With the pending release of the new version of Get Smart, and many fond childhood memories of the original series, I thought I would assemble a list of TV spies who made great movies. Unfortunately, I was confronted with a mountain of evidence that international men and women of mystery have suffered horribly in their transition to the big screen.
That conclusion sounds counter-intuitive. After all, a movie can focus on a single defining story in a spy's life, while a television series, by its very nature, must include many routine episodes that fit into a familiar formula. The movie can have a much bigger budget, allowing for a variety of international settings, while the TV show often takes place in just one or two locations on the back lot.
But I think the best TV spies were successful because the producers made sure that the characters were the stars. Two-shots and close-ups of people talking work really well on the small screen, and sharp, well-written dialogue is always a bonus. Just a list of character names invokes pleasant nostalgia, while the movie versions have, for the most part, justifiably faded into oblivion.
1. Wild Wild West
Two words: Giant spider. Need I say more?
Reteaming Will Smith with his Men in Black director Barry Sonnenfield seemed like a good idea, but the emphasis on big boom gadgets (to the tune of a budget reportedly between $150-180 million) to the exclusion of all else made for an uninvolving, disheartening experience that bludgeoned the audience. The TV show had plenty of gadgets, but relied heavily on the comic interplay between James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) to make it work, chemistry that did not exist between Smith and co-star Kevin Kline. (PS: An Evening with Kevin Smith details the origin story for the mechanical tarantula.)
2. The Avengers
I know people who will swear by the sex appeal of Honor Blackman, but I fell in lust with Diana Rigg's Emma Peel before I even knew what that meant. She was the perfect foil for Patrick MacNee's John Steed, a classic push/pull flirting relationship. And in those boots and bowler hat, her looks could kill. They were teamed together for just two seasons, but the 1998 movie promised to put them back together in the persons of the delicious Uma Thurman and the refined Ralph Fiennes. Everything fell flat, though. I remember sitting in the theater and staring at the walls, at the ceiling, at the seats, wondering when the darn boring mess would be over.
3. I Spy
The television series was hailed as the first to feature an African-American actor in a lead role. Bill Cosby was fully the equal of Robert Culp and, in fact, his character was the brains of the pair. The episodes were less about flash and gadgets and more about the gritty and the real, and was marked by the "buddy spy" banter between the two stars. The cinematic I Spy switched things up by making Eddie Murphy the witty athlete and Owen Wilson the highly-educated one. The wisecracks were pretty much all that remained from the televised origins, with the balance of the running time devoted to a tired tale about an invisible spy plane.
4. The Nude Bomb
As an absolute, devoted fan of the series, I was cautiously optimistic about the first movie version in 1980. It looked cute rather than funny: an agent from KAOS threatened to unleash a weapon that destroyed clothing, a slight variation on the idea of the neutron bomb that had been made public a few years before, which promised to destroy people without affecting buildings. But there were a few marks against it before it even started: no Barbara Feldon as Agent 99! No Edward Platt as Chief! Dana Elcar was an acceptable replacement as Chief, but putting Sylvia Kristel in a movie about people losing their clothes and then not showing her naked -- unforgivable! (Also, the movie wasn't very funny, looked cheap, and wasn't very funny.)
5. Mission: Impossible 2
Old hands Brian De Palma and Robert Towne injected inspired silliness into the first film version of the series, though a cardinal sin was committed by the decision to radically alter Jim Phelps' character. The cardinal sin of M:I II was moving even further away from the idea of the IMF as a team. Director John Woo was overmatched by the material and star Tom Cruise, reduced to shallow self-parody of visual themes he'd already recycled in his first three Hollywood productions. Individual scenes can still be plucked out and enjoyed, but the overall effect was a bloated self-indulgence, the antithesis of the lean storytelling and spare emotions depicted in the original show.
6. The Saint
"Terrible" may be overstating the case, but the movie version of The Saint was seriously underwhelming. It certainly looked like it should: All cold, crisp blues and greens, courtesy of director Philip Noyce and cinematographer Phil Meheux. Roger Moore cut a striking figure in the TV series, but I thought Val Kilmer was his equal in the looks department and fully capable of living up to the challenge of modernizing a character that Leslie Charteris created decades ago, a character that had also been played by a boatlaod of actors on radio and film. I remember watching The Saint with a friend who absolutely loved it, and the appeal completely eluded me: No snap, crackle, or pop.
7. The Mod Squad
Sure, I'm stretching the boundaries of spies by including undercover police detectives, but let me explain. Most of the shows in this article were born in the wake of the huge success of the early 60s James Bond flicks and their attitudes and fashions were styled in that vein. While the content of The Mod Squad was decidedly non-spy (bad teens recruited to be go undercover among their peers, a dubiously uncool thing to do), the style -- mood, feeling, and look -- integrates the influence of the spy movies along with the general counterculture vibe. Peggy Lipton, Michael Cole, and Clarence Williams III were coool, baby! The 1999 version did away with the coool vibe and replaced it with an unpleasant belligerence and a forgettable plot. Claire Danes, Omar Epps, and Giovanni Ribisi walked through the roles; I can't remember much else about it.