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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (2012)


23. Skyfall

The twenty-third James Bond film, like seemingly all the movies in the series, did not have the smoothest of pre-productions. MGM was hampered by financial problems, the old studio approaching bankruptcy. This, combined with the somewhat negative reaction to “Quantum of Solace,” made fans wonder if a 23rd Bond film was coming soon at all. Would Daniel Craig’s tenure as Bond be cut short by outside factors, the same way Timothy Dalton’s was? There was no need to panic. MGM got their shit together and a new entry in the series, eventually entitled “Skyfall,” rolled into production. The delay might even have been a good thing. First off, it allowed the movie’s release to tie in with the series’ 50th anniversary. Secondly, it gave everyone involved more time to put together a better film.

A mission to recover a stolen hard drive, containing the cover identities of MI-6 agents in the field, goes horribly awry. Bond is shot off a train overpass, M and everyone else assuming 007 to be dead. A few month’s later, Vauxhall explodes in a cyber-terrorism attack. The man responsible has a similar story to Bond, a former MI-6 agent abandoned by his agency, now back for revenge. Bond, despite having a broken body and a troubled mind, returns to his job. As the villain’s identity is revealed, everyone soon realizes that M herself is the mastermind’s target. Bond’s quest to protect his boss also has him facing his own past.

As James Bond’s unconscious form careens down a waterfall, his body floating under the waves, the film smoothly transitions into the opening credits. “Skyfall’s” opening sequence nicely combines the more stylized credits that have become the standard in the Craig era with the more classical Bond trademarks. Partially nude women covert around the water, seemingly tormenting the drifting Bond. The credits reference Bond’s injury, with bleeding cut-outs of his face, and the film’s settings, with its burning Chinese dragons. The villain’s status as a dark reflection of Bond is shown by Bond facing off with his shadow and a hall of mirrors. There are two scenes here I really like. First, during a scene patterned after a Rorschach test, dancing women shift into knives and skulls. At the beginning of the credit, we see the Skyfall manor, the face of a young Bond inside. At the ends of the credits, we see the crumbling Skyfall, the face of a grizzled, adult Bond inside. The accompanying song is also something of a throwback. Adele’s big, brassy vocals works nicely with the traditional Bond style. The lyrics are poignant and well-constructed. The production is slightly overdone but, for the most part, this is a great Bond theme.

As the 50th anniversary film, “Skyfall” throws in many references to the series’ past. However, unlike the superficial easter eggs in “Die Another Day,” “Skyfall” actually builds its story around the past and how it interacts with the present. “Sometimes the old ways are the best” is a key line of dialogue. Craig has gotten enough age on him that its believable his Bond might have taken too much punishment. Characters actively wonder if, in the age of cyber-terrorism and radicals acting alone, if there’s any room for an old fashion man of action. Meanwhile, the characters are haunted by their pasts, M by the mistakes she’s made and Bond by his troubled childhood. Lastly, “Skyfall” works to return many classic elements to the Bond series, going a long way towards reestablishing the original formula. The film is respectful of the series history, updates some of the dearly missed trademarks, while also making some surprisingly profound statements about regrets and the past. Also, it brings back the Aston Martin DB5, probably one of the coolest callbacks I've seen in recent memory.

Another smart move on “Skyfall’s” behalf is making M a major character. Judi Dench’s M had been with the franchise for more then a decade at this point. Despite casting a highly respected, Oscar-winning actress like Dench in the part, M mostly sat behind a desk and gave mission briefings, especially during the Brosnan years. M was given a bigger role once Craig came on. “Skyfall” goes so far as to build the entire plot around her. The film questions the morality of M cutting her looses with captured agents. What if this came back to haunt her? Something else the film touches upon is M’s maternal instincts towards her spies. Throughout the film, everyone calls her “ma’am” but the accents make it sound like “mom.” Silva is like an abandoned son with Bond as the favored brother. The film isn't subtle about this, the villain saying “Mommy was bad.” Yet it adds an interesting layer to the plot. It also allows Dench to show off her considerable talent as an actress.

Since the Daniel Craig era of 007 is grounded and realistic, you're not going to have Bond running around at 57, blasting goons and inventing snowboarding. Instead, only on his third film, Craig’s James is already experiencing the wear and tear of his life-style. His always-implied alcoholism is more-or-less confirmed, with Bond depressingly chugging some scorpion liquor. His shoulder is shot, the film emphasizing his vulnerability. He can’t even shoot straight anymore. The only way he gets cleared for fieldwork is because M pushes him through. Moreover, “Skyfall” explores Bond’s childhood. By taking us back to Skyfall, his childhood home, the spy acknowledges his status as an orphan, his parents’ death, and his lonely years in a sprawling, gothic manor. Bond wasn’t a happy kid and that birthed a wildly dysfunctional adult. Considering how invested in the character’s inner life this period of the series is, it’s no surprised we’re exploring Bond’s childhood. It’s greatly appreciated either way.

Many of 007’s most memorable adversaries have been characters that darkly mirror Bond himself, such as Red Grant and Alec Trevelyan. “Skyfall” continues in this tradition. Raoul Silva is also a former MI-6, a double-0 like Bond. Like Trevelyan, he was left for dead, this time by M. Like Bond, he was M’s favorite. (In a cute joke, his years of service roughly line up with the period between Timothy Dalton and Brosnan’s films.) Instead of fighting for queen and country, Silva fights for himself, selling his skills as a hacker to the highest bidder. He’s as deadly and calculating as Bond, targeting M with the same harsh determination Bond targets his opponents. Javier Bardem as Silva gets a great introductory scene, where he presents himself to a captured Bond, explaining his plan. Bardem plays the character between psychotic mastermind and foppish dandy. He’s viciously efficient in his villainous plan while also carrying that classic Bond villain style. To hammer home Silva’s status as a classic Bond bad guy, he’s even given an ugly facial deformity. Yet Bardem creates a deeper performance, a villain with psychological problems and personal motivation.

How about the Bond Girls? Naomie Harris is introduced as Eve, Bond’s partner in the field who accidentally shoots him in the beginning. Harris and Craig share several scenes and the two have great chemistry. The meeting they have in Hong Kong, Eve helping Bond out with his shave, the two flirting in the casino, are a stand-out moment. It wasn’t hard to figure out that Eve is actually Eve Moneypenny, another classic element reestablished, but I still really enjoyed the reveal. The other Bond girls in the film invited more controversy. The glamorous Berenice Marlohe plays Severine. Severine is the dangerous, troubled girl linked to the film’s villain. As expected, Bond sleeps with her and then she dies. However, we also discover that Severine is a former victim of sexual slavery, a disturbing subject matter probably unsuited to a Bond film. What Bond does next ruffled plenty of feathers. She smiles when Bond comes into the shower, obviously enjoying his company. However, is it PC that Bond takes advantage of a former sex slave? Probably not but Bond has never been a PC character. It’s the sort of thing he would do. His curt dismissal of her death is right in line with his personality as well. For the record, Marlohe is fine in the part and beautiful to boot, looking gorgeous in the stylish dress.

Another classic Bond story element “Skyfall” returns to the canon is Q. The campy, plot-resolving gadgets of the Moore/Brosnan era wouldn’t fly here. Instead, Q is a wildly revamped character. Ben Whishaw is a young, hotshot kid, something Bond is eager to remind him of. The devices he hands out are low-key and realistic. The first is a modified Walter PPK with hand grip printed to Bond’s hand. The second is a tiny radio transmitter. That’s it. Both fit in nicely with the realistic style of the current series. Q still plays a larger role in the play. Being a young hacker type, he decodes Silva’s encrypted map and helps near the finale. Like Craig’s 007 in “Casino Royale,” Q is also young and inexperienced, making a pretty dumb mistake at a key moment. Whishaw is nice addition to the cast. The first meeting between Bond and Q in a museum plays out really nicely.

“Skyfall” is not as relentlessly action-packed as “Quantum of Solace.” However, it still has plenty of notable sequences. The opening chase scene through Istanbul is fantastic. The rooftop motorcycle chase is something we haven’t seen before. The fight between Bond and the assassin atop the train makes great use of the setting. Yet the best moment during this extended scene is when the bad guy first leaps onto the train. Craig’s Bond, not being one to stand for this sort of shit, jumps in a steam shovel and takes chase. Digging the shovel into the train and using that as a bridge to climb aboard is a clever set piece. It’s certainly a more effective sequence then the tumble Bond has in a casino. Yes, I’m talking about the CGI komodo dragon, a surprisingly sketchy special effect. Now, I like the judo flipping but Bond leaping on the reptiles’ back negatively brought Roger Moore to mind. Silva’s escape from MI-6 and Bond chasing him through the tube system is very suspenseful, has plenty of humor, and pays off nicely. Though, yes, it is ridiculous that the villain knew a train was coming at that very moment.

The last act of “Skyfall” cleverly inverts the typical Bond formula. Instead of the hero sneaking into an evil-doer’s lair and destroying it, Bond retreats to a fortress. Now the villains have to come to him, the heroes defending their home from invaders. A fantastic, late addition is Albert Finney as Kincade, the Bond estate’s watchman. Finney contributes a lot to the finale, providing humor while being equally badass. The action in this sequence is the best in the film. The Aston Martin DB5 gets a beautiful reintroduction and those headlight-mounted machine guns really come in handy. The cleverly used mirrors and improvised bombs recall a grittier sort of action film then your usual Bond movie. 007 has to defend his former home and boss with only a handful of shotguns and his own ingenuity. Some of these stunts are bigger then others, such as when two exploded fuel tanks toss enough shrapnel into the air to take two helicopter pilots! The race across a frozen lake is another stand-out stunt, especially the way deals with it. The conclusion to “Skyfall” is fantastically orchestrated.

Another element that elevates “Skyfall” is its gorgeous cinematography. Roger Deakins photographed the film and creates some truly spell-binding images. Such as the fight between Bond and the assassin in Hong Kong. Set inside a glass tower, the two fighters are silhouetted in cool blue against the flickering images outside. The siege of Skyfall is similarly shot in ominous blues, lit orange by the near-by flames. The Scottish countryside is beautifully photographed in general. “Skyfall” is probably the best looking film in the entire Bond series.

In contrast to “Quantum of Solace’s” overly venomous reaction, “Skyfall” was met with overwhelmingly positive reviews. Some went so far to declare it the best Bond ever. The public seemed to agree. “Skyfall” became the highest grossing film in the series’ long history, was number 2 for the entire year, and currently holds the title for the highest-grossing film in the UK. Since the internet runs on such a fast feedback cycle these days, a backlash happened immediately, people eager to point out that “Skyfall” wasn’t that good. Yeah, there are some minor plot holes and at least one plot element owes a lot to “The Dark Knight.” So, no, “Skyfall” isn’t the best Bond movie of all time. However, it is a very good addition to the series, beautifully photographed, tightly characterized, with great performances and plenty of fun action. Moreover, it successfully updates some familiar elements to the series that we haven’t seen in a while. As the film ends, Bond is eager to start his next adventure. The audience can’t wait either. [Grade: B+]

THE 007 SEVEN:

[] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[X] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[X] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux

Source

James Bond will return. Though the actors playing the part grow old and the movies go in and out of vogue, the character will never die. When I'm old and my hypothetical children are adults, they'll still be making James Bond movie. Production on the 156th Bond movie will be rudely interrupted by the heat-death of the universe. Bond will live forever.

Most pressingly, James Bond will return soon. "Spectre" comes out November 6th of this year. Luck has it that the teaser trailer just hit Friday. Not only does the film promise the return of SPECTRE, the evil organization, and probably Blofeld, Bond's archenemy, who will probably be played by Christoph Waltz. The trailer is exciting and I'm fairly pumped for it.

I'm pretty proud to wrap up this Series Report Card. I've done bigger projects before but this one seemed especially complex. I'm not quite done with 007 just yet. Return tomorrow for a proper conclusion to this Report Card. See you soon, readers.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (2008)


22. Quantum of Solace

James Bond was back. “Casino Royale” was a critical and commercial success, the character successfully reinvented for a new generation, with a new style. As has typically been the case in the past, the success of a Bond debut meant a sequel quickly went into production. Taking its hideously awkward title from an obscure Ian Fleming short story, production was hampered by a writers’ strike and a quickly approaching release date. “Quantum of Solace” still cleaned up at the box office but didn’t make quite as much money as its predecessor. Moreover, the reviews were far more mixed compared to the rapturous reception of “Casino Royale.” Fans were even more vicious, some hyperbolically ranking “Quantum of Solace” as the worst Bond adventure yet. It’s not that bad but is it good?

James Bond is still mourning the betrayal and death of Vesper Lynd. Bond being Bond, he mourns by kicking ass. He tracks down Mr. White, Lynd’s mysterious contact, taking him back to MI-6. This reveals a shadowy, villainous covert organization called Quantum. Bond, full of rage and disobeying M’s orders, takes the fight to Quantum. Teaming up with a Bolivian woman with her own plans of revenge, 007 attempts to interrupt a Quantum plot to take tyrannical control of the water supply in South America.

The stylish, beautiful opening credits sequence was just one of many things I loved about “Casino Royale.” True to the film in general, “Quantum of Solace’s” opening is not as good as the previous film’s. A stylized version of Bond wanders through a desert, shooting his gun all over the place. He falls through the sand, haunted by images of beautiful, nude women. It’s sort of neat to have the naked dancers back. The titles are eye-catching and well-done. They’re just aren’t as cool as “Casino Royale’s.” As for the theme song, despite some valid attempts to do so, there was no way anyone could incorporate the film’s hilariously verbose title into a catchy song. Many Bond themes were R&B ballads. “Casino Royale” featured a hard rock number, a refreshing change of pace. “Quantum of Solace’s” opening, “Another Way to Die,” awkwardly fuses the two approaches. Jack White and Alicia Keyes duet on the song, White’s jangling guitars meshing with Keyes’ piano and soulful singing. The melody is decent but not especially smooth. The lyrics, at first, appear to be devoted to how much of a badass Bond is but eventually tie into the film’s themes of trust and betrayal. If this was a solo effort from White or Keyes, it probably would have been better. The two approaches feel a bit like water and oil.

“Quantum of Solace” is notable for being the first direct sequel in the series’ long history. “Casino Royale” ended with Bond capturing Mr. White. This film opens with Mr. White in Bond’s trunk, his car speeding away from the bad guys, literally minutes later. The main story, meanwhile, answers some of the questions the last film left unanswered. Who was Le Chiffre’s bosses? What is their master plan? How deep does this conspiracy go? “Quantum of Solace” follows up on some of these mysteries. When most Bond films are so episodic, it’s refreshing to have a film that directly follows one of the films. Considering this is a new Bond with a new approach, it’s a clever idea.

Speaking of that new approach… Last time, Daniel Craig’s James Bond was a cold-blooded killer learning how cold-blooded he had to be in this business. He was direct and focused but young and still learning. In "Quantum of Solace,” Bond goes bananas! At some point, it became a rule that every Bond actor needed a movie where the spy goes rogue, disobeying his superiors to get shit done. “Quantum of Solace” is that film for Craig. M criticizes Bond frequently for his tendency to kill people. She gets so pissed at him that she takes away his spy privileged, revoking his credit card and his travel visas. Because Judi Dench’s M is so maternal towards Bond, something this film references repeatedly, this comes off mostly like a stern mother disappointed in her willful child. As usually happens, MI-6 comes around to Bond once they realize that he gets results, damn it! However, it is interesting to see Bond at odds with his own organization and on his own.

Many people wonder what the hell that title means. Ian Fleming’s short story is one of those examples of an author wanting to tell a story outside his star franchise but unable to move pass it because of its success. So “The Quantum of Solace,” the story, was about James Bond hearing a sad story about relationships ending at a dinner party. You see, the quantum of solace refers to still having attachment to the balance of care in a relationship, defining the point where one person no longer cares about the other. The film, which is otherwise unrelated to Fleming’s text, takes this theme of lost, regret, and resolution. Bond is motivated completely by the pain he feels from Vesper Lynd’s death and betrayal. He is looking to pass his own quantum of solace, to resolve the hurt he feels. Throughout the film, he comes to terms with what Vesper did and, by helping someone else reach their revenge, finds an odd balance of his own. “Casino Royale” asked what does it take to turn a human into a heartless killing machine. “Quantum of Solace” asks about how such a decision can weigh on someone’s soul. It’s heady for a shoot-em-up, bang-bang movie.

For years, there continued to be legal issues with Kevin McClory and his estate. Because of this, the characters of Blofeld and his evil organization SPECTRE remained off-limits to the official Eon series. No longer content to have Bond fight a series of isolated mad men and criminals, the new series found a solution around this. Make up a new evil organization! Named Quantum, probably as another justification to go with that oblique title, they are the Illuminati of the Bond universe. With their fingers in everything, they are slowly plotting to totally take over the world’s resources. Their influence is such that M’s bodyguard of years is a Quantum agent. Their covertness is such that MI-6 is only now finding out about them. Quantum’s reach contributes to the film’s themes of Bond not knowing who to trust. It might not be SPECTRE but it still makes me happy to see James Bond fighting an evil terrorist organization.

Something I don’t like about "Quantum of Solace" is what exactly that evil organization is up to. Guess what? It’s another villainous scheme to control utility reverses! The film’s bad guy at first appears to be buying large swathes of Bolivian desert in hopes of striking oil. However, we soon discover that Quantum’s plan is to control the water supply of the country. This feeds into recent events in Bolivia as well as concerns that water will be the in-demand commodity of the future. At least the bad guys aren’t planning to blow something up, to give them monopoly. Instead, their plot involves simply buying up land, bribing governments, and reinstating dictatorships willing to support their plans. This does not make for the most compelling villainous plot.

Another weakness in “Quantum of Solace” is that bad guy. Last time, Mad Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre was a surprising human villain, full of nervous desperation. Craig’s second film was obviously looking to replicate this. Mathieu Amalric plays Dominic Greene. Greene’s runs a utility company called Greene Planet, that gives to charity and pretends to be “green” in order to mask his villainous endgame. Greene, however, is physically unintimidating. Amalric’s performance is weaselly and nasal. His most evil action is an attempts to push the Bond girl over the cliff, a pretty pathetic action. His army of henchmen do all the work. When faced with Bond, he grabs an axe, fidgets around, stabs himself in the foot, and stumbles off a platform. The interpretation of Le Chiffre as a nervous wreck was a fresh approach. “Quantum of Solace” goes too far in the same direction, creating a bad guy that is weak-willed and pathetic.

The film makes up for a lot with its main Bond girl. In his quest to avenge Vesper’s death, Bond makes the acquaintance of another woman. Camille Montes’ parents were brutalized and murdered by a vicious dictator before her home was burned down. She still carries the scars on her back. She now seeks her own revenge on the general, getting close to Greene to get close to him. Olga Kurylenko, though obviously not Hispanic, is great in the part. She exposes Camille’s wounded heart but will to fulfill her goal. Moreover, Kurylenko brings a great physically to the part. She’s as believable an action hero as Craig, getting into serious fights throughout the last act. Kurylenko is gorgeous too. There’s a secondary Bond girl, the cheekily named Strawberry Fields played by the lovely Gemma Arterton. Fields has some nice moments, such as tripping an random goon. She attempts to resists Bond’s charms but its no use. Though its fun to see Bond make another notch in his bed post, I wish Fields contribute more to the story before her death, as Arterton is charming.

Marc Foster’s direction was heavily criticized for being overly reliant on “shaky-cam,” that widely loathed cliché of modern action cinema. However, this was overstated. The action scenes are nowhere near as choppy as reported. The editing is fast. However, the action is never incoherent and the camera never jitters senselessly. As an action film, the movie seems pre-occupied with chase scenes. There’s a tense opening car chase, with Bond weaving through traffic, nearing crashing his car repeatedly, tossing enemy drivers off a cliff. Bond chases M’s dirty henchman over the rooftop of Italy. They run through the sewers, slide down roof tiles, and crash through windows. The conclusion, with the two men tangled in the ropes of a scaffolding, is an exciting, novel action scene. There’s a boat chase, which ends with the vehicle flipping through the air. There’s even a plane chase, Bond shifting through the air to avoid the other plane’s bullets. That scene is not the clearest constructed of the film but builds decently. However, the conclusion, of Craig and Kurylenko free-falling through a sinkhole, features some less-then-convincing CGI and green screen.

Compared to the 144-minute run time, “Quantum of Solace” runs at a brisk 106, making it the shortest of the Bond series. So before you know it, Bond and his female sidekick are infiltrating the enemy’s lair. The story is so condensed that Felix Leiter’s role is reduced to two scenes. And Bond doesn’t get captured and/or tortured, for the first time in the series’ history! The attack on the base has Bond dropping down on a roof, shooting through windows, and setting off a massive explosion. While the fight between Bond and Geene is a bit of a bummer; he doesn’t even kill the guy; the fight between Camille and the corrupt general is great. It helps that you’re so invested in her character. It’s an exciting sequence, with lots of action. Truthfully, because of its short run time and straight-ahead plot, “Quantum of Solace” is action-packed, with few slow scenes.

The film’s conclusion is emotional, Bond finally avenging Vesper’s death. With that, Bond’s origin story is finally complete. “Quantum of Solace” attempts some noble ideas, is successful as an action film, and has a strong Bond Girl. The story could have been better constructed and the main villain is disappointing. However, “Quantum of Solace’s” negative reputation is overstated. Mostly, I think the film was so badly received because its predecessor was so good. In comparison to the best James Bond movie ever, a solid mid-tier film like “Quantum of Solace” plays much worst. Taken on its own, it holds up decently and continues to show the strengths of Daniel Craig. [Grade: B]

THE 007 SEVEN:

[X] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[X] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[X] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux


Friday, March 27, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (2006)


21. Casino Royale

After “Die Another Day” left the James Bond series in tatters, the only thing left to do was rebuild. For the first time in the series’ forty year-plus history, Eon Productions was doing a complete continuity reboot. The Bond we had been watching for four decades was being discarded. This was a new Bond, with a clean slate. A legal settlement with Sony, which involved trading the franchise rights to Spider-Man, finally gave MGM access to Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, “Casino Royale.” What better story was there to relaunch the long-running series? With a new actor in the part, “Casino Royale” became a big success and completely redefined James Bond for a new generation.

A newly minted 007 agent, his licence to kill just earned, James Bond is sent on a mission to investigate a bomb maker in Madagascar. The man is working for Le Chiffre, the broker for a covert terrorist organization. Le Chiffre’s latest plan involves exploding an airline company’s new plane prototype, sinking their stocks, and making his group a lot of money. When Bond ruins that plan, Le Chiffre is in sudden need of a lot of cash or face extermination by his own group. He hopes to win the money back during a high-stakes poker game at the Casino Royale. Bond is on his trail, determined to beat the villain at cards.

Because this is a new Bond, even the opening credits sequence to “Casino Royale” breaks the series’ established conventions. There are no nude silhouettes of dancing women. Instead, the credits juxtapose Bond’s status as an assassin with gambling images. Thus, the background is the green of a poker table. The faces of playing cards flash over the screen. Bond shoots hearts and clubs from his gun. His opponents tumble to the ground, exploding into scattered shapes. The cross-hairs of a gun morph into spinning roulette tables. Finally, as two zeros are shot into a 7 card, Bond steps out of the shadows, revealing the face of a stone-cold killer. The accompanying song is “You Know My Name” by Chris Cornell. Cornell’s hard rock style and gravelly vocals weren’t well received by everyone. However, the lyrics accurately, beautifully described Bond’s mindset as a cold blooded gunman. The music builds fantastically to an intense finale. It’s a great opening.

At the time, Daniel Craig was a relatively unknown character actor. “Layer Cake,” a British gangster flick that was not widely seen, was his most prominent leading role. However, one important person that did see “Layer Cake” was Barbara Broccoli who immediately decided he must be Bond. There was some silly objections to Craig’s casting. However, most of those concerns were put to rest when people actually saw “Casino Royale.” Craig does not play Bond as an effortlessly cool secret agent. He is those things, in a way. He delivers a sarcastic smirk and well-time line fantastically. Mostly, he’s an unstoppable bad ass, fighting brutally to dispose of his enemies. He has the ability to seduce beautiful women but he does so only in service of his job. His big blue eyes are steely, hiding the heart of a cold killer. His Bond is dark, psychologically damaged, and stuffs down his soul in order to do what he must. Though some successful parallels can be drawn to Sean Connery and Timothy Dalton’s Bond, it’s a unique take on the long-established character. For these reasons and more, Craig remains my favorite take on 007.

After the CGI-assisted excesses of “Die Another Day,” “Casino Royale” re-commited itself to realism. The film is low on gadgetry. The closest things to gadgets the movie has is a tracking microchip injected into Bond’s arm and a defibrillator built into Bond’s awesome car. Though there’s a quiet humor to Craig’s take, Bond does not crack a single one-liner in the film. The sci-fi contrivances of the previous film have been abandoned for a serious, focused story of espionage. It’s a major course correction for the Bond series, taking the series further back then its cinematic roots. The film closely follows Ian Fleming’s original novel, further solidifying its commitment to making the most serious Bond adventure yet.

That tough tone is established early one. The first scene is shot in stark black-and-white. Bond confronting a dirty MI-6 agent is cut with Bond exterminating a mark in a grungy bathroom. The fight is brutal, both men being tossed through doors and walls. After killing the guy, we cut back to the present where Bond coldly plants a bullet in the agent’s head. Throughout the film, 007 does a lot of spying, sneaking around and following leads. He is focused on the mission. However, he’s also still learning. His tendency to let things get out of control, leading to big explosions, is the result of inexperience, not business as usual. He makes mistake but always keeps fighting, his gaze straight ahead. His ability to read people comes in handy during the poker match. Bond’s real good at killing but his will to succeed and ability to understand his opponents is what makes him a great agent.

If “Casino Royale” features a serious, hard Bond, its villain also plays with expectations. Le Chiffre appears at first to be an expected Bond villain. The scar over his eye, and his tendency to weep blood, follows Ian Fleming’s tendency to give his bad guys deformities. However, Mads Mikkelsen gives Chiffre an unexpected quality. After loosing his money, he has an air of desperation about him. His life literally depends on beating Bond at poker. He is repeatedly threatened by his own employers. At the end, his face is caked with sweat as he looses more hope, time running out. Just to emphasize how fallible Le Chifree is, he frequently huffs on an inhaler. Yet the character never looses his sense of executing coolness. Though fully human, he’s still a serious threat to Bond. This is a testament to Mikkelsen’s ability as an actor, who creates a fully formed character that is still a viable villain.

Though a young agent, James Bond is still a womanizer. He easily seduces Solange, the wife of one of Le Chiffre’s henchmen. Caterina Murino is gorgeous in the part. However, her role is small and, typically, she ends up dead soon. The main girl throughout “Casino Royale” is Vesper Lynd, played by Eva Green. Craig and Green share an immediate chemistry. The two meet on a train and spend their first scene sizing each other up. There’s a lot of humor but the two are obviously interested in each other. At first, the bond they share is light-hearted flirting. However, a sturdier connection quickly forms. A touching scene, something Fleming’s Bond would never do, has Bond comforting Lynd in the shower after she nearly dies. It’s a dynamite performance from Green. Her exotic beauty, including those piercing eyes, hides an innate vulnerability.

Since this is a brand new Bond, “Casino Royale” fills out its supporting cast with new faces. Except for one. Smartly, the producers kept Judi Dench as M. Whether or not this is meant to be the same character from the Brosnan film is a question for continuity nerds. She treats this Bond differently anyway. She’s harsher to Craig’s Bond, having a lower tolerance for his bullshit. However, she also sees his value as an agent, sharing a strangely maternal bond with her top agent. Another new face is Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter. Wright’s Leiter has a coolness and a confidence well suited to the character. The character’s role is fairly limited, save for putting up money for Bond so he stay in the game. However, Wright is a welcomed addition. After the character not being around for four movies, it’s nice to see Felix again.

“Casino Royale” works best as a thriller but it still features some great action sequences. The movie actually begins with a great chase scene. Bond pursues the bomb-maker through the streets of Madagascar. The man, seemingly a parkour expert, leaps up walls and around structures. Bond isn’t as skilled. However, his determination sees him through. My favorite bit comes when the bomb maker swings gracefully over a wall. Bond, however, crashes right through it. He doesn’t have time for that shit. An earlier moment, when he takes chase in a bulldozer, also nicely displays Craig’s low-tolerance for nonsense. A stand-off in a museum is nicely tense, 007 never breaking character even when a knife is pointed at his chest. The scene builds towards a struggle with the terrorist, inside the front seat of a tanker truck, careening towards the plane. Bond and his adversary struggle against one another, both coming dangerously close to being tossed from the vehicle. Meanwhile, cop cars get tossed aside by an in-coming jet or harmlessly run over by the bigger vehicle. The pay-off to the scene is fantastically engineered and catches the viewer off guard.

In contrast to its action-packed first half, the second half of “Casino Royale” is all about poker. It’s a testament to the film’s strengths that these scenes are no less exciting. Now, there’s still some action. Bond grapples with a pair of killers inside a cramped staircase, nearly getting cut with a machete and tumbling over banisters. His opponents poisoned him, leading to a last minute attempt to revive himself, an incredibly tense moment. For the most part though, it’s all about poker. The script and Martin Campbell’s direction are so well coordinated that even someone like myself, who has no understanding of the game at all, can easily follow the action. The player’s shifty-eyed observation of each other and game of wills is as captivating as the fight scene. And just in case you lost interest, the film wraps up its second act with an impressive car crash and a sickeningly intense torture scene. That torture scene, with its bruised testicles and knotted rope, is probably some of the most disturbing, uncomfortable stuff to ever make it into a PG-13 blockbuster.

Interestingly, the story doesn’t end with Le Chifree’s defeat. Instead, “Casino Royale” goes on a bit further. We see Bond and Vesper recovering from their ordeal. He declares his love for her and the two have a seemingly idyllic happy ending. Anyone familiar with Fleming’s book knows what comes next. The love of Bond’s life betrays him before killing herself. The movie includes a tense fight-scene in a collapsing Venice home, featuring nail gun murder and tossed bodies. However, the emotional climax of the film comes when Vesper dies in Bond’s arms. He speaks the infamous line from the novel, about “the bitch" being dead, but his hurt and pain is obvious. In “Casino Royale’s” final seconds, he properly introduces himself as Bond, James Bond, the theme song roaring in on the soundtrack. This is it, guys, the birth of the Bond we know, the cold-hearted blunt instrument, building a wall of violence and national loyalty over a wounded heart.

“Casino Royale” features great performances, a beautifully realized romance, some fantastic action, but maintains a thrilling, intense tone throughout. Though the longest Bond movie yet at 144 minutes, the pacing is constantly barreling ahead and never falters. This new dark n’ gritty Bond was obviously influenced by the Jason Bourne series. But it one-ups that franchise at its own game, proving that there’s only one king of the cinematic spies. I’ll go ahead and say it: “Casino Royale” is the best James Bond movie yet made. It’s serious film making but still wonderfully entertaining yet also surprisingly touching. [Grade: A]

THE 007 SEVEN:

[] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[X] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[X] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[X] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (2002)


20. Die Another Day

Before starting this Series Report Card, I had seen every James Bond movie, even the unofficial ones, at least one. Except for “Die Another Day.” This wasn’t an intentional move on my behalf. Maybe it was my lack of interest in the Brosnan era. Maybe it was because I came into the franchise so late. However, the real reason was because “Die Another Day” was so badly received. The film is widely considered the worst entry in the series of all time. Considering the stinkers the franchise had birthed over the years, that’s saying something. Going into “Die Another Day,” I hoped the movie was better then its’ reputation. As the run time went on, my spirits sank lower and my eyes rolled harder. “Die Another Day” is, truly and without exaggeration, the worst James Bond movie ever made.

After an infiltration of a North Korean camp goes wrong, James Bond is captured by the Korean government. He’s tortured for over a year before the South Korean government trades him for Zao, a soldier that was brutally scarred by Bond. His mind and body trashed by his ordeal, MI-6 tells Bond he’s over. The agent doesn’t listen. He goes rogue, tracking Zao to Cuba. His investigation takes him further to Iceland, where he discovers Zao is working with industrialist Gustav Graves. Graves is not who he appears to be and his high-tech satellite is actually part of a villainous plot. Teaming up with an American NSA agent, Bond goes about stopping the madman and saving the day.

“Die Another Day” makes an interesting decision with its opening sequence. For the first time, the credits are incorporated into the story. While Bond is being tortured by the Koreans, he has visions of beautiful nude women made of fire and ice. The idea is fascinating. However, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Cutting between the day-glo fantasies and the harsh realities just makes the credits look more ridiculous. And then there are those CGI scorpions. Not helping matters is Madonna’s theme song. In addition to be being the worst James Bond movie, “Die Another Day” also has the worst Bond theme. Madonna’s techno styling, which includes the genre’s expected bleeping and blooping, is a poor fit for the series. Her lyrics are inane and seemingly unrelated to the film. The song also throws in some bizarre vocal effects, utterly out of place. Twenty years earlier, Madonna might have delivered a decent Bond theme. During her latter day, “striving to be relevant” era, she just embarrasses herself further.

“Die Another Day” begins with an interesting idea. The opening has the spy doing his usual thing, exploding an enemies’ base and killing quite a few people. However, instead of getting away, he is captured. 007 faces consequences for his actions for the first time. The first of many disappointments is that “Die Another Day” disposes of this after the opening credits. Bond goes against his boss’ orders, like in “Licence to Kill.” Brosnan continues in the angry mode he found in “The World is Not Enough.” However, before long, it’s business as usual. The film forgets the year of torture and degradation Bond faced and Brosnan is cracking cheesy one-liners like always.

“Die Another Day” was made during the five minute period when it looked North Korea was going to become Hollywood’s new go-to bad guys. The film goes for this with full force. Bond is captured by the Koreans. The villains are Korean. Their final plot involves destroying South Korea’s defense line with a giant fucking laser beam. In a further grasp for relevance, the movie also throws in a subplot about blood diamonds, another hot topic at the time. Unlike the last three movies, “Die Another Day” doesn’t do much with its real world subtext. It’s simply window-dressing.

There’s so much wrong with “Die Another Day.” However, it’s biggest problem is the film’s pathetic attempts to be "cool." Lee Tamahori’s direction is highly stylized. Characters often swish around in slow motion, making the simplest movements melodramatic. The best/worst example of this is Jinx dives off a cliff, the movement augmented with CGI. That’s another thing the movie does. “Die Another Day” makes heavy use of CGI. And, boy, is it shitty. Two scenes stick out the most. Bond races off an ice cliff in a snow mobile, which looks like a toy on a tiny set. Not long afterwards, he’s wind-surfing off a tsunami. It’s a ridiculous scene to begin with and the horrible special effects only emphasize the unlikely situation. The nadir of the film’s attempted sense of coolness is Madonna’s cameo. She contributes nothing to the film, showing up in a egregiously unnecessary scene. Even the movie’s repeated in-jokes, which range from Bond going undercover as an ornithologist to appearances from “Thunderball’s” jetpack, feel self-serving and overly winking.

And this is before the movie reveals itself to be a partial remake of “Diamonds are Forever.” Yep, both movies feature diamond smuggling and a satellite-mounted laser beam. Aside from its aggravating attempts at being “cool,” the biggest problem with “Die Another Day” is the sudden insertion of unbelievable sci-fi elements. Characters have their entire physical appearances changed with gene therapy. Zao’s surgery is interrupted, leaving him with oddly white skin. Bond trains in an immersive, photo-realistic virtual reality simulation. The main villain, for reasons that are never explained, doesn’t sleep. Instead, he spends an hour a day inside a “dream machine,” a flashing mask that goes over his face. Later, the villains tortured Jinx with an electrified Power Glove. The movie even pushes the idea of a satellite death ray further then is believable. And you thought “Moonraker” was ridiculous. Why is this shit in a James Bond movie?

And then there’s the invisible car. Of all of “Die Another Day’s” excesses, the fucking invisible car might be the most heavily criticized. John Cleese’s R has graduated to being the new Q, Cleese doing much better then last time. He gives Bond a pretty cool watch and a glass-shattering ring. He also gifts the agent with a car that turn invisible. That car is absurd and utterly unbelievable. The vehicle plays a major role in a chase through the villain’s ice palace. The worst part? The chase is actually pretty cool. The car’s other features, like its ejector seat and front-mounted shotguns, are fairly neat. The chase is decently constructed, the villain’s car also being outfitted with a machine gun. The conclusion, however, is ridiculous. How does Bond beat the bad guy? He moves out of the way, driving up the wall with ice-spikes, the bad guy plunging to his death. Lame. The whole thing is dumb.

At first, “Die Another Day” presents Zao as being the film’s main villain. At first a handsome Korean soldier, he later gets a suitcase of diamonds exploded in his face. The diamonds are embedded in his face. His grotesque appearance is further affected by the gene therapy. Rick Yune is intimidating in the part and is probably one of the best things about the film. Turns out though, Zao is the henchman, not the primary villain. Instead, he’s working for Gustave Graves, a British billionaire. In an incredibly absurd plot twist, Graves is actually a Korean Colonel, who underwent gene therapy of his own to change his appearance. His final goal is to destroy South Korea with his space laser, all a ploy to regain his father’s respect. Toby Stephens is whiny and unappealing in the part, making for an obnoxious bad guy further damaged by a ridiculous plot line.

The aspects about the film that received the most press before its release was the casting of Halle Berry as a Bond girl. Berry was right off an Oscar win for “Monster’s Ball” and the hype surrounding her was huge. She plays Jinx, a NSA agent helping Bond on his mission. Like everything else in the film, Jinx is designed to be as “cool” as possible. The character gets nearly as much action as Bond. She sets off bombs, pulls a knife on the guy, and makes a daring escape. There’s a big problem though. Berry is terrible in the part. Every line is read as flatly as possible. She seems utterly lost, like a child pretending to be a grown-up. Jinx is also nowhere as cool as the film thinks she is. Bond has to rescue her from a goofy death trap, when the ice palace is melted. The film’s second Bond girl is Miranda Frost, played by Rosamund Pike. Frost is a double agent for MI-6, having infiltrating Graves’ operation. At first, Frost takes none of Bond’s shit, treating him like a sexist pig. She still ends falling in bed with him but the character’s personality, and Pike’s performance, makes her interesting. Naturally, she turns out to be evil.

So does “Die Another Day” at least function as an action movie? Not really. The action scenes have the same problem the rest of the movie does. They mistake overblown theatrics for “coolness.” The opening hovercraft chase is okay, once you get pass the ridiculousness of a hovercraft chase. There’s lots of explosions and machine gun murder. There’s not much to recommend beyond that. A fight scene in the clinic with Zao features some ridiculous slow motion and inaccurate treatment of a CAT scan machine. Graves is introduced during a fencing sequence which escalates into an overblown sword fight. That’s neat, at first, but the scene goes hugely over the top. A later fight has Bond and Jinx diving around erratic laser beams, which is also ridiculous. Really, the only action scene I like is when Bond uses the glass-breaking ring to make a quick escape of the villain’s lair.

In it’s final act, “Die Another Day” is consumed by ridiculousness. Bond and Jinx sneak aboard Graves’ airplane. Graves slips on an electro robot suit for no particular reason. He reveals his true identity and his plan goes in to overdrive. Bond explodes a window, probably a reference to “Goldfinger,” and gets to dueling the bad guy. The most absurd moment comes when Graves starts to electrocute 007, a hilarious sight. Meanwhile, Jinx has a ridiculous duel with Frost. The two leap through the air in slow motion, both picking up inexplicable swords. There’s gasping, slicing, and slow-motion kicking. It’s awful. For the final insult, the plane goes up in a cloud of CGI debris.

Not even a cameo from Michael Madsen can save “Die Another Day.” Despite receiving noxious reviews, “Die Another Day” still went on to become the highest grossing Bond movie up to that point. There was even a plan for a Jinx spin-off series which, thankfully, never materialized. Ultimately, the awful excesses of “Die Another Day” was proof that the Bond series needed a serious recalibration if it was to survive into the new millennium. CGI tomfoolery, stupid direction, and uninteresting villains would not stand. Pierce Brosnan’s hugely uneven tenure as Bond would end on a serious down note. “Die Another Day” is the lowest point in the franchise’s long history, the worst James Bond movie ever made. [Grade: D]

THE 007 SEVEN:

[X] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[X] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[X] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (1999)


19. The World is Not Enough

Pierce Brosnan had two successful runs as Bond under his belt. In 1999, his third go-around as the secret agent rolled onto movie screens. Peter Jackson and Joe Dante, who probably would have made very interesting films, were considered to direct. Michael Apted, director of “Nell” and “Gorillas in the Mist,” eventually got the job. Apted’s choice would start the tradition of directors better known for prestige dramas handling the Bond sequels. Several titles were considered, from the not-bad (“Dangerously Yours”) to the utterly generic. (“Fire and Ice.”) Eventually the much better “The World is Not Enough,” the Bond family motto as revealed in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” was chosen. The reviews weren’t much better then last time but the box office was great, the movie out-grossing any previous entries into the long running series.

A long-time friend of M's, billionaire oil baron Robert King, is killed at MI-6, his body exploding unexpectedly. A radical terrorist named Renard, unable to feel pain because of a bullet lodged in his brain, is connected to the crime. James Bond is sent to protect King’s daughter Elektra, a former target of Renard and assumed to be a future target too. Bond’s investigation leads him to an oil pipe in Turkey, Elektra’s bed, and a plutonium mine in Kazakhstan. An encounter with Renard leaves his trust in Elektra shaken, the spy uncovering a sinister plot. 

“GoldenEye’s” opening credits worked fairly well but occasionally bumped into camp. The opening for “Tomorrow Never Dies” leaped in full-force. “The World is Not Enough” probably features the best opening of the Brosnan era, even if I still have some reservations about it. The quasi-nude women dancers are present. This time, they are bathed in oil, an impressive image. When not doing that, the dancers form themselves into a rough globe shape, which is less impressive. Still, it’s a pretty good opening. Garbage, a band I like, provides the theme song. Shirley Manson’s vocals are a rough fit for the usual Bond style. However, she adapts nicely, her huskier voice bringing a sensual quality to the lyrics. The music is fairly forgettable though, the song feeling a bit like a B-side.

Over his previous two films, I’ve had a lot of problems with Pierce Brosnan’s take on Bond. His one-liners were lame and his delivery of them were too winking. The romances were one-sided and limp. Though excellent during action scenes, his Bond seemed to lack an inner life. “The World is Not Enough,” for all its flaws, is the first time I’ve really liked Brosnan’s Bond. His physicality remains a high-light, Bond nursing a battered shoulder throughout the entire film. The character is more involved in the plot, figuring out the double-crosses and parsing out the villains’ plan. Most importantly, Brosnan’s Bond seems really pissed off this time. He seems to take the betrayal personally. This brings a visceral quality to his performance, which makes his moments of cold-blooded murder even more impressive. For the first time, Brosnan seems to take the character’s status as a blunt instrument seriously, allowing him to finally rise above the glib action hero he played in the last two films. (The one-liners are still pretty shitty though.)

In the sixties, the James Bond series was the innovator. In the seventies, the franchise desperately chased popular trends. In the eighties, Bond mostly coasted on two decades of good will. In the nineties, each film is seemingly inspired by a hot-button political issue of the day. “GoldenEye” was about the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. “Tomorrow Never Dies” was about unethical manipulation of the news. “The World is Not Enough” is about, drum please, oil! A few years more and that issue would have been even more relevant. Oil barons are quite a bit scarier then media moguls. However, the topic is just set-dressing for a usual bad guy scheme. Once again, the film’s villain intends to engineer a disaster that will benefit their business and make them filthy rich, at the cost of thousands of lives. This is, by my count, the fourth time the series has used that plot. It’s really making me miss the genocidal super-maniacs of the seventies.

The role of the film’s traditional Bond villain is filled by Renard. The character has a potentially fascinating gimmick. He’s an anarchist terrorist who, during a previous run-in with MI-6, got a bullet in the head. The bullet will kill him eventually but, for the time being, it has made him unable to feel pain. That’s right, “The World is Not Enough” could have been James Bond vs. Darkman. However, the movie mostly squanders Renard’s excellent quirk. His inability to feel pain rarely comes up. He even winces during the fight scenes, suggesting he can still feel a lot. The movie doesn’t even make much of his status as a man with nothing to loose. In the end, he’s just another brawny henchman for Bond to punch. Robert Carlyle had already played terrifying psychopaths in “Trainspotting” and “Ravenous.” So he’s well cast, even if the script doesn’t give him as much to do as those movies did.

The most interesting thing about “The World is Not Enough” is that its main Bond Girl and its main Bond Villain are actually the same character. Elektra King is first introduced as the traumatized victim of a vicious kidnapping. When Bond meets her, she is a strong businesswoman, determined to keep the social peace while pushing the company ahead. Though sent to protect her, Bond naturally sleeps with her. The two share real romantic chemistry, with King’s traumatic history making her a more complex character. However, turns out, she’s the bad guy, the mastermind behind the evil plot. In a surprising turn of events, she has been manipulating Bond all along. Sophie Marceau is equally adapt at playing a innocent victim, a purring sex kitten, and a sociopathic villainess. And she looks great while doing it.

As Elektra slides into the villain role, the movie has a more traditional Bond girl waiting in the wings. And that’s another major problem with “The World is Not Enough.” Denise Richards’ casting as Christmas Jones the nuclear scientist has been widely, rightly mocked. Richards has the body of a porn star which wouldn’t necessary be a problem if she didn’t have the delivery of a porn star too. Her line-readings are flat and disinterested. She doesn’t come off as a knowledgeable scientist. Instead, she acts like a petulant teenage girl. This is most obvious during her initial interaction with Bond. Her contribution to the plot is limited. The character is mostly a minor thought in the second half of the film. Compared to the electrifying Marceau, Richards sinks like a stone.

If nothing else, the Brosnan era of Bond is still full of great action scenes. The opening is devoted to a long boat chase over the river Thames. Bond, driving an experimental, rocket-powered jet-ski, dives under bridges and leaps over streets. The conclusion to that opening, with Bond dangling from a hot air balloon, is great as well. Because every 007 deserves one, there’s a snow-bound skiing scene. The villain pursue our hero in parachuting snow-mobiles, a neat idea. Renard locks Bond in a mine shaft about to explode. This forces a rushed escape, which builds some decent suspense and has a nicely exciting conclusion. Early on, Bond sees a helicopter equipped with a giant saw blade. As you’d expect, this same device is used against him later. The copters chase the spy around a dock, leading into some dynamic leaping, running, and igniting gas veins. It’s not exceptional stuff but it’s all decently entertaining stuff.

“The World is Not Enough” essentially features two climaxes, one far more compelling then the other. Bond is captured, as he is in every movie. For the first time in a while, he’s tortured too. King ties the spy into an execution-style garrotte. As she turns the crank, Bond seems in genuine pain, the character’s life in actual danger. All the while, Elektra mocks him. Once he escapes, he gives the femme fatale an especially brutal send-off. This is the true climax of “The World is Not Enough,” the film’s best aspects coming to a head. However, the master plan still has to be decimated. So Bond battles Renard inside a sinking submarine, the second time in a row the final fight has taken place over water. Having the sub sink, forcing both the hero and the villain to climb up the walls, is a nice touch and makes for a mildly creative fight scene. However, Renard is not as interesting a threat as King. The plot of nuclear detonation is not as directly concerning as Bond’s neck in a vice.

The use of gadgets is less prominent here then in “Tomorrow Never Dies.” In the first scene, Bond detonates a bomb via a switch in a pair of glasses. His watch shoots a grappling hook, that isn’t much help. An inflatable globe protects the agent from an avalanche, probably the silliest device in the film. The most visible gadget is, yet again, the cool car. Once more, it’s a BMW. This time it features a fold-out missile launcher, an admittedly cool touch. “The World is Not Enough” would be the final Bond film for Desmond Llewelyn, who sadly died in a car wreck not long after the movie was released. Fortuitously, the film includes a farewell to Llewelyn. He trades some barbs with Bond for the last time before disappearing down a secret passageway. It’s a fitting tribute to an actor who has been with the series since nearly the beginning, outlasting four Bonds, and always being a joy to watch.

The movie also introduces Q’s replacement. You’d think John Cleese’s introduction to the series would be a positive, considering the actor is usually charming in most anything. Disappointingly, Cleese is in clown mode, prat-falling around the lab and not setting himself up as a promising replacement for Llewelyn. It’s not the only ridiculous scene in the film. Brosnan and Richards slide down a oil pipe, connecting with a bomb also in the pipe. There’s no sense of speed in this scene. It’s apparent the actors are on a green screen, the scene filling fake and weightless. Robbie Coltrane returning as Valentin Zukovsky is actually a plus. He helps Bond out in a key scene and it’s nice to see the actor again. However, Coltrane running from CGI saw blades or swimming in a pool of caviar are not welcome sights.

So “The World is Not Enough” is an uneven affair. In its favor, Brosnan has finally started to grow on me as Bond. The action remains strong. The main villain is fascinating. Against it is a routine plot. The secondary villain wastes his potential. The main love interest is a total wash. Most of the attempts at comic relief are embarrassing. It’s an improvement over “Tomorrow Never Dies” but just barely. Both films feature many of the same problems. When compared, both are also fairly forgettable. [Grade: C+]

THE 007 SEVEN:

[] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[X] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[X] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (1997)


18. Tomorrow Never Dies

“GoldenEye” was a great success, reestablishing James Bond as a blockbuster film franchise. A sequel was immediately demanded. Because that always works out so well, the eighteenth James Bond movie was rushed into production. Filming started without a completed script. There were last minute re-castings, with Anthony Hopkins bolting from the part of the villain just before production began. The title, originally “Tomorrow Never Lies,” was changed by one letter because of a faxing typo. Even the score and title songs were delivered late. The resulting film still made boco box office, though less then its predecessor. It also set an unfortunate precedence for Pierce Brosnan’s run at Bond: Forgettable, mediocre sequels.

007 interrupts an illegal terrorist arms swap in his usual explosive fashion. In the chaos, a notorious hacker escapes with a top secret encoder device. Elliot Carver, a media mogul about to launch a 24-hour news service, uses the encoder to force an attack on the British Navy by Red Chinese forces. Carver’s plan is for tensions to escalate between the two superpowers. The reasoning?: So he can have exclusive broadcasting rights to China, who have previously blocked his contract. Carver, however, fucks up a small detail, releasing unknown details about the attack in one of his newspapers. This gives MI-6 and Bond the hint they need. James investigates Carver, uncovers his crazy plan, and, with the help of a sexy Chinese agent, attempts to stop it.

Maurice Binder’s classic Bond openings were dated in their own way yet maintain a sense of classical, stylish cool. Alternatively, the opening credits for “Tomorrow Never Dies” are immediately dated. The expected sexy women dance inside and around x-ray images of weapons and bullets. Meanwhile, the layered surface of a computer motherboard raise around female dancers. There’s even some images of diamonds floating around the earth. The opening credits have always had a somewhat tenuous connection to the main film. Here, the images seem especially unrelated, while also revealing some of the obsession of 1997. The accompanying song by Sheryl Crow is… Okay. The music builds to a decent pitch. The lyrics explicitly call out Bond, which is fine. Crow’s delivery isn’t bad, with a certain cool, sensual style. However, the opening theme pales in comparison to k. d. lang’s “Surrender,” which plays over the end credits. Lang’s song is all you could ask for from a modern Bond song while keeping the classic style. It’s bombastic, powerful, catchy, and related to the film’s themes. I have no idea why it was passed over.

“GoldenEye’s” stab at relevancy was examining an old spy like Bond’s role in a post-Cold War world. “Tomorrow Never Dies” makes a similar attempt at up-to-date relevancy. The film was originally going to be about the pass over of Hong Kong back to China. Fearful this would immediately date the film, a change in subject was made. In 1996, both the Fox News Channel and MSNBC launched, both becoming controversial for their political bias. Similarly, technology moguls like Bill Gates were becoming hugely popular. So what if James Bond fought a (more) evil version of Rupert Murdoch? One who decided to take William Randolph Hurst’s philosophies even further? That media mogul ranks below even microchip manufacturer for intimidating bad guys never seemed to occur to anyone.

What of Pierce Brosnan’s sophomore run as James Bond? Let’s acknowledge something right up front: Brosnan sucks at one-liners. Pithy comments that Sean Connery or Roger Moore would have spun into gold become groaners. It doesn’t help that the best ones the script can come up with involve being a cunning linguist, backseat drivers, and people loosing their shirts. As a romantic lead, Brosnan continues to underwhelm. He never seems to have much chemistry with his female co-stars. There’s always something calculated or cloying about his love scenes. What Brosnan does excel at is being an action hero. His fight scenes are even more brutal then before. Brosnan beats enemies with lamps, tosses people through windows, and generally murders the fuck out of lots of bad guys. Moreover, when emphasizing Bond’s status as a cold-blooded killing machine, Brosnan truly impresses. The best example of this is when he coldly executes an attempted assassin. Basically, Pierce Brosnan is trying to be Roger Moore when he should be trying to be Sean Connery.

“Tomorrow Never Dies” also features the lamest Bond villain this side of Bambi and Thumper. The idea of an evil media mogul is not a terrible one. It’s not difficult to imagine Murdoch or Ted Turner instigating a global conflict, strictly for selfish reasons. However, the exact motivation behind Elliot Carver’s actions are laughable. Why does he want to start a war with China? Because they denied his news station access to the country. Couldn’t he have just been a war profiteer? Jonathan Pryce goes way over the top in the part, grinning, mincing, and preening like an evil peacock. His main henchman, a blonde German named Stamper, ranks far below similar henchmen like Hans, Necros, and Erich Kriegler. His informed ability of Chakra torture is brought up exactly once. And then there’s the bizarre casting of tubby, mature Ricky Jay as a computer hacker.

The villains might be a lame lot. “Tomorrow Never Dies” makes up for it by featuring a fantastic Bond girl. The film’s focus on Asia and martial arts was probably influenced by the mid-nineties explosion of popularity in Hong Kong action stars like Jackie Chan. Or Michelle Yeoh, who plays Wai Lin. Lin is a bad ass Chinese secret agent, in many ways Bond’s Asian equivalent. She rocks a leather catsuit, walks down a wall with a grappling hook, and sneaks throwing stars into her boot. Yeoh is so bad ass that the movie is not afraid to give her a stand-alone action scene. When ambushed in a bicycle shop, she throws metal rims, leaps around ladders, and kicks the living shit out of her adversaries. This is the most lively sequence in the film and it’s no wonder why. Yeoh is magnetic, goes toe-to-toe with Brosnan, and nearly outmatches him. And Yeoh looks fantastic while doing all of it. (The film’s secondary Bond girl, Teri Hatcher’s Paris Carver, can’t compare. Hatcher reportedly didn’t get along with Brosnan and didn’t like the script. Her displeasure shines through in the character’s bitchy demeanor and her distant performance.)

Another aspect that allows “Tomorrow Never Dies” to raise above its mediocre script is its action sequences. The opening scene features Bond sneaking into an airplane, taking out lots of bad guys with the jet’s machine guns. When the co-pilot wakes up, it nearly goes very wrong for the agent. After sneaking into one of Carver’s buildings, Bond has to grapple with some guards, tossing one into a printing press. The highlight of the film is an extended vehicle chase through the streets of rural China. Bond is handcuffed to Wai Lin as the two leap onto a motorcycle. They fight over the steering wheel, positioning around each other. A helicopter takes chase, circling around the town. The most impressive stunt here is when the bike jumps over the copter’s twirling blades. There’s other fun stuff, like a run over crumbling wooden stairs. Or the conclusion of the scene, where the bike slides under the helicopter, tossing a chain into its rotor. It’s ridiculous but fairly amusing.

Brosnan’s run as Bond continues to heavily feature gadgetry. This time, Q hands Bond two main devices. The first is a cell phone, which looks hilarious dated today, that also functions as a code breaker, a taser, and a keyboard. If that one seemed outlandish back in the day, imagine what the world made of a talking, remote starting car! In all seriousness, that car leads to another great action scene. It’s a tense run through a parking garage. Bond huddles in the backseat, steering with the phone’s remote control, bullets whizzing overhead. He blasts through walls with the car’s build-in missiles, dissuades pursuers by dropping razors, and cuts through a rope with a well-placed saw blade. My favorite moment here occurs when a missile is shot at the car and harmlessly passes through the busted-out windows. It makes up for Bond’s cool car playing a small role in the last film.

For the finale, Bond and Wai Lin sneak onto Carver’s admittedly pretty cool stealth war ship. Once again, the best action belongs to Yeoh. Recalling her Hong Kong days, the actress leaps through the air whilst firing two machine guns. She sneaks around, kills a guy with a throwing star, and is generally a total bad ass. Disappointingly, the movie nerfs her abilities by having the villain take her capture at the very end. Brosnan gets in a few moments though. He stuffs a grenade in a jar, a mildly clever plan. He takes over a missile launcher, firing it inside the boat. Generally, he tumbles around and blows away villains, in the style typical of nineties action flicks. What good will the generates in these moments is squandered when it comes time to kill Carver. Bond delivers an especially baffling one-liner (“Give the people what they want?”) and pushes the guy in the path of a drill missile. Yet the way it’s shot makes it look like Pryce had plenty of oppretunity to escape the slow-moving drill’s path.

“Tomorrow Never Dies” also features some campy, silly moments mostly unrelated to the rest of the film. Bond is stopped in his Paris hotel room by an assassin played by Vincent Schiavelli. Schiavelli speaks with a ridiculous accent, boasts about his ability, and generally contributes nothing to the plot. Why was that scene in the movie? A stunt that was heavily advertised has Brosnan and Yeoh slowing their fall from a building by grabbing a giant poster. Though cool in concept, the scene plays awkwardly in real life. Lastly, the random bike shop Yeoh wanders into turns out to be a secret base. With the press of a button, the walls turn around to reveal computers and weapon caches. It’s silly.

The Bond series is no stranger to product placement. These days, it practically relies on it. However, “Tomorrow Never Dies” is the first time it’s become distracting. Bond’s tricked-out car is a BMW, a fact that film repeatedly draws attention too. A mook falls into a crate of Heineken beers, at one point. A secret compartment is full of name-brand watches. Bond has used a Walther PPK for years. The movie notably upgrades him to the Walther P-99. Why? Because the gun’s manufacturer wanted to push their new product!

“Tomorrow Never Dies” is a disappointing follow-up to “GoldenEye.” Brosnan is still finding his footing, the villain is unimpressive, the plot is weak, and the film is hampered by some baffling moments. Only Yeoh’s dynamite presence and some well-executed action scenes saves it. The producers were seemingly aware of this because a solo series revolving around Wai Lin was briefly considered. Like all plans to spin a Bond girl off into her own adventures, this never came to fruition. Which is a shame cause I’d totally watch that. As it is, the eighteenth James Bond adventure is middling and forgettable. [Grade: C+]

THE 007 SEVEN:

[X] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[X] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[X] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux

Monday, March 23, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (1995)


17. GoldenEye

Following the underwhelming box office receipts for “Licence to Kill,” James Bond was caught up in a tidal wave of legal disputes between MGM/United Artists and the series’ rights-owners. The ensuing lawsuits would hold the franchise up for six years. In the interim, many of the series’ behind-the-scenes faces would pass away. The Cold War would end, robbing Bond of his adversary. The films had burned through more-or-less all of Ian Fleming’s material. Most pressingly, Timothy Dalton, despite being contracted for an adaptation of “The Property of a Lady,” would cut his tenure short and resign from the part. When the James Bond franchise finally reemerged in 1995, many things had changed. The character had a new face, a new production team, and was facing a new decade. The result, “GoldenEye,” would become a huge success, reinventing the agent for a new generation, and reestablish Bond’s pop culture supremacy. But does it hold up?

Back in the waning days of the Cold War, James left a fellow double-0 agent to die while raiding a Soviet lab. Nine years later, the spy is treated like an artifact of a bygone age. Meanwhile, the control card for a thought-lost Russian superweapon, an EMP-firing satellite named GoldenEye, is stolen. Sent to investigate, Bond discovers a mysterious woman, a stolen helicopter, and a crime boss known as Janus. Janus, Bond finds out, is Alec Trevelyan 006, the agent he abandoned years before. Teaming up with a female computer programmer, 007 must stop Trevelyan’s plan to use GoldenEye to cripple the world’s economy.

Without Maurice Binder, James Bond had to find someone new to design the opening credits sequence. Enter Daniel Kleinman. Kleinman maintains many of Binder’s famous trademarks. The silhouetted nude women and prominent placement for Bond’s gun are retained. Kleinman moves the opening credits into a less-arty, more music-video-style direction. Bond and his female companions walk around sickles while hammers fall around them. Meanwhile, female dancers hammer away at the symbols of Communism. It’s all pretty cool stuff, save for the image of a gun emerging from a two-faced woman’s mouth. That’s more bizarre then neat. Though the title song was composed by Bono and the Edge of U2, it is sung by Tina Turner. Turner’s sensual, purring, but powerful vocals make her a logical heir to Shirley Bassey’s throne. The lyrics, which seem to equally reference the film’s love interest, villain, and titular superweapon, are well chosen. The theme song is one of the series’ best and an instant classic.

Pierce Brosnan nearly took over the role of Bond back in 1987. With Dalton’s premature retirement, he was a natural choice to assume the mantle. I’ll be honest and say Brosnan is probably my least favorite actor to play the spy. Though he was the Bond of my childhood, I’ve always found his take on the part indistinct and sort of bland. Looking at his debut now, Brosnan does some interesting things. He brings a lot of humor to the part but is more self-aware then Roger Moore, always pairing his one-liners with a smirk. He’s not above the roughness of Connery or Dalton, judo-chopping at least one woman. He’s more physical and dynamically violent then either of the previous Bonds. Occasionally, he will give us a peak at the character’s interior life. His disregard for his love interests, violent history, and cold-blooded nature are touched upon. Briefly. Brosnan’s Bond is mostly a man of action and pop-corn amusement. In that mold, he does fine.

“GoldenEye” is the first post-Cold War Bond film and it’s all too aware of that status. Instead of ignoring the issue, the film embraces this idea. The fallout of the Cold War’s end informs the entire story. Bond’s status as a product of the Cold War is repeatedly brought up. M calls him a “dinosaur.” Meanwhile, Bond’s adversary is a hold-out from Soviet days, an agent much like Bond that has been soured by his service. The doomsday device that threatens the world originates from Communism’s heyday and is similarly driven by a general not eager to abandon the old ways. Though the war is over, old rivalries die hard. A short but important scene revolves around Bond arguing with the Russian defense minister. They should trust each other but they can’t. The world has changed but the heroes and villains are slow to catch up.

It’s also worth noting that “GoldenEye” attempts to reinvent the decades old series for the 1990s. “GoldenEye” features several signifiers that definitively place it as a product of 1995. Computer hackers play a prominent role in the story. But it’s the Hollywood version of hacking that is still mocked today, full of ridiculous interfaces and instantaneous programming. The action scenes are highly reminiscent of what was popular at the time. The bright muzzle flashes, chaotic shoot-outs, and highly choreographed action scenes all belong to that specific time and place. Then there’s the matter of the film’s musical score. Eric Serra’s electronic score sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s too soft and smooth, while also being too modern and computerized. It reminds me way too much of Yanni. Serra’s version of the classic Bond theme plays over the gun barrel sequence and it is seriously off-putting. It’s so off-putting that it's subbed out later in the film for a more traditional take on the material, which the audience welcomes.

Though definitely dated and with a less introspective lead actor, “GoldenEye” is still a pretty great Bond movie. One of the main reasons why is its awesome villain. The film had the novel idea of making the bad guy a dark mirror of the hero. Sean Bean, a one-time candidate for 007 himself, instead plays 006, Bond’s brother in arms. However, Alec Trevelyan has a dark history. He’s the child of Russian Cossacks, sent to their deaths by the British Government, and still holds a grudge against the crown for those reasons. He also has a personal grudge against Bond, blaming him for his near-death experience that left him with a typically Fleming-esque scarred face. Yet Trevelyan is partially motivated by greed, as he plans to rob the top banks in the world before wiping their records with the GoldenEye device. Though his master plan isn’t much different then that of your usual Bond villain, his motivation is more personal and complicated. Sean Bean is great in the part, packing the dialogue with as much venom as possible while arguably being cooler then Brosnan.

Izabella Scorupco plays Natalya Simonova, Bond’s primary girlfriend throughout the story. Simonova helps the agent out more then once, her computing skills coming in handy several times. The film focuses heavily on Bond’s romance with her, the two having several love scenes together. Scorupco is gorgeous and gets to show off in a white dress. She’s likable enough though the character’s ‘tude is sometimes forced and off-putting. More compelling is Xenia Onatopp, played by Dutch model and future Jean Grey Famke Janssen. The cheekily named Onatopp is Trevelyan’s main henchwoman. The character is an almost literal femme fatale, crushing her male lovers to death between her powerful thighs. More importantly, she’s sexually aroused by murder and causing pain, Janssen groaning in orgasmic glee while machine gunning innocent victims. That’s certainly an unforgettable scene and Janssen’s performance is fantastically over-the-top. It’s great to see a bad guy equal to Bond in a capacity for violence and sexual appetite. It’s even more refreshing that she’s a woman.

As an action movie, “GoldenEye” finds a nice balance between the comic book theatrics of the Roger Moore era and the grittier action of Timothy Dalton’s tenure. The opening even one-ups “The Spy Who Loved Me’s” opening. This time, Bond jumps a motorcycle off a cliff and free falls into the cockpit of a falling plane, grabbing the controls just before it crashes into the mountainside. Immediately afterwards, the Soviet base bursts into flames behind him. The stand-out action scene is smack-dab in the middle of the film. Bond and Natalya escape a Russian records facility. Bond slides around corners, gunning down goons with a machine gun. He races through the records room, barely avoiding bullets fire up through the grate flooring. “GoldenEye” was offered to John Woo and, with its creative shooting sequences, seems to have been influenced by the Hong Kong action auteur. The movie builds on this scene by having Bond jump in a fucking tank and chase his enemies through the streets of St. Petersberg. The scene is funny, when the statue of an angel lands atop the tank, but mostly its exciting.

There’s even some suspense. Brosnan’s strength as an action star comes from his willingness to play up his own vulnerability. He seems genuinely worried when trying to escape an about-to-explode helicopter. Refreshingly, his fights with Onatopp are clearly painful for him. You’re not certain the spy can defeat the psychotic sexpot. This is most notable during their final fight in the jungles of Cuba, where we see her spine-crushing technique up close. Even better is when Alec and James face off. The two dangle from the antenna of a massive satellite dish, hundreds of feet above the concrete bottom. The agent dangles from the ladder, wincing in pain, nearly falling when the villain stomps on his fingers. Of course, he wins. But because the enemy has human motivations, we actually feel Alec’s pain when he crashes down on the concrete. Brosnan may be super-cool when seducing the ladies and gunning down mooks. When really threatened though, his Bond sweats.

As this is a new era of Bond, the supporting cast is full of new faces. Most notably, we have a new M. And she’s a woman. Judi Dench’s M would quickly become a mainstay of the series. She’s hard on her best agent, not afraid to call him on his bullshit. Yet she also seems to have an almost-personal connection to him, showing her affection for him through effacing glances or small lines of dialogue. Moneypenny would not play as big of a role in the future of the franchise. Her brief appearance here, as played by Samantha Bond, has the secretary resisting Bond’s charms and pointing out that his treatment of her is technically sexual harassment. It’s socially relevant but not exactly charming. Felix Leiter isn’t in “GoldenEye” but the role that would usually be his is filled by Joe Don Baker’s Jack Wade. That’s right, the same Joe Don that played a villain in “The Living Daylights.” Weirdly, Baker actually works better as an ally of Bond then an adversary. His Wade is folksy, friendly, and amusing, providing some decent comic relief.

There’s one familiar face though. Desmond Llewelyn returns as Q. Llewelyn remains as charming as ever and gets to stretch his comedic chops here more then usual. The film is not super-focused on the gadgets but does feature a few cool ones. Most prominent is a pen that doubles as a bomb. This provides some decent suspense in the last act, after it falls into a bad guy’s hand. Bond, naturally, uses the device to destroy the evil doer’s lair. There’s also a belt that doubles as a grappling hook, which gets one notable use. Bond is given a cool car, a tricked-out BMW. Weirdly, we never see the car in action, it’s use mostly limited to a brief driving scene.

“GoldenEye” has a tight script, a fascinating villain, a fantastic main henchman, and features some great action. Brosnan, though he’ll never be my favorite Bond, adapts to the part nicely. The film proved that the long-in-the-tooth series could still be successful in the nineties, reinventing the character for kids who didn’t even know who George Lazenby was. The film usually comes in near the top on any best-of lists and it’s no wonder why. It also, of course, spawn a video game that everyone I ever went to school with played at least a hundred times. [Grade: B+]

THE 007 SEVEN:

[X] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[X] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[X] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux