Tag Archives: entertainment

Star Trek, Superman, “coolness,” and truth


My friend George sent me a link to a really long (but interesting nonetheless) rant about Star Trek Into Darkness the other day.  The author of said rant was not in any way a fan of Damon Lindelof, the Hollywood screenwriter who co-created Lost and contributed to the scripts of both Ridley Scott’s misfired Alien prequel Prometheus and the most recent reimagining of Gene Roddenberry’s vision.  To paraphrase, it’s perhaps enough to say that the author’s main gripe with Lindelof is that his writing forgoes logic, rules and consistent characterization in favor of “gee whiz,” “cool” and giggling at boobies instead.  Even as someone who enjoyed Star Trek Into Darkness for what it was, I found it hard to dispute this point.  One of the biggest of my own gripes about it was the ending, cribbed almost note for note from the superior Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, to the point where it came off as something like a cinematic exercise in karaoke.  Movies in this genre nowadays rarely, if ever, make you feel anything.  And the reason, plainly, is that they are being made by a generation of filmmakers who have not felt, but rather have experienced life only by watching other movies.

I don’t know Damon Lindelof and I can’t pretend to know what he’s gone through in his life.  Certainly his drive and his skill at achieving the career he has is to be admired and envied.  But he seems to be one of a breed of young writers and directors from the mold of Quentin Tarantino, who spent their formative years working in video stores, absorbing thousands upon thousands of famous and obscure movies into malleable brains, uploading raw data Matrix-style to that place where the memories of life would normally be stored.  The work they produce now as the chief drivers of the Hollywood machine is endless pastiche; pieces of other works recombined and reimagined for modern consumption.  I had a discussion with my uncle recently about the decline in quality of movie scripts and I told him it’s because foreign markets make up the majority of a movie’s profit potential, and vehicles driven by visual effects and explosions and “cool!” will do better overseas than more literate works filled with idioms and ideas and cultural mores that don’t translate into Mandarin or Hindi.  Studio executives hire filmmakers who can deliver dollars, not philosophy.  (If they can do both at the same time, fine, that usually means Oscars, but the former is always preferable).  This is where folks like Damon Lindelof find their wheelhouse.  (In fairness to him, Star Trek Into Darkness was co-written by Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci, and certainly director J.J. Abrams had major story input as well).  They can deliver the popcorn with consistency and efficiency.  But that’s all.

There is a semi-famous story (to Trekkers, anyhow) around the writing of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  When Nicholas Meyer was hired as its director, he was told there were at least five different scripts for it floating around, none of which were suitable to shoot.  Meyer suggested a meeting whereby the creative team made a note of everything they liked from any of the drafts – a character, a scene, even something as minor as a line of dialogue.  Meyer took these notes away and wrote a draft of what would become the movie we saw in only twelve days, forsaking a writing credit simply to get the movie in shape to shoot.  In any other hands such a cut-and-paste job might have resulted in a hackneyed, disjointed mess, but Meyer’s literary background enabled him to infuse a theatrical quality into what was otherwise a straightforward story of revenge and sacrifice.  What was most remarkable about the screenplay was that it dared to present its hero as old, tired and washed-up – traits actors loathe playing because they think the audience will project them onto their real-life selves.  Meyer was young when he wrote the screenplay, but as a struggling artist he could empathize with those things.  Hotshot screenwriters who’ve bounced effortlessly from pre-sold blockbuster to pre-sold blockbuster as the new Star Trek team have done are incapable of this.  They don’t know what it’s like to fail, to come up against your own limitations and find yourself wanting.  They simply can’t dramatize what they have never felt.  And so they reach toward the only place they’ve ever found traces of those feelings – other, better movies.

When I picture Nicholas Meyer writing Star Trek II, I see an angsty face hunched over a typewriter, sucking down his twentieth cigarette, plumbing the depths of his soul as he agonizes over le mot juste, fighting to find the emotional truth of the story.  When I picture the story break sessions for Star Trek Into Darkness, I see a room full of young guys in baseball caps scarfing down pizza and Red Bull and trying to one-up each other with statements like “You know what would be totally awesome?  A shot of the Enterprise rising out of the ocean.”  “How about they come across this ship which is twice their size and totally painted black?”  “COOL!”  “Hey, guys, check this out.  What if the bad guy… is Khan?  And the end is exactly like Wrath of Khan only we switch Kirk and Spock’s places?”  “Yeah!  I love it!”  “It’s pretty good, but we need some hot alien chicks with tails.  And more Beastie Boys songs, that went over so well last time.”

I had the same problem with Superman Returns, which I watched again recently, and I chalk it up once more to a screenplay written by capable but very young scribes Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris (they have cameos in the movie as high school students) who were great at dreaming up “Cool!” trailer-worthy moments like a bullet bouncing off Superman’s eye but not so skilled at crafting emotions or believable characters.  Superman is a difficult character to write even if you’re a seasoned pro, but the main reason that movie didn’t connect with audiences was because Superman really has no story in it.  He’s just… there, as lifeless as the dated-looking CGI used to render him in some of the flying scenes.  He talks about having been gone for a while but doesn’t seem to have been changed by his experience, or have any compelling reason to have come back (apart from using his powers to stalk Lois Lane in several unnerving sequences).  The movie is more interested in the “whiz-bang” spectacle of Lex Luthor’s overly complicated plot to create a new continent in the Atlantic Ocean using stolen Kryptonian crystals and kryptonite, which in the end Superman just ignores as he lifts the entire landmass into outer space (a point not lost on my young son who remarked “isn’t kryptonite supposed to make him weak?”)  And for a movie that directly raises the question of whether or not the world needs Superman, it never gets around to debating this point in a satisfactory way.  Compare the wafer-thin Superman Returns to the profundity in the Richard Donner original that it is paying homage to, and it comes up extremely short – because the young writers of the former simply don’t have the chops of the great veteran Tom Mankiewicz (whom they crib lines from in the movie’s only memorable scenes, just as Lindelof, Orci and Kurtzman quoted Meyer’s famous dialogue verbatim in Star Trek Into Darkness).  Instead, we get dumb gags about dogs eating each other.

Someone once decimated Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace by pointing out that the plot was a series of scenes of characters going from meeting to meeting to meeting, a reflection of the life of George Lucas at the time.  I’m all for encouraging young screenwriters to get their shot at the big time, but as a lover of stories that matter I prefer the visceral resonance you’ll see in works by writers who’ve lived long enough to have had their asses kicked around the block a few times.  If you’ve never been the underdog, you can’t know what it’s like to be looking up at the mountain and be paralyzed with the fear of taking the first step.  In the absence of those memories you reach for what others have done in older, better movies, and cough up pale copies that rely on flash and swagger to cover the absence of substance.  “Yeah, it doesn’t matter that none of these characters say or do anything memorable or touching, ’cause… cool badass aliens with frickin’ laser beams!  Like in that other movie that people enjoyed!”  The abiding irony in all of this is that as it concerns Star Trek, some of the most memorable dialogue in The Wrath of Khan was itself lifted from other sources, namely Moby Dick et al.  But in that movie, it didn’t feel so obviously recycled, because Meyer’s informed writing and directing (and terrific performances, by the by) sold the emotional truth of each word.

I’m not saying there should be some rule that you can’t write a movie unless you’re at least 40, have been divorced once and be suffering a deep psychological resentment of your parents for taking your favorite blankie away when you were four.  I’m saying that some of these young guys pulling in six and seven figures for rewrite jobs should perhaps look away from a screen once in a while, get out and live a bit of their lives.  Read some classic literature.  Rediscover what it means to feel something that isn’t necessarily just the high of sleeping with models after a gala premiere.  Worry less about what’s cool and more about what connects.  Recognize that what touches us about movies and stays with us long after we’ve left the theater isn’t the awesome shot of the ship tumbling end over end into the atmosphere, it’s the quiet dignity of man in his darkest hour and the deep bonds we forge to fight against our intrinsic loneliness.  It’s the humanity.  And if you can’t feel that in your own life, you’ll never successfully translate it to the page, let alone to the screen.


Novelists and central casting

It’s a dream shared by a great number of aspiring novelists; that someday they’ll be sitting in a theater watching their characters buckle their swash on the big screen.  Browse through the interwebs and you’ll locate many an author’s website with a special section devoted to who they’d like to play their heroes and heroines.  I’m not gonna lie, I’ve had this dream myself.  It’s perhaps unorthodox to admit, but I’m more of a movie person than I am a reader.  It probably has to do with the happier memories of childhood; more of them involve sitting on the couch with my dad watching James Bond or The Natural or rewinding that one part in Star Wars where R2-D2 gets zapped by the Jawa and falls on his face to giggle at it for the nineteenth time, than involve hiding under the covers with a flashlight in the wee hours of the morning flipping pages of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or the Black Stallion books.  But we all chart our course toward our dreams in different ways (Tele, you must be influencing me lately with these nautical metaphors I’ve become prone to).  Lately it’s been reading Percy Jackson as a family and noting how much was changed for the adaptation and thinking (blasphemy!) that the screenplay was an improvement.  Novels and movies are both in the business of telling stories, but they are drastically different media and what works in one fails utterly in another (see:  Tolkien purists’ criticism of the changes in the Lord of the Rings movies).

Nicholas Meyer, the director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in his excellent DVD commentary for that film, talks about the limitations of certain forms of art:  a painting does not move, a poem has no pictures and so on.  The person experiencing the art has to fill in the rest with his own imagination, his own personality.  Only movies, says Meyer, have the insidious ability to do everything for you.  What does that say about the creative process of someone who writes a novel having been apprenticed largely in cinematic technique?  When I’m writing fiction, I’m going at it from two different angles.  On the one hand I love wordplay and the sound of wit and a phrase well turned.  On the other, when I’m staging a scene I’m picturing it in my mind as though I were directing it.  My first draft involved a lot of mentions of character movement – turning away, turning back towards something else, entries and exits from the stage as though they were actors shuffled about by a beret-wearing and megaphone-wielding auteur in his canvas chair.  I’m basically writing the movie I see in my head, with the dialogue timed the way Aaron Sorkin does it, by speaking it out loud and judging its flow.  (I do write a lot of – and probably too much – dialogue, but, without trying to sound immodest, it’s what I’m good at, and to me, there is no better way for characters to get to know each other and to reveal themselves to the reader.  I almost wrote “audience” there; see how the two media are so irrevocably intermixed in the recesses of my brain?)

I’m much lighter on physical character description, however, and I give just enough to establish those traits that are, in my mind, crucial (you may disagree).  I’d rather that you cast the part yourself.  You probably won’t see my protagonist the same way I see her, and that’s totally fine.  In fact, it’s against my interest as someone who is trying to captivate you with my story to tell you how it should look in your mind, and that your interpretation is dead wrong because I made her up and she’s mine and so are all her subsidiary rights.  You need to be able to claim her too.  With that in mind, I’m happy to let you indulge in your own speculation once I let the story out into the world but I’ll never tell you who I think should play her.  Let’s be mindful of the tale of Anne Rice, who famously blew a gasket when it was announced that Tom Cruise would be playing Lestat in Interview with the Vampire, only to publicly recant and offer Cruise heaps of praise after she saw the actual movie.  Besides, if we ever get that far, authors (unless they’re J.K. Rowling) have zero say in who plays whom.  Often the real world gets in the way anyway – the preferred choice either isn’t interested or isn’t available.  There’s also the possibility that you don’t get your dream cast but you end up with somebody better.  I seem to recall that on Stephenie Meyer’s website years ago she talked about wanting Henry Cavill (the new Superman) to play Edward Cullen; without getting into my opinion of the quality of those movies it’s probably fair to say that no one among the many Twihards of the world was disappointed with landing Robert Pattinson instead.  (Truthfully, had it actually been Cavill they would have lusted over his smoldery-eyed poster just as much.)

What, then, is the point of the preceding rant?  As the chairman of the British “Well Basically” society would say:  well, basically, I think authors and aspiring authors do their readers a disservice when they talk about who they’d like to see play their characters in a hypothetical big screen version.  Even though it’s usually done all in fun, that interpretation gets taken as definitive since it’s coming from the creator, and any ideas the readers and fans might have had, imaginative as they might have been, are immediately supplanted because, you know, the guy who actually made it up has spoken.  It was like when Harry Potter merchandise first hit the shelves and all the kids who had until that point been making their own creations out of spare cloth and construction paper now settled for making their parents buy the officially licensed, made in China plastic crap.

So, in the unlikely event that someone someday wants to make a movie about something I’ve written?  Don’t ask me who I’d cast; my own counsel will I keep on that matter, young padawan.  I’ll be perfectly happy so long as they find a role somewhere for this lady:


You know, if she’s available and she’s interested.

May the Mouse be with you

Above:  The single coolest image of a Jedi battle ever seen anywhere.
Above: The single coolest image of a Jedi battle ever seen anywhere.

It’s old news now, but given that it happened in the midst of my James Bond countdown and then the holidays and a bunch of other things hit at once, I never took the opportunity to comment on the revelation that sent Star Wars fans into a Force-induced tizzy – that George Lucas has sold Lucasfilm Ltd. to The Walt Disney Company for $4.05 billion, and accompanying this massive corporate transaction was the equally hefty revelation that Star Wars Episode VII will be released in 2015.  Ever since Revenge of the Sith in 2005, Lucas has been insisting up and down that Star Wars as a cinematic enterprise is finished, done, or, as Emperor Palpatine would put it succinctly, “complete.”  Yet the Mouse House confirmed in the same press release that there would be many further trips to that galaxy far, far away.  Star Trek has been going strong in multiplexes, despite a few missteps, for eleven movies now with a twelfth on the way, so shouldn’t la guerre des étoiles be able to blaze across our screens for as long as the medium is viable?  Clearly Disney thinks so and has immediately begun soliciting creative talent to assemble the next voyage.  J.J. Abrams turned down an offer to direct, citing loyalty to the other space franchise he helped relaunch.  Michael Arndt, a screenwriter whose credits include Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3, has been chosen to pen the next instalment, with Lawrence Kasdan – who wrote the masterful The Empire Strikes Back and co-wrote the not bad Return of the Jedi before opting to sit the prequel trilogy out – in the wings to script further adventures.  It’s safe to say that these titanic moves were not on anyone’s radar, and that Star Wars fandom, which has struggled in recent years to reconcile their love of Lucas’ creation with their hatred of his incessant (and yet perfectly legitimate, as far as I’m concerned) tinkering with it, has seen its universe upended, with resignation about the quality of the prequels now sprinkled with optimism about what the future might hold.  What I’m not sure about is how Disney intends to treat them – as much as some fans like to dump on George Lucas for the reason of the moment, I don’t know if the fans recognize how good they’ve had it under the amiable real-life Galactic Emperor, and how things may change for the worse.  And I say this as an admitted lover of Disney!

It’s not necessary to rehash the cultural phenomenon that is Star Wars – the marriage of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth with science fiction to craft an enduring story that inspires little boys to wave flashlights around against an imaginary Darth Vader.  In the real world the bad guys win much too often; in the world of Star Wars, good always triumphs over evil, and the nobility of sacrifice for one’s fellow human being (or Wookiee) is the greatest cause to which one can aspire.  We still talk about Greek myths over two thousand years on, and so this trilogy of movies from the late 70’s and early 80’s is a relative zygote in terms of how long it’s had to inspire its audience.  Yet its reach is unparalleled – movies, TV and literature across every genre can get an immediate laugh by dropping in a quote from Star Wars, and everyone can smile and feel like they’re part of the world’s biggest and most inclusive club – one that stretches across all cultural and regional divides.  One of the most enduring traits of Star Wars is its ability to be passed on, down through generations now as the kids whose eyes opened wide at the scratchy print in the rickety old movie house alongside their parents now watch the same adventures with their own children in the comfort of a surround sound-equipped home theatre.  And many who touch the flame of Star Wars use it to fire their own creative candles, as those who first heard the stories of the Greek gods offered their own interpretation of those tales to new audiences.  Star Wars likely holds the record – if indeed, it were possible to count – for the sheer volume of unofficial derivative works, written, sketched, painted, sewn, sculpted and filmed parodies, homages, tributes and other acknowledgements of what has become a shared universe.   (A quick search for “star wars” on YouTube yields 1.4 million hits, ranging from remixes of John Williams’ iconic theme song, Lego recreations of famous Star Wars scenes, animations of dancing stormtroopers, girls in Princess Leia’s metal bikini and Zeus knows what else).  That universe, the most remarkable example of remix culture, has been, until now, watched over in silent guardianship by George Lucas, who has permitted these myriads of creations so long as they are not for profit.  What then do we make of the stewardship of Star Wars and all it represents being entrusted to the company that famously sued a daycare for painting Mickey Mouse on its walls?

The world has changed tremendously since that notorious incident, which predated the Internet and the lingering question of copyright in the digital era.  Progressive media companies and celebrity brands like J.K. Rowling understand the tremendous value to be found in allowing fans to play in their sandbox, realizing that it’s about building a community (and receiving free advertising), and that ultimately, the vast majority don’t mind paying for officially licensed offshoots, be they yet another Blu-Ray boxed set or endless waves of toys.  For decades however, Disney has been the most trigger happy of the lot, ready to unleash their armies of attorneys at whosoever dareth trespass against them.  I’m just saying there’s a reason why you won’t find a lot of Donald Duck stories at fanfiction.net, nor will you find Walt Disney in Love on YouTube.  As someone who has created his own fictional universe and wonders idly about the future day an aspiring scribe decides to pen their own fan fiction trilogy using my characters and settings, it would be tremendously flattering to know I’d inspired someone like that – and truthfully, why else are we writing except to inspire – but if another someone decided to reap financial gain from my work without my by-your-leave I’d be Scanners-head-exploding livid.  I’d be equally as upset if someone produced a derivative work that was pornographic, excessively violent or simply insulting to the spirit of my original.  The trouble is you can’t seem to have one without the other, that either all copyright is enforced to the limit of the law, thus creating the perception that you’re a grouchy Lars Ulrich type and hate your fans, or you go for George Lucas’ approach and accept a certain percentage of the bad stuff (what a retail outlet would call “shrink”) with the understanding that most will be positive and done out of love and only help your brand reach new heights.

The lingering grey area for Star Wars fans is whether Disney will continue what Lucas started, if they will accept that Star Wars is its own entity and deserves a freer hand than what has typically been Disney copyright policy in the past.  After Return of the Jedi in 1983, Star Wars entered a long dry period where nothing save a few crude cartoons and made-for-TV Ewok movies was forthcoming from the Lucasfilm vaults, and instead the creations of the fans, whose interest never waned, kept blowing oxygen on that dwindling spark, until Lucas was finally ready to go back to the well, knowing that he had legions out there who remained loyal to him and to his universe because they felt like they owned a piece of it – an emotional piece that could not be quantified in financial or percentage terms.  Once described by Campbell as his single best student, Lucas always understood that a myth cannot thrive in the care of a single person, and in commenting on selling his baby to Disney he spoke about needing Star Wars to go on without him.  In many ways it already has, and the nightmare scenario of Disney being Disney and starting to remove the likes of Chad Vader: Day Shift Manager and Troops and Eddie Izzard’s “Death Star Canteen” routine from YouTube will be the beginning of the end of Star Wars as the force – yeah, I went there – for uniting people and unleashing their imagination and creativity that it has become.  The hope is that Disney too has evolved since the daycare incident and understands just what they’ve managed to acquire; a property that has become the unofficial property of millions of people the world over.  People may wear Mickey Mouse ears, but they don’t go around pretending to be Mickey Mouse in the way kids want to be Luke and Han and Leia.  Fingers crossed that the lawyers of the Walt Disney Company don’t cease-and-desist them out of their dreams.

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 1: Quantum of Solace

Daniel Craig aiming at the 185235th person to complain about the movie’s title.

Those who prefer their film franchises with rock-solid continuity are best steering clear of James Bond.  It is impossible to square the various circles that arise each time a new movie is released, even with the occasional tip of the hat to Bond’s past that might be included.  Roger Moore’s seemed to be if you consider the opening of For Your Eyes Only, but is Timothy Dalton’s James Bond meant to be the same man who married and then lost Tracy di Vicenzo?  How are we to believe that Blofeld could not recognize Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service when they just met in You Only Live Twice – and what happened to his scar?  Is Felix Leiter a short old guy with a dorky hat or is he Christian Shephard from Lost or McGarrett from Hawaii 5-0?  Is Judi Dench’s M the same person who managed Pierce Brosnan’s veteran James Bond for four adventures and then promoted Daniel Craig’s James Bond to 00-status?  The mind wants to see logical connections, and will grasp at the flimsiest rationale to justify them.  But James Bond never cooperates.  It’s best – to preserve one’s sanity – to approach each movie as its own, individual entity.  Of course that doesn’t work when considering Quantum of Solace, the first direct Bond sequel.  Taking its title but nothing else from the Ian Fleming short story about James Bond attending a boring dinner party, it picks up literally five minutes after Casino Royale ended and sees Bond criss-crossing the world in pursuit of the shadowy terrorist organization that robbed him of his love Vesper Lynd.

Delivering the wounded Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) to an MI6 safe house in Italy, Bond and M are shocked when M’s personal bodyguard turns out to be in league with White and allows the mysterious bagman to escape.  A clue among the bodyguard’s possessions leads an angry but determined Bond to Haiti, where he encounters Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko), a Bolivian secret service agent in pursuit of the exiled General Medrano (Joaquin Cosio), the former dictator of Bolivia who was responsible for the murder of her father and rape of her mother and sister.  Medrano is being aided in an imminent coup d’etat in his former nation by environmentalist Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), whose organization is arranging Medrano’s return to power in exchange for a supposedly worthless tract of Bolivian desert.  Eager for this coup to go forward are the CIA’s South American station chief Gregg Beam (David Harbour) and his deputy Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright, reprising the role), in exchange for a share of the oil bounty rumoured to exist beneath the desert.  Following Greene to Austria, Bond snoops on a meeting Greene attends at a lavish lakeside production of Tosca – whose other participants are global power players and members of the secret organization to which Mr. White belongs, including a senior advisor to the British Prime Minister.  When Bond blows their cover and is blamed for the death of the advisor’s security man, M cuts off all 007’s financial support and forces him to seek the aid of former ally René Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini).  The two journey to Bolivia, where it turns out that talk of oil is smoke and mirrors to fool the superpowers into looking the other way:  Greene is after Bolivia’s water supply, which he intends to sell back to Medrano for twice the current price after installing him as President of Bolivia.  However, Greene’s people are deeply entrenched – Mathis and fellow agent Strawberry Fields (Gemma Arterton) are murdered, Bond is held responsible and the CIA is closing in.  Tipped off by the ever-reliable Leiter, and with little but Camille’s help and the lingering trust of M, Bond pursues Greene to an explosive showdown in the middle of the desert, where he must stop the coup, allow Camille to have her vengeance, and find out just who is masterminding this secret terrorist organization, called Quantum.  A coda in Russia sees Bond confronting Vesper’s former boyfriend, also a Quantum operative, who is being used as a honey trap to seduce highly placed female agents into giving up valuable classified information.  Bond finishes his adventure alone once again, leaving Vesper’s necklace behind in the snow before the famous gunbarrel roars across the screen to close this second chapter of James Bond 2.0.

Deleted scenes on a DVD are a fascinating glimpse into the filmmaking process, but it’s readily apparent why they were lopped out of the movie – they weren’t necessary to advance the story.  In much the same way, Quantum of Solace feels like the deleted scenes of Casino Royale.  Bond himself has taken a step backwards from where he found himself at the end of the first movie, as Vesper had proven, even in death – by giving up Mr. White – that her love for Bond was genuine, as was her remorse for betraying him.  But here Bond seems to have forgotten all of that; it’s as though the last twenty minutes of Casino didn’t happen, and he is still furious with her and unable to forgive.  And quite frankly, James Bond is not really a pleasant person in this movie.  He is cold, distant and often silent, a blunt, charmless instrument.  I suppose these traits are appropriate given Bond’s presumed state of mind, but the movie doesn’t take the time to address them.  Director Marc Forster has said he wanted the movie to be tight and fast, and true enough, Quantum is lean and mean at 107 minutes versus Casino’s 145, but part of the joy of watching a Bond movie is taking the time to appreciate the locations, the characters and the atmosphere.  Quantum of Solace feels a bit like the film projector is running too fast, it’s in such a hurry to get to the end.  Part of the issue as well was that the movie laboured under the Writers’ Guild strike of 2008, and scenes were being rewritten minutes before being shot, with Daniel Craig confessing that with the writers on the picket line, the task was left largely to him and Forster.  Even though Paul Haggis receives official writing credit (along with the apparently tenured Neal Purvis and Robert Wade again) what dialogue there is feels clunky and disjointed and has none of the zip and panache that accompanied the exchanges of Casino Royale.  Characters contradict each other, forget things they’ve just learned and offer witticisms that make no sense.  (There is really only one good line in the movie, and it’s in Spanish – when Bond explains how “teachers on sabbatical” can supposedly afford to stay at La Paz’s most palatial hotel.)

Without a solid script this time, Forster has to focus on what he can do with the action and the visuals.  Despite an unfortunate borrowing of technique from the Bourne movies and their damnable shaky cameras, for the most part the action scenes are well-executed, if routine and lacking somewhat in innovation.  Forster uses an interesting approach in that each of the movie’s four major action beats are based on a classical element of nature – the opening foot chase (earth), the Haiti boat pursuit (water), the battle in the skies above Bolivia (air) and the final explosive showdown (fire).  But Forster’s best work is to be found in the Tosca sequence, with villains hiding in plain sight as the brutal imagery of Puccini’s famous drama plays itself out in front of them, and the striking chase and gunfire exchange that follows with no sound but that of operatic voices singing their lament.  Here, Quantum of Solace nears the realm of exceptional cinema, even if the rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up to the promise.

The actors try their best despite the underwritten material, but the only real standout this time is Judi Dench, as the motherly M who both frets over and grows frustrated with her prodigal “son.”  The angle of a villain character pretending to care about the environment to hide the destructive nature of his true ambition is worth much more exploration than it receives here – while he is an excellent actor, Amalric doesn’t have much opportunity to develop his sinister power broker, and the only moment in which Greene reveals anything about his background is interrupted.  The filmmakers also missed their chance, given the South American setting, to feature the first Latina Bond girl, casting Ukrainian-born Olga Kurylenko with a spray tan and wobbly accent as Camille instead (and explaining it with a throwaway line about her Bolivian father having a “beautiful Russian wife… a dancer.”)  The characters of Bond and Camille seem to be in two different movies – indeed, they have two different missions – and their physical interaction is limited to one little kiss after the quest has ended and they are about to part company forever.  Camille herself has little personality; the more exuberant of the standard two Bond girls is Arterton as Fields, who unfortunately isn’t on screen very long.  Nor is Italian film legend Giannini, returning as Mathis only long enough to be killed off by Greene’s thugs (in a glaring continuity error that smacks of deleted scenes, Mathis turns up battered and bruised in the trunk of Bond’s car only about two minutes after we see him alive and well at Greene’s party – that was one quick beating!)  The remainder of the cast is unmemorable – particularly pointless is Anatole Taubman as Greene’s henchman Elvis, who has a silly bowl cut hairdo, follows Greene around in silent awkwardness while trying to look menacing and gets blown up before he even gets the chance to fight Bond.

What is most frustrating about Quantum of Solace is that one can see the seeds of a better movie scattered throughout, and a few alternate creative choices might have made for a more robust experience.  Had the story not been tied so irrevocably to Casino Royale, had the pace slowed and given the characters more time to flesh themselves out, and most importantly, had Bond himself had a different journey instead of the too-familiar path of vengeance, it’s very possible that Quantum could have met or even exceeded the expectations left in its parent movie’s wake.  As it stands, Quantum of Solace is like how many viewed the last half hour of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, keeping an old story going on and on long after the audience has arrived at a satisfactory emotional conclusion, and diminishing the impact of Casino Royale.  Even at the end, Mr. White is still missing and there are lingering questions of how far Quantum’s reach stretches inside the British government, suggesting that there is still more to tell, long after our interest has waned.  I’m encouraged that Skyfall is its own stand-alone story, with this movie’s ghosts put to rest for the time being.

Speaking of which – John Lennon says life is what happens when you’re making other plans, and as much as I was looking forward to seeing Skyfall tonight, because of other personal commitments it won’t be happening.  So you’ll have to wait till the beginning of the week for my take on it.  Sorry about that, folks, but I figure if you’ve been with me up until now, you don’t mind waiting a few more days.  In the meantime, thanks for coming with me on this retrospective, which hopefully has been as fun to read as it was to write, and if you are heading out to Skyfall tonight, I hope I’ve helped get you a little in the mood.  Stay shaken, not stirred.

Skyfall Countdown Day 2: Casino Royale (2006)

Making his mark.

No zealot like a convert, goes the old saying.  I was one of those people utterly perplexed by the decision to thank Pierce Brosnan, the “billion-dollar Bond,” for his service, and move ahead instead with an actor whose most prominent role to date had been as Angelina Jolie’s bland American love interest in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.  And back in the mid-2000’s, there were a lot of us, not the least of which was Pierce Brosnan himself.  He seemed pretty keen on reprising the role; if you listen to his commentary on the DVD of Die Another Day he talks several times about what he’d like to do “in the next one.”  That “next one” would end up being a videogame, as 2004 saw the release of Everything or Nothing, featuring Brosnan as a digital Bond as well as Judi Dench and John Cleese back as M and Q respectively.  But on the big screen, producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli wanted to go another way.  They wanted to go back.

And this is where, quite unexpectedly, Peter Parker comes into play.  Behind the movie screen, there had been a great deal of legal wrangling going on – Sony had come to own the rights to Casino Royale and was threatening to launch a competing series of Bond films (rumours at the time suggested that Independence Day filmmakers Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin were Sony’s preferred creative team for 007).  But they also wanted to make Spider-Man, a portion of whose rights happened to be the property of MGM.  A deal was agreed to by which the two were exchanged.  Casino Royale came home, and Sony got to sling webs with Tobey Maguire.  Making a proper version of Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel had long been an aspiration of Michael G. Wilson – something that would give the story its due and sponge away the memory of the embarrassing 1967 Peter Sellers version.  But although Brosnan was keen to continue, it didn’t really make sense to try and do a Bond origin story with an actor who’d be ten years older than he was the first time he’d played 007.  Negotiations with Brosnan were abandoned, and although a wide casting net was thrown out, with the press happily offering dozens of flavour-of-the-month names into the mix, Barbara Broccoli had her heart set on someone she’d seen as a charismatic gangster in a 2004 British movie called Layer Cake.  Some time in 2005, Daniel Craig received a phone call from Broccoli telling him merely, “Over to you, kiddo.”

In a very subdued, John le Carré-like black-and-white prologue, James Bond is promoted to 00-status after completing two kills:  a corrupt MI6 section chief and his underling, the latter of which shows us the origins of the famous gunbarrel scene.  The story proper begins in Africa, where terrorist banker Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) accepts an investment of $100 million from rebel army leader Steven Obanno (Isaach de Bankole) under the supervision of the enigmatic Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), and Bond is chasing down a nimble bombmaker, whose cellphone reveals a mysterious text message.  After Bond nearly causes an international incident by shooting the bombmaker inside an embassy, an embarrassed M (Judi Dench) tells him to go stick his head in the sand – in the sunny climes of Nassau, where the text message originated on the phone of arms dealer Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian).  After winning Dimitrios’ Aston Martin DB5 in a game of poker, and seducing Dimitrios’ wife Solange (Caterina Murino), Bond pursues the arms dealer to Florida, where a gun-for-hire is planning to destroy Skyfleet Industries’ massive new airliner at Miami International Airport.  Bond saves the plane and kills the terrorist, and ruins the plans of Le Chiffre, who had invested Obanno’s money in a stock-shorting scheme he intended to cash in on when Skyfleet would presumably be bankrupted by the loss of their prototype.  Desperate to win back the squandered funds, Le Chiffre stages a $150 million winner-take-all poker tournament in Montenegro, and Bond is staked in the game by Her Majesty’s Treasury, as represented by the beautiful and intriguing Vesper Lynd (Eva Green).  If Bond can bankrupt Le Chiffre, the villain will have no choice but to turn himself over to the authorities for protection, revealing all the secrets of this mysterious terrorist network in the process.  After several nights of cards, failed attempts on his life, one disastrously played hand and a timely bailout by Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), Bond wins the pot, and victory is sweet – until Vesper is abducted and Bond is captured while trying to rescue her.  After enduring savage torture at the hands of Le Chiffre in a squirm-worthy scene torn right from Fleming’s pages, Bond is freed by Mr. White, who punishes Le Chiffre’s financial misdealings with a bullet to the skull.  All seems resolved, and Bond is free to resign from MI6 and travel the world with his new love, until one final betrayal leads to a climax in a sinking Venice tower where Bond fails to save the treacherous Vesper from a watery fate.  In an atypical downbeat ending, the money is gone, “the bitch is dead,” and Bond is embittered, until a final message from Vesper leads him to Italy and the villa of Mr. White, to whom he introduces himself – after shooting the terrorist leader in the kneecap – with “The name’s Bond, James Bond.”

In retrospect it’s quite difficult to reconcile how Daniel Craig is perceived now with how much scorn greeted his announcement as the sixth James Bond.  Pierce Brosnan devotees couldn’t understand why their guy had been seemingly tossed aside after four record-breaking smash hits.  An angry fan site, whose name I won’t list because they frankly don’t deserve any more publicity, published screeds on how Craig wasn’t good-looking enough, wasn’t refined enough and didn’t even have the right hair color to be 007.  The entertainment press, who’d been hoping for Clive Owen or Rupert Everett, even heaped derision on Craig for wearing a life jacket in the speedboat that brought him to the press conference that introduced him to the world.  The hints of reassurance offered by the filmmakers to “wait for the movie” didn’t do much to quell the fierce tide.  But we all should have listened – because the movie is, for lack of a better word, terrific.  It’s arguably truer to the spirit of the Ian Fleming book than any of the other films that preceded it, because it focuses so sharply on the character of James Bond.  Who is this man and how did he become the archetype of the womanizing, martini-guzzling crusader for justice – the hard-living St. George forever pitted against the dragon?  We see Bond bruised, we see him broken, we see him struggling to contain the rage that forever simmers inside him.

A rarity for a Bond movie, Craig gets to act and complete a genuine character arc, and he does it so well that his became the first performance as James Bond to be nominated for a BAFTA (the British equivalent of the Oscar).  A lot of credit too must go to the screenplay, by veterans Neal Purvis and Robert Wade with a final polish by Oscar winner Paul Haggis, whose pen lends the dialogue a sparkle and complexity so very refreshing after years of groan-worthy puns passed off as clever.  The exchanges between Bond and Vesper simply crackle, loaded with meaning and consequence, and their growing relationship is always compelling.  Eva Green, whose unusual goth girl beauty has led to her frequent casting as witches in her subsequent career, shows how sass and confidence can live comfortably alongside heart-wrenching vulnerability to create a character who resonates beyond the end credits and can be held up, plausibly, as the “ultimate Bond girl” – the singular figure to whom Bond would compare all his many conquests to follow.  The always reliable Dench begins to grow M as a kind of mother figure for James Bond, the only woman in the world who does not view him sexually, and the writers of the follow-up films would continue to expand on this aspect of her character.  Jeffrey Wright is a subdued but quirky Leiter, and Mikkelsen’s villain, while perhaps a bit less snarly than Bond baddies of the past, still makes for a believable foe and one whose motivations are rooted for once not in global destruction but simply desperation and survival – the most dangerous kind of animal.

Director Martin Campbell, who had helped to relaunch the franchise with Goldeneye, was again tasked to introduce the world to a new James Bond.  He takes on some of the complaints about the excesses of Die Another Day by cutting the number of explosions in the movie to just one (with a second happening offscreen as Bond smirks).  There is no fantasy in Casino Royale – this is gritty, real-world action.  People get hurt.  They bleed.  Bad guys don’t fall down after one convenient hit.  Bond himself spends time in hospital after being tortured by Le Chiffre.  The parkour chase that opens the movie, with free runner Sébastian Foucan seemingly able to defy gravity – while Bond merely smashes through walls as a good blunt instrument should – is a remarkably exciting sequence, as is the extended chase and battle between Bond and his terrorist quarry at Miami airport, both featuring clever reverses and their fair share of surprises.  Yet when the movie slows down in its second half as the pivotal card game takes center stage, Campbell keeps the the tension high; one waits with as much breathless anticipation as the river follows the turn follows the flop as one does watching Bond struggle to stop an out-of-control fuel truck from crashing into a plane as David Arnold’s driving music races to its conclusion.  Casino Royale is long (it’s the longest Bond movie, in point of fact) but it is never slow, and that it can retain its pace and level of interest without resorting to laser beams and stuff blowing up is a testament to the strength of the story and of Campbell’s ability to tell it.

But in the end it’s Daniel Craig’s movie, and he defies the naysayers to entrench himself firmly in James Bond’s shoes; with nary a frayed nerve showing, Craig commands the screen with the kind of self-assuredness that endeared Sean Connery to audiences almost forty-five years earlier, and wows his female fans with his sculpted physique rising out of the water in homage to Ursula Andress.  When he announces “Bond, James Bond,” at the very end, we’re completely sold, and the famous James Bond theme, only hinted at sparsely throughout the score, blasts out triumphant to cement the victory, the becoming of our hero in his familiar form.  Casino Royale was one of the best-reviewed movies of 2006, out-grossing Die Another Day and assuring Bond’s ongoing berth among the increasingly crowded multiplexes.  Back to the beginning – back to Fleming – proved to be once more the key to keeping Bond fresh and relevant, along with making sure the right guy, despite boisterous public opposition, filled out the tuxedo.

Tomorrow:  Our countdown concludes with a sophomore stumble.

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!!!

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 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.