Archive for category action movies
A friend sent me this comparison today, showing how the same image of Paul Walker has been used on different Fast Five posters.
This naturally got me thinking about the reigning champion of terrible Photoshop poster jobs:
Everybody looks like shit here, but especially Walker. It’s like the movie broke up with her boyfriend and cut his face out of the picture, but then she started dating Paul Walker and so she just put his picture over where her boyfriend used to be.
I’m saying it’s bad.
Probably the worst. (Although X-Men: First Class is an up-and-comer.)
Then it hit me… has Paul Walker ever showed up for a photo shoot in his entire career? I can’t even recall a single Paul Walker moment from any of his films, and I’ve seen a few of them.
Is it possible that Paul Walker doesn’t exist? Is he a mass hallucination, a brain manifestation caused by inhaling the ozone haze of Axe Body Spray over at Abercrombie & Fitch? Is he an elaborate computer simulation?
You guys, I think I’m on to something. If this is true, this could blow the lid off of everything, including the mystery of Channing Tatum.
Do you remember Dillonmania?
When Donna Lloyd disappears in Paris, her contractor husband Walter (Gene Hackman) teams up with his estranged son, Chris (Matt Dillon), to find her. A botched hit reveals a secret: Walter is really Duke Potter, an improbably-named CIA agent living undercover in retirement. A shocked Chris follows Duke as he picks through his old contacts to uncover the threat, following the threads to a decades-old murder and a conspiracy within Duke’s own agency. Duke and Chris weave their way through conflicted loyalties and murderous agents to ferret out the conspiracy, reveal a double agent, and rescue Donna. An explosion follows.
Due to its open mediocrity, Target doesn’t get much attention these days, and so production information is scarce. Somebody knows something about how Target was made, but I can’t find it without, apparently, a dousing rod and a lot more time than I want to waste on Target.
All I can say for sure is that, as with all of Penn’s late work, funding Target was a struggle. In a 1990 interview, Penn implied that funding had been cut at least once for the film when the financing company was sold and its projects reexamined. My guess is that attaching names like Dillon and Hackman to the project greased just enough wheels to get the cameras rolling.
While you can argue that Arthur Penn’s style was the wrong fit for an action movie, and I will, there were benefits. Penn’s ear for dialogue and his eye for composition gives his dull exposition scenes a surprising hint of life. The best takes place when Duke finally meets with the man who kidnapped his wife, the elderly German agent named Schroeder (Herbert Berghof). Instead of growling at each other, the script places the men by the graves of Schroder’s family, where they regret the rules of engagement. Schroeder accuses Duke of betraying a professional courtesy by killing his family. Duke insists that that it was somebody else who broke the rules. Under Penn’s direction, the scene becomes less about the plot and more about the confusion of war, and the weariness of the warriors. Great stuff.
I’d love to say that Target is a scathing indictment of the policy of assured mutual destruction at the height of the cold war, or that Arthur Penn was making a statement about the lingering scars of terrible actions, but the truth is that Target is mostly about Arthur Penn’s career. In the aftermath of Four Friends, Penn talked openly about making a (lucrative) action-adventure movie. Target was the result, but its failure did little to lift Penn’s flagging film career.
Let’s all take a moment to appreciate Matt Dillon.
There was a moment in the early 1980s where it seemed as if he might take over the world. Dillon was the matinee idol du jour, sending teenage girls and studio execs aflutter as he soaked up box office dollars in his pouty doll’s eyes. His 1983-84 work—The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, The Flamingo Kid —is an insane triple-header for a newcomer, and when his star died out (outshined by the blinding power of Tom Cruise’s thetan), Dillon could have walked away forever and still called it a pretty great career. Instead, Dillon refocused and drifted away from the heartthrob moors, carving a niche for himself as the hunky actor with quirk. Singles; To Die For; There’s Something About Mary. Dillon was working with the best again, and when he finally won his Oscar (for a far less interesting role as one of Paul Haggis’s Crash puppets), it was kind of like a gift from Hollywood saying “Hey. Yeah. Sorry we did that all of that to you.”
Target is a parasite movie, a flick that can only live by sucking life from some trendy studlet (see also: Remember Me). Dillon is the centerpiece of the film’s marketing. There he is, the biggest face on the poster, brandishing a gun as if he mattered. At. All. In reality, Dillon is a non-entity in the story. He could be cut from the script without mussing its hair. Penn described Target as an oedipal struggle where a son learns to respect his father’s hidden power, but I think it works better as a film where a father learns that his offspring is a moody mega-tool. Dillon’s character feels tacked on, added by a studio note (“Where’s the young people? Everyone in this thriller could die of natural causes while we’re watching!!”), but without the plot required to justify his existence. His only job in the story is to screw up and create problems that Gene Hackman has to solve because Gene Hackman is a spy and Matt Dillon is not.
It’s hard for me to see the appeal of this script, and it’s clear that neither did Penn. Target was the third film Hackman and Penn worked on together, and the movie has the urgency of a fading band’s reunion tour. Penn once tried to link Target to existentialism, pointing out how the film is about being who you are, not who you wish you were. In the same breath, he admitted that he took the project to do “something relatively mindless.” It’s hard to imagine his heart was in it.
For the most part, Target has been lost to time because it doesn’t make enough noise to be noticed. I suppose the film is a rough ancestor to the Jason Bourne movies, a realistic take on the European spy thriller developed as a reaction to James Bond’s growing silliness. Come to think of it, Target shares the most modern DNA with Liam Neeson’s Euro-thriller Taken, which is no masterpiece, but it’s a film that can teach Target a thing or two about winding up tension. Penn spent his life wringing the maximum amount of energy from his dialogue scenes, but when asked to drive the story with action, he loses interest. The movie hangs around, going through the motions with a yawn. My wife fell asleep during the car chase.
The only reason to bother with Target at all is to watch Hackman perform his ass off. He chews C-grade material with A-grade urgency, and his effort soon paid off with his 1986 hit, Hoosiers. His performance alone pushes Target past the likes of Penn & Teller and Four Friends. If Target were a music video, Hackman would be Tom Petty and the movie would be Kim Basinger. Hackman is dancing, but everything else is as dead as Matt Dillon’s hunky eyes.
Added Fun: Listen to this Canadian James Lipton as he loses his marbles on Dillon over the uncanny significance of the name “Chris.”
The Arthur Penn Project
14. Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)
13. Four Friends (1981)
12. Target (1985)
I’ll post my entry on the 6th best John Hughes movie later this week, but in the meantime, have you seen the trailer for Tony Scott’s Unstoppable? I never knew it was a gritty reboot.
(Hey all! Moving this week, so I’m taking a detour from the Kubrick Project to relaunch the James Cameron Project — now with pictures, captions, and a up-to-date countdown, re-ordered to accommodate the addition of Avatar. And speaking of… here it is!)
He’s King of the World. Again.
Intro: As I worked on the James Cameron Project way back in the first days of this site, Avatar was just unsubstantiated rumor and a pile of buzz words, but I always assumed there was more to the project than empty promises. I figured that no matter what he was working on, Cameron wasn’t the kind of director who had ever fell short of his hype, no matter how self-generated it turned out to be. Despite an ugly reaction to the early trailers, positive word of mouth turned Avatar into one of the biggest hits in the history of the movies and a proof of concept for the future of 3D cinema. Still, just as with Cameron’s previous megahit, Titanic, the backlash is all anybody wants to talk about anymore. It’s become fashionable to hate on Avatar, except, of course, within its core fanbase. Cameron locked up the teenage girl demographic with Titanic. He finally came back for the boys with this one.
The Movie: A disabled Marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) arrives on Pandora, a moon in the Alpha Centauri system hosting a massive human mining operation. Unfortunately for the miners and their military escorts, Pandora is already inhabited by the Na’vi, gigantic hunter-gatherers that live in the jungle. The only way to communicate with the Na’vi is by donning avatars, genetically grown Na’vi bodies that can temporarily host human minds. The avatars are meant for researchers, but Jake’s scientist brother died in an accident, and untrained Jake was asked to replace him simply because the avatar requires a DNA match.
The planet has the usual political factions. The miners are desperate for a mineral, hilariously called “unobtanium”, and will do anything to get to it. The researchers, led by Grace (Sigourney Weaver), want to study and teach the Na’vi and do granola earthy crunchy stuff, which begs the question of how they were both invited to the same picnic in the first place. The project’s military escorts, led by mobile phallus Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), basically just want to kill stuff.
Jake gets pulled in all directions, but his Marine background keeps him loyal to Quaritch. This changes when Jake, through a complicated series of accidents and mystical portents, ends up living and training with Neytiri (the motion-captured Zoe Saldana), a princess in a major Na’vi tribe. Jake falls for Neytiri and for the whole peaceful warrior culture of the Na’vi and begins to think of life in the avatar as his real world. That is until, wouldn’t you know it, the mother of all unobtanium (really?) nodes is detected underneath the tribe’s main home. Time to choose sides, Jake!
He chooses the Na’vi, of course, but he’s too late to save their home tree, which is obliterated by Quaritch and his flying tanks. Jake survives to rally the various Na’vi tribes into a single fighting force and they take the battle to Quaritch before the soldiers can wipe out a sacred tree of souls. (It’s actually a kind of hard drive for the planet’s data retention system, which the Na’vi can access via their hair braids and… you know what? It’s fucking magic. Moving on.)
In a shocking finale, the better armed and organized military completely annihilates the primitive tribe and takes the planet’s resources for their own. OK, fine, of course the Na’vi defeat the human forces and Jake is the big hero of the battle. The humans have to leave Pandora and Jake transfers his mind permanently into his avatar, opening all sorts of questions about his lifespan and susceptibility to diseases and ability to procreate, but that nerdy crap will have to wait for the sequel! AVATAR!
The Scene: James Cameron has always excelled at building set pieces, big chunky action scenes that build to a crescendo and pack an emotional punch. Think of the reactor massacre in Aliens, or the destruction of the Cyberdyne building in Terminator 2. This is what Cameron does for a living, and he does it very well.
In Avatar, that scene is the destruction of the Na’vi home tree, a scene that cuts the knots tying the script up and sends us reeling into a huge third act. Home tree is such a vital and important part of Jake’s training that I think most people would subconsciously assume that the big final battle would have to be a race to defend it, but instead the Na’vi never stand a chance. The gunships fade in over the horizon, women and children are gassed, and the whole thing comes crashing down. And then Quaritch finishes his coffee. The scene is vintage Cameron and nearly worth the price of the ticket in 3D.
The Line: “Out there beyond that fence, every living thing that crawls, flies or squats in the mud wants to kill you and eat your eyes for jujubees.” – Quaritch at a recruit briefing. It’s a line so bad it kind of wraps back in on itself and turns good again, mainly because it lets you know that Quaritch is an outsized personality that doesn’t care about anything – not even that he sounds like a toolbox.
The Production: The script reportedly began life as a treatment written back in Cameron’s Terminator and True Lies days, but which was shelved when Cameron decided to wait for the technology to catch up to his core idea of populating the movie with actors who didn’t exist. With the arrival of Gollum and the Robert Zemeckis motion capture films in the early 2000s, and the development of a new high-definition 3D process, Cameron felt like he finally had the tools he needed to tell his story.
Oh, and $300 million dollars. Did I mention the $300 million dollars it would also take to tell his story? With that kind of investment, the suits at Fox were understandably nervous, despite the parade of filmmakers leaving Cameron’s top secret studio proclaiming that what they had just seen would change all of filmmaking. By the time the first trailer hit the internet, buzz and hype had merged into a media deluge of daily Avatar updates and speculation, an environment that helped contribute to the chuckles and giggles that accompanied the film’s initial “giant smurfs” and “furry-friendly cat people” images.
Cameron and Fox went into damage control and smartly released a huge batch of footage in theatres on what became known as “Avatar Day.” The laughing stopped. By the time word of mouth got involved, there was no holding the movie back. Avatar hit theatres worldwide on December 16, 2009, and steamrolled for months, eventually crushing the untouchable Titanic and earning nearly $3 billion (with a ‘b’) in global box office, although it did this mostly through inflated ticket costs associated with IMAX and 3D. The film was nominated for 9 Oscars, but didn’t quite recreate Titanic‘s success there, losing most of the major categories to The Hurt Locker (directed by Cameron’s ex-wife, Kathryn Bigelow, but that’s another Project.)
A James Cameron Film: As usual, Cameron seemingly can’t make a movie without inventing some new technology, and he did that here by housing two HD cameras in a single housing to create the best 3D image in movie history (and yes, that’s a qualified statement.) The film also features his usual strong heroine in Neytiri, a Cameron regular (Weaver), and his prevailing themes of peace with nature, and using technology as both a destructive and beneficial force (I know the primitive natives are the heroes here, but the avatar technology bridges cultures and pulls some pretty magical crap into the proceedings. Without it, and therefore Jake, the Na’vi would have been crushed.)
Lasting Impact: Still working itself out, although Avatar is likely to be a major film franchise and a big centerpiece for Fox Studios moving forward. Meanwhile, Cameron has turned snake oil salesman , traveling the tech convention circuit to proselytize his 3D technology (for which he owns the patents and stands to make gajillions) as the cure for what ails Hollywood and the rest of visual media, namely the threat of piracy. If he’s right and we’re watching 100% 3D media in 20 years, Avatar will be praised/blamed as a big part of that transition.
Reason for Ranking: The film is well crafted and a nice little throwback to the way action movies used to be made in their heyday, with clearly defined action scenes and bold archetypal characters. While there’s nothing really new here (even Cameron reportedly admits to borrowing elements from John Carter of Mars and Dances With Wolves while crafting the screenplay), there’s rarely anything new anywhere. The trick is in how well a filmmaker presents a particular story, and Avatar presents pretty damn well. That being said, the film’s critics have fairly identified some major issues, primarily with the dialogue, Cameron’s heavy-handed environmental themes, and the persistent need for a safe, Anglo hero to save the savages from themselves (something that Avatar hardly invented.)
That would have played better in the 80s, but not so much these days. I placed it above Titanic because the two films are ultimately very similar in emotional and technical achievement, but I happen to like the Avatar script better. Your mileage may vary. In any case, it doesn’t come close to touching Cameron’s two best films, both sequels. We’ll wait anxiously for Avatar 2 to change our minds.
The James Cameron Project:
5. True Lies
7. The Abyss
For Memorial Day, a movie about war and freedom. And maybe a bit more than bargained for.
Er… Spartacus! Sorry, there’s not really a title screen for this one.
The Film: Based loosely on the historical event, Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is a slave turned gladiator who uses his training and natural leadership skills to organize a revolt against the Roman Republic in the name of freedom and for the woman he loves (Jean Simmons). Spartacus rallies and trains an army powerful enough to threaten Rome, but political maneuvering by the ambitious Crassus (Laurence Olivier), dooms the slave army to defeat and collapses the Republic into a dictatorship. The rebellion ends tragically, but Spartacus and the former slaves die as free men.
The Production: Spartacus is one of the great happy accidents in movie history; it’s a film that has absolutely no business being as good as it is. The idea came from a Kirk Douglas tantrum over losing Ben-Hur to Charlton Heston, the script was penned by a writer from the gloomy Hollywood blacklist, and the film lost director Anthony Mann just days into shooting when he crossed Douglas. (Douglas, for his part, accused Mann of being unsuited for the sheer scale of the picture, although Mann later directed Martin Scorsese’s favorite epic El Cid starring, of course, Charlton Heston. The title translates loosely into English as Fuck Off, Kirk.)
Enter Stanley Kubrick, who had just directed Douglas in the excellent Paths of Glory. Douglas claimed that he knew a star director was on the rise, but it’s just as likely that he thought Kubrick could be controlled. Kubrick, having other ideas, immediately muscled out the cinematographer so that he could do the job himself (ultimately earning an Oscar for the guy), but he was still bound by the casting and the production design work that had been completed before he took the job. The result is a strange blend of studio sensibilities and Kubrick’s subversive thoughts on the sword and sandals genre. The combination proved surprisingly potent, becoming a runaway hit at the box office and instantly transforming Kubrick’s career. He became such a hot commodity that he actually convinced a studio to fund a production of Vladimir Nabokov’s untouchable novel, Lolita.
Best Moment: The “I’m Spartacus” scene that appears near the end of the film is so pervasive in popular culture that it’s become a cliche, rendering it nearly meaningless to new viewers of the film when they finally get to it. Monty Python spoofed it over 30 years ago, for crying out loud. It was even the basis for a pretty good Pepsi commercial.
That scene is still the most famous, but I’m more interested in a scene that wasn’t even in the original theatrical release, and one that’s helped to give the film a certain amount of cultural infamy. I’m referring to the “snails and oysters” scene. During a bath, Crassus seemingly attempts to seduce his slave, Antoninus (Tony Curtis), by musing on the difference between eating oysters and eating snails, and how preferring one over the other is a matter of taste and not of morals. Incidentally, Crassus enjoys both snails and oysters. He questions Antoninus on his own preferences, but finds that the slave has escaped while his back was turned.
I love this scene, and not just for its sly attempt to slip a discussion of homosexuality past the studio and the reeling Hayes Code (they weren’t fooled and the scene was cut.) I love the scene because it’s the most Kubrick of any in the film. Most of Spartacus is straight out of the studio epic playbook, from the look and feel, to the story structure, even the movie’s optimistic tone. Kubrick simply didn’t have the power over this production that he would later command.
This kind of power.
But the snails and oysters scene is Kubrick at his finest. Kubrick shoots the scene from an extreme wide angle, a crucial distancing technique that leaves the audience a little lost and uncomfortable, wondering where to look and who to sympathize with. The dialogue piles on the pressure. Antoninus is a slave and has very little choice in what his master does with him. Even if he objects, and it appears clear that he does, he must stay silent. That leaves a calm and creepy call/response where Crassus walks Antoninus through a calculated seduction, and Antoninus is helpless to escape. His only response is to flee, because the next move from Crassus must surely be force.
This scene fits in perfectly with the Kubrick’s blurred line between sex and warfare, which manifests this time as the power of one man over another. The scene is also a glaring reminder that Kubrick sees this seemingly straightforward epic with a cynic’s eye. The movie just isn’t the same without it.
Lasting Impact: Moderate-to-high. Spartacus was a major financial success, made Stanley Kubrick’s career, and canonized Kirk Douglas as a movie star. The movie routinely appears on lists of great epics, and in 2007, the American Film Institute named Spartacus the 81st best American movie ever made. On the downside, the film hasn’t aged well (although a bit better than Ben-Hur, to Douglas’s credit) and I feel like its influence on modern pop culture is pretty much done. My evidence? The cable channel Starz recently decided that the film was creaky enough to deserve a loud, godawful reboot in the style of Zach Snyder’s 300.
Overall: Need more evidence that Spartacus is an accidental classic? The film enjoys massive success as a war epic despite its complete lack of a war. Only one major battle scene takes place in front of the camera, with the rest of the running time devoted to romances, bromances, and political shenanigans. Spartacus isn’t a war movie. It’s a movie about what happens to four or five people while a big, ugly war tramples around off screen. And mostly it’s about sex.
Kubrick spent the rest of his career revisiting themes he established here in Spartacus, namely the underlying sexual tensions baked into all the violence. It begins early, with a scene where Spartacus the slave is handed a sword and prodded to fight. He refuses and dangles the sword limply by his side. He’s pushed harder by his owner, slapped. As the aggression level rises, so does the sword. Spartacus never moves his arm, but the sword rises slowly to attention, obviously phallic. It’s a throwaway bit, maybe, but Kubrick designed that shot and knew what he was doing. He also designed Antoninus’s death scene where he declares his feelings for Spartacus, the pair of them framed like lovers even as they refer to each other as father and son. These aren’t accidents, nor is it an accident that the film enjoys popularity in the gay community for daring to let the subtext free.
This has to be Kubrick’s influence, because I’m not sure screenwriter Dalton Trumbo would have approved. Trumbo, writer of Gun Crazy, Roman Holiday, and ohholycraphewasjustawesome, was the most famous name on the Hollywood blacklist and might have been feeling just catty enough to puncture some studio stuffed shirts with a oversexed satire, but I don’t buy it. Trumbo’s work just doesn’t have the same bent toward cynicism that Kubrick’s always did. I believe that, much the same as his infamous reading of Red Alert, Kubrick simply saw the story in a different way than it was written and decided to shoot the film as it made sense to him. And who can argue with him, faced with a story in which the fate of Rome and thousands of free men is decided in a war largely about whether it’s Crassus or Spartacus that gets to bed Virinia.
So Spartacus is a weird movie, pulled in two directions by the artist and the suits, somehow held together by a world-class script and great performances (I haven’t even gotten into Peter Ustinov’s Oscar-winning performance as a cowardly slaver or Charles Laughton’s brilliant turn as a shrewd senator), and then elevated by Kubrick’s eye for human triumph and weakness. It shouldn’t hold together, but it does. An accidental classic, but then again, aren’t they all?
The Stanley Kubrick Project
9. Barry Lyndon
11. The Killing
12. Killer’s Kiss
13. Fear and Desire
Without this film, there’s no Bondmania… and maybe no more Bond.
. . .AS IAN FLEMING’S JAMES BOND 007: Sean Connery
SETUP: MI6 suspects a wealthy businessman named Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) of illegal gold smuggling, and they’d like to know how he’s doing it. James Bond takes the assignment after crossing paths with Goldfinger in Miami, a meeting that left a young woman murdered by a spray-on golden tan.
BUT IN REALITY: Goldfinger is indeed smuggling, but it’s the last thing the Brits should be worried about. The real concern is Operation Grand Slam, Goldfinger’s scheme to detonate a nuke inside Fort Knox, back when US currency was still backed by gold. Bond alerts the authorities, triggering a major ground skirmish outside the fort. The bomb is defused (with 007 seconds left, of course) and Bond survives to confront Goldfinger in a private airplane, where the villain is sucked out a window to his death.
VILLAINOUS DISFIGUREMENT: Goldfinger’s only disfigurement is mental: a driving obsession with gold. He smuggles it, collects it, murders with it, and even wields a golden gun long before Bond’s nemesis Scaramanga.
THE MUSCLE: Goldfinger employs Oddjob, a thick, mute, Korean wrestler with a razor-rimmed bowler hat that can cut the heads off of stone statues. Burly, silent, and armed with a deadly gimmick weapon – Oddjob is the model for all the best Bond henchmen to come, including Jaws.
BOND GIRL AND FEMME FATALE: Two of the most famous Bond Girls in franchise history are in this film. The first is Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton), famously killed by gold paint suffocation in the first act of the film. Jill’s sister, Tilly (Tania Mallet), shows up in the middle of the film to avenge her, but she meets a brutal end at the hands of Oddjob and his bowler hat. Instead of decapitation, the hat hits her with enough impact to break her neck and she drops dead in mid-stride.
Once secure in Goldfinger’s clutches, Bond meets the infamous Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman). Pussy is no-nonsense, a crack pilot, and also possibly a lesbian, but Bond manages to seduce her anyway (disturbingly, see below). She immediately joins the winning team, selling out Goldfinger and aiding the feds.
“PAY ATTENTION, 007”: The first classic “Q scene”. Bond visits Q in the gadget room, where he receives his gear for the upcoming mission. Q delivers two things of note here. First, the hands-down, number-one, best Bond gadget of all time, the original Aston Martin DB5, and second, his most famous line: “I never joke about my work, 007.”
MOST EMBARRASSING CULTURAL MOMENT: The ‘60s Bond films are each guilty of at least one embarrassing lapse in judgment, but Goldfinger is so chock full of casual misogyny that I can’t choose just one moment. Bond dismisses a girl from a chat with Felix Leiter by slapping her on her ass and explaining that it’s “man talk.” He later shoves Jill Masterson by the face to get her away from his phone call, which she finds hilarious. He more or less forces himself on Pussy Galore in Goldfinger’s stables which, of course, converts her to Bond’s team (and possibly to men). Audiences at the time ate this stuff up, but these are uncomfortable moments in an otherwise great film.
BOND’S BEST ONE-LINER: “You expect me to talk?” Not a great line, but the setup for the most famous line in Bond history: “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”
WORTH MENTIONING: For once, Bond is on the wrong side of history with his musical taste, telling Jill Masterson she should never listen to The Beatles without earmuffs on…The great Gert Frobe didn’t speak English and had to play the part of Goldfinger by speaking his lines phonetically. His voice is dubbed in the final release… This film was the Avatar of its day, grossing so much money so quickly that it entered the Guinness Book of World Records. This overwhelming audience response became known, inevitably, as “Bondmania.”
OVERALL: Goldfinger is a quintessential Bond film, a movie that perfectly represents what the series is and what the franchise strives to deliver. It has action and adventure, gadgets and absurdities, sophistication and class, a world-stomping villain and a legendary lady. Goldfinger is also a required Bond film for any newcomers who want to know the series and find out what the noise is about. If only one James Bond movie survives into the next millennium, this would be the one. It’s too iconic to die.
This may seem like a surprise to some, since Goldfinger has no big aspirations to cultural infamy. It’s a saccharine piece of pop entertainment, a fantasy film built around a superspy too good to be true and a supervillain too big to exist. Auric Goldfinger (even his first name begins with AU) is like a psychotic from Batman’s rogues gallery, singularly obsessed with sticking to a theme. He collects gold to do what? Spend it? Then he’d have less and his enemies would have more. Besides, he’s got too many possessions in need of gold plating. It the ultimate insult when he kills Jill Masterson with gold paint; he must be really angry with a girl if he’s willing to part with gold to end her life.
The film’s lasting power comes from the broad, well-crafted script from Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn, but also from the magnetic performance of Sean Connery, who finally fully realizes the Bond character after spending his first two films working out the kinks. Goldfinger gives him a challenge worthy of a mega hero, lines worth saying, and then plenty of room to maneuver. The film would be nice enough with another actor, but Connery carries it on his shoulders up and over the finish line, just as Harrison Ford with Indiana Jones or Johnny Depp with Pirates of the Caribbean. Connery will never be topped as Bond, and that’s because it’s not a competition. Bond is his role, and Goldfinger proves that. Everyone else is just playing the part.
11. Dr. No
14. Live and Let Die
15. Licence to Kill
22. A View to a Kill
The second Bond movie and the second best ever made.
. . .AS IAN FLEMING’S JAMES BOND 007: Sean Connery
SETUP: A Russian SMERSH operative named Tatiana Romanova contacts MI6 with a fantastic story. She claims to have fallen in love with James Bond from a file photograph and wishes to defect to be with him. Even better, she’ll throw in a top-secret Lektor Decoder if Bond travels to Istanbul personally to pick her up. Is it a trap?
BUT IN REALITY: Obviously, yes, of course it’s a trap, but SMERSH is innocent. The villainous SPECTRE organization, led by former SMERSH agent Rosa Klebb, has cooked this whole thing up in an effort to steal the Lektor, make a tidy profit by selling it back to the Russians, and in the process avenge Dr. No’s death by killing Bond. Poor Tatiana is caught in the middle as SPECTRE plays one side against the other, and when the plan goes down, Bond has to escape across land and sea to get the Lektor, Tatiana, and himself back into friendly territory.
VILLAINOUS DISFIGUREMENT: Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) has no physical deformities, save for a passing resemblance to Yoda, but there are some mean-spirited suggestions that she’s is a lesbian and that basically counted as a mental illness at the time.
THE MUSCLE: This is one of the rare Bond movies that allows the henchman to steal the show. Donald ‘Red’ Grant is an Aryan, muscular assassin trained specifically to kill Bond. He spends the first half of the film acting as Bond’s guardian angel to keep SPECTRE’s plan intact, but once Bond has the Lektor, Grant moves in for the kill. His final battle with Bond is one of the action highlights of the entire series. A true classic villain, played with perfect menace by Robert Shaw.
BOND GIRL AND FEMME FATALE: Tatiana (Daniela Bianchi) fits the early Bond Girl profile perfectly. She begins as a femme fatale, playfully luring Bond to his doom. Once she’s rolled in the sheets with our hero, her heart miraculously thaws and she repents of all her wicked ways. The role is rather standard, but Bianchi brings quirk to the performance and ends up as one of the most memorable Bond Girls from the Connery era.
“PAY ATTENTION, 007”: Not the first appearance of Major Boothroyd/Q, but the first appearance of Desmond Llewellyn in the role. He delivers Bond a stylish briefcase, which is like a one-stop shop of gadgetry. Throughout the case are a bundle of hidden objects, such as gold sovereigns, throwing knives, tear gas canisters, and even a sniper rifle. Bond gets his mileage out of the case, using it in almost every critical moment and turning it against Red Grant in their final showdown.
MOST EMBARASSING CULTURAL MOMENT: Bond’s randy Turkish ally, Kerim Bay, takes him to a gypsy camp to lay low. By a stroke of luck, they arrive just as two gypsy women throw down in a catfight/deathmatch for the hand of the chief’s son. The ladies rip clothes and claw at each other while Bond gives the situation the gravity it deserves. Bond asks the chief to settle their argument, and he does so by giving both women to Bond for the night. Even better, none of this is relevant to the plot or ever mentioned again.
BOND’S BEST ONE-LINER: After Rosa Klebb fails in her attempt to assassinate Bond with a shoe-knife: “She had her kicks.”
WORTH MENTIONING: Final appearance of Sylvia Trench, who was meant to be Bond’s frustrated regular love interest. Somewhere between this movie and Goldfinger, Bond lost her number… The novel was one of John F. Kennedy’s personal favorites, and the film is reportedly the last he saw before his death… First film appearance of the villain Blofeld, although he’s not mentioned in the credits.
OVERALL: Yeah, this was a close one.
From Russia with Love is one hell of a spy movie, a textbook Cold War potboiler improved by the presence of a superhero. And, make no mistake, that’s what James Bond is. The villains set up their scheme like a rat trap, coaxing the agent in with a prize (the code machine possibly, the woman definitely) and then quickly snapping the trap shut around him. The rest of the film is about watching the impossibly crafty Bond slip through the bars and dodge the broom without so much as mussing his hair. Maybe Bond can’t spin webs or hulk out, but his superpower is that he’s more awesome than you.
And he needed to be. As much as I admire Dr. No, it barely holds together as a movie. The tone is uneven, it’s bogged down with details, and really only succeeds in suggesting Bond as a character. From Russia with Love was the game-changer. Bond was cool. Bond was very cool. In fact, it’s this movie, not the superior sequel, that branded the attitude and slick machismo that made James Bond a megafranchise. There’s a reason that EA looked to this film when looking to sell a retro action game to the modern market.
Notice that I called From Russia with Love a spy movie and not an action movie, and that’s important. The film drags in its early scenes, there mostly to pad out a story that boils down to “go get something and then bring it back.” In fact, it’s these dead scenes – the intrigue in Turkey, mostly – that hold the movie back from an even higher rank, because once it gets moving, it flies.
I love the train scenes in this movie. I love Robert Shaw’s Red Grant, and the way he adds tension to even a casual conversation in the dinner car, or how carefully he stalks Bond throughout the course of the movie, like the slasher in some teen horror movie. I love the exploding briefcase and the late-film chase (quietly lifted from North by Northwest’s cornfield by swapping a bi-plane for a helicopter.) I love Tatiana and her conflicted loyalties, and Rosa Klebb’s shoe knife, and the opening hedge maze with its doomed Bond lookalike. Mostly, I just love this movie.
But there’s one Bond movie I love even more.
11. Dr. No
14. Live and Let Die
15. Licence to Kill
22. A View to a Kill