Streets of wherever

Prague, Mbale, Antananarivo, London, Nassau, Miami, Podgorica, Lake Como, Venice: this is Casino Royale. Seattle, Berlin, Langley, Vatican City, Chesapeake Bay, Shanghai: this is Mission: Impossible III. Moscow, Turin, Paris, London, Madrid, Tangiers, New York: this is The Bourne Ultimatum.

Set pieces in foreign locations have always been a hallmark of the spy film genre, but in the current crop of Anglo-American franchises they have reached new levels of baroque virtuosity. The modern cinematic secret service agent is at home anywhere, speaks all languages, walks over everything; he’s a silent drone, a lethal tourist. And his conception of foreign territory is steeped in the ideology of globalisation.

Ethan Hunt, Jason Bourne and the latest incarnation of James Bond move in a very different world from their Cold War predecessors. A world without boundaries, it has often been claimed – although we hardly need reminding that this is true only for the holders of some passports. But to stick to cinema – and to say something quite banal – the caption ‘Budapest, Hungary’ meant something different in 1975 than it does today. In 2012 there are few, if any, territories that are openly hostile to the British and American agent in the same way, but this is not to say that the world has ceased to be hostile altogether. In fact, what these recent spy films are about, often overtly, is the violence of globalisation, coupled with the cost of dealing with systemic threats to the nerve centres of capital and finance.

These centres are properly post-imperial entities: they exert influence as opposed to direct governance; they pursue strategic alliances and favourable trade conditions as opposed to levying tributes or mining resources directly. The more old-fashioned imperial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are invisible in today’s spy films, possibly not even happening, hence agents never find themselves mired someplace. On the contrary, they must submit to a punishing travelling schedule: the threats that they are charged with neutralising move across the same routes, and with the same speed, as globalised commerce – literally, in the case of the illegal arms trade, but no less materially in the case of terror networks. The job of the agencies is to read these maps in real time and decide where to send the agents so that this bad trade can be disrupted.

The Bourne trilogy may seem at odds with this analysis, but it is no exception. In his quest to uncover and neutralise the conspiracy of which he is a product, Jason Bourne operates like a counter-agency of one, succeeding multiple times in spying on the CIA and even forcing it to send agents to the wrong locations. The key point, however, is that he too needs to read the global map and locate the nodes of the network in which to strike.

‘How did he die, your contact?’ ‘Not well.’

And strike, with swift brutality, the agent does. Take James Bond: he used to be a quick-witted and suave pleasure-seeker as much as a very effective weapon of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In the reboot starring Daniel Craig, he does almost nothing but fight, chase and be chased. His very sex appeal has become part of his arsenal; in Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006) he uses it to extract information from the wife of a target. He later falls in love, true, but it’s a departure, an awkward momentary lapse that, after his lover’s apparent betrayal, strips him even further down to the bare bones of his training.

To refine the argument: if the subject matter of these films is the violence of globalisation, its key mode of expression is a gallery of highly choreographed yet still realistic-looking and sometimes quite breathtaking hand-to-hand combat scenes. It’s a basic, primitive form of violence that ends in the death of one of the adversaries and leaves the victor bruised and panting. (It is hard work killing another human.) Being so low-tech, it is also something of a universal language, good for all latitudes.

Since the agent’s business abroad is violent confrontation, his skill lies in reinterpreting the foreign location as a battleground, in reading the urban landscape according to how it can be navigated quickly during a chase or exploited to gain advantage during a fight. The chase on foot across rooftops, balconies and in and out of city apartments is perhaps the most emblematic trope of the genre. In these situations the agent simply cannot afford to care about the integrity of somebody’s furniture, or the symbolism of – literally – walking over the heads of the local populace to get to where he needs to be. There is no time for cultural exchanges or mutual understanding. I’m just going to have to crash through your window, strangle this man in your shower with my bare hands. So sorry.

Amnesia in the field

Post-Cold War, all of these violent foreign encounters could happen pretty much anywhere; since we have dispensed with opposing blocs and axes, nations have lost their instantly identifiable geopolitical specificity. It’s Prague but it might as well be Shanghai. It’s Turin but it might as well be Tangiers. I suspect if we were to interview people who had just finished watching, say, Quantum of Solace (Marc Forster, 2008) they would struggle to identify half of the film’s stated locations. I say stated as opposed to actualbecause filming took place in Italy, Austria, Mexico, Panama, Chile and Wales, whereas the action is set in Italy, Austria, England, Haiti, Bolivia and Russia. The only reason I know this is because I wrote it down

If you cannot remember where you have been then you are like Jason Bourne, whose amnesia is an index of the genre. In each new iteration, James Bond exists in a perpetual state of remaking, but Daniel Craig’s debut as Bond signalled an attempt to reset the timeline and, in the process, erase all past Bond films. The Mission: Impossible series (1998–2012) is also a remake that has eclipsed the original, this time a television series, while the first instalment of the Bourne trilogy, The Bourne Identity (Doug Liman, 2002), is the adaptation of a 1980 novel that had already been filmed in 1988. All are re-set in the present day. Outside of the limited sample I’ve chosen, it’s worth mentioning Unknown (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2011) and Salt (Phillip Noyce, 2010), in that both lead characters are amnesiacs who have forgotten they are spies. In the case of Salt, the threat is an assassination plot that was hatched during the Cold War, and loss of memory becomes the device to dig the Soviet enemy out of its historical grave.

The agent without a past is the ideal post-imperial instrument: unencumbered by history and oblivious to the nuances of international relations, he (or she, since we introduced Evelyn Salt) can simply be taught to follow protocol or, failing that, fall back on advanced combat training that is, apparently, never forgotten. Bourne makes this point in slightly melodramatic fashion to his travelling companion, Marie, during a rest-stop at a bar en route to Paris in The Bourne Identity:

I can tell you the licence-plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and that the guy sitting up at the counter weighs 215 pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab of the grey truck outside. And at this altitude, I can run flat-out for half a mile before my hands start shaking. Now why I would I know that? How can I know that and not know who I am?

This speech offers a detailed example of the heuristic rules for interpreting a location based on the always latent possibility that it will erupt in violence. More significantly, it makes explicit how the agent’s existence unfolds through a series of goal-oriented moments, as opposed to a continuing and open-ended narrative. Bourne’s amnesia may be a source of anguish and existential crisis to him, but it doesn’t diminish his effectiveness in the field, in much the same way that Bond’s determination not to dwell on the past after the death of his lover makes him all the more lethal. A singular and relentless focus on the present is what makes the agent the ultimate tactical weapon.

The spectacle of control

The principal motivation for recasting the genre’s classic tropes in a largely ahistorical present is to inject them with a powerful dose of present-day technology. This no longer means the high-tech mechanical gadgetry dispensed at MI6 by the likes of Q (who was initially retired in the latest reincarnation of Bond, but makes a return in the recently released Skyfall) but rather portable electronic devices and the internet, which together profoundly alter the nature of the space in which the agents move.

I’m going to pick two examples to illustrate this point. The first one, from Mission: Impossible III (JJ Abrams, 2006), is the scene in which Benji Dunn, from his office at Langley, guides Ethan Hunt through the streets of old Shanghai. When the call is made, Hunt doesn’t even know which city he is in; it is Dunn who establishes the location by tracking Hunt’s phone and who then proceeds to issue directions and update Hunt’s position on a Google-style roadmap on his workstation. Most of the knowledge in this scenario resides in the interaction between the maps and the data, as opposed to the agent and his environment; Hunt is reduced to being remote-controlled by his nerdy, desk-bound helper.

The second example, from The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass, 2007), is the bravura sequence at London’s Waterloo Station. This one is worth examining in some detail. Bourne is due to meet a Guardian journalist at the station, a location he has chosen, we must assume, for the difficulty the CIA would have in cornering the pair in such a large and crowded space. Meanwhile, the agency, which has the journalist under phone surveillance, has deployed a number of agents on the ground, readied an ‘asset’ should the decision be made to take out Bourne and his contact, and set up a control room from which to coordinate the operation. Although located in New York, this control room is capable of maintaining not only audio contact with the agents but, after taking over all of the traffic and security cameras in the area, also visual contact. In this case, too, the very sophisticated remote mapping produces richer information than the team on the ground is able to obtain and process.

With few exceptions – notably the first Mission: Impossible (Brian De Palma, 1998) – film does a poor job at incorporating computers in the action. This is understandably so, since computers are rather un-cinematic, static objects. By contrast filmmakers, particularly those working in the spy genre, have developed very sophisticated ways of illustrating the kinds of control that it is possible to exert by means of computers. I don’t mean this literally, inasmuch as real-time sensorial access to remote locations, such as that depicted in the Waterloo Station scene, is, at this time, a fantasy. The CIA is not able to take over traffic and security cameras from a remote central location, much less in a foreign country. But the trope itself is revealing. We accept that there may be a control room somewhere that can access all of the world’s sensors and hunt down fugitives or coordinate in real-time the deployment of agents and assassins because, firstly, it makes for solid entertainment and, secondly, it is consistent (despite not being technically true) with diffuse perceptions of how another network operates. This network is the internet: a place without geography, or rather one whose geography is infinitely compressed – you can be in Cairo one moment and in Moscow the next or, more frequently, in places that are neither Cairo nor Moscow but that are wholly abstracted from any concept of physical terrestrial space. Places of literal ubiquity.

Geography without history

The internet, which is another word for globalisation, has no memory. Rather, it is made of memory: an infinite and continuous recording that is looped and twisted into a Möbius strip, thus lacking the means to establish a sense of time and causation. This is how it should be, because the internet, or globalisation, doesn’t aspire to be always but everywhere. Its being in time would presuppose the existence of a narrative, therefore the possibility of alternatives to its totalising presence. But what the internet and globalisation are really about is mapping and controlling space – they are all geography and no history.

The secret agents are an articulation of this: they are the condensed expression of the fantasy of a post-imperial world in which every nation, every city, every site is the potential centre of the whole, and everyone is equally invested in the success of the agent’s mission. This is not only true of those spy films in which the threat is systemic, catastrophic, global. In the Bourne trilogy – which some see as a departure from the increasingly mannered conventions of the genre, as well as an indictment of post-9/11 imperialism – the bystanders of a dozen nations, the extras, don’t have lives or interests that matter as much as Jason Bourne’s. At least not while he is carrying out his mission, the ultimate objective of which is to restore the integrity of the agency and to ensure that control can resume operating smoothly. At best the bystanders form a colourful backdrop, a large human canvas. Nothing more.

Mission: Impossible III made $397,850,012 at the box office, of which $134,029,801 was taken in the USA and Canada, and $263,820,211 in other territories. The Bourne Ultimatum: $442,824,138 ($227,471,070 USA/Canada, $215,353,068 other); Casino Royale: $594,239,066 ($167,445,960 USA/Canada, $426,793,106 other). This, too, is globalisation, and if you seek to find meaning you should probably at least take a look at the financial data. You can be sure that someone else is. There are producers, marketing executives and accountants breaking down this information and constructing and refining theories every bit as sophisticated as those of any cultural scholar to determine what plays best where.

In this respect, all of these films, along with every other major feature scheduled for worldwide release, are not so much about globalisation as they are the performance of globalisation: immensely appealing spectacles that could have been filmed anywhere and will be seen everywhere. What makes spy movies peculiar, however, is that they refract and make more visible the process by which America is emptied of social and historical meaning in order to facilitate its consumption by a global audience in other blockbusters (think of The Avengers). More than any other contemporary text – other than, perhaps, advertising – contemporary spy films articulate the fiction of a totally interconnected world in a perpetual state of equalisation – a world that is dangerous and furiously violent, yet at the same time transparently readable and perfectly ordered.

In 2008 James Bond encountered his most dangerous enemy yet, and was very nearly defeated. This was the global financial crisis which, a year on, threatened to bring down MGM and pushed back the release of the twenty-third film of the series, Skyfall, until October 2012. It was as if globalisation had struck back – but the moment didn’t last. Pre-production resumed when MGM came out of bankruptcy, and in April 2011 director Sam Mendes and producer Barbara Broccoli travelled to South Africa for location scouting. It later emerged that filming would take place in India instead, but after prolonged negotiations the production failed to secure the necessary arrangements and shifted to Turkey, as well as mainland China, the Japanese island of Hashima, England and Scotland. Most of those places, as usual, will likely stand in for others, a practice as old as cinema. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that the overall effect, as it always is, will be to transport us around the world and back, along the routes of trade, tourism and migration, through arbitrary stops, crafting the perfect global spectacle and making of all of us an audience of extras.

Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

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