In a different reality, we’d now be in the midst of Hollywood’s blockbuster season, enjoying the nearly weekly unveiling of a major event movie, including much-anticipated sequels (F9) and the improbable return of Tom Cruise’s most beloved 1980s hot shot (Top Gun: Maverick). Instead, well, you’re cooped up in your place trying to figure out what to watch while not going stir-crazy.
This is where we come in. On a regular basis, we’ll be presenting “The Replacements”: a list of five alternative choices for every big tentpole you’d been excited to see before COVID-19 changed our lives. We’ll select movies that are thematically or narratively similar to the postponed blockbuster, offering picks that range from cool obscurities to certifiable classics to forgotten gems. For the time being, event movies are on hold. But hopefully our alternatives will help scratch that cinematic itch.
This week: No Time to Die, the first James Bond film in five years. Even before the current pandemic, this Daniel Craig follow-up has experienced some troubles. In 2018, the movie’s original director, Danny Boyle, left the project during preproduction over those accursed creative differences. And then there were accidents on set, not to mention Craig’s constant refrain in the media that this definitely, absolutely will be his last time playing 007. No surprise, then, that No Time to Die felt like an autumnal swan song for this iteration of Bond, albeit one filled with a few fresh faces, including Craig’s Knives Out partner in crime Ana de Armas. Will No Time to Die be a worthy sendoff for Craig? We have no idea, but in the meantime, let us recommend five replacements that might satisfy your spy-movie craving.
North by Northwest (1959)
There’s never a bad time to watch what might be Alfred Hitchcock’s best film — and, by extension, one of the greatest movies ever. The master made several choice spy thrillers, but North by Northwest is the sexiest, sharpest, and the most pleasurable. You could start with Ernest Lehman’s pitch-perfect script. Or Bernard Herrmann’s paranoid, exultant score, which punctuates every iconic scene. Or you could get rhapsodic about that wonderfully constructed crop-duster action sequence. (“[I did] it in a bright sunshine with no place to hide, in open prairie country,” Hitchcock later bragged about that scene and his skill at subverting the conventional rules of how to create tension.) But, ultimately, it’s all about Cary Grant, impossibly handsome and charming as Roger Thornhill, an immature mama’s boy who gets mistaken for the wrong man, his whole life getting turned inside out in the process. Before there was a Bond, Grant gave moviegoers an image of a suave, sarcastic lady-killer. Thornhill even has a fondness for martinis.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
It has been 15 years since Daniel Craig was announced as the next James Bond — can you believe you are now this old? — and it’s easy to forget that the primary reaction at the time was: He’s blond? Unacceptable! In honor of a fellow Bond who many criticized at first, how about a revisiting of George Lazenby’s one go-round in the Bond role? The Australian Lazenby was hand selected as Sean Connery’s replacement largely because of a chocolate advertisement, and his agent convinced him that Bond was going to seem out-of-step in the ’70s, discouraging him from signing a seven-film contract. It’s a shame, because Lazenby’s pretty good! His bigger and more physical than your average Bond, but he’s still smooth and cunning. We’re not sure he would have worked for seven films, but Lazenby’s one film still holds up.
Layer Cake (2004)
Before Matthew Vaughn was giving us Kingsman films, he was a producer on Guy Ritchie’s films, and this one — Vaughn’s directorial debut and starring a then-unknown Daniel Craig — is like a sharper version of some of Ritchie’s gangster pictures. Craig is an unnamed cocaine dealer in London who wants to get out of the business but — get this — has to do one last job. That job ends up being incredibly complicated. (Otherwise there would be no movie.) Craig is magnetic in the lead role as a guy who is smarter than everyone he works with, but picked the precise wrong field with which to benefit from such intelligence. Craig was instantly a star, and that anyone was criticizing his casting as Bond was a pretty good sign no one had actually seen this movie.
OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006)
Before actor Jean Dujardin and director Michel Hazanavicius won Oscars for their slight, nostalgic salute to the Hollywood silent era, The Artist, they were busy sending up spy flicks with this ridiculously silly and very charming spoof. Dujardin plays Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, a roguish secret agent based on the character created by prolific French author Jean Bruce. (Fun fact: Bruce’s spy, code name OSS 117, predated 007 by four years.) But in Cairo, Nest of Spies (and its less-inspired sequel, Lost in Rio), Hazanavicius turned the dashing figure into a misogynist, bigot, and all-around moron, played with perfect smiling idiocy by Dujardin. To be fair, this spy comedy is a one-joke conceit, but fans of Mel Brooks-ian absurdity should definitely check it out. Once you start laughing at Cairo, Nest of Spies’ foolishness, it’s hard to stop.
A Most Wanted Man (2014)
The idea of James Bond has always been a gloss, the illusion that a superspy travels the globe taking down bad guys, sipping martinis and bedding vixens. A Most Wanted Man has the real truth: They look like Philip Seymour Hoffman, they are mostly miserable, and at the end of the day their bosses will stab them in the back just like everybody else’s. Based off a John le Carré novel, A Most Wanted Man is clinical and methodical and utter despairing, and is best exemplified by Hoffman’s exhausted, defeated performance. This was Hoffman’s last starring role before his death, and it would be heartbreaking to watch even without knowing that. There is nothing glamorous about the spy life. This is the anti–James Bond.