Genre: Spy-Thriller
Premise: As a young CIA spy is about to assassinate her next target, he reveals to her that her agency has been lying to her, and that she’s so much more than she thinks she is.
About: This Black List script will star Zoe Saldana in the title role. Up-and-coming directors Marcus Kryler and Fredrik Akerstrom, who directed scenes from the latest Battlefield 1 video game, will helm the film. John McClain, the writer, is also brand new on the scene!
Writer: John McClain
Details: 103 pages


I was going to review a movie today called “Your Name,” which is an animated film from Japan that is currently the second biggest box office hit in the country’s history.

So I watched it.

And it had to be… maybe the worst movie I’ve ever seen. Like, so bad that I didn’t even know what to criticize. Honestly, my “What I learned” would’ve been, “That, in Japan, you can apparently turn a nonsensical piece of garbage into a box office phenomenon.” Can somebody knowledgeable about Japanese cinema explain to me why this movie is so popular? Cause all I saw was a bunch of cliched big-eyed animated characters spewing pointless dialogue with little-to-no story.

“Cliche” might be a good place to start with today’s script, as the action-spy thriller is one giant cliche at this point. Introduce spy. Show them do something spy-like, usually something at a party where they have to steal a jump drive and download the contents. Show that they’re a badass assassin by beating someone up, always preceded by the line, “He/She moves with inhuman speed…” Have them go after their next mark, someone of the opposite sex. Have them fall for each other, making the job that much tougher. Oh, and don’t forget to throw a major twist in at the midpoint, usually that our hero’s trustworthy superior is working for the opposition.


This is why so many scripts are bad, guys: Genre Goggles (see “What I Learned” section for definition). One of your jobs as a screenwriter is to understand the limitations of the genre you’re writing in and have a plan for how you’re going to overcome them. Spy-Thrillers are dressed up B-movies so there isn’t a whole lot you can do with them. Or is there? Let’s check out Hummingbird and find out.

20-something London is one hell of an operative doing deep cover stuff for the agency, protecting America one mark at a time. At least that’s what she’s told. Before every mission, London must go through a strange process whereby six cards are shown to her. When the sixth card arrives, a hummingbird, she becomes… something else. A cold-hearted killer.

When London is sent after her next mark, Alex, the plan is to do away with him. But unfortunately she starts liking him. Then Alex drops a bombshell on her. The hummingbird card trigger is part of a program HE DESIGNED. And it’s basically turned her into an assassin clone. Or something like that, since I don’t know what an assassin clone is.

Oh, but it gets so much worse. And, since this is a major spoiler, I’d recommend you stop reading now if you don’t want to know the script’s big surprise. Okay, is the “no spoilers please” crowd gone? Kay. It turns out that London is a robot. Which she probably should’ve figured out due to never having to go to the bathroom. But who knows. Maybe she was programmed to forget she’s never gone to the bathroom.

Back home, London’s team realizes their asset has gone rogue and therefore send out other agents in the area to kill her. This means her and Alex must go on the run. But learning you’re a robot is never easy. I’m still recovering from my own learning I’m a robot moment back in 2011. And even if London does manage to escape this, what kind of normal life can a robot possibly lead?

So here’s my checklist for spy-thrillers. Again, this genre is one of the easiest genres to turn into generic forgettable blech. So take heed if you’re a lover of this genre.

1) Is the writer making an active attempt to avoid cliches?

Like I said, this genre is a cliche minefield. So I’m always looking to see if the writer knows this and is avoiding them. Hummingbird starts with a giant party (at the Louvre!) scene where the main character needs to steal a jump drive and transfer files. That’s a huge mark against the script.

2) Is there more depth to the characters than in your typical action-spy thriller?

I’m not looking for American Beauty level character introspection. But if the characters are too thin, it’s impossible for me to care about them. And when you combine that with cliched action, you might as well have had a robot write the script. You’re a human being. You’re supposed to bring humanity to your story. Unfortunately, this is hard to do even in genres that feature character development. So remember the character development tenets: Make them relatable, give them a past, give them a flaw, have them battling with something inside of themselves, give them compelling unresolved conflicts with other characters, and most of all: BE TRUTHFUL. Don’t have your characters act like movie automatons. Have them act like real people.

3) Are the set-pieces inventive?

These scripts tend to revolve around those big party scenes I mentioned above, as well as foot races and car chases. You have to try and give me versions of these I’ve never seen before. You may fail. But if you’re at least TRYING, that puts you ahead of 99% of the writers in this genre, who think that as long as their characters are running or racing, we’re interested. And remember, you don’t have to include any of those scenes. If you really want to be different, give us an action spy thriller that doesn’t use any of those moments.

4) Are the twists truly shocking?

If your twists amount to the boss secretly being a bad guy? You fail as a screenwriter and as a person. Twists are important in this genre. And you usually have 2-3 big ones. So work hard at making those twists surprising. Try to surprise even the most seasoned moviegoer. And, to that end, Hummingbird definitely succeeded.

The thing about Hummingbird is that its big twist does give the script something that’s unique enough to separate it from other scripts out there. Also (SPOILER!), because London is a robot, it allows the script to delve into character development in a way that most spy thrillers can’t. London has to question everything about herself, which provides the proceedings with some weight.

And yet, I never fully invested in this journey for some reason. I wanted to. But (spoiler!) the robot reveal was the highlight. And that happened all the way back in the first act. Nothing else that followed lived up to that moment, casting the rest of the script in a “decent but unremarkable” light.

I give the writer credit for doing something different though. And if these directors have vision, who knows? John Wick was a dog-revenge movie and was freaking awesome. So anything’s possible! :)

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Genre Goggles – When you love a genre so much that you are unable to write away from its cliches and tropes, leading to a generic unmemorable experience.