Tag Archives: Ronin

I’ve recently started re-watching Burn Notice to help with a story idea I have. What other recommendations do you have on how spies fight?

For spies, combat is an absolute last resort. They’ll use it because they have to. When they do get into combat, what they’ll do will be heavily dictated by who they’re masquerading as.

If they need to eliminate someone to avoid blowing their cover, they’re going to need to take them down as hard and fast as possible. Preferably in a way that doesn’t point back at them. Sometimes this means killing their opponent, but as Westen points out throughout the series, leaving a dead body behind can actually draw more attention in the long run.

Like most genres, spy fiction ends up on a spectrum between formalism and realism. The issue is, at the extremes, they’re almost different genres, so I’m basically going to have to write two separate recommendation lists.

The formalistic genre is your superspies. This ranges from espionage themed action to comic book level insanity. Your spies are a different flavor of superhero. As a tonal element, formalistic spies actually work better when placed against supervillains, because you get a nice parity between them.

The realistic genre is the brutally bleak tradecraft. These are settings where spies will die if they get into actual fights with trained opponents, and saving the day often means outmaneuvering your opponents without resorting to overt action. At its extreme, the realistic genre can actually get bleaker than espionage in the real world, and that’s saying quite a bit.

The best material in the genre finds a mix between these two points, and stays there. So, you’re going to get two separate recommendation lists, just remember to take elements from both.

Burn Notice’s is a bit schizophrenic. The narrator isn’t just a completely different character from Michael Westen, he’s actually at a different point on the spectrum. The show itself is fairly formalistic, while the narrator is talking about concerns and behavior from a realistic perspective. It’s part of why the show worked so well, but when you’re drawing from it, remember to keep those elements separate.

If you’re wanting to go more in the superspy direction, James Bond is the gold standard. License to Kill and Casino Royale are probably the most realistic (which isn’t saying much). If this is a good thing or not is a matter of taste.

The Bourne Identity (the first film only) is another solid formalistic example. (The second and third film have better fight choreography, but they suffer from a terminal case of shaky cam; which requires you already have a solid grasp of hand to hand to really follow.) The only part of Legacy I’ve seen was Jeremy Renner’s fantastic hand to hand work. It’s more cop than spy, but if you have the time, it could be worth looking at.

The novel is actually much closer to an American James Bond, with the serial numbers filed off. You can pick up some basic tradecraft from it, particularly Bourne’s thought process about blending into his environment can be very useful, and it’s something the film does skim completely over.

Salt is solidly in the superspy genre, the sleeper agents demonstrate supernatural resilience to damage, and the entire premise is a little crazy. But, if your spies aren’t really human, you could probably get some ideas from this.

Red is basically in the same vein, fun, but equally ludicrous. Again, if your spies have actual superpowers, go ahead and watch it. Karl Urban’s character might be worth looking at even if you are pushing for a more realistic bent.

Chuck wore thin for me. There’s stuff to like, so, it might be worth your time if you want to mess around with superspies interacting with the normal world.

The original Get Smart TV series is freakin’ brilliant. It’s a parody of the superspy genre that was partially helmed by Mel Brooks. Obviously, it’s not even remotely serious, but if you’re wanting to mock that genre it’s a must see.

If you’re wanting to run harder into the realistic genre, then you’re going to be looking at a much bleaker recommendation list. I’d start with The Human Factor by “Ishmael Jones”. This an ex-CIA case officer’s memoires, it’s easily available and deals with the current state of the American Intelligence community.

Blowback by Chalmers Johnson isn’t actually about spies per say, but it is about the political consequences of espionage (and foreign policy in general). This might not be something you want to delve into, but I’ll leave it on the list.

With the non-fiction reading out of the way, John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a classic in the genre with good reason. The novel’s been adapted twice, with Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman playing George Smiley. I haven’t seen either, but the novel is a good primer for writing spies.

The Fourth Protocol follows a retiring spy who’s investigating a Soviet plan to detonate a nuclear weapon on an American air base. Bonus points, in that the Russian agent is played by Pierce Brosnan. If you want to see how a realistic spy fights, then he’s probably the single best example. That said, it’s been about ten years since I saw this, so I could have accidentally slipped on rose colored glasses. I haven’t read the novel it’s based on.

Although somewhat dated, The Sandbaggers was a British TV series in the late 70s. Though the answer it gives on how their spies fight is “as little as possible.” Historically the show is actually based on how the CIA would task agents, rather than MI6.

Greg Rucka’s Queen and Country is a modern update of The Sandbaggers in comic form. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’ve already seen Sandbaggers, but if you don’t have access to the show, then this is much easier, and cheaper to find.

Ronin is a mix of formalism and realism. It’s still an action film, but the tradecraft the ex-spies use is remarkably solid. Given that you’ve started with Burn Notice, you should have a pretty good frame of reference to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. Also, I’ll say it again, this is also one of the best films you can watch for car chases, almost every shot in the film was done with stunt drivers on actual streets, and it shows. If you want to get an idea of what a trained operative could actually do with a car, this isn’t completely off base.

Spy Game by the late Tony Scott is a rather hectic mix of realistic elements. I’m more comfortable dropping it here because of how heavily cut together it is, and elements of the film’s plot. This is a very dense primer on tradecraft.

The other mix of realism and formalism is the Mission: Impossible TV series. Not to be confused with the film franchise, the TV series focused on characters actually being spies, infiltrating and manipulating organizations or individuals to achieve their goals. There’s a heavy focus on supplementing their operations with gadgets, but it’s one of the forerunners of the modern genre divide.

AEG’s Spycraft RPG was written so it could be played as either a realistic or cinematic (formalistic) game. It has a lot of resources for both superspies and real operatives. In a rare moment, the character creation system is also useful, as it illustrates the different specialties that are intrinsic to espionage.

Spycraft’s World on Fire supplement is insanely useful, it’s also incredibly hard to find. It was about blending one of the Spycraft settings with the real world, and it has an absolutely staggering amount of information on actual espionage in the 20th century. Unfortunately, a lot of it is mixed in with World on Fire’s six fictional factions. So, it’s useful, but tread carefully.

If you’re wanting to do a spy story set in a science fiction setting, I’d take a look at The First Line from Last Unicorn Game’s now defunct Star Trek RPG. Be ready to parse the Trek out of it, if your setting isn’t similar, but it does offer some fantastic thoughts on espionage and counterintelligence in a spacefaring civilization.

Finally, the line from Burn Notice, that “Spies are just criminals with a government paycheck” is entirely on point. You’re probably tired of me recommending Heat every other post… So I’ll recommend Payback instead. The lead character is a con artist, not a spy, but the general “messing with people” approach is very spy like. (If you’re digging this up, make sure you grab the director’s cut, it’s actually a different, more consistent, film.)

-Starke

What would you say is the most effective way to kidnap a character? it’s spur of the moment. the kidnapper is a strong man with training (but no weapon) and his victim, who does get captured, is a much physically weaker man. there are two witnesses who try to intervene: one with military training (though not as much as the kidnapper) and the other is the kidnapper’s lover, who attempts to stop him. how could the kidnapper incapacitate them all before the police arrives? thanks so much!

Okay, there’s actually an issue in here, so let’s step back and talk about professional criminals for a second. Criminal activity is their job, and they need to approach their life with a risk vs. reward analysis for nearly everything they do. They’ll work together and network with other professionals. This isn’t altruistic, just an understanding that they need to work with other people to achieve their goals. They don’t need to like the people they’re working with, but, if they all still have a shared goal, they will. Most understand how planning and advance setup can help reduce the risks involved in their profession.

Okay, with that out of the way, let’s talk about the crime. A kidnapping is not something you do spur of the moment. It’s a difficult criminal operation, involving a lot of moving pieces, any one of which can scuttle the whole operation after the team is committed.

Your criminal will need a team backing them up. They’ll need to have a way to grab and extract the victim, a place to hold them, a way to keep them alive and under guard while negotiating, a communications method that can’t be traced back to them, and a method to retrieve the ransom. Some of that can be dispensed, if they have no intention of returning the victim alive, or ransoming them at all.

Grabbing the victim is a little situational, but the difference between a successful extraction and a botched bloodbath is advance planning. Ideally your team needs to be able to grab the victim without leaving any witnesses behind. This is trickier than it sounds, because they can’t actually kill the person they’re intending to ransom the victim back to. Ideally this means picking a time when the victim and the victim’s relative/friend/whatever are at separate locations. If that’s not possible, the team will need a very delicate touch.

If the person paying the ransom dies, then the operation’s over, and the criminals have a corpse and nothing else to show for a lot of wasted effort. In some situations, they might be able to salvage the situation, by ransoming the victim to a new buyer, but that is an extreme long shot.

In a well run kidnapping, once the victim has been taken, they’re fairly unimportant to the criminals. They need to be kept alive, and they can’t be allowed to escape. But, they’re not the kidnappers’ focus. At this point, they’re going to be more interested in getting person paying the ransom to do what they’re told.

The other side of it is, with the extraction itself, your criminal will not want to leave witnesses. If they’re not the ones the kidnappers are planning ransom the victim back to, they’ll have no incentive to leave the witnesses breathing. Killing them sends a clear message that the victim is in serious peril, and it discourages the person paying the ransom from screwing around.

What this means is, your kidnapper isn’t going to grab someone “spur of the moment”. If he decides “now’s the time”, it’s because he was already planning to grab them. Also, there’s a very real risk he’ll simply kill your other characters. Best case the police don’t even realize there’s been a kidnapping, and worst case, they’re no closer to identifying the kidnappers. As opposed to the police now having at least a physical description of one member of the crew. So, I guess the real answer to your question is: two shots to the chest, one to the head.

As a quick aside, if his plan is to force one of the characters to do his bidding, he might just grab them all, and release the one he intends to use as a pawn later, and keep the others as hostages.

Once they’ve got their victim, there’s the question of what they want. If the goal is money, then we’re talking about a ransom, and there’s a lot of literature on the subject. If they’re wanting to force someone else to do what they want, they’ll need the ability to micromanage that person’s actions. Usually we’re talking some kind of communications setup with the pawn, but surveillance isn’t out of the question. If the objective is information, then everything gets a little messed up. I’ll stick a pin in that for later, partially because a discussion on interrogation and torture will rate a trigger warning.

Spartan, the first season of 24, Man on Fire (2004), and Taken should all give you some insight into the kinds of people you’re dealing with. 24 opens with using captives to force the protagonist to do their bidding, and the first 12 hours are really good. Man on Fire (2004), is a kidnapping for money. Taken and Spartan both deal with selling captives into sex slavery, which is something I just glazed right over. Both films illustrate how this particular form of kidnapping operates in a more opportunistic assembly line nature, because of how they’re generating income.

For some additional insight on professional criminals, I’ll keep recommending Heat until you watch it. Ronin and Reservoir Dogs are also worth watching. Technically Ronin is dealing with former spies who’ve become mercenaries, but the same principles apply. Ronin also has the benefit of actually being a smash and grab operation, even though the target is an attaché case, and not a person.

-Starke