How to spot an undercover agent (according to the movies)

To salute the release of American Ultra, we hunt down the subtle ways to spot an undercover agent on the big screen...

American Ultra – out in UK cinemas tomorrow – sees Jesse Eisenberg play a strung-out, stoner slacker, who as it happens is also a deep cover agent trained to be a lethal killing machine by the US government. And when he’s marked for extermination, he stops getting high, and starts kicking ass and taking names.

From character pieces about the nature of identity to ludicrous third act reveals, the idea of someone going deep undercover has been a go-to trope in films for a very long time. But what if you are worried that someone around you could secretly be a deep cover agent? If so, here are some tips from the movies to spot if someone isn’t quite on the level.

They dress sharp

There is something about secret government agencies that seem to imply they spend a lot of money on their sartorial policies. Look at Men In Black. If you’re dealing with an impending alien takeover of the Earth on a weekly basis, would such a strict dress code be that high in priorities? And even machines are not immune to the charms of some well dressed goons. The Matrix might be a soulless computer hive mind, but it still makes sure Agent Smith and his lackeys are all suited and booted.

They keep telling the same three stories

You know how you know that one guy, who only has three anecdotes that everyone has already heard a million times, but they still keep telling them over and over again? Well maybe they are actually like Tim Roth in Reservoir Dogs, who has his one story about a fictional drug deal that he learns perfectly so that he seems legit. Maybe they’re doing that. Maybe that’s his cover. Or maybe they really are just that boring.

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They are really into surfing and/or illegal street racing

So if you’re a group of bank robbing surfers, and a guy wants to join your gang, but he’s also really, really into surfing, don’t you think that’s slightly too much of a coincidence? Like maybe he’s actually an FBI agent who’s just learnt a lot about surfing really quickly so that he can make friends with you? Have you not seen Point Break? Also worth bearing in mind if someone like Paul Walker approaches you out of the blue to tell you how much he loves street racing.

They have really bad taste in sandwiches

Another clanger that the late Paul Walker drops in the original The Fast And The Furious is that he keeps eating from the sandwich shop that Vin Diesel’s sister works at.

Despite constantly saying that the sandwiches are bad, he keeps eating there. At least pretend to like them. He might as well wear a badge saying ‘I am an undercover cop trying to infiltrate your brother’s DVD player stealing gang.’ Or maybe he just fancies Jordana Brewster.

They are in in high school, despite clearly being in their late 20s and early 30s

If 32 year-old hunky Hollywood star Channing Tatum and 29 year-old hunky in a different way Hollywood star Jonah Hill turn up in your class, there’s a good chance they are on some sort of undercover mission. Then again, 27 year-old Dave Franco was a legit student at that school, so we can see how they would have fitted in. Also be on the look out for a clearly adult Drew Barrymore, she might be writing a story on you. And she may also fall in love with your English teacher.

They keep making origami

In John Woo’s Hong Kong classic Hard Boiled (aka possibly the greatest action movie ever made), Tony Leung plays a cop who’s deep, deep undercover in the triads. He has to do some pretty horrible stuff not to blow his cover, and as part of coming to terms with that, he makes a little origami crane for every person he has killed. So if one of your guys spends a lot of time melancholically folding paper whilst listening to downtempo jazz, be suspicious. And if you need further proof, the other notable film that features folded paper animals as a key plot point is Blade Runner, and Deckard didn’t even know he was a replicant in that.

If two Paris Hilton-lookalikes actually look like rubber monsters, it is probably the Wayans brothers

There’s a good chance that any mysterious agents tracking you might use disguises. They might be convincing. They might, on the other hand, might be the Wayans brothers trying to disguise themselves as two vapid blonde socialites. Or maybe one of them has their head CGI’d onto a smaller body to pretend to be a child. These are all warning signs. Also, with the same logic, that crazy old woman might also be Martin Lawrence in a fat suit.

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They are in a rather routine occupation, but they are built like a superhero

Supply teachers come in all shapes and sizes. But it’s quite unusual for them to look like Austrian bodybuilding world champions. So if they do, there’s a good chance they might be an undercover cop. A ‘Kindergaten’ cop, if you will. Also see Snitch, a film based on a true story about an everyday working dad who goes undercover in the organised crime world to clear his son’s name. Only problem is it stars The Rock, and the idea of anyone with the looks, build and charisma of The Rock going successfully undercover is kind of ludicrous.

They are secretly an unstoppable badass

If there’s one thing the movies have taught us about the guys who go deep undercover, it’s that when bad stuff hits the fan, they can definitely handle themselves. In the sprawling The Raid 2, the incredible Iko Uwais takes out wave after wave of bad guys, whether its in a muddy prison yard or a crazy road chase. Or even more badass is Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises, who takes out several whilst as bare as nature ended, in the best naked Turkish bathhouse fight ever committed to film.

He’s wearing John Travolta’s face

Don’t trust him. It’s actually Nic Cage under there.

American Ultra arrives in UK cinemas on September 4th.