Fact: Austin Powers would destroy Ethan Hunt, even on a Mojoless day!
Hollywood has so washed up the idea of being a spy that one now associates espionage with tough, super-macho, almost emotionless guys whose way of spying is blowing up cars, shooting everywhere, fighting 24/7 and doing any number of physical stunts. But you know what a secret agent does? They spy.
The good news
There is a series that stands out and elevates the genre to the highest level: Apple TV’s Slow Horses: Here is something interesting and with a different angle: with Gary Oldman in a role completely opposite to George Smiley (but I will put my teeth into this later) he commands a team of failed agents, run down, destined to languish; Oldman’s character, Jackson Lamb, is as enigmatic as he is drunk and brilliant and disastrous, completing a deluxe trio with Jack Lowden (River Cartwright) and Kristin Scott Thomas (Diana Taverner). This team of losers from MI5 generates unstoppable levels of tension, propelled by a successful sense of black humor and a plot that has subplots that sometimes exceed the main story. This is being a spy (dysfunctional and a bit crazy, but a spy). I know what I’m talking about, I was a spy once. Although now they call it being a Stalker.
The bad news
But Slow Horses is an exceptional case. If we go to the big audiences with the big actors, the big budgets and the big… Well, everything is big, this is where the madness begins.
I am going to put some examples on the table about the caricatural conception that espionage is now held. And here I go with a real jab at hemorrhoids: XXX (not porn but the movie series). Ladies, gentlemen and the rest of the genres: How can you forget Vin Diesel trying to be a spy? His character Xander Cage (although I admit that the name does sound like a porn actor) just needed to talk about the importance of “Family” for this to be a copy of I don’t know, of the last three, four, five installments of The Fast and The Furious.
I don’t know who or how that guy spied on, what I do know is that he didn’t even know what it was like to be a spy because he was just one of these extreme sports frantics, addicted to adrenaline (and maybe steroids) who jumped mall over the place, he was a pilot, he fought… Well, this was such a bad idea that they obviously made two more movies. Who would be the main spy in the second (XXX: State of the Union, 2005)? Just Straight Outta Compton came da Ice Cube himself to bring spying to the ghetto. This script was so bad that even Vin Diesel said no way! But Vin would return for a third and tremendously terrible movie: XXX: Return of Xander Cage (2017). Now, recalling a bit, how do I pay to see something with such a title?
Although the following seems untrue, I swear it’s real: I’ve seen all the Mission: Impossible movies a number of times. But right now, as I write this article, I have no idea what Tom Cruise’s name is, that is, his character. Now I’m googling and ahhh, sure, the guy’s name is Ethan Hunt. Yes, I didn’t even remotely remember what his name was… And that’s one of the problems, at least for me, in this saga: My real Mission: Impossible was to remember the main character’s name. What a fiasco.
The thing with Ethan Hunt is that there is no Ethan Hunt. It’s Tom Cruise and that’s it. The character should be called Tom Cruise and that would make things easier. Is there a difference between the two? I challenge you to tell me any. They’re both boring, they both want to save the world (one apparently being a spy and the other with Scientology) because if they don’t maybe their ego won’t let them sleep well or they won’t have sex with some goddess. I remember back in 2015 when Tom was so in love with Katie Holmes that he ended up jumping on Oprah’s couch and I’m like yup, that’s something Ethan Hunt would have done to dodge a missile.
And again, even if Ethan Cruise wears fake masks, an alias or whatever: he never strays from being the stereotype of an action hero and not a spy. Because it turns out that the job of a CIA agent (perhaps I should remember that CIA stands for Central Intelligence Agency means?) has a lot to do with, precisely, intelligence… and in reality it has nothing to do with jumping out of planes or climbing buildings… It’s about desk stuff, meetings and lots of highly complex conversations involving international security issues… which is very boring for Ethan Cruise.
Correct me if I’m wrong but since I’ve been alive I’ve never heard anyone say; Bro, did you see that CIA agent who yesterday jumped off the building in front of everyone? Such a cool guy, right?
The Craig Massacre
And now the man who killed James Bond: hello, Daniel Craig. I know many of you love this guy and you love James Bond and the truth is that…I was going to say that I understand you, but the truth is that I don’t. Yes, yes, Daniel Craig is a hunk, women would cut off a nipple just to give it to him. Not to take that away from Craig: the guy isn’t ugly (although I say he is). But without going into the already boring comparisons of which actor has been the best James Bond (the truth is that all films border on ridiculous), at least the character as such could be associated with the performance of the preceding actors.
And then Daniel Craig came along. Cast Craig in Cowboys & Aliens, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Knives Out and even as the uncredited Stormtrooper JB-007 (007, really?) in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens and in any of his other movies, and it is exactly the same: The same flat, emotionless gaze. His rigidity. The lack of showing a wide spectrum of adaptability. It’s like seeing a walking statue that only changes its environment.
And if James Bond had his faults (starting because he doesn’t even do what a spy does) Daniel Craig destroyed the idea of the character to join the club of guys like Vin Diesel, Arnold Schwarzenegger Mr. I can do everything, Tom Cruise. But the era of Daniel Craig was of an action movie saga…that has nothing to do with THE Bond, James Bond.
Austin Powers Prophecies
The year is 1997 and the most British, most promiscuous, most flamboyant, most charismatic, brilliant, stupid and with the worst teeth of all secret agent, Austin Powers awakens from his cryostasis sleep to face his nemesis and one of the most evil villains of all time: Dr. Evil.
That was the beginning of what I consider one of the greatest creative successes in the history of cinema. why? Because Mike Myers managed to create a character so deranged that in one way or another it would have an impact on what we now understand (in cinematic terms) as a spy. And it did so by making fun of all the spy archetypes in such an over-the-top way that it destroyed these archetypes.
It was an insane declaration of principles, something like: you have praised and adored that static, pompous martini drinker, who for some reason had such a crazy ego that he had to repeat his last name Bond, twice, like it was harder to understand than a quantum equation….and the rest of his copies, so get ready because I’m going to piss on all that… while I shagged you out!
I have that image in my head: Ethan Hunt challenges Austin but when he sees him swinging Soul Bossa Nova he doesn’t know what to do, then in the middle of what could be a tremendous battle, Mini-Me jumps out of a hole and Hunt runs off in terror after seeing such a creature.
But the real legacy of (which Myers surely never imagined, or maybe he did) is that in some way his creation affected the idea of the super-exaggeration of what a spy does. And today, when we see shows like Citadel or even the acclaimed Mission: Impossible movies, it’s impossible to deny that the ridiculous Mojo of the great Austin Powers is still present, foolishly bathing the profession of secret agents who Hollywood currently portrays as jugglers from a crazy-ass circus.
From le Carré to La réalité
But there was a man who made things right. David John Moore Cornwell, aka John le Carré. His spy novels are perfection. The reason: he himself was a British intelligence agent. I mean, this guy knew what he was writing like no one else.
Among his extensive work, his Smiley Versus Karla trilogy: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honorable Schoolboy and the haunting Smiley’s People stand out as the best that has been written in the genre.
But we must talk about their adaptations to the screen and what for me has been a gigantic and glorious discovery.
Well, of course I saw Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with Gary Oldman at the top of his game. And from that moment on, it seemed like the perfect spy movie. The settings. The art direction. The tension. The silences. Everything seemed masterful to me, even the final scene with the semi-disco version that Julio Iglesias made of the song “La Mer” by Charles Trenet’s.
But then something happened that destroyed how I felt about that film: I got to watch (I invite you to watch it too) the miniseries that the BBC made of both Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) and the third book in the trilogy: Smiley’s People, with the old Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) giving a master class on playing a spy as George Smiley. And this is when it all looks and feels real. Forget the minimalist-artistic decorations. Here are real people, in real little offices, walking down real streets, acting as awkwardly as we humans do in our day-to-day lives.
And excuse me Mr. Gary Oldman, but Obi-Wan’s George Smiley is the one that le Carré wrote. A chubby guy who (and here the most important thing about the spies) goes completely unnoticed wherever he is standing. THAT is being a spy. A spy does not say his last name twice… not once…Guinness gives a depth to the character that one even smells the smoke of his cigarettes.
The difference between the two adaptations is summed up in this: the 2011 one feels like a great movie. The 1979 miniseries feels and terrifies as if you were there, in the middle of the tension between the Russians and the British.
But ultimately my disappointment with the 2011 version came in the strangest of ways. I watched the film again and this time I couldn’t get past the first scene, the first line of dialogue, when the head of British intelligence, “Control” (John Hurt) quietly opens the door of his house to receive one of his trusted men, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) and we’re talking about the espionage elite, super agents, man! and Control asks him the most stupid question: “You weren’t followed?”
I don’t know what sort of answer he was expecting: Yes, of course, the Russians are there around the corner. Or even worse: Yeah, by some spy who wanted to shag me.
But at that moment I knew: I had lost my Mojo.