The BBC’s long-running espionage series moves from TV to the big screen, this time trying to save Britain’s home intelligence service from a CIA takeover in the face of a Pakistani revenge-terrorism campaign.
All the clichés of latterday pop-TV terror plots mix with old fashioned Le Carre legacy; the question is can it open up a claustrophobic TV drama into something more without a Bourne/Bond scale budget?
Veteran Peter Firth (Tess, Red October) continues as world-weary MI5 operations head Harry Pearce while new boy Kit Harrington (Pompeii, Seventh Son) is the younger, fitter, running, jumping shooting man, Will Holloway.
Never a fan of Spooks, which ran for six seasons, 2000-2011, I found it’s doughy mix of techno-babble and tiresome twaddle about double agents, loyalty, betrayal, duty and sacrifice to be quite tedious. With it’s formulaic pacing and blatant over-dramatisation, it teetered and often fell over the line into comic melodrama, despite everyone playing as straight as they could.
With Firth the central prop, his round face crinkling like a worried and deflating cherub, series leads changed through McFadyen, Penry-Jones and Armitage, with everyone getting more miserable each season, to the point where Homeland looks like Cheers.
So several items of good news with the release of The Greater Good; the headline is this is an efficient, small-scale spy movie that is genuinley a solid thriller. Somehow, writer Jonathan Brackley and director Bharat Nalluri (Alien Vs. Predator, Resident Evil) have kept it out of the creaky genre tank traps by pitching it just right; yes all the espionage tropes remain, but it’s a genre movie that just does what it does.
Secondly, it cuts loose from the Spooks TV baggage to stand alone as a movie, so you don’t need to know the show to pick it up and run with it.
Framed with big aerial shots of London, Heathrow and the odd jaunt to the Alexander Platz, there are enough recognisable landmarks to set this up for an International audience.
The downsides? I’m not in the espionage business, I am pretty sure this bears little relationship to the way modern day intelligence works.
The cast do have to grapple with some clunky material; Firth is a Cold War relic and there’s a lot of guff about Holloway’s MI5 agent father killed in East Germany.
Kit Harrington steps into the notional lead without enough screen time to do much but run, jump and look dyspeptic. In terms of character, plot and dialogue he is very much second string to puppet-master Firth who gets all the best lines whilst running rings around MI5, CIA, Al Kaida and British Telecom.
Tim MacInnerny and David Harewood are the Whitehall politicos rounding out the list of prime suspects.
While this is, as usual, a boy’s spy story, female agents Eleanor Matsuura and Tuppence Middleton (Jupiter Ascending, Imitation Game) stand up alongside Jennifer Ehle’s (Fifty Shades, King’s Speech) spymaster.
Honourable mention to Elyes Gabel (Interstellar, World War Z) as terrorist Adam Qasim, for an intense but restrained performance as the agent-provocateur (see what I did there?).
The Greater Good is far from perfect. Somehow all the sub-plots fit together like a neatly cut jig-saw puzzle, when there are so many variables that it should fall apart in seventy-eight ways every ten minutes. Filled with lucky escapes and near misses, there are still too many guns, cars, computer hackers and surveillance cameras conveniently working (or not) at just the right moment. And what’s with the bullet-proof glass office in the middle of the MI5 operations room?
Gritty and often stylish, there’s enough in The Greater Good to make you forget the pulp-spy novel plot and it’s certainly better than most of the spy-genre pap we’re fed on a regular basis. I’m waving the flag for the British Homeland; give it a go.
Spooks: The Greater Good (2015)
Rating: R (for violence and some language)
Genre: Drama, Action & Adventure, Thriller
Director: Bharat Nalluri
Writer: Jonathan Brackley
Runtime: 1 hr. 44 min.
Cast: Kit Harington, Tuppence Middleton, Elyes Gabel, Jennifer Ehle, Lara Pulver, David Harewood, Peter Firth, Tim McInnerny, Eleanor Matsuura
Related: Jack Reacher (2012)