In case you wonder: No, I’m not trying to channel MAD Magazine here.
The four movies I liked best during the last twelve month were all surpise hits for me, where I went into the theater thinking Yeah, this will be fun, but didn’t really anticipate how great the movie actually turned out to be: Guardians Of The Galaxy, which I didn’t write about, yet, Kingsman – The Secret Service, which I wrote about here, Spy – Susan Cooper Undercover and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which I write about today. (I’ll also throw in Jonny English Reborn, which I saw on DVD recently.)
The reason I want to talk about the four spy movies is that I’m fascinated with the extraordinary suceessful combination of action and comedy that they represent.
Comedy vs Humour
Note how I say comedy, not humour. Mixing action, drama, and humour is standard for any spy thriller, modern or ancient. What differentiates comedy from humour, in my opinion, is that comedy is based on humour that exceeds the limits of the setting.
In real life, people make jokes, behave funny, have quirks, and run into ironic situations. So if, for example, a doctor, or a lawyer, does any of these, that’s simply humour. However, in real life, doctors and laywers rarely make offensive jokes, at the expense of their patients / clients, in their face, thereby putting their own job at risk. If that happens, we are in comedy territory.
Along these lines, James Bond is a thriller with some humour mixed in, but the four spy movies mentioned above are action comedy.
A true action comedy needs a pretty solid – if somewhat over-the-top – action plot as well as a strong comedy element, and they need to fit together well.
In my opinion, Spy – Susan Cooper Undercover and Jonny English Reborn have the strongest comedic element, Kingsman – The Secret Service has the least, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. stands in between. (To reiterate, comedic element refers to humour that breaks the limit of the action setting.) For the record, I love the humour in all four movies, even if it is of very different type: Foul-mouthed and irreverent language in Spy, slapstick and absurdity in Jonny English, irony and self-awareness in Kingsman, and a piece of all of those in U.N.C.L.E..
The Action Plot
To evaluate the strength of the action plot of an action comedy one can look at three questions: How solid is the world-building behind the plot? How precise is the execution of the plot? How does the comedy element interact with, or interfere with, the action plot?
The most solid world-building from our four examples is to be found in Spy: Terrorists getting hold of a small nuclear weapon is a scenario on the agenda of real-world agencies. U.N.C.L.E. and Jonny English use more-or-less believable variants of real-world scenarios. The evil mastermind’s plan Kingsman, on the contrary, is totally over-the-top, as is the agency depicted in either of the latter two movies.
The plot is executed very solidly in all four movies. I’d even argue that it is executed (almost) flawlessly, and that all four movies are examples of Terminating With Extreme Prejudice.
My article on Kingman, and even more the vivid dicussion in the comments of that article, shows that the Kingsman plot has many missed opportunities, something that I’d not say of any of the other three movies. But in my opinion this simply reflects that both the world-building and the plot of Kingsman are richer, more twisted, and more intriguing than those of the others.
In my opinion, Jonny English has the worst comedy-plot interference: The entire plot would fall apart if the titular hero wouldn’t be an idiot who is totally incapable of doing his job.
The plot of U.N.C.L.E. depends in details on some comedic mishaps, but is otherwise straightforward.
Since the comedic element in Spy is mostly language-based, plus some visual styles, it is mostly independent of the plot. If you cut out some of the more outrageous speeches, and dub some others, you could get an actual non-comedy (but humourous) action movie.
Kingman is a special case: There is a lot of comedy-plot interaction, but since the comedy is, as I stated, mostly ironical and self-aware, this doesn’t affect the plot negatively. In fact, I’d call the strong, overbearing humour in Kingman satire rather than comedy (but I think comedy can be satirical). And because according to my own definition, satire is equivalent to making fun of something by taking it seriously, this kind of satirical humourous influence is actually beneficial to the plot.
Which One Is The Best?
This may be the most interesting question, but I’m unable to answer it. I love all four movies, and if I love them in different ways, I still cannot rank my love for them.
But I’d be quite surprised if all of my readers share this thinking. Please tell us which movie you think is best in the comments. And also tell us where you agree or disagree with my opinions!
Next Wednesday will see the second Seven Questions About installment, where I’m asking sincerely and Elliwiny about their webcomic Opportunities. To fully understand what the questions and answers are about, you may want to take the time to read Opportunities.