“Undone by sentimentality,” grumbles a senior secret agent in “Spooks: The Greater Good,” having been foiled when a long-favored rendezvous location proves a trap. He might as well be talking about the film itself. A strained, superfluous spinoff from a globally popular, now-defunct BBC spy drama that was itself something of a nostalgia exercise, Bharat Nalluri’s chrome-colored thriller plays less as an organic extension of the series’ universe than an all-purpose genre piece nominally tailored to fit the “Spooks” franchise — not to mention the star quality of previously unaffiliated leading man Kit Harington. Nearly four years after the show’s exit from TV screens, existing fans may well deem this workaday return too late; for any uninitiated viewers, seeking a British twist on “Bourne” territory, it’s almost certainly too little.
Created by David Wolstencroft — who, perhaps tellingly, has no creative involvement here — “Spooks” was launched in 2002 and ran for an impressive ten seasons, operating as a kind of jauntier transatlantic response to the similarly themed U.S. sensation “24.” It lacked the latter’s beefy production values and structural pizzazz, but won a considerable fanbase by combining high-octane post-9/11 espionage with a line in quippy, distinctly British workplace humor. That balance may have been easier to maintain on the small screen. Blown up to fit the big one, “Spooks: The Greater Good” too often seems tonally non-committal and narratively under-powered, its odd segues into arch office infighting disrupting rather than informing the larger plot — the arc of which could otherwise be contained in a special episode.
With such previous cast members as Matthew Macfadyen and Keeley Hawes either unavailable or uninvited to the party, it’s left principally to Peter Firth to forge the connection between series and film. As Sir Harry Pearce, MI5’s terse, tight-jawed head of counter-terrorism, he’s not the most engaging choice of representative for the absent ensemble; allusions to an ex-g.f. killed in the line of duty will register with “Spooks” devotees, but are too cursory to carry much pathos in and of themselves. When, in an extended pre-credit sequence, generically ruthless Middle Eastern terrorist Qasim (Elyes Gabel, sporting a sporadic American accent) escapes from custody under Pearce’s watch, the veteran agent responds by leaving the service and faking his own suicide. No one falls for the ruse, least of all the viewer: “The Greater Good” isn’t letting go of its rusty heritage that casually.
Fresh blood arrives in the form of Harington’s young, globe-trotting agent Will Holloway, a loose cannon (as if there’s any other kind) commissioned by MI5 brass to trace Pearce — on the basis of some dimly explained backstory involving Pearce and Will’s late father that falls outside the show’s history, and doesn’t greatly deepen either character. Plainly recruited to lend some teen appeal to a franchise that skewed older even at the height of its popularity — he must be the screen’s first gentleman spy to sport a hipster man-bun, for starters — the “Game of Thrones” star is actually a brightening presence, though his flushed charm and physical resourcefulness can’t quite induce auds to care about the overall chase. (As for the youth spy vote, kids are likelier to stick with Harington’s “Testament of Youth” co-star Taron Edgerton in “Kingsman: The Secret Service.”)
Still, Harington is a better-used newcomer to the Grid (“Spooks” parlance for the division’s secure offices) than the usually excellent Jennifer Ehle, who’s not just squandered but actively misdirected as an inscrutable MI5 chief. It’s hard to tell whether her croakily mannered line readings are meant to be as amusing as they are, though she’s not aiming for quite the level of fruit-loop eccentricity achieved by the film’s second-most prominent series returnee, Tim McInnerny — whose every utterance laces his suited bureau official with preening, perfumed malevolence. Even when delivered with flair, however, the dialogue itself has little. Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent, both formerly on the series’ writing team, have penned a script heavy on direct, televisual exposition and would-be zingers that seem to trip up on their own phrasing: “Just because your life hasn’t been worth a damn, don’t think for a moment we can’t make it less satisfactory,” says one character, perhaps less threateningly than intended.
Indian-born helmer Nalluri (whose last feature assignment was the markedly different puffball “Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day”) counts on the pic’s travel itinerary to keep it afloat through stretches of standard-issue storytelling: Characters skip briskly back and forth between London, Berlin and Moscow, made somewhat uniform by the consistent silver-blue tint of Hubert Taczanowski’s lensing. Tech contributions across the board are likewise capable but impersonal: Though the script, perhaps taking its cue from “Skyfall,” makes frequent reference to old-school espionage tactics (“Glad you remembered the umbrella drop!”), that retro impulse hasn’t penetrated the film’s formal design. Here, at least, a little sentimentality wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Film Review: 'Spooks: The Greater Good'
Reviewed at Soho Screening Rooms, London, May 5, 2015. Running time: 102 MIN.
(U.K.) A Pinewood Pictures, Isle of Man Films presentation of a Kudos, Shine Pictures production in association with BBC Creative England, Altitude Film Entertainment. (International sales: Altitude, London.) Produced by Ollie Madden, Jane Featherstone, Stephen Garrett. Executive producers, Steve Christian, Ivan Dunleavy, Richard Holmes. Co-producer, Jane Hooks.
Directed by Bharat Nalluri. Screenplay, Sam Vincent, Jonathan Brackley, based on the television series created by David Wolstencroft. Camera (color, widescreen), Hubert Taczanowski; editor, Jamie Pearson; music, Dominic Lewis; music supervisor, Danny Layton; production designer, Simon Bowles; art directors, Andrew Munro, Karl Probert, Justin Warburton-Brown; set decorator, Liz Griffiths; costume designer, Colleen Kelsall; sound, Dan Voigt; supervising sound editor, Simon Chase; re-recording mixers, Brendan Nicholson, Andrew Caller; visual effects supervisor, Sascha Fromeyer; visual effects, LenscareFX; stunt coordinator, Julian Spencer; line producer, Andy Noble; assistant director, Stuart Renfrew; second unit camera, Malcolm Maclean; casting, Reg Poerscout-Edgerton.
Kit Harington, Peter Firth, Jennifer Ehle, Tim McInnerny, Elyes Gabel, Tuppence Middleton, Eleanor Matsuura, Lara Pulver, David Harewood, Michael Wildman.