SuperBob (2015)

2016 #29
Jon Drever | 82 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15

Comedies about superheroes tend to come in the form of big-bucks mainstream-aimed effects-y pieces (Hancock, My Super Ex-Girlfriend), or R-rated deliberately-shocking genre deconstructions (Kick-Ass, Super). SuperBob is something else again: a low-key, almost sitcom-y, kind of polite, very British take on the sub-subgenre.

It follows the life of quiet, mild-mannered Bob (Brett Goldstein, who also co-writes), an ordinary postman who’s struck by a meteorite and gains Superman-esque powers, and whose personality doesn’t change with it. He’s put under contract by the British government and kept on a strict schedule for his world-saving activities, monitored and controlled by Catherine Tate. The Americans aren’t best pleased, because they want him. That kind of thing goes on in the background, though, because the film follows Bob on his day off, as he finally arranges a date with a librarian he fancies (Laura Haddock) and, because he doesn’t have a clue how to go about such romance-related things, asks his cleaner (Natalia Tena) for help. Romcom-ish antics ensue.

SuperBob begins as a faux-documentary; a film being made about Bob and his life, which makes sense because who wouldn’t be interested in a documentary on the world’s only superhero? For us real-life viewers, though, it’s a form that feels a little tired at this point — I involuntarily groaned out loud when I realised that’s where it was going. Stick with it, though, because the conceit is all but dropped fairly early on, and the film begins to develop in nice directions. It starts out as pure comedy, and while it doesn’t lose that aspect, it does develop a strand of endearingly genuine sweetness. That helps to see it through the predictable rom-com beats that follow, leaving you (or this viewer, at least) not minding that it’s predictable where the story’s going to go because, thanks to the characters, that’s where you want it to go.

If you’re after a comedy that seeks to mine humour from the world of superheroes, you’re better off looking elsewhere (Kick-Ass and Super, as mentioned; Superhero Movie, definitely not), but for a likeable romantic movie with a twist, SuperBob does the trick.

4 out of 5

Ex Machina (2015)

2016 #26
Alex Garland | 108 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

BAFTABritish Academy Film Awards 2016
5 nominations

Nominated: Best British Film; Best Supporting Actress (Alicia Vikander); Best Original Screenplay; Best Special Visual Effects; Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer.

A British sci-fi movie from a first-time director will tomorrow take a place at the table (well, in the auditorium) alongside 2015’s biggest awards contenders, as it vies for multiple gongs at this year’s BAFTAs — and it stands a very plausible chance of walking away with several of them, too. I hope it does, because, after a year that brought us awards-quality sci-fi bombast (Mad Max, Star Wars), it’s fantastic that a small film about three people sat in rooms talking can stand toe-to-toe with them as one of the year’s best.

The increasingly ubiquitous (and deservedly so) Domhnall Gleeson stars as Caleb, a programmer at search engine giant Google Bluebook who wins a staff lottery to spend a week with the company’s reclusive founder, Nathan, played by the increasingly ubiquitous (and deservedly so) Oscar Isaac. However, on his arrival he learns he’s not just there to hang out: Nathan wants him to perform a Turing test on an AI he’s built. The point of the Turing test (as I’m sure you know) is for a human to interact with an AI but not realise it’s an AI, so Caleb’s surprised when said AI — Ava, played by the increasingly ubiquitous (and deservedly so) Alicia Vikander — comes in the form of a robot that’s obviously a robot. The real test is whether Caleb can know he’s talking to something non-human and still come to be convinced it’s human. As Caleb begins his interviews with Ava, it becomes apparent that there’s something else going on at this remote facility, where regular power cuts mean they’re all locked in…

As is probably clear, Ex Machina is a sci-fi movie of the thoughtful variety. It’s a film that considers ideas of artificial life, how we test it and what it means to create it, and only gradually builds in thriller elements that pay off in its final twenty-or-so minutes. In truth, it’s not the most thorough deconstruction of what it means to be human and whether artificial intelligence can have that right, but it does touch on these issues and, in so doing, leaves them open for the viewer to mull over for themselves, or debate with friends, or however else one likes to consider their movies post-viewing (like, I dunno, writing about them on the internet or something).

There are thematic similarities to Blade Runner, which (in case you’ve not seen it) also deals with the humanity or otherwise of man-made intelligence. Mulling on that comparison, I’m tempted to say Ex Machina is almost the inverse of Blade Runner, in this regard: Ridley Scott’s classic is ostensibly an SF-noir thriller (Harrison Ford is a cop hunting down some rogue robots), but by its end has revealed a considered exploration of what it means to be human, and whether these artificial creatures can lay claim to that. Conversely, Alex Garland’s film seems like it’s sitting us down to consider those same issues, but is actually laying the groundwork for revelations and twists that build to an edge-of-your-seat climax. I’m not saying one’s better than the other in this respect, just that they’re approaching the same topics almost from opposite ends.

Also like Blade Runner, Ex Machina is an exceptionally well made and performed film. Not in the same way as Blade Runner — it’s bright and clean and modern, in a Google-y, Apple-y kind of way — but to a similar level of internal consistency and accomplishment. Gleeson’s Caleb may seem a little plain, a blank page for the other characters to write on, but as his insecurities begin to come to the fore you realise that’s almost the point. Isaac is suitably overbearing as the alcohol-dependent genius behind Bluebook and Ava, an initially affable but quickly disquieting presence — he may be a threat, or may just be a bit odd. And his dance scene is surely one of 2015’s highlights (there’s an extended version hidden on the US Blu-ray, which is a treat). Garnering the most praise (and awards) is Alicia Vikander’s take on an AI. It’s a tricky role to tackle, because she’s not just a robot — that would defeat the point of Nathan’s exercise — but nor is she fully human. It’s a tightrope of a role, a fine line to walk, and Vikander negotiates it with aplomb. To say too much more would be to spoil it.

Aside from the acting, the film’s most striking element is surely the design of Ava. Her face and hands appear to be human, but everything else is robotic, and much of it transparent. This isn’t a case of slipping an actor into a suit painted with circuitboards — you can see the metal limbs and motors in her arms and legs, the metal spine in her back, the various computers or power sources or whatever glowing and spinning inside her. Occasionally she dresses in clothes and her workings are covered, but she spends most of the film with them on display. The CGI is literally flawless, which for a relatively-low-budget little British sci-fi-drama is all the more remarkable. I guess the visual effects awards are going to go to the big films, Star Wars or Mad Max or The Revenant (the bear seems to be very popular), but I do wonder if the work here is more deserving. You know how it must’ve been done — mo-cap suits and CGI — but there’s still a feeling of “how did they do that?”, because it’s so faultless. In fact, you don’t even wonder how they did it, because you just accept it; it’s only if you actively stop to consider it that you realise it’s physically impossible and must be CGI.

Those after a dissertation-like hard-science deconstruction of the meaning and possibilities of AI will likely find Ex Machina slightly lacking, as will anyone after the crash-bang thrills most mainstream sci-fi provides. Viewers prepared for a decently thought-provoking dramatic thriller about near-future tech, however, should be both engrossed, and grateful that movies like this are (for the time being) still getting made.

5 out of 5

The British Academy Film Awards are tomorrow night, televised on BBC One from 9pm.

Ex Machina placed 20th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Slow West (2015)

2015 #199
John Maclean | 84 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.66:1 | UK & New Zealand / English & French | 15 / R

The Coens and Wes Anderson are common reference points in reviews of this slightly quirky Western, which sees Michael Fassbender’s experienced outlaw-type help wet-behind-the-ears Scotsman Kodi Smit-McPhee track the girl he loves, who emigrated for mysterious reasons, also known by the bounty hunters on their trail.

The aforementioned comparisons aren’t wildly inaccurate, but are perhaps reductive. Writer-director Maclean has his own variation on that voice, bringing an occasional comically askew perspective to underscore tense confrontations and well-crafted shootouts. Vibrant photography by DP Robbie Ryan and a pleasantly brisk running time further the enjoyment.

A promising calling card and distinctive treat.

4 out of 5

About Time (2013)

2015 #192
Richard Curtis | 123 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 12 / R

After Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) learns he can time travel back through his own life, his father (Bill Nighy) cautions him not to attempt anything too drastic — so he sets about finding love.

Ostensibly another of Curtis’ oh-so-British rom-coms, it plays that way for a while, but long before it’s done develops into something deeper: Tim gets the girl (Rachel McAdams), then learns about life, family, and what you might really want to do with such power.

About Time ultimately displays an emotional depth and maturity that marks it out from its science-fiction stablemates, and the rest of Curtis’ oeuvre too.

4 out of 5

Tomorrow: more time travel in my next 100 Favourites selection.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

2015 #152
Stanley Kubrick | 137 mins | Blu-ray | 1.66:1 | UK & USA / English | 18 / R

Yet more dystopian sci-fi! Who doesn’t love some dystopian sci-fi? Here we’re in the ’70s, though (makes a change from the ’80s), with writer-director Stanley Kubrick adapting Anthony Burgess’ novel into a film so controversially violent the director himself eventually banned it from release in the UK for decades. Almost 45 years on, it’s testament to the film’s power that it is still in parts shocking.

Set in a glum future Britain, the film follows eloquent juvenile delinquent Alex (Malcolm McDowell), whose violent acts eventually catch up with him when he’s imprisoned. Being the cocky little so-and-so that he is, he manages to get himself on a programme for rehabilitation and release… though that may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

The first half-hour or so of A Clockwork Orange is brilliant. I think there’s a reason this is the part that the majority of clips used when discussing the movie are lifted from, and it’s not just to do with spoilers: here is where the best imagery, and the most potent examinations of violence and the male group psyche, are to be found. It’s shocking and uncomfortable at times, funny and almost attractive at others (hence the perceived need for the ‘ban’), but the cumulative effect is precise and striking.

However, everything from Alex’s admission to prison onwards could do with tightening, in my view. It may be sacrilege to say this, but I think the film would benefit from having a good 15 to 20 minutes chopped out. All the prison bureaucracy stuff is funny, but is it relevant? “Relevance” isn’t the only deciding factor about what goes into a film, of course, but I feel like we’ve seen plenty of red-tape spoofing elsewhere. Maybe that’s just an unfortunate byproduct of the film’s age. Other parts just go on a bit too long for my taste — there’s barely a sequence after Alex’s arrest that I didn’t feel would benefit from getting a wriggle on. I don’t think this is me bringing a youth-of-today “everything must be fast cut” perspective to the film, I just found it needlessly languorous at times. Maybe I was missing a point.

McDowell’s performance is fantastic throughout. I’ve seen Alex referred to as a villain (not often, but by at least one person), which strikes me (and, I’m sure, many others) as remarkably reductionist and point-missing. He’s not a hero, certainly — a mistake I think some critics of the film made, in part because the use of voiceover invites us to identify with him, and I guess anyone other than the hero having a voiceover narration was fairly new 45 years ago (feel free to correct me on that point). But he’s not a villain, especially when he comes up against the terrifying forces of the establishment. McDowell’s performance, and Kubrick/Burgess’ storytelling, is thankfully more complex than that.

That continues right through to the ending, which is quite different in the novel and film — though I say this as someone who’s not read the book, so apologies if this is off base. Reportedly Burgess ends with Alex moving away from violence of his own free will, primarily because he’s grown up and grown out of it; the point basically being that all young men go through a violent phase (even if Alex’s is extreme) and then grow out of it. Kubrick ends on a much more ambiguous note… so ambiguous, I’m not really sure what it’s saying… or even what all the ambiguities actually are…

A Clockwork Orange remains a striking film, and not just because of the ultra-violence. It’s at its best early on, with the remainder not always working for me, but it’s a fascinating experience nonetheless.

4 out of 5

A Clockwork Orange was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)

2015 #183
Mark Burton & Richard Starzak | 85 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK & France / silent (English) | U / PG

Shaun the Sheep started life in the 1995 Wallace & Gromit short A Close Shave. Eventually granted his own TV spin-off aimed at little kids, it’s become a global hit thanks to the decision to make it a silent comedy — no need to pay for pesky dubbing into other languages, while its sheer quality (it is Aardman, after all) helps it to transcend national boundaries. This year, Shaun and friends made the leap to the big screen, in what may be the year’s best animated movie.

The film begins with Shaun and the other ovine occupants of Mossy Bottom Farm getting fed up with the daily grind of being sheep, so they concoct a plan to distract sheepdog Bitzer so they can lure the Farmer into a slumber and take over the farmhouse for a well-earned break. Naturally things go awry, and the Farmer ends up whisked off to the Big City. With no one to feed or care for them, Shaun, Bitzer, and the rest hop on a bus and set off to retrieve their friend.

Expanding a series of five-minute-ish shorts to feature length is always a risky proposal, but fortunately we’re in the more than capable hands of Aardman Animation here, and they’ve come up with a plot big enough to fill a feature running time. In a style one might describe as ‘classical’, you can break the film down into individual segments and sequences, each one a crafted vignette of silent slapstick. That doesn’t make the story episodic, but rather serves to keep the humour focused — no gags are overused or outstay their welcome. Indeed, some fly so fast that they’re literally blink-and-you’ll-miss it. I suspect this means Shaun would reward repeat viewings, particularly to spot all the little background details.

It’s also in the details that Shaun proves itself to be a true family film. Like the TV show, it’s sweetly innocent and simple enough for little’uns (that US PG is thanks to a couple of oh-so-rude fart jokes), but there’s a sophistication to the way that simplicity is handled that adults can enjoy. There are also references and in-jokes for the grown-ups; not hidden dirty jokes that’ll put you in the awkward position of having to explain to the kids why you were laughing, but neat puns (note the towns that the Big City is twinned with) and references to other films (like Taxi Driver. Yes, really.)

Naturally, technical aspects are top-notch. Aardman are the kings of claymation, consistently delivering work in which the animation is polished, clever, and surprising, but which also retains the sense that it was achieved by hand (unlike some other films — Corpse Bride, say — which are so slick you begin to wonder if they’re actually CGI). I always marvel at stop-motion anyway — the persistence to animate something a frame at a time, taking days to create one shot and months to create one scene, is a dedication and skill I can barely fathom — but Aardman’s productions routinely push beyond your expectations of the form.

Aardman’s stop-motion silent comedy will certainly lose to Inside Out across the board come awards season (apart from at the BAFTAs, perhaps), but it’s the more inventive, amusing, innovative, accomplished, and impressive achievement. Delightful.

4 out of 5

Shaun the Sheep’s Christmas special, The Farmer’s Llamas, is on BBC One on Boxing Day at 6:10pm.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

The Decoy Bride (2011)

2015 #155
Sheree Folkson | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 12 / PG

This is not a well-reviewed film — Little White Lies described it as “possibly the worst thing ever in world history.”

Obviously they’re being intentionally hyperbolic (well, I hope), but it’s not merited. Okay, it’s a standard rom-com, of the form we’ve seen dozens of times, but it’s no worse than most and better than plenty. Kelly Macdonald and David Tennant are appealing leads with some chemistry, “TV director” Folkson’s work is cinematic enough, and there are decent laughs in the screenplay by Sally Phillips.

There’s nothing special about The Decoy Bride, but it’s pleasantly entertaining. It could be much worse.

3 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Brazil (1985)

aka Brazil: The Final Cut

2015 #100
Terry Gilliam | 143 mins | DVD | 1.78:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

I normally aim for a “critical” (for want of a better word) rather than “bloggy” (for want of a better word) tone in my reviews, just because I do (that’s in no way a criticism of others, etc). Here is where I fail as a film writer in that sense, though, because I’m not even sure how I’m meant to review Terry Gilliam’s dystopian sci-fi satire Brazil, a film as famed for its storied release history as for the movie itself.

It’s a film I’ve long looked forward to watching, utterly convinced it was “the kind of thing I’d like”, but then almost put off by the fact that I should like it. I was rather pleased when it finally popped up on this year’s What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen because it’s precisely the kind of film (or “one of the kinds of films”) that project was meant to ‘force’ me to watch. And, thankfully, I did really enjoy it. It’s clever, it’s funny, it’s massively imaginative in both its visuals and its storytelling, and its influences on the 30 years of dystopian fiction that have followed is… well, fairly clear, because it also has influences of its own, so whether future works are influenced by the original influence or whether the influencee has become the influencer is an over-complex matter for over-complex people to discuss ad infinitum.

I can tell you, factually, that there are at least four versions of Brazil: differing European and American theatrical versions; the “Love Conquers All” version (which according to the Criterion DVD is a cut for syndicated TV that made all the changes Gilliam refused to make, but may never have actually been released outside of that box set (IMDb implies it was never shown)); and the “Final Cut” that Gilliam assembled for Criterion in 1996 that is now the version released everywhere always (to the best of my knowledge). I’m sure there’s a thorough list of differences somewhere, but one good anecdote from Gilliam’s audio commentary tells how the ‘morning after’ scene was cut from the European release so last-minute that it was literally physically removed from the premiere print. (Gilliam regretted it immediately and it was restored for the video release.)

I can also tell you that I now struggle to read the word “Brazil” without hearing the “Braaziiiil” refrain from the soundtrack.

Brazil was 30 this year, but its particular brand of retro-futurism hasn’t dated, and its themes and issues are as relevant as ever. It’s a bit of a head trip of a film, which is what one should always expect from the guy who did the cartoons for Monty Python, I figure. I don’t know if it always gets its due in the consensus history of sci-fi cinema — in “best ever” lists and that kind of thing — though I’m not doing anything today that will help improve that.

The best I can say is that, if you like a bit of dystopian SF but have somehow (like me, until now) missed Brazil, that’s a situation you want to rectify lickety-split.

5 out of 5

Brazil was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

It placed 8th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Braaziiiil…

The Machine (2013)

2015 #167
Caradog James | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

In a near future where Britain is part of a Cold War against China, a scientist (Toby Stephens) has been trying and failing to perfect artificial intelligence at a government research facility. When he hires a new associate (Arrow’s Caity Lotz) they make progress, crafting a machine in her own image (played by Lotz again, obviously). Unsurprisingly, their boss (Denis “turned down The Force Awakens” Lawson) has some less-than-ethical plans in mind for their new toy…

Welsh writer-director Caradog James presents some strong ideas about the morals of creating AI, our responsibilities in doing so, its right to sentience, and so on. Some of these notions are even quite original, in particular an ending that seems to be saying that the machines are going to replace us and maybe that’s OK. Unfortunately the concepts don’t always coalesce in the telling, and when the film resorts to a passably-well-done shoot-em-up climax it feels needless — it hasn’t been that kind of film.

Or maybe James, in only his second feature, is trying to show his full range and use the film as a calling card. After all, it does attempt human drama, an exploration of sci-fi ideas, a touch of conspiracy thriller, and, as mentioned, an all-action climax. Unfortunately he’s delivered quite a clunky screenplay, which lingers on inexplicable scenes one moment before rushing over vital things the next. Perfunctory dialogue fails to build characters or relationships in a way that pays off when it needs them to.

This may explain why the performances are a mixed bag. Toby Stephens can’t seem to find much to work with in his lead role, despite supposedly having a couple of emotional arcs. Lawson sleepwalks through his turn as a shady government higher-up. Lotz is unremarkable as a human, but fantastic as the AI-driven machine. Her performance as the latter is the primary reason to consider watching the film.

Production values are all over the place. Nicolai Brüel’s cinematography is often highly atmospheric, though sometimes nonsensical (why is a scientific lab so dark?) and prone to J.J. Abrams levels of lens flare indulgence. There’s some classy CGI, in particular the interface graphics on tablets and computers, but the set for Lawson’s office looks like it’s from an am dram production. You can’t help but suspect the aforementioned over-darkness is to hide more issues of this nature. In truth, that’s only a problem if you can’t see past a low budget to what a film’s trying to achieve; but it’s to the discredit of what else is going on that I did notice.

The Machine suggests a lot of potential, but the end result is a bit muddled and that promise is only fitfully realised.

2 out of 5

Spooks: The Greater Good (2015)

aka MI-5

2015 #139
Bharat Nalluri | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

The BBC’s long-running spy thriller series Spooks (aka MI-5 in the US) came to a close a few years ago, and instantly sparked rumours of a big-screen continuation. Unlike most such rumours, that one actually came to fruition: this result hit UK cinemas in the summer, and is now making its way across the pond — under that Mission: Impossible-esque title, of course.

The TV series is probably best remembered for the way it regularly killed off its leading characters in shocking fashion, thanks to the most infamous of them all: the “deep fat fryer incident” from the second-ever episode. It was about a lot more than that, though. Beginning in 2002 in the wake of 9/11, a series about the security service defending the country from terrorism couldn’t avoid being ultra-relevant, and it ran for a decade during which such issues never ceased to be pertinent (and haven’t since). That other famous British spy institution, James Bond, was at the tail-end of the Brosnan era when Spooks began, and the lower-key TV series was — like Tinker Tailor and others before it — pitched as a “real world” version of what the security services got up to. Storylines were “ripped from the headlines”, often with eerie prescience: after one early episode, the series’ lack of end credits led some viewers to believe the real BBC News bulletin that followed was still part of the drama.

Early seasons focused at least as much on things like the mundanity of spycraft, or how one went about having a personal life while also being a sometimes-undercover agent, as they did on the exciting action of counterespionage — as evoked in the memorable tagline “MI5 not 9 to 5”, of course. As the years rolled on, things got increasingly outlandish and grandiose, just as almost every spy series that starts out “grounded” is wont to do. In season three, an entire episode was spent on the moral dilemma of whether it was acceptable to assassinate someone; a couple of years later, assassinations would just be a halfway-through-an-episode plot development. The one constant through all this was section chief Harry Pearce (Peter Firth), the M figure to a rotating roster of “James Bond”s, including Matthew “Ripper Street” Macfadyen and Rupert “Whitechapel” Penry-Jones, as well as other actors who didn’t go on to lead Jack the Ripper-derived crime series, like Richard “The Hobbit” Armitage.

Now, a couple of years since the TV series wrapped up its ten-year run, Spooks has attempted to make the leap to the big screen. Although they’ve roped in the fella who directed the first-ever episodes, the screenwriters are the final two seasons’ showrunners, so the movie follows on from where the series ended up rather than re-establishing itself in where it all began. What does that mean in practice? Sub-Bourne action in a film that often appears more like a well-budgeted TV movie than a proper feature film.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story begins with Harry running an op that goes wrong, during which terrorist Adam Qasim (Elyes Gabel) is sprung from custody just before being handed over to the CIA. Cue international incident. Naturally the blame is pinned on Harry, who consequently throws himself off a bridge. Except no one buys that, so they drag in Will Holloway (Kit Harington), a disenchanted one-time protégé of Harry’s (i.e. the series’ latest “younger man who can do the running around”). He knows nothing about it (obviously), but they want him to track Harry down nonetheless. Turns out Harry suspects there’s a mole in MI5 (because it’s a spy thriller — there’s always a mole) and it might be one of the very people who brought Will in (who include David Harewood, Tim McInnerny, and Jennifer Ehle). Harry and Will must work together to, a) find the mole, and b) stop whatever atrocity Qasim has planned next.

In case it isn’t clear, you don’t need to have seen the TV series to follow the plot, which is standalone in every aspect that seriously matters (there are certainly nods to the show, especially to its final season, and one fan-pleasing cameo. More would’ve been nicer.) However, a familiarity might help manage your expectations: The Greater Good feels like a wider-screen, (slightly-)bigger-budgeted version of the show, for good or ill. “Good” because, well, it should really, otherwise why call it Spooks? “Ill” because anyone expecting an action-packed thriller to rival Bond, Bourne, or Mission: Impossible will come away disappointed.

The trailers attempt to promise some of that kind of action, but they’re a bit of a cheat: what adrenaline the film has is mostly released in tiny bursts, scattered throughout. That strategy is fine if you’ve got the money to make each little burst a solid sequence, but when the entirety of some sequences is “jumping through a window” or “climbing a wall to get into a flat”, well… Sure, it looks good in the trailer — it promises lots of action in different places at different times — but that’s also a promise the movie can’t fulfil. The Greater Good certainly isn’t just a low-rent action movie — it’s driven by its plot — but if they’d saved up the filmmaking time, effort, and expense afforded to those single-dose action moments and poured it all into one sequence (in addition to the two or three fully-realised action sequences that the film does have), it might’ve paid dividends.

So what of that plot? As mentioned, the exciting contemporaneousness of Spooks’ storylines went increasingly AWOL as the series wore on, trading real-world issues for ludicrous government conspiracies or revived Cold War rivalries. Unsurprisingly, given the writers involved, the movie continues in that latter tradition. That’s a shame, because Spooks’ ability to engage with real-world issues in a thriller context was one of its best elements. It’s not as if we’re lacking in spy-related storyline-fodder in the real world — something Edward Snowden-y or about radicalised nationals would’ve been a good starting point. (Based on his accent, I guess Qasim is supposed to be an American who was converted, but that facet of his character isn’t explored.) At least they try to sub in some thematic relevance, raising questions related to doing what’s right versus doing what’s expected. Sadly that dichotomy isn’t explored as fully as it could have been either, but it’s definitely a constant and repeated factor.

You might not believe it from this picky review but, fundamentally, I did enjoy the Spooks movie. It largely retains the feel of the TV series (albeit without the moderately-memorable theme music — honestly, it’s like someone forgot to compose anything for the title credits. What were they thinking?!), and if they manage to produce a sequel then I’ll be sure to see it; but in this outing I can’t help spotting ways I thought it could’ve been even better. Consequently, as a film in its own right it comes across as a Bourne wannabe. On the bright side, it’s still better than The Bourne Legacy.

3 out of 5

Spooks: The Greater Good MI-5 is available in the US through DirecTV from today, and in theaters and on demand from December 4th.