Nov 1, 2016

Double O Section 10th Anniversary: Top 7 Spy Movie Set Pieces of the Last Decade

Spy movies, perhaps more than any other genre, are known for their setpieces. I would say we have Alfred Hitchcock to thank for that mainly, but the Bond movies certainly solidified the expectation of at least one great setpiece in any spy movie. A good setpiece can transcend a bad movie (Moonraker isn't many people's favorite Bond film, but who would dare claim that the midair fight over a parachute isn't spectacular?), or even ruin a good one (I realize I'm in the minority here, but I was more or less on board with Kingsman up until that ugly and misanthropic—but undeniably well-shot—church scene insinuated itself into my mind as the movie's truly indelible legacy). A classic setpiece (even one borrowed from another film) can define not only a movie but a franchise, as happened when Brian De Palma riffed on Topkapi for the famous dangling sequence in the first Mission: Impossible feature. So while some of these setpieces come from spy films I selected as the best of the last decade, I still feel that they deserve a list of their own. So on that note, and continuing the celebration of the Double O Section's ten years on the Internet, here are...

My Favorite Spy Movie Setpieces 2006-2016

1. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation Opera Sequence (2015)

Brian De Palma may have built a career on (quite ably) creating his own distinctly Hitchcockian setpieces, but Christopher McQuarrie did him one better in the fifth Mission: Impossible movie with a sequence in which Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) must prevent an assassination from the wings of a performance of "Turandot" at the Vienna State Opera. Guided by the same gimmick that gave structure to one of Hitch's most memorable setpieces in his second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, the action builds logically to the piece of music being performed on stage ("Nessun Dorma"), its inevitable violent conclusion punctuated by a circled note in a musician's score. Into this McQuarrie organically weaves good looking actors in tuxedos and gowns, a gun disguised as a bass flute, a fight literally informed by stage business, and even moments of unforced comic relief. It's the most beautifully staged sequence in any spy film during the last decade.

2. Casino Royale Parkour Chase (2006)

There was little typical about Martin Campbell's James Bond reboot Casino Royale, and the signature action sequence that would normally come before the credits instead unfolds just after them, the pre-credits moments having been used, quite effectively, to show the new Bond (Daniel Craig) earning his Double O status. The Madagascar-set foot chase boldly lays out a new direction of the venerable franchise, declaring quite forcefully that 007 can not only compete in an arena becoming crowded by challengers like the kinetic Jason Bourne or the extreme xXx; he can still dominate. It also firmly established what we could expect of Craig. As much as I loved Pierce Brosnan's performance as James Bond, it's impossible to imagine him in his fifties convincingly keeping pace with freerunner Sébastien Foucan, the real-life athlete who plays the bomb maker Bond is chasing. This is a fantastic example of when the Bond producers see something spectacular (like a car executing a barrel roll or a skier parachuting off of a cliff) and make it their own, and demonstrated that Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli could do that just as well as Cubby. Although parkour had been utilized in Luc Besson's niche District B13 French action movies, it was not then as ubiquitous as it has since become thanks to Casino Royale. After Austin Powers and Jason Bourne, 007 was at risk of becoming passe. But when Daniel Craig crashed through a wall to even the distance with his quarry, it became immediately clear that the venerable character wasn't going anywhere.

3. The Bourne Ultimatum Tangier Rooftop Chase (2007)

Paul Greengrass may have established his seemingly chaotically immersive put-the-viewer-in-the-middle-of-the-action style in The Bourne Supremacy, but he finessed it greatly in The Bourne Ultimatum. Nowhere is that better demonstrated than in the film's breathtakingly exciting rooftop chase through Tangier. The North African city, with its romantic blend of African and European architecture, has long been an iconic spy location, and this chase scene achieves the ideal symbiosis between elaborate action and exotic setting. Greengrass and cinematographer Oliver Wood take full advantage of the city's distinctive rooftops, bristling with antennas, as Bourne (Matt Damon) pursues an assassin named (perhaps prophetically) Desh on motorcycle and on foot. It's impressive watching Ludlum's amnesiac agent ride the motorcycle up as well as down the city's narrow staircases, but the really exhilarating moment audiences all remember comes when, in one especially spectacular shot, the hand-held camera leaps after Bourne from one upper storey window into another in the middle of the foot chase! If I had to pinpoint one moment during this decade that spy (and action) filmmaking changed, that would be it. Greengrass took action photography to a new level, and we've seen that move (which featured prominently in the movie's trailers and TV spots) copied again and again ever since, in everything from Quantum of Solace to Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Just as the Wachowskis' famous "bullet-time" shot from The Matrix had defined the previous decade of action cinema, this one did the next.

4. SPECTRE Pre-Credits Sequence (2015)

If you ever doubted that competition was good for the marketplace, just witness the sometimes hostile oneupmanship that's gone on between the Bond and Bourne franchises since 2002. Here is another sequence that offers its own variation on Greengrass's iconic window-to-window leap, but raises the stakes. While Greengrass's camera stayed on his hero for that single breathtaking moment, Sam Mendes and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema kept their camera on Daniel Craig's James Bond for a full four minutes, culminating in action sequence much larger in scale than jumping through a window. This is an example of a setpiece that's greater than the movie that contains it. The entire pre-title sequence, from its striking production design to its stunning Mexico City location to that Touch of Evil-style tracking shot, is the most memorable part of SPECTRE. I've watched the opening far more times than I've watched the whole movie since buying the Blu-ray.

5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Guillam's File Theft (2011)

Of course, a great spy movie setpiece doesn't have to involve action. Van Hoytema also shot an equally striking, equally thrilling sequence for Tomas Alfredson's 1970s-set Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Like McQuarrie, Alfredson channels Hitchcock in making a trip to a library as exciting as Tom Cruise dangling from something. It may sound like heresy to some fans, but one scene in which the BBC's Tinker, Tailor miniseries always let me down was in its translation of the most suspenseful scene from John le Carré's novel in which Smiley's right-hand man, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) is tasked with removing a file from the ultra-secure registry of the Circus. Smiley is an outsider, and requires the file for his investigation into which of the cabal currently in charge of British Intelligence is a Soviet mole. Alfredson actually improves upon the sacred text of the miniseries in this sequence. His careful camera movement and deliberate, beautifully composed shots all make visual the paranoia that Guillam is feeling as he betrays his bosses for the greater good. It's another perfect marriage of cinematography, production design, direction and acting, and to me it's the film's iconic scene.

6. Jason Bourne Greek Protest Chase (2016)

And here we are once again returning to Paul Greengrass and Jason Bourne. The fourth Bourne movie with Matt Damon is regrettably not nearly as good a film as Ultimatum, but it still boasts an incredible setpiece—easily the best I've seen this year. Once again Bourne is on a motorcycle, this time weaving through increasingly angry crowds of protesters at an anti-austerity rally in Greece. It's the perfect backdrop for a spy chase in our present time, turning the social unrest currently boiling over all around the world into an obstacle and cover for our hero. Furthermore, while his imitators seem to get worse and worse, Greengrass just keeps getting better at doing what he does. As in Green Zone, you feel like you're right in the middle of this dangerous protest as shots ring out making it even more dangerous. This time Bourne is the prey rather than the pursuer, and the sense of danger is palpable. It might not be the best entry in the series, but Jason Bourne is well worth seeing for this incredible sequence alone!

7. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol Burj Khalifa Sequence (2011)

Yes, I keep returning to the same several franchises. But there's a reason that they're the top box office draws in the spy genre, and the reason is their amazing setpieces. Tom Cruise seems driven to top himself in each Mission: Impossible entry by performing a wilder stunt that takes him further off the ground than he was in the previous film. Since dangling was clearly established as his character's thing in the original Mission: Impossible movie, dangling from the world's tallest building was probably too tempting an opportunity to resist. With Tom Cruise there's an extra layer at play in an action setpiece, because we all know that he's pretty much nuts and loves to put himself in physical danger. In Bond movies we generally take it for granted that it's a stuntman performing the more improbable feats, and that's never detracted from them one bit for me. But there's an extra frisson in knowing that you're watching the movie's actual star in peril. The circumstances that demand that Cruises's Ethan Hunt go mountaineering about outside the famed Dubai skyscraper are quite ingeniously concocted, and director Brad Bird achieves spectacle by going the opposite direction as Greengrass. Instead of putting the camera close up, right behind the star's head, he opens it up wide, showing us the entire vista and making the deadly geography immediately clear. And home viewings will never match the added spectacle of seeing this film in an IMAX theater, where the image itself opened up from scope to fill the entire large format screen from top to bottom. The dizzying vista was literally breathtaking.

So what were your favorite setpieces of the last decade? Please feel free to weigh in in the comments below! And check back all week for more lists and some great contests!


Bob said...

What won me over on MI-Rogue Nation was the performance of Rebecca Ferguson, especially in the opera scene. I am glad she has signed on for the next film and if anybody could portray Modesty Blaise in film, it would be Ms. Ferguson.

Unknown said...

I agree with everything on the list. Man I wish I'd seen Ghost Protocol in IMAX!!

I would add the awesome and bloody Home Depot action sequence at the end of The Equalizer.

Is The Equalizer a spy movie? Yes, because he is a retired CIA operative.

Tanner said...

Oh, that's a good one, too! Yeah, that whole sequence in THE EQUALIZER was pretty great--and it was just really cool to see someone using spy skills in a Home Depot. And, yes, that DEFINITELY counts as spy, as does the original show!

I agree, Robert. Rebecca Ferguson was fantastic--definitely the best female lead to date in an M:I movie! I hope the rumors are true about her returning for the next one.