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Licence to Kill (1989)

Monday 8th April 2013 Leave a comment

It’s been a long time since I last watched Licence to Kill, that most ’80s-ish of the ’80s Bond movies. In my memory it’s always been one of my least favourite entries in the entire series. I’m pleased to say that upon today’s rewatch, I enjoyed it a lot more, and can now honestly say I like it – even if I still don’t think it’s anywhere near as good as Dalton’s preceding film The Living Daylights.

The plane-hooking opening sequence is fun (just look at that shot of Felix Leiter and his DEA allies’ slow-mo charge forward – see, told you it was oh-so-’80s!), but the movie doesn’t really start to get good until Bond discovers the very brutal thing that happened to Felix Leiter and his new wife. The idea of Bond going rogue on a personal mission outside of MI6 is a good one, but not enough is really made of it. Unlike something like the later Mission: Impossible, it doesn’t feel like Bond’s former allies could be just as much of an obstacle as the bad guys: a while after Bond’s “with one bound he was free” escape in the scene with M, one agent turns up angry at him, then immediately dies, and that’s pretty much it. Bond’s licence to kill is revoked, but this has absolutely no effect on his ability to proceed to kill just as many people as ever. He even still gets to have Q helping him – in one of that character’s biggest roles, in fact!

Having said that, it’s not quite true to say that this might as well be an officially sanctioned mission: I really like the neat plotting of the way Bond’s solo quest for vengeance screws up two other groups’ attacks on Sanchez. The way 007 effectively fuels Sanchez’s concerns about betrayal within his organisation is also good, and the length of time Sanchez remains oblivious to the fact that Bond is his enemy makes for an extremely unusual Bond movie. Overall, perhaps because so much of the movie is kept relatively grounded and low-key, the plotting generally (with a few exceptions) progresses more logically than it does in most Bond films. (Everyone: for some excellent commentary on story structure points like this, go and read Andrew Ellard’s Tweetnotes on the movie. It is indeed the “knifiest Bond ever”!)

The sequence with Bond sneaking around Krest’s operation is a good one; the “maggot coffin” is a fun baddie takedown, and the scene has a satisfying conclusion thanks to how Bond kills Felix’s betrayer. (The way Sanchez dies at the end of the movie – hey, it’s a Bond film, it’s not a spoiler to say that! – is also one of the most satisfying in the entire series.)

The film contains two very good action sequences, the harpoon-plane-waterskiing (featuring gunfire to that da-dada-da-da Bond theme rhythm!) and the concluding tanker chase. They easily make up for the crap bar brawl (noteworthy only for the swordfish bit) and ninja attack. (Ninjas… who are Hong Kong narcotics agents? Mixing up your nations of the Orient a little bit there, aren’t you, writers?) The section inside Sanchez’ smuggling base ranks somewhere in between: the conveyer belt fight against Benicio del Toro is nice and tense, but the setting seems even more Made Of Explodium than the hotel in Quantum of Solace.

As it’s a revenge story, it’s understandable that Timothy Dalton’s performance would be more downbeat than it was in The Living Daylights. But, combined with a general lack of memorable dialogue for him, it does mean that I find him much less fun to watch in this movie than in his first one, which may be a big part of the reason why I like it a lot less. The two Bond girls are also far from the greatest of characters or performances.

(A ridiculously minor nit-picky point, which doesn’t really belong in a review but I want to moan about it anyway: one of the baddies kills Bond’s DEA ally and says, “Guess what? His name was Sharkey!” The emphasis in that sentence has always felt like it’s on the wrong word, as if he’s simply confirming that his name was what he already thought it would be, rather than drawing attention to the irony of his cause of death. For similar reasons, I get disproportionately annoyed with a likewise mis-delivered line in The Matrix: “The image translators work for the Construct program…”)

[003 out of 005]

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Skyfall (2012)

Monday 5th November 2012 2 comments

Obviously Skyfall was never going to surpass From Russia With Love as my favourite of the series (what could?), but I was hopeful that it could rank alongside my other favourites: GoldenEye, Casino Royale, and OHMSS. Judging by this first viewing, I’d say it does – which means that The Living Daylights is finally edged out of my top 5. (Sorry, Timmy!)

Spoilers below.

Read more…

Moonraker (1979)

Monday 10th September 2012 Leave a comment

(Rewatched 11 August 2012)

Sometimes I wish Roger Moore would come back
With an underwater car or some kind of jetpack
Or a hover-gondola and a Union Jack

Joe Cornish, “The Something of Boris” (an Adam and Joe’s Song Wars entry)

As Cinebro’s review illustrates, “silly” is the operative word when you’re talking about this film. But there’s nothing wrong with silliness; silliness can be very funny, if it’s done well. So although I remembered Moonraker as being by far the worst Bond movie, this time, I went into it hoping to be able to judge it more generously – approaching it with some optimism that it would succeed as a daft spy comedy rather than fail as a spy adventure.

Unfortunately, I think very little of the comedy in this is done well. Forget comparing it to The Naked Gun – this isn’t even Spy Hard.

I’ll start with some positives. The cable car action sequence is good (even if at first, the camera positions in the wheel house set confusingly make it look like Jaws is following Bond and Goodhead down from the top, rather than coming up from the bottom on the opposite car). And I like the look of Drax’s construction facility as Bond flies over it at the start of the film. In fact, Ken Adam’s sets are consistently one of the best things about this film – although I may just be saying that because twenty years later they inspired the brilliant Aztec mission in the GoldenEye videogame!

The movie’s pre-title sequence is based around a fantastic parachute stunt sequence – which, unfortunately, is undermined when it concludes with a wacky bit involving a circus big top, and a bizarre transition into the film’s opening credits (falling umbrellas WTF!). Jaws’ appearance in this opening also undermines the later scene in which he’s introduced by walking through a metal detector, which is genuinely fun (an example of the film succeeding in the tone it aims for), and would have made a much better introductory scene for the character. Speaking of Jaws, I have to admit I’m quite fond of the two moments in the film where Bond and Jaws meet and acknowledge each other with a smile before they begin fighting.

What surprised me on this viewing is just how little talking there is over the course of the film. There are large sections of the movie that play out in silence. Surely this must be the Bond film with the fewest lines of dialogue? What dialogue is there gives us some of the comedy that does work, in a few brief but memorable lines:

– “His name is Jaws, he kills people.”
– “Look after Mr Bond. See that some harm comes to him.”
– “Mr Bond, you persist in defying my efforts to provide an amusing death for you.”
– “At least I shall have the pleasure of putting you out of my misery.”
– “You missed.” “Did I?”

Note that most of the above examples are spoken by the film’s villain, Hugo Drax – but apart from a few lines like those, he’s played very flatly as Bond-villain-by-the-numbers, and isn’t very memorable.

I remember the Moonraker novel being one of my favourites of Fleming’s books, but the film bears almost no resemblance to the book (unless you count the Minister of Defence’s very brief reference to playing Drax at bridge). Bond’s following of clues throughout the film is not at all interesting and not particularly logical, and Drax’s initial attempts to kill 007 seem to be motivated not out of any concern that Bond might discover his plans, but simply because he’s a Bond villain and trying to kill Bond is what Bond villains are required to do. That centrifuge sequence is OK, but comes across rather like a repeat of the rack exercise scene from Thunderball.

I’ve always enjoyed the posts on each of the Bond movies on the “I Expect You to Die!” blog, and that site’s writeup of Moonraker lays out the movie’s flaws particularly well. I like its summary of the similarities between Moonraker and its predecessor The Spy Who Loved Me:

TSWLM: Teaser involves ship being mysteriously stolen, the girl Bond is macking with tries to have him killed, and the teaser climaxes with a Bond parachute stunt.
MR: Teaser starts with a ship being mysteriously stolen, the girl Bond is macking with tries to have him killed, and the teaser climaxes with a Bond parachute jump.

TSWLM: The plot involves an insane billionaire who believes humanity has become corrupt; he wants to eliminate all humans and start over from his undersea base.
MR: The plot involves an insane billionaire who believes humanity has become corrupt; he wants to eliminate all humans and start over from his satellite base.

TSWLM: The main henchmen is a mute giant named Jaws.
MR: The main henchmen is a mute giant named Jaws (with added bonus: a mostly mute Japanese henchmen!!)

TSWLM: The Bond girl is a Russian spy!
MR: The Bond girl is an American spy!

TSWLM: A special Bond vehicle comes out of the water onto dry land, as tourists and animals do double takes.
MR: A special Bond vehicle comes out of the water onto dry land, as tourists and animals do double takes. Except in this one, we get lots more double-takes and reaction shots. Lots more.

Add another example: The Spy Who Loved Me contained a musical clip from Lawrence of Arabia; this one quotes the notes from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (heard THREE TIMES, just in case you didn’t notice!) and also contains the theme from The Magnificent Seven. Not to mention the Romantic Meadow Run that Jaws and his girlfriend get to do…

Oh, didn’t I mention? Jaws gets a girlfriend in this movie. Also, Bond wrestles a terribly fake-looking python (but it’s played straight, as if it’s meant to be genuinely threatening), and pigeons do double-takes, and the movie’s climax takes place IN SPAAAAACE.

“Bond goes into space” is usually cited as the biggest, most memorable thing that went wrong with Moonraker. But strangely, in principle I don’t have a problem with the idea of Bond (at least Roger Moore’s Bond) in space. Just as The Matrix Reloaded has more fundamental problems than the fact it concludes with that speech by the Architect, just as The Phantom Menace has more fundamental problems than the presence of Jar Jar Binks, I’m less annoyed by Moonraker‘s overblown space station climax than with most of the other problems earlier on in the movie. I wouldn’t have been bothered by a comic relief CGI Star Wars character if it had actually been amusing; similarly, I would have no objection to a wacky, campy, over the top, tongue-in-cheek Roger Moore Bond movie if only it had been funnier. 😦

[002 out of 005]

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

Tuesday 24th July 2012 1 comment

(Rewatched 22 July 2012.)

The first time I saw most of the Bond films was when ITV showed all of them over consecutive weeks in 1999, in the run up to the release if The World is Not Enough. However, even though I videotaped OHMSS at that time, it went unwatched for several years. I really regretted that, because when it was finally viewed, it turned out to be one of my favourite of all the 007 movies.

If there are three things that most people remember about OHMSS, it’s that it was George Lazenby’s one and only portrayal of James Bond, that it features one of the only instances of fourth wall-breaking in the entire series (“This never happened to the other fellow!”), and that it concludes with THAT ending. However, the movie has a lot more to recommend it than just those three things.

George Lazenby has come in for a lot of stick for his Bond performance, although both he and the film as a whole seem to be better-regarded now than when it was first released, when there was no-one but Connery to compare him to. I don’t claim to be the world’s best judge of good and bad acting, so I won’t call him “flat” – I’d say “deadpan”, I suppose. I like him in the role – particularly in his scene with Miss Moneypenny, and also in the movie’s final scene. I think that at least part of the negative reaction to him is that he spends a good proportion of the movie dubbed, which is extremely distracting and means that for that period of the film we can’t tell how Lazenby himself is delivering the lines.

There are two elements of the movie which take a backward look at all the Bond movies so far: the hourglass-themed title credits, and a scene in which Bond (in his office at MI6!!!) browses through mementos of previous cases (with accompanying musical stings). They prefigure the nostalgia-fest of Die Another Day, and seem to be included to say to viewers: “We know you don’t like losing Sean, but this guy’s still the same character – honest!” There are Bond fans who absolutely hate that cute souvenir scene, but I quite enjoy it.

Even if Lazenby himself didn’t re-invigorate the series, the screenplay (one of the closest to Fleming’s original novels) and the direction certainly did. The film is home to some of the 007 films’ best action sequences, several of which (as well as Bond’s run-in with a polar bear!) are shot in an unusual way for the series: lots of quick close-up shots of flailing limbs, each of which zoom into even closer close-ups. It’s a distinctive, energetic and exciting approach to fight scenes, even if it’s not the clearest for seeing exactly what’s going on. In addition, the climactic bobsleigh action scene is excellent, with rear-projection shots that look much less silly than the ridiculous speeded-up hydrofoil scene at the end of Thunderball.

Ski chases are a recurring breed of action sequence in the Bond series, and in this film we get not one, but two of them, both of which are brilliant. In the second of them, Blofeld brings down a flippin’ avalanche on not just our fleeing heroes, but three of his disposable underlings as well! Speaking of villains: although Irma Bunt comes across as Rosa Klebb-lite, Telly Savalas is probably the best of the Blofelds (or at least the best of the fully-seen ones; I have to admit that my primary image of the character is still that of the unseen, Dr Claw-esque, cat stroking SPECTRE Number One).

The scheme that Blofeld uses to hold the world to ransom is reminscent of the use of hypnosis in The Ipcress File, and is a lot more creative than a standard “hijacked nuke” or “space-based weapon” plot. The fact that Bond has been on the trail of Blofeld ever since the previous movie’s events, and yet Blofeld does not recognise Bond upon their meeting here, is a good example of the Bond series’ fast and loose approach to continuity – and is also a relic of the reversed order of OHMSS and YOLT when compared to the novels.

One of the unusual things about this Bond movie is that it’s the only one other than Dr No to feature an instrumental theme tune. It’s a fantastic track – good enough to be rearranged by the Propellerheads and then used by Pixar in their teaser for The Incredibles. As an action accompaniment, it’s at least as exciting as “The James Bond Theme” itself or John Barry’s “007” theme. (However, I always find it a shame that in these early Bond movies, the original recording of “The James Bond Theme” is simply overlayed onto the action. I would have liked to have heard more of John Barry incorporating tweaked rearrangements of the theme into new, bespoke scores for each action scene, as subsequent composers did.) The film also has a second theme song: Louis Armstrong’s classic “We Have All the Time in the World” was written for this movie.

And then of course, we have the tragic, inevitable ending. It’s extremely effective (especially thanks to the preceding scene, which includes some great little moments from Q, M and Moneypenny), and is easily Lazenby’s most noteworthy moment; he plays Bond’s devastated reaction well. Unfortunately I can’t help but feel that the sombre tone is undermined by that triumphant blast of the Bond theme over the “JAMES BOND WILL RETURN” message.

There are some mis-steps – the aforementioned dubbing, a couple of the one-liners (like the one Lazenby dubs in after the bobsleigh fight with Blofeld), and several plot holes (which are analysed to death here, if you don’t mind a bit of excessive bold and italics usage).

But for the most part the movie is excellent fun that occupies a solid position near the very top of my Bond rankings. Incidentally, when it comes to Christmas action movies, I’d say that this one is second only to Die Hard! (Do you know how Christmas trees are grown?)

[4.5 out of 5]

Thunderball (1965)

Tuesday 24th July 2012 Leave a comment

(Rewatched 20 June 2012.)

This Bond film is remembered as The One With The Jetpack And The Health Clinic And Lots (And Lots) Of Underwater Scenes.

You see, there really is an awful lot of underwater stuff. And despite being very pretty, underwater scenes suffer from a major inherent problem: they slow everything down, and are rather limited in the sort of action they can contain. There are only so many ways you can see someone get stabbed underwater, or harpooned underwater, or eaten by a shark underwater, or have their oxygen line cut underwater before it all starts to get a mite repetitive. That’s not to say that no entertaining action takes place in those underwater scenes – just not enough to justify spending so long on them.

At least all those dialogue-free underwater scenes give us lots of opportunities to listen to John Barry’s music. Speaking of which, Tom Jones provides one of my favourite theme songs of the series. (Also, Thunderball was the movie in which Maurice Binder finally nailed down the look of Bond opening credits, after Dr No‘s abstract dots and two versions of credits projected onto bodies.)

If the underwater scenes are oh-so-slow, then there are two occasions in which the film attempts to make up for it by speeding up the action, but ends up overshooting too far and simply looking ridiculous. The first is the rack scene in the health clinic; the second is the hydrofoil climax, spoiled by lots of speeded-up back-projected stock footage. The fight during that scene also contains several continuity errors (at one point Largo instantly switches from piloting the ship to facing the opposite direction in order to punch Bond) – it’s nowhere near the standard of the incredible train fight from From Russia With Love. As for some of the other action scenes: the jetpack escape is memorable, but pretty tame by today’s standards, while I didn’t find the Mardi Gras chase very exciting at all.

The story – SPECTRE using stolen atomic bombs to hold the world to ransom – is pretty much the epitome of a Bond movie plot. Nothing wrong with that; it’s nice and straightforward! The problem is that it’s not really enough to sustain the first 007 film to break the two hour mark: it takes a long time to get going, with a pre-credits sequence unrelated to the main story, followed by the health spa scenes which take a while for Bond to uncover his leads.

Things only really start to pick up in the scenes showing how the bad guys executed their theft of the nukes, which are some of my favourite in the film. The movie also gives us one of the series’ best SPECTRE meetings, complete with Blofeld (at this point still only identified as “Number One”) doing that You Have Failed Me For The Last Time thing to one of his underlings. Great stuff, on a great Ken Adam set! Sadly, Largo isn’t a villain who makes much of an impression – he wouldn’t be at all memorable without his eyepatch. The villain/henchman pairings in this movie aren’t exactly Rosa Klebb/Red Grant or Goldfinger/Oddjob.

The storytelling might not be up to much, but the script contains some of the cuter quips in the Bond series: “Mind if my friend sits this one out? She’s just dead!” Really fun Q scene, as well.

[3 out of 5]