#335. Action Spy!

The irony of the spy genre in Hollywood is that any spy who is really good at espionage is unlikely to be caught. If a spy is not caught, then there is no chance that they’d have to escape via a high-octane action sequence. This would be a boring movie. Anymore, most spies are experts in the cyber domain, which makes any chances of action even less likely. Still, for those “feet on the ground” agents out in the field, knowing how to handle one’s self is a fundamental element to their survival should they be compromised. While most spy movies involve some elements of action to them, some have more action than others. Entire film franchises are based on spies saving the world by fighting their way out of the enemy’s clutches. So, while the action spy is a fabrication of Hollywood, it’s safe to say they’re here to stay. This week’s two films highlight some notable examples of the action spy.

The Bourne IdentityThe Bourne Identity
Year: 2002
Rating: PG-13
Length: 119 minutes / 1.98 hours

Most spies usually have an agency backing them. Whether it’s MI-5 in the James Bond franchise, the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) in the Mission: Impossible franchise, or the eponymous U.N.C.L.E. in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), every spy has an agency giving out orders and providing logistical support to keep them armed and dangerous. But what if a spy’s agency turns on them? What if they have to not only survive with a compromised identity but survive against the agency that trained them? These spies need to think fast and move even faster. When a spy is the best of the best, it’s entertaining to watch them escape from even the most hopeless situation via their ability to fight, run, and survive by any means necessary. The epitome of this type of spy is none other than Jason Bourne.

After a botched mission, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is shocked to learn that Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) has survived and now has no memories of who he is. Unfortunately, his training is so deeply ingrained in his mind that he is able to call upon his spy skills to avoid capture. From hand-to-hand combat to professional driving, Bourne uses his talents to escape to the French countryside where he eliminates The Professor (Clive Owen), a sniper sent from the same CIA black ops program Bourne was from to eliminate him. With this new knowledge of Project Treadstone, Bourne heads to the safe house in Paris to confront his handler, Alexander Conklin (Chris Cooper). Upon reaching a modicum of closure, Bourne vanishes into the night, attempting to live a peaceful life as he continues to search for his missing memories.

SaltSalt
Year: 2010
Rating: PG-13
Length: 100 minutes / 1.67 hours

Any spy worth their salt (ha ha) will be able to maintain their cover, even in the most stressing of situations. As we’ve seen in films like Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005), this cover can go so deep as to keep an individual’s spouse in the dark as to the true nature of their employment. Of course, as we also saw in that movie, once covers are compromised, action ensues in the most extreme fashion possible. Even if a spy’s spouse or significant other isn’t a spy, like in RED (2010), then there’s likely to be a greater chance that said spy would need to protect themselves and their loved ones should anything go wrong. Obviously, when things go wrong with a spy, they can go wrong in a big way. There’s a reason these action spies are usually off globetrotting since the fate of the world is often in their capable hands.

Shortly after being rescued from North Korea, Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) admits to her boyfriend that she is actually a CIA agent. Regardless of this, the two of them get married shortly afterward and live happily until two years later when a Russian agent arrives at the CIA and is interrogated by Salt. He tells her about a group of Russian sleeper agents and that she is one of them. Since his testimony is proven correct by a lie detector, Salt needs to immediately escape the CIA compound and head into hiding. Upon learning her husband is kidnapped, she decides to carry out the mission of her sleeper-agent self, killing the Russian President in the process. With her loyalty to the Russians now confirmed, she is given her next assignment: kill the U.S. President. When one of her CIA colleagues reveals himself to be another of the sleeper agents, Salt reveals her actions are a ruse and that she is still loyal to the U.S.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 exciting espionage agents

Advertisements

#308. One-eyed Villains

What is it about one-eyed villains that make them so intimidating? Maybe it has to do with their connection to the brutal and merciless pirates who often wore eyepatches (although not necessarily because their eye was damaged). While there have been a number of protagonists who have also sported the one-eye motif, but it merely enforces the tough and unstoppable stereotype. Even if most of these characters wear eye patches to cover their damaged eye, the antagonists who go without them end up being that much more intimidating. It’s almost like they wear their defective vision as a badge of honor, showing that it will take much more than a simple flesh wound to stop them from whatever they put their mind to. Perhaps these villains are a metaphor for the singular vision they hold, staying focused on one thing and one thing only. This week’s two films feature one-eyed villains.

Casino RoyaleCasino Royale
Year: 2006
Rating: PG-13
Length: 144 minutes / 2.4 hours

I would be amiss if I did not mention one of the most iconic one-eyed villains ever: Ernst Stavro Blofeld. This villain was not only a key antagonist of the James Bond series, but he has created a number of tropes as well, the most notable parody of them being Dr. Evil (Michael Myers) from the Austin Powers series. Despite his damaged eye only appearing in a few films, Blofeld as a villain appeared in From Russia with Love (1963), Thunderball (1965), You Only Live Twice (1967), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), For Your Eyes Only (1981), and Spectre (2015). The latter of these films actually shows the incident where he loses his eye, mainly because the Daniel Craig James Bond films are seen as a prequel series. Of course, before they got to Blofeld, there was Le Chiffre in Casino Royale (2006).

Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) earned his considerable wealth through a number of unscrupulous dealings in the underworld. From funding terrorism to insider trading, eventually, the leadership of MI-6 takes notice. After unknowingly foiling a short-sell strategy Le Chiffre was using to fund a Ugandan warlord, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is sent to Montenegro to participate in a high-stakes Texas hold ‘em tournament that Le Chiffre decided to put on to recoup his losses. In terms of poker faces, Le Chiffre has one of the better ones, even despite having haemolacria in his left eye, which causes him to cry blood. After losing a significant amount of money to Bond, Le Chiffre eventually captures the British secret agent and tries to torture the bank account numbers out of him, but to no avail. When the rescue party comes to get Bond, Le Chiffre is killed in the process. However, his influences within MI-6 start to show well after his death.

Gangs of New YorkGangs of New York
Year: 2002
Rating: R
Length: 167 minutes / 2.78 hours

While wearing an eyepatch can give an intimidation factor to a character, I’ve found that the most interesting characters are the ones who are hiding something underneath that small piece of fabric. From the protagonist of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the antagonist of King Bradley from Fullmetal Alchemist, their patches covered up the secrets emblazoned on their eyes. I almost wish that there were more characters like this. When it comes to replacing a damaged eye, filling it with a symbol creates a character with a lot more depth than just someone who happens to be wearing an eyepatch. In fact, the best example of a character like this is none other than “Bill the Butcher” from Gangs of New York (2002). He has nothing to hide except his almost insane devotion to his country, and he wears it with pride on his left eye.

William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) leads a group of Americans who call themselves “The Natives” in a gang war against a recent influx of Irish immigrants in the area of Lower Manhattan known as “Five Points.” He is fiercely nationalistic, even to the point of having a glass eye emblazoned with an American eagle set in his left eye socket. Despite having killed Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), the leader of the “Dead Rabbits,” sixteen years ago, Bill finds that some of the Irish immigrants start to get out of line again when a man merely known as Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives in New York. Eventually, Bill learns that Amsterdam is the son of Priest Vallon, and the cycle of gang wars reaches its climax once again, but this time with a much different outcome for Bill than the one that happened years ago.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 vision-impaired villains

#305. Letters

The individual building blocks of any language are letters. These letters can be combined into words, which in turn can be transformed into sentences. The process continues on and on until you’re left with a story of saga-like proportions. But sometimes individual letters carry certain connotations just by themselves. We use letters to help classify objects, actions, and quality. In certain circles, letters are used to form acronyms, their singular purpose being to shorten a complex topic like a Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus into something simple to understand like SCUBA. Some films even use letters as a way to simplify their characters or premise. These atoms of language can be powerful and are often used to condense large subjects into simple ideas. This week’s two films focus on single letters.

V for Vendetta
Year: 2005
Rating: R
Length: 132 minutes / 2.2 hours

Franchises like Men in Black and James Bond often use single letters to identify their characters. When your cast isn’t that large, it can be easy to identify someone as J, K, M, Q, or Z. Similarly, whole films have been made about people with a single letter identifying them, such as George W. Bush in Oliver Stone’s W. (2008). Of course, Stone wasn’t the first to use a single letter to define a political film, as the foreign film, Z (1969), stood for the protesters’ dissent of the Grecian government. Sometimes these single letters can stand for more sinister actions as well. M (1931) and Dial M for Murder (1954) both use this singular letter to represent the killing of another person. In V for Vendetta (2006), we find all the political intrigue, murder, and personal identification is wrapped up in a single character who goes by the name of “V.”

Not only does V (Hugo Weaving) stand for the vendetta against the people who did him wrong, he also stands for the Roman Numeral for “five,” which is the day in November associated with Guy Fawkes Day. In aligning himself with the political ideologies of the man who attempted to blow up parliament, he has taken up the mask of the revolutionary in an attempt to finish what was started centuries ago. He has seen the politics of England become much more totalitarian due to the influences of the people who locked him away in a research facility and now he wants to give the people a voice once again. Pulling the strings on an already high-strung society, he sets dominoes in motion that will help topple the leadership of this oppressive regime. In one, last statement about the power of a symbol, V manages to accomplish everything he intended.

The A-TeamThe A-Team
Year: 2010
Rating: PG-13
Length: 117 minutes / 1.95 hours

When I was a child, there was one particular book that confused me. It was filled with pictures and strings of letters, but not words. It wasn’t until I read the individual letters out loud that I understood these letters were actually words. “I C A B” suddenly transformed into “I see a bee.” This wordplay is what leads us to such films as Bee Movie (2007), which is itself a pun on the idea of a B-movie. Of course, when letters are associated with quality, the earlier it appears in the alphabet, the better. We all want an “A” in school, to buy “Grade A” produce, and just to generally gave the best of something. Now, an “A” can also stand for other things, like in the modern adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Easy A (2010). But, for the most part, when we want the highest quality, we’ll go with the “A.”

Army Rangers, Hannibal (Liam Neeson), Face (Bradley Cooper), B.A. Baracus (Quitnon Jackson), and Murdock (Sharlto Copley) met in Mexico through a series of events that eventually led to the death of rebel General Javier Tuco (Yul Vazquez). This team of four men eventually wound up in Iraq, where they were tasked to complete a black ops mission to retrieve some U.S. Treasury plates from the insurgent regime. While they were successful, they were framed and court-martialed, winding up in a separate prison. After successfully escaping from each of their prisons, they work together to uncover the man who set them up. Through an elaborate ruse, they get self-proclaimed CIA operative Lynch (Patrick Wilson) to admit that the stole the plates. While the true Agent Lynch (Jon Hamm) comes to arrest the fake Lynch, the four men are taken back to prison, only to easily escape again and form “The A-Team.”

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 single letter stories

#241. James Bond

No name is more ubiquitous with the spy-film genre than that of James Bond. Based on the series of novels by Ian Fleming, this British secret agent has had a long career in both print and film. As of this post, there have been 24 different Bond movies with six different actors portraying the iconic Agent 007. While many have their opinions on the different films and actors, one thing remains true: James Bond is an easily recognizable franchise. From 1962 to today, we’ve seen a variety of fantastical gadgets and megalomaniacal villains give us a veritable history of world politics and technological advancements. The world of James Bond reflects a mirror onto our own society, only tinged with beautiful women, vodka martinis, and ever-present danger. This week’s two films highlight the origins of James Bond and how far he’s come since then.

SkyfallSkyfall
Year: 2012
Rating: PG-13
Length: 143 minutes / 2.38 hours

With four films to his name, Daniel Craig has tied with Pierce Brosnan for the number of films he’s portrayed James Bond. Of course, with George Lazenby’s single film and Timothy Dalton’s two, having four under his belt has cemented Craig’s place in Bond history. Starting in 2006 with Casino Royale, the choice of Daniel Craig for the role of James Bond was questioned, mainly due to his lighter hair and eyes. Most knew Bond as a suave, tall, dark, and handsome Englishman. Fortunately, the step up in action and fight sequences helped to redeem Craig and prove that he was right for the part. At the very least, the new Casino Royale was a victory for the franchise, helping us all forget the campy 1960’s version. The next decade also saw Craig as Bond in Quantum of Solace (2008) and Spectre (2015). However, it is my humble opinion that Skyfall (2012) was the best Bond film to date.

After being accidentally shot off a train in Istanbul by his partner, Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), the presumed-dead James Bond (Daniel Craig) has been enjoying a life of retirement on a tropical island. However, when he sees a news story about a terrorist bombing of MI-6, he heads home to England to help catch the perpetrator. Despite not being fit for service, M (Judi Dench) agrees to let him take the case. Following the trail from Shanghai to Macau, he eventually finds himself on an abandoned island off the coast of Macau where he meets formerly abandoned agent Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). The now-captured Raoul uses his cyber-terrorist skills to break out of MI-6 and hunt M down for his revenge. Fortunately, Bond takes her to his family estate of Skyfall, where they successfully defeat Silva and his men, but not without some sacrifice.

GoldfingerGoldfinger
Year: 1964
Rating: Approved
Length: 110 minutes / 1.83 hours

The one who started it all, Sean Connery helped define what it meant to be Bond on film. With six films to his name (only one short from tying his successor, Roger Moore), Connery even came back to the role after George Lazenby’s portrayal in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). Perhaps due to having Fleming’s source material for screenplays, Bond films were a regular occurrence in the 1960’s and 1970’s, one being released every two years or less. Despite many people’s opinion that Sean Connery is the only true Bond, it took him a while to warm into the role. Much like I stated earlier that Skyfall was Daniel Craig’s best Bond film (his third), Goldfinger (1964) is considered to be the best Bond film ever made and was Connery’s third time in the role. This classic introduced the world to many iconic situations, lines, and characters that have since been parodied many times.

Fresh off a job in Latin America, James Bond (Sean Connery) is quickly thrust into his next assignment in Miami. While at a resort on Miami Beach, he runs across his target, Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe), and causes the cheating gambler to lose at gin rummy. In retaliation, Goldfinger’s henchman, Oddjob (Harold Sakata) knocks out Bond and kills Goldfinger’s accomplice, Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton), by covering her in gold paint. Sneaking into Goldfinger’s plant, Bond discovers how the villain’s gold is smuggled from place to place, but also overhears something about “Operation Grand Slam”. It turns out that Goldfinger wants to detonate a nuclear device in Fort Knox, thus making him the owner of the only useful gold in the world for the next six decades. Assisting him with this venture is Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman), who Bond eventually gets to help foil Goldfinger’s dastardly plan.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 best Bond movies