“Nowadays they’re all a little serious for my tastes… Give me a far-fetched, theatrical plot any day.”
Watching a suave, besuited Colin Firth decimate a church full of bigots to the sounds of Lynyrd Skynyrd in Kingsman: The Secret Service was one of the unexpected highlights of early 2015. But as the year has continued, it’s become the rule rather than the exception. From the likes of Kingsman, Spy and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation to upcoming films like Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (out in cinemas this weekend), it seems the classic spy movie is going through something of a resurgence. But why exactly are smoking jackets suddenly replacing bulletproof vests as the essential piece of espionage equipment?
It would be easy to chalk this up to a mix of changing tastes and simple economic practices. If the ridiculous number of superhero movies scheduled for the next few years is indicative of anything, it’s that studios love a sure thing. And if you’re going to follow anyone’s example when it comes to spy movies, you follow the granddaddy of them all: James Bond.
Casino Royale did a fine job of bringing 007 into the 21st century, but the sequel – Quantum of Solace – felt more like Bourne than classic Bond. With Skyfall, however, the series found the ideal middle ground between silly and serious; bringing back classic elements like Q without any of the camp nonsense that defined the Pierce Brosnan era.
The change paid off. Skyfall became a critical success, even winning the BAFTA for Outstanding British Film. More importantly it became the most financially successful Bond film of all time, earning itself more than $1 billion at the worldwide box office. Small wonder then that director Sam Mendes was brought on to shoot the upcoming Spectre in the hope of making the same brand of lightning strike twice. And if Bond says it’s cool, everyone else will surely follow.
There’s also the fact that audiences are simply sick of having their movies dark and gritty these days, regardless of the genre. Again, look at superheroes. Christopher Nolan made a ton of money with his grounded, realistic take on Batman, and it wasn’t long before every superhero out there was getting an extra order of brooding. It worked for a while, but eventually audiences yearn for something different. People hated Man of Steel for washing all of the colour out of Superman, and the less said about Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four reboot, the better.
Still, this begs the question: why did spies go the same way as superheroes? Why was it no longer acceptable for international men of mystery to run about like Austin Powers? Without putting too fine a point on it, 9/11 happened. The tragedy of the attacks on the World Trade Centre marked the arrival of a real threat, the likes of which hadn’t been faced since the end of the Cold War. Suddenly it was no longer seen as acceptable to make light of the clandestine services and the work that they do – to use one of George Bush’s most infamous quotes, “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”.
More than a decade later, things are very different. We took down Osama Bin Laden (spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t seen Zero Dark Thirty) and are slowly extricating ourselves from the mess we made of the Middle East. While organisations like ISIS and al-Qaeda are certainly not to be dismissed as insignificant, we know that the average would-be terrorist is more like an extra from Four Lions than a footsoldier of HYDRA.
In short, it no longer feels like a hugely unpatriotic act to poke fun at people working in intelligence services – which is exactly as it should be. Cinema is all about creating an escapist fantasy, separate from the humdrum of daily life. And after a hard day of tailing suspects and leaving intel taped to the underside of park benches, even a spy has the right to go to the cinema and dream of a world where he gets to walk away from a cool explosion and into the arms of Monica Bellucci, who’s waiting for him with a vodka martini.
Shaken, not stirred, obviously.