I can’t say what it is about the current cultural climate that we’re fascinated with spies, but 2015 saw the release of no less than thirteen major spy movies (not to mention several more about assassins and the like). Some were comedies, some were deathly serious, some were rollicking adventures, but all involved government-sponsored spooks in one capacity or another. Perhaps in a politically complex world we long for the clear, simple delineation of Cold War-era us-vs.-them duality. Or perhaps we just like seeing super-agents doing cool stuff.
We here at Crave have seen all thirteen of the year’s spy movies, and, as is our wont in such matters, we have ranked them from worst to best. At least one of these movies can be considered among the best of the year, and one can easily be counted among the worst.
13. Taken 3
20th Century Fox
With the abysmal Taken 3, we see a once great morally irresponsible exploitation film like Taken reduced to ash. It is a lazy film, it is an incoherent film, it is a dull film. The story is forgettable, and the action is haphazard and cheap. Wow, is it bad. Liam Neeson seems bored by the series at this point, and often didn’t even bother with deploying his American accent. There are no good things about it.
12. Kingsman: The Secret Service
20th Century Fox
From a structural perspective, Kingsman is simple and even appealing. It’s essentially an R-rated spy version of Harry Potter; a young lad discovers and is inducted into a group of elite super-spy teens. The film wouldn’t be so bad were it not for two scenes of toxic moral reprehension. One, which takes entirely too much delight in violence, and another where a princess offers up a particular orifice as reward for a job well done. Yuck.
11. American Ultra
Some see American Ultra as the perfect love story. If you see co-dependency as being romantic, perhaps. This “comedy” about a stoner learning that he is a CIA tool could have played funny, but it is overscripted, and perhaps a little too pleased with its own cutesy self; I sense a lot of winking. This is was passes for wit when you’re 19 years old and stoned. And that, young men and women, is not wit.
10. The Gunman
Open Road Films
I don’t remember Pierre “Taken” Morel’s The Gunman. I saw it, and it’s pretty much gone. I recall that lead actor Sean Penn took an exploitation script and tried to make it a “message” picture about the way the U.S. gets involved with… oh no, it was about tribal wars recruiting… Wait, what movie am I talking about?
9. No Escape
The Weinstein Company
No Escape is a corker of a thriller, and will leave your heart pounding. You’ll also have a lot of trouble getting past that fact that all of the Asian characters (in a film set in an Asian nation, mind you) move like an amorphous, villainous mass. They may as well be zombies for all the character they’re given. They’re all xenophobic rapist murderers. This one only counts as a spy movie because Pierce Brosnan plays a spy who helps our white family to safety, and is largely responsible for the events that transpire. He’s also the best thing in the movie.
At the end of Skyfall, James Bond was essentially placed back at square one, ready to pit the new thuggish Daniel Craig against a more traditional Bond backdrop. With SPECTRE, however, we got a myth-heavy mess that was far too concerned with Bond’s backstory. We already have Bond’s backstory in this sub-universe. Making even more backstory became a detriment, and the film devolved into insufferable narrative navel-gazing.
20th Century Fox
From 2001 until 2011, the BBC ran a popular anti-terrorist program called Spooks (re-titled MI-5 in the U.S.). Like many other crime and spy shows (think Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, or perhaps 24), MI-5 is perfectly functional comfort food. The feature film based on the show added some sexy new characters (including Pompeii‘s Kit Harrington), but it never moves past its expected (but sometimes exciting) TV roots. It doesn’t help that the story is difficult to follow. Although I wasn’t following the show. Maybe a fan would have had a better time.
20th Century Fox
Melissa McCarthy stars in a Paul Feig comedy about an oft-overlooked CIA analyst who must, out of necessity, go undercover like her sexier, slicker counterparts. The concept will ring true to anyone who has experienced workplace stress, and Spy is a film that celebrates the overlooked. Although, at over 2 hours long, Spy feels lax when it should feel sharp and tight.
Although some of characters in Sicario are in the employ of the FBI, and the plot can be ported over from a spy movie (intentionally installing one cartel leader in favor of another), it doesn’t feel much like a traditional spy movie. It is focused instead on military action, local politics, and an overwhelming sense of cynicism about the state of the world. It’s harsh and violent and rough, and features some first-rate thriller filmmaking and excellent performances.
4. The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
The Cold War TV series, about the team-up of an American and a Russian, is adapted into one of the sexiest damn movies of the year. The story is… You know? Who cares? This is a film that is about the sexy banter, the sexy men, the sexy, sexy clothing. This is a film that glorifies and fetishizes the style trappings of the spy world, and the casual viewer can’t help but be dazzled by the awesome ease at which these men move through spy situations.
3. Bridge of Spies
Steven Spielberg can make towering dramas of stirring significance. He can also make lighthearted trifles. Bridge of Spies, a flick about the lawyer who brokered a prisoner exchange between America and the Soviets at the height of the Cold War, is actually more of the latter. It’s impeccable, of course, but it feels casual and easygoing, even through the more harrowing portions. But genial can be very satisfying, and I think of the movie with fondness.
2. Furious 7
Furious 7, with its heaping helpfuls of good old-fashioned Saturday afternoon stupidity, managed to tap into the pure adventure of what it feels like to go to the movies. The film is dumb as cheese, but as entertaining as any three of the previous chapters combined. This is a film that goes for broke and gives us everything we want from this series, including our car criminals getting recruited by the government for secret missions, and a loving tribute to actor Paul Walker. It’s a few song numbers away from being the world’s best Bollywood movie.
1. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
The fifth film in the Mission: Impossible series is also the best, as it finally nails action in a way that so many films seem to forget. Exhilarating action seems like an easy game to play, but seeing something like Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation proves how rare a genuinely great action flick is. It feels like someone remembered how this game is supposed to work, and showed us all the spy movie elements we love in a way that they should be shown.
Top Image: MGM
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, The Robot’s Voice, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.