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August 02, 2005

Best Spy Movies

Thinking a little about Sean Connery I began wondering what a list of the best all-time spy movies would look like. I sort of realized five minutes into the exercise I'd have to Google, because I was having trouble thinking of many good (or even passable) spy movies at all, apart from the Bond films, which, let's face it, are mostly not-so-good and are "spy movies" in the same sense that the Naked Gun movies are police procedurals.

Okay, before we get to the list:

Bear in mind I haven't seen many pre-1970 movies.


I'm limiting myself to just four Bond flicks. Most of them are not spy movies; they're action/adventure romps starring a guy who claims to be a covert agent and yet 90% of the world seems to recognize his name or face. The ones I've picked are at least close to being genuine spy movies, and they're also all damn good.

The Guns of Navarrone is great, but it's not a spy movie. It's a commando movie with a little bit of espionage-ish parts. A lot of movies get scratched for this reason. Commandos aren't spies, so be quiet with your Where Eagles Dare nonsense.

Enter the Dragon isn't a spy movie either. Yeah, Bruce Lee is supposedly a spy, but it's a martial-arts arena-combat movie with only the slightest nod to the spy genre.

Yeah, Hitchcock. Okay, here's where I tell you that North by Northwest is 1 not really all that great and 2 is about as plausible as a James Bond film anyhow. It's a James Bond romp, only with an everyman rather than a superhero. And The Thirty-Nine Steps is... well, it's very dated, the ending is kinda silly, and well, I barely remember it. Plus, I saw a really bad print of it.

I know people will say The Eiger Sanction, but I never saw the whole thing, and what I saw of it looked dumb, cheap, and derivative.

As for John Le Carre... I read The Spy Who Came In From The Cold but I never saw the movie. I tried to watch The Russia House but found it unwatchably boring.

I'm sure you're going to say "How the hell did that movie get on the list?" for a few of these. Well, some made it because they at least made a plausible attempt to be realistic and were kinda well done. And, like I said, I don't remember many good ones, so some odd choices are going to make it on.

A couple of these are barely spy movies, or only arguably spy movies, or really not spy movies but have the feel and tone of a spy movie. Again-- there just aren't many good ones out there. I have to fudge a little.

Anyway:

17. Firefox -- Not the greatest movie and slow at times, but somewhat realistic and brutal about the realities of spycraft. The murder of a Russian guard -- just a guard, not really evil, just incovenient for Clint Eastwood -- in the bathroom was low-key but nasty.

It always was a bit daffy that the US had to a steal high-tech plane from the Soviets, but what the hell. Sure, the Soviets had good planes, but one that runs on mind-control and beats the shit out of the F-15? Whatever, still fun.

16. The Spy Who Loved Me -- Roger Moore's second-best outing at Bond, this one involving submarines (as his best outing did as well, and as does the all-time best spy movie; the Secret Service and the Silent Service seem to go well together).

Great locations, lots of fun, and Barbara Bach as the title spy of the film, except she doesn't love Bond for most of it, so much as she wants to kill him (for killing her own beloved in the line of duty).

I hope I'm not giving anything away when I reveal she changes her attitude towards him in the final fade-out.

And Jaws is one the best Bond villains ever.

15. The Parallax View -- Warren Beatty isn't a spy in this movie -- he's an independent investigative journalist, I think -- but he does all sorts of spy-like things, including infiltration and break-ins. And the whole movie is about a strange and secretive corporation recruiting assassins. A good, paranoid flick that evokes a spy-like feel.

14. Three Days of the Condor -- Good opening, some okay scenes along the way, but really, it's only the malevolent (?) presence of Max Von Sydow that makes this one above average.

It's a Robert Redford movie, so the New York Times is the hero at the end. Grrrrrr. And of course the middle of the movie is him shacking up with some chick and doing not much of anything, but the strange and tenative romance between them is...

You know what? Fuck it, I hate this movie and I only put it on the list because it's widely regarded as good. But it's not good. It sucks.

And don't even bring up the boring Spy Games, also known as The Spy Who Came In From The Cold And Then Just Hung Around the Fucking Office For Two Hours of Time That I'll Never Fucking Get Back.

A friend of mine reviewed the movie thus: "The hero tricks the CIA into helping Brad Pitt by exhibiting his mastery of the inter-office mail system. It's especially gripping as he bluffs his way into accessing the high-speed copier. And his skillful manipulation of requisition forms and other sorts of paperwork is the absolute epitome of high adventure."

So, those two are out. If you're forced to watch a Robert Redford spy movie, watch Sneakers, much cooler and much more fun that Three Days of the Condor. So cross this one out.

The Real 14: Sneakers. High tech burglaries all over the place.

Then again, at the end super-liberal Redford steals millions from the Repubican National Committee and gives the money to a bunch of liberal causes. So fuck this movie too, and fuck Robert Redford as a general matter.

Here's the new #14, in protest of this disgrace:

The New Real 14: Gotcha! -- I barely remember this, but I think it involved Berlin, Anthony Edwards, Linda Florentino, and a tranq gun. Florentino says "I like de virgins with de tight butts" in a Russian accent, and that's good enough to outpace Redford.

13. On Her Majesty's Secret Service -- Also called "The Bond movie that no one ever saw," or as I knew it as kid, "The Fake James Bond Movie."

Okay, the plot is ludicrously lurid, featuring 12 super-hot sexpots each carrying a virus that will make one major crop or species of livestock extinct within weeks. But it does feature Diana Rigg as James Bond's (short-lived) wife, and an interesting character in Rigg's father, a mafioso who befriends Bond.

Some good action and scenery. More of a romance than a spy movie, I guess, but that's what makes this one atypical.

Includes one of the best Bond lines, ever. Skiing (naturally) away from the villain's goons, one goon falls into a channel being carved by an ice-cutter, and his blood and entrails are sprayed crimson into the night air.

"He had lots of guts," Bond says. Heh and/or Indeed.

12. The Killer Elite -- Sort of slow at times, but just very cool. James Caan plays some sort of bodyguard for the State Department, protecting visiting foreign VIP's. He's betrayed by Robert Duvall (hey, right there you've got a movie) and is shot through the knees and left a virtual cripple. But he regains some movement through painful rehabilitation and learns a fighting style that incorporates the walking cane. Martial arts, an armored car, and long-distance rifle-sniping... all good stuff.

11. Top Secret -- One of those movies that seems kind of crappy the first time you see it but gets better and better on repeated watchings. I love the way the movie can't decide if it's set in the 50's or 80's, or whether the enemy is the Nazis or Soviets, and just sorts of blurs over such trifling details. And the idea of a Elvis-ish rock star being a super secret agent... great stuff.

And then there's Hillary, she whose bosoms defy gravity.

10. Marathon Man -- Included here mostly on the strength of the book, which kicked all sorts of ass, and was one of the nastiest, most cynical books I ever read as a kid. The movie is a pale imitation of the book, but it's still good enough to make the list.

9. Goldfinger -- One of the most beloved of the James Bond films and mainly on the list because people would freak if it wasn't. There are great, great scenes in the movie, but he does almost no real spying at all. Most of the time he just tweaks and annoys Goldfinger into attempting to kill him (the old "Let's provoke a reaction so he makes a mistake" school of intelligence work), and half the movie he's a prisoner on a horse-farm, doing not much of anything, really, except trying to nail Honor Blackman.

Still, the golf game, the tricked-out Aston Martin, the fun teaser at the opening (the first real James Bond style teaser, featuring a mini-mission with action stunts at the start), Odd Job and his flyin' bowler of death, and of course that amazing Fort Knox set are enough to get this one on the list.

The first Bond movie that really established the Bond formula... and some would say, I guess, that was a bad thing, considering most of the dreck that's followed.

8. Enigma -- Dave From Garfield Ridge reminded of this underrated movie, one of my favorite recent spy pictures. Set at the Brits' famous decoding station Bletchley Park during WWII, Tom Jericho, a genius codebreaker who's suffered a nervous breakdown due to a romance gone badly, is called back into duty because the Nazis have figured out their Enigma code is being broken and have changed it so that it can't be broken any more.

There's a mole in Bletchley Park, it seems, someone who's tipped off the Nazis. And Tom Jericho's lost love goes missing, presumably either the mole herself and fled for Berlin or else killed because She Knew Too Much.

Great Bond-ish score by Bond go-to composer John Barry, Kate Winslet all sorts of hot and cute as usual (the British Drew Barrymore, I think), a good script by Tom Stoppard dripping with fun Britishims ("I hear you'd gone off your trolley"), Dougray Scott really looking like a beaten and half-crazed man, and Jeremy Northam as a malevolent but charming counterintelligence agent. A very good movie indeed.

If the movie has a flaw -- and it does -- it's that it it's a little too smart and stately, letting its "prestige project" feel get in the way of the necessary "Yowie!" factor. Also, a little too much going on to do any particular subplot much justice. Part drama, part romance, part remembrance of a failed romance, part save the fleet, part find the mole... for a movie this busy, it sure seems a little slow at times.

Still, one of the best recent spy pictures.

And, oddly enough, produced by Lorne Michaels of Saturday Night Live and... Mick Jagger, who has a brief cameo as a musician in a USO band.

7. No Way Out -- Okay, it doesn't seem like a spy movie, but it's all about government and investigations and murder and blackmail and hidden agendas and all that good stuff, and, of course, any one who's seen the movie knows there's a bit more to it than that, too.

A high-tension thriller. Some of the tension is actually cringe-inducing, as Kevin Costner is forced to hunt down a mystery man suspected of killing the Secretary of Defense's mistress... and of course that mystery man is himself.

6. For Your Eyes Only -- My all-time favorite Bond picture, and the one that almost is kinda-sorta a real spy movie. Yes, it's got the typical amount of Bondish romping, but the basic of the plot is somewhat realistic (recover a sub communication and coordination device before the Russians do) and Bond actually has to do some actual investigation in this one -- it's not immediately obvious who the villain is; in fact, who he thinks is the villain turns out to be one of his greatest allies and his initial contact in Greece turns out to be the KGB mole.

The assualt on the cliff-top monastery doesn't feaure any explosions but it's the very best Bond assault-the-stronghold sequence in the whole history of the series. Amazing tension on that rock-climb.

And the chick with the crossbow... she's all kinds of hot.

5. The Assignment -- Aidan Quinn is reluctantly recruited into the CIA by Donald Sutherland because he bears a striking resemblance to Carlos the Jackal. So much so that he's abucted (and beaten) by the Israelis in the beginning of the film, and spends the first half of the movie discussing the huge lawsuit he's going to bring against the Mossad. And the Knesset. And "Golda Fucking Meir." Funny stuff.

And then it gets cool. Great training sequence. Great line from Ben Kingsley about having to screw a woman (in the course of duty, of course), despite the fact that Aidan Quinn is married: "Just close your eyes and think of England." Especially funny because neither Kingsley or Quinn play Englishmen.

The foot-chase/car-chase through the Middle Eastern city is nerve-wracking, and even better, it features a realistic downer-- Quinn winds up killing a "good guy," a French intelligence agent, because it's necessary to maintain his cover as Carlos.

The lame ending detracts from the movie, but still very good.

4. True Lies -- A Bond clone which isn't really a Bond clone at all. Contains several of the best action sequences of all time -- the amazingly visceral fight in the men's bathroom (I winced every time he slammed the goon's head against the urinal) and of course the Harrier blazing cannon fire through all the goons at the end. And the chase through DC -- villain on motorcycle, hero on horseback -- is terrific.

Rather than cracking sardonic Bond-esque one-liners, they go the opposite direction and make Harry Tasker... polite. Both funny and unexpected to hear him apologizing constantly as he tears up Washington DC.

Oh, and any movie that can make Tom Arnold likeable, funny, and credible as a spy is one seriously well-directed film.

3. The Fourth Protocol -- Roger Ebert dubbed this "Pierce Brosnan's revenge," because he wound up starring in this film when contractual obligations prevented him from taking over the Bond franchise in the late eighties (the job went to Timothy Dalton). Brosnan plays a nasty KGB agent smuggling components of a nuclear bomb into England; the plan is to detonate the bomb on a US air base, claim the Americans had an accidental detonation, and thus prompt the withdrawal of all US forces from Europe.

Michael Caine is the hero, a competent but aging MI-5 agent passed over for promotion and being not-so-subtly shown the door. He's assigned to the very dead-end section of Ports and Airports, but wouldn't you know it, a palladium disk lost by Brosnan's contact turns up, and it seems that disk is used in making atomic bombs.

One of the best spy films I've ever seen. Does a great job of balancing the plausible, realistic tradecraft of espionage with the action we want, whether it's realistic or not.

2. The Bourne Identity -- Whoops, left this crackerjack thriller off the list originally; not sure how I managed to do that.

Without doubt, some of the best hand-to-hand fighting ever filmed. The director actually, get this, eschews disorienting quick-cuts and actually allows you to follow the action. Rather than trying to make the action seem quick and nasty by the cheap trick of editing it to the point of incomprehensibility, he actually stages fights which are quick and nasty and just lets you watch them.

Sometimes Bourne moves so quickly I wonder if the film hasn't been sped up 10 or 15%, but it's a subtle effect that keeps you guessing.

Add to that one of the best car chases ever filmed and a realistic and gripping firefight across a marsh-- terrific all the way through.

Except for the last stunt during the final confrontation, which is a bit silly, and was added later to give the sequence more punch. It didn't add punch; it just made me scratch my head and mouth out "WTF?"

1. The Hunt For Red October -- The best spy movie ever made. I had decided to disqualify this as a non-spy movie, as it's really a sub movie, but Megan convinced me otherwise. Yes, it's all set on ships, but the hero is a CIA analyst, Sean Connery is a defector seeking to deliver a key piece of technology to the other side (requiring deceiving his crew and killing his KGB handler), and the movie is thick with Soviet-era Russians, so yes, Virginia, it is a spy movie, albeit an unconventional one.

The performances are all outstanding, particularly Connery as the Soviet (Lithuanian) captain, and of course Sam Neill who wants to live in Montana and raise rabbits. The final firefight amidst the nuclear missile tubes is superb.

So that's the list. I'm sure I've missed a couple, either through oversight or just because I haven't seen 'em, but that's all the intelligence on this subject I currently have.

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posted by Ace at 03:38 PM

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