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Saturday, August 10, 2002

James Bond Redux, conclusion.

Parts I, II, III, and IV.

:: The Living Daylights. After Roger Moore's departure from the role of James Bond, a casting search was begun for the next film in the series. Pierce Brosnan almost won the role at that point, but he was unable to escape his contractual obligation to NBC for the Remington Steele television series (which, incidentally, was cancelled soon afterwards). The role went to Timothy Dalton, who decided to base his portrayal of Bond more on the character as described in Ian Fleming's novels than as portrayed by Connery, Lazenby, and Moore. Dalton's Bond smirks less, and is a much more serious person in general. I greatly enjoyed his concept of Bond, and it would have been nice had he been able to do it in more than two films. In any event, once again the producers of the series decided to "dial it down a bit" after a pretty excessive installment. A View To A Kill had been roundly panned by critics and fans alike, and thus The Living Daylights was written to be a more streamlined espionage thriller, which it succeeds in being. This film is another high point in the series, presenting a story in which there is no villain bent on world domination but rather a trio of villains who are involved in a scheme involving diamond smuggling, gunrunning to Afghanistan, and disinforming British intelligence. The plot twists and turns more than is typical in a Bond film, which is rather refreshing. Bond is kept guessing throughout, and at times he has to trust his own instincts to get him through a certain tough spot. The heroine here is a lovely blonde cellist from Bratislava named Kara, who just happens to be the girlfriend of a Russian official who wishes to defect (or so he says). Bond is actually supposed to kill her early in the film, but he refuses to do so, and eventually she is drawn into his efforts to find out what is going on. (In a particularly charming scene, Bond and Kara are about to flee the KGB, when she realizes that she has forgotten her cello and insists on getting it. No real musician would ever leave their instrument behind -- especially when it later turns out that the instrument is a Stradivarius. This, of course, is revealed only after Bond has managed to put a bullet hole in the cello.) Her character is quite strong, as evidenced when she talks back to a Mujaheddin commander. Instead of a single villain, here there is a team of three: an American arms dealer named Whitaker, the defectee named Koskov, and an assassin named Necros. All are interesting and menacing characters -- particularly Whitaker, with his encyclopedic knowledge of war and weaponry and his hallway filled with statues of folks like Hitler and Genghis Khan. There is also a Russian general, played by the wonderful John Rhys Davies (Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Gimli in Lord of the Rings) who is caught in something of a crossfire. The action sequences are first-rate, including a teaser sequence featuring a trio of agents parachuting onto the Rock of Gibraltar and some amazing stuntwork involving a cargo-plane during the climax. John Barry's music score is one of the best in the series. The Living Daylights is one of the very best Bonds. (The Gadgets: Bond drives the Aston-Martin again, although its weapons have been upgraded. Instead of whirling tire-spikes, the wheelhubs fire lasers which cut through the chassis of a car alongside Bond. The car also fires missiles and carries outboard skis for snow-driving. Bond's other gadget is a key-ring finder equipped with lockpicks, an explosive charge that detonates at the sound of a wolf-whistle, and a stun-gas pellet that discharges if he whistles the opening notes of "Rule Brittania". This is everything a Bond gadget should be: simple, elegant, and when used cleverly, totally lethal.)

:: Licence to Kill. In my view, this is the most underrated of all the Bond films. It performed poorly at the box office when it was released in 1989, backed by a lackadaisical advertising campaign and tough competition from films like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon II, and even Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The film takes place entirely in the Caribbean and in Latin America, and it marks a stark deviation from the standard Bond formula. He is on no sanctioned mission for Her Majesty's Secret Service this time; in fact, he is acting totally on his own, at one point running from a meeting with M who has personally come to chew him out for his vigilante behavior. The reason for his actions is a druglord named Franz Sanchez, who has escaped US custody (Bond had helped put him there in the teaser sequence), killed Felix Leiter's young newlywed wife, and seriously maimed Felix himself. (The manner of Felix's maiming is actually taken from Ian Fleming's novel of Live and Let Die.) Bond goes after Sanchez, destroying parts of his operation before ultimately infiltrating it with the help of the beautiful CIA agent Pam Bouvier, played with terrific sass by Carey Lowell. ("Are you armed?" she asks Bond at one point. He shows her his Walther PPK, at which she shakes her head sadly and shows him her sawed-off shotgun.) Miss Bouvier is the strongest of all the Bond heroines; she is tough, fearless, and she gets to save Bond a number of times. There is palpable chemistry between her and Dalton; there is also great chemisty between Dalton and Robert Davi, who plays the evil Sanchez to the hilt. Davi's Sanchez isn't merely evil; there is a sense of honor behind the things he does. "This isn't personal; it's just business," he says to Felix Leiter before having him horribly injured. The film's closing action sequence, a gonzo chase scene down a series of dusty mountain roads involving a series of tanker trucks, is one the most exhilarating action set-pieces in any Bond film. The music is provided by Michael Kamen, and it's a surprisingly effective mix of Latin elements and Kamenesque action writing. (Kamen also did the music for the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard films.) Licence To Kill should be more popular than it is. (The Gadgets: Here Bond works with a rifle that responds to his palmprint alone, a tube of toothpaste that actually dispenses plastic explosive, and a lighter that is really a flamethrower. Q has his beefiest role in the series in this film; he comes to equip Bond after a worried Moneypenny begs him to, and he actually helps out in the field. He has two especially nice moments: one where he tries to console Pam Bouvier when Bond has gone off with Sanchez's stunning concubine, and one where he dresses as a farmer along the road as Sanchez drives by on the way to his hideout. In this latter scene, Q speaks into the broom he's holding, which is really a microphone, alerting Pam that Sanchez is on his way. Then, that accomplished, he tosses the broom aside and walks away -- a wonderfully funny character moment after all the times that Q has chided Bond over the years for never returning his equipment. Of course, I've always wondered: if he always wants it back, why does he almost always set it up so it explodes?)

:: GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough. (Given that these films are the most recent, I'm lumping them together into a single capsule.) Due to legal wrangling there was a six-year gap between Licence To Kill and the next Bond film, GoldenEye. In that time Timothy Dalton decided to move on, and thus Pierce Brosnan finally took over the role, and he's had it ever since. As far as I am concerned, he's welcome to it until he's too old or he simply doesn't want it anymore. He brings to the part a blend of Dalton's seriousness, Moore's playfulness, Lazenby's emotion, and Connery's toughness. Some feel that Brosnan doesn't have the physical gravitas to really be convincing as Bond, but I don't agree. In fact, I think he's getting better -- his performance in TWINE was his best Bond yet. We'll know more in a few months, when Die Another Day is released.

As for the films themselves, I've enjoyed all three, although each has its faults. GoldenEye is quite good, although its setup takes too long, its music (by Eric Serra) alternates between merely functional and utterly horrid, and at several points it meditates on deeper aspects of Bond's character in a way that reminds me of the psychological baggage that has been pumped into the Batman character ever since Frank Miller's Dark Knight series came out. The heroine, a Russian computer operator played by Izabella Scorupco, is lovely and strong; Sean Bean's villain is excellent. His scheme, though, is a bit hard to swallow.

Tomorrow Never Dies is one of the most relentlessly paced Bond films; its emphasis is most definitely on action over plot. Bond is less a spy here than an action hero, and although the film works I'm not sure if that change is a good one. I'm of the opinion that James Bond should do more spying than heroics, but TND is chock-full of action set-pieces and the effect is generally overwhelming. Nevertheless, there is a lot to like in the film; Michelle Yeoh's heroine could be an action-star in her own right; Jonathan Pryce's media-mogul villain is in the best tradition of Bond-baddie-megalomania; David Arnold's score is a tremendously fun listen. TND is not a bad film, but pedal-to-the-metal really isn't the proper pace of a Bond film.

The World Is Not Enough. The title is an allusion to On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Part of that film's plot deals with heraldry, and "The world is not enough" turns out to be the ancestral motto of the Bond family. I found this film a mixed bag. Robert Carlyle's villain, a terrorist who is dying from a bullet in his skull that also has rendered him impervious to pain, is one of the creepiest of Bond baddies. Sophie Marceau may be the best femme fatale of the entire series. In this film, M actually figures in the action, giving Judi Dench something to do other than tell Pierce Brosnan what to do. Desmond Llewelyn plays Q for the last time, before his role is taken over by John Cleese, a perfect bit of casting if ever I've seen one. "Ah, there's the famed 007 wit," Cleese says. "Half of it, at any rate." (Tragically, Llewelyn himself died in a car crash shortly after the film's release. He was 85 at the time.) The film involves more espionage than Tomorrow Never Dies, but there are also some incredibly loud and over-the-top action sequences -- particularly a boat-chase on the Thames and the climax on a submarine that looks strangely like the Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The plot's twists and turns are sometimes hard to follow, and at times Bond's actions are unexplainable. The worst thing in the film, though, is its heroine: Denise Richards has less charisma than any other leading lady in any other Bond film, by far. From the first moment she appears -- when the film tells us that she is a nuclear scientist, and her name is "Christmas Jones" -- her character is completely unbelievable. The World Is Not Enough gives me the impression of a film that needed one more draft of screenplay done, and one key role re-cast entirely. (Special note: this film would be an excellent instructive example for people who don't believe that letterboxing for home video is desirable. In the fullscreen video release, some of TWINE's action sequences -- most notably a fight and chase in a nuclear missile silo -- are all but impossible to follow. I don't know if the film is out on Widescreen DVD, but that would be the way to see it.)

:: Die Another Day. See you this winter. View the trailer here.