The elements that go into the making of a great spy movie combine intrigue, elegance, mystery and allure into an action packed tale of plot twists and double crosses. Whether you envision a foggy London street, crowded with British MI5 agents attempting to thwart enemy operatives from snagging the British Crown Jewels from the Queen's custom safes; or rather you picture critical Cold War documents being pilfered from specially designed custom safes--great spy movies offer a hint of danger with a dollop of explosive action.
For best results, a good espionage tale should place the viewer immediately into the action with the film’s clever villain exhibiting a clear advantage over the “good guys” as the former begins to execute their nefarious plot against the latter. Further, through surprise and careful planning, the antagonist should enjoy a clear advantage over the hero during the first half of the story. These elements establish a sense of urgency in the viewer, and make the underdog antagonist a sympathetic character whose success they become highly invested in.
Not to be outdone, the plot develops as the protagonist struggles to stop the unthinkable from happening. While a highly nuanced plot is appreciated, the goals of the opponents should be clear cut (stop the nuclear weapon from vaporizing a city vs. vaporizing a city with a nuclear weapon, as examples). Although most spy movies will feature the classic “double cross,” to the satisfaction of the viewer, justice is still served in the end. As such, a great spy movie features action that is tempered with a solid plot line, and exhibits a flair for the technologically extravagant.
High tech toys, custom safes, fast cars, and beautiful women are the accepted accoutrements of a professional espionage agent. As such, a sense of refined accomplishment accompanies the protagonist through the movie as he outmaneuvers, and out performs the opposition.
The viewing public has always had a fascination with the gadgetry of espionage however, that fascination should not get in the way, or replace a credible plot line. Clearly, as the James Bond franchise illustrates, movie makers are not shy about feeding that fascination. That said, care should be taken to ensure that the technology doesn’t outpace the plot. The viewer should leave the theater marveling at the surprise ending rather than how cool it was when the spy’s wrist watch turned into a helicopter.
Whether custom safes stuffed with secrets are the target, or global nuclear annihilation is on the line, script writers, with the real world as a canvas from which to draw their inspiration from, have a rich repository to develop compelling plot lines. As they say—fact is stranger than fiction. All that is left for the enterprising screenwriter to do to craft a great spy tale then is weaving the disparate elements into a cohesive whole, which galvanizes the viewer’s sympathy and engenders a sense of satisfaction when the protagonist emerges, bruised and battered by his exploits, but victorious in the end.