent. Tuppence Middleton is surely a next-big-Brit-thing in Hollywood any day now, and plays the questionable character line well until the writers fail her. 


Really, the only singularly great role is Tim McInnery’s sneering, MI-5 superior Mace. There’s a touch of continuity here, as the character showed up in four episodes, the last of which aired nearly a decade ago. Mace is everything Harry isn’t in terms of viewer engagement. Rude, witty, abrasive, and even rather brave when it comes down to it. McInnery would never be cast as the leading man, but if The Greater Good had focussed on him venting spleen at wholly unsuspecting terrorists it might feasibly have been a great movie.


It probably wasn’t a bad idea on paper to bring back Spooks. When there’s a chance of a TV transition making a mint (like The Inbetweeners), it could easily be regarded as a no-brainer. But Spooks: The Greater Good isn’t sufficiently different. It’s borrowed writers from the last few seasons of the show, and a director from the first few. As such, it follows the restrained tradition of British big screen adaptations, rather than the flourish of US ones. Which is exactly what the show didn’t want to do at inception. It so desperately wanted to be our answer to their TV. All the cinema incarnation has done is show that its characters (or more particularly Harry) are ill suited to grand gestures. And that, for a British spy movie on a budget to really engage, it needs to put its script foot forward first, rather than striving for sub-Bond/Bourne spectacle.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

All the way up! We’ll make it cold like winter used to be.

Soylent Green (1973)
(SPOILERS) The final entry in Chuck Heston’s mid-career sci-fi trilogy (I’m not counting his Beneath the Planet of the Apes extended cameo). He hadn’t so much as sniffed at the genre prior to 1967, but over the space of the next half decade or so, he blazed a trail for dystopian futures. Perhaps the bleakest of these came in Soylent Green. And it’s only a couple of years away. 2022 is just around the corner.

Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window.

Black Hawk Down (2001)
(SPOILERS) Black Hawk Down completed a trilogy of hits for Ridley Scott, a run of consistency he’d not seen even a glimmer of hitherto. He was now a brazenly commercial filmmaker, one who could boast big box office under his belt where previously such overt forays had seen mixed results (Black Rain, G.I. Jane). It also saw him strip away the last vestiges of artistic leanings from his persona, leaving behind, it seemed, only technical virtuosity. Scott was now given to the increasingly thick-headed soundbite (“every war movie is an anti-war movie”) in justification for whatever his latest carry-on carried in terms of controversial elements, and more than happy to bed down with the Pentagon (long-standing collaborators with producer Jerry Bruckheimer) to make a movie that, while depictinga less than auspicious intervention by the US military (“Based on an Actual Event” is a marvellous catch-all for wanton fabrication), managed to turn it into a parade of heroes pe…

Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in.

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***