Action b-movies have had a resurgence of late, with a few of the finest escaping the oblivion of VOD and putting up solid box office numbers. Last year’s excellent Keanu Reeves flick, “John Wick,” even proved, once again, that the genre still packs a punch. And Gerard Butler will be back to save the President (or whole world or something) in the follow up to “Olympus Has Fallen” — aptly titled “London Has Fallen” — which destroyed its mega-budget counterpart, “White House Down,” at the box office in 2013. Now “MI-5” is here to spice up the early goings of the holiday season and supply us with our bi-annual dose of rogue-hero-who-will-stop-at-nothing-to-do-the-right-thing.
Based on the BBC One TV series “Spooks,” with much of the principal cast reprising their roles, “MI-5” (known as “Spooks: The Greater Good” across the pond) kicks off with a prisoner transport gone wrong. MI-5 has gotten their hands on the CIA’s most wanted target, and all they have to do is hand him over. But before they know it their security falls apart, their operation is compromised, and the big baddy, Qasim (Elyes Gabel), is on the loose again and planning another terrorist strike on London.
For head of counterterrorism Harry Pearce (Peter Firth, back for more after starring in all ten series of the show), something is off. Somebody inside MI-5 made sure Qasim got away. But for everybody else, the blame is pinned easily enough on Pearce, who fakes his own death and goes dark. Naturally, the only one who can solve the jigsaw puzzle of lies and deceit for MI-5 is Will Holloway (Kit Harington of “Game Of Thrones”), a disgraced operative and one time mentee of Pearce.
As rogue and brash as Holloway is, it doesn’t take long for the intelligence agency to lose control of their players, but to reveal much more of the knotty turns of “MI-5” would be to ruin the fun. On the surface, MI-5 is out to stop Qasim, but the much more interesting narrative is the dual between Pearce, Holloway, and June (Tuppence Middleton) as they each attempt to discern the difference between doing their job well and doing good.
For fans of the show it’s hard to imagine “MI-5” not living up to expectations. Directed by Bharat Nalluri, and written by Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent, the film is an attempt to meld the sensibilities of John Le Carré with the city hopping adventure of the “Mission: Impossible” series. Though unlike Le Carré’s novels and their adaptations (“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” being a clear influence here), “MI-5” trades in much of the somber reflection for foot chases and fist fights, while still trying to hold onto the philosophical depth that hums beneath the surface and gives such life to the spy classics.
To be fair, once the film sets all its pieces in place and the chess match begins taking shape, it manages to build a decent amount of momentum and stays fun — if only for the dozen or so double crossings, back stabbings, and triple agents. Surely, on a second viewing, much of the plot might come out looking ragged or head scratchingly absurd. But often the best b-movies, more than anything else, simply aim to entertain: offer up some thrills, some excitement, and maybe even some emotional catharsis. “MI-5” mostly checks all these boxes (or tries to, at least, on that last count).
Where the film stumbles worst is in its motivations, especially for Qasim. Gabel inhabits the well-educated-middle-class-man-turned-terrorist role with some unnerving lightness, but the film needs him to have ulterior motives, which end up being far less interesting and frightening than those he starts with, and fails miserably at any sort of humanization. The same goes for Harington’s Holloway. He claims to want nothing to do with MI-5, only to jump back in at the mere mention of the word Berlin (which never leads anywhere substantial).
Harington — maybe intentionally, maybe not — seems to be channeling Tom Hardy, trying to capture that same sort of loose cannon hunger, but he can’t ever tap into the fierce energy to make anything of it. Where Hardy has the uncanny ability to create the sensation that many of his characters are liabilities, powder kegs waiting to explode, Harington — who is very good on “Game Of Thrones” and very watchable here — can’t muster the same sort of excitement and unpredictability. So, while he makes for a visually appealing lead, and does an adequate job carrying the film through its motions, he is easily forgotten the moment the credits roll.
Elsewhere, “MI-5” is serviceably accomplished. Like many of the finer BBC programs, it’s lensed with sharp, tight focus, and sweeping views of London by Hubert Taczanowski. Similarly, Dominic Lewis’ score conforms to the genre mold, matching the film beat for beat, adding as little as it detracts.
“MI-5” is no action b-movie classic, but it manages to weave a complex and compelling narrative knot, mix in some absorbing musings about the nature of doing right and following orders, and pack in some nail-biting shoot outs. [B-/C+]