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Skyfall Countdown Day 4: The World is Not Enough

The new face of evil.

SPOILER ALERT:  You might not want to read this review unless you’ve seen The Dark Knight Rises.  The reasons why will become apparent soon enough.

Tomorrow Never Dies had been the usual James Bond box office success, which was of particular note on this occasion given that it opened on the exact same weekend in 1997 as Titanic.  But it seemed clear to all involved that there was something lacking amidst the bluster and explosions.  Pierce Brosnan himself asked for material to challenge him as an actor rather than continue to be a glorified stunt performer.  The focus for the next movie then would be more on character, and to that end, producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, now steering the series together after the passing of her father Albert, enlisted the services of director Michael Apted, who had made the acclaimed “Up Series” of documentaries following up on a group of British schoolchildren every seven years of their lives, and had directed Sissy Spacek to her Best Actress Oscar in Coal Miner’s Daughter.  The screenplay would return to the vein of Goldeneye, with its shifting alliances and a story set amidst the wreckage of the Cold War.  In a first for the Bond series, the primary villain would be a woman.  Recognizing also that Judi Dench was too strong a performer to be confined to the customary briefing scene at the beinning of the movie, M would take a much greater role in the plot, with Bond forced to grapple with the consequences of her past mistakes (an element that seems to be replicated in Skyfall, but I guess we’ll see at the end of the week).  The World is Not Enough would take its title from the motto of the Bond family, first revealed in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service:  “Orbis non sufficit.”

After Bond becomes an unwitting accomplice in the murder of British oil tycoon Sir Robert King, he is assigned by M to protect King’s daughter Elektra (Sophie Marceau) from the terrorist Renard (Robert Carlyle) who once held her for ransom and has seemingly returned for vengeance.  Bond is immediately smitten with the beautiful and damaged Elektra, who intends to continue her father’s work of building a much-needed oil pipeline across treacherous old Soviet territory, in direct competition with three Russian pipelines also under construction to the north.  Following a night in Elektra’s bed, Bond pursues a lead to Kazakhstan where he discovers Renard is attempting to steal weapons-grade plutonium from Soviet nuclear warheads that are being decommissioned under the supervision of Dr. Christmas Jones (Denise Richards).  Renard, a remorseless, relentless man who is unable to feel pain because of an assassin’s bullet working its way through his brain (an assassin sent by M herself, no less) seems to have an insider in Elektra’s organization, and is successful in escaping with the nuclear material.  Bond believes that insider is Elektra herself, who he suggests is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome and helping Renard out of twisted devotion to her former kidnapper.  But after Elektra’s pipeline is attacked, and M is taken prisoner, it turns out that things are the other way around – Renard fell in love with Elektra and has been her pawn the entire time; she has engineered her father’s murder to seize control of his company for herself.  With time running out, Bond must rely on the help of his old frenemy Valentin Zukovsky (Robbie Coltrane) to rescue M and stop Renard from using his stolen plutonium in a suicide attack aboard a nuclear sub that will destroy Istanbul and contaminate the Bosphorus with radiation, rendering the competing Russian pipelines useless and making Elektra’s the sole vehicle for delivering oil to the West.

I observed in my review of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service that it was one of Christopher Nolan’s favourite movies, and whether intentionally or not, the plot of The Dark Knight Rises mirrors what happens in The World is Not Enough as well.  Bane, like Renard, is a terrorist villain who appears to be the primary antagonist, only for it to be revealed that he is a mere accomplice, driven by love to carry out a suicidal nuclear attack for the true mastermind who appears at first to be the hero’s romantic partner, Miranda/Talia al Ghul and Elektra, respectively.  Both men are physically stronger than average, because of an unusual tolerance to pain (Renard cannot feel any, while Bane constantly inhales an anaesthetic gas to numb his sensitivity to it.)  Where the films differ is in their treatment of the terrorist.  Renard, with the makeup for his bullet wound giving him a perpetually sad-eyed look, is a villain whom you almost feel sorry for – he nears the verge of tears when confronted with his inability to provide Elektra the kind of physical pleasure she has received from Bond.  He loves Elektra desperately, yet cannot be the man she wants, and so, with all he has left to offer – his life – he tries to give her the world.  Carlyle is excellent and understated, conveying obsession, cruelty and a resigned acceptance of his own fate; a truly complex and intriguing bad guy.  Marceau is elegant as a wounded young woman attempting to round out her life with empty pleasures, although when she unveils her true nature she veers a tad hammy.  Still, equal opportunity villainy (as director Michael Apted put it) gives Brosnan the chance for a brutal and singular Bond moment when he shoots her dead.

As I mentioned earlier, Judi Dench’s role has been greatly expanded this time and we learn some history about the nameless woman who runs MI6, as she begins to show the motherly side of M that would fully manifest during Daniel Craig’s tenure.  She also has a chance for an action beat of her own when performing some MacGyver-like modifications to a nuclear locator card while in captivity to allow Bond to find her.  It’s also wonderful to see Robbie Coltrane back as the roguish Zukovsky, who after having his own loyalties tested becomes a full-blown if short-lived ally to 007.  And the legendary John Cleese is on hand as Q’s assistant R with some witty one-liners and his talent for pratfalls.  But then there is poor Denise Richards.  More than enough has been written about her performance in this movie to satisfy the snarkiest Internet commenter.  This seems to have been another case where she was shoved in at the behest of a studio uncomfortable with too many European names in the cast, but in Richards’ defense, I doubt Meryl Streep would have been able to do very much with the part, scripted almost as an afterthought with unsayable lines about tritium and radiation levels.  Richards looks great though, which is really the only reason she’s there.  Scratch that – she’s there because otherwise, with Elektra taking a bullet through her chest, Bond finishes the movie alone, and the filmmakers weren’t brave enough to try that departure from formula quite yet (especially when there are bad puns to be made from Jones’ first name).

Where The World is Not Enough is strongest, ironically, is when it does break away from the routine and venture into new territory.  Bond has an emotional journey this time, his defenses peeled back as he tries to achieve justice for Sir Robert King’s death, clean up M’s old mess and grapple with his own betrayal by a young woman he was coming to care for deeply.  Apart from the opening leap from an office window and the thrilling boat chase down the Thames, the rest of the rather low-key action (including a ski chase, a confrontation with razor blade-wielding helicopters and a disappointingly unengaging climax set aboard a submarine tilted on its end) suffers from being juxtaposed against character development scenes that are much more dramatically interesting – you find yourself waiting for the shooting to stop and the music to dial back so the movie can get back to its (mostly) terrific roster of actors exchanging nuanced dialogue.  That’s where the real movie lies.  The World is Not Enough is built on secrets and emotional revelations, not a technical mystery to be unravelled one explosion at a time.  Despite critical indifference, centered largely on Denise Richards’ acting and the scaled-back nature of the story, I have a feeling that it’s one that Ian Fleming himself would have appreciated.

On a sadder note, this would be the final film for Desmond Llewelyn as Q, whose farewell as he sinks slowly out of frame after imparting some fatherly advice to 007 is deeply touching.  Llewelyn, who joked that he would continue appearing in Bond movies “so long as the producers want me and the Almighty doesn’t,” passed away shortly after the film’s release in a car accident while returning from a signing event.  While Llewelyn, somewhat regrettably, never earned very much from his long-running role as the irascible quartermaster, he was beloved by fans and the Eon crew alike and worked tirelessly to promote each new movie as it came out.  I had the fortune of seeing him in person in Los Angeles in 1997 when he and Pierce Brosnan appeared on The Tonight Show to hype up Tomorrow Never Dies, although we didn’t get the chance to meet.  The applause when he walked out onstage was louder than that which greeted anyone else that night.  The spirit of dear old Desmond Llewelyn, I suspect, was indeed returned to his Almighty “in pristine condition.”

Tomorrow:  Leave Die Another Day alone!!!

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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.

Skyfall Countdown Day 22: Goldfinger

Gert Frobe as Auric Goldfinger, stunningly predicting the rise of the iPod Shuffle.

I was at a birthday party many, many moons ago when the kid’s parents stuck a tape in their VCR and unveiled Goldfinger.  It was the first James Bond movie I’d ever seen, and where the rest of the kids were more eager to play with newly acquired Transformers and G.I. Joes, I was glued to the screen as unforgettable images reeled across my retinas:  Sean Connery in his prime.  The silent henchman with the steel-brimmed bowler hat.  The amazing Aston Martin DB5.  The near-castration by laser beam.  “Operation Grand Slam.”  Pussy Galore’s Flying Circus.  And the girl covered in paint… gold paint.  A revelation to a kid whose usual cinematic fare up until that point had been parent-approved rereleases of old Disney movies.

I’m biased towards liking Goldfinger more simply because it was my first, and because it kicked off years of bonding – pun totally intended – with my dad as he brought home a new 007 adventure from the video store every Friday night for us to watch together, or made a point to rearrange his calendar so we could stay up late when they were shown on television.  But even as a now embittered, cynical adult (he jested), Goldfinger is still an amazing ride.  Connery owns the role here the way he never would again, as in later films he is increasingly, and visibly, bored with becoming something of a prop in ever more elaborate set pieces.  But here he is smooth and unflappable; long gone is the eager 30-year-old Scot in his first big break barking dialogue at a machine-gun clip.  He is the epitome of Bond, fusing his own irreplaceable appeal with Fleming’s words and Savile Row tailoring to become that mythic apex of 60’s masculinity – anachronistic putdowns of the Beatles aside.

Sir Sean is matched effectively by German actor Gert Frobe as the bullion-obsessed Auric Goldfinger (“Sounds like a French nail varnish”), the first of many Bond villains to be obsessed with a particular commodity.  Goldfinger is larger than life, but never unbelievable – indeed, in a modern context he doesn’t seem that far removed from the likes of the Koch brothers.  He and Bond share a grudging respect, and Goldfinger’s choice to keep him alive through the second half of the film stems much from Goldfinger’s desire to defeat him socially – a wish shared by many villains that follow, and the source of many (easily escapable?) elaborate death traps.  And one would be remiss to leave out the junior member of the film’s evil duo – Harold Sakata as the legendary Oddjob.  Oddjob never speaks, but Sakata manages to inject a sinister form of charm into the part as he maintains a fastidiously tidy appearance even while committing the most savage of murders.  Another highlight is Desmond Llewelyn, in the second of his appearances as Q, beginning to flesh out the part by turning the eager-to-please armorer from From Russia with Love into a curmudgeonly public servant beleaguered by Bond’s continual disdain towards his precious equipment.  The “Q scene” would become a staple of the films from here on out, with Llewelyn remaining in the role until his tragic death in a traffic accident following the release of The World is Not Enough.

Third film, so naturally, three different Bond girls!  Shirley Eaton is sexy in various states of undress (black bikini, men’s dress shirt and finally nothing but gold paint and a strategically placed pillow) as Jill Masterson, Tania Mallet is sweet but equally short-lived as her vengeful sister Tilly, and Honor Blackman as the infamously-named Pussy Galore (almost called Kitty Galore for fear of the censors) does a good job of giving 007 as good as she gets until she finally succumbs to him – and who wouldn’t, of course.  Fleming’s portrayal of Pussy Galore in the book was rooted in embarrassing old school machismo, referring to her as a capital-L lesbian throughout, but the movie jettisons any such clumsily executed questions of gender identity.  The focus is adventure, not what a crusty old English sod thought of women he couldn’t charm.

John Barry is in top form here, building on what he began in the previous movie.  The brass section cuts loose here in what comes off as spy meets boogie-woogie, particularly in the famous title song belted out at eleven by Shirley Bassey in her introduction to the world of Bond.  One standout in the score is the haunting, finger-curling marimba piece that plays as the laser draws ever closer to 007’s waist, ratcheting up the suspense to unbearable levels.  Ken Adam and his production design team also kick things up a notch, with his imaginative set for the interior of Fort Knox (they weren’t allowed inside for reasons of security and had to guess at what it looked like) providing a visually sumptuous setting for the movie’s final showdown.

Still, none of this workmanship would matter if the screenplay wasn’t there, and writers Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn provide the perfect blueprint on which to build.  Goldfinger is the Bond movie with all the best lines, bar none:  “Do you expect me to talk?  No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”  “Ejector seat, you’re joking.  I never joke about my work, 007.”  “Choose your next witticism carefully, it may be your last.”  And so on, with the focus of the dialogue less on exposition and more on playful banter, almost like a comedy of manners playing out against the backdrop of a threat to the economy of the entire world.  In a sign that adherence to the Fleming works was becoming less important as the series gained in popularity, precious few of these lines came from the book.  Indeed, Goldfinger was the last Bond movie produced while Ian Fleming was alive.  Stress and hard living finally took its toll on the author, who passed away in August 1964 just before the movie was released.  The script does correct an outright miscalculation by Fleming by changing Goldfinger’s plot from robbing Fort Knox (Bond points out it would take twelve days) to irradiating it with an atomic bomb borrowed from China, heightening the stakes and adding in that critical ticking clock – which Bond is able to stop with 007 seconds left.  Leaving Fleming behind would prove to be a controversial choice as the series wore on, with the producers finding time and again that the further they strayed, the less audiences were amused.  But more on that another day.

From start to finish, Goldfinger is a feast for the Bond fan, with every element firing on all cylinders.  It set a standard that the twenty films to follow would often struggle to meet, and some might argue never have.

Tomorrow:  Thunderball gets water-logged.