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Spy vs. Spy: ‘Mission Impossible’ and ‘Tinker Tailor’

December 14, 2011

Bruce Fretts: Who plays the spy game better: Yanks or Brits? I’m a notorious Anglophobe, so I invited a well-known Anglophile—Nancy Bilyeau, author of the forthcoming 16th century spy thriller The Crown—to balance me out for a review of the American-centric Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and the veddy British Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. You saw them back-to-back yesterday, Nancy. Did either one leave you shaken or stirred?

Nancy: History was made yesterday. Bruce. For the first time since you’ve asked me to see movies with you for blogging/pop-culture moaning purposes, I had a good time!

Bruce: Considering the movies we’ve seen together before—Immortals, Conan the Barbarian and Three Musketeers—I’d say that’s faint praise.

Nancy: True, I had nowhere to go but up. But the spy genre has so much more life in it that I expected!

Bruce: I guess it depends on what you’re in the mood for—Sleepytime Tea like Tinker Tailor or Red Bull like Mission Impossible.

Nancy: I go both ways, Bruce.

Bruce: I thought that was just a rumor after an EW Christmas party in the ’90s…

Nancy: The rumors are never true. So you didn’t like Tinker Tailor?

Bruce: No, I liked it very much—it’s just a wildly different tone than MI. I hadn’t read the John Le Carre novel, so I knew I had to pay attention to every detail or I’d get hopelessly lost. I was on the edge of my seat, while our Cranky pal Bret Watson nodded off in the seat next to me.

Nancy: I have read it twice, so I never got lost. I went to a 12:30 matinee on the Upper West Side, and I was the youngest person there; most people arrived on canes. In the ladies’ room afterwards, there was elder rage at how confused they were. But they made a movie that is just like the experience of reading Le Carre! He withholds, he misdirects, he obfuscates. But with beautiful prose filled with dread.

Bruce: They made it into a five-hour miniseries with Alec Guinness in the ’70s, but condensed the plot into a two-hour film this time. It covered a lot of ground, but individual scenes were deliberately paced, befitting the advanced age of many of the characters as well as the audience members.

Nancy: There was a flaw in this movie. In the miniseries you got to know the British spies code-named Tinker, Tailor, etc.. They were individuals, and you actually wondered who was the high-level Soviet agent. In this movie, they all blurred. There wasn’t time for characterization.

Bruce: They cast great actors as the suspects, then weren’t able to flesh them out. But Gary Oldman was magnificent as Smiley, the senior agent charged with ferreting out the mole, if that’s not a mixed rodent metaphor. I loved how he embraced his age—Oldman isn’t afraid of playing an old man. He even has one stray gray eyebrow through the movie. In real life, he’s only four years older than Tom Cruise, who’s desperately trying to hold on to his youth in MI.

Nancy: Oldman was great. John Hurt, and Tom Hardy as the trashy spy who seduces Irina. There has to be an Irina, Bruce. That sex scene was hotter than the toned bodies in MI. And the cobbled streets! Drinking coffee in Eastern European cafes! Everyone is smoking. Everyone is bisexual. It was Cold War Porn! I was in ecstasy.

Bruce: I liked how Tinker Tailor confirmed my suspicion that most British men are secretly bisexual, if not gay. Of course, I just tell myself that so I’ll feel better about the fact that they’re so much wittier and more charming than I.

Nancy: Aw, Bruce. If you had an accent like theirs, you would clean up.

Bruce: Maybe I should try faking one, but I’m afraid I’d end up sounding like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.

Nancy: I do have to wonder: Why make Tinker Tailor now? It’s so much a product of the East/West spy maneuvers of the Cold War. I think it’s because Russian villains are so damn fun. Terrorism today, not so much.

Bruce: I loved how subtle Tinker Tailor was—even the revelation of the characters’ sexuality is done with the mere lift of an eyebrow, or a single tear streaming down. MI is the opposite of subtle, but it’s a fun ride. Interesting how both films use Russians as bad guys and feature scenes where spies have to infiltrate a file room to snag intel. But whereas Tinker Tailor does it with quiet Hitchcockian suspense, MI ends the sequence by blowing up the Kremlin.

Nancy: I went into this thinking okay, with Tinker Tailor I’ll have a smart movie followed by dumbo American comic-book stuff. But I really liked MI. This director, Brad Bird, is just off-the-charts talented at making a movie like this.

Bruce: He was a smart choice to revitalize the franchise—he’s previously only done animated films like The Incredibles and The Iron Giant, and MI is nothing if not a live-action cartoon.

Nancy: He has so much energy and humor. I could feel that he loved doing this. So many times when you see a big popcorn movie, I just have this vibe of “It’s paycheck time.” This was so pleasurable.

Bruce: Cruise was also smart to surround himself with appealing actors like Simon Pegg, Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner as his team members. I was a little disappointed by the villains, though—they were such generic Russkies, they might as well have cast Yakov Smirnoff.

Nancy: The villains were more confusing that the murkier aspects of Tinker Tailor. Although I am waiting for your drool-cup comments over the blond female assassin…

Bruce: Her catfight with Patton was pretty hot. More like a sex-kitten fight.

Nancy: This was like a really great Bond film. They haven’t been this much fun since before the Berlin Wall came down. I am not one of the Daniel Craig converts. I don’t want to see someone’s crotch being electrocuted. I want to see spies climbing the world’s highest building in Dubai!

Bruce: Despite its all-American blow-’em-up mentality, it felt like the movie tried too hard to be “international” and appeal to as many foreign markets as possible. There are scenes in India and Budapest as well as Moscow and Dubai. When the game-show host from Slumdog Millionaire suddenly shows up, I thought the film was going to morph into a Bollywood musical.

Nancy: Oh, but he was fun. I loved his masochist playboy. This is an important part of the international thriller—it has to be international. And we must have a moment of reverence for Simon Pegg. I am sort of in love with him.

Bruce: He brings a much-needed sense of humor to the proceedings. Tinker Tailor doesn’t have any real comic relief, but that just keeps the tension high.

Nancy: I don’t know if you’d want giggles in the Russian interrogation room.

Bruce: I loved how low-tech everything in Tinker Tailor was, since it was set in the early ’70s. MI just has to invent a new gadget to get out of any situation. I got a little confused when Renner had to literally jump inside a computer and hover to stop a nuclear missile. Although I appreciated how it was a visual callback to Cruise’s famous hovering scene in MI1.

Nancy: Renner seemed a little self-conscious to me.

Bruce: He’s an interesting actor—you can’t take your eyes off him. But I’m not sure he’s cut out to be an action hero. It felt like a little bit of a sellout after his Oscar-nominated roles in The Hurt Locker and The Town, but you can’t blame the guy, who’s been kicking around Hollywood for years, for wanting a big blockbuster paycheck. If they’re really considering turning over the franchise to him, though, I’m not sure he made the sale. His heart didn’t seem in it.

Nancy: British actors like Simon Pegg know how to bring it and sell the part but with a light touch. Ah, you see? I can’t help the Angophile within from taking over.

Bruce: I’m shocked you’ve gone this long without mentioning Colin Firth in Tinker.

Nancy: Oh I was so glad that Colin Firth got to be a womanizer and not be the cheated-on man like in The English Patient. Or the stammering king either. He was a bad boy. I liked it.

Bruce: It seemed a little odd for Firth to take a supporting role after his Oscar-winning lead performance in The King’s Speech. But he’s very good here.

Nancy: He was excellent. Everyone was.

Bruce: And I love Toby Jones, as one of the other suspects. I maintain that if they ever make a live-action version of Pinky and the Brain, he must play the brain. And Brad Bird must direct it. Jones doesn’t have a forehead—he’s got an eight-head.

Nancy: Yes, he is… different.

Bruce: And how about Benedict Cumberbatch? What a great name. It doesn’t get more British than that.

Nancy: Well it did make me feel a trifle sad that Gary Oldman, my beloved Sid Vicious and Dracula, had to hire out the action stuff to young Benedict. But what can you do?

Bruce: So the final verdict is, both movies are good, just different. If you experience the adrenaline rush of MI first, though, Tinker Tailor might seem like a slow-paced letdown. Here’s your mission, if you choose to accept it, readers: See both movies, but catch Tinker Tailor first. This blog will self-destruct in five seconds…

Do you prefer your spy movies British or American? Don’t keep your comments undercover!

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14 Comments
  1. Want to hear a secret? Mission Impossible is all the rage. Ever since the Mission Impossible series of movies, the secret agent genre has seen a revival. James Bond had become dead and dull, no one had thought of making Frederick Forsythe’s Bourne series into movies yet and there was no action in the secret agent game. But ever since Tom Cruise toned up and put on a wireless headset, a tight black tee and slick smile, secret agent movies are everywhere. Spies never had it so good. And people love it – for teenagers and adults, the secret agent Mission Impossible lifestyle is the definition of cool.
    Mark

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