'Spooks: The Greater Good': Film Review

Latest British stab at spy shenanigans may struggle to lure viewers beyond fans of its small-screen source.

Peter Firth and 'Game of Thrones' alumnus Kit Harington star in Bharat Nalluri's espionage thriller, a spin-off from the long-running BBC drama shown as 'MI-5' Stateside.

The contrasting specters of Jason Bourne and George Smiley hang heavy over Spooks: The Greater Good, which semi-successfully translates the BBC's hit spy series to the big screen three years after its tenth and final season. While more satisfactory as a Le Carré variant than as a Ludlum clone — thanks largely to the world-weary gravitas of top-billed veteran Peter Firth — there's only the ghost of a chance of this so-so mid-budgeter fulfilling its mission of sparking a new franchise, especially with Paul Feig's raucously larkish Spy to contend with.

International prospects will depend on audience familiarity with the original show — which at its peak was shown in 60 countries, sometimes under the title MI-5 — while the prominent presence of Kit Harington may draw in some fans of his broodingly vengeful Game of Thrones character Jon Snow. That said, Harington's debut starring vehicle — Paul W S Anderson's Pompeii — proved less than explosive last year, and Spooks is more revealing of his limitations than his potential. British bookmakers are currently offering 33/1 against Harington becoming the next 007, odds which most punters will have little difficulty resisting.

Relatively diminutive, slight and with his Thrones locks —  he's contractually obliged to retain the Snow 'do — incongruously intact, he makes for a sullenly humorless presence here as hot-headed former MI-5 agent Will Holloway, who gets back in the game when terrorist Adem Qasim (Elyes Gabel) escapes captivity and threatens London with a 7/7-style atrocity. While an entirely new creation, Holloway combines elements of two previous Spooks favorites: future Hobbit notable Richard Armitage's Lucas North and Matthew McFadyen's Tom Quinn. From its earliest episodes Spooks (a Brit-speak epithet for spies) was notorious for dispatching key sympathetic characters — including Danny Hunter, the breakthrough part for Selma's David Oyelowo — and North was one of many to meet a sticky end.

But there were exceptions, including McFadyen's Quinn who enjoyed a killer cameo in the final episode — and Firth's Pearce, who uniquely appeared in all 86 episodes and slowly emerged as the show's main draw. It's great to see Firth granted a rare leading role at age 61 here — four decades after he earned Tony and Oscar nominations for Broadway and film versions of Equus — as Pearce goes AWOL and underground in the wake of Qasim's escape, leading his stuffed-shirt superiors to question his loyalties. But it's also frustrating that he should also have to share the limelight with an undeserving young whippersnapper, especially when Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent (head writers on the last two seasons) could easily have found a way to bring back the charismatic Quinn.

As it is, they struggle to flesh Holloway out into three dimensions — the script is even peppered with derisive, hostage-to-fortune comments about his competence ("Harry was right about one thing: you're not good enough!") — and while the character of course comes up trumps in the final reel, that's more than can be said for the performer or the picture as a whole.

Conceived as a British answer to 24, but with extra real-world grit and downbeat-classy Tinker Tailor touches, the BAFTA-winning Spooks successfully dramatized security concerns in the wake of 9/11, often touching on dealings between MI-5 personnel and their CIA counterparts during the era of the "special relationship" between George W Bush and Tony Blair. The current Obama/Cameron epoch provides, for good or ill, a less dramatic backdrop — and the recurring sub-plot of thorny US-UK collaborations ("the Americans think MI-5 is a weak link... they withdraw their support, our entire intelligence apparatus will collapse") never quite comes into focus.

Casting a couple of US actors might have helped — director Nalluri's previous big-screen outing, Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day (2008), was a US-UK co-production which benefited from having Frances McDormand, Amy Adams and Lee Pace in leading roles. Among support-players here only Jennifer Ehle (as an imperturbable MI-5 bigwig) makes much impact, crisply channeling Meryl Streep via Margaret Sullavan with the snowy tremolo of her icily precise diction.

Nalluri, who handled the first two episodes of the first two Spooks seasons and came back for the very final pair, is ploddingly content to follow the Hollywood-approved template for action/espionage fare, without ever imparting much of his own flavor. Technical contributions likewise seldom threaten to bedazzle: cinematographer Hubert Taczanowski seeks to show off a range of London locales, with copious use of helicopter shots, but his visions of the capital lacks the panache of recent genre notables Welcome to the Punch, Redemption (aka Hummingbird) or fellow small-screen transplant, The Sweeney.

Nick Love's slam-bang Sweeney — like the Spooks movie — pivoted on the chemistry between a seen-it-all pro and a tearaway youngster, a format whose most sparkling recent iteration is Matthew Vaughn's Kingsman: The Secret Service. Pairing another Firth (no relation) with crackerjack newcomer Taron Edgerton, Kingsman's fizzingly droll chutzpah can't help but make Spooks: The Greater Good, for all Peter Firth's ballast, seem dowdily old-school in comparison.

Production companies: Kudos, Shine
Cast: Peter Firth, Kit Harington, Jennifer Ehle, Tuppence Middleton, Elyes Gabel, Tim McInnerny, Lara Pulver, David Harewood
Director: Bharat Nalluri
Screenwriters: Jonathan Brackley, Sam Vincent
Producers: Jane Featherstone, Stephen Garrett, Ollie Madden
Co-producers: Jane Hooks, Robert Norris
Cinematographer: Hubert Taczanowski
Production designer: Simon Bowles
Costume designer: Colleen Kelsall
Editor: Jamie Pearson
Composer: Dominic Lewis
Casting: Reg Poerscout-Edgerton
Sales: Pinewood Pictures, London

No Rating, 104 minutes

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