Tag Archives: Albert R. Broccoli

Weighing in on Wonder Woman

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“Don’t let them screw it up,” was producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli’s advice to his daughter Barbara as he handed her the reins of the James Bond franchise.  The same six words tremble on the lips of every comic book fan who dreams of seeing Wonder Woman represented on a theatre screen with hundreds of millions of dollars and a booming Hans Zimmer score behind her.  While the last three decades have seen Superman and Batman go through their cinematic paces with both triumphs and nadirs, WW remains shackled in the vault, a victim of Hollywood’s utter inability to figure out how to handle her.  While her comic continues to sell, and she’s seen some action in animated form, the leap to live action feature remains daunting.  Big industry movers and shakers like David E. Kelley and Joss Whedon have tried and failed to bring her to life.  But as everyone with even a passing interest has heard, Israeli actress Gal Gadot, best known from the recent spate of Fast & Furious franchise offerings, has been signed to appear as Wonder Woman in the next Superman movie, alongside Henry Cavill reprising his role from Man of Steel and Ben Affleck taking over for Christian Bale as Batman.  That’s all we know at this point.

What we can offer by way of conjecture is that the role for Wonder Woman in a film already top-heavy with marquee characters and A-list names, built around a conflict between DC’s two heaviest hitters, is not fated to be of the substance her biggest fans crave.  Firstly, the movie is intended as a sequel to Man of Steel, so it’s not meant to be an ensemble piece with each character having his and her requisite beats.  Superman remains the lead part with Batman as a second lead/supporting player.  The primary character arc, the hero’s journey, will be Superman’s.  The demands of a limited running time mean Wonder Woman is unlikely to be given much of an origin story; she’s likely to merely show up at some critical point (or be disguised as Diana Prince, new reporter for the Daily Planet and Lois Lane rival, for the majority of the plot before a third-act costumed reveal).  And the character’s Greek mythological (i.e. fantasy) background is an uneasy fit in between Superman’s science fiction nature (at least, as it was depicted in MoS) and Batman’s hard-boiled detective leanings.  The Justice League animated series adopted a “just go with it” approach whereby the characters simply got on with battling whatever military/magical/alien villain happened to show up this week, without stopping to explain how all these genres could logically coexist.  But I doubt that an intended-for-mainstream-audiences movie will be satisfied with that.  Marvel’s The Avengers had the advantage of five different introductory movies to get the exposition out of the way so you could accept the idea of Thor and Iron Man together; MoS II or whatever it’s going to be called has no such luxury.  (Part of the problem is that the rollout of the DC properties has been haphazard, first with the mediocre Superman Returns, then the abysmal Green Lantern, and the incompatibility of Nolan’s wildly successful Dark Knight trilogy with an overarching story, and now they are struggling to play catch-up to Marvel’s much more strategic approach.)

The thought, then, is that her extended cameo in Man of Steel vs. Dark Knight, or whatever they’re calling it, may serve as a springboard for her own standalone spinoff.  That puts a heckuva lot of pressure on Gadot to deliver a performance that stands out just enough amidst the testosterone-fueled Kryptonian/Gothamite smackdown without taking so much focus off the two male leads that we lose interest in their story.  And she has to accomplish that herculean (hera-ian?) task while competing for attention with Amy Adams, no slouch she with screen presence.  While the trolls trashing the relatively unknown Gadot for not having the right look or not being American or not being insert favorite large-breasted actress you’d love to sleep with here need to open a window in that basement of theirs (seriously folks, have we learned nothing from the short-lived backlash over Heath Ledger and The Dark Knight?), legitimate questions can be asked about how the character will be written for her to play.  For one of the most difficult characters for any person to write well is an empowered woman, and especially difficult is a superpowered woman.  Going back to my mention of James Bond earlier, while he may be held up as an aspirational example of a certain kind of masculinity (he shouldn’t, in my view), hardly anyone in criticism writes of Bond as a template for Man.  But every time a woman of significance appears on screen in a role that calls for slightly more than “focus group-required love interest,” critics leap to immediately assign her a greater significance in the canon of All That Is Female.  Woman becomes Everywoman.  So too, we expect, will Wonder Woman.

And they won’t be able to help themselves.  Wonder Woman is essentially, a goddess; flawless beauty and figure combined with indomitable strength and abilities, an aspirational, unachievable paradigm of feminine perfection.  You’re the writer of Man of Steel 2: Batman Boogaloo or whatever.  Now quick, go pen some dialogue for this character.  Dialogue that, you know, intrigues and endears audiences but doesn’t send them bolting for the exits with a preachy collection of dumbed-down feminist stereotypes, or turns a beloved icon into a brainless git making sure to point her shapely hind end provocatively at the camera while slam-punching supervillains through buildings.  Fancy that assignment?  Particularly when we’re still operating within the restraints noted above, that she has to be memorable but not so memorable that she diminishes Batman and/or Superman, the latter of whom the movie is mainly supposed to be about?

If it sounds like I’m not holding out a lot of hope for Wonder Woman circa 2015, you’d be partially correct.  I hope she’s the most awesome version of the character we’ve ever seen, leaving folks asking Lynda who? and begging for Wonder Woman Begins.  What I’m missing is the faith that this can be executed properly by the creative team handling her live-action feature debut, or indeed by any creative team in the realistic position to handle this potential franchise.  Because too often in the past, we’ve seen them (the generic them) screw it up.  They screw it up by refusing to invest female action heroes with humanizing nuance, by writing them as archetypes instead of as people.  Broad caricatures who have to lose what makes them women in order to compete on the same playing field as men.  Or, they venture too far the other way, where femininity is cranked up to vampy extremes for the benefit of naught but teenage boys.  The Lara Croft movies presented a lead utterly without warmth or any discernible charm and consequently any audience empathy.  Catwoman put its lead in bondage gear and involved her not in a battle for the fate of the world, but in a silly plot about toxic makeup.  (And the failures of these films set back the female action genre by years, as shortsighted executives figured people weren’t going to see them because they didn’t like action movies with female heroes, not the real reason – because the movies themselves just sucked.)

What I’d like to see, and what I expect folks who are far greater fans of Wonder Woman than I am would want to see as well, is a character who despite her superpowered trappings still possesses emotions that we can understand and encounters situations we can recognize.  (You know, like walking to work one day and running into a massive, marauding interstellar beast.)  A character with some real weight and depth.  A goddess who is still human where it counts most, in her heart and in her head.  That’s what will make us love her and want to see more of her.

Over to you, Zack Snyder, David S. Goyer, Christopher Nolan and Gal Gadot.  Show us the Wonder.

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The countdown concludes: Skyfall

Only a fool fights in a burning house.

Well… was it worth the wait?

I can’t speak for you of course, I can only offer my own opinion.  And if you haven’t seen it yet, I’d encourage you to bookmark this, close the window and come back later.  Skyfall is a movie loaded with surprises, and it would be a shame to spoil any of them for you.  Go on then, go check it out.  I’ll be here when you get back.

When MGM was forced to file for bankruptcy in 2010, it looked for Bond fans as though we might be in for a repeat of the long dark night of the early 90’s.  Those whose appetites were left wanting by Quantum of Solace were forced to grapple with the notion that it could possibly be the last one for a long time.  But as has happened before, events for 007 had a way of working themselves out, and this case, very much for the better.  The most inspired stroke was the hiring of director Sam Mendes, a veteran of the British theatre whose first movie American Beauty had secured Academy Awards for Best Picture, actor Kevin Spacey, screenwriter Alan Ball and of course himself as Best Director.  Mendes had followed up on this achievement with the visually captivating Road to Perdition, which featured in its star-studded cast an up-and-comer at the time named Daniel Craig.  Mendes’ name got the A-list to sit up and take notice, and so for Skyfall, instead of the usual roster of capable if mostly unknown performers, we have the most pedigreed assemblage of genuine movie stars to ever take part in a Bond adventure; actors who would likely have turned up their noses in decades past.  And Mendes gets everyone to give their absolute all – there is no phoning it in, no dodgy line delivery, no short-shorted twenty-year-olds trying to explain nuclear physics phonetically.  It’s critical because Skyfall is a story, like the best of the stage, that depends on great acting.  It is not a battle for the fate of the world – it’s a struggle for the life of one very important person.

As the movie opens, Bond and junior field agent Eve (Naomie Harris) are struggling to clean up an operation gone bad in Istanbul, where a gun-for-hire named Patrice (Ola Rapace) has murdered several British agents and made off with a hard drive that contains a list of every embedded NATO agent in every terrorist cell across the entire world.  The mission goes truly awry when on orders from M (Judi Dench), Eve shoots and appears to accidentally kill Bond.  Patrice escapes, and M is hauled on the carpet by Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), the bureaucratic chairman of the British intelligence service.  His government is convinced that the kind of human intelligence that MI6 represents is no longer needed in the absence of clearly defined enemies like those of the Cold War.  Returning to the office, M receives a mysterious transmission telling her to “think on your sins” and watches helplessly as MI6’s London headquarters explodes, killing several of her operatives.  A very much alive Bond, who has used his presumed death to disappear to a remote part of the world and has become addicted to painkillers and drink, finds out about the attack and decides to return to service, although he is a worn out shell of the specimen he once was.  Despite failing his physical and mental readiness tests, Bond is sent by M to Shanghai to follow up on the location of Patrice.  It’s there that Bond meets the beautiful yet emotionally scarred Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe), who reluctantly leads him to her employer – Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a former MI6 agent (and former “favourite” of M) who was abandoned to torture after his identity was compromised, now living only for vengeance against “mommy.”  Although he cannot save Sévérine, Bond is successful in capturing Silva and returning him to London, thanks to a revolutionary gadget supplied by the young Q (Ben Whishaw) called a “radio.”  However, the capture of Silva seems to be a component of the villain’s master plan, which sees him promptly escape custody and go after M as she is attending a government hearing on her competency as head of MI6.  Bond realizes he needs a home field advantage, and so absconds with M to Skyfall Lodge, his empty childhood home in cold, rural Scotland, which is still being tended by gruff but lovable gamekeeper Kincade (Albert Finney).  Armed with only a handful of hunting rifles, Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 and a good helping of ingenuity, Bond, M and Kincade stand off against Silva and his men in a final brutal showdown which sees everything Bond believes in tested one final time, and his world changed forever – ironically bringing him back after a three-movie arc to where James Bond 007 as we know him truly begins.

In reviewing the preceding 24 Bond films over the last month, the trend that has emerged most strongly for me is the struggle to maintain balance between spectacle and substance; to ensure that along with the dessert goes a healthy but not too plodding serving of meat and potatoes.  The problem is that the eye candy is diverting, but we need a compelling reason to care about what’s going on in front of us, apart from just thinking that James Bond is cool and we don’t want him to die.  In Skyfall, as befits the CV of Sam Mendes, the stakes have never been more personal or more emotional for James Bond – you know going in you’re not going to get the downright stupid antics of A View to a Kill or even the mind-numbing kill-a-thon of Tomorrow Never Dies.  And the story is crafted by screenwriters Neal Purvis & Robert Wade (their 007 swan song, apparently) and John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, Star Trek Nemesis) to move away from mechanics and big machines – the villain as a mere extension of evil technology – to hinging on the consequences of personal choices.  In fact, the McGuffin of the stolen hard drive is more or less forgotten about by the middle of the second act, but by that point we realize it doesn’t matter in the larger scheme, because we care more about the people than the plot.

My own Bond girl observed to me that she was most impressed by the calibre of acting this time around, that there isn’t a weak performance in the bunch, and she’s correct.  Fiennes gets to dial it down a notch after finally escaping from Voldemort purgatory to portray a public servant struggling with the demands of accountability to a public (and a government) that sees the world in black and white and his recognition of the world of shadows within which M and MI6 operate.  Finney, with whom working was apparently an unfulfilled lifelong ambition of the late Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, is wonderful as the cranky old Scotsman who raised Bond after the death of his parents, and his chemistry with Judi Dench provides a gentle human contrast to the pyrotechnics of the final act.  Harris is a flirty and fun companion to Bond, and their relationship, which consists largely of verbal sparring (and one close shave) is clearly never going to progress to Vesper Lynd levels, but the reason why makes perfect sense as the movie draws to a close.  I don’t have the words to capture even a fragment of Bérénice Marlohe’s exotic, soul-shattering looks, but her Sévérine is a classic tragic Bond girl in the tradition of the Ian Fleming novels, her inner wounds elevating her from vampy, dragon-manicured femme fatale to a richly rounded human being, whose only failing is she isn’t on screen long enough for my liking – although perhaps that’s just my hormones talking.  The competing spy series XXX tried to introduce the idea of a young gadget-master in the vein of Q, but wound up with an unfunny scenery-chewing hack; Whishaw shows how to do it right, with low-key self-awareness that never veers into the smug smartassed techno-geekery that would make you want to punch him.  He is, like the other supporting players, the perfect foil for 007.

But Skyfall is the trifecta of performances that form its sad emotional core – the mother and her two sons.  Raoul Silva is perhaps the most unique Bond villain in decades; a former agent, once dedicated to the cause, who has suffered tremendously and is now driven and remorseless – his own kind of blunt instrument.  Yet Silva is also flamboyant and colourful in a way that none of 007’s foes have been in recent memory, prone to fits of tortured laughter as he struggles to hold himself against the insanity that boils beneath the surface, the inner physicality ravaged by a failed cyanide capsule, keeping himself together long enough to complete his mission of vengeance against M, a woman for whom he once held tremendous feelings of loyalty and the love one would have for a mother.  Particularly telling is his final confrontation with her, when he notices that she is wounded and still finds it within himself to care about her pain – seeking, at the end, to free them both from it.  As the audience we too feel sympathy for Silva despite his acts of terrorism; we cannot fully condemn the path he has chosen, as much as we don’t want to see him win.  With his complex and layered performance here, by turns charming and skin-crawlingly creepy, Javier Bardem has set a bar for James Bond villains as high as that achieved by Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight, and one does not envy the task awaiting the next actor or actress who must don this imposing mantle.

When Judi Dench was first cast as M for Goldeneye, it was a novelty – here was the world’s most famously sexist spy taking orders from a woman for a change.  The filmmakers quickly wised to the capabilities of the actress they had enlisted for this previously inconsequential role and beefed up M’s contributions from film to film.  The World is Not Enough was the first real attempt to expand the role of M, but like the rats so frequently mentioned by Silva in this movie, it only scratched very tenuously at her surface.  Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace recognized the maternal aspect of M and began to subtly play up this new angle, but in Skyfall that metaphor is the crux of the movie:  M is the leading lady this time.  It is Bond’s loyalty to her that brings him back to her side over the cynicism and disillusionment he feels, inasmuch as it is Silva’s loyalty to her that lies at the heart of his feelings of betrayal.  However, M’s loyalty has always been to the mission – the greater good of queen and country – and Bond’s and Silva’s inability to comprehend that the devotion shown to them is not personal leads both men to choose radically different paths; only one on the side of the angels.  Dench is magnificent as this most inscrutable of mothers, who clearly cares about the agents whose careers she has nurtured but fights to keep that sentimentality under control, and is filled with regret for the decisions she’s had to make that have gone against the mother’s instinct to protect her children.  Does M’s gender make her a better intelligence chief or a lesser one?  Skyfall seems to suggest that despite the predictable harsh consequences to a woman’s soul, it favours the former – M’s final confession to Bond being the proof.

Famous actors who have allegedly turned down the role of James Bond have described him by turns as boring, frivolous or simply immoral.  I would argue that Bond is in fact one of the deepest, most fascinatingly ambiguous characters on the silver screen, and with Skyfall, Daniel Craig has finally nailed him.  If in Casino Royale he was figuring himself out, and if in Quantum of Solace he was simply angry, Craig is confident enough here to play Bond torn apart – almost literally by bullets – and reassembled piece by shattered piece, emerging at the end as James Bond in all his classic glory and ready for new adventures bold.  Craig asked for more humour in the script this time, and Bond is much quicker with his wit than he has been for a while, with Craig surprisingly deft with a clever, well-written wisecrack after having seemingly cemented himself as the brooding man’s James Bond.  His Bond is also refreshingly less than superhuman, his strength failing and his marksmanship suffering, with sheer determination and adrenaline making up for what his skills lack.  The “old ways” which come so sharply into focus in the finale are in fact the only way to defeat a techno-genius like Silva, much as one needs a Daniel Craig in comfortable, fighting form to share the screen with a performer like Javier Bardem and not be completely blown off it.  If any doubts yet remained, Daniel Craig is James Bond for our generation, and the last two or three people left in the world who don’t agree can frankly suck it.

Skyfall is such a sumptuous feast of a 007 movie that I could probably go on for paragraphs more in dissecting its every precious component and why it is such a triumph, but rather than risking the old tl;dr, I have to make at least a brief mention of the cinematography of Roger Deakins, which is the most polished and gorgeous photographic work seen in a Bond movie likely ever.  Whether it’s in the neon flash of the lights of Shanghai, the bleak moors of Scotland or simply making Bérénice Marlohe look like a goddess made flesh, Deakins crafts a sublime palette for the story to unfold upon.  It’s been suggested that he should receive an Oscar nomination for his work here and I heartily agree.  I also want to note the welcome return of Daniel Kleinman to the position of main titles designer after the boring one-off that was MK12’s contribution to Quantum of Solace – Kleinman has always treated the titles as a chance to advance the story through abstract, artful imagery instead of just a “commercial break” with random silhouetted women gyrating in shadows, and he backs Adele’s haunting theme song with a sequence that plays almost like a graphic journey into the depth of Bond’s soul.  And last but not least, everlasting gratitude to Sam Mendes and second unit director Alexander Witt for holding the camera still.  My eyeballs thank you, and my stomach thanks you.

So that’s it, and after a month of journeying through the highs and lows of 50 years of movies I’m saying goodbye to James Bond for now.  I may have further reflections at a future time, once the memory of Skyfall has firmly entrenched itself in my brain and whether my opinion evolves upon further viewings.  Since we started this voyage back in the middle of October, the world has tumbled onward and given me plenty of new things to write about, and it’s time to get on with that.  As the new M tells Bond at the end of the movie, there’s plenty of work to do, and as Bond replies in turn, it’s my pleasure.

Cue the explosive horns and electric guitar of the James Bond theme.  Over and out.

Skyfall Countdown Day 5: Tomorrow Never Dies

“Back off, Mr. Bond, or I’ll have Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity do a special on you.”

Happy Monday!  5 days to go and we’re in the home stretch.  Hope you’re getting as excited for Skyfall as I am.

When it comes to dreaming up the new Bond movie, one of the largest stumbling blocks must be conjuring new villains for the hero to fight.  After all, how many variations on megalomaniacs bent on world domination are there – particularly ones whose motivations can be believable to a modern audience increasingly regarding such characters as laughable clones of Dr. Evil?  The concept at the heart of Tomorrow Never Dies tackled this problem head-on.  The game would indeed be world domination, not of territory, but rather of thought and opinion; the very ability to manipulate millions into skewing the course of history.  Even in the mid-90’s the phenomenon of the media baron who could bring down governments with a mere flicker of one of his many-tentacled interests was ripe for discussion, especially in Britain, where winning election to national office seemed to require bending knee to Rupert Murdoch and his chain of newspapers.  The medium was the message indeed, and it did not take a great leap of imagination to suggest that said message could be manipulated for nefarious ends.

A British naval vessel, the H.M.S. Devonshire, is manipulated into straying into Chinese territorial waters, where it is sunk by mercenaries working for media supermogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), whose empire reaches every country on earth except China.  After his men massacre the survivors of the wreck, Carver runs a story in his worldwide newspaper Tomorrow accusing the Chinese air force of murdering the British sailors.  James Bond, who has a prior relationship with Carver’s wife Paris (Teri Hatcher) is sent to Carver Media Group headquarters in Hamburg, Germany to try and prove Carver’s involvement to an unconvinced British government, with only 48 hours until the British fleet reaches China for potential retaliation.  When Bond rekindles the romance with his old flame, leading him to discover the digital encoder that allowed the Devonshire’s course to be misdirected, Carver has Paris murdered and attempts to frame Bond for it.  Escaping Carver’s thugs, Bond travels to the coast of Vietnam, where he discovers that a cruise missile has been stolen from the Devonshire’s wreck.  Captured by Carver’s men, Bond gains a reluctant partner in Chinese agent Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), and following a harrowing escape from his Saigon office tower, the two find that Carver has a stealth boat, undetectable by radar, in the South China Sea that he’s been using as a base to manipulate the two countries towards war.  Carver intends to launch the stolen missile from the Devonshire into the heart of Beijing, giving his fellow conspirator, Chinese General Chang, the opportunity to seize control of the government and negotiate a truce to the engineered war, in exchange for which the Carver Media Group will receive exclusive broadcasting rights in China for 100 years.

The premise is solid; the execution, not so much, and many of the more complex moral questions that characterized Goldeneye’s screenplay have been tossed aside here in favour of balls-out action.  Pierce Brosnan is clearly more comfortable, looking much broader in the shoulders and more able to handle himself in fights.  But he oddly seems a bit bored as well – the nerves he had carrying his first major motion picture are behind him and with them has gone a great deal of energy as well.  To the question of Bond’s emotional journey in this film, it’s regrettable that Brosnan and Teri Hatcher have no chemistry whatsoever; it’s not believable that this woman could have gotten under Bond’s skin as he admits.  Hatcher, who was cast at the studio’s request for a recognizable American name in the credits, tries her best but is completely wrong for the part – the role demands a more tragic, resigned European sensibility, and Teri Hatcher is more effective at sunny, optimistic characters like Lois Lane.  (There’s a rumour that a then-unknown Monica Bellucci was considered for the part but was rejected by the aforementioned studio – she would have been ideal, and totally believable as a woman who could have enraptured James Bond.)  Notwithstanding the weaknesses in the performance, the dynamic of the movie shifts when Paris is killed, and any character development for Bond goes with it, abandoned in favour of elaborate action setpieces.  A trend I have not been fond of in the recent Bond movies, and it will come more into focus when we deal with The World is Not Enough tomorrow, is the seeming requirement to have at least two love interests in each film – I would rather see a focus on one rather than shoving in another for the sake of additional eye candy, with the result being less screen time available to develop the main relationship properly.

But I digress.  For her part, Yeoh is terrific and handles herself in action better than any other Bond girl to date, or since, for that matter.  But character-wise, she’s hardly anything new, yet another “Bond’s equal” female agent.  Pryce, perhaps best known as the meek clerk Sam Lowry in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and a slew of other roles where he plays a bit of a wuss, has fun devouring the scenery and establishing himself as a formidable intellectual foe for James Bond, with an ego the size of the planet itself.  Unfortunately the remainder of the supporting players aren’t nearly as colourful – Gotz Otto has one scowling note as Carver’s German muscleman Stamper, and magician/actor Ricky Jay is forgettable as technogeek Henry Gupta (Gupta was originally to be an expert at flinging playing cards, as is Jay in real life, but this element of his character was edited out).  A pure delight in the movie however is Vincent Schiavelli as the “outstanding pistol marksman” and torture expert Dr. Kaufman, who has all the movie’s best lines in one tragically brief five-minute scene.  Fans of 300 will want to look quickly at the beginning of the movie for Gerard Butler who has one line as a crewman aboard the doomed Devonshire (his Scots accent is hard to miss).

In writing about A View to a Kill, I commented on the tendency of the filmmakers to lose the character of Bond when he is plugged as a prop into action scenes that either don’t flow organically from the story or have no consequence other than mere survival.  In Tomorrow Never Dies, the action scenes have great setup and play out effectively, but they still seem rather uninspired, as though there is simply a perceived need to have some running and shooting and fast music for a few minutes.  There is little excitement, or originality, for that matter, in watching James Bond walk around casually machine-gunning anonymous bad guys as he does in the finale; we’ll leave those kinds of scenes to Arnold Schwarzenegger and his ilk, thank you very much.  That, I guess is my core issue with Tomorrow Never Dies and the reason why I can recall sitting in the theatre in 1997 feeling the excitement drain out of me as the minutes ticked by – it’s really just a generic action picture that happens to feature James Bond, and feels even in hindsight like a franchise going through the motions rather than attempting to push the envelope.  It’s a funny phenomenon that plagues sequels sometimes, where so much money is riding on repeating the success of the first movie that there is great reluctance to do anything differently in round two; and inasmuch as this movie could be seen as the sequel to Goldeneye in the new 007 era, the play-it-safe approach is obvious and disappointing, particularly when so much thought has been put in to crafting a believable antagonist.

Tomorrow Never Dies was the first James Bond movie made without any participation from longtime 007 producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, who passed away a few months after the release of Goldeneye, and the film is dedicated to his memory.  I have visited Broccoli’s grave in Los Angeles, and I’ll just say that it certainly fits the spirit of showmanship that characterized the big man’s love of bringing entertainment to the masses.  He was a man, who, as Bond puts it in this movie, certainly knew how to “give the people what they want,” and to whom every fan of James Bond owes a lifelong debt.

Tomorrow:  Equal opportunity villainy.

Skyfall Countdown Day 6: Goldeneye

Desmond Llewelyn, checking out the new guy.

The years following Licence to Kill were depressing for James Bond fans.  Legal wrangling surrounding the ownership of parent studio MGM/UA, rumours that the rights were being sold to insert-hack-Hollywood-producer’s-name-here, and a general ebbing of talk of James Bond from the zeitgeist seemed to indicate that 007 was finished, finally gone the way of Derek Flint, Matt Helm and all the second-rate imitators he’d managed to spawn in his nearly 30-year screen career.  But then, as the tide of the recession of the early 1990’s receded, promising hints began to spring up like the fabled green shoots from the blanket of winter snow.  The lawsuits were settled, and Albert R. Broccoli’s Eon Productions remained firmly in charge.  A screenwriter, Michael France, had been hired to write a new Bond movie.  Questions then naturally arose about Timothy Dalton.  It had been five years since Licence to Kill – would audiences still want to see him as Bond?  Dalton ended the discussion by announcing in April of 1994 that he would not be coming back, and informal polls suggested there was one actor at the top of every fan’s list to take his place.  On June 7, 1994, eight years after his first brush with 007, the world’s press was introduced to the new James Bond:  Pierce Brosnan.

With their new star locked, the biggest challenge for the filmmakers was how to re-introduce James Bond to a world that had seen tumultuous changes since his last outing.  The Soviet Union, the Iron Curtain and the Cold War that had birthed Bond in the first place were all gone, and some critics were suggesting that 007 should disappear with them.  But rather than making a period piece, or wallowing in anachronistic nostalgia, it was decided to embrace this new climate with the following mantra:  “The world has changed; James Bond has not.”  Bond would always be Bond, but now this “sexist, misogynist dinosaur” would find himself confronting the new world with its new threats.  To that end a complete creative shakeup was required, both in front of and behind the camera – director John Glen, who had handled the previous five films, was not asked to return, and the reins were instead handed to Martin Campbell, the first real “outsider” Bond director who hadn’t come up through the Eon system.  And the story would see Bond’s world turned completely on its head, thrust into a realm of shadows as old adversaries became awkward allies and trusted friends, bitter enemies.

In the prologue, set during the height of the Cold War, Bond and Alec Trevelyan, 006 (Sean Bean) are assigned to infiltrate and destroy a Soviet chemical weapons facility.  The mission goes awry, 006 is killed and Bond makes a spectacular if implausible escape by diving after a falling plane, climbing on board and pulling it out of its dive.  Following the stylish opening credits in which silhouetted beauties smash apart Communist iconography (a sequence which apparently greatly upset several still-active Communist parties throughout the world) the story picks up nine years later where Russia is a shambles struggling to adopt capitalism and Bond is considered a relic by the new, female M (Judi Dench).  But he’s thrust back into the fray when an experimental helicopter that can withstand electromagnetic pulse damage is stolen and used to facilitate the theft of an old Soviet space-based weapon called Goldeneye, which, when detonated, will destroy everything that contains an electronic circuit.  Bond travels to Russia, where retired KGB agent Valentin Zukovsky (Robbie Coltrane) points him in the direction of the mysterious arms dealer known as Janus, who turns out to be none other than Bond’s old friend Trevelyan, who faked his death in order to abscond to the other side and carry out a long-simmering scheme of revenge against the United Kingdom for its betrayal of his family.  With the help of Goldeneye computer programmer Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco) and CIA agent Jack Wade (Joe Don Baker), and while dodging the lethal advances of femme fatale Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), Bond must chase down his former ally and stop him from unleashing the Goldeneye against London and igniting a worldwide financial collapse.

The filmmakers knew they were down to their last chance, that failure would mean the end of James Bond as a viable cinematic property.  With the screenplay they smartly chose to add depth to the basic machinations of the plot, pulling apart Bond’s character and using the movie itself to ask if Bond was still relevant in the modern world, as well as confronting some of the more absurd elements of Bond’s character directly.  Bond is belittled, first by his immediate superior, and ultimately by Trevelyan, who chastises him with the screenplay’s finest lines:  “One might as well ask if all the vodka martinis silence the screams of all the men you’ve killed, or if you find forgiveness in the arms of all those willing women, for all the dead ones you failed to protect.”  Is being James Bond good for the soul?  Alec Trevelyan by contrast, is James Bond pushed over the narrow divide, and the inspired casting of Sean Bean, who at one point was rumoured as a potential Bond himself, gives us an example of how destructive Bond’s lifestyle can be to a man’s moral center.  The rich cinematography by Phil Meheux provides a striking palette of shadows and darkness, in contrast to the brightly and somewhat flat-lit adventures of Bond’s past, to emphasize this murky uncertainty lingering over every action that Bond takes.

As well as Bean’s compelling “anti-Bond,” the cast boasts a solid bench of supporting performers who round out this new world with a wealth of memorable characters – the singular Dench, although underused here with only two brief scenes, establishes a new kind of relationship between Bond and his hitherto remote boss that hints at a deeper exploration to come.  Robbie Coltrane is an energetic delight, Boris Badenov accent and all, channelling Sydney Greenstreet as Valentin Zukovsky.  Joe Don Baker gets to have much more fun here as the nickname-happy Jack Wade than he did as his previous character Whitaker in The Living Daylights.  Izabella Scorupco is a perfect companion for Bond – she is spirited, competent, brave and unafraid to challenge Bond on his failings.  Famke Janssen has her over-the-top moments as the assassin who kills men by crushing them with her thighs, but she is clearly enjoying the hell out of her part.  Even Alan Cumming makes an impression as hapless wannabe supervillain computer nerd Boris.  Filling the roles with strong actors, rather than the cheaper bit players one would have seen in previous films, forces the lead to up his game.

Pierce Brosnan has since admitted that he thought he probably would have been too young in 1987 to play James Bond convincingly.  The years between then and this movie have filled in his face with more character, that slight world-weariness that 007 should always possess, even in his lighter moments.  His Bond is less outwardly morose than Dalton’s, but one gets the sense that the veneer of playfulness radiating from him is just that, and it is only skin deep.  But no one really wants to follow a sad sack around for two hours, and Brosnan gives Bond more than enough charm to endear him to us again, even with subtle, very Bond-ian touches like patting his face with a towel after tossing a thug down a set of stairs.  If there is a single reservation about his Bond it’s that in this movie he seems a bit physically slight, which was noted by more than a few critics and seemed to inspire him to bulk up significantly for his next go-around.

How fares Goldeneye where action is concerned?  Exceptionally well given the benchmark set by movies like James Cameron’s Bond pastiche True Lies, which came out the previous year.  The movie opens with a visually stunning bungee-jump leap from a dam and only gets better.  Apart from a couple of inoffensive gags in the tank chase in the middle of the film, mercifully abandoned is the tendency of the 80’s Bonds to stage action as slapstick, replaced with true suspense and the need for Bond to be inventive in how he extricates himself from danger, rather than just relying on whatever Q has given him (a missile-equipped car presented to Bond at the beginning of the movie goes almost entirely unused).  The final fight scene atop the Arecibo telescope, doubling for Trevelyan’s Cuban satellite base, is brutal, raw and the most even-handed matchup Bond has ever had to face, made all the more emotionally consequential since this isn’t just some random evil billionaire he’s tangling with, but a man he once called friend – and Bond must decide if it’s truly “for England, James.”

Peter Lamont, the series’ regular production designer since Ken Adam’s departure, does a remarkable job here with a bigger budget – until now his sets had always looked somewhat artificial, as though the paint had just dried seconds before the director called action.  Goldeneye is a “used universe” where even the walls have earned their history.  And creative use of London locations and outdoor soundstages makes for a believable St. Petersburg, Russia setting despite the actors and first unit never setting foot there during filming.  Daniel Kleinman, taking over for the late Maurice Binder as main titles designer, pays homage to Binder’s traditions while incorporating the themes of the story into his canvas of beautiful naked women swirling through a surreal landscape, accompanied by Tina Turner as a worthy successor to Shirley Bassey singing the theme song penned by U2’s Bono and The Edge.  One area where Goldeneye receives a lot of criticism, however, is in its musical score.  French composer Eric Serra, who works largely with synthesizers, was hired to bring a 90’s take on the usual John Barry bombast.  It was certainly different, although not, it seems, in a positive way.  After a test audience bemoaned the lack of the Bond theme, a different composer was brought in to re-score the tank chase, and this would be Serra’s only kick at Bond’s can.  The electronic sound is somewhat jarring, particularly if you’re watching Goldeneye as part of a Bond marathon, but it works in context, particularly when conveying the coldness of the Russian setting.  At least, it was better than Michel Legrand.

Goldeneye was a huge international smash, bringing James Bond back to the forefront of the public consciousness and proving that there would always be an appetite for more, so long as it was done right.  In addition, it showed that 007 could compete against the Die Hards and the Speeds of the world that had attempted to fill the gap he’d left open for six long years.  As Goldeneye’s end credits rolled and “JAMES BOND WILL RETURN” drifted by, fans could catch their breath and be assured this time that he would, in increasingly spectacular style.

Tomorrow:  James Bond vs. Rupert Murdoch.

Skyfall Countdown Day 8: The Living Daylights

Timothy Dalton, being intense.

This was almost Pierce Brosnan’s debut as James Bond.  It was clear to all involved after A View to a Kill that it was time for Roger Moore to exit stage left, and for the James Bond series to begin anew with a younger face.  Brosnan’s popular TV run as Remington Steele was ending and he had tested successfully for the part, beating out dozens of other contenders including Sam Neill and Lambert Wilson (the Merovingian from the Matrix sequels).  Pre-production was underway, the remainder of the cast was set, and then, NBC decided to drop a spanner in the works.  The network retained a 60-day option to commit Brosnan to another season of Remington Steele, and, seeing dollar signs in the publicity that his impending debut as James Bond was generating, decided to exercise it at the very last minute.  Albert R. Broccoli did not want the Bond movies to be reduced to advertising for a TV show that had already been cancelled once, and so a change had to be made – opening the door for Timothy Dalton.

The trailers for The Living Daylights used the tagline “Dalton – Dangerous,” trying to play up a return to the hard-boiled intensity of the Ian Fleming novels, a characteristic that had been abandoned in the recent Bond films and that Dalton himself was keen to bring to his interpretation of the role, describing 007 as “a man living very much on the edge of his life.”  The plot would borrow a kernel from Fleming’s eponymous short story and expand it into a topical Cold War thriller, borrowing heavily from the Iran-Contra affair which dominated the news in the mid-eighties.  Bond is assigned to protect the defecting Soviet General Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé), who warns of a plot by his colleague General Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies) to murder Western intelligence agents in the hopes of igniting a war.  As Koskov escapes, he is targeted by a beautiful female assassin, whom Bond makes a split-second decision to only wound instead of kill.  The assassin winds up being Koskov’s girlfriend, a Czech cellist named Kara Milovy (Maryam d’Abo) whom Bond befriends after Koskov is apparently re-abducted from British custody by the KGB.  The trail leads to exiled American arms dealer Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker), who is working with Koskov in a scheme to use Soviet military funds to buy and sell opium from Afghan rebels instead.  Koskov’s “defection” has been a ruse to try and convince the British – and by extension, Bond – to eliminate the innocent General Pushkin who knows too much about their plans.  Allying with mujahidin rebels led by Kamran Shah (Art Malik), Bond leads a battle at a Soviet air base in Afghanistan to destroy the opium and spoil the deal.

While the characters and the grand plans of the villains are scaled back somewhat, the spectacle is not.  The movie feels enormous.  Its canvas is much broader and has a much more international flavour than the previous entry, with visually sumptuous locations ranging from the slopes of Gibraltar to the opera houses of Vienna, from the quaint English countryside to vast Moroccan deserts standing in for Afghanistan.  And the progression from one location to the other is more organic, as though the story is leading us there naturally, rather than forcing in a bunch of exotic places just for the sake of variety.  The energy of the chase scenes has been amped up considerably by having a younger, more physically capable actor in the lead, as Dalton throws himself into as much of the fray as nerve (and insurance) will allow – you could hardly see Roger Moore, even in his prime, jumping on the roof of a Land Rover as it speeds along the winding roads of Gibraltar as Dalton does in the exciting teaser.  And yet, there is something of a battle going on within the very tone of the movie as the filmmakers can’t seem to let go completely of their less appealing instinct for the gag, as much as they want to embrace Dalton’s more serious side.  Dalton struggles somewhat to project a dark soul even as his Bond finds himself in preposterous situations like steering a cello case down a ski slope.  In fairness, this stemmed largely from the uncertainty in the pre-production phase with the script being geared more for Pierce Brosnan’s perceived persona, and consequently, one-liners that might flow smoothly from Brosnan’s Irish tongue clatter clunkily on the floor as Dalton utters them.  When Dalton is required to be intense, he’s in his wheelhouse – brooding over the corpse of a murdered colleague or putting a gun to Pushkin’s head.  Interestingly enough, Dalton became a lot more comfortable in comedy as he grew older and settled into himself – he’s hysterically funny in Hot Fuzz.  But here it’s clear which arena he prefers, and he soldiers on gamely despite the filmmakers’ insistence in looking for laughs in all the wrong places.

Another choice was made in this new era of Bond to make him a one-woman man, despite the implied one-off dalliance suggested at the very end of the teaser.  Maryam d’Abo as Kara is a definite step back from the glamour girls that populated the Bond movies up to this point; while nothing to sneer at looks-wise, she’s not the larger-than-life figure that one comes to expect from 007’s romantic interests.  Operating very much in her favour, however, is that no attempt is made to prop her up as “Bond’s equal” – she is an innocent, working-class woman caught up in something well beyond her everyday experience.  But that makes her a far more appropriate partner for this more down-to-earth James Bond.  The bad guys, too, are cut from a more sedate cloth, with no cackling or cat-stroking – Joe Don Baker, who would return to Bond in a different role later on, is an adequate stand-in for Oliver North, and Jeroen Krabbé is almost too likable as Koskov – it’s a bit difficult to accept him as a threat, particularly when he’s hugging everybody within sight and the filmmakers elect to turn him into Wile E. Coyote at the finale, in another one of their struggles with consistency of tone.  A couple of “where do I know that guy from” faces fill out the cast, with Andreas Wisniewski, a.k.a. the first guy Bruce Willis kills in Die Hard, taking the role of explosive-milk-bottle-wielding henchman Necros, and John Terry, best known to fans of Lost as Jack’s father Dr. Christian Shephard, as the (brief) new face of the long-absent Felix Leiter.  And the boisterous John Rhys-Davies is always a delight even if he’s not in the movie very much.

This would be the late John Barry’s final turn at the podium for James Bond, and he ended his tenure as much as he began it, by pushing the music in new directions with the inclusion of synthesized rhythm tracks to accompany the action, a tactic embraced and expanded upon by his spiritual successor David Arnold.  With these new elements, the music has an energy and a pulse to it that was absent from the lilting string-heavy scores of his two previous Bond works, intensifying the movie’s pace.  He also co-composed three different pop songs whose themes resonate throughout the score – the title track (with Norwegian rock group a-ha) and “Where Has Every Body Gone” (the theme for Necros) and the love theme “If There Was a Man” with the Pretenders.  And Barry himself makes a cameo appearance conducting the orchestra at the film’s close – a suitable sendoff for the man who more than anyone defined the sound of James Bond, and for that matter, spy movie music in general.

The Living Daylights is not perfect; as I mentioned it does suffer from an inconsistency of tone and the final act is bloated and longish, with one climax coming on top of another as all the disparate plot threads are tied up (not helping is a similar musical phrase used to score each big moment).  But it does what it needed to do in 1987 – free 007 from the burden of Roger Moore, update him to the modern era and set him off on a journey toward adventures bold once more.  With Timothy Dalton established in the role, the next movie would be able to tailor itself specifically to his strengths as a performer and to the qualities that he brought to the cinematic James Bond.  Unfortunately, it turned out not to be somewhere audiences wanted to go.

Tomorrow:  Licence to Kill and the long dark night.

Skyfall Countdown Day 9: A View to a Kill

“Hmm… he looks like James Bond, but…”

Alas, in our grand journey across the history of the cinematic James Bond we have come to what for many, including myself, is its lowest ebb.  Beating up on A View to a Kill is rather like kicking a puppy, and plenty of bandwidth has been devoted already to tearing apart its myriad flaws.  It’s clear, based on the general plot, that the filmmakers were trying to remake Goldfinger with another megalomaniacal, commodity-obsessed villain – in this case, Max Zorin (Christopher Walken) and, with a nod to the burgeoning era of personal computing, microchips.  For 1985, a computer-wielding bad guy would have been groundbreaking – think of all the many thrillers that have been released in the last twenty years involving hackers wiping out the hero’s identity, credit rating or what have you.  But apart from one brief scene where Zorin uses a digital camera to deduce Bond’s true identity, A View to a Kill keeps computers very much in the background.  In a way, the movie’s major mistake is that it is trying to dangle a toe two minutes into the future while keeping its other foot anchored firmly in 1964, failing to recognize that audiences, and James Bond, have grown up.  They want more than outlandish gags and double entendres, but unfortunately, that’s all A View to a Kill is serving.

With suspicions aroused that industrial magnate Zorin is leaking secrets of electromagnetic pulse-resistant microchip technology to the Soviet Union, Bond is put on the case, traveling to a horse auction at Zorin’s French estate where he bandies wits with the bad guy and his henchwoman May Day (Grace Jones) and finds that Zorin is using his microchips to cheat at horse racing.  After narrowly escaping a drowning in a Rolls Royce, Bond journeys to San Francisco, where with the assistance of geologist Stacey Sutton (Tanya Roberts), who harbors a grudge against Zorin for having destroyed her father’s oil business, he discovers that Zorin is planning to manipulate California’s fault system to create a double earthquake that will flood and destroy Silicon Valley, leaving him as the sole purveyor of all microchips on the planet.  As with most basic Bond plots, when they are outlined briefly like this they seem like a solid basis for a thriller.  However, given Roger Moore’s advancing age (he was 57 at the time of filming) and his inability to perform action scenes without excessive use of stunt doubles, the decision was made to treat said scenes as comedy and play everything tongue-in-cheek – a tragic misjudgement that mars the entire experience.  Gone is any sense of danger, of suspense, of doubt that Bond will survive the day.  In its place are broad double-takes, wild, emphatic gestures and hammy acting by bit performers; in essence, the worst of 1920’s-era silent movie slapstick.  Director John Glen cheekily describes it as “James Bond meets the Keystone Kops,” but the problem is, the Keystone Kops aren’t and never were funny.  Humour has its place in Bond but should be kept dry, like his martini.  A View to a Kill is 007 as a broad parody of himself, the classic hero of yore reduced to stumbling buffoon.  Indeed, given the tone, one could simply swap out Moore for Leslie Nielsen.  (Moore’s own comments in hindsight suggest that he might have preferred that option.)

What is doubly frustrating is that many of these scenes (like the extended sequence with the San Francisco police cars falling off the lift bridge) could be lifted neatly out of the movie without making a dent in the integrity of the narrative.  I’m throwing down the gauntlet here to an ambitious Bond fan with ready access to editing software to do a “Phantom Edit” of A View to a Kill that rids it of some of the less inspired choices on display, like the screaming and gesticulating French cab driver running after Bond, or the applauding drunken homeless man watching Bond carry Stacey down a ladder from the burning San Francisco city hall, images I only wish I could expunge from my memory as easily.

For his part, Moore is not helped by the other actors, none of whom seems to understand what to do with the weak script.  Walken, while delivering his lines with the same peculiar cadence that has generated fodder for impressionists the world over, is subdued and lacking in his usual charisma; it’s almost as if he is worried about coming off as camp so he dials it back, regrettably to a less interesting level.  Despite an extensive history revealed as the film goes on (Zorin turns out to be the result of a Nazi doctor’s experimentation with steroids on pregnant women) we never get a sense of who he is or what drives him, beyond the simple motivation of greed.  (Ian Fleming’s villains always received detailed personal histories as he attempted to examine the nature of evil.)  Tanya Roberts’ dressed-down part as Stacey, bikinis exchanged for long, demure dresses, consists largely of shrieking “James!” as she lands in one peril after another.  And Grace Jones as May Day seems to be on another planet entirely.  Bond himself is uncharacteristically neutered in this movie – he wears dowdy brown suits, flirts like a creepy old uncle and, in one of the most stereotypically emasculating moments of all time, bakes a quiche.  It’s as if the filmmakers wanted to both acknowledge and ignore the age of their leading man, probing way too far into his tender side and keeping him from coming off like a lecherous senior citizen without completely abandoning the ruthless ladykiller of the past.  But it’s a shaken and stirred concoction that simply does not gel.  He who tries too hard to please everybody will end up pleasing no one.

Is there anything worthwhile to be found?  Well, Duran Duran’s theme song, which remains the only Bond song to hit #1 on the Billboard charts, is terrific.  The story goes that guitarist John Taylor, somewhat in his cups, approached Albert R. Broccoli at a party and asked when Broccoli was going to hire someone decent to do the title track.  The sound is Duran Duran at their peak, yet it’s indisputably Bond, and it remains the movie’s most enduring feature, still achieving regular radio airplay almost 30 years later.

The fundamental error common to the worst Bond movies is the failure to develop the character of James Bond – failure to give him an arc to follow or a journey of personal evolution to undertake.  Failure to give the actor something to sink his teeth into.  Throughout his lengthy but controversial tenure, Roger Moore was rarely given any substantial material to play, which is a shame, because when he was, he proved he was up for it (see:  The Spy Who Loved Me.)  Bond instead became merely a vehicle for propelling the plot, a cog in the grand wheel of an elaborately choreographed action sequence, and the filmmakers abandoned the qualities that make him unique.  (Until Christopher Nolan took over, the Batman movies suffered the same problem.)  The reason James Bond is popular is not because audiences bust a gut watching him drive half a car across Paris or dangle from a loose fire engine ladder as he careens through the San Francisco streets.  He is not popular because he can snowboard away from hapless Soviet soldiers while a bad cover of “California Girls” plays in the background.  He is not popular because of the women he tangles with or the villains whose schemes he foils.  Set all the elaborate accoutrements aside; he remains popular because he is James Bond.  And any filmmaker approaching a new 007 adventure who forgets that, as happened here, does so at his peril.

Tomorrow:  A new Bond, an old attitude.

Skyfall Countdown Day 11: Octopussy

“The script says we kiss here.”

On an episode of The Simpsons in a flashforward to Lisa’s wedding, Homer is being introduced to her London-born fiancé and comments, “You know what I like about you English people?  Octopussy.  Man, I must have seen that movie… twice!”  Which is something of an apt observation on Roger Moore’s penultimate romp as James Bond.  It isn’t a movie that leaves a lasting impression, or indeed, much of an impression at all, at least, not a positive one.  The villains are dull, the relationship with the leading lady doesn’t go anywhere, and the visibly aging Moore is less comfortable with action scenes, resulting in an over-emphasis on slapstick.  And since the movie is set in a former British colony, where would we be without some condescending observations on the local culture, including the highly questionable choice of mocking extreme poverty?  Octopussy is indeed a many-tentacled beast of a movie that doesn’t know if it’s trying to be a Cold War thriller or a Peter Sellers “birdie nom nom” comedy.

The murder of 009, who turns up dead in West Berlin clutching a fake Fabergé egg, puts Bond on the case of a jewelry smuggling ring that seems to be centered on India and the traveling circus of the beautiful Octopussy (Maud Adams, returning in a new role after taking a golden bullet to the breast in The Man with the Golden Gun), whose father Bond once permitted to honourably commit suicide rather than face the disgrace of a court-martial.  Octopussy herself is being duped by her business partner Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan), an exiled Afghan prince who is collaborating with the mad Soviet General Orlov (Steven Berkoff) to smuggle a nuclear bomb onto a U.S. Air Force base and detonate it in the hopes of persuading the West to disarm its nuclear deterrent and give the Soviets a free path to conquer Europe.  Although the outline is taut, the execution is languid, and the biggest reason is the character of Octopussy.  The early drafts of the screenplay had her in a more active role as the first fully-fledged supervillainess of the Bond series, but she was softened in rewrites to wind up – after some initial misdirection – as merely a rather unobservant dupe in a scheme masterminded by two men, and thus, considerably less interesting, both for Bond and for the audience.  Her interactions with Bond bear no spark, and no tension apart from one contrived argument where she explodes in an unprovoked hissy fit.  There’s no compelling reason these two people should be together, despite both insisting that they are “two of a kind.”  They really aren’t.  They’re two characters who fall for each other because the screenplay forces them to, otherwise Bond doesn’t get a girl this time.  The true antagonists of the piece, Kamal and Orlov, are similarly sketchy – Kamal, while effectively performed by Jourdan with his refined accent, seems to have no apparent motivation for taking part in the grand plan of mass murder, and while requisite 80’s movie villain Berkoff does his best to devour the scenery, he is ultimately too stupid – gunned down by armed guards at a border crossing while chasing a train on foot – to be much of a threat.  As for the other main performers, Maud Adams is attractive but not compelling, and remains remote and buttoned-up when she should be sensual and provocative.  Kristina Wayborn as Octopussy’s second-in-command Magda provides quite a bit more heat, even if she is made up in the over-glammed big-hair style that was early 80’s beauty, but her “seductive” line delivery sounds like she’s reading a grocery list.

India is an exotic location as befits a Bond movie, but its presentation rings false.  Someone once observed that in Octopussy,India looks like what it would be if the British had never lost it.  It’s full of white people; old British brigadiers frequent the casino where Bond plays backgammon with Kamal Khan, and even Octopussy’s army of femmes fatale residing in her floating palace are all light-skinned.  (The two main women in the cast are both Swedish.)  The three-wheeled car chase is like a trip through someone’s stereotypical idea of an Indian carnival, with action scenes built around a sword swallower, a fakir lying on a bed of nails and another walking across hot coals.  As an ally of Bond’s battles a henchman with a tennis racket, we see a crowd of Indians whipping their heads back and forth in unison as if they were the audience at Wimbledon (with accompanying sound effects).  And the poverty of India is used as a punch line for two heartless gags involving Bond throwing money out into the masses (a beggar even does an over the top double take when two stacks of rupees land in his bowl).  It’s left to Vijay Amritraj, as Bond’s tennis-wielding local contact, to try and bring some dignity to how Indians are portrayed, but still Bond can’t help making insensitive comments like “This’ll keep you in curry for the next few weeks,” when handing him a wad of cash.  Before Bond leaves India behind for the less colourful climes of Germany in the second act, director John Glen’s love of slapstick rears its ugly head in an embarrassing “Most Dangerous Game”-inspired jungle hunt.  To escape Kamal Khan’s palace, Bond impersonates a corpse, frightening off its handlers with a ghoulish Dracula laugh, and runs into the wilderness, where he, in short order, tells a snake to “hiss off,” commands a tiger to “sit!” and in what in many ways is a low point of the entire Bond series, swings across vines while emitting the Tarzan howl, only to be finally rescued by a passing tourist boat (again, full of white people!)  India is a land much more complex than how it is depicted here, and it deserves better than to be reduced to a collage of cartoons for the amusement of the old colonials.  Of course, proving that the movie’s patronizing portrayal of foreigners isn’t confined to India, Bond is given a ride later on by an overweight German couple who attempt to ply him with sausages and beer.

Moore seems unengaged and weary of the role.  His 007 contract had expired, but he was persuaded to sign on again as with the release of Never Say Never Again looming with Sean Connery back as the lead, Broccoli did not want to chance having to introduce another new actor as James Bond.  Too much energy and attention, likewise, is diverted from where it should be – writing and performance – instead to the staging of increasingly outlandish gags, reducing Moore himself to little more than a prop to facilitate them and taking the Bond series down to the worst of 1920’s silent movie comedy.  All pretence of seriousness and suspense is abandoned at the climax, when Bond is attempting to defuse the nuclear device while in full clown makeup, and the movie goes on for another twenty minutes as Bond chases down Kamal Khan in a lifeless denouement.  It has not escaped my notice in writing these reviews that Bond seems to operate in a series of approximately ten-year blocks, where at the end of each comes a movie that is creatively exhausted and a franchise drifting with desperate need of a shakeup.  The Man with the Golden Gun in 1974 was the limp end of the first ten years, and with Octopussy coming out in 1983 it would not be long before time was up on Bond again and things needed to be refreshed.  But it would first fall to Kevin McClory, and later Broccoli’s own Eon Productions, to show us how deeply Bond could drive himself into the ditch.

Tomorrow:  Connery comes back to say never again, again.

Skyfall Countdown Day 12: For Your Eyes Only

“WHAT did you say about my acting ability???”

Halfway there!  Hope you’ve been enjoying the daily retrospective journey through James Bond’s past.  While Moonraker had been a tremendous box office success, it tested the patience of Bond fans by pushing their hero, some would argue, much too far into the realm of fantasy.  Recognizing that this was a dangerous path, the filmmakers elected to do what they usually do when they realize they’ve strayed:  return to the pen of Ian Fleming.  For Your Eyes Only was a collection of five short James Bond stories, and the decision was made to combine two of them – the eponymous tale and Risico, along with a sequence that was omitted from the screen adaptation of Live and Let Die, to craft a screenplay that would exchange lasers and explosions for the shifting alliances and unexpected betrayals that marked the best Cold War spy thrillers.

After an unrelated teaser that bids a metaphorical farewell to Bond’s past by visiting the grave of his wife Tracy and dumping a mysterious, cat-stroking “wheelchair villain” into a smokestack (Kevin McClory was still claiming ownership of Blofeld), the plot proper begins with the destruction of a British spy ship off the coast of Albania.  On board – the Automatic Targeting Attack Communicator, or A.T.A.C., which looks like an adding machine but can issue orders to Britain’s entire submarine fleet.  The Soviets want it, and the British want it back.  After the British point man in charge of the salvage operation is murdered by a hitman, survived only by his daughter Melina (Carole Bouquet), Bond is put on the case to figure out who is responsible.  The lead dries up when Melina unexpectedly puts a crossbow bolt in the hitman’s back; however, following up on the man who paid for the hit, Bond journeys to the ski slopes of Cortina, where the helpful Aristotle Kristatos (Julian Glover) points him in the direction of a notorious smuggler named Milos Columbo (Topol).  But all is not how it appears, and Bond discovers that Kristatos himself has been the one supervising the Soviet attempt to steal the A.T.A.C., with Columbo turning out to be a useful ally as Bond and Melina race against time to secure the A.T.A.C. before Kristatos can turn it over to his Soviet masters in a finale set on a mountaintop monastery in Greece.

The ingredients are there, and the actors are game, but there are a couple of major flaws.  First up is a huge hole in the plot.  Imagine you are told there is a treasure out there somewhere.  In fact, you are told exactly where it is.  You are told that the treasure is incredibly important, that there are other people after it and it’s critical that you get it first.  Step one then would not be wasting days figuring out who those other interested parties are – would it not be, I don’t know, recovering the damn treasure?  Yet this is exactly the course of For Your Eyes Only’s first two acts.  As important to Britain’s national security as we’re advised the A.T.A.C. is, Bond sure takes his sweet time in getting around to finding it.  It’s never explained why it seems to be a greater priority for Her Majesty’s Government to determine who else is pursuing the A.T.A.C., when they’ve established quite clearly that the Russians would be the likely suspects.  Of course, if Bond went after the McGuffin immediately, the movie would only be a half hour long.  So we have an extended sequence set in the Olympic park at Cortina for a diverting dose of winter action.  After a contrived beat designed to maneuver Bond to the top of a ski jump, the chase begins, scored by Bill Conti in an over-the-top disco motif more suited to ABC’s Wide World of Sports highlight reel.  Director John Glen, who cut his teeth shooting second unit for and editing the ski scenes in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, has a really bad habit, evident throughout the five Bond films he directed, of cutting away frequently to show crowd reaction shots – people staring agape, spilling drinks on themselves, cows mooing, etcetera, as Bond speeds by.  This detracts from the experience of the innovative stunts by slipping a barrier between us and them, like an additional proscenium – as if the movie is reacting to its own spectacle instead of giving the audience the freedom to do it.  It robs the scenes of their intensity and any potential drama or suspense by reminding us, blatantly, that these action beats are all meticulously staged.  Instinctively we know that, but we like to pretend there’s some spontaneity.  Glen does much better near the end of the movie, his comedic instincts played out, in staging Bond’s ascent up the side of the mountain where Kristatos’ hideout is located.  It’s a scene without gadgets, where Bond’s ingenuity and skill is required to get him out of a jam, and scored suspensefully (without disco) by Conti.  Of course, Glen has to have a last laugh, and jams in an unfunny cameo by a Margaret Thatcher impersonator just before the credits roll.

Glen is another in a long line of Bond directors better at action than managing performances, and while there are some strong actors in this movie, they don’t have a lot to work with; the supporting roles are underwritten as usual.  This time, at least, the secondary characters have more of their own arc, in the shape of the rivalry between Kristatos and Columbo, and Melina’s quest to avenge her parents.  Faring best is Topol, who channels Kerim Bey in his role of the pistachio-chewing smuggler, a likable rogue we’re happy to see on Bond’s side.  As the central villain, Julian Glover as Kristatos presents himself as debonair enough at first, until his duplicity is revealed and he then displays the requisite amount of sadism – tying Bond and Melina together and dragging them behind his boat in the hopes that they’ll be eaten by sharks (the scene lifted from Live and Let Die) and, just so we’re sure about his evil, smacking around his young blond protégé, Bibi (Lynn-Holly Johnson).  More understated and sinister a presence is his lackey Locque (Michael Gothard), the silent, square-rimmed glasses-wearing thug whom 007 dispatches by kicking his car over a cliff, in a classic Bond scene that Roger Moore didn’t want to film (he felt that his version of Bond would never be that cold-blooded).  Leading lady Carole Bouquet, best known as the face behind Chanel No. 5, is a greater beauty than she is an actress, and scenes in which she’s required to display the seething rage of a woman consumed by vengeance come off more like she’s upset that room service was late.  Radiant, however, in an all-too-brief cameo as Columbo’s doomed mistress is Cassandra Harris, the then-Mrs. Pierce Brosnan.  (Producer Albert R. Broccoli is alleged to have made a mental note of Brosnan’s 007 potential while dining with them one night on location.)

For Your Eyes Only is a movie with the right intentions, but its aspirations are undercut by its reliance on the sillier aspects of the previous Bond films.  What was most frustrating about Moonraker was not so much its fantasy setting but by its frequent descent into camp, and it seems like the wrong lesson was learned here.  Verisimilitude is critical to what For Your Eyes Only wants to be, but instead, it goes the other way, never missing an opportunity for a bad joke and undermining the ability of the audience to take it as seriously as say, From Russia with Love.  There’s fun and then there’s trying too hard to be funny, and this movie is most definitely the latter.  And it’s a shame.

Tomorrow:  Eight arms to hold you.

Skyfall Countdown Day 14: The Spy Who Loved Me

“What do you mean you think Pete Best was a better drummer?”

The most common complaint about the James Bond film series among Ian Fleming purists is that they stray too far from the original books.  The screenwriters would keep the title, a few of the characters and maybe one or two scenes, but generally be permitted to make things up from scratch.  The Spy Who Loved Me, released on July 7, 1977 (or 7/7/77) is a case where not only does the movie have absolutely nothing in common with the Fleming book, but it’s because Ian Fleming himself wanted it that way.  The novel, a low-key tale told from the first-person perspective of a woman named Vivienne Michel (and containing Fleming’s misogynist and dubious observation that “all women love semi-rape”) with Bond appearing only late in the story, was a source of embarrassment for the author, and he stipulated when selling the rights that no material from it could be used, save the title, should a film adaptation be undertaken.  This must have been liberating to Albert R. Broccoli, now the sole producer in charge of James Bond following Harry Saltzman’s departure, and having to chart a course back to respectability after the disappointment that was The Man with the Golden Gun.

The core element Broccoli latched onto, wisely, was the idea of Bond as spectacle.  The previous few films had been very gritty and muted, in keeping with the early 70’s trend in cinema, but Broccoli knew that 007 fit more comfortably alongside the widescreen epics of the previous era.  He rehired Lewis Gilbert, the director of You Only Live Twice, and commissioned a story – after an abortive attempt to bring back Blofeld and SPECTRE that was thwarted when Kevin McClory’s lawyers reared their heads – that would see Bond pitted not against a villain merely interested in selling drugs or cornering the renewable energy market, but against an utter madman with designs on destroying the entire world.  As the story begins, one British and one Soviet nuclear submarine have gone missing, stolen out of the water it seems by someone who is able to track their movements.  James Bond and Soviet agent XXX, Major Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach) are assigned by their respective governments to Cairo to trace the origin of the tracking system, and team up to pursue the architect of the entire affair:  billionaire, webbed-fingered Karl Stromberg (Curt Jurgens), who is obsessed with the oceans and intends to accelerate what he feels is the inevitable decline of civilization by using his captured subs to start a nuclear war between Russia and the United States.  Adding a wrinkle to their reluctant collaboration, Bond has unknowingly killed Amasova’s boyfriend during a previous mission, and she has sworn that once their mission is complete, she will take her revenge.

Clearly this was not a tale that could be told in the buttoned-down, economic manner of the last two movies.  Spectacle requires a spectacular talent in the designer’s chair, and for Broccoli, there was only one name who could measure up:  Ken Adam, fresh off winning an Oscar for Stanley Kubrick’s period costume drama Barry Lyndon.  Adam’s sets open the movie up beyond the reach of the most imaginative audience member.  The staple of the villain’s lair this time was the interior of Stromberg’s enormous supertanker, large enough to contain three nuclear submarines and so large in fact that not only did the world’s biggest soundstage have to be built to contain it, but the film’s director of photography Claude Renoir could not see from one end of it to the other.  (In what has become the worst kept secret in the James Bond canon, Adam invited Kubrick himself to the set to advise on how to light it properly.)  Each set, from the warmth of M’s office to the sterile environs of General Gogol’s retreat, from the curves and spheres of Stromberg’s underwater home to the sandy brickwork of Q’s Egyptian laboratory, brings with it a lush and meticulous character that occupies the screen with as much presence – and in some cases, far more – as the actors wandering through the space.

Until recently, Bond movies were never renowned for their great acting, and while The Spy Who Loved Me is a visual banquet stretching from ski slopes to desert dunes and finally beneath the waves, the supporting performances are just a few notches above bread and water – doubly ironic given that this is the movie where Roger Moore finally cast off the shadow of Sean Connery and came completely into his own in his interpretation of James Bond.  Gone for good is the macho cruelty and slapping women around.  In its stead is a polished gentleman who kills when he has to, even if it is with great reluctance and only as a last resort.  Moore was never better as Bond than he is here, both in physical presence and manner, blending his ability to play quips with a forceful dramatic presence, particularly in the scene when Anya discovers that Bond is responsible for her lover’s death.  In that brief moment, Moore unveils the darkness lurking beneath the playboy surface, reminding those audience members who might aspire to be James Bond that his life, despite its exterior appeal, is destructive to the soul.

If only the actress opposite him in the scene could provide a solid counterpoint; alas, Barbara Bach, wife of Ringo Starr, is not up to the challenge.  She’s fine as eye candy but doesn’t really have the chops to be a leading lady, speaking her dialogue with unchanging facial expressions in an accent which defies location (but certainly isn’t Russian).  Caroline Munro, as Stromberg’s bikini-wearing, helicopter-flying accomplice Naomi, radiates more character and sex appeal in one seductive wink at Bond than Bach manages in an hour and a half of screen time.  Jurgens is effectively creepy as Stromberg but is as straightforward and one dimensional as the anonymous henchmen he sends after the heroes, and is not as interesting a social foe for Bond.  The most memorable villain is of course Richard Kiel as Jaws, the unstoppable behemoth with the metal teeth.  Without speaking a word, Kiel injects his lumbering brute with personality and a sense of humor, making him oddly likable even though he kills several innocent people (and eats a shark).

Despite not being so surefooted with his actors (Moore excepted), director Lewis Gilbert stages action extremely well and keeps the pace tight even in sections where it would be natural to let it sag a little.  The geography of the massive final battle between Stromberg’s men and the captured British and Russian naval crews aboard the supertanker is capably handled with no confusion ever about who is doing what to whom (Michael Bay, take notes!)  Interestingly enough, the movie’s signature moment occurs within the first ten minutes.  The filmmakers had seen a print ad with a man skiing off a mountain precipice and contacted the stuntman in question, Rick Sylvester, who confessed that the photo had been faked but that he could execute it for real.  A small filming unit spent weeks hunkered down in the Arctic waiting for the right conditions.  Finally, the weather broke and Sylvester had one chance to nail it – and when audiences watched James Bond, pursued by Soviet gunmen, ski over a sheer cliff ostensibly to his doom, only to be saved by a parachute emblazoned with the Union Jack, theatres exploded in cheers.  It was the surest indication that James Bond was back in the biggest way possible.  Marvin Hamlisch, who had achieved the rare feat of winning three Oscars in a single year, supplied his services for the music and composed for Carly Simon the movie’s famous title song to reinforce this point:  “Nobody Does it Better.”  In that moment, at that time, nobody did.

Tomorrow:  Moonraker shoots for the stars and gets lost along the way.

Skyfall Countdown Day 16: Live and Let Die

“Do not raise your eyebrow… do not raise your eyebrow…”

At the close of the 1960’s, as the bloated big budget studio production of the past gave way to the grittier, more hard-edged and personal films of the 1970’s, gone was the glamour and fakery of the soundstage in favour of the grime of impoverished city streets, with small-scale stories that keyed in on the struggles of everyday life.  The escapist fare that was the James Bond series had to find a way to survive in this new era as well, and with the permanent departure of Sean Connery, they had, in essence, carte blanche to start over.  One cinematic trend that intrigued returning screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz was the rise of the blaxploitation film, with movies like Shaft, Super Fly, Blacula and Across 110th Street proving the box office potential of this genre.  Coincidentally, Ian Fleming’s second James Bond novel, Live and Let Die, had been set in Harlem and featured a black villain.  Mankiewicz decided to contemporize Fleming’s somewhat dated tale by changing the bad guy’s M.O. from smuggling pirate’s treasure to distributing heroin, and, in keeping with Bond’s penchant for a wide array of exotic locations, expanded the scope of the story beyond Harlem to include a jazz funeral on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, a high-speed boat chase through the Louisiana bayou and a final showdown on a fictional Caribbean island.

After three British agents are killed within 24 hours of each other, Bond is sent in to investigate whether there is a connection linking the deaths.  Following a blundering escapade in Harlem and a timely escape from the thugs of local gangster “Mr. Big,” Bond travels to the island of San Monique, where he discovers that its Prime Minister, Dr. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto of Across 110th Street) is concealing vast fields of poppies to produce mass quantities of heroin.  Looking into the final death in New Orleans, Bond discovers the key to the entire mystery:  Dr. Kananga and Mr. Big are one and the same, and Kananga intends to conquer the world in a much different way than good old Blofeld – he wants to corner the American heroin market by giving away two tons of it for free, through the soul food restaurants in the United States owned by his “Mr. Big” persona.

After some questionable casting suggestions that included Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood and even Batman‘s Adam West, Albert R. Broccoli put his foot down and insisted that Bond be played by an Englishman.  Roger Moore had made a name for himself on television as The Saint, and was keen to both distance himself from that image and distinguish his portrayal of Bond from that of Sean Connery (he once cracked that he had to learn how to say “My name is Bond, James Bond” instead of “My name ish Bond, Jamesh Bond.”)  Screenwriter Mankiewicz was also acutely aware that even though the movie would be showcasing black actors, the majority of them would be playing villains who would ultimately meet their ends at the hands of a white guy.  With that in mind he decided to craft scenes that would see Bond for the first time totally out of his element, bested frequently by his adversaries’ ingenuity and outclassed by their coolness.  That approach would not have worked with Connery – his Bond was always in command wherever he went – but Moore’s ability to survive sticky situations with his wits instead of his fists lent itself perfectly to this artistic choice.  Consequently, Live and Let Die becomes mainly a social conflict between the hero and the villain, with the favours of the beautiful leading lady the linchpin of their showdown.

That leading lady, a then-22-year-old Jane Seymour as Solitaire, is arguably the most unique Bond girl of the entire series, for two reasons:  she’s a virgin (at first), and she possesses supernatural powers.  Solitaire can see the future with her tarot deck, and her abilities help keep Kananga one step ahead of his enemies, Bond included.  However, it seems that even Solitaire must submit to the will of her cards, and when they foretell that she and Bond will become lovers, her visions vanish forever between the sheets.  (Interestingly her period of mourning for her lost powers is extremely brief, as Solitaire comes to enjoy sex with Bond, and Seymour characterizes this subtly by adding a degree of maturity to her delivery of her lines once the forbidden fruit has been sampled.)  Seymour is utterly ravishing in this part, whether in glamour make-up in high priestess mode, or in more casual clothes with her goddess’ mane of hair flowing out around her.  And it’s refreshing to see a Bond girl role that has its own complete character arc – even if that arc does lead to more familiar damsel-in-distress territory towards the end of the film.  Considering the majority of the Bond girls that follow are either fellow spies or other forms of government agent (inevitably referred to by hack entertainment journalists as “Bond’s equal”) Solitaire remains memorable – just because she is so wholly different, and because such a departure from the Bond girl norm has, somewhat regrettably, never been even tried since.

Sean Connery was a bruiser, and Roger Moore is incredibly not, so the action set pieces lean more towards extrication by gadget and/or sheer inventiveness rather than bare knuckles. (It would not have been unexpected, had Connery starred in this film, to see him jump into the crocodile pool to wrestle each one in turn, rather than leap across their backs to safety as Moore’s Bond does.)  Moore is the “gentleman spy,” who is more apt to disarm his enemies with a cutting remark or a handy wristwatch magnet rather than a headlock or a knee to the stomach.  But it works here, mainly because Moore is still young, and the style is trying to adhere in the realism of the 1970’s while keeping one foot in the 60’s Bond largesse that had proven so popular.  The major misstep is the inclusion, in the massive boat chase that occupies the latter half of the second act, of the hapless redneck Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James) who finds himself flummoxed over and over again by Bond’s antics.  It was an ill omen to include this kind of observer character, and he and his ilk would reappear frequently (as I will describe with great chagrin in later posts) as the series wore on.

One area where Live and Let Die knocks it out of the park, however, is in its music.  There’s an interesting story, and perhaps a testament to the eclectic nature of producer Harry Saltzman’s tastes, that when he first heard Paul McCartney & Wings’ rocking theme song, he thought it was a good demo but that Thelma Houston should sing the final version.  Luckily Saltzman lost that battle – and any Bond fan should put hearing McCartney do this song live on their bucket list.  (B.J. Arnau provides a rendition of the theme midway through the film that is perhaps more towards Saltzman’s liking.)  McCartney’s long time Beatles producer George Martin takes over for John Barry and supplies a funky accompaniment to the proceedings that incorporates jazz, Dixieland, Caribbean rhythms and of course the iconic Bond theme into a fusion that is both signature 70’s and unmistakably James Bond.

Live and Let Die is not highly regarded by critics, who are both predisposed to prefer Sean Connery over Roger Moore, and unhappy with the movie’s racial undertones.  True, despite Mankiewicz’s intention to make the black villains formidable characters, they do all receive cartoonish sendoffs, the worst fate saved for Kotto’s Dr. Kananga, who explodes after being inflated into a balloon by a shark gun.  And the scene of the very white Moore pointing a gun directly into the face of a black woman (Rosie Carver, played by Gloria Hendry) after just having had sex with her is uncomfortable no matter what era you’re watching the movie in.  For long time Bond aficionados, it’s a bit strange watching 007 wander through burned-out urban ghettos after seeing him stroll through Ken Adam’s fantastic sets in the previous films.  But there remains a style and verve here, helped along greatly by Martin’s music, Moore’s breezy introductory performance and the stunning Seymour, that leads you to forgive a great number of its sins, and just enjoy it for what it is – a tribute to the trends of its time, and a unique page in the history of James Bond.

Tomorrow:  For Roger Moore, things get worse before they get better.