Tag Archives: Benicio Del Toro

Fun and Fancy Speculation about Star Wars: Episode VIII

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Spoilers, of course.

The last reels have unspooled.  The final reviews are in.  Billions of dollars have exchanged hands.  Billions of bytes of data have been exchanged in the evaluation and measurement of the story’s worth.  Opinions have been cemented and there is little else to say about Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  There remains but one lingering question:  what’s next?

Episode VIII has begun filming; we know this, thanks to the official announcement featuring a recreation of the final moments of the previous movie, and writer-director Rian Johnson’s sporadic tweets on the subject.  We’ve heard that Benicio del Toro and Laura Dern have joined the cast, most of which is returning.  We were disappointed but ultimately understanding about the shift of the release date from May to December of 2017, particularly if the additional time means a better movie is the result.  Other than that, the lid is closed, and as fans the only thing we can do between now and then is speculate.  What lies among the stars for Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo and BB-8?  How will Luke and Leia fit in?  Will the Resistance defeat the First Order once and for all?

Figuring out what happens next isn’t actually that difficult.  The way forward is much clearer than the dangling threads of The Force Awakens would make it seem.  Let’s look at them one at a time.

The state of the galaxy

The First Order was successful in wiping out the capital of the Republic and most of the Republic fleet, leaving the Resistance without its primary means of support.  However, their superweapon Starkiller Base was also destroyed, reducing the First Order to much the same state.  So as Episode VIII begins, the galaxy is without a central government – essentially in a state of anarchy, with two substantially weakened powers grappling to establish themselves as the sole viable unifying force, with thousands of star systems up for grabs.  The Resistance was depicted as something of a ragtag band using old ships and weapons, while the First Order appears to be much better funded with plenty of state of the art materiel and personnel.  Even with Starkiller Base eliminated, the First Order may be better equipped to continue the battle for the galaxy even if it has to be one measly star system at a time.  One could very well envisage the opening crawl setting up the story thus:  while the First Order has been dealt a blow, with the Republic gone they have begun a war of attrition, pushing outward and laying claim to system after system, and the Resistance finds itself unable to keep up and looking desperately for a way to stem the tide.

We know nothing about Benicio del Toro’s character yet, other than vague comments about him being a villain.  That doesn’t mean necessarily that he’s another member of the First Order – their entire leadership is intact after The Force Awakens.  What if, instead, he’s the leader of a third party – some kind of wealthy (if shady) syndicate that the Resistance needs to court in order to keep up the fight?  We know the galaxy is full of criminals, like the infamous Hutts, or the rival gangs that sought to extract their swindled funds from Han Solo before they were eaten by rathtars.  What if Del Toro is the head of the mysterious Kanjiklub – or more likely, the leader of a Spectre-like organization that controls all illicit activity throughout the galaxy and has no great love for the First Order?  You could have an interesting story there with both the Resistance and the First Order attempting to sway his group into the fight, a sort of “enemy of my enemy is my friend” type of dilemma.  For General Leia, it would mean a significant challenge to her principles.  Is it worth doing business with devils to defeat the greatest devil of all?  If it has to resort to similar methods to achieve its ends, is the Resistance no better than the very foe it professes to despise?

The state of the Force

Even though the previous movie ended on a shot of Luke Skywalker and Rey looking silently at one another as the music swelled, Episode VIII likely won’t pick up with them for at least the first ten minutes (remember, all Star Wars movies begin with a spaceship going somewhere).  It would be foolish to believe that merely a glimpse of his old lightsaber will be enough to convince Luke to impart his knowledge to this completely unknown girl.  And I do believe she is unknown, despite the wishes by many fans that she will turn out to be Luke’s daughter.  There would simply be no story for Luke if that were the case.  Why would he refuse to train his own child?  You can suggest that it might be because the previous attempt to train one of his bloodline went bad, but there’s a considerable difference between a nephew and a daughter.  Rather, I would imagine that Luke will want nothing to do with Rey, having decided (at least at first) that the galaxy is better off without people who can touch the Force.  At least, until Rey proves herself somehow.  This is where a concept that was deleted from The Force Awakens might come into play.  (Hollywood never lets a good idea go un-recycled.)

Before screenwriters Arndt, Kasdan and Abrams decided that Luke himself was to be the object of the quest, there was discussion that there might be some valuable information left over in remnants of the Death Star that had crashed in an ocean on Rey’s world, and that that would be the story’s McGuffin.  In the movie, Han said that it was rumored Luke had gone looking for the first Jedi temple.  Yet when we find him he’s on an empty island in the middle of a vast ocean.  What if the Jedi temple is somewhere under all that water, and in order for Rey to be granted the benefit of Luke’s teachings, she is forced to help him find it, in a quest through ancient ruins that invokes Indiana Jones?  (Laura Dern as an oracle/ghost of one of the first Jedi, perhaps?)  The journey would of course be a spiritual one as well as a physical one, with Rey finding out even more about herself along the way and discovering, rather like The Karate Kid, that what appears as a futile series of labors has in fact been her Jedi training all along.  One aspect I find interesting in the discussion of who Rey might be is that every single theory suggests she was left on Jakku for her protection.  What if that’s not the case – what if she was abandoned there because her parents were afraid of her, because they thought she was dangerous?  What if there is more dark side in her than we’ve been led to believe thus far?  It sets up a fascinating contrast with Kylo Ren, whose training we know thanks to Snoke’s last line of dialogue is also incomplete.  In Episode VIII we might see parallel stories of Rey being trained to resist her innate darkness while Kylo struggles to purge the last of his inner light as he endures unexpected guilt over his act of patricide – and because there is an Episode IX to come, we may not see the resolution of that conflict yet.

The state of the galaxy’s favorite bromance

When we last saw Finn, he was lying unconscious in a Resistance medical bay after taking a lightsaber to the spine.  He will of course make a miraculous recovery and be consumed now with taking the fight to his former colleagues after spending most of the first movie running away from them.  John Boyega, tweeting on the first day’s shooting, included a hint of what might be either his character’s arc or an actual line of dialogue:

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This would fit what I talked about above, with the Resistance in regrouping mode as the First Order takes system after system, and Finn growing impatient with the progress of the war.  He’s going to want to punish the people who stole his life from him.  Trying to keep him from going too far down the dark path – even though in this example it’s not a question of being seduced to the dark side of the Force – will be his BFF Poe Dameron.  One could even see the two of them being dispatched on a mission that has something to do with the scenario I hypothesized above regarding Benicio del Toro’s character.  Rian Johnson is said to have arranged screenings for the cast of the Gregory Peck war movie Twelve O’Clock High and the Russian film Letter Never Sent; the former is about a hard-nosed general whipping a bunch of misfit bomber pilots into fighting shape, while the latter is about a group of geologists who get trapped in the Siberian woods while searching for diamonds.  Finn and Poe (and little BB-8 for good measure) might be cast into an homage to either, or a combination of both of these narratives.

As to “the lip bite that launched a thousand ships”?  I think it would a tremendous and welcome step forward to have gay characters in a Star Wars movie.  I don’t think it’s going to happen.  I don’t think the powers that be would slam the door on the possibility by dropping Poe’s yet-unseen girlfriend into the plot, but they will more than likely skirt what they could see as a potential audience-alienating controversy by leaving the matter to wishful conjecture instead.  The main thrust of the story is always going to be the war in the galaxy far far away, and every subplot will be in service to that narrative, not progressive social commentary, as much as we might welcome it.  Finn and Poe will remain pals and comrades-in-arms, but nothing more.

Putting it all together

The second act of a play is traditionally the darkest, or, as Lawrence Kasdan has put it, “when everything goes to hell.”  Characters are brought to their lowest point.  Everything we’ve taken for granted collapses.  The remaining pieces are assembled in an unexpected order for the final dramatic showdown.  I think we will see the First Order resurgent, the Resistance on the edge of a final defeat, friends set against one another and Rey and Kylo Ren both forced to wage mortal battles with their own respective souls, perhaps even in the form of a lightsaber rematch.  I doubt we will see anything as gut-wrenching as Han Solo’s death – it would be gilding the lily a bit to take another one of the classic trio out of the picture – but as the credits roll we’ll be left with significant doubt as to whether our heroes will survive.  We may even be doubtful as to whether our heroes are actually heroes.  Just as Darth Vader ultimately turned out to be the true hero of the original trilogy by killing his evil master in Return of the Jedi, what if his grandson, whom we could never possibly consider forgiving after what he did to our childhood idol in The Force Awakens, is fated to follow a similar path?

About the only thing we can be certain of about Episode VIII is that once it’s done we’ll be having the exact same conversation about Episode IX.  In the meantime, let me know your own thoughts in the comments – do you see these as logical developments, or do you have another idea about what will follow the crawl on December 15, 2017?

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Skyfall Countdown Day 7: Licence to Kill

Carey Lowell about to exact vengeance on Wayne Newton for his Vegas act.

Throughout the James Bond series, Bond’s biggest challenge has not been any of the seemingly endless ranks of supervillains he’s come up against, or even the bevy of beautiful women who’ve sought to tame him.  Rather, it has been that most complicated of adversaries, the United States of America.  Bond’s relationship with America has been one of push and pull, give and take, with America always wanting more, it seems, than Bond’s willing to give.  Many of Ian Fleming’s 007 novels take place in America, or feature American characters.  American audiences have embraced this English hero and propelled him to unimagined heights.  It was an American President, John F. Kennedy, who first brought Fleming’s novels into the national spotlight.  Yet America’s more crass, tentacled, Borg-ifying side that seeks to remake the entirety of global culture in her commercialized image has always been a wolf nipping at James Bond’s door.  American studio executives push hard for more American content in 007; American actors have tested for the role of Bond, and American performers have been forced into Bond casts to ensure American audiences won’t be put off by too many foreign accents.  Ironically, Bond’s quintessential Britishness has been protected from these attempts by the American producers who continue to shepherd his legacy.  But if there is a single Bond movie that feels the most American, it would have to be Licence to Kill.  (The ironies continue to abound given that the movie’s working title, License Revoked, was abandoned when test marketing suggested American audiences would think the movie was about a teenager losing his driver’s license.)  That the movie is an effectively told tale but at some gut level just feels wrong speaks to this concept that a little America in Bond goes a very long way.

When Bond’s longtime friend Felix Leiter (David Hedison, reprising the role from Live and Let Die) is maimed and his wife murdered by seemingly untouchable South American drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi), Bond defies an unsympathetic M, resigns his commission and goes rogue to pursue vengeance.  Succeeding first in stealing $5 million from Sanchez’s cohort Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe), Bond travels to Sanchez’s home country, and, with the assistance of CIA pilot Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), Sanchez’s mistress Lupe (Talisa Soto) and a helpful Q (Desmond Llewelyn), infiltrates Sanchez’s world.  The stakes are raised when it turns out Sanchez is purchasing shoulder-mounted missiles he intends to use against American passenger airliners if the American Drug Enforcement Agency doesn’t leave him alone.  By sowing seeds of mistrust, Bond leads Sanchez to dismantle his own kingdom, the villain himself killing off his associates in ever more brutal fashion – before Bond’s true nature is revealed and he squares off against the object of his quest in a final, gasoline-soaked showdown.  Vengeance is never a picturesque road, and Licence to Kill was the most violent Bond film to date, with character after character meeting grisly end, either in shark tanks, decompression chambers, pillars of flame, or simply in a hail of machine gun bullets.  Bond himself is embittered, cynical and remorseless as he winds his way through his elaborate plan of retribution.  The trouble was, particularly in the summer of 1989, there were already plenty of antiheroes crowding the box office, and a gentleman English spy couldn’t compete on that level – not only that, audiences didn’t really want him to.  Bond had, in effect, become too American for the Americans who loved him.

Numerous subtle factors contribute to the over-American sense of this movie.  Filming in England proved too expensive this time around, and so the entirety of the production relocated to Mexico, with the opening scenes shot in and around Key West, Florida.  American accents abound – casting took place out mainly of the States and the supporting players are a roster of familiar if lesser known TV actors, people like Hedison, Zerbe, Frank McRae, Priscilla Barnes, Grand L. Bush, Everett McGill, Don Stroud and Anthony Starke.  In fact, leading lady Lowell’s most prominent role since this movie has been on Law & Order.  Given that a portion of the design budget had to go towards refurbishing the Mexican studio first, the resulting sets lack the polish and finish of the Ken Adam creations of old, looking very much like locations thrown together on a much leaner American TV budget.  Michael Kamen’s score evokes his previous work on Die Hard and the Lethal Weapon series.  And then of course there’s the presence of Mr. Vegas himself, Wayne Newton.  There is something to be said for the exercise of taking a character out of his comfort zone and plopping him down in an unfamiliar environment – the old “fish out of water” trope – but watching James Bond order a Budweiser in a redneck bar just before it explodes into a full-on brawl as cheesy 80’s rock wails on the jukebox just makes him seem… ordinary.  The appeal of Bond is watching him move through exotic worlds unattainable by us mere mortals, not seeing him slumming at the karaoke dive just down the street.  Anyone can do that; why do we need to go to the movies to see it?

Despite the Americanized aesthetic, there are a few standouts of note.  As Sanchez, Robert Davi delivers the most complex, multi-layered portrayal of an antagonist yet seen in a Bond movie.  Sanchez is a sadistic man, yet he has his own strong moral code which values loyalty above anything else, and betrayals merit the cruellest punishments.  Without delving even slightly into the origins of this man – no elegantly related backstory to be found here, he just explodes onto the screen as a force of nature – Davi rounds him out and gives him a degree of the elegance common to the finest Bond bad guys, and a correspondingly wicked sense of humour to boot.  And a 22-year-old Benicio Del Toro, in only his second movie, shows hints of greatness to come as Sanchez’s eccentric, hot-tempered young cohort Dario.  But in some ways, the biggest joy in the movie comes from the ever-endearing Desmond Llewelyn as Q, who is freed from his laboratory and his usual briefing scene to become a significant partner in Bond’s mission.  With more screen time here than in his last half-dozen Bond movies combined, Llewelyn gets to do some genuine character work and become a father figure to Bond in a way that the cold, bureaucratic M (Robert Brown) never did.

But it’s still Timothy Dalton’s movie, and in what would turn out to be his final performance as James Bond, he dares to give us a 007 consumed with passions and doubts that his usual veneer of sophistication cannot control.  Fuelled by animalistic anger and the desire for retribution, Bond begins to lose his way, and himself.  But he comes to realize that in order to complete his mission and bring Felix Leiter some justice, he cannot be that simple “blunt instrument” – he has to become James Bond again.  Particularly telling is the moment where Bond sits, bloodied and bruised, watching Sanchez and all that remains of his drug empire dissipating into smoke, and there is no sense of triumph to be had, only the quiet solitude of the end of the long night – an oddly European ending for such an American-feeling movie, but one that suited Timothy Dalton’s interpretation of the classic role.

In times past, if you were disappointed by a Bond movie, you could comfort yourself with the reassurance that there would be another, hopefully better one coming in only a couple of years.  One wonders how many fans walked out of Licence to Kill thinking the same thing, only to find that studio politics, lawsuits, shady financial dealings and plain old greed had vastly different plans.

Tomorrow:  Pierce Brosnan finally gets his second chance.