How the Mole Became an Endangered Species at the Movies

Two movies this year, London Has Fallen and Criminal prove that mole characters are no longer necessary in modern action cinema.
By  · Published on April 15th, 2016

Moles are not yet extinct in movies, but they’re awfully close to dying out.  It’s strange to see such a staple of action cinema become so endangered thanks to technology. It’s worse than when movies stopped being able to convincingly use answering machines for exposition. Moles, otherwise known as double agents when found in the spy genre, just don’t have a place anymore. In today’s world they lack purpose, and therefore they lack dramatic tension. So, they’re being squeezed out of the frame.

There was a mole spotted on the big screen very recently. London Has Fallen features a character revealed at the end to be a traitor. It’s not a character we really ever got to know, however, making his fate, which is given more attention than he’s otherwise had in the whole movie, feel insignificant. Also, the movie could have done without him. His function is that he’s an inside man at an intelligence agency. But we’ve already seen hundreds of infiltrators as part of the movie’s central terrorist plot. He’s not unique.

And he’s seemingly not needed in his specific position. Maybe he assists in the hacking of a system from greater proximity, but that doesn’t even have to be a “mole” character. If he were a good guy in any other movie he’d have just been tasked with a quick get-in-and-get-out mission. He wouldn’t have to be an otherwise trusted figure in need of being paid off with millions just for that access. But the good side of the hero/villain coin has to always be portrayed as more secure, right? Not quite. Not anymore.

The new movie Criminal (also set in London) has a modern villain (played by Jordi Molla) similar to the one in London Has Fallen. He’s a “Spanish anarchist” rather than a vengeful Pakistani arms dealer, but otherwise he’s another one of these guys who just sits around on a computer through most of the movie. He doesn’t need a mole because he can hack into any system there is. Well, he can’t yet get at nuclear weapons. Not the specific protected ones he prefers, anyway, which is good because a villain needs some sort of MacGuffin to want to get his or her hands on.

I actually like Criminal quite a bit, despite a number of logic flaws, but it’s this villain’s hacking ability that I found just astonishing. At one point, without proper explanation, he’s not only able to locate the movie’s antihero (played by Kevin Costner) but also see and hear everything going on in the scene, as if he’s watching the very movie we are (that makes it sound like Dark Helmet watching Spaceballs, I know, and it’s not that different). It’s somewhat understood that he can tap into any phone, any CCTV camera, whatever, but it’s still bewildering.

Setting a villain up with such wide-reaching connectivity is problematic because it makes him way too powerful. He might as well have unlimited super powers. I’m not even sure why he wants nuclear weapons. They’re as essential to him as a mole would be. That is, not at all. He already has the means to do anything he wants without them. He can change traffic, reroute GPS systems, activate swing bridges, you name it. For an anarchist, he’s got all the tools he needs at his disposal to create the mass chaos he desires.

The big problem with having a villain like this is it doesn’t permit us to believe his shortcomings, and every bad guy needs one or two. We see that he can pretty much find anyone, anytime. But movies like this need to give their good guys (or “good” guys as the case is with Criminal‘s murderous convict slowly being taken over by the memories of a person with a conscience) time to rest. There are some of those pauses in the movie and we’re left wondering where the bad guys are in those moments. I suppose everyone needs to sleep sometime.

It’s also difficult to accept that this bad guy can’t locate one particular person, a hidden MacGuffin of a man (Michael Pitt) who used to work for him and has the wormhole that will grant him access to nukes. Sure, this one elusive person is also a hacker and should know ways to avoid detection, but the big bad is so good with the UK’s many surveillance systems and even has software to alter people’s appearance on such systems. Surely he has resources to locate even those trying their hardest not to be located. Especially when they’re in a well-populated place with a direct link to the main character.

Moles are more interesting than computers because they have the infallibility of a human being. They’re often limited in what they can do for or pass onto the main villain without them being discovered by the good guys they’re posing among. Criminal and more and more movies involving hackers have an omniscience and omnipresence that is lethal for storytelling. It kills the suspense and the potential for surprise. We no longer wonder, “How did they find her,” or “How did they know that?” and look for mole informants. It’s always, “Oh yeah, they’re good with computers.”

Sadly, even though moles are just endangered and not yet extinct, it’s difficult to go back to the numbers we once saw of them. Once technological methods like those seen in Criminal and other hacker-involving movies are seen, it’s hard for us to forget about them. It’s hard for filmmakers to stop using them. Such devices just keep getting worse and worse, like what happened to the “zoom, and enhance” concept 20 years ago. It not only becomes laughable but it becomes an unstoppable crutch and cliche and given.


So, so long moles. It was nice having you around while you lasted. We loved you in Stalag 17, Dr. No, Reservoir Dogs, The Departed and more. Maybe we’ll still see you occasionally in movies set before the Internet existed. Otherwise, we’ll always have this over-the-top parody of your species:

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.