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Spy Movies at the Box Office

It’s no secret: these two spy flicks couldn’t be more different

En español  |  They both open this weekend, and they’re both spy movies. Other than that, the latest installment in the Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible canon and a re-imagining of John le Carré's spy classic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, starring Gary Oldman, have just one other thing in common: The opening shots of each film occur at precisely the same geographic spot, the 14th-century Matthias Church, on a hill overlooking Budapest.

From that point, the two films take off in diametrically opposing directions, and neither one looks back, not for one second.

Starting with an aerial shot above the church, Ghost Protocol’s camera sweeps across the Danube River to a Budapest rooftop, from whence the film immediately launches into a dizzying, nearly nonstop frenzy of blazing gunfights, squealing car chases, deafening explosions, secret hideouts, dazzling technology (that fails as often as it succeeds), and a world tour that leaps, by my reckoning, from Hungary to Chechnya to Moscow to Bahrain to India to San Francisco, with a side trip to outer space. And always there’s Cruise, he of the come-hither smile and tousled hair, hurling himself through windows, jumping off ledges, and reminding us just why the tuxedo was invented.

It’s nice, when the latter-day James Bond franchise has decided to take itself so darned seriously, to relive a time when action movies knew their proper place as adrenaline-pumping escapism. I’m not saying Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol is a family film, but its violence is of a distinctly pre-Sam Peckinpah variety, and in the course of its two-hours-plus running time, there is but one profanity uttered, and it is of the most mild sort.

I think a lot of the credit for that has to go to the director, Brad Bird, helming his first live-action film in a career that includes three of the most wonderful animated movies ever: The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille. Animation is all about movement, and Ghost Protocol accelerates like a BMW off a parking garage roof. Most importantly, unlike lots of action directors out there (are you listening, Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich?), Bird knows how to make action sequences make sense—you know where you are, and where you’re going, from one shot to the next. The action in Ghost Protocol is dizzying, but not disorienting.

From that same Budapest church, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy ushers us to a Cold War-era cafe in a near-empty arcade, where the film dispenses with most of its gunplay in very short order. From that point, the film’s action occurs primarily in the form of hushed conversations and secret rendezvous in dark parlors, soundproof conference rooms, and seemingly abandoned streets. Gary Oldman—whose resume includes such far-flung roles as Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Sirius Black—is nevertheless a revelation as the tight-lipped, poker-faced spymaster George Smiley. Charged with rooting out a mole at the highest levels of British Intelligence, Smiley can trust no one, and so can never confide in anyone (his one trusted colleague, played with marvelous cragginess by John Hurt, is gone from the scene all too soon). The miracle in Oldman’s portrayal comes in his uncanny ability to convey to the audience his own inner conflicts, indeed, his very thought processes, without speaking a word.

Tinker, Tailor is all about secret keeping, and so silences play a pivotal role—a perfect environment for director Tomas Alfredson, whose breakthrough vampire movie Let the Right One In traded similarly in the profound meaning that can be found in simply being quiet. It’s a very grown-up storytelling approach, one that challenges audiences in a way movies seldom attempt anymore.

If you’re going to see both Tinker, Tailor and Ghost Protocol this weekend, I’d suggest you take in the former first. Otherwise, I’m afraid you’ll be hopelessly distracted, as George Smiley stands silently in his living room, quietly pondering his next move, by that infernal ringing in your ears.