Thursday, May 5, 2011

James Bond Start to Finish Part 2

     And now, the second half of the Bond story...

For Your Eyes Only:  If I had to pick only one Bond film, this is probably my favorite.  The craziness of Moonraker has been toned way down so that this feels more like an early Connery Bond than the often goofy Moore era films.  There are gadgets, but not too many and the plot is fairly reasonable.  It also features Carole Bouquet, who in my opinion is one of the most beautiful women to ever be captured on film, playing the kind of proactive Bond girl I like, standing beside Bond, not behind him (for the most part).  It has great locations, plenty of action, and a great supporting cast of British ‘that guy’ actors.  A must watch. 

Probably my favorite Bond Girl.

Octopussy:  Not as bad as I remembered, this Bond movie does run a bit long.  Ten minutes of cutting would probably have helped matters, especially near the end.  Still, the location shooting is nice, and the story OK.  And heck, an island full of women fighters is pretty cool in my book.  After For Your Eyes Only, however, this film is kind of a let down, moving quickly back into silly territory.  There are the obligatory wild stunts, snappy comebacks, dastardly villains, and comely lasses.  I guess it’s one of the forgettable Bond films.  Not great, but not completely awful. 

A View To A Kill:  This movie is so 80s it should be wearing a Members Only jacket.  Duran Duran.  Tanya Roberts.  A silly little robot.  Dolph Lundgren.  Even Grace Jones and her flattop show up.  The only thing missing was Michael J. Fox or Mathew Broderick as a comic sidekick or maybe Bond break-dancing.  The story is fun, and there are plenty of great action scenes.  It’s another of the silly Moore era Bond films, but it’s more watchable than some.  Christopher Walken makes a great Bond villain as his completely over the top performance fits the world of super-spies and gadgets.  This was my favorite Bond film when I was a boy.  Now, while I enjoy it, it’s not top on my list.

The 80s were so weird.

The Living Daylights:  Timothy Dalton kind of got the shaft with his time as Bond.  This movie was an OK entry, and his second go was sunk by a terrible script.  However, Dalton himself is quite good in the role.  This was the first Bond movie I got to see in the theater, and I still remember being impressed with the stunts.  There is something about real, on location, wild stunts that CGI still can’t capture.  The reptile part of my brain doesn’t react to the artificial looking danger of Avatar, but was thrilled by the high-flying fight scene on the net hanging from the back of that cargo plane.  Real people, hanging from real net, on a real plane, over a real landscape.  The music is good and the locations nice.  Much of the supporting cast is solid.  Like Rambo III, it’s a bit cringe inducing watching Bond help rebels in Afghanistan who would go on to create an oppressive theocratic regime.  But hindsight is 20/20.  Not one of the best Bond outings, but a good one.

License to Kill:  After a good start in The Living Daylights, Timothy Dalton sinks like a stone under the weight of a terrible and boring script.  From the slow paced action of the opening, to the drab and uninteresting women, it’s simply bland from beginning to end.  Even the villain is boring.  It has a great cast.  David Hedison returns as Felix Leiter (the first actor to play the character twice).  Loads of ‘that guy’ actors do what they can with what they’ve got.  But it’s not enough.  At the end of the day, it has to go on the thankfully short list of really, really boring Bond films.  It’s too bad Dalton’s run as Bond was killed so suddenly.  I think he could have been very good if he’d been given better material. 

Seriously, the sexiest woman you could find was the secretary at your uncle's office?

Goldeneye:  Pierce Brosnan finally takes up mantle of Bond and does a fine job in this film.  The story is pretty good and the world hopping adventure is pretty good.  Some excellent stunts and good effects certainly don’t hurt.  Memorable supporting actors help, too.  My only real complaint with the film is Eric Serra’s annoying score.  I like Brosnan as Bond in this, but can’t help but wonder how things would have turned out if Timothy Dalton had this script to work with, instead of Licence to Kill.  Whatever the case, Bond made a major comeback with this movie, and with good cause. 

Tomorrow Never Dies:  This isn’t the most exciting or impressive Bond film, but it’s a pretty good one.  Brosnan is solidly in place, and though they give him too many Moore era one liners, he keeps it fairly serious.  As a long time Jonathan Pryce fan, I enjoy him hamming it up as a cross between William Randolph Hearst and Bill Gates.  Michelle Yeoh plays Bond’s Chinese counterpart, and does a pretty good job of keeping up with him.  I always prefer my Bond women competent on their own, not just damsels to be rescued.  But as always, in the end, it’s Bond’s film and he saves the day.  Once again we’re reminded of what real stunts look like.  So glad we still have Bond films using real people to do real crazy stuff, and all their effort and risk makes for some beautiful, thrilling imagery.  Again, not one of the best, but certainly a good entry in the long running Bond series.

The World is Not Enough:  An action packed opening, featuring a gorgeous hit-woman and a boat chase through London, gets you right back into the Bond attitude.  Unfortunately, it’s all down hill from there.  Q turns over the gadget buffoonery to John Cleese, and it really, really doesn’t work.  It’s implied that the bad guy is going to be some kind of ultra-scary super villain, but he turns out to be a dull thug.  The twists and turns are obvious and the general plot is boring.  That’s sort of the problem with where the Bond franchise was at this point.  Everyone seems to be phoning it in.  The name’s Bored, Really Bored. 

This is still less painful than the script.

Die Another Day:  Things start out well.  The opening action sequence is pretty good and things take a surprisingly brutal turn fairly quickly, putting Bond in a very bad place.  Everything is going quite well with this movie, actually, until Bond gets to Cuba and runs into Jinx (Halle Berry).  How appropriate her name turns out to be, as the whole film falls apart almost instantly, spiraling into a vortex of idiocy.  Thank goodness the proposed Jinx spin-off never happened.  Once again, the villain in this film is uninteresting.  And the eventual Moonraker level wackiness of the finale just leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.  I honestly thought this film was the final nail in the coffin of the franchise, and all things considered, I didn’t think that was a bad idea at the time.   And unfortunate end for Brosnan’s time as Bond.

You don't have an ice palace and orbital laser?

Casino Royale:  I never would have thought of Daniel Craig for the part of Bond, but he ends up helping usher in the best Bond film in decades.  Casino Royale manages to capture the essence of the earliest Sean Connery films, where Bond isn’t just a wise cracking ladies’ man, but the cold hearted beast the British government unleashes when they need some serious business done.  Craig looks like he’s always on the verge of erupting in violence, even when he’s being charming.  The film is exciting and fast paced, and doesn’t fall prey too much to the modern tendency of shaking the camera constantly.  Plenty of world travel brings back the traditional vibe of the early films as well, as we see exotic locations on several continents.  Even the gadgets are toned down to things either currently available or not far off.  Some complain about the extra half hour after the film’s climax.  But upon repeat viewing, I actually like this sequence even more, especially when you take into account the next film.  When watched with its companion and sequel, Quantum of Solace, they feel like one long, continuous film.  There is a break in tone, but not in story, between the two.

Quantum of Solace:  Starting within hours, if not minutes, of Casino Royale, this movie throws you right into the action.  The tone has changed considerably.  While Casino Royale was stylistically very similar to the early Connery films, Quantum of Solace is a much more modern film.  Consequently there is a lot more frantic editing than I care for, but it doesn’t get in the way too much.  And the opening car chase, which was too much on the big screen works better in home viewing.  Also, Quantum is far more brutal.  As a direct continuation of the previous film, it places Bond on a quest to find out who was behind everything, and who led to the death of the one person he might actually have loved.  In my review of Casino Royale, I described Bond as the beast the British government let of his chain when they needed bad things done.  Here, he takes it to another level.  Rarely displaying the expected Bond charm, he’s a hunter searching for prey.  Though not as grand or ‘timeless’ as Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace is an excellent sequel that avoids simply retracing the same steps. 

    I tried to weigh each actor, and pay attention to what each brought to the role.  In the beginning, Connery plays up Bond as a rough, hard man.  But he eventually softens.  Lazenby seems to sleep through his film.  Moore comes on bitter, but quickly moves to suave and a bit cheesy.  Dalton is straight up angry, even when he’s joking.  While Brosnan tries to take a little of each, yet still bringing his own trademark smoothness.  And finally, Craig brings Bond back to Connery’s original take, but with an even more animalistic brutality.

    Bond has changed with the times, even while sometimes holding too tightly to the past.  The tone has varied wildly, from science fiction wackiness to grounded espionage, from sexy to clumsy.  Some films managed an impressive timelessness, while others are so rooted in their release year as to become somewhat laughable today. 

    One thing I find interesting is that while the early Bond films are set firmly during the Cold War, and often feature the Russians, the movies are almost never actually about battling the Soviets.  It serves as a stage, but not the plot. 

    Certainly much can be made of the role of women in the franchise.  Being labeled Bond Girl is much like being a Playmate or Miss America, a dubious honor to some.  But while there are plenty of women who swoon and fall for the charming smile of the lead actor, many women in these films end up being far more interesting characters than you’d expect, and often much more interesting than typical female characters from other movies of the same year.  Sexist sobriquets aside, Pussy Galore and Honey Ryder aren’t just pretty faces.  And some women, like Melina Havelock and Wai Lin keep pace with Bond himself, becoming just as important to the action and plot.  And Vesper Lynd, of all Bond’s ladies, is certainly his intellectual and observational equal, if not superior.  In a time when I’ve been hard pressed to find one or two really good female roles a year, Vesper Lynd is a fascinatingly complex woman who is revealed like pealing layers from an onion, and only really understood long after her death.  I think it’s easy to dismiss the women of the Bond films as mere set dressing and fantasy fodder for young men.  But in truth, many are actually interesting characters that bolster the film, not just a distraction from shortcomings.  Of course, some are simply there for some cleavage and a few sex jokes, or as the short term ‘reward’ for Bond and a job well done.

    The international travel in the Bond films is also quite impressive.  While much use of stages and sets is made, often the production is done on location at some of the most beautiful and exotic locations across the globe.  Seen through the eyes of 60s filmmakers, the world is beautiful if subtly dangerous place, full of adventure and excitement, vividly colorful people and places, and worth of being enjoyed and explored. 

    Not always well written, and with occasional rough patches, the film series has somehow stayed alive after numerous setbacks.  I think, perhaps, there’s a basic longing in many of us that is addressed by these films.  On the surface, the simple fantasy of having an adventure and ‘getting the girl.’  But also, a sense of confidence, and a worthy opponent to set ourselves against.  In the early films, there’s the fear of the Cold War, but also the elation of a more connected world. 

    At its best, the Bond series are great adventure films and worthy classics.  At its worst, cheesy movies that feel slapped together for a quick buck.  Filled with humor, danger, raw sex appeal, sophistication, and downright dastardly deeds, they have that magic that has kept us going back to the theater for nearly fifty years.  And will keep me going back as long as they keep making them. 

    So, let me know.  Who is your favorite Bond, and why.  Who are your top three villains.  Your top three Bond girls.  And your top three Bond films.  And any other thoughts you have about the venerable character.


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