It’s hard to believe that the spy genre has been around for a century already, and, for some, perhaps harder to believe that it’s still one of cinema’s most diverse and entertaining genres.
In 2015, espionage aficionados enjoyed film adaptations of popular secret agents of video games, comic books, and old television series, and celebrated the return of a suave, secret agent whose lengthy filmography is embedded deep into our culture, and even welcomed a straightforward comedy centered on a woman in the spy world. In an age where discussions about when certain genre fads will die or how the surge in popularity of franchises is a cultural genocide come up, it’s definitely important to celebrate one of cinema’s oldest, series-driven genres and how it continues to reinvent itself and create new adventures that drive us back to the cinema.
On that note, let’s recap the impressive inventiveness and the interesting failures of the spy movies of 2015, and then you tell us which was the best.
Kingsman: The Secret Service
The year of the secret agent opened with Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of the graphic novel The Secret Service. The film is particularly special because of the way it divided audiences into three groups; the group who praised it as one of the year’s best, the group that found it just fun, and the group that found it disgusting on every level. At the least, the film sets up and frames action sequences in cutting edge ways, even if its morally grey plot devices gets polar opposite reactions from audiences. It’s a weird instance in which it is possible to find the film ugly while also finding it incredibly stylized.
This year, comedy director Paul Feig checked in his latest Melissa McCarthy-lead, semi-spoof genre comedy, and it became an understated comedy gem. The “spy spoof” sub-genre is no new thing, but what Feig does excellently is subvert elements of a genre while also maintaining the film’s genre individuality. Spy continues that example, as it parodies Bond and most of the bland secret agent standalones but never forgets to distinguish itself from the films it is parodying. By the end, it adds one more title to the good “spy spoof” films list and asks the important question: why there aren’t more women leading spy films?
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
The marking for the fifth installment of the Mission: Impossible series indicated another big, action-packed blockbuster with a set piece that everyone would be talking about (much like its predecessor Ghost Protocol). However, Rogue Nation switches gears on a franchise thought to have found its niche. Instead of having that one climactic stunt in the middle of the movie, the film structures itself into a downward slope, with sequences that get less grandiose in nature as the movie adopts a plot that grows more complicated and intricate. It’s the type of reinvention that keeps indefinite series like this alive, the sort of brash adjustment that has been sustaining the spy genre for a long time.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
This year’s spy films did not have a lack of distinct directors willing to bring their trademark sensibilities to the project. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is one such film that is clearly and completely driven by its director. Guy Ritchie tackled this adaptation of an old television series and brought all the staple Guy Ritchie-isms. The film is bursting at the seams with stylized sequences, slick clothing, suave performances, and beautiful locations. It may not have made a prominent stamp on the spy genre legacy, but it’s one of those hidden gems that will, with its unique flavour, lighten up any spy film marathon.
Hitman: Agent 47
Hitman: Agent 47 is certainly the odd agent out in 2015, but that doesn’t make its failure a catastrophe. It’s still fascinating to comprehend why the studio would think the director and writer behind the first film’s failure would be able to turn a good film with the same property. It was certainly a nice experiment on adapting a video game that features a single-minded, driven killer that has no emotions standing in as the main character– pretty much the opposite of your standard action film protagonist. It was a passable attempt, but hopefully, third time’s the charm… if ever they try again in the future.
Bridge of Spies
Steven Spielberg’s latest is a spy film that sticks out for a completely different reason. Focusing on James B. Donovan and his struggles to rescue men behind enemy lines, Spielberg delivers on a riveting drama that may just be one of the best Cold War films ever made. It’s in Bridge of Spies that the true heroism is shown, not through saving the world from a complicated villain plot, but through the sacrificial protection of human life. The film is both intense and enriching, making it one of the most fulfilling movies of the year and certainly a spy film that will be remembered for years to come.
Like everything else, franchises die. But for Spectre, “the dead are alive.” James Bond returns for his 24th film, and this is a pivotal film in the 007 filmography. The Bond series has been able to endure through 53 years, 24 films, and a handful of changes of directions. The series perseveres largely because once each film is over, everything within the film is laid to rest, never to be spoken of again. But Spectre reveals a hidden interconnectivity between the films of the Daniel Craig series, a pronouncement that Bond has given in again to modern trends. Some may find its methods serving against Bond mythos and some may find Spectre to be a thematic culmination of the Craig series. Either way, Sam Mendes’ completely intentional decisions here have definitely left a mark on a series where legacy didn’t matter.
From an incredibly stylized of espionage in the ’60s to a character-centric historical drama, from a sequel that reinvented itself to a reboot that did not even try, from action films that poke fun at old Bond films to a Bond film itself, the spy films of 2015 all prove that the cinematic diamond that is the spy genre is forever, and shall never fail audiences in giving us an exhilarating time at the cinema. Tell us which is your favorite!