Thursday, October 11, 2012

Now I've Seen Everything Dept.: (Update) James Bond

Dossier: The James Bond Series

No one knew—nobody, not the stars, not the producers—that when Dr. No hit theater screens in 1962, there would still be an audience for James Bond films fifty years later—and that they would be making more money than ever. Producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli were in it for the short term windfall—they were in the movie business, after all—and never expected the series to last more than ten years.

But the series endured, outlasting the stars, the producers (and distributing movie studios!), the Cold War around which they were based, and every journalist-naysayer who thought it was long since time for the series to cash in its chips and retire for the evening. The only thing that's stayed the same—The Queen and Country.
James Bond must be doing something right.

So did the series creators. They took Fleming's sado-mysoginist bulldog and wrapped him in mink and precious metals. Initial director
Terence Young brought the style, and first "official" Bond, Sean Connery, and he conspired to give Bond his flip humor, something the whole team began utilizing in the second film, From Russia With Love. By the third film, they were trading buzz-saws for lazer-beams and the films left the novels' grit behind for immaculate stainless steel villainy. Fleming's "blunt instrument" was all but forgotten in the stunts and vast expanses of chrome.

It only took forty years but somehow the producers and the audience have come together to bring Fleming's Bond to the silver-screen and see it succeed. Dr. No changed Fleming to increase the laughs and entertainment quotient and as long as the movies were in the Swingin' 60's it seemed to work. But once the '60's and the series' Rosetta Stone--Connery--passed, the movies and Fleming parted company to provide audiences with bread, circuses and gadgets-up-the-tailpipe jalopies. When attempts were made to take Bond back to his graying roots--with OHMSS and Licence To Kill--the poor box-office had the producers fleeing back to their bullet-proof tuxedos. But, finally, with an official adaptation of the very first novel, everyone seems to be on the same page...and fortunately it's one written by Ian Fleming.

We look back (in a terse writing short-hand and colorful titles) at the series, it's forebearers, pretenders and cousins, and rate just how many zeroes each has earned. They are grouped by who's in the barrell at the time.
*


Casino Royale (Brown, 1954) This one-hour adaptation for live-television's "Climax!" series starred Barry Nelson as "card-sharp" "Jimmy" Bond (American) taking on LeChiffre played by Peter Lorre. Primitive, a bit ill-timed in execution, it is a fairly faithful adaptation of Fleming's story although some liberties had to be taken (Bond's torture: tied up in a bathtub, his toes crushed by pliers (Ah, The Golden Age of Television), Bond never questions his assignment, Vesper lives). A not bad first attempt, but not great, either.
00


Dr. No (Terence Young, 1962) Sean Connery plays James Bond, Joseph Wiseman is Dr. No, Ursula Andress is...impressive. Armed with a $1 million budget, Bond comes to the big-screen with a heavy injection of humor, a lot more implied sexual activity than in the novel, and a genuinely nasty streak in violence. Bernard Lee plays Bond boss "M" with a heavy layer of crust. Bond gets his Walther PPK and ends up in a boat with the girl at the end. Connery's rough around the edges with a soft purr to his voice. Director Terence Young has put a lot of grit into the movie, and Peter Hunt's slash-and-burn editing keeps things moving faster than your normal adventure flick. It's also a bit of a send-up of your normal adventure flick--Ken Adam's flamboyant sets being the most obvious evidence of so many tongues in cheeks. The music is laughable except for John Barry's arrangement of "The James Bond Theme" which is used so much it nearly out-wears its welcome. Introduces S.P.E.C.T.R.E., a world-wide terrorism outfit as a stand-in for the Soviet Union (the producers wanted to court it as a market).
0000000


From Russia With Love (Young, 1963) What is Fleming's best novel is given a couple extra surprises mostly in Soviet spies working as double-agents for SPECTRE-chief Blofeld (whose face is not revealed). Casting is top-notch: Lotte Lenya as spy-chief Rosa Klebb, Pedro Armedariz as Our Man in Instanbul, but best of all is Robert Shaw as Grant, assigned to assassinate Bond and discredit him. The Shaw/Connery scenes are genuinely tense culminating in a no-holds-barred fight in the close-quarters of a railroad car. Some spectacular stunt work--and a scene where Bond is pursued amidst hill-tops by a grenade-launching helicopter becomes iconic, which is a nod and a wink to Hitchcock. "Q" is introduced. Bond ends up with girl in boat.
0000000


Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 1964) There are still thrills, but an extra coat of polish and humor is given this one, which also improves on Fleming, ditching his caper for one that's a bit more practical and scarier. Connery throws in more comic bits of business and plays it a bit more detached, probably because his Bond is a bit passive in the detecting department. Lots more gadgets. That car. That laser. Oddjob and his lethal derby. That little old lady with the machine-gun. Pussy Galore starts the trend towards eye-rolling names. Extended battle sequence at Fort Knox is the first extended battle sequence to climax the movie.
0000000



Thunderball (Young, 1965) Gadgets and locales start to crowd out Connery and for the first time, the movie seems like a let-down from Fleming. Starts with a jet-pack escape and ends with an underwater battle sequence that seems to go on forever--underwater ballet with spear-guns. So does the central atom-bomb hijacking that sets the plot...well, one is attempted to say "in motion" but it stops the movie cold. SPECTRE and the man with the cat is back. Connery appears iritated at times. But it is the all-time Bond box-office camp (adjusted for inflation). Bond ends up with girl in boat (until they're whisked away by air-sea rescue, see what I mean about the gadgets?)
00000



Casino Royale (Hughes, et al., 1967) Tiresome spoof with an all-star cast (David Niven, Peter Sellers, Orson Welles, Ursula Andress, Woody Allen...Woody Allen?) "Hellzapoppin'" Bond. If only it were funnier. Everyone ends up in Hell (deservedly, I thought) Audience only feels like it.
0




You Only Live Twice (Lewis Gilbert, 1967) Bond goes to Japan to stop hi-jacked space capsules. SPECTRE's secret HQ is in a big hollowed-out volcano that regularly launches rockets and helicopters. Right, no one'll notice. Finally see Blofeld and it's Donald Pleasance with one nasty scar and the voice of a braying chihuahua. Script logic and any resemblance to the Fleming story go down the ol' lava-tube. Connery hits his marks professionally, but that's about it. Big ninja attack in the volcano!! Goes...on...forever. Bond ends up with girl in a raft.
0000




On Her Majesty's Secret Service (Peter Hunt, 1969) Connery's gone, but not for good. George Lazenby is Bond...only semi-good. He looks fine in stunts but so does a 2x4 when used right. Editor Peter Hunt directs with an eye toward more color and a pell-mell style. Bond undercover to track down Blofeld who's now Telly Savalas. Bond falls in love with Diana Rigg who's groovy, baby. Lots of good skiing action. One bad love-montage with music. No gadgets to be seen. Nice crisp attack on mountain-top HQ, then a big wedding. Bond ends up with dead wife in his car.
000000



Diamonds Are Forever (Hamilton, 1971) Connery's back, jowlier and with a grayer toupee. Camp abounds. Effete Blofeld. Gay hoodlums. Big diamond laser thingy in sky. Played for laffs (what else can you do with Jill St. John as the Bond-girl), but some good jokey dialog still manages to surface. A none-too-impressive final battle on an offshore oil rig. Bond ends up on ocean liner with girl.
0000



Live and Let Die (Hamilton, 1973) Roger Moore is Bond, and kinda mannequins his way through it. Racist little plot, but a bit more hip than racist little book. Yaphet Kotto is not sure what movie he's in, can't maintain an attitude. Jane Seymour's not sure what movie she's in, feels she has to act. More chases, less material stringing movie together. Looking a little threadbare. Bond ends up with girl on train.
0000


The Man with the Golden Gun (Hamilton, 1974) Moore's back and is a little meaner which is hard to believe. Cristopher Lee would have been a terrific Scaramanga in another movie--here he's a bit too cheery. Britt Ekland is the bottom of the barrel for Bond-girls. But is better than Herve Vellechaize as hench-thing. Exotic locales. Energy "crisis" plot (in 1975!) Highpoint is barrell-rolling car stunt across river. Still looks amazing. Bond ends up with girl in junk. Precisely!
000


The Spy Who Loved Me (Gilbert, 1977) Moore at his best, but Bond-by-formula. Lazy writing. Too-easy seductions. Bond has it too easy all the way. Jaws--"Nuff said." Chase after chase with a plot spray-painted from the "You Only Live Twice" stencil. Marvin Hamlisch score feels like "James Bond! The Musical!" Barbara Bach plastic-pretty. But that's a great stunt in the open. Good will of that can't sustain the movie. Bond ends up with girl in bath-o-sub-escape-thing.
000


Moonraker (Gilbert, 1979) Moore is less. Very lazy writing. Venice sequence with hover-craft gondola and double-taking pigeons. Space movie with ray-gun shoot-out. Jaws falls in love with Pippi Longstocking. Bond-girl's name is Holly Goodhead (and she's supposed to be taken seriously?). Bond ends up with girl in orbit. Shoulda stayed there.
00

For Your Eyes Only (John Glen, 1981) More plot. Less stunts. Moore's starting to show age. Great climbing sequence. Borrowed bit from Fleming's "Live and Let Die" works well. Major ick factor as under-age gymnast Lynn-Holly Johnson hits on grand-dad Moore. Topol makes a good ally though he chews a lot of scenery. Bond ends up with girl on boat.
0000


Octopussy (Glen, 1983) A lot of plot partly written by George MacDonald Fraser. Some good moments, especially those involving a radical Russian General (Steven Berkoff). Moore dressed as clown disarming nuclear bomb feels...natural. Maud Adams, a bit stiff. Louis Jordan, a bit ripe. Fight outside a plane in flight a bit preposterous. Bond ends up with girl on boat.
000



Never Say Never Again (Irvin Kershner, 1983) Connery back. Writer Lorenzo Semple (Batman television series) briefly uses the "age" thing but then returns to Bond as elder stuntsman. Great cast with Kim Basinger, Klaus Maria Brandauer (superb!), Max Von Sydow, Edward Fox and an over the top Barbara Carrera (never better). Borrowed "Thunderball" plot with some 80's relics (Bond and villain "duel" over a video game?) . Last third of the movie is slipshod and rushed. Time to say "Never Again." Bond ends up with girl in a therapeutic hot-tub. Good choice.
000


A View to a Kill (Glen, 1985) Speaking of not coming back. Roger Moore's last outing and its irritating. It's fun to have Christopher Walken (as the villain) and Patrick MacNee (as a disposable field operative), but not to have Grace Jones and Tanya Roberts (who's particularly grating). Oddly unexciting film about a plot to cause The Big California Earthquake. Villain's a genius who produces computer chips, but doesn't seem to realize he's trying to kill a sizable chunk of his customer base. Hmmm. Starts with a chase at the Eiffel Tower. Ends with a fight at the Golden Gate Bridge. After all that, Bond ends up with girl in a shower. Moore leaves, all washed up.
00



The Living Daylights (Glen, 1987) Timothy Dalton is Bond and a good one. Harkening back to Fleming, this 007 taking the job VERY seriously and not liking it much. Though Dalton is king of romantic mini-series, he tones it down here. Bit of a cad, in fact. And sometimes barely in control. Great pre-credit sequence on Gibraltar. Possibly best fight in series and Bond's not in it. Good cast with Jeroen Crabbe as The Villain, and Joe Don Baker as the literal heavy (subsisting on scenery, I think) Bond ends up with girl...in dressing room.
000000

Licence To Kill (Glen, 1989) Borrowed bits from Fleming in a story about a drug king-pin who maims Felix Leiter, Bond's pal in the CIA. Bond quits MI6 and goes rogue for revenge. Feels like Fleming, but doesn't feel like Bond. Bond-girls are a bit token-tough. Villain has best lines. A very young Benecio DelToro shows up as villain's creepy, weasley assistant. Sub-plot of a televangelist as a drug marketer is mean-spirited/funny, but ruined by the casting of Wayne Newton. A guy gets exploded in a pressure chamber but Newton is ickier. Extended action sequence with 18-wheelers goes on far too long. Bond ends up with girl in a swimming pool.
00000



Goldeneye (Martin Campbell, 1995) After a seven year hiatus where most of the old Bond-team die, Bond returns. Pierce Brosnan makes a dapper, very crisp Bond and his introduction in the pre-credits in terrific. Casting of unfamiliar names (except for Sean Bean and Famke Janssen as the villains) with fine acting chops helps push Brosnan to the forefront. Bond-girl can ACT!! And she's the one who saves the day! Dame Judi Dench is the female "M" (she's squinty-eyed/prickly), Allan Cumming is a Russian computer-nerd, Joe Don Baker is back as an ally, Michael Kitchen as M's Chief of Staff and Robbie Coltrane and Minnie Driver show up in cameos. Another too-long finale. Great CGI credit sequence. Horrible score by Eric Serra that electronically pulses with sampled clanking between "oohs" and "aahs." Bond ends up with girl...in a military helicopter.
00000


Tomorrow Never Dies (Roger Spottiswoode, 1997) Brosnan again, but a slightly devalued Bond. Plot's about a media mogul who makes his own conflict-headlines. A bit over-written in places. Too many worthless chases. Jonathan Pryce makes an ineffectual villain. Teri Hatcher shows up briefly and is killed. Michelle Yeoh kicks things up as Chinese agent. Odd little sequence with Vincent Schiavelli as assassination specialist Dr. Kaufmann. As soon as garage-chase ends, it all goes downhill. Final battle on "stealth-boat" in interminable. Bond ends up with girl...on pieces of a boat.
000


The World is Not Enough (Michael Apted, 1999) Longest pre-credits sequence in Bond history makes a slight kerfluffle of the story, but Bond has to protect an oil heiress from an international terrorist who had previously kidnapped her. Robert Carlyle is largely wasted but Sophie Marceau makes the best of a confusedly-written part. Denise Richards is a nuclear physicist named "Christmas" (oh, the possibilities are endless) Old "Q" leaves, and new "Q" is John Cleese and hardly a "harrumph" is skipped. Dramatically a bit inert. Bond ends up with girl in Turkey... after exiting a too-long submarine sequence. Brosnan-Richards romance feels a bit icky.
0000


Die Another Day (Lee Tamahori, 2002) Starts out promisingly: Bond is captured by North Korea and held prisoner and tortured while 9-11 happens. Traded and discredited but escapes own services' captivity to start an investigation in Cuba. Then Halle Berry shows up and it all goes horribly...horribly wrong. Bond's Greatest Hits Done Poorly. Laser satellite. Car chase on ice. The thing is like a steroid-pumped video game (which probably was the idea). Snarky villain. Madonna title-song and..urk..cameo. Awful. Bond ends up with girl in Korean prayer temple. Protests ensue. Wanted to grab a sign and join them.
00



Casino Royale (Campbell, 2005) Full review here. Brosnan out/Daniel Craig in. Great script. Great action. Out-Flemings Fleming. Somehow makes Bond work for post-9-11 world in the same way he worked for the Cold War. Terrific cast. Eva Green shines as love-interest. No gadgets. Bond ends up with-OUT girl...on a boat.
0000000


Quantum of Solace (Marc Forster, 2008) Settles into the same formula, though there are bright spots, good cast of actors who all try to do their best with the material. However, the emotions are dictated in short-hand, the script scrimps on the dialogue, and the plot pin-balls from action sequence to action sequence, ala the tepid "Live and Let Die." While those action sequences are spectacularly conceived, they're filmed obliquely and edited horribly—almost incompetently, without a sense of context. Blink and you'll miss three shots. More Fleming, and less frenzy, please.  Bond ends up alone. 0000

As the Bond series hits its fiftieth year, there is a new film opening next month, entitled Skyfall (maybe you've heard of it): Daniel Craig is still Bond, Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to PerditionRevolutionary Road) directs and the story idea is by Peter Morgan (The QueenThe Last King of Scotland, Frost/Nixon, The Damned United), scripted by regulars Purvis and Wade and John Logan (Gladiator, Star Trek: Nemesis, Rango, Hugo). Joining Craig and Judi Dench are Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, and Albert Finney.  Pretty high pedigree for a pulp series. The only sure thing? As every official film has promised: "James Bond Will Return..."







* The gunbarrel-walk has been a consistent part of the Bond series, usually introducing the films (although the Daniel Craig films have mixed it up a bit). All the actors now do it, although the man firing in the first three "official" films is stunt-man Robert Simmons. Sean Connery did his first gunbarrel with Thunderball. Roger Moore did two—he wore a suit in his first two movies, then a bell-bottomed tuxedo (it was the fashioned-challenged 70's, after all, poor Roger). George Lazenby, as he was the Bond who got married in his one Bond film, goes down on one knee to fire—and disappears in the blood-wash.