Thursday, 22 December 2016

Spooks: The Greater Good (2015)

"Do good or do well"

Ah Spooks. I loved Spooks. Or to be clear, I loved the first two seasons of Spooks. Three tops. Created by David Wolstencroft, and using such quality writers as the acclaimed left wing playwright Howard Brenton (though you'd have to look online or some such to find that out, as Spooks revelled in never having any opening or closing credits) Spooks was truly innovative British television...right up until its original stars Matthew Macfadyen, Keeley Hawes and David Oyelowo (whatever happened to him?) departed. The show - also known as MI5 for a US market that delights in the blindingly obvious - ran for ten seasons from 2002 to 2011 but, once the original central characters had gone, replaced by the likes of Rupert Penry-Ponce and Hermione Norris, I quickly lost interest. The only good thing to come out of those later episodes was the rising prominence of Peter Firth as spymaster Harry Pearce. Here was a character who had something like two scenes in the very first episode, but by the time the curtain fell on the TV series he was undoubtedly its star and the show's biggest draw. This stature is rightly carried across for this spin-off movie, Spooks: The Greater Good.

(It's worth mentioning there was another spin-off entitled Spooks: Code 9 on BBC3 in 2008. Aimed at the 16-24 year old market it was risible nonsense set sometime after 2012 when London, hosting the Olympic Games, was hit by a nuclear attack. The series was such a flop, Spooks quickly chose to disown and ignore it from its canon - as seen here.)

Now, because I'd bailed on the series I was initially a bit hesitant about watching Spooks: The Greater Good, but I needn't have worried. The film works perfectly well as a stand-alone and an introduction to the world of the series that preceded it for new audiences, whilst at the same time drawing on much that made the series great for its long-established fans - principally the return of some characters from the show, the aforementioned Pearce (Firth) the dependable former analyst Malcolm (Hugh Simon) the reptilian Oliver Mace played by Tim McInnerny, whose cold blooded and charismatic ambiguity makes for a very welcome reappearance here, and two others from the tenth series of the show who were new to me; Geoffrey Streatfeild as IT expert Calum Reed and Lara Pulver as Erin Watts.

I was also hesitant in case the storytelling style of the movie was essentially the same as the later episodes of the series, those that proved such a turn-off for me. Granted they maintain the same kind of riffs, with the intelligence that the likes of Howard Brenton brought in the early years being AWOL, but the film is nevertheless a very proficient spy thriller with some genuinely tense and well-shot moments from director Bharat Nalluri and cinematographer Hubert Taczanowski which make particularly good use of its London and Berlin locations. It's always refreshing to see a homegrown action movie I guess.

The cast is also excellent. Firth is once again truly impressive as Harry Pearce, the skinny latte generation's George Smiley. Providing much of the film's legwork and attracting a younger audience however is Game of Thrones star Kit Harington as Will Holloway, a former MI5 operative who feels betrayed by his former father figure Harry Pearce but who forms an uneasy alliance for the titular 'greater good'. Rounding out the cast are performances from the divine Tuppence Middleton and the foxy Eleanor Matsuura, Homeland's David Harewood and Pride and Prejudice's Jennifer Ehle. In the pivotal role of the villain of the piece, we have Elyes Gabel an actor who has carved a career out for himself in the US to my complete and utter bemusement. He was dead-eyed, drippy and wooden in a string of British TV programmes like Casualty before relocating and finding fame Stateside, and he continues to be the weakest link here too. The Wiki entry for the film describes his character as a 'charismatic terrorist leader' but there's no sign of any charisma as far as I'm concerned. Or indeed much threat.

The script by Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent is proficient enough though it can't escape a tendency for a cliched clunker, especially in the peculiar relationship between Pearce and Holloway which centres on the former being linked to the death of the latter's father when an op in Berlin went horribly wrong. Brackley and Vincent wrote several episodes of the original series which means the same kind of themes return here, including its fondness for shadow conspiracies. It's a real shame because the shadow conspiracy at the centre of their plot here is a treasonous plot to discredit MI5 from within so the Americans can absorb the service into their own CIA, a threat that doesn't really bear scrutiny and one whose perpetrator I predicted right from the off. Seriously, you don't have to be George Smiley to work this one out.

Despite the odd flaw or faltering element though, Spooks: The Greater Good remains a solidly watchable and fun experience for both newcomers and fans alike.

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