2015 was a banner year for action-packed spy movies. The venerable James Bond franchise served up its 24th installment in the form of the ambitious-but-frustrating Spectre, while the propulsive Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation delivered a far more satisfying cocktail of blockbuster fun. Guy Ritchie and his former collaborator Matthew Vaughn offered a pair of spy movies (The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Kingsman: The Secret Service, respectively) that playfully satirized the genre while also aiming for genuine thrills. Paul Feig's Spy remained firmly on the comic side the spectrum, landing a lot of big, broad laughs at the expense of Bond movie conventions.

In contrast to these expensive, star-studded productions, the modestly budgeted British spy thriller MI-5 (released overseas as Spooks: The Greater Good) feels rather puny. Its explosions are a little smaller, its stars are a little less starry (the biggest name is Kit Harington, best-known for his work as Jon Snow on Game of Thrones) and its running time is a little shorter (a mere 104 minutes, while most of the above titles run around or above two hours). Unfortunately, MI-5 doesn't seem interested in acknowledging its size. It wants to be a big, explosive, Bourne-style action movie, but its best moments indicate that it would have been better off as a character-driven, John le Carre-style affair.

The film is based on the television series of the same name (dubbed MI-5 here and Spooks in Great Britain), which ran for an impressive ten seasons between 2002-2011. I should make a confession upfront: I haven't seen a single episode of the series, which probably makes me a less-than-ideal reviewer for this film. If you want to know how effectively this film ties up loose ends from the series or whether it successfully expands that show's general aesthetic, I've got nothing for you. However, considering that the movie is deliberately aiming for general audiences who are completely unfamiliar with the show, it seems fair to judge the movie on its own terms. My judgment: it doesn't really work.

The film begins with a spectacular blunder: counter-terrorism department chief Harry Pearce (Peter Firth, Mighty Joe Young) and his team have been tasked with transporting notorious terrorist Adem Qasim (Elyes Gabel, Game of Thrones) through London and turning him over to the CIA, but they manage to lose Qasim in the middle of an unfortunate traffic jam. Harry suspects that someone on his team has betrayed him, but recognizes that the MI-5 brass will probably blame him. In order to gain time to investigate the matter, Harry fakes his own death and goes undercover. Alas, not everyone is convinced that Harry is actually dead, so enterprising young agent Will Holloway (Harington) is charged with finding Harry and bringing him in.

There's a good deal of Le Carre-esque material in the film's increasingly knotty plotting and ever-shifting motivations, but the movie doesn't seem comfortable dwelling on that stuff too long. Instead, it rushes headlong into one overcooked action sequence after another, pouring generic thump-n-bump thriller music on the soundtrack and often reducing the dialogue to a series of brief exclamations. Director Bharat Nalluri (who directed numerous episodes of the show) attempts to make everything feel cinematic by employing lots of long shots and a widescreen aspect ratio, but it's hard to escape the sense that this is a movie-of-the-week dressing up as something more grandiose and bombastic.

Firth's performance is easily the film's greatest virtue, as he creates a commanding, complicated character who often finds himself tasked with making impossible decisions. It's a theatrical performance, but also a measured one, as the actor saves his dialed-up intensity for the moments that truly demand it. Firth is the only actor who appeared in every single episode of the TV series, and the film certainly makes it easy to see why. Unfortunately, Harington's turn is far less compelling. Good as he is on Game of Thrones, the more I see of Harington, the more I'm convinced that he's the next Orlando Bloom: a pretty face with a pretty accent and disappointingly limited dramatic range. Gabel has a few good scenes as the film's fairly conventional villain, and Jennifer Ehle (Contagion) – playing the MI-5 Deputy Director General - delivers a particularly strong moment late in the proceedings.

MI-5 is at its best when it slows down and gives the characters room to breathe. There's a particularly nasty, memorable early encounter between Harry and Qasim that lingers over the rest of the film, along with a quiet denouement that contains a surprising amount of power. These moments and a handful of othera effectively expose the raw underbelly of this cold, cruel world, and they leave an impression even when they feel like they're trying a little too hard to shock you (one character threatens to cut a pregnant woman open and drown her baby in a toilet, a line so absurd that it walks right past “grit” into unintentional comedy). Everything else feels like spy movie soup.


Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Year: 2015