Tag Archives: Moonraker

Skyfall Countdown Day 3: Die Another Day

“Yeah, I didn’t like her last album either.”

It’s become fashionable in Bond fandom to wear one’s contempt for Pierce Brosnan’s 007 swan song as a snarky badge of honour; to attempt to one-up other anonymous keyboard wielders with profanity-laden schadenfreude at the movie’s expense.  Yes, it’s over the top, yes, it’s dabbling in the dreaded science fiction arena again, yes, the special effects are dodgy and we’re not sure that what Madonna’s doing in it can be charitably called “acting.”  But the way professed fans go after this movie with raging hate-ons about everything from the CGI bullet flying through the opening gunbarrel to the villain’s robo-suit does little to diminish the perception of fandom as the proverbial bunch of spoiled virgins squatting in their parents’ basements on a diet of Doritos and Mountain Dew, so thoroughly jaded as to be unimpressed by anything.  It has its faults, but it’s simply not that bad a movie.  Most of the criticisms levelled at The World is Not Enough (those that did not solely blame Denise Richards) accused it of being too low-key and having a confusing plot (i.e., one that isn’t explained on a blackboard for the slower members of the audience).  In preparing Die Another Day, the filmmakers wanted to streamline the story and bring back the notion of Bond movies feeling big.  In that, I believe they succeeded.  But let’s delve deeper, shall we?

The story begins with 007 undercover inside North Korea on a mission to assassinate the rogue Colonel Tan-Sun Moon (Will Yun Lee), who has been trading illegal African conflict diamonds for arms.  A rogue MI6 operative exposes Bond to Moon’s henchman Zao (Rick Yune), and following a hovercraft chase through the Korean DMZ in which Moon is apparently killed, Bond is captured, imprisoned and tortured for fourteen months.  He is eventually released, traded back to the West in exchange for Zao, stripped of 00-status and about to be packaged off for rehabilitation.  But Bond, who believes he’s been set up, escapes British custody and with the aid of Chinese intelligence finds his way to Cuba, where Zao is undergoing a peculiar form of DNA-replacement therapy designed to transform his appearance.  It’s here that Bond first encounters NSA agent Giacinta “Jinx” Johnson (Halle Berry), who’s also hunting down the resourceful Korean.  It seems Zao is paying for his “makeover” with African conflict diamonds bearing the laser signature of Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), which leads Bond back to Britain and eventually to Graves’ ice hotel in Iceland, where the diamond magnate is demonstrating his Icarus satellite, which can redirect solar energy anywhere on earth.  With Jinx’s help, Bond discovers that Graves is in fact the presumed-dead Colonel Moon, having undergone DNA-replacement therapy to take on a new identity, and that Icarus is actually a destructive solar laser.  And Bond finally meets his betrayer – MI6 agent Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike), who has been assisting Graves/Moon in his master plan to use Icarus to detonate the minefield in the DMZ and give North Korea’s million-man army a clear path to invade the South.  Everything comes to a head in the skies above Korea as the two countries teeter on the brink of war.

Die Another Day was the first Bond movie to be made after 9/11, when the idea of the hero shifted away from the wry smirk of the testosterone-jacked Uzi-sprayer to the self-sacrifice of the first responder and the common man finding bravery in his darkest moments.  It also came out in a time when Jason Bourne was first carving his cinematic mark, and when the makers of the Vin Diesel vehicle XXX were bragging publicly about wanting to take down the Bond franchise with their hyperactive, video game-inspired knockoff, accusing 007 of being a spy movie for grandfathers.  Despite ever-escalating box office numbers, Bond was again in danger of irrelevance.  The solution was to stage the next movie as a celebration that would remind audiences why they loved Bond in the first place.  Director Lee Tamahori was clearly interested in giving a much larger scale and faster pace to this 40th anniversary outing, and he and writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade packed the screen with sly references to almost every Bond movie that had come before (diehards claim there is indeed a reference to every preceding Bond movie, but some of them are probably just wishful thinking applied to coincidences).  Octopussy’s Acrostar jet, Rosa Klebb’s spike-toed shoe and Thunderball’s jetpack are just a few of the toys on display in Q’s lab this time around.  The plot borrows an unused element from the Fleming novel Moonraker in the shaping of its villain, a man who appears to have gone from nothing to a highly-respected member of British society in a short amount of time but is in fact a foreigner bent on destruction.  Some of these homages do come off as recycling, especially in the space-based weapon angle we just saw in Goldeneye a few movies ago.  But Die Another Day is essentially a greatest hits package, and in between the familiar and the winks to Bond’s past we do see some terrific individual scenes, and an attempt to do the same old things in a stylistically different way.  And some people just didn’t like that very much.

The first half of the movie is the tribute to Bond’s past, while pushing him into some interesting new directions.  It’s a bold decision to show the unstoppable 007 suffering the brutal consequences of failing in his mission, and looking for the first half hour of the movie like a refugee from Cast Away.  It being a PG-13 movie, we were never going to see the true horrors of torture, but Tamahori and director of photography David Tattersall incorporate black-and-white cinematography and different film speeds to make the audience uncomfortable.  In addition, the image is slightly desaturated in the opening North Korean section of the movie to add, subconsciously, the feeling of a cold and bleak foreign land, in contrast to the warmer, richer colours of the Cuban portion of the movie.  When Bond arrives back in England (to the strains of the Clash’s “London Calling,” another choice that upset a lot of fans for no apparent reason), Tamahori unleashes the finest action sequence of the entire film (once Madonna’s limp cameo is out of the way): the swordfight between Bond and Graves.  Beginning with epees, the battle escalates with samurai swords and tears apart half the club before it’s stopped.  Wisely, Tamahori never cuts away from the two characters as they duel – John Glen would have added all sorts of comic reaction shots of people diving out of the way, staring at their drinks in disbelief and so forth.  We the audience then, never get a breath from this intense and memorable exchange – to our benefit.  Like the best action beats, this scene works better because there is some emotional underpinning at work, even if it is, at heart, as Madonna describes, a “cockfight.”

Bond’s arrival in Iceland at Gustav Graves’ ice hotel begins the portion of the movie that fans had the most trouble with.  They didn’t like Bond’s invisible car, the scene with Bond escaping (via CGI) from the collapsing ice wall, or the use of speed ramping in the editing of Bond’s high-speed chase with Zao.  The invisible car actually isn’t that much of a flight of fancy, being an extrapolation of technology actually developed for military use.  I’ll concede the point about the ice wall, not because the special effects and the use of a digital Bond in a series renowned for its real-person stunt work are suspect, but because the entire scene could be lopped out of the movie with no letup in the narrative.  The speed ramping reminded too many people of The Matrix, I suppose, but when one considers the style contrast between the old-school spy movie of the 60’s at work in the movie’s first half and the leap ahead into the future in its second, it makes sense, and there’s enough energy at work here to keep the picture moving even through some of its saggier bits.

I do have issues with Die Another Day in a couple of areas.  Firstly, the acting is a real step down from some of the impressive work done in The World is Not Enough.  The relatively unknown Stephens, who would go on to play Bond in a series of BBC radio adaptations of the Fleming novels, is the best of the lot, punching above his weight to deliver a snarling performance that stands him in good stead against some of the more famous actors who’ve faced off against James Bond in the past.  Some criticized Stephens’ interpretation as petulant, but again, it’s logical when considering the nature of the character, a young North Korean seemingly spoiled by an unfeeling father and a longing for the excesses of the West.  John Cleese is a delightful (if short-lived, as it would turn out) successor to Desmond Llewelyn as Q.  But other than that it’s verging a bit on amateur hour, U.S.A.  Halle Berry would win an Oscar prior to appearing in this film, but she’s relying a little too much on sass to create a likeable character, forgetting that sass in and of itself doesn’t equal memorable.  In fairness to her, she doesn’t have much to work with in yet another “Bond’s equal” female agent role – the played-out archetype Bond’s screenwriters resort to when they can’t think of a more logical reason to have a love interest in the movie.  (A plan to give Jinx her own spinoff movie series was mercifully abandoned.)  Rick Yune is kind of a non-factor, lowering his voice to sound menacing and skulking about in slow motion, and for a supposedly lethal killer, we never actually see him kill anyone.  And Judi Dench goes terribly underused here after factoring so significantly into the action of the previous movie.  Secondly, the dialogue is hammy, trading nuance and character for pun after pun.  It hasn’t escaped notice that Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, now credited with co-writing their fifth consecutive Bond movie on Skyfall, are often rewritten by others, but here they are in full command of the script and one longs for the deft, literate touch that Paul Haggis would provide on the forthcoming movie.

But at the end of all that, much like Moonraker, I still give a thumbs up to Die Another Day.  I appreciate the nods to Bond’s past, I like some of the riskier touches, I can even appreciate the ones that don’t work for the attempt alone – and when the classic Bond theme kicks in, I can’t help being pumped.  Die Another Day is, as I said, Bond’s greatest hits, and much as you do often want the intellectual challenge of the more difficult concept album with its experimental tracks, sometimes it’s better to kick back and put on the party mix where you know every song is going to be one you love.  Die Another Day is a movie full of flaws and miscalculations, but it succeeds on the question of entertainment, and those inclined to waste megabytes trashing it might want to just give it a rest – for the sake of their own sanity.  There are much more important things in the world to get upset about.

Tomorrow:  Back to the beginning.

Skyfall Countdown Day 12: For Your Eyes Only

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow:  Eight arms to hold you.

Skyfall Countdown Day 13: Moonraker

“Why are we together again?”

I’m a NASA junkie and have been since before I can remember.  My family took me to Cape Canaveral when I was eight, and my most treasured acquisition from that trip was a plastic model of the space shuttle Discovery that my father and I built and painted together.  When Moonraker’s iconic gunbarrel opened to the sight of a space shuttle being carried on the back of a 747, my younger self was utterly enthralled.  The funny thing about James Bond for me is that I look at them with two sets of eyes – the kid who can be wowed by anything, for whom watching Bond was a way of bonding with his dad, and the older, more cynical bastard who always notices the wires dangling from the spaceship.  Everything critics say about Moonraker is true:  it’s silly, it’s out-there space fantasy, it’s the worst of every excess the Bond series ever suffered, and it’s fundamentally a transparent attempt to leech off the success of Star Wars.  But damn if I don’t still dig it.  I can acknowledge its flaws, I can shrug at the ludicrous spectacle of lasers flying left and right and the outright goofiness of the entire endeavour.  But I can still load it up on a rainy Sunday afternoon and groove on it.  Perhaps it’s just that the brand of James Bond is so enduring that even the lesser movies contain something of value – perhaps its “wow factor” continues to appeal to our inner kid.

Ian Fleming’s original novel, which takes place entirely in England, revolved around an English industrialist named Hugo Drax who has built a giant rocket to be deployed as part of Britain’s defense system.  Bond discovers that Drax is actually a German consumed with loathing for all things English who intends to aim his rocket at the heart of London instead.  For the movie however, trying to top the spectacle that was The Spy Who Loved Me, and seeking to cash in on the late 70’s cinematic space craze, anchoring the plot to earth was not even in question.  When the aforementioned space shuttle is hijacked in midair, and after a breathtaking opening freefall fight that required 88 separate jumps to capture on film, 007 travels to California to investigate the shuttle’s disappearance and match wits with Drax (Michael Lonsdale), rewritten here as the billionaire private contractor behind America’s space program.  Pursuing the trail from a glass factory in Venice to the carnival-filled streets of Rio de Janeiro and finally deep into the Amazon jungle, Bond and CIA agent Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) discover Drax’s plan to wipe out the human race using a nerve gas developed from rare orchids, prior to repopulating the planet with his version of a master race of perfect physical specimens.  Rocketing into orbit, and with assistance at a timely juncture by U.S. space marines, the two agents lead a battle aboard Drax’s space station to destroy the gas and save humanity.  The kid thinks “This is the most awesome thing ever!”  The old guy grumbles “Good grief.  Where’s my copy of From Russia with Love?”

But there are a couple of things both sides of me can agree on.  Ken Adam, in his 007 swan song, does a masterful job.  He takes clunky real-life NASA equipment like the centrifuge trainer and gives it a polished, futuristic look.  Drax’s Amazon base, which combines modern, almost German expressionist vertical lines with the crumbling limestone of an Incan temple, would be a suitable enough locale for a Bond film finale.  But even it pales next to the space station, for which Adam’s challenge was to differentiate it substantially from the Death Star and the rotating wheel of 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  It’s a modular creation (described as a mobile in space) and its interiors are a perfect balance of practical function based on extrapolation from then-current NASA technology, and a sleek designer’s touch.  With all respect to Adam’s successors, no Bond villain’s lair would ever look like this again, or make such a lasting impression on first view.  It had to, really, given the images throughout the movie that precede its grand reveal.  The visual effects throughout the climactic battle, supervised by Bond veteran Derek Meddings, still hold up extremely well today, and credit must be given to Meddings’ team for a reasonably accurate depiction of the space shuttle’s takeoff and flight in 1979 given that the shuttle did not launch in real life until 1981.  The action beats are solid, with the opening fall from the sky, a gondola chase through the canals of Venice and a fistfight aboard the cable cars of Rio standing out as highlights (spoiled somewhat by being punctuated with misguided attempts at comedy, but more on that later).  One of the most haunting deaths ever depicted in a Bond movie occurs when Drax’s assistant Corinne Dufour (Corinne Clery) is hunted down through a forest by killer dogs.  John Barry returns and abandons the electric guitar and swinging percussion that characterized his early Bond work in favour of a more mature sound that uses sweeping strings and a choir to depict the vast emptiness of outer space.

Now, to the elements that the older man can’t forgive so easily.  As I indicated yesterday, I love the spectacle of Bond, but I want that spectacle to have some meat behind it, otherwise it becomes, as Shakespeare would put it, a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  Bond himself really has no character arc here, no personal journey to fulfill other than serving as the wrench which jams the engine of Drax’s master plan, nor is his relationship with the underwritten Holly Goodhead anything more than a happenstance of proximity – that is, she’s the only “good girl” in range.  As sinister as Michael Lonsdale is, with his refined French accent draping itself lovingly around lines like “You defy all my attempts to plan an amusing death for you,” he, like Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me, is too straightforwardly evil to be a truly compelling foe for our hero – there are no layers to his villainy, no motivation other than the usual line about civilization having become corrupt and needing a reset.  In fact, the only character who has any kind of growth in the movie is Jaws (Richard Kiel), who finds love and morphs from remorseless killer-for-hire into a just-in-time good guy (apparently a request made by director Lewis Gilbert’s grandson).  Instead of character beats, we get comedy, and a regrettable trend toward silent movie era slapstick that will only grow over the next few films.  Jaws himself is portrayed as too much of a bumbling oaf to ever represent any kind of threat to Bond, and as a result the first two thirds of the movie are devoid of any serious suspense.  Even in Live and Let Die, Bond had to occasionally use only his wits to extricate himself from danger, but in this movie he always has the right gadget at the right time.  (A couple of machine-gun toting thugs oblige Bond by simply watching agape as his gondola transforms itself – verrrrrry slowly, mind you – into a car for an escape across the Venice piazzas.)  We need to have at least some sense that Bond might be in over his head to invest ourselves in his surviving, and unfortunately it doesn’t happen in this movie.

But there come moments, however, when you simply say the heck with all of that, and let the kid take over and get lost in the fantasy.  Moonraker is such a strongly designed film that the visual elements forgive the flaws in performance and narrative choices, and is worth a look by the older, more discriminating you for that reason if nothing more.  The kid will be wowed by the laser beams and the explosions and the half-naked gorgeous women, and whether we want to admit or not, sometimes, especially with James Bond, that’s enough.

Tomorrow:  For Your Eyes Only comes down to earth but brings the wrong luggage with it.