Genre Study: 5 Movies You Should See Before Writing a Spy Thriller

Genre Study is Page 85′s new blog series that examines how genres evolve over time, and how you can make the most out of the genre you’re writing by studying films of the past.

If you’re writing a spy thriller, it’s imperative that you figure out what came before you in this genre so that you can write something fresh and surprising instead of a retread of what’s already been done.

That’s why I’ve created a list of 5 movies you need to see before writing your spy thriller screenplay: 

1. Ronin (1998)

Starring Robert de Niro

Why You Should Watch It: This has one of the cleanest, most intriguing set-ups of any spy movie I’ve ever seen. The movie begins with a few quick title slides telling the audience that masterless samurai are called Ronin, and then we’re transported into this world of freelance assassins and intelligence agents who must collect a case for their mysterious employers. The first half of this movie is focused, action-packed, and awesome. The second half is rushed and awkward, but the movie is still worth watching for the first half.

What it Contributes to the Genre: Ronin uses the genre conventions quite well: shadowy meetings, unknown employers, strange cases that must be obtained, stakeouts, reconnaissance — yet it also tries to subvert the genre by adding in an ancient feel. These spies are like wandering Samuris, like Ronin. The audience wants to know what the connection is between these masterless Samuris and these freelance assassins. The connection isn’t as great as the movie builds us up to believe, but the lingering question of ‘what do the Ronin have to do with this plot?’ is a great device. Try mixing the old and the new in your spy thriller and see where it takes you.

Takeaway: When you confuse your viewers, you’ve lost them. Ronin starts off so well by cleanly explaining the premise, goals, and conflicts. It’s beautiful. But then, shit happens and we’re confused, and the payoff falls short. Notice what works and what doesn’t in this movie, and take note of what aspects of the role may have attracted Robert de Niro.

2. Hanna (2011)

Why You Should Watch It: I’ve sung the praise of this movie so many times before, but that’s because it’s truly an excellent story. Hanna takes the basic premise of a child assassin, and makes it edgier and more stylistic. The story is incredibly visual and relies on the dark fairytale allegories to make it even more unique and textured.

What it Contributes to the Genre: The innocence of its young protagonist is consistently contrasted against the violence she faces during her journey. In one scene, she’s frightened by the alien technology of a television, and in another she is brutally murdering a woman she thinks is out to kill her.

Takeaway: Character contradictions are critical for building realistic, compelling characters. One note characters are not nearly as interesting as those who are both childlike and warrior-like.


3. La Femme Nikita (1990)

Written and Directed by Luc Besson, best known for the movie Taken

Why You Should Watch It :The French film La Femme Nikita is a key stepping stone in spy thriller history because it has been remade so many times. First, there was the John Badham’s 1993 Point of No Return American remake with Bridget Fonda and Gabriel Byrne, which followed the plot of Besson’s original almost exactly. Then, there was the television series, La Femme Nikita, which ran from 1997-2001. Then, the series was reimagined completely for the 2010 tv reboot, called simply Nikita and starring Maggie Q and Shane West. It is still on air today. The story of a killer taken from death row and then trained to be an assassin for a secret unit of the government has caputred audiences worldwide, and still proves to be a compelling story today. If that’s not reason enough for you to check it out, I don’t know what is!

What it Contributes to the Genre: Every version of Nikita frolicks in the grassy fields of genre conventions. We’ve got secret bases, lingo like “black ops,” mole hunts and kill chips, disguises and gadgets, briefings and interrogations… you name it, and it is part of Nikita’s legend. But there are two elements of this story that make you remember, ‘this story takes place in the Nikita universe.’ The first is the irresistible hook of this high concept idea: the government taking criminals from death row and training them to kill for them. It’s clever in a way that almost makes you wonder, could the government be doing this now? And that kind of curious wondering makes the show more intriguing. The second element is the use of a female protagonist. She doesn’t exist simply for the sake of eye candy. In the original La Femme Nikita, we see this woman struggle with the choices she’s made, and her character arc is not an easy one. She goes from a violent, out-of-control druggie to a sophisticated, highly skilled assassin. This transformation paired with her struggles to maintain her relationship with David while her job forces her to keep secrets is a compelling combination. The character helped paved the way for characters like Jennifer Garner’s character in Alias. She’s strong, powerful, but also is haunted and conflicted by the things she must sacrifice.

Takeaway: No matter what gender your protagonist is, make sure to make their struggle compelling. The slick, suave James Bond types work well in the context of action flicks, but with the thriller there has to be emphasis on the tumultuous state of the protagonist’s mind. The core struggles of Nikita’s character often center around how her job affects her loved ones. Her job is the reason why they’re in danger, or why she must hurt them to protect them. She has no qualms with the act of killing– it’s just how her killing affects those she cares about that truly adds fire to her inner conflict.


4. The Debt (2010)

Why You Should Watch It: This film is filled to the brim with scenes of tension and surprising plot twists.

What it Contributes to the Genre: In espionage thrillers, deception usually takes place within the shadows. But in The Debt, the main characters are trying to deceive the world, and then must live with the burden of their secrets. The tension comes from whether or not they will be found out as well as they ‘will they take down the bad guy?’

Takeaway: Once again, this film is another testament to playing upon inner conflicts of morality. Spy thrillers are a great vehicle to explore these kinds of conflicts, and films like “The Debt” do it quite well.


5. The Bourne Trilogy

Starring Matt Damon, based on Robert Ludlum’s novel, screenplay by Tony Gilroy and W. Blake Herron, directed by Doug Liman.

Why You Should Watch It: Based on Robert Ludlum’s classic novels, the Bourne trilogy is one of my favorite spy thrillers. It fulfills all of the typical tropes and conventions you’d expect in a spy film: vehicle chases, foot chases, international locale, forgotten identity– and then proceeds to build a pitch perfect story out of all of these. The plot moves forward with a confidence that can only be obtained by having a solid source material to work with, and it’s a cultural icon.

What it Contributes to the Genre: Every great spy film must fulfill one of these requirements: it must be refreshingly different, or it must be the best genre film it can be. We’ve seen amnesia done before, we’ve seen shady organizations before, we’ve seen assassins before — but somehow Bourne Identity does these things better. When I ask you what’s the best man-with-amnesia-searches-for-his-identity-story you’ve heard of, Bourne would be at the top of your list.

Takeaway: When developing your concept, if you’re not developing something fresh and unique, know that you have to execute your story perfectly for it to work. Bourne worked because the story was written so well. Any lesser writer might not have been able to pull a story such as this off.



On what was left off this list:

Salt with Angelina Jolie was a candidate for this list, but didn’t make it due to the fact that I thought Hanna was a more unique lone-female-assassin take.

The omniscient Bond movies technically count as spy thrillers (especially the recent Skyfall), but I opted to examine some lesser known films instead of tackling the legacy of James Bond. That’s for another post.

The Mission Impossible series can’t be classified as a spy thriller– it’s more of an action/spy film.


Stay tuned for more articles!