One of the many reasons that spy films have remained so popular is, that in the hands of a competent director, a considerable amount of tension and excitement can be built up with an against the clock finale. It’s a fine old chestnut, that is dragged out time and time again. There have been good one’s like The Manchurian Candidate and clunky ones like The Chairman – starring Gregory Peck, who stars as an undercover agent with a time bomb in his head.
Usually the hands of a clock, or a digital display counts down the seconds to that critical moment when the hero must act. The hero can be racing against a deadline, the threat being that once the time is up, an armada of bombs – usually nuclear – is sent on their way to destroy an unjustly accused enemy target. I think the last time it was used really well, was Phil Alden Robinson’s The Sum of All Fears. Or it can be an event, like an assassination, where at a particular time, a target, in whose hands lies the fate of the free world, is to be killed.
In Bond films, since Goldfinger, when the timer on a ‘particularly dirty’ nuclear device was stopped with 007 seconds to go, ‘beating the clock’ has been an enduring part of the Bond formula, recurring in the bulk of the movies in the series – You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever, The Spy Who Me, Moonraker, A View to a Kill, The Living Daylights, Goldeneye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough (in the pipeline), Die Another Day, and Casino Royale (at the airport).
But it has been used in more than the Bond films. In the 1940’s Humphrey Bogart battled the Japanese in Across the Pacific. The ending has Bogie stopping a Japanese Fighter plane from taking off from a top secret base and dropping it’s bomb on Panama. A few more seconds and he would have been too late. Recent hit films that have had beat the clock endings with varying degrees of success are The Sum of All Fears, The Peacemaker and xXx. The Sum of All Fears had a nail biting finish as Ben Affleck tried to stop world War III, with both the Americans and Russians preparing to fire their nuclear arsenals. The Peacemaker had George Clooney and Nicole Kidman rush around New York attempting to stop a nuclear bomb detonating in a church. xXx took a more action orientated approach and had Vin Diesel riding on the top of a miniature submarine that is preparing to send a payload of chemical laden missiles off into the atmosphere.
And I have only scratched the surface of one of the spy film genre’s most common plot devices. And the clock is ticking…