Who cracks into the security system and makes sure no one sneaks up on our hero? Who feeds the spy information through his little earpiece? Who can always make the audience laugh with a well-placed wisecrack? Who do all of us film/tech geeks wish we could be (other than a sniper, of course)?
The guy in the van.
In spy thriller-type movies there is frequently a character that provides technical support to the main character, many times this involves sitting in a van filled with various machinery, hence their name. Guys in the van are often portrayed as being nerdy or socially inept, usually as a contrast to the more suave and tough main character. They are also usually given various quirks that allow them to provide comic relief. Although they are not treated as the most important characters, their presence is still necessary to the completion of the mission.
Some guys in the van of note:
Q – Played by Desmond Llewelyn in the James Bond movies. Q might not have spent any time sitting in a van, but his technical proficiency and dry wit combined with his sheer longevity certainly earns him a place in the Guy in The Van Hall of Fame.
Stan – Played by John Cazale in The Conversation. The first guy in the van who actually sits in a van. Stan helps surveillance expert Harry Caul, who is also technically proficient and sits in a van, but he’s the main character and has a girlfriend, so is thus disqualified.
Mother and Whistler – Played by Dan Aykroyd and David Strathairn in Sneakers . In a film populated almost entirely with guy in the van characters, the team of Mother and Whistler still set the standard by which all guys are judged. Funny and at least somewhat technically accurate.
Gib – Played by Tom Arnold in True Lies . Tom Arnold’s only good role, Gib is sick of being stuck in the van and provides lots of comic relief.
Selby, Fiedler, and Jamie – Played by Seth Green, Jack Black, and Jamie Kennedy in Enemy of the State . Three good character actors who have to handle the vast amounts of data at the fingertips of the government. Pretty good one-liners.
While Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman do spend time in a van and have some really good lines in Traffic , this is not the main job of their characters.
Recently though I have noticed a disturbing trend: Guys in the van being played by actors clearly not right for the role. Ving Rhames in Mission: Impossible and Julia Stiles in The Bourne Identity are good examples. Both actors are too well known and good-looking to be true guys in the van. Ving Rhames barely spends any time in the van at all and doesn't really help out much when he is in there. And while I have no problem with a female guy in the van, Julia Stiles is not geeky enough and her role barely qualifies as a cameo as it is.
With the increasing use of technology in movies today, the job outlook for guys in the van has never been brighter. Hopefully Hollywood will continue to use character actors that are right for the role, and not just stick in another pretty face wherever they can.