Bourne, Bond and the Evolution of the Modern Spy Movie

For most people, the phrase ‘spy movie’ may evoke images of tailored suits, fast cars and even faster women. For over half a century, the character of James Bond has dominated the spy film landscape and become synonymous with our collective understanding of the role of the secret agent.

The archetypal man’s man, Bond has influenced pop culture perhaps more than any other figure in modern fiction. But along the way, he became more akin to the superheroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – a larger-than-life fantasy figure whose actions more than pushed the envelope of plausibility. The franchise traded character development for bigger explosions and flashier set-pieces, leaving the character a caricature of the man first envisioned in the works of Ian Fleming.


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Yet since the return of the character in 2006’s acclaimed Casino Royale, the portrayal of Bond has moved away from the arch glamour of the early years towards a more-focused character study that questions the relevance of the super spy in the world of modern espionage.

Starring Daniel Craig as the famous MI6 agent, the film moved away from the patent silliness of the late Brosnan Bond era, which culminated in the disastrous Die Another Day in 2002, and towards a more personal story of revenge and redemption. Influenced by the kinetic action and character-driven narrative of the Bourne franchise, Casino Royale presented a grittier, stripped-down take on a character previously best known for his witty quips and outrageous exploits.

ap sony pics francois duhamel james bondSpectre (2015)

This continued with the underwhelming Quantum of Solace in 2008, as well as 2012’s Skyfall, which also challenged the relevance and expendability of the ageing ‘blunt instrument’ Bond in the contemporary technological landscape.

Spectre, the latest in the franchise and likely Craig’s last appearance as Bond, further explores this theme, as Bond is suspended from duty and sees his role supplanted by a global surveillance and intelligence program better equipped to deal with the complexities of counter-intelligence.

Naturally Bond eventually proves his worth, but the film is significant for the continued significance placed on Bond’s backstory and the personal journey he has undertaken since Casino Royale, a far cry from the episodic nature of previous Bond films.

Whilst the transformation of the character of Bond reflects a larger shift in the nature of modern espionage and audience expectations, it is also mirrored in the proliferation of character-driven spy stories that now dominate the genre.

tinker tailor soldier spy
Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (2011)

The works of John le Carre, which arguably came to mainstream prominence following the success of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy in 2011, draw on the author’s own experiences working in British intelligence and present a more grounded, realistic glimpse of the complexities of spy-work.

In the 2016 film Our Kind of Traitor, based on le Carre’s novel of the same name, Ewan McGregor plays a mild-mannered poetics professor thrown into the dangerous world of organised crime and political corruption thanks to a chance encounter with a Russian mobster.

His character, Perry, and his wife Gail, played by Naomi Harris (Moneypenny in the Bond films) are forced to act as intermediaries between the mobster and a British intelligence organisation, as they struggle with marital problems of their own. The film is characteristic of le Carre’s novels, which often feature a relative everyman who find themselves embroiled in a geopolitical conflict beyond their control.

In the 2016 mini-series The Night Manager, we follow Jonathan Pine (played by Tom Hiddleston), a debonair hotel manager and ex-solider thrust into the middle of an illegal arms deal and intelligence operation when working at a Cairo hotel.

We follow Jonathan as he infiltrates Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie)’s criminal enterprise in the face of escalating danger and political intrigue. As with Our Kind of Traitor, the series is noticeably lacking on action set-pieces and relies instead on the viewer’s connection to the characters to generate tension.

Whilst the show plays much like Hiddleston’s six-hour Bond audition tape, complete with the requisite stylish threads, femme fatales and globe-trotting escapades, it offers a more slow-burning approach to spy storytelling, trading action-heavy set-pieces for a character-driven narrative that puts the viewer firmly in the shoes of Hiddleston’s Pine.

eye in the sky article
Eye in the Sky (2015)

The 2016 film Eye in the Sky offers a tense portrayal of drone-based warfare and the government bureaucracy that accompanies it. We follow the almost real-time surveillance of a group of wanted terrorists who have surfaced in Nairobi, Kenya from the perspectives of those at almost every level of the relevant military and government agencies, from Aaron Paul’s drone pilot in Nevada to Alan Rickman’s British general.

The film cleverly draws tension from the problematic decision-making process, rife with political self-interest and accountability and provides a riveting insight into the moral implications of drone warfare.

mission impossible rogue nation
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015)

Like the eponymous SPECTRE organisation of the latest Bond film, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation finds IMF agent Ethan Hunt on the trail of a mysterious terrorist group Syndicate, after his own organisation is disbanded by the CIA.

In a world where citizens should have legitimate concerns over the reach of government surveillance and their own personal privacy, Rogue Nation continues the conversation on the role of lone agents in modern espionage and the ramifications of modern surveillance technology.

holds the hand of gun
Jason Bourne (2016)

Jason Bourne, the latest in the Bourne franchise and the return of Matt Damon as the titular character, hits cinemas later this month and looks set to continue the trend of character-driven spy films, having helped revolutionise the genre with the thrilling Bourne Identity in 2002.

Whilst the aforementioned films will likely never hold a candle to the box office might of the Bond franchise, it seems regardless of who inherits the mantle from Daniel Craig that the age of the sixties super-spy is at an end.

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