Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Bond-a-thon: The World is Not Enough

If there was ever a definition of a mixed bag of a movie, I think The World is Not Enough would be part of it. There are parts of this movie that I really, really liked and then there were parts that I really didn't like. The really good parts only manage to make the really bad ones stand out that much more and that's the troubling thing with this film. 

James Bond (played by Pierce Brosnan) is assigned to protect Oil heiress Elektra King (played by Sophie Marceau) after her father is killed by an explosion created by notorious terrorist known as Renard (played by Robert Carlyle). Elektra is believed to be Renard's next target and has already had one run in with him during a botched kidnapping years prior. This suspicion is confirmed when Bond and Elektra are ambushed by a quartet of the least stealthy assassins ever while they are overseeing where Elektra's new oil pipeline is supposed to go. The assassins enter the scene on paragliding snowmobiles. I swear to god I am not making this up. This leads to a lengthy chase scene with Bond and Elektra trying to get away on skis. Now the ski chase has been a staple of the Bond series since On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but at this point just feels rote. Anyway, following this attack Bond contacts Valentin Zukovsky (played by Robbie Coltrane), a former KGB agent and is able to get information that leads him to a Russian ICBM base in Kazakhstan where he runs into Dr. Christmas Jones (played by Denise Richards) and Renard himself. Before he can take out Renard, Jones blows his cover and Renard is able to get away with a nuclear bomb. Bond then teams up to track down Renard and stop him.

First off, there is a lot to like about this movie. It has a slightly more vulnerable Bond as he gets hurt in the opening action sequence, but also explores the darker side of Bond, which Pierce Brosnan pulls off wonderfully. There is also a bigger role for M (played by Judi Dench) this time around, as it explores her relationship with the King family and old sins coming back to haunt her. Usually, M functioned in a strictly expository role. He set up the plot and sent Bond on his mission, but with the newer films, especially this one and Skyfall, they explored the character more and showed that her job was not always the easiest. The film also has a couple decent plot twists that I went to great pains to dance around in the plot summary above that I felt added a little bit of surprise to the proceedings.

And then there is Q (played by Desmond Llewelyn). I haven't written much about Q in these reviews but he is easily one of my favorite characters in the series, especially the portrayal by Desmond over his 17 appearances in the series. This one, sadly, marked his last one. He passed away shortly after the release of the film in an auto accident. He first appeared in From Russia With Love and only missed one film from then on, Live and Let Die due to a scheduling conflict and general, if misguided, desire to play down the gadgets for that film. No matter how terrible the Bond film was, I always got some joy out Bond's encounters with Q, whether it was bantering between the two like with Connery or Brosnan or at times Roger Moore, or a meeting of old friends as it was like between him and Dalton, they were always one of my favorite moments in the film. In this film he has an assistant played by John Cleese, jokingly referred to as R by Bond. But as I watched the film again, I couldn't help but tear up a little. At least he got a great exit. I just wished his final film appearance had been in a better Bond movie. 

This brings us to the less than great aspects of this movie and there are a few. The main offender is Denise Richards, woefully miscast as the improbably named Dr. Christmas Jones. There is not one second that she is convincing as a nuclear physicist. But, to make matters worse, her acting is just atrocious. It is flat and lifeless. It boggles the mind that this was allowed to pass muster. Did the filmmakers have so much contempt for the audience that they figured we wouldn't care just because she's hot and dressed like Lara Croft (I'm not joking, she really is.)? The character name was given to her to set up one joke at the end of the movie. Anyone savvy to the trademark Bond double entendre will see that joke coming a mile away and still groan when they hear Pierce utter it. 

The other thing is the villain just isn't that compelling Robert Carlyle does the best he can with the role of Renard, but he just isn't that intimidating as a villain. One of the big plot points is that Renard has a bullet lodged in his brain and as a result can no longer feel pain. Which is pretty cool in theory, but in execution there is no payoff to this when we reach the final confrontation between Renard and Bond, on a sinking nuclear sub no less. It's just a regular fight between the two of them. It just makes me wonder why they bothered adding it at all if they weren't going to do anything with it. All I can think is that they used it because they felt like traditional Bond villains needed some sort of quirk or freakish aspect and they went with that. 

Overall, there are some things I really like about The World is Not Enough which only makes the stuff I don't like about it, mainly Denise Richards, that much more apparent. It's not the absolute worst of the Bond series, but it's not the best either. 

Monday, September 28, 2015

Bond-a-thon: Tomorrow Never Dies

I don't understand why people don't like Tomorrow Never Dies. I really don't get it. It has a fun and witty script, a unique villain, a seriously kick ass Bond Girl in Michelle Yeoh and some of the best action sequences the series has ever had. What's not to love? I really just don't understand. It's one of my all time favorite Bond films and I think it's long overdue for some re-evaluation. 

After a British Naval Ship sinks in the South China Sea, M (played by Judi Dench) assigns James Bond (played by Pierce Brosnan) to look into a possible connection with the Carver Media Group and it's owner Elliot Carver (played by Jonathan Pryce) due to the fact that the Carver owned newspaper Tomorrow has specific details about the incident published in it's papers before it was even known by the British Government as well as a suspicious signal from one of Carver's satellites. He flies to Hamburg to attend the launch of Carver's new cable news network. There he runs into an ex-girlfriend, Paris (played by Teri Hatcher), who is less than thrilled to see him (apparently the last thing he said to her before departing was, "I'll be right back." Ouch.). She is now married to Elliot Carver but apparently still cares enough for James to help him maintain his cover as an Investment Banker. Bond also crosses paths with Wai Lin (played by Michelle Yeoh), a Chinese agent posing as a journalist that is crashing the launch party. Carver suspects Bond isn't who he says he is and has his goons, led by Richard Stamper (played by Gotz Otto), take Bond aside and rough him up in an attempt to find out who he really is. Bond is able to overpower them and escape, pausing only to disrupt Carver's inaugural broadcast by shutting off the power to the studio. 

Later that night, Paris turns up at Bond's hotel room. She confides that she knows Carver is up to something and tells him how to get to the secret offices in Elliot's newspaper offices. While investigating the offices, Bond finds a GPS encoder in the office of Carver's right hand man, American techno-terrorist Henry Gupta (played by Ricky Jay). While narrowly escaping Carver's offices, Bond once again runs into Wai Lin. The two eventually decide to team up and investigate Carver's role in the sinking of the Naval ship and prove that Carver caused the sinking to send England and China on a path to all out war simply for the benefit of his media empire.

I wasn't kidding when I said this was one of my all time favorite Bond films. It just makes me feel all giddy and happy watching it. This movie is firing on all cylinders with a witty script by Bruce Feirstein and stylish direction by Roger Spotiswoode. The film features two of my all time favorite action sequences in the Bond series, the car chase through the Parking Garage, with Bond in the backseat controlling the car by remote and the motorcycle chase with Bond and Wai Lin handcuffed together sharing control as they are chased through Shanghai. They are both fun variations on action movie staples, especially the latter as Wai Lin adjusts her position on the bike several times as the chase is going on and were quite impressive, as is the part when they have to jump the bike from one rooftop to the next. 

Pierce Brosnan is a but more relaxed and assured in the role of James Bond this time around and therefore giving a stronger performance. Michelle Yeoh's Wai Lin just may be my favorite Bond girl ever. She is in every way Bond's equal and more than capable of taking on a group of goons herself. Michelle and Pierce play off each other beautifully and I just love their scenes together. Jonathan Pryce makes for a unique villain that is perhaps more timely than ever. The owner of a media empire who manipulates world politics for ratings and to sell papers. It almost seems plausible in a way. Pryce gives a wonderfully colorful performance, doing everything but literally gnawing on the scenery. It's big and comic bookish, just as it should be. It's also clear that they're mercilessly ripping on Rupert Murdoch with the character, which I can't help but love. I enjoyed the touches with Teri Hatcher's Paris, having her be a former flame of James' was a nice touch. There's a bitterness towards him underneath it all, making her wait so long and wonder what happened to him until finally she gave up and married what at the time must have seemed like the sensible choice. Whoops, he turned out the be a megalomaniac Bond villain. Can't win them all, I guess. Desmond Llewellyn also pops up as Q, posing as a Rental Car clerk to deliver Bond his new car. His interactions with Bond  as they fill out the damage waiver for his new car ranks as one of my favorite Bond and Q moments. They just play off beautifully in each of their interactions and rank as some of my favorite moments. Samantha Bond also makes the most of her few scenes as Moneypenny, including one line that I've always thought was really clever. Also, as a fun bit of trivia, this film contains early appearences by Gerard Butler as well as Downton Abbey co-stars Hugh Bonneville and Brendan Coyle in blink and you'll miss them appearences.    

Tomorrow Never Dies easily ranks in the top five favorite Bond films. It is an absolute blast from start to finish with some seriously fantastic action sequences, one of the best Bond girls the series has ever had with Michelle Yeoh and a more assured performance by Pierce Brosnan as Bond. I just unabashedly love this one.  

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Bond-a-thon Bonus: The Rock

Technically speaking, The Rock is in no way, shape, or form a Bond movie. Except that the film's star, Sean Connery, is essentially playing Bond again but by another name. Heck, when Nicholas Cage's character Stanley Goodspeed introduces himself to Connery he responds, "But of course you are." The hints are all there for the audience to pick up on. 

John Mason (played by Sean Connery) is a captured British Agent held without trial for 30 years after being caught stealing FBI files. When disgruntled General Hummel (played by Ed Harris) and his platoon of Marines take over Alcatraz, take the tourists viewing the prison hostage and threaten the San Francisco Bay Area with a dozen VX poison gas rockets, former Alcatraz prisoner Mason becomes their best hope. Mason is the only person to have escaped Alcatraz successfully and they need his help to get a team of Navy SEALS into Alcatraz and neutralize the threat. Also along for the ride is FBI chemical weapons specialist Stanley Goodspeed (played by Nicholas Cage). When the mission goes south and the SEAL team is wiped out, it's up to Goodspeed and Mason to defuse the rockets and take out the Marines holding Alcatraz and San Francisco hostage. 

When one takes a look at The Rock, it is clearly not in the same vein as the Bond films. It is much more violent and there is a lot more cursing as well (hey, if you ever wanted to hear Bond say the F-word, this is your movie). It is also directed by Michael Bay and produced by the action powerhouse team of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, known for their hyper-kinetic and over the top action films that are generally noisier and grittier than the Bond films. But at the same time, I can't help but think of Bond when watching Sean Connery in this film. He's basically playing an older, bitter and more vicious James Bond, no doubt a result of being held in confinement without trial for 30 years. Sure, some of the details of Mason's background are different. Mason was in the Army whereas Bond was in the Navy for instance, but the basic character remains the same.  Of course, if I'm being serious, Mason was never intended to be James Bond and all the references are very wink-wink nudge-nudge. I don't buy into the fan theory at all that Mason is intended to be Bond. For starters, the dates don't work out. Mason was already incarcerated while Connery's Bond was fighting SPECTRE and Auric Goldfinger. The references to James Bond are simply the producers and Connery addressing the elephant in the room and having some fun with it. Still, there are enough similarities between the two characters, I thought it would be fun to include this one in my Bond retrospective.

That said, The Rock is a plenty entertaining movie in it's own right with plenty of action, suspense and a liberal dose of humor as well. Connery and Cage make for an interesting team of unlikely heroes, and both do well in their respective roles. It's hard to believe now, but there was a period of time before this movie came out where the idea of Nicholas Cage as an action hero seemed weird. In this one, much like Connery with Bond, they play to Cage's perceived eccentricities to great comedic effect, including a rooftop love scene with a huge backdrop of hundreds of lit candles that means Goodspeed and his girlfriend Carla cleaned out the candles section at Pier 1 at some point while Goodspeed is throwing out one nonsensical line after another. It easily ranks as one of the weirdest love scenes I've ever seen and I kind of love it for that.   

Ed Harris makes for a unique villain in the sense that his character is bluffing the entire time. He has no intention of hurting anyone. He's trying to get the Government to pay dues he feels are owed to the families of fallen soldiers who died during Black Ops missions. Mason is able to see that in him from the first time the two meet. Unfortunately, Hummel's troops are a particularly unhinged group of psychopaths, itching at the bit to unleash chemical warfare on the San Francisco Bay Area.  

While I concede that The Rock is not at all a Bond film, it is a very fun action film in it's own right, proving that even at the age of 66, Sean Connery could still kick ass, while at least unofficially giving him one last crack at playing Bond. This would be the one to go out on, for sure. 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Bond-a-thon: GoldenEye

I have a confession to make. The first Bond movie I ever saw, and incidentally the first one I saw in the theater, was Pierce Brosnan's debut as Bond in GoldenEye. Therefore Pierce was my first Bond, and like someone's first Doctor, one tends to be a bit protective of them. I really liked Pierce Brosnan as Bond and I still do. So, naturally it hurts to hear backlash against him, even from Pierce himself. I mention this just so you know where I'm coming from. I'm hopelessly biased and admit it up front. For me, GoldenEye was a smashing debut for Pierce Brosnan and remains one of my favorite Bond films.

James Bond (played by Pierce Brosnan) is on assignment to destroy a chemical weapons facility in Russia with assistance from his friend and fellow agent Alec Trevelyan (played by Sean Bean). The mission goes south and Alec is shot by General Arkady Ourumov (played by Gottfried John). Bond is able to escape by plane just before the plant is blown up. Nine years later, Bond is on assignment in Monte Carlo to investigate Xenia Onatopp (played by Famke Janssen), a suspected member of the Janus Crime Syndicate who has formed a suspicious relationship with a Royal Canadian Navy Admiral. His suspicions turn out to be well founded as Xenia murders the Admiral and then she and her associate steal prototype Helicopter that can, among other things, withstand an electromagentic pulse. 

Meanwhile at a remote satellite base in Russia, two computer programmers, Natalya Simonova (played by Izabella Scorupco) and Boris Grishenko (played by Alan Cumming) are working when General Ourumov and Xenia Onatopp arrive. They steal the GoldenEye satellite control disk and use it to destroy the dish and complex to cover their tracks, massacring everyone there first, except for Natalya who was able to hide, and Boris who was outside smoking during the attack. Upon escaping the wreckage of the satellite base, Natalya is able to locate Boris, who suggests they meet up and immediately betrays her to Janus.  Bond is given the assignment to check out the attack by M (played by Judi Dench). Upon arriving in St. Petersburg, Bond arranges a meeting with Janus himself and is shocked to discover that Janus is actually Alec Trevelyan, having faked his death nine years earlier. Left to die in the stolen Helicopter set to self destruct with Natalya (apparently in an attempt to frame them for stealing GoldenEye, I guess), Bond and Natalya are able to escape at the last minute. The two then decide to team up to stop Alec and General Ourumov from deploying the second GoldenEye satellite to cover up a large theft by Alec from the London banks. 

As I said before, GoldenEye was my introduction to the James Bond series so there is a lot of nostalgia to deal with when it comes to this film. Luckily for me, it happens to be a genuinely great Bond film and certainly falls in my top ten. Pierce Brosnan, who the producers had wanted to play Bond for years but initially couldn't because of a contractual commitment to the TV series Remington Steele, finally got his chance to play Bond. He does a great job in the role, clearly drawing from both Connery and Moore, while also making the role his own. The film also marks the debut of Judi Dench in the role of M, a role that had previously been traditionally male. Dench makes the role her own, adding some nice depth to the character while also asserting her authority by calling Bond a "sexist misogynistic dinosaur" and a "relic of the cold war," thereby firmly establishing where this new Bond falls. We also see the debut of my personal favorite Moneypenny, Samantha Bond. I loved that while her Moneypenny was more than happy to flirt with James, she was also kind of over him by this point and it's established that she has a life outside of the office that doesn't include endless pining for James. It was a refreshing change of pace for the character (and yes Lois Maxwell was an amazing Moneypenny and will always be the definitive Moneypenny after playing the role for 22 years, okay? That was a preemptive statement for all the Bond fans I can hear screaming at me in my head. You'll have to forgive me, as I said before I'm horribly biased with this review).   

Sean Bean makes for a great bad guy and it was a nice touch to have his character be a traitorous former MI-6 agent. The history between Alec and James adds some nice depth to their interactions. I also really liked Izabella Scorupco as Natalya. She's a smart, capable and headstrong woman who has just as important a role to play in saving the day as Bond does, which is a nice change of pace. Also, for whatever reason, I really liked Alan Cumming as the obnoxious and pervy computer hacker Boris. Normally he would be annoying but somehow Alan Cumming's exaggerated overacting made him rather entertaining to me. 

The film has plenty of great action moments, from the opening scenes of Bond infiltrating the Russian Chemical plant to Bond stealing a Russian tank to pursue General Ourumov and the kidnapped Natalya through St. Petersburg (while destroying a good chunk of it in the process. The set design is also really well done, with James and Alec's reunion being in a graveyard of sorts filled with old statues and relics of Soviet Russia being a particularly telling moment, seeing two Agents from the Cold War reuniting and neither one seeing much purpose anymore. Bond however has carried on whereas Alec has decided to turn criminal. It's a brilliant touch on the part of director Martin Campbell and his design team. Eric Serra provides a very unique score for the film that was initially criticized for being less like the typical Bond score and closer to Serra's score for the Luc Besson film Leon: The Professional. It's an unconventional score, but I've always kind of dug it myself. 

Overall, GoldenEye was another fantastic entry in the Bond series and firmly establishing there was still a place for James Bond in the world after the Cold War. Nowadays, people like to rip on Pierce Brosnan for not being a good Bond, but I couldn't disagree more. I've always really liked him in the role. But, as I said before, he was always my Bond so that may have something to do with it.

Bond-a-thon: Licence to Kill

Without a doubt, Licence to Kill is the darkest Bond movie thus far. It is deadly serious in almost every respect, as it should be. Timothy Dalton firmly establishes his Bond with this outing and I have to admit it's one of my favorites of the entire series. 

James Bond (played by Timothy Dalton) is in Florida attending the wedding of his good friend and CIA counterpart Felix Leiter (played by David Hedison). En route to the wedding, Bond and Leiter are flagged down by some of Leiter's DEA buddies he had been working with. They inform him they have a chance to apprehend drug kingpin Franz Sanchez (played by Robert Davi). So, off the two go in pursuit decked out in their wedding tuxes. The apprehend Sanchez by attaching a cable to his airborne plane with a coast guard helicopter and pulling it out of the air. Bond and Leiter then leave Sanchez to the DEA agents and parachute into Leiter's wedding.  However, Sanchez is able to break free almost immediately with the aid of crooked DEA agent Ed Killifer (played by Everett McGill). Sanchez sends his personal henchman Dario (played by a young Benicio Del Toro) to go retrieve Leiter. Dario and his crew ambush Leiter and his new wife Della (played by Priscilla Barnes). Leiter is brought to an aquarium owned by one of Sanchez's accomplices, Milton Krest (played by Anthony Zerbe), and is tortured and maimed by one of Krest's sharks. When Bond hears that Sanchez escaped custody, he races to Leiter's home where he finds Della has been murdered and Felix is seriously injured. Determined to get revenege, Bond ignores M's orders to return to England and is subsequently stripped of his Double-O status and his license to kill. Bond escapes from M (played by Robert Brown) and meets up with Leiter's friend Sharkey (played by Frank McRae) and Leiter's fellow CIA agent Pam Bouvier (played by Carey Lowell) to infiltrate Sanchez's operation, with some assistance from Q (played by Desmond Llewellyn), and bring the whole thing down once and for all.    

Timothy Dalton got a lot of criticism for a long time for how serious he played the role of Bond, but after 12 years of silliness, some good and some not so good, from Roger Moore, Dalton's approach is a refreshing change of pace. There is more dramatic weight to Dalton's films, especially this one, and that makes for a more overall fulfilling film in my opinion. Carey Lowell as Pam Bouvier ranks among my favorite Bond girls. She's resourceful, strong and fiercely independent. She wants Sanchez just as badly as Bond and refuses to be sidelined. I really liked her character a lot. Robert Davi's Sanchez ranks up there as one of the nastiest villains in the entire Bond series, with his henchman Dario right alongside him. 

The film has some great action sequences, with the opening capture of Sanchez and climactic chase between Bond and Sanchez's gang being stand outs. In particular, the stunts Bond pulls off in the tanker truck he drives are quite impressive, keeping in mind that they were all done for real. John Glen once again returns to the director's chair, for the last time as it would turn out, and gives the film some real flair in it's direction. One of my favorite composers Michael Kamen steps in for John Barry for this outing and gives the film a cool score that's a bit different than what Barry usually gave. The film was written by series producer Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maibaum, drawing inspiration from several plot elements from Ian Fleming's original stories as well as from real word events, especially the Medellin cartel and Pablo Escobar for their villain Franz Sanchez. They also do a good job exploring the darker side of Bond, giving him plenty of motivation to go after Sanchez directly. Having Leiter's tragedy mirror his own, losing his wife on their wedding day, was a good touch and only served to fuel Bond's rage more. It was also a nice touch by them folding in some of the themes of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, with Bond working from inside Sanchez's operation and playing everyone against each other and sowing doubts and fears into Sanchez, letting him destroy himself.  

Overall, Licence to Kill is a darker entry in the Bond series with a sharper edge to it than usual. It fits Dalton's incarnation of Bond quite well and it's nice to see that opinion on it has softened as time has gone by. I feel it's one of the best of the series, as is Dalton's other Bond film The Living Daylights. It makes me wish he had gotten a chance to play the role one or two more times, but sadly legal issues over the rights to the Bond series would cause the series to remain off cinema screens for five years, leading Dalton to retire from the role. Still, both his entries in the Bond series are top notch and highly recommended.  

Friday, September 25, 2015

Bond-a-thon: The Living Daylights

As I watched The Living Daylights again for this review, I was genuinely struck at how I had forgotten just how good of a Bond movie this was. With Timothy Dalton making his first appearance in the role of James Bond, along with a more grounded and politically relevant plot makes this a strong entry in the Bond series. 

James Bond is tasked with assisting in the defection of Russian General Georgi Koskov (played by Jeroen Krabbe) from Bratislava. Georgi is supposed to slip away during a performance at the Concert Hall during the intermission. Watching from across the street since they had a tip that a KGB assassin might try to stop the defection, Bond is shocked to see the supposed assassin is actually the orchestra's cellist, Kara Milovy (played by Maryam d'Abo). Bond ignores an order to kill her and instead shoots the rifle from her hands. He then proceeds to smuggle Koskov out of Bratislava and into Austria using the Trans-Siberian Pipeline. He is then taken to a safe house in the English countryside for debriefing. Koskov that an old Soviet policy, Smiert Spionom (meaning death to spies), was being re-activated by General Leonid Pushkin (played by John Rhys-Davies), the new head of the KGB. Among the list of targeted spies is James Bond himself. The meeting doesn't last long as a KGB assassin Necros (played by Andreas Wisniewski) invades the safe house, taking out several MI-6 agents and capturing Koskov. Deciding things aren't adding up, Bond returns to Bratislava and seeks out Kara. He discovers that not only is she actually Koskov's girlfriend, but that her rifle was loaded with blanks. The entire defection was staged. The question becomes what is Koskov and Necros really up to. Bond and Kara come together to find out, while trying to stay one step ahead of the KGB, who want both of them dead. 

The Living Daylights is a welcome change of pace when the Bond series badly needed it. Timothy Dalton makes a great Bond, taking the role seriously and therefore grounding the movie nicely. For the longest time, his was always one of the most under appreciated Bonds, but after seeing some similarities with the current Bond, Daniel Craig, I think he is finally getting some long overdue appreciation for his take on the role. This is certainly the lighter of the two Dalton Bond films and it's nice to see that side of Dalton on screen for once. While his subsequent Bond film, Licence to Kill, was tailored to Dalton, this one leans a bit more towards the Roger Moore era. It's a nice transition point between those two eras. Maryam d'Abo gives a decent performance as Kara, a woman who is clearly in way over her head. She finds a nice balance with her character, showing someone who is overwhelmed with the situations she finds herself in, but yet is not useless unlike some other Bond girls. Jeroen Krabbe makes for a unique Bond villain, eccentric and even at times seeming buffoonish hides a genuinely ruthless and sociopathic side. 

The film has it's share of impressive and inventive action sequences, with an extended chase between Bond and Kara and KGB forces as they try to cross from Bratislava to Austria, going from car chase to sledding down a mountainside in an cello case being a memorable stand out. I also appreciated the general globetrotting nature of the story as Bond bounces from Czechoslovakia to Austria to England then back to Czechoslovakia to Austria before finally winding up in Afghanistan. Each location is captured well by director John Glen and cinematographer Alec Mills. There are some elements of the film that date it terribly so, as tends to happen when your plot depends so strongly on Western and Soviet Russia as well as the Cold War. When Bond and Kara get involved in the Soviet-Afghan war late in the film and at one point take up with the Mujahedeen, I can't help but think of everything that came after that particular conflict. So, ideally, one probably shouldn't think about what happens in the film in any sort of real historical context, in particular what has happened in that region and elsewhere in the 28 years since it came out. To be fair though, Rambo III has the same problems when viewed with a contemporary perspective, so they're not alone here. 

The Living Daylights would certainly get my vote for one of the most criminally underrated Bond movies. Dalton makes a strong first outing as Bond that makes me kind of wish he had gotten more than two outings as the character. It's a great globe trotting espionage thriller and is certainly one of my favorites of the series as a whole. 

Bond-a-thon: A View to a Kill

It's always a shame when a great villain is wasted in a mediocre Bond movie. A View to a Kill is a mess of a movie. When it works, it works really well, but when it misses the mark, it really misses. With tonal shifts that move sharply from campy humor to intense violence and back again, one can't help but feel a little bit of whiplash. But a truly villainous Christopher Walken, a older but not quite out yet Roger Moore, and a killer Duran Duran theme song somehow make the whole thing still rather watchable to me. 

James Bond is on a mission in Iceland to recover the body of another fallen agent and acquire a small microchip he had recovered. He is discovered by several Russian soldiers in the area, which leads us into another ski chase, which then moves to snowmobiles before finishing with Bond snowboarding down a hill on a broken ski from the snowmobile, to the tune of The Beach Boys' "California Girls" no less (a touch I still can't decide if it's terrible or brilliant).  Upon his return to MI-6, it is discovered that the microchip recovered is a revolutionary design that would withstand the blast of an Electromagnetic Pulse. Upon comparison by Q (played by Desmond Llewellyn), they find the microchip recovered from the Russians matches ones currently in production by Max Zorin (played by Christopher Walken). Suspecting the company has a leak, Bond is tasked with infiltrating Zorin's company and trying to smoke out the mole. With Sir Godfrey Tibbett (played by Patrick MacNee), they starting looking into Zorin's company and Zorin himself, along with his companion Mayday (played by Grace Jones). In the course of their investigation, they discover Zorin is planning to flood Silicon Valley completely by manipulating both the Hayward and San Andreas fault lines, thereby cornering the microchip market all at once.

There's a lot to like about A View to a Kill. It's got an interesting, if absurd, storyline with a truly nasty villain to match with Max Zorin. Roger Moore is clearly officially too old for the role of James Bond, but gives a spirited performance nonetheless. Christopher Walken dominates the film though as the psychotic, energetic and strangely charismatic Zorin. I just love his performance here and it's almost enough to make the movie worth watching by itself. It has some fun and inventive action sequences, with both the Eiffel Tower jump and the climax atop the Golden Gate Bridge being notable standouts. John Barry gives the film another great score as well, sampling and updating some of his themes from On Her Majesty's Secret Service throughout. Duran Duran gives one of the all time great Bond title songs for this film as well. 

But at the same time, the film does have some big flaws. The age discrepancy between Bond and his love interests in the film have grown so wide that they are young enough to be his daughter, leaving a slightly uncomfortable feeling to the film. There is also Stacey Sutton (played by Tanya Roberts), a California State Geologist. Despite initially greeting Bond with a shotgun, she turns out to be one of the most useless Bond girls ever. She's so clueless,  Zorin's zeppelin is able to sneak up on her. She's shrill and annoying in almost every scene she's in, which is thankfully very few. Grace Jones as Mayday is also a curious character. For much of the film she is quite an intimidating and effective assassin for Zorin, but a late in the film attempt to redeem her character didn't quite fly for me given how much of a monster she had been for the bulk of the run time. There are also a glaring plot element that never quite made sense to me. Bond is able to get an invitation to Zorin's horse auction through Sir Godfrey Tibbett, but when they arrive Tibbet is posing as Bond's valet. This never really made sense to me. Surely, there would be someone there who would recognize Tibbet and wonder why the hell he was Bond's valet, especially since it was Tibbet that secured the invitation? Couldn't Bond just have gone as Tibbet's guest? 

Still, despite it's flaws, A View to a Kill is a reasonably decent Bond adventure. It falls somewhere in the middle for me in terms of overall ranking of the series. It kept me entertained in it's preposterous, comic book way, which is an improvement over the previous film, Octopussy. Does it rank among the best of Bond? No, of course not. But I did enjoy it for what it was. 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Bond-a-thon: Never Say Never Again

There's something a little off about Never Say Never Again. It's like peering into an parallel universe. Sean Connery still wound up playing Bond, but the entire rest of the cast is different and the music is decidedly worse. It is a strange duck of a film, produced by Kevin McClory, who won the rights to the Bond novel Thunderball after suing Ian Fleming, along with Jack Schwartzman to create their own rival Bond film. In the process, they managed to land Sean Connery back in the role of James Bond after a 12 year absence from the role. 

The film itself is more or less a remake of Thunderball, beginning with Bond being sent to a health clinic outside London to get in shape after failing a series of routine training exercises. While there, Bond encounters a mysterious nurse, Fatima Blush (played by Barbara Carrera), who is treating another patient, Jack Petachi (played by Gavin O'Herlihy). He later sees him using a machine that scans his eye. Bond is seen witnessing this and later an assassin attempts to kill Bond in the clinic gym, but Bond defeats him after a lengthy fight through half the clinic ("I send you there to get in shape and you destroy half the place!" retorts M, when later confronting Bond). M (played by Edward Fox) is begrudgingly forced to put Bond back into active service when it is discovered Petachi and Fatima work for SPECTRE and Petachi was getting his eye worked on to pass a retinal scan to steal to nuclear warheads. Bond's investigation leads him to Domino Petachi (played by Kim Basinger), Jack's sister and her wealthy lover, Maximillian Largo (played by Klaus Maria Brandauer), another SPECTRE agent. With assistance from Felix Leiter (played by Bernie Casey), Bond's friend and CIA counterpart, Bond has to figure out Largo and SPECTRE's plans for the two nukes and recover them. 

Never Say Never Again marks Sean Connery's return to the role that made him famous after a twelve year absence and by all indications, the break did him good. It's also interesting to see an older Bond, who is close to the end of his career. It's something we haven't seen explored with the character. Bond's heart is still in it and not willing to admit he's getting older. Yet, for the most part he's able to keep up in this film, so he's not out of it yet. I also have to give a special notice to Klaus Maria Brandauer as Largo. He creates a much more grounded, insecure and even perhaps neurotic villain than we typically see in a Bond movie. Both sides of the coin work well because both are playing far more grounded characters and that helps add more layers to the film Kim Basinger does pretty well in her turn as Domino and is certainly more tolerable than many Bond girls. 

The film has a nice tongue in cheek sensibility to it, even down to it's title which references Connery's vow never to play James Bond again after Diamonds Are Forever. They also have, among other things, Q telling Bond that now that he's back he hopes there will be some gratuitous sex and violence. ("I hope so too," replies Bond.) Even though the movie is a pretty straightforward remake of Thunderball, the filmmakers managed to learn from the mistakes of the previous film and find ways to make it feel at least a little fresh. The action fight scenes, especially the one between Bond and the Assassin in the Health Clinic, are relatively well staged and filmed. The film largely does away with the underwater fight scenes that bogged down the original film and keeps the majority of the climax above water, thankfully. The one area that the film struggles is with it's music. One of the things the Bond series is known for is it's title songs, whereas this film is straddled with the musical equivalent to listening to someone strangle a cat. Luckily it's a short song and over fairly quickly. 

Still, Never Say Never Again is a triumphant return for Connery to the role of Bond and of the two James Bond films to come out in 1983, the other being Octopussy, this one definitely reigns supreme for me. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Bond-a-thon: Octopussy

There is something strangely low-key about Octopussy. In fact, it's the Bond film I've seen the fewest times and the first two times I tried to watch it I actually wound up sleeping through it. While it's not terrible in any sort of obvious way, it is rather by the numbers and at times unnecessarily goofy. But on the plus side, it does have a Bond girl cool enough, they named the movie after her. 

James Bond (played by Roger Moore) is tasked with looking into fake Faberge Eggs in an effort to track down the killer of fellow Agent 009, who turned up at the British Embassy in East Germany, crashing through a window dressed as a clown with a knife in his back. With the replica egg in hand, Bond attends a local auction where another Egg is being auctioned off and gets into a bidding war with exiled Afghan prince Kamal Khan (played by Louis Jourdan). While inspecting the Egg, Bond is able to swap the real one with the fake.  Bond follows Khan back to India, where he winds up being seduced by one of Khan's associate's, Magda (played by Kristina Wayborn), who he notices has a blue ringed octopus tattoo. Magda steals the real Faberge egg, now fitted with a listening device courtesy of Q (played by Desmond Llewellyn). While listening to the bug, he discovers Khan is working with a Soviet General Orlov (played by Steven Berkoff), who is seeking to expand Soviet control further into Central Europe. Investigating further, he finds himself crossing paths with the titular Octopussy (played by Maud Adams), who resides in a floating palace occupied solely by women, all part of Octopussy's traveling circus. She had been working with Khan to assist with smuggling priceless jewels and treasures from East Germany into Europe. Bond infiltrates the Circus and discovers Orlov has replaced the jewels with a nuclear warhead he intends to detonate during a performance on a US Air Base in West Germany.

Octopussy is a mixed bag. Roger Moore seems to be starting to get bored of playing Bond and had in fact planned to hang up the Walther PPK for good after the previous film, For Your Eyes Only, but was wooed back when the producers found out that Connery was reprising his role as James Bond in a rival production, Never Say Never Again. Maud Adams does a bit better as Octopussy, leader of a whole group of bad ass girls. She is a strong, independent and fierce woman, certainly a memorable character in the line up of great Bond girls. She just has the misfortune of being in a rather dull Bond movie. The villains are rather unimpressive, neither making much of an impact and the film only has a couple moments where it was genuinely thrilling, namely the scene of Bond chasing after Octopussy's train in a Mercedes with the tire rims riding the rails. The climatic assault on Khan's palace by Octopussy's group of ladies was suitably thrilling as well. They of course get an assist from Bond, with assistance from Q, who it was nice to see taking a more active role this time out. I also appreciated the fourth wall break with Bond's Indian contact Vijay (played by Vijay Amritraj) playing the Bond theme on his recorder to get Bond's attention.  

Aside from the story problems and the fact that it's basically a Bond movie by the numbers is the radical tonal shifts. For the most part, the movie is playing it safe, but yet there are other moments, such as Bond dressing up as a clown to avoid pursuers or dressing up in a gorilla costume to try and avoid detection that seem needlessly silly. There is also the painfully awkward moment of Bond swinging on vines through the jungle, doing the Tarzan cry no less, that seems woefully out of place. Also seeing Bond come into the climatic assault in a giant Union Jack decorated hot air balloon was a bit of a facepalm moment for me. It was cute when it was the parachute in The Spy Who Loved Me, but this is a bit much.

Overall, there is little that is noteworthy about Octopussy aside from perhaps it's title character. I liked her and I liked her as a Bond girl, but the movie around her is just so bland it's a disappointment. This would definitely be one of the lesser Bond movies for me. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Bond-a-thon: For Your Eyes Only

I've always felt that For Your Eyes Only was a bit underrated as far as Moore's Bond films went. It's a bit more serious and grounded than some of his other films and allows him to stretch a bit in his portrayal of the character. After the over the top extravagance of Moonraker, a back to basics approach was probably best. 

After a British Spy boat is sunk in the Ionian Sea off the coast of Greece, James Bond (played by Roger Moore) is tasked with retrieving the Automatic Targeting Attack Communicator (ATAC), which is used to coordinate and communicate with the Royal Navy's submarine fleet, before the Soviets get their hands on it. Meanwhile, Marine Archaeologist Sir Timothy Havelock (played by John Hedley) has been secretly working on the recovery operation when he and his wife are murdered by Cuban hitman Hector Gonzales (played by Stefan Kalipha). While spying on Gonzales' villa, Bond is captured but before Gonzales can kill Bond, he is shot with an arrow. Bond manages to escape and runs right into the assassin, Havelock's daughter Melina (played by Caroline Bouquet), looking for revenge for the death of her parents. After escaping the clutches of Gonzales men, Bond warns her that seeking revenge may not be the best course of action for her and may only result in her death as well. 

The two then part ways as Bond heads to Cortina, located in the Italian Alps after identifying one of the assassins at Gonzales' villa, Emile Lacoque (played by Michael Gothard) and discovering his base is there. Upon arrival, Bond is informed by local businessman and intelligence informant Aris Kristatos (played by Julian Glover) that Lacoque is employed by Milos Columbo (played by Topol). However, after encountering Columbo, he learns the truth that it is in fact Kristatos that Lacoque works for and that Kristatos intends to retrieve the ATAC himself to sell to the Soviets. Columbo and Bond, along with Melina, then team up to recover the ATAC first and stop Kristatos and his goons. 

While this entry in the series isn't exactly groundbreaking, it does have a lot to like about it and I did appreciate the more grounded and grittier story after the supremely silly Moonraker. Moore manages to find some new depths in his portrayal as Bond with some memorable moments such as the fantastically cold moment he kicks a car holding an assassin that killed his friend off the side of the cliff it was teetering on. The film also has it's share of memorable action sequences including a ski chase that segues to a ski jump before winding up on a bobsled track as well an intense scene where Bond has to climb a cliff side to reach the mountaintop rendezvous between Kristatos and his Soviet contacts. I also appreciated the unique partnership between Milos Columbo and James Bond. 

There are a couple elements that keep it from being great though. The character of Bibi Dahl (played by Lynn Holly Johnson), a figure skating prodigy receiving financial support from Kristatos is perpetually annoying with constant, headache inducing whining. She could have been cut from the film and I doubt anyone would have noticed. Thankfully she has a small part. Odder still is at the end of the film, Bond receives a call of thanks from none other than Margaret Thatcher herself (played by Janet Brown). It's such a ridiculous and out of nowhere moment, made all the more so when Bond leaves the phone for a parrot to talk to her.           

I suppose I should also address the opening sequence as well. It's the first film in the series to directly address the death of Bond's wife, Tracy, and Blofeld's role in it (although it is briefly referenced in The Spy Who Loved Me as well, but Bond quickly changes the subject). Here we see Bond visit her grave and then gets picked up in a helicopter. It turns out to be a trap set by Blofeld, who is controlling the helicopter by remote, to take out Bond once and for all. Bond is able to regain control of the helicopter, scoops up Blofeld, wheelchair and all, and drops him down a factory chimney. While on a certain level it is nice to see Blofeld get some sort of comeuppance finally for being responsible for the death of Tracy at the end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, he deserved a far more memorable end then getting dumped down a chimney. The whole scene is much more about series producer Albert R Broccoli giving one time fellow producer Kevin McClory, who claimed he held sole rights to the Blofeld character, the proverbial middle finger. The man in the wheelchair is never identified in the film as Blofeld, but it's really obvious that is who it is meant to be. The rights issue prevented Broccoli from using the Blofeld character again, at least until it was determined that this was not the case. Even then, Broccoli and company decided to let Blofeld and the rest of SPECTRE remain retired.

Overall, For Your Eyes Only, is a decent and for the most part strong Bond film. It wouldn't be in my top five, but it's somewhere in the top 10 for sure. It's a nice return to form for the series that had been growing more and more outlandish and is all the better for it.   

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Bond-a-thon: Moonraker

As I re-watched Moonraker for this review, I tried really hard to keep an open mind as this entry in the Bond series was perennially on my worst of Bond lists. While I will admit it still falls somewhere on that list, it does have a certain so bad it's good quality. Originally, For Your Eyes Only was supposed to follow The Spy Who Loved Me, but after the success of Star Wars, the producers thought they should go with something more Space oriented and we wound up with this. Let's dig in and take a look at that one time Bond went full on Sci-Fi.

This time around, James Bond (played by Roger Moore) is tasked with looking into a missing Space Shuttle that was hijacked in mid-air. If this sounds familiar, it should. The movie basically recycles the plot to The Spy Who Loved Me and changes only a key few details. Anya is now Holly Goodhead (played by Lois Chiles), a CIA agent, Stomberg is now Strax (played by Michael Lonsdale), instead of an undersea kingdom, it's a giant space station orbiting Earth and Jaws (played by Richard Kiel) is still Jaws but is redeemed and becomes a good guy at the end, apparently because that's what young kids wanted at the time (as the story goes). Other than that, it's the same movie. Insane megalomaniac wants to wipe out humanity and build his own society in it's place, blah, blah, blah. 

Things in this entry get truly ridiculous too. From the hovercraft gondola cruising through Venice to the various attempts by the actors to pretend to be in zero gravity (which is hysterical, by the way) to the climatic space laser fight between hordes of Strax goons and U.S astronauts, it is clear nothing was being taken seriously. There are also not one but two boat chases, as well as a nifty action sequence involving a cable car over Rio De Janeiro. The movie does move at a brisk pace and can never really be guilty of being boring, but at the same time everything involved is just so far over the top it gets really ridiculous. 

Director Lewis Gilbert returned to direct this film, making it his third Bond film after You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me and manages to do a fairly decent job managing the action sequences, as absurd as they are. It's only when the action moves to space that things start getting a bit dodgy in the effects department, as detailed above. Roger Moore turns in an adequate, but somewhat bored performance. Lois Chiles, while playing a perfectly capable Bond girl, seems to match Moore's enthusiasm beat for beat. There's just not much life to either performance. It's almost as if both actor knew they were in a bit of a stinker. Michael Lonsdale at least makes for a decent Bond villain, giving Strax a sense of class and restraint that the movie needs. Richard Kiel also handles the character arc for Jaws well as he transitions from a bad guy to a Bond ally when he realizes that his Master Race obsessed boss wouldn't approve of his nerdy, pig-tailed, glasses wearing new girlfriend. This film also marks Bernard Lee's final perfomance as M, after having been with the series from the very beginning. 

Still, Moonraker isn't a complete trainwreck. It really is terrible, but it's at least amusingly terrible with many unintentionally funny bits (it's almost worth watching just to see the likes of Roger Moore and Michael Lonsdale pretend to suddenly be in zero gravity when they very clearly are not, along with all the extras as well. Seriously, I haven't laughed that hard in awhile). In the right mindset, it's a perfectly watchable if nonsensical and at times very strange entry in the Bond series.

Bond-a-thon: The Spy Who Loved Me

The quintessential Bond movie of the Roger Moore era is without a doubt The Spy Who Loved Me. It is certainly the best one he made with a capable Bond Girl by his side and a couple memorable villains. It also had some fantastic stunts and action sequences with a fantastically daft story to match. In a nutshell, it's just plain fun. 

James Bond (played by Roger Moore) is tasked with looking into the disappearance of two missing nuclear submarines, one British and one Russian. Bond learns there are plans for a highly advanced submarine tracking system up for sale in Egypt. So, off to Cairo he goes and in the process of his investigation crosses paths with Russian KGB Agent Major Anya Amasova (played by Barbara Bach) who is investigating the same missing subs for the Russian government. Unknown to either of them at the time, Bond is actually responsible for the death of Anya's boyfriend when he ambushed Bond at the beginning of the film in Austria. The two team up to track down the microfilm and wind up encounter a nasty customer known as Jaws (played by Richard Kiel), an intimidatingly tall assassin with steel teeth. Narrowly escaping him with the microfilm retrieved, the two are officially partnered by their respective superiors who have agreed to a truce. The investigation leads the two agents to Karl Stromberg (played by Curt Jurgens), who intends to trigger World War III and then rebuild a new civilization under the sea. 

This entry in the Bond series is one of my favorites. It's perfectly paced with an exciting and intriguing story. Moore has settled in and really found the groove for his rendition of Bond and Barbara Bach is the perfect pairing for him as Anya. She's a perfectly capable agent on her own, although maybe not quite as good as Bond. The film also has a couple iconic villains with Jaws dominating the film and becoming so popular he would turn up again in the next film, Moonraker. In the long line of Bond villains, I'm not sure anyone is quite as far off the reservation as Karl Stromberg. The idea of destroying civilization and then creating his own under the sea is so completely nuts, it makes some of the others seem almost reasonable in comparison. Although he somehow figured out how to have an open and apparently wood burning fireplace on his submersible sea base named Atlantis, so clearly the man is brilliant in addition to being completely insane.  

The film has a number of fantastic action sequences as well with the best and most memorable one coming right at the beginning. In a sequence originally suggested by George Lazenby for On Her Majesty's Secret Service but was unable to be used then due to not having the right equipment to shoot it, Bond skis down a mountain in Austria while trying to escape an ambush of enemy agents, including Anya's boyfriend, and ski's off a cliff. Soon, a parachute opens (designed to look like the Union Jack no less) and Bond drifts off to safety as the title sequence and Carly Simon's iconic title song, "Nobody Does it Better" begins. Of course, it's also worth mentioning Bond's new car, a Lotus Esprit, he obtains from Q (played by Desmond Llewelyn), which has among it usual refinements submersible capabilities. 

The film's story and plot work well, despite certain elements being recycled from a previous Bond film, You Only Live Twice, with the methods Stromberg uses to hijack the two submarines being remarkably similar to how SPECTRE hijacked the to space shuttles in that film, as well as plotting to incite war between the Western Allies and Russia. But the underlying plot point between James and Anya and the fact that Bond killed her boyfriend is a nice touch. We as the audience know this from the beginning and are just waiting for these two to figure it out. When she does, she promises Bond she will kill him when the mission was over. To say she gets over this grudge quickly is really saying something and maybe the one inconsistency in her character. She is in so much grief that she swears vengeance but then when she gets her chance, she forgives and goes to bed with her boyfriend's killer instead. To say the least, she gets over it in record time.

Despite this, The Spy Who Loved Me remains Roger Moore's best Bond movie. It has the right balance of action, drama and light moments, including maybe my favorite double entendre in the series. It really is a blast from beginning to end. 

Friday, September 18, 2015

Bond-a-thon: The Man With The Golden Gun

Unlike some of the other Bond films, I feel The Man With the Golden Gun has only gotten better with age. It still has all the usual elements of a Bond movie, but is also a little bit different as well. It has a strong villain in the form of Christopher Lee and Roger Moore is a bit more comfortable as Bond in his second outing in the role. While it's not perfect, I do have fewer nitpicks on this one than some of the others. 

James Bond has found himself in the cross hairs of the infamous and elusive assassin Francisco Scaramanga (played by Christopher Lee) when a golden bullet with Bond's code 007 etched on it is received by MI-6. Because of this perceived threat on his life, Bond is relieved of active duty and his mission to locate a scientist named Gibson, who may hold the key to solving the energy crisis with Solar Power. In response, Bond decides to unofficially go looking for Scaramanga directly. Bond is able to retrieve a spent bullet from one of Scaramanga's previous hits and with the help of Q (played by Desmond Llewelyn), is able to determine it's creator is a specialty gunsmith named Lazar working in Macau, China.  Lucky for Bond, the gunsmith has a new shipment of bullets for Scaramanga and after some prodding from Bond gives up how the exchange is made. This leads him to Scaramanga's mistress, Andrea Anders (played by Maud Adams). He follows her to Hong Kong  and after pressuring her to tell him about Scaramanga's whereabouts, she directs him to the Bottom's Up Club. Bond finds himself at the location of Scaramanga's next hit, the missing scientist Gibson whose solar power device, the Solex Agitator, is then stolen off Gibson by Scaramanga's henchman, Nick Nack (played by Herve Villechaize). The police soon arrive but before Bond has a chance to plead his innocence he is carted off by Lt. Hip (played by Soon-Tek Oh) and taken to the partially sunken ruins of the Queen Elizabeth in Hong Kong Victoria harbor, which has been converted into a secret headquarters for MI6. There he meets with M and is given the mission to retrieve the Solex and assassinate Scaramanga. To assist in his mission, Bond teams up with Lt. Hip and local MI6 agent Mary Goodnight (played by Britt Ekland)

The second outing for Roger Moore's Bond is a bit stronger that the previous film and it certainly has a better villain with Christopher Lee as Scaramanga, who looks like he's having a blast playing the role. He certainly ranks up there with the best villains of the Bond series and is certainly one of the most memorable for me. I love the interplay between Bond and Scaramanga in the last quarter of the movie. Scaramanga sees Bond as his true equal and wants a true mano a mano duel to see who is truly the better assassin. Nick Nack has routinely hired other assassins to try and kill Scaramanga to keep him sharp and Scaramanga has bested them all. He sees the seemingly indestructible Bond as the true test of his skills. I also appreciated the relationship between Scaramanga and Nick Nack and their playful antagonism towards one another. 

There are a few elements that keep this entry from being a true classic Bond film. First off is bringing back Sheriff J.W Pepper (played by Clifton James) from Live and Let Die. This is easily one of the most obnoxious characters in the entire series and seeing him again is just painful. Whoever had that brilliant idea should be fired. This entry also has one of the coolest stunts in the entire Bond series as Bond corkscrew flips a car over a river to get to the other side more quickly and the filmmakers go and ruin this awe inspiring stunt by putting the sound of a slide whistle over it. The third thing I have to make note of is the character of Mary Goodnight, who is Bond's assistant and fellow agent but is so utterly incompetent it's shocking. I can't believe Bond keeps her around, no matter how good she looks in a bikini.  

Still, The Man With the Golden Gun isn't all bad. It gets by nicely on the strength of the performances by Moore, Lee and Villechaize and remains entertaining throughout. There are some parts that I wish they had done differently or left out altogether and because of them this one too falls somewhere in the middle for me. It's not classic Bond, but I think there's a enough good stuff here to still merit a recommendation.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Bond-a-thon: Live and Let Die

Like a big breath of fresh air, with a new Bond and a kick ass title song from Paul and Linda McCartney, Live and Let Die was just what the Bond series needed. The filmmakers also make the wise decision to take the series in new directions and break free from Connery's interpretation of Bond to create something new as well as familiar. 

James Bond (played by Roger Moore) is tasked with looking into the killings of three MI6 agents that all seem to tie back to corrupt dictator of a small Caribbean island of San Monique named Kananga (played by Yaphet Kotto) as well as a Harlem gangster named Mr. Big. The three killings took place in three separate places, the United Nations, San Monique and during a funeral procession through the French Quarter of New Orleans. It's this latter one that really sticks out to me as it must have been a logistical nightmare to pull off. "Oh crap, he went in to use the restroom. Everyone back to one, we'll try it again when he comes back out."

Anyway, it's while investigating in Harlem that Bond finds his way to Mr. Big's lair and meets the beautiful fortune telling tarot expert Solitaire (played by Jane Seymour). He is also spotted by Mr. Big, who's really Kananga is disguise, who orders his goons to kill Bond. Bond manages to overpower them and escape. He then heads to San Monique to continue looking in to Kananga and discovers that he is exploiting the locals fears of voodoo and the occult to protect his poppy fields and heroin production, which he in turn intends to distribute through the Fillet of Soul restaurants owned by his Mr. Big alter ego to increase addiction and create a larger market for himself while driving competitors out of business. 

Live and Let Die is often looked back upon as Bond goes Blaxploitation and they're not far off. It definitely feels like it was influenced a lot by that type of film, especially in the Harlem set scenes and overall style of the main villains, including Kananga and his henchmen, including Tee Hee Johnson (played by Julius Harris), a one armed man with a pincher prosthetic arm. The film does balance itself out a bit with having a couple Black good guys as well, with Quarrell Jr (played by Roy Stewart) and Rosie Carver (played by Gloria Hendry) as quite possibly the most incompetent CIA agent ever. Still, having that balance keeps things from feeling too overtly racist (although the portrayals are certainly dated). It's also the only Bond movie to date with overt supernatural themes, from the Voodoo to Kananga's unwavering faith in Solitaire's ability to predict the future through her Tarot, at least until Bond seduces her using a stacked deck of Tarot himself.

Roger Moore makes a decent first turn as James Bond, making a deliberate choice to distance himself from the portrayals Sean Connery and George Lazenby gave us. Instead, he gives us a much more laid back, sardonic and at times light hearted Bond. Jane Seymour ranks up there with some of the more memorable Bond girls with her turn here. Unfortunately, it's the villains that really fail to impress here, with neither Kananga nor any of his rogues gallery really making any sort of truly lasting impressions. The actors give okay performances, but they just don't rank with the likes of Goldfinger or Dr. No or the various incarnations of Ernst Stavro Blofeld that came before them. The film also gives us one of the worst characters introduced to the series, Louisiana Sheriff JW Pepper (played by Clifton James), a character so over the top and annoying that even Jackie Gleason's Sheriff Buford T Justice from the Smokey and the Bandit films would say he needed to turn it down a bit. 

Overall, Live and Let Die sits comfortably somewhere in the middle in terms of the Bond films for me. It's not one of the greatest, but it's far from the worst as well. It's got that killer Paul McCartney title track and a decent debut for Roger Moore.    

Monday, September 14, 2015

Bond-a-thon: Diamonds Are Forever

When On Her Majesty's Secret Service under performed at the box office in comparison to the previous Bond films, the blame was unfairly placed on the shoulders of George Lazenby, who decided not to return, and the decision was made to bring back Sean Connery. So, the producers basically backed the Brinks truck up to Connery's house and started shoveling out money until he agreed to return for one more outing. Unfortunately, the result is the rather bland and by the numbers Diamonds Are Forever

We catch up with James Bond on the rampage with only one target in mind, Blofeld. He's willing to do anything to get the information he needs, including physical violence. Soon, he's led to Blofeld's lair. Blofeld (played this time by Charles Gray) is in the process of creating a series of duplicates through the aid of plastic surgery. After a quick altercation, Bond sends Blofeld into a pit of boiling mud to his death. Upon returning to England, Bond is given his new assignment by M (played by Bernard Lee) to look into diamond smuggling and the possibility that they are being stockpiled in an attempt to depress the market by dumping them all at once. Adopting the cover as a diamond smuggler, Bond meets up with Tiffany Case (played by Jill St. John) and the two of them work together to smuggle a set of diamonds to the United States with a trail that leads them directly to a very much alive Blofeld, who is using the diamonds as part of laser satellite as part of an extortion scheme. 

There is something very routine about this film. After Peter Hunt was unable to return to the series due to a scheduling conflict, the producers brought back Guy Hamilton, hoping to recapture the magic of Goldfinger, as well as Shirley Bassey to do the title song. Unfortunately, it didn't work and this film somehow feels more dated that the one that preceded it. The plot itself follows the same formula that has worked so well for the previous Bond films, but this time around it just feels stale, especially the final showdown on Blofeld's hideout, an oil rig in the middle of Pacific Ocean in this case. It also has some of the goofiest action sequences of the series, with the chase through the desert between Bond in a Moon Buggy and several goons on three wheelers as a stand out. It doesn't help that is had a largely bored seeming Sean Connery in the lead role, backed up by one of the most useless Bond girls in the series in the form of Tiffany Case. To go from the feisty and independent Tracy, who had pretty much rescued herself when Bond showed up to this woman, who's response to danger is to cower in corner is a sad state of affairs. Charles Gray certainly makes for an interesting Blofeld, chewing the scenery at every turn and even turning up in full drag at one point for absolutely no reason. His casting is a curious choice considering Gray had a small part in You Only Live Twice in a completely different role.   

There's also this extremely unpleasant stream of homophobia running throughout the film in the form of two assassins, Mr. Wint (played by Bruce Glover) and Mr. Kidd (played by Putter Smith). They are very clearly a gay couple, even walking off into the sunset hand in hand after blowing a drug smuggler's helicopter, with the smuggler inside. Heck, I even kind of liked them. There was something colorful and intriguing about these two in a psychotic and deranged sort of way. Are they a positive portrayal of gay men? No, probably not but they are at least entertaining. Of course, I stopped being entertained when they both received the most brutal deaths in the film, by the hands of uber-macho Bond himself with one burned alive and the other literally having a bomb shoved up his rear. It was at this point I was no longer enjoying Diamonds Are Forever and was quite ready for it to be over, thank you very much. 

Overall, Diamonds Are Forever is easily my least favorite of the Connery Bond films. It never really quite breaks free of the well worn formula. For the most part Connery seems bored by it all and it's not hard to see why, because for much of the film I rather was as well. 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Bond-a-thon: On Her Majesty's Secret Service

"This never happened to the other fellow."

And with that cute, fourth wall breaking line, we begin our look at George Lazenby's single turn as James Bond in the superior On Her Majesty's Secret Service. I have so much love for this entry in the Bond series, it's hard to know where to start so I'm just going to dig in. 

This entry begins with Bond catching sight of a mysterious woman driving at night. He follows her and they wind up at a beach. Bond watches from the road as the woman walks into the surf. When it becomes clear she intends to kill herself, Bond chases after her and rescues her from the ocean. While they recover on the beach, Bond is attacked by a couple of thugs and the mystery woman runs for her car and takes off. Bond is able to fight off the two goons and seems utterly baffled that a damsel in distress ran out on him. He later meets her at a casino and discovers she is Countess Tracy di Vicenzo (played by Diana Rigg). She thanks him for saving her life and invites him to her hotel room. The following morning, Bond is kidnapped by several men who take him to see Marc-Ange Draco (played by Gabriele Ferzetti), who is revealed to be Tracy's father. He tells Bond of Tracy's troubled past and offers him a million pounds dowry if he marries Tracy. Bond declines the offer but agrees to continue to romance her in exchange for information Draco has of the whereabouts of Ernst Stavro Blofeld (played by Telly Savalas). The information leads him to discover Blofeld has been conversing with London College of Arms Genealogist Sir Hilary Bray (played by George Baker) in an attempt to claim the title Comte Balthazar de Bleuchamp. Bond travels to Switzerland under the guise of Bray to infiltrate Blofeld's operation and discover what he is up to. 

I admit I absolutely love this entry in the Bond series. It is definitely in my Top five all time great Bond movies. Despite being one of the longest Bond films, it never once feels long. It moves along at a great pace with director Peter Hunt at the helm. Peter Hunt began as an editor on the film series before graduating to Second Unit Director on the previous film, You Only Live Twice, before graduating to director for this one. The results speak for themselves and I find myself shocked this was the only Bond film he directed. The film is absolutely gorgeous to look at and Mr. Hunt directs the action sequences perfectly picking such fantastic and interesting shots that I still marvel at. It's a crime he only directed one of these films. The script by Richard Maibaum is quite faithful to Ian Fleming's source novel, perhaps a little too faithful in the instance that Blofeld should have instantly recognized Bond yet it is like they are meeting for the first time in this one (despite having met in the previous film). Still, that's a small nitpick in an otherwise well written script, focusing more on the characters and plot rather than on gadgets or action sequences (although as mentioned before this movie does have some fantastic ones). The film also has an exquisite score by John Barry that I just adore. I love it so much I audibly gasped when I heard it used in the new Spectre trailer.   

George Lazenby seems to be one of the most divisive Bond actors, with most either loving him in the role or not particularly caring for him. While I wouldn't say he was the best Bond, he's not terrible either. He gives the role a very unique spin that is actually a bit of a departure from Connery's interpretation of the character. Lazenby's Bond is much more down to earth and even dare I say a bit vulnerable. We as the audience worry about him whether he is dangling from a cable car wire or trying to dodge Blofeld's goons in the middle of a Winter Carnival. If Connery's Bond was the fantasy then I'd say Lazenby is the reality. There are no clever gadgets to save him this time, just him and his wits and perhaps some exceptionally good timing by Tracy. I've heard some people say they wish Connery had stayed on to do this film, but I have to wonder if it would have worked as well. Would Connery have been able to portray the asexual fop that Lazenby poses as for a good portion of the film? Probably not. Nor am I sure that the romance between James and Tracy would have worked as well. Maybe I'm wrong, but we will never know. Although I do have to laugh at the fact that the first film in the series to overtly reference Bond's Scottish heritage, with Lazenby in a kilt no less, is the first one Connery is not in. 

Diana Rigg belongs in the Bond Girl Hall of Fame as Tracy. She is smart, feisty, strong and fiercely independent. She is no damsel in distress either and is perfectly capable of fighting off her attackers herself. It's easy to see why James ultimately falls for her and the romance aspect is much more of a plot element in this film than the others. But it works because Tracy is in many ways the perfect match for James. Rigg brings Tracy to life wonderfully, playing to both her more adventurous tendencies as well as her character's hidden troubles. She isn't the typical Bond girl as you get the sense Tracy has some hidden pains and has been through some things. Her father is genuinely worried about her and wants to find a strong man for her that he knows will look out for her, hence his interest in having Bond marry her. It's this depth of character that makes her so memorable to me.       

Overall, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is a superior Bond film. With great direction and action sequences that still pack a wallop 46 years later coupled with a rich script and good performances. Heck, even as I think about it now I find myself wishing Lazenby had returned for the next film, Diamonds are Forever