Imagine being an agent for the British Intelligence. You get to wave guns around, slide envelopes under doors, and say cool-sounding things like, “I have to go dark or I won’t get through,” or, “Qasim’s escape was orchestrated by someone at the very top,” or, “It isn’t the pub lunch that’s making you queasy”.
Okay, so that last one doesn’t sound quite so cool, but still: being a secret agent. It must be exciting, even if you wouldn’t necessarily know it from looking at the gloomy expressions of the ones in Spooks: The Greater Good. Mind you, I’d probably look a bit down-in-the-mouth if a dangerous terrorist had somehow slipped out of my custody while being ferried through London. This is the MI5 agent’s epitome of a bad day at the office.
Spooks: The Greater Good is, as you’re probably already aware, a big-screen continuation of the hit drama series of the same name, which ran on the BBC from 2002 to 2011. Like the series, The Greater Good follows MI5’s efforts to keep the population of our capital safe from wild-eyed terrorists, this time led by Qasim (Elyes Gabel), the bad guy who makes his daring escape from the Spooks in the opening reel.
When uncompromising Spooks stalwart Harry Pearce (Peter Firth) goes missing while on Qasim’s trail, fresh-faced recruit Holloway (Kit Harington) is despatched by his superiors to track the operative down. But with the threat of a terrorist attack looming and the facts surrounding Qasim’s escape still murky, Holloway begins to suspect that someone in a position of power may have helped the villain slip through MI5’s fingers.
Although taking in locations as exotic as Berlin and, er, Kent, Spooks: The Greater Good is largely set in London, and reads like a veritable tourist’s guide of popular destinations. The steel-grey skyline is captured in a series of loving helicopter shots, which give director Baharat Nalluri’s film a welcome hint of gloss. But the vistas can’t quite hide The Greater Good’s TV roots, with its procession of talking heads and exposition-heavy script.
The cast is quite good, though. Tim McInnerny appears as a stiff-collared MI5 boss. Tuppence Middleton plays a young agent who has her own reasons for retrieving Qasim. But the scenes of intrigue at MI5 headquarters are inert and flatly shot, with the actors’ looks of concern more akin to teenagers awaiting their GCSE results than the care-worn faces of Britain’s last line of defence.
The blandness extends to Kit Harington’s hero, who does a bit of parkour and fires off a pistol shot or two, but never really gets the chance to into his own as a compelling protagonist. Again, the boring cinematography is a part of the problem; the camera needs to let us in on the hero’s innermost thoughts during the dialogue-free moments, to create an air of paranoia and claustrophobia. There’s nothing in Spooks: The Greater Good that can hold a candle to a truly great British spy thriller like, say, The Ipcress File, which managed to bring nail-biting tension to something as low-key as a trip to the library.
The other problem is that The Greater Good’s makers can’t quite decide who its lead is. Is it Harington, as we’d been led to believe, or is it one of the other cast members who keeps popping up just as you think you’ve seen the last of them? (Hint: it’s the latter.)
Given the film’s big-screen status, The Greater Good doesn’t exactly push the boat out when it comes to stunts, either. One decent corridor fight scene and a bit involving motorbikes aside, The Greater Good is a surprisingly modest affair, and often feels like two episodes of the TV show strapped together rather than something you’d pay to see in your local fleapit.
The modest action scenes wouldn’t matter if the spy bits held up, but really, they don’t. Qasim the Terrorist should be the driving force behind the film, but his antics are repeatedly drowned out by a plot more interested in allegiances. Can Character A be trusted, or are they a double agent? Maybe they’re acting strangely to fool the terrorists, making them a triple agent. There are so many turnabouts like this that it eventually becomes difficult to really care who works for whom any more – especially when the characters who are supposed to be on the side of peace and anti-terrorism seem even more fanatical and unhinged than the bad guys.
None of this is to say that The Greater Good is a terrible film – had it been worse, it may have been more entertaining. Rather, it unfolds with a somewhat beige lack of conviction. I think the characters are all supposed to be behaving in the poker-faced way that we’d imagine responsible people to behave in a crisis, but the result is blandly mechanical than gritty and terse.
Then again, maybe this is the point of The Greater Good: it pretends to be a hard hitting thriller about people laying their lives on the line to protect the Great British public, but it’s really an unflattering portrait of the kind of madness required to become a spy – the kind of madness that leaves absolutely everyone uncertain of whom they can trust. Can you imagine going to work and being unsure whether the person sitting at the next desk is friendly, secretly wants to kill, you, is just pretending to want to kill you in order to fool the bad guys, or actually, plans to fool the bad guys while killing you anyway?
On second thoughts, maybe being a secret agent isn’t quite so cool after all.
Spooks: The Greater Good is out in UK cinemas on the 8th May.
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