Tag Archives: Judi Dench

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 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 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.

Mr. Bond, Dr. Freud will see you now

“Oh please, James, spare me your Freud.  One might as well ask if all the vodka martinis ever silence the screams of all the men you’ve killed.  Or if you’ve found forgiveness in the arms of all those willing women… for all the dead ones you failed to protect.” – Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) to James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) in GoldenEye

After four years of speculation, rumor, tabloid nonsense and the customary story about the Bollywood flavor-of-the-month who is “perfect” for the female lead and the “desperate” choice of the producers, the truth is out.  The 23rd James Bond movie, SkyFall, started shooting on November 3rd.  Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes reteams with Daniel Craig after their collaboration on Road to Perdition, and brings along for the ride the most incredible cast ever assembled for a James Bond movie:  Javier Bardem (Oscar winner for No Country For Old Men), Ralph Fiennes (Oscar nominee for Schindler’s List among other things), Albert Finney (four-time Oscar nominee and star of the Best Picture winner Tom Jones) along with Judi Dench and the two new ladies – French actress Berenice Marlohe and Pirates of the Caribbean star Naomie Harris.  Longtime Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins is the cinematographer and Stuart Baird handles editing.  The script is by Bond veterans Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Gladiator writer John Logan, based on a premise by The Queen screenwriter Peter Morgan.  With all that talent it would take an act of Satan himself to forge an A View to a Kill-style misfire.  Then again we haven’t heard who’s doing the theme song yet.  Is Shirley Bassey still available?

About the plot, little is known beyond the postage stamp synopsis released by the production team – basically, that Bond finds himself fighting to save MI6 after a dark chapter of M’s past comes back to haunt them both.  When Judi Dench was first cast as M for Pierce Brosnan’s Bond debut GoldenEye, much was made in the entertainment press of the idea that a woman was taking over as the boss of the most chauvinistic of all cinema spies (sorry, Austin Powers.)  However, throughout the four-film Brosnan era, apart from a few sparse touches the relationship between Bond and M was not played that different than it had been with Bernard Lee (or to a lesser extent, Robert Brown) in the past.  Beginning with Daniel Craig’s tenure, the producers have opted to treat the relationship differently.  Obviously with an actress of Judi Dench’s caliber you don’t want to limit her to sitting behind the office desk and disappearing after the first act.  In expanding the character of M, the producers have created a more maternal bond (pardon the pun) between her and her star agent.  Indeed, their relationship is unique in the 007 universe, as M is the only woman who does not see Bond sexually (the reverse being true as well.)  When Bond was broken in Casino Royale by his betrayal by Vesper Lynd, and set out to bury his demons in Quantum of Solace, his loyalty to M remained.  Indeed, when one thinks of Bond as doing his duty for queen and country, it is not necessarily Her Majesty Lilibet Mountbatten-Windsor he is thinking of first.

Bond movies can be a curious entity.  In many of the more forgettable entries there was little attention paid to character development or emotional engagement.  It was just a fun ride.  And that’s fine if that’s all you’re looking for.  Clearly it worked or we wouldn’t still be talking about it 50 years on and 23 films later.  As the second generation of Bond producers has gotten older and responded to the changing audience, and in particular seen Bond struggling to stay afloat in a field swarming with imitators of the genre it essentially spawned, they have come to realize that the character of James Bond has considerable depth worth exploring.  Who is he?  What drives the core of this man whom men want to be and women want to be with?  Consequently the producers have tried to craft plots that are emotional journeys inasmuch as they are excuses for implausible action scenes.  Sometimes with mixed results.  The World is Not Enough was the first real attempt in the modern era to make a character-driven Bond movie and the elements did not blend together well – rather like a martini where the proportions of vodka and vermouth were just slightly off.

Some Bond fans balk at the character-driven approach, suggesting, and not unreasonably, that not every mission needs to be personal.  But I’ve maintained that that resonance is the crucial meat and potatoes alongside the chocolate and the whipped cream.  We need to begin to care about the people on screen, about Bond, as opposed to just watching him do cool stuff.  That cool stuff will always be essential to Bond – one would not necessarily care to see him simply talking about his problems on a psychiatrist’s couch for two hours – but probing into his soul takes it from the realm of popcorn movie into that of real cinema and makes it a truly memorable experience.  I suspect that with the above-the-line talent who have been brought on to shape SkyFall, the producers are aiming for just that.  Of course they want to make a great entertainment, but let’s have a little something for the grownups too.  I think Ian Fleming would be ok with that (actually, he would have flipped out at the suggestion of a female M, but I won’t tell him if you don’t).