Red, White, and Bond: Why the American Spy Genre Struggles While 007 Thrives



The agent designation: 007. You already know the name. The Bond franchise has been in existence for half a century, with Skyfall marking its twenty-third official entry. Not even the likes of Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger can boast sequels of that quantity. Why do we love James Bond so much? Is it his jet setting, womanizing lifestyle? Is it his ability to thwart even the most elaborate and well-crafted world domination schemes from a colorful rouges gallery of madmen? Whatever the case, with the next two films already in development, Bond shows no signs of slowing down.

The James Bond series has cast an overwhelming shadow over the landscape of film, particularly that of spy cinema. More particular still, American spy films have struggled to capture the same degree of phenomenal success as has been enjoyed by the Bond movies since the 1960s. While it is true that the various 007 films do not comprise the entirety of British spy cinema, it is without question the titan of the genre and therefore the paradigm by which the American counterparts must be judged. So how has America tried, and failed, to acquire this elusive cinematic target?

Comedic License

One of the earliest attempts for American films to capitalize on the James Bond trend, and indeed one of the first to yield any sort of franchise, were Bond parodies. In the late sixties, two separate American film series sprang up poking fun at England’s deadliest agent. The first starred James Coburn as Derek Flint, an agent of ZOWIE fighting the forces of evil in Our Man Flint and In Like Flint. At almost the same time, crooner Dean Martin starred as Matt Helm, a photographer/spy in a total of four film adventures including 1966’s The Silencers and Murder’s Row. Both of these series were takeoffs on the swinging, mod lifestyle that Bond was so often afforded by his occupation.

America has been monumentally prolific in the area of spy spoofs; rivaling and even possibly exceeding our output of more straight-laced fare. Movies like Hop Scotch and the movies based on the Get Smart television series eventually gave way to Spies Like Us, Top Secret, and the notably dreadful Leonard Part 6. The most interesting aspect of this is that the Austin Powers franchise, which netted three installments, riffs as much on the parodies of Bond as on Bond himself. It would seem we have long been of the mindset of “if you can’t beat ‘em, mock ‘em.”


James Bond is a loyal agent of Her Majesty’s government. This should be all rights limit his appeal to American audiences. But the writers, including Ian Fleming in the novels, were smart enough to design stories that placed the whole of the world in peril and not just England. However, Bond’s reverence toward his own country is one primary difference between Bond films and American spy movies. Where James is a willing instrument of his government, a vast majority of the spy films on this side of the pond illustrate a profound mistrust of our own government.

With Bond films, we are privy to the inner workings of MI-6, or at least the fictional version of MI-6 they had constructed. Our debonair lead, and therefore the audience, is hardly ever in the dark about even the most top-secret parameters of his missions. In the states, the heroes are often used and betrayed by shadowy factions of U.S. intelligence. This frightening cloak and dagger betrayal can be seen in the likes of Sidney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor and more recent films like Spy Game, The Recruit, and even the Denzel Washington/Ryan Reynolds 2012 film Safe House.

While we could dissect the myriad historical headlines that may have influenced this movement in American spy films, the fact is that these movies don’t lend themselves well to sequels. Once the curtain is pulled back and either the villains are laid to waste or their ultimate scheme has gotten the better of our hero, there are few other places the story can go. Either result would not logically allow for that character to return to spy work so the overarching continuity would be completely absent. These films, by their very nature, can’t really latch on in the same way as did Bond.

bourne american spyThe Impossible Task and The Bourne Exemplar

The two films that have managed their way around this problem are the two that have been the most successful, and in fact some of the only, non-comedy American spy franchises. In 1998, Brian De Palma adapted the television series Mission: Impossible into a film. Again, here we had a villain that was revealed to be an inside man, a former ally. However, the team dynamic added a new dimension to the proceedings and the action set pieces provided a nice counterbalance to the complex intrigue. That team dynamic would be somewhat lost in the next Mission: Impossible movie, but from then on it became more and more a staple of the series.

That team dynamic was divergent from the solitary hero that is Bond, however there were elements that made their way into the movie from the original TV series that play directly to Bond fans. The idea of the characters requiring their own theme song harkened back to Monty Norman’s fabulous signature Bond music. Again, this was not an invention of the movie, but a reflection of the days when America also used TV as a conduit for capitalizing on the Bond-inspired spy craze. The high-tech, and highly specialized gadgets used by the IMF team are also very reminiscent of the devices 007 uses to escape dire situation after dire situation.

A few years later, Universal produced a big screen version of the Jason Bourne character created by Robert Ludlum. Matt Damon’s amnesic CIA agent trying to reclaim his identity was enough of a twist on the concept of the treacherous government agency to enthrall audiences. The singular hero who was well skilled in the art of kicking ass found comfortable purchase in the hearts of those who idolized Bond. Plus, the Bourne series, like Bond, was drawing from a rich literary tradition. Also, like Mission: Impossible and the best of the 007 series, the Bourne movies often struck that perfect balance between captivating plot points and spectacular action sequences.

That last component may seem part and parcel with contemporary espionage actioners, but one of the most painful attempts to sell an “American Bond” to audiences was XXX starring Vin Diesel. Among its innumerable flaws, XXX was so singularly concerned with action sequences that the story was an appalling mess. This necessary balanced approach may also explain why The Bourne Legacy caused so much of a problem. It wasn’t the changing of the guard in the lead role from Damon to Renner, not playing the same character but certainly passing the torch, that caused the critical whiplash. We had become accustomed to that sort of changeover thanks to the Bond series and its seven different lead actors. But the story was so weak and the action scenes so poorly shot that it couldn’t possibly maintain the series’ energy.

Will we ever concoct the right formula to foster a spy series anywhere near as formidable as Bond? It’s hard to say. We’ve tried countless times to no avail, but the future of both the Bourne and Mission: Impossible franchises remains to be seen.

[Photo Credit: Sony Pictures/Paramount Pictures]


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