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James Bond

This may be Daniel Craig’s last Bond, which is a shame, because it’s really awful and his turn revived the series. Like Skyfall before it, we again find ourselves delving into Bond’s psyche, but unlike the previous installment, the action sequences in Spectre are humdrum, the plot is even simpler and more obvious, its execution is lazy (at one point, without even a hint of foreshadowing, Bond procures a plane in a matter of 30 seconds, and he ain’t on an airfield), it recycles (an old building collapses in Mexico City, just like an old building collapsed in Venice in Casino Royale) and the bad guy – Christoph Waltz – is barely part of the film.  When Waltz’s true, hilarious motive is revealed, I guess his scarcity makes some sense.  That motive is the only thing that hints at a sense of humor but the inducement of chuckles was assuredly unintentional.  Otherwise, we are apparently supposed to take this seriously.

Director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) doesn’t help matters by focusing on visually striking images above all else. Bond seems to simply appear from the mist in every scene, impeccably and nattily tailored, and after enough of these fashionista turns, the movie feels more like a cologne or car commercial than a picture. Bond romances a woman (the underused Monica Bellucci) against a big mirror in the vast open room of a Roman villa, and you can’t believe the scene does not end with “Obsession. By Calvin Klein.”

Spectre is also cursed by the most vacuous Bond girl since Tanya Roberts. Leya Seydoux is the daughter of his nemesis. In, I am guessing, her late 20s, she is a brilliant and accomplished psychologist with inconvenient but lush offices in the Austrian Alps (she actually has Bond fill out a medical questionnaire; oh to have seen his answers under the section “Sexually Transmitted Diseases”). She’s also weightless and dull as dishwater. It’s as if the producers went out of their way to find a French Taylor Swift.

Finally, Mendes has elevated Bond to the status of super hero.  As he escapes Waltz’s lair (Waltz is experimenting on him with drills for reasons that still don’t make any sense to me but harkens uncomfortably back to Dr. Evil), he manages to blow the entire installation up with a gunshot while killing a dozen heavily armed henchmen with a handgun.  After taking a vicious beating at the hands of a new thug – Dave Bautista, who promises to be a recurring figure ala’ Jaws – Bond and Seydoux are quickly dusted off for a quickie looking no worse for wear; indeed, they actually look better.  And at the end, Bond simply snaps cuffs off of his wrist, one presumes by the mere force of his personality.  Yes, Bond is an exceptional assassin, but one of the joys of Craig was the return to a gut-level, human 007.  Now, he’s Captain America.  Or Captain England.

Even the Sam Smith song is godawful, as is its accompanying, bizarre title sequence.  Poorly done all around.

Even this cannot save the ridiculously coiffed, barely interested Pierce Brosnan in the last of his four Bond films. Shockingly, even though Austin Powers had been released five years earlier, this Bond film amped up the cheese, provided a cartoonishly mwahahaaa villain (Toby Stephens), an ice fortress, Duran Duran video slow-motion, enough sexual double entendres to shame Roger Moore, Halle Berry uttering the line “read this bitch!” to baddie Rosamund Pike, and perhaps the most laughable stunt in the series.

Bond gains entrance to the villain’s lair because a guard takes a leak at an inopportune time.  You can hear the toilet flushing.  Hilarious.  Daniel Craig arrived in the nick of time.

Late Roger Moore Bond films, with the cornball quips and the hideous 80s fashion, obscure the fact that Moore used to be a pretty cool James Bond.  After the confusion of George Lazenby’s bizarre withdrawal from the series having only done one film (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) Sean Connery was hurried back to woo Jill St. John in Diamonds are Forever for a then-astronomical $1 million.  But Connery was finished, so Moore was signed up (he’d already played a secret agent – Simon Templar – on television’s The Saint) .

Live and Let Die has Bond tracking Dr. Kananga (Yaphett Kotto), the dictator of a small Caribbean nation, after MI6 agents start dropping like flies.  Kananga is into drugs and voodoo, using Solitaire (Jane Seymour) and her gift with tarot cards to his advantage (until Bond deflowers her and she loses her “sight”).  Paul McCartney and Wings produced a rollicking theme (ranked number two here), there is a tremendous cigarette boat race, and Bond effectuates one of his better escapes from a Florida crocodile farm.

The new Bond presents as unflappable, as well as perpetually amused.  He’s also the horniest of the Bonds.  Moore, who just wrote a book on his time as Bond, articulated both his admiration for current Bond Daniel Craig and his own ethos:  “Now they’ve found the Bond—Daniel Craig…. I always said Sean played Bond as a killer and I played Bond as a lover. I think that Daniel Craig is even more of a killer. He has this superb intensity; he’s a glorious actor.”

Moore also identified his principal weakness as Bond: “Quite honestly, I do everything the same and I think everything comes out the same, whether I’m flinching as James Bond or raising my eyebrows as Simon Templar.”  His casualness often borders on disinterest and a certain “mailing it in” approach results.

As for the film, it has two primary faults.  First, an annoying Louisiana good ole’ boy, Sheriff Pepper (Clifton James), brought in for broad, Jerry Lewisesque comic relief.  Second, a very poor finale, with Kanaga dispatched in a manner way beyond the special effects capabilities of the time.

Daniel Craig’s second turn as Bond is not as brisk and bracing as Casino Royale.  Coming off the loss of the love of his life (pretending, of course, that George Lazenby and Pierce Brosnan never lost their hearts to Diana Rigg and Teri Hatcher),* Bond is bitter and ultra-violent, and he is made more so after an attempt on M’s (Judi Dench) life.  As he investigates, M upbraids him for killing all his leads, but Bond is driven, uncovering a sophisticated plot by faux-environmentalist Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) to corner the market on a precious resource.

The plot is serviceable, and the film sports three exciting and audacious action sequences – car chase, boat chase, plane chase – and a thrilling shootout finale.  Amalric is also an interesting villain, not quite charming or brilliant, but casually efficient and super-creepy.  And of all the secondary Bond girls, Quantum features my favorite, Gemma Arterton as

Strawberry Fields

There is also a virtuoso surveillance scene during a performance of Tosca at the open air Opera building in Bregenz, Austria, as well as intriguing backtstabbing between British surveillance and the CIA, which allows for the use of a deft Felix Lighter (Geoffrey Wright).

On the downside, after the death of Vesper (Eva Green) in Casino, Bond is perhaps too brooding in this flick, and the angst-level is often very high.  But you could have easily predicted the charge of excessive-seriousness, as if there were some bizarre nostalgia for the bonhomie of Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan.   Given that director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland, The Kite Runner) doesn’t come from action stock, it is easy to conclude that was perhaps taking itself too seriously gravely.

Phooey.  This is one of the stronger Bonds.  It’s also distinctive.  Especially impressive is Foster’s filming of Bond’s escape from the opera.  There is no jacked-up Bond score, but rather, a dreamlike flight as Tosca dominates the soundtrack.

*  By the way, when Bond becomes emotionally involved with a woman, it’s hard to fault his choices:

In his third turn as James Bond, Daniel Craig is close-cropped, weathered (think a better-tailored Steve McQueen in Papillon) and dispirited.  M (Judi Dench) put him in his funk.  She made a tough call without batting an eye and as a result, Bond was shot and presumed dead. He survived the bullet but left the job to drown his sorrows in alcohol. Another former 00 agent (Javier Bardem), however, harbors a much nastier grudge against M, bringing Bond back to life and service.

There are weaknesses. First, Skyfall is merely a revenge flick.  All of Bardem’s efforts are directed at killing M, which is not all that interesting. Moreover, Bardem not only wants to kill M, but he wants to do it face to face (early in the film, he proves how vulnerable she is by blowing up her London offices via computer).  So, his master stroke (a hit on M as she testifies before a board of inquiry) seems unnecessarily elaborate given that if successful, he’s probably going to shoot her in the back in a confused firefight.

The film is also heavy on exploring Bond’s psyche. We learn he is an orphan (thus, his wounds from M’s callousness are all the deeper).  We also see his psychological interview (to determine his fitness for duty) and even the crawl space where he hid as a lad upon hearing of the death of his parents. The former has funny moments (including a clever word association; the psychologist says “murder” and Bond responds “employment”) but it also reveals Bond’s “Rosebud.” The latter feels too close, too modern.

Bond’s generational clash is another theme, one better delivered. We meet a new Q (a twenty something played by Ben Whishaw, who was impressive in BBC’s “The Hour”). Q fences with Bond about the utility of having live agents searching for intel. Meanwhile, forces all around Bond and M are communicating it is time to pack it in.   Even the villain, Bardem, positively winces at the rigor of field work. He can do it, but he elegantly expresses his preference for the click of a mouse.

Bardem is perfect. He’s psychotic, charming and empathetic. His opening speech on what to do with rats on an island is riveting and his playful sexual come-on to Bond is suprising and convincing.  He steals the show.

The Bond women are distinct and sexy.  The first is a lithe, capable black agent (Naomie Harris) who is given the order by M to take her shot in the opening scene (she misses the bad guy and plugs Bond, resulting in some clever repartee upon his return).  The second (Bérénice Marlohe) is a doomed beauty, in mortal fear of Bardem, latching on to Bond as her salvation.

The action sequences are up to snuff, if not dazzling. The finale is an old fashioned shootout where Bardem and his army attempt to get at Bond and M at his childhood home, an ancient Scottish manor house. They are assisted by the property’s game keeper, Albert Finney, which could have been cutesy but works out fine.  It also introduces shotguns.

Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, and the execrable Revolutionary Road) seemed a strange choice to helm. But he proved capable of action in Road to Perdition, and he puts his stamp on the franchise. Mendes is patient and methodical, comfortable with a moody but chattier Bond, where the discussions are not rushed.

Perhaps indicative of a future lighter touch, Skyfall closes with not only a Bond lightened by catharsis, but the introduction of a captivating new Moneypenny (Harris) and a report to his new boss, Ralph Fiennes.