With the recent release of Kingsman: The Golden Circle Film critic Luis Freijo ponders whether the appeal of the spy genre is coming to an end
Kingsman: The Golden Circle has just been released and its reception among the film reviewers has been, at best, unenthusiastic. As Redbrick critic Sam Houseman says, the first Kingsman was a surprising movie, not as original as it was said but, still, an entertaining and teasing attempt. In the last five years, excluding the above-mentioned Kingsman, the excellent Skyfall and, maybe, Zero Dark Thirty, spy films have not created a relevant trend.
Spectre should have been a decent follow-up, with Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Sam Mendes and screenwriter Joshua Logan teaming up, but it ended up disappointing; the same happened with The Man from U.N.C.L.E., a completely expendable remake of an old TV series, and the two sequels of the Bourne saga. Mission: Imposible keeps doing quite well at the box office, but it hasn’t offered anything new since John Woo: just a bunch of sequences with an ageing Tom Cruise brainlessly running and jumping through the entire world’s rooftops. Being things as they are, the question is not unreasonable: are we witnessing the death of spy movies?
On the one hand, it’s evident that there’s an exhaustion of the genre. The quoted examples are hard proof: there’s not a single original movie among them (let’s remember that Kingsman is a comic book adaptation, and that the rest of them are sequels from long-running franchises). What’s more, the golden age of spies died a long time ago, with the fall of the Soviet Union. The Cold War was a productive historical context that fuelled the genre for forty years, because it was current and because it helped audiences from back then to create a discourse about their reality while exorcising their fears. Films like Our Man in Havana, The Third Man or Three Days of the Condor do not appeal to us now as they did when they were released. That’s why The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a flop: sixties aesthetic, and nothing more. In addition, Hollywood’s own lack of ideas doesn’t help at all. It’s not happening only in spy movies: everywhere you look at mainstream movies you can only find remakes, reboots, franchises and very bad scripts. It’s a wasteland, lighted only by a few sparkling authors that try to keep themselves interesting in times that are not so.
On the other hand, this is a cycle that all genres experience. It happened to westerns and noir films. After 25 years of overproducing, only a few crazy people like Sam Peckinpah, Don Siegel or Clint Eastwood remained filming westerns during the seventies, and after the Heaven´s Gate´s disaster and the death of Peckinpah not even that. Nevertheless, Eastwood managed to make Pale Rider and Unforgiven, and the genre has been growing until reaching considerable health nowadays. It was the same with thrillers: after The Killing and Touch of evil, almost nothing. And then, films like Chinatown, Miller´s Crossing, L.A. Confidential or the european TV series of the 2000s make them resurface from time to time.
Furthermore, even spy films have been upgraded sometimes. There are huge differences between the expressionist The Third Man, the classical Our Man in Havana, the modern The Deadly Affair or the extremely calculated Three Days of the Condor, even if they belong to the same kind of movies. And the emergence of Jason Bourne was crucial in the early 2000s (let’s just remember that abomination called Die Another Day) because it defined a series of rules that had to apply for the post-9/11 era. That was the last renovation and, after giving birth to Skyfall (the best Bond ever), is now coming to an end.
Incidentally, the James Bond franchise is the reference for a different direction. Its producers (Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli first, then Barbara Broccoli) have shown a keen eye to know what times require and some tremendous adaptation capability. For instance, the choice of Roger Moore as 007 in the psychedelic seventies or making Judi Dench the new M in the nineties. When the Craig era is completely finished, they will definitely renew the franchise. And with them, a whole new wave of spy films will find a way to be exciting and relevant again. They always do.