Archive for category Bond
I’m moving this week, and my last two Kubrick Project posts are delayed. I have big plans to unveil them both on the same day, but don’t quote me on that. In the meantime, I wanted to take a moment to honor a screenwriter who never got enough credit.
Unfortunately, Tom Mankiewicz isn’t big enough news to hog coverage from oil wells and political wrassling, but if you take a stroll through the movie blog community today, many of us are in mourning. Casual movie fans may not know his name, but trust me when I say Mankiewicz has had a presence in your life.
Mankiewicz, who passed this week at 68, had a prolific career in fantasy action films, most notably in the James Bond series, which obviously has seen a lot of love on this particular blog. When I did the James Bond Project, I treated Bond the character as the auteur, and specifically avoided talking about the Broccoli family or the group of writers and directors that made their mark in the series, but of all the writers who have worked with Bond over the years, Mankiewicz is one of a select group who deserve special attention. Mankiewicz was a screenwriter and a hell of a good one, perfectly suited to the outsized world of James Bond. Mankiewicz specialized in the big image, major set pieces that dominated the films they were found in. Ever seen an action movie and found yourself underwhelmed, unable to remember a single awesome moment to rave about later at the bar? That was not a Mankiewicz film. Whatever else he was good at, Mankiewicz knew how to build a moment, and even his weaker scripts are filled with memorable action and iconic dialogue. Among the movies that Mankiewicz worked on:
And before someone craps on Superman II, keep in mind that Mankiewicz had nothing to do with the Richard Lester edits that turned the movie into a silly mess, and in fact he made the restored “Richard Donner cut” one of his final working projects, helping Donner put the movie back together as Mankiewicz’s screenplay originally laid it out. And he did all of this after being royally shafted out of his screen credit on both Superman II and the original classic.
All of the movies I posted above are great examples of the big image, and even though there are a lot of flaws represented up there, each of them made a big impact on the fantasy of the movies. Yes ,”movie magic”. That was Mankiewicz’s specialty, and that’s who we lost this week.
PS: Mankiewicz also took a shot at directing and helmed the 1991 John Candy comedy, Delirious. I love that movie, but I always seem to find myself sipping punch alone at the fan club meeting. Surely an oversight.
See, I don’t have an agenda against Roger Moore.
. . .AS IAN FLEMING’S JAMES BOND 007: Roger Moore
SETUP: Two nuclear submarines, one British and one Russian, are stolen straight from the sea. Figuring that the subs must have been tracked, both governments take interest in a man selling a black market tracking system in Cairo. British agent James Bond and Russian agent Anya Amasova (Agent “Triple-X”) descend on Cairo with competing missions to retrieve the tracking system and find out who stole their subs.
BUT IN REALITY: The subs were stolen by shipping magnate and all-around psychopath Karl Stromberg (Curd Jurgens) using his gigantic sub-swallowing supertanker. He commandeers the subs to launch nukes at New York and Moscow, hoping to trigger a nuclear holocaust so that he can begin a new civilization under the sea. Bond and Anya steal aboard the tanker where Bond stages a mutiny with the rescued sailors. Bond tricks the subs into destroying each other, then raids Stromberg’s aquatic lair “Atlantis”, providing Stromberg with a brutal death at sea.
VILLAINOUS DISFIGUREMENT: Stromberg is singularly obsessed with ocean life, perhaps feeling more at home in the sea than on land because of his webbed hands and feet. We never get a great look at his little mutie flippers, but they keep Stromberg from basic niceties, like shaking hands with Bond.
THE MUSCLE: Fittingly for a film set at sea, Stromberg employs steel-toothed henchman Jaws (Richard Kiel). Jaws is the real star of the show, played for genuine scares here and not saddled with the comedy beats he’d have to manage in Moonraker. Incidentally, Steven Spielberg’s little shark movie had arrived two years earlier, leaving some doubt that the character’s name was a coincidence.
BOND GIRL AND FEMME FATALE: Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach) is every bit Bond’s equal and one of the all-time best Bond girls. For once, Bond’s love interest isn’t quivering in a corner waiting for the hero to rescue her. Triple-X takes an active role in the film’s action, and even shows Bond up once or twice. (Well, until she is captured, but shit happens.)
Better yet, there’s some legitimate tension built into their relationship. We see Bond kill Triple-X’s spy lover in the film’s opening sequence, causing Triple-X to swear revenge on his murderer. As we watch Amasova and Bond fight together and fall in love, we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop and for Triple-X to realize she’s flirting with her sworn enemy. When she finally does, Amasova promises to kill Bond as soon as the mission is over, making her the default femme fatale as well. Of course she changes her mind in the film’s final moments, but the tension gives her relationship with Bond a slight note of complexity and enhances the movie.
“PAY ATTENTION, 007”: Q supplies Bond with the Lotus Esprit, the submarine car that was a big hit with audiences at the time. Late in the movie, when Bond needs to rescue Anya from Stromberg’s lair, Q returns with a jet ski that fits in a gym bag.
MOST EMBARRASSING CULTURAL MOMENT: Yep, Triple-X is Bond’s equal in every way. Every way except that she can’t drive a stick. That’s right, Russia’s top agent is just another woman driver who can’t seem to get a truck into gear, even when threatened by an angry Jaws. Bond, wallowing in his masculinity, gives her unhelpful one-liners from the passenger seat until they finally escape.
BOND’S BEST ONE-LINER: Watching a henchman plummet to his death, surrounded by feathers from a chicken truck collision – “All those feathers, and he still can’t fly.”
WORTH MENTIONING: The music that plays while Bond and Anya are stranded in the desert is the Lawrence of Arabia theme… Steven Spielberg was approached about directing this film, but he was in pre-production on Jaws and it was decided that he shouldn’t be hired until it was known whether he was any good… Jaws was originally scripted to die in the film’s climax, ironically eaten by a killer shark. The producers correctly guessed that Jaws might be an audience favorite, so they quickly rewrote the ending and allowed the henchman to survive.
OVERALL: I’ve said before that Roger Moore has one very specific note he can play. His style is a chemical, a particularly volatile one that can wreck a formula if you mix him with the wrong ingredients. But sometimes you can get the formula just right and it all comes together. The Spy Who Loved Me is exactly that rare mix, and it holds up as one of the best of the 1970s Bond movies.
Moore was in his third film as Bond and here he finally manages to shake the last of Sean Connery’s influence from the role and really make it his own, dragging the plot along for the ride. There’s not a scene in the film that seems fit for Connery’s Bond. There’s a dry wit at play in the borders of every scene, and every setup reeks of Moore’s personality, as if the actor simply conjured a fantasy world in which his Bond belonged. It’s Moore as The Singing Detective.
The most impressive thing about The Spy Who Loved Me is the balancing act that the script demands. It has to be quirky at times, even corny, while still holding on to its sustained menace. One scene on a train works particularly well. Bond and Triple-X banter and jab at each other with a sitcom-like rhythm, until Bond opens a closet and comes face to face with Jaws. His appearance cues a shrill train whistle and an intense, oddly silent battle begins. I’ve seen this film a number of times, and the scene never fails to get a reaction, but, sure enough, as soon as Jaws is sent out of the train window, a Bond one-liner resets the mood and releases the tension. Well played.
This isn’t my favorite Roger Moore Bond movie, but it’s close. Unfortunately, Stromberg is completely upstaged here by his hulking minion and there’s a a bit too much familiarity between the supertanker and the shuttle-stealing spacecraft from You Only Live Twice. Still, it’s a worthy addition to the top ten and a great place to kick off if you’re interested on seeing just why Roger Moore was a 70s icon. You could certainly do worse.
11. Dr. No
14. Live and Let Die
15. Licence to Kill
22. A View to a Kill
I missed Monday completely due to a minor mishap. Holiday posting is a tricky thing. We’ll be back on track this coming Monday, for sure. In the meantime, we open the top ten with…
. . .AS IAN FLEMING’S JAMES BOND 007: Sean Connery.
SETUP: A British agent named Strangways disappears while investigating strange transmissions in the vicinity of Jamaica. James Bond, a Double-O agent working for MI6, arrives to track down the missing spy and uncover the source of the transmissions.
BUT IN REALITY: Strangways had tracked the rogue signals to Crab Key, a secluded island owned by a man named Doctor No (Joseph Wiseman), but was killed before he could report his findings. Bond discovers that No is using nuclear reactors (somehow) to drop US and Soviet rockets into the ocean, presumably to hold the world hostage or force a global showdown or some such thing.
Bond slips onto Crab Key, escapes capture, and sets the reactor to meltdown. He drops Doctor No into the reactor pond, bagging his first megalomaniacal villain bent on total destruction.
VILLAINOUS DISFIGUREMENT: Dr. No is a disgraced Chinese scientist who focused his skills on the mad quest to bring the world powers to their knees and prove that they were wrong to dismiss him. His obsession with radioactivity has cost him his hands, which he compensates for with shiny metal replacements, capable of killer kung-fu grip.
THE MUSCLE: Doctor No’s go-to henchman is Dent, a murderous geologist, but he also employs a trio of assassins that masquerade as blind men for no clear reason. Apparently, it’s slim pickings in paradise.
Turning to technology to salvage his evil reputation, No has a flame-throwing tank that he paints like a dragon to scare the locals away from his island.
BOND GIRL AND FEMME FATALE: After a brief appearance from Sylvia Trench (a character intended to be Bond’s regular love interest, but dropped by the third film), Bond meets the lovely Honey Ryder, played memorably by Ursula Andress. Ryder’s bikini-clad emergence from the water is a classic moment in the series, setting a high standard for all future Bond Girls.
Bond’s femme fatale in this one is Miss Taro (Zena Marshall), a secretary that Bond spots as a double-agent the very moment he meets her. Bond arranges a date, charms her, sleeps with her at least twice, and then tosses her into custody so he can use her house as a trap for Dent.
“PAY ATTENTION, 007”: Desmond Llewellyn hadn’t been hired yet, but Major “Q” Boothroyd (the “armorer” as M calls him) does show up. He contributes only a gun, but what a gun! Boothroyd forces Bond to switch out his beloved Beretta for a new Walther PPK. It’s a good switch for Bond. He’ll use the PPK for nearly 40 years, all the way until Tomorrow Never Dies.
MOST EMBARRASSING CULTURAL MOMENT: Casting the Canadian Joseph Wiseman to play the half-Chinese mad doctor is bad, but not quite as embarrassing as the depiction of Quarrel (John Kitzmiller), Bond’s helpful boat captain sidekick. Quarrel is Jamaican, and a somewhat proud and heroic character. Unfortunately, he’s also portrayed as a backwards, superstitious island native who believes in dragons and has no use for fancy luxuries like charts and maps, seemingly navigating by his gut and the hoodoo in the wind. He’s eventually burned to death, screaming, by the Dragon Tank.
BOND’S BEST ONE-LINER: After surviving a car chase that sends his opponent’s vehicle to the bottom of a cliff, Bond quips “I think they were on their way to a funeral.” This is officially the first Bond film one-liner, the great-great-grandfather of all of those Christmas jokes that would come later.
WORTH MENTIONING: Bond’s American counterpart Felix Leiter is played by Jack Lord, future star of “Hawaii Five-O”… The iconic gun barrel opens this first Bond movie, but it’s not Sean Connery playing the role. Instead, stunt man Bob Simmons plays the part in silhouette, making him the first actor to ever play Bond in the official series, a fact of great interest to people who want to win bar bets like an asshole… In No’s dining room, Bond double-takes as he passes a painting. The painting is Goya’s The Duke of Wellington, and it had caused international headlines earlier that year when it was stolen from a British museum. It turns out that Dr. No had it all along.
OVERALL: I’m never sure if Bond purists will be happy that I rank this movie as high as I did, or if they will be pissed I didn’t rank it even higher. Despite its issues, the film has a lot of apologists simply because it’s the first. Without “Dr. No”, we wouldn’t have had 40 years of films to be able to sit back and enjoy, and Bond movies are more than simple entertainment to a lot of people. The character is an institution in international cinema, a modern myth cycle that has a life of its own, spawning countless imitations and celebrations. It all started here. If this film had failed to connect, or had it been a total bore, we wouldn’t be talking about the series today. Clearly, somebody was doing something right.
On the other hand, Dr. No’s issues are hard to ignore. The standard Bond formula hadn’t yet been established, and the film openly struggles to find its voice. The action is sparse, and the pacing is sluggish at times. This does leave room for interesting character moments, such as one of my favorite scenes in the entire series, in which Bond returns to his hotel room to find it has been raided by his enemies and he chooses to deal with it by sipping a cold, lonely drink in the dark. Unfortunately, it also drags the film to a halt at times. Dr. No can be a tough watch.
That’s not all bad. The film’s patient pacing leads to a satisfying third act, including an escape act that takes Bond through an overheated and electrified series of ducts, his crisp and cool demeanor flaking off until he resembles the killer he actually is. The good news is that future films would improve and refine the formula. Ultimately Dr. No is a novelty, a classically-minded thriller that held the rest of the series inside it, all potential. Still, for Bond fanatics, the film is an indispensable classic. Warts and all.
The James Bond Project
11. Dr. No
14. Live and Let Die
15. Licence to Kill
19. Die Another Day
22. A View to a Kill
Today’s film is the first from the only Bond that belongs purely in the 80s. It’s…
. . .AS IAN FLEMING’S JAMES BOND 007: Timothy Dalton
SETUP: Bond narrowly escapes death as a routine training exercise becomes the scene of an assassination. Two other agents die in the attack, the only clue a piece of paper scrawled with the words smiert spionam, or “death to spies.”
On an unrelated mission, Bond assists in the defection of a Russian general named Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé), shooting at a beautiful amateur sniper in the process. The KGB quickly steals Koskov back, but not before the general identifies smiert spionam as a new Russian op targeting western agents. Suspicious, Bond tracks down the “sniper” (actually a civilian cellist named Kara Milovy) to get more information.
BUT IN REALITY: Koskov is a profiteer, funneling Russian funds to an arms dealer named Whitaker (Joe Don Baker) to fund an opium deal, or some such thing. Koskov faked the defection and invented smiert spionam to frame a Russian leader named Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies) before he can uncover Koskov’s plan. Bond fakes Pushkin’s death to draw out Koskov, then follows the general to Afghanistan where he destroys the deal before it go down, then chunks the opium from a plane. Bond kills Whitaker in a shootout and Koskov goes into Russian custody where he’s presumably killed off screen.
VILLAINOUS DISFIGUREMENT: The movie has two primary villains, a demand of its complicated plot. Koskov is a bit smarmy, but he’s supposed to hold power over women and thus has no scars or markings.
Arms dealer Whitaker’s disfigurement is mental. He’s a narcissist and a megalomaniac, obsessed with military prowess, despite never serving in the military. His hideout is filled with wax statues of famous tyrants and warmongers like Hitler and Ghengis Khan, all with Whitaker’s face.
THE MUSCLE: Koskov employs Necros (Andreas Wisniewski) as a special troubleshooter and assassin. Despite the dramatic flourish in his name, Necros is a bit vanilla. He looks like a ballet dancer and uses exploding milk bottles to kill, seriously. He’s always reminded me of the vague European minions in the Die Hard films and other 80s action flicks. Forgettable, really.
BOND GIRL AND FEMME FATALE: Kara Milovy (Maryam D’abo) is an accidental femme fatale. She’s madly in love with Koskov and has no idea that she’s a loose end he hopes to snip off. When called into action, Kara drugs Bond and delivers him into Koskov’s hands, but she has the sense to feel bad about it later. Like Necros and Koskov, the character is bland, but D’abo is a stunning and memorable Bond girl. After the film, D’abo produced a special called Bond Girls Are Forever, a tribute to the women who have spent 40 years suffering through Bond’s creaky double entendres.
“PAY ATTENTION, 007”: The producers felt continuity was important to establish Dalton as Bond, so Q provides a very traditional scene down in Q labs, equipping Bond with a new Aston Martin, a universal skeleton key, and a key chain that can either release toxic gas or blow up, depending on which tune Bond whistles.
MOST EMBARRASING CULTURAL MOMENT: Changing Moneypenny from the classy professional Lois Maxwell played for 14 films to an 80s office nerd, squinting lovesick eyes at Bond from behind dish-sized glasses.
BOND’S BEST ONE-LINER: Sledding through a mountain checkpoint on a converted cello case, “We have nothing to declare!”
WORTH MENTIONING: The opening sequence was designed to create confusion over which agent was the new Bond. The actor playing 002 was chosen for his resemblance to Roger Moore while 004 was selected because he looked like George Lazenby… Joe Don Baker, who played Whitaker in this movie, also plays CIA agent Jack Wade in two Pierce Brosnan Bond films, Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies… The original choice to play Bond in this film was Pierce Brosnan, but he was called back by NBC at the last minute to shoot a fifth season of “Remington Steele.” The part then went to Dalton who had ironically turned it down twice in the past.
OVERALL: Hardcore Bond fans out there might be surprised to see this film rank so low. While hardly a classic, most agree that The Living Daylights is a decent movie and easily better than Dalton’s hated follow-up Licence to Kill, but I can’t agree and I’ll happily take this chance to prove that a Bond film doesn’t have to be cheesy or campy to suck.
The movie hangs its convoluted plot on current events, including the Russian occupation of Afghanistan and the western war on drugs, but it’s nowhere near enough to overcome the poor writing and weak enemies. Bond villains are ruthless and intelligent, but the idiots in this movie have already been figured out by the Russians before the film even starts and spend the rest of the story on the run. Bond pulls ahead of the plot almost immediately and never seems to be in any real danger of failing. Koskov and Whitaker are guys Bond should be dealing with over a weekend, not his opponents in a major film adventure. Without a strong opposition, there are no stakes, and without stakes, the audience can’t get attached to the action. I couldn’t care less about the opium or about Whitaker’s arms deal. The freedom fighters in Afghanistan could provide interest, except that Pushkin and the Russians aren’t portrayed as villains, but rather friendly competition with the Brits over who will get to take Koskov down.
The movie does have a few highlights. The opening sequence is fun, and the Aston Martin chase is a winner. Best of all, Timothy Dalton really gets the character. His performance is hard-bitten and intense, the kind of low smolder that Ian Fleming put into the page character and that no actor, not even Connery, had ever quite nailed. At the time, following the popular Roger Moore, critics accused Dalton of being humorless and much too serious, exactly the traits that Daniel Craig uses today to critical acclaim. Poor Dalton, punished for being ahead of his time.
The James Bond Project
16. The Living Daylights
19. Die Another Day
22. A View to a Kill
Next on the Bond countdown is a bizarre movie that could almost work as a surreal fantasy if not for a few fatal mistakes. It’s the 5th Bond movie produced…
AS IAN FLEMING’S JAMES BOND 007: Sean Connery
SETUP: A US space capsule disappears, literally snatched from orbit by another craft. The Americans blame the Russians and heat up the Cold War, while the British insist that the rogue attack craft originated somewhere near Japan. MI6 puts their best agent, James Bond, on the case, but the credits haven’t even started before he’s gunned down by Hong Kong assassins.
BUT IN REALITY: Obviously Bond isn’t dead, although that might have made for an interesting movie. Bond faked his assassination to confuse SPECTRE and provide much needed freedom while moving through the Japanese underworld. The enemy craft is crucial to SPECTRE master Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s plan to send the superpowers into a shooting war, and Bond enlists the aid of Japanese agent Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba) and his army of ninjas to infiltrate Blofeld’s volcano base and put a stop to the plan. Blofeld escapes, but the war is averted.
VILLAINOUS DISFIGUREMENT: Blofeld was an unseen presence in the original Bond films, always stroking his pet cat and cruelly slaughtering minions whenever they failed to kill Bond or complete their master plans.
This movie pushed Blofeld to the front lines for the very first time, casting Donald Pleasance in the role and revealing both Blofeld’s face and his wicked eye scar. This look later served as the blueprint for Mike Myers’s Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers spoofs.
THE MUSCLE: Having presumably killed every minion he’s ever bothered to hire, Blofeld is down to a Japanese businessman named Osato, a fiery redhead named Helga Brandt (more on her below), and an anonymous army of color-coded henchmen. There’s not a real killer in the bunch. I guess I’d have to pass the honors to Blofeld’s pet piranha, kept well-fed by their master’s firing policy.
Yeah, he’s tough, but make it one year working for Blofeld and you can write your own ticket in the super villain community.
BOND GIRL AND FEMME FATALE: Bond’s first love in the film is Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi), Tanaka’s partner and Bond’s guide through Japan. Unfortunately, Aki suffers a decidedly brutal death courtesy of ninja poison dropped on her lips in the night. Bond moves on and takes a sham Japanese wife to go undercover in the fishing village. The wife, Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama) although she’s never named in the film, is instrumental to getting Bond inside the volcano and bringing back Tanaka’s ninjas as backup. She’s great.
The femme fatale is Helga Brandt (Karin Dor), a ruthless SPECTRE agent who threatens Bond, sleeps with Bond, and then tries to crash an airplane carrying Bond, all pretty much during the same scene. She meets her death in the piranha pool, obviously.
“PAY ATTENTION, 007”: Bond brings Q to Japan to acquire “Little Nellie,” a gyrocopter equipped with missiles, flame throwers, and the cutest name a gyrocopter ever did have. Q exits after the Nellie scene, but Bond scores some additional equipment from Tanaka, including a gun hidden within a cigarette that saves Bond from execution at a dramatically appropriate moment.
BOND’S BEST ONE-LINER: “I just might retire to here,” spoken after learning that in Japan, men come first and women come second. (*ahem*)
MOST EMBARRASSING CULTURAL MOMENT: This.
For some reason, Bond can only investigate the fishing village and the nearby volcano if he’s disguised as a simple Japanese fisherman. Tanaka accomplishes this by dying Bond’s skin, waxing his chest hair, giving him a Spock wig, and using prosthetic implants to alter his eyes. The result is exactly what you see: Sean Connery with goofy makeup on. This, plus a bucket of other offenses such as Bond going through “ninja class”, give this film a cultural infamy few Bond films can match.
WORTH MENTIONING: The screenplay was written by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author Roald Dahl, which actually makes a strange amount of sense… This is the first of three consecutive films to feature Blofeld as the primary villain, but he would never be played by the same actor twice, or even have the same makeup. Incidentally, the third Blofeld (Charles Gray, who we saw in Diamonds are Forever) appears in this movie as Henderson, Bond’s ill-fated British contact… Sean Connery was fed up with playing the Bond role by this point in his career and only agreed to this film for a hefty pay raise. He fled the series for the next film, although he would return for one last run in Diamonds are Forever.
OVERALL: This is a tough one. Depending on who you ask, You Only Live Twice is either one of the best Bond movies that has ever been made, or it’s one of the worst. I think it’s an interesting film, an example of a franchise in transition, unsure of what, exactly, it wants to be.
This was the first Bond movie to significantly depart from its source novel, an important marker. The franchise was on its own for the first time, trying to decide what tone to strike and what kind of action and adventure it should create (mostly) from scratch. The decision was to go BIG. From the mammoth volcano set to the Little Nellie helicopter dogfight, the script’s set pieces are huge and larger than life, bigger than anything seen so far in the series and establishing the tone for the wilder, wackier Bonds to come.
And it mostly works. The whimsical script blends nicely with director Lewis Gilbert’s comic strip aesthetic, giving the movie a fun, campy tone that never wears out its welcome. By the time Tanaka’s army of screaming ninjas storm Blofeld’s volcano, it feels natural. Of course ninjas and hollowed out volcanoes. How else was this supposed to end?
But is it good Bond? The shift in tone from the four earlier Bond movies to this one is stark, and Sean Connery’s performance suffers as a result. He plays his part seemingly on the verge of rolling his eyes, going through the motions until he can make his escape. It doesn’t help that Blofeld shows up way too late in the film to offer any kind of real menace or threat, leaving Bond to wander aimlessly around office buildings and corridors until the action finally comes to him. The film is spectacle, but not entirely spectacular.
Worst of all, there’s no escaping the cartoonish and absurd “transformation” that Bond undergoes, one of the few elements retained from the novel and one that undoubtedly works better sitting on the page than just lying there on the screen, assaulting our suspension of disbelief. This embarrassment would have been buried and forgotten already if You Only Live Twice was a lesser film or part of a forgotten franchise. As it is, the film is permanently relevant to Bond fans, leading to those pesky debates about its quality. Me? I don’t love it, I don’t hate it, and I’m quite happy to move on to something else.
The James Bond Project
17. You Only Live Twice
19. Die Another Day
22. A View to a Kill