Quantum of Solace: badly named film offers no ounce of comfort in a trail of chases, explosions and murders

Marc Forster, “Quantum of Solace” (2008)

For a film called “Quantum of Solace”, this sequel to “Casino Royale” sure affords its hero James Bond (Daniel Craig) not even a smidgen of comfort, let alone a quantum which is already a tiny amount: from start to finish, with not even time to properly mourn the death of Vesper Lynd, Bond is on the trail of the mysterious organisation that sent Mr White (Jesper Christensen) to kill Le Chiffre in “Casino Royale” and take Bond’s winnings from the eponymous casino from Lynd in Venice. Bond delivers White to M for questioning but with the help of M’s bodyguard who turns out to be a double agent, White escapes. After killing the bodyguard, Bond and M search his apartment and discover he had a contact, Slate, in Haiti. Bond goes to Haiti to investigate and ends up saving Bolivian agent Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko) from the machinations of her boyfriend Dominic Greene (Matthieu Amalric), a billionaire environmentalist entrepreneur. Greene is supporting General Medrano (Joaquin Cosio), who had murdered Montes’ family years ago, in his bid to overthrow the Bolivian government and become President; for his support, Greene anticipates gaining control of Bolivia’s water supply.

After gatecrashing Greene’s meeting with members of the secretive Quantum organisation backstage at an opera performance, Bond gets into trouble with M (Judy Dench) again and she confiscates his passport and credit cards. Persuading an old contact Rene Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) to accompany him to Bolivia, Bond runs into Greene and Montes again at a fund-raising party, and Bond has to save Montes’ life again. Mathis ends up being killed in a shoot-out between Bond and a group of Bolivian police officers in a set-up arranged by Greene and Medrano. Bond and Montes next go out to the eco-hotel where Greene and Medrano are signing an agreement in which Medrano will surrender Bolivia’s water resources to Greene. The two spies have the usual hair-raising chase in which their aircraft is being pursued and strafed by a light plane and a helicopter before they reach the eco-hotel. There, in typical Bond style, Bond lays waste to the building and the security staff there to ensure neither Greene nor Medrano gets what he wants.

In a short(ish) film packed with one chase scene or one pyrotechnical event or murder after another, character development is limited to Bond’s little stoushes with the tetchy M and his occasional gentleness with the women he either saves or fails to save. The sets and settings range from the lavish to the down’n’dirty gritty and viewers understandably will be confused as to where exactly on Planet Earth Bond might be located. Not much information is given as to why Greene wants all of Bolivia’s water resources or why Medrano is willing to sell out his country to be President. Kurylenko is fine as Montes and Amalric fares well as Greene but neither character has very much substance. The cinematography is so choppy that much of the action is not clear – a bad thing for a film where so much of its running time is given over to action sequences.

At the end of all the pyrotechnics, viewers are left scratching their heads over exactly what just happened in just over two hours and if Bond’s desire for revenge over Vesper Lynd’s death was sated or justified. The only interesting aspect of the film’s plot is the morally murky world through which Bond must navigate his way if Vesper Lynd is not to have died in vain: a world in which MI6 and CIA see nothing wrong in consorting with greedy entrpreneurial hucksters like Greene or war criminals like Medrano. In such a world, vengeance for wrongs done must seem like an old-fashioned and laughably quaint notion. The perennial question in all Craig’s Bond films and any that come after must be how Bond can find himself in a grubby world of greed and psychopathic self-interest and come out of it with his character unsullied, only to dive back into it again. Surely he does not do it just out of loyalty to a boss and organisation who undercut him at every possible opportunity? The answer usually turns out be that Bond keeps doing this as a form of penance for failing to save the woman he loves the most.

Casino Royale: a new Bond actor, a new start and a new character development arc

Martin Campbell, “Casino Royale” (2006)

A change of actor from Pierce Brosnan to Daniel Craig to play MI6 agent James Bond provides an opportunity for EON Productions, the company that produces the James Bond film series, to visit the first Ian Fleming novel to feature the spy, “Casino Royale”, after two previous attempts by other studios in making films based on the novel, and to rejig audience interest in the series by making the character young again and giving him a new history starting at the beginning of his spying career. Having just earned his double-0 status at MI6, giving him the right to kill at his own discretion and not purely for self-defence, Bond is put on the trail of Ugandan terrorist Mollaka (Sebastien Foucan) to capture him alive but ends up killing him spectacularly. Bond’s chief M (Judi Dench) tut-tuts seriously at him for disobeying her orders to take the terrorist alive and kicks Bond out to the Bahamas to find corrupt Greek official Alex Dimitrios (Simon Akbarian) who is linked to international terrorist / accountant / financier Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). Viewers earlier saw Le Chiffre near the beginning of the film in Uganda where he is introduced by a mysterious fellow, Mr White (Jesper Christensen), to Steven Obanno (Isaach de Bankole) who entrusts Le Chiffre with a huge sum of money which Le Chiffre later uses to buy put options on aerospace manufacturer Skyfleet, betting that a future terrorist attack (to have been carried out by Mollaka) will cause the company to go bankrupt.

Bond follows Dimitrios to Miami where he kills the official and then foils the terrorist attack on Skyfleet’s airliner, causing Le Chiffre to lose Obanno’s money. Needing to recoup the money, Le Chiffre organises a poker game tournament at the Casino Royale in Montenegro. MI6 enters Bond into the tournament to try to ruin Le Chiffre and pairs Bond with UK Treasury agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). Bond and Lynd meet a contact Rene Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) at the casino and the tournament begins.

Throughout the tournament, a number of quite hair-raising incidents occur: Le Chiffre is threatened by Obanno, Bond kills Obanno, Le Chiffre’s girlfriend tries to kill Bond with digitalis poison in his martini, Lynd saves Bond’s life. Bond wins the tournament and Le Chiffre pursues him and Lynd to try to steal Bond’s winings. Le Chiffre subjects Bond to extreme torture and is about to castrate him when the mysterious Mr White turns up out of the blue and shoots Le Chiffre dead.

The film follows the original novel fairly closely with the poker tournament as its set piece. This afford an opportunity to build up the characters of Bond, Lynd and Le Chiffre, to make the romance between Bond and Lynd realistic, and Lynd’s later betrayal of Bond and her eventual fate all the more gut-wrenching for Bond and helping to make him the cynical man viewers are already acquainted with. MI6 and M themselves do not come off very well either and this surely will set up a continuing narrative thread through subsequent films regarding Bond’s loyalty to the organisation and the country he serves. Why indeed does Bond continue to work for a cynical employer like MI6 in dangerous work, knowing that if he were to die, MI6 could walk away from him and pretend he never existed, and not follow so many other MI6 agents into becoming mercenaries for hire and enriching themselves in the process?

Craig not only fits the role of James Bond effortlessly but makes the role his own, imbuing the character with energy, passion and even some idealism. His Bond falls head over heels in love with Lynd and their relationship is passionate indeed: the irony here is that Lynd is using Bond whereas perhaps in past Bond films, Bond was using his love interest. Green appropriately plays Lynd as a troubled woman with a hidden secret, and Mikkelsen is equally convincing as the cold-bloodedly sadistic Le Chiffre who will do anything to stop Bond from coming between him and the money he desperately needs.

The tone of the film is gritty and less glamorous than previous Bond films, to accommodate Craig’s style and portrayal of a young Bond who is raw around the edges. Accordingly also, the plot is more streamlined and focused on the card game, and whatever violence occurs or is implied tends to be more closely relevant to the plot. Some set pieces earlier in the film before Bond meets Le Chiffre at Casino Royale, are still overdone in their action and violence, in particular the parkour chase scene in which Bond pursues Mollaka which does very little for the film apart from signalling to audiences that the Bond films are still keeping up with youth pop culture. These sops to please a Hollywood mainstream audience lengthen the film and can be distracting from what otherwise is a lean and straightforward spy action thriller that gains most of its thrills from a good cast who portray significant characters well and help make “Casino Royale” as much a character study as it is an espionage film. Perhaps not surprisingly, “Casino Royale” is the first part of an arc of films in which Bond’s character continues to be shaped by his adventures, experiences and romantic interests.

Cycle of revenge continues in an amoral world of cartoon sadism and violence in “Kill Bill: Volume 2”

Quentin Tarantino, “Kill Bill: Volume 2” (2004)

The revenge odyssey of The Bride, whom we met in the first chapter of the “Kill Bill” movie series, concludes in this second film in which she seeks out the remaining members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad and kills them. Initially the film recapitulates the massacre at the El Paso chapel in which The Bride (Uma Thurman) and her wedding party are rehearsing her wedding when they are rudely interrupted by The Bride’s former compadres in a blaze of gunfire. Four years later, having come out of a coma and sent two members of the Squad to a violent end, The Bride, now identified as Beatrix Kiddo, scouts out the trailer of third member Bud (Michael Madsen) who has fallen on hard times and spends his days in a delirious alcoholic haze. Bud has already been warned by Bill (David Carradine) of Kiddo’s approach and he shoots her point blank in the chest with rock salt. He phones the fourth squad member Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah) and offers to sell to her Kiddo’s priceless Hattori Honzo sword for $1 million; Elle Driver demands that Kiddo be made to suffer an agonising death. After clinching the deal, Bud proceeds to bury Kiddo alive.

In an aside, years ago, Bill tells a young Kiddo of the legendary Shaolin monk / kung fu master Pai Mei (Gordon Liu) and his specialty death blow known as the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart technique which he has never taught. Bill then sends Kiddo to Pai Mei to receive further martial arts training. Pai Mei treats Kiddo harshly and torments her relentlessly but eventually they gain one another’s respect. Remembering her training, Kiddo is able to break out of her prison and claw her way out of her grave.

In the morning she treks to Bud’s trailer where Elle Driver has already tricked Bud by burying a black mamba in the money for Kiddo’s sword. Bud dies an agonising death but before Driver can get away with the money and the sword, Kiddo ambushes her and they both fight aggressively hard. When Driver reveals that she poisoned Pai Mei in retribution for plucking out her eye, Kiddo exacts her vengeance against the other woman. Kiddo then continues on her quest to find Bill and retrieve her four-year-old daughter.

More leisurely paced than Volume 1, this sequel gives viewers a little more insight (but not very much so) into the characters of Kiddo and Bill, their relationship to each other, and their motivations for doing what they did in the past and what they are doing in the present. That Kiddo decided to give up a life of killing when she discovered her pregnancy is rational enough but viewers do not learn why she may have wanted to become pregnant in the first place: perhaps she was already disenchanted with her old life of fighting and killing. Bill’s own motives for wanting to kill Kiddo in the first place seem odd and implausible, in light of the fact that he later decided to raise her daughter. We never learn why Elle Driver dislikes Kiddo so vehemently in the first place and her behaviour in the second film seems at odds with her actions in the first film: why does she think Bud’s disposal of Kiddo is grubby when her own poisoning attempt was just as low?

The acting is good if not particularly outstanding though Carradine does good work as the world-weary Bill who knows his time on Planet Earth is quickly coming to an end, and Thurman does well as a character who still loves Bill as much as she hates him for what he has done to her. Hannah revels in her bad-girl character but for all her theatrics she gets much less air time than she deserves. The cast moves in a porno-cartoon world inspired very much by Sergio Leone’s spaghetti / paella Western films of lone avenger characters: an amoral world of outlandish violence and hyper-sadism in which a pathetic down-at-heel male characters who tortures a woman, threatens to blind her and then bury her eventually gets his comeuppance from another woman, and a psychopathic one at that, but in a way that leaves a sour taste in the mouth. The movie soundtrack adds another layer of desert Western flavour but is not very remarkable.

The most interesting part of the film is the dialogue between Bill and Kiddo in which they are discussing superheroes and Bill voices his opinion that just as Superman always remains Superman and Clark Kent is simply his disguise, so people’s essential natures remain the same no matter that they may change roles. This is to suggest that Kiddo will always remain a killer even if she becomes something else. The worldview expressed here may be fatalistic and determinist, implying that whenever crunch-time comes, Kiddo will always revert to being a cold-blooded assassin and murderer.

While vengeance may taste quite sweet, the overriding theme is that actions always have consequences, and those consequences not only will be excessive in proportion to the original actions but themselves will generate further consequences that are even more excessive to the point where the cycle of vengeance becomes banal and diminishes the humanity of the people caught up in it. Kiddo may have her moment of triumph but one day the daughter of Vernita Green will seek her out to avenge her mother’s death. How and where this cycle of revenge and retribution will end, and what chaos and destruction it eventually leads to, is something Tarantino has yet to consider.

A tale of vengeance and consequences in “Kill Bill: Volume 1”

Quentin Tarantino, “Kill Bill: Volume 1” (2003)

Inspired by and paying homage to grindhouse cinema and the film genres that dominate it – cheap ‘n’ cheerful Asian martial arts movies, samurai flicks, blaxploitation and spaghetti / paella Westerns – the two “Kill Bill” films revolve around a lone avenger, known as The Bride, who seeks retribution against those who tried to destroy her and her future as a wife and mother. Implicit in this theme is the notion that past and present actions have future consequences, even years down the track when people’s attitudes and lives change and they may no longer believe in what they used to do.

The original “Kill Bill” film turned out to be about four hours long so it was split into two parts for cinematic release and the two parts have now become independent films in their own right. The otherwise straightforward revenge plot is chopped up into chapters that jump backwards then forwards and back in time but they are not difficult to follow and provide viewers with background information at the appropriate time so that later developments can make sense without viewers having to remember what happened earlier that is significant to the future action. In “… Volume 1”, The Bride (Uma Thurman), at this stage not named, despatches in brutal fashion Vernita Green (Vivica A Fox) after a knife fight in Green’s own home. Green’s daughter witnesses her mother’s death and The Bride acknowledges that the child may seek her own revenge against her years later. The film then jumps back to a point in time when The Bride is about to marry her groom at a chapel in El Paso. The wedding party is attacked by her former colleagues in the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. After telling the Squad leader Bill (David Carradine) that she is pregnant with his baby, The Bride is shot in the head and left for dead. She miraculously survives but lies unconscious for four years in hospital, during which time a hospital orderly has been selling her body to his buddies. One of her colleagues, Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah) tries to kill her but is stopped by Bill who considers Driver’s action to get rid of The Bride while she is unconscious and defenceless unworthy of the squad.

The Bride revives and kills the hospital orderly and one of his pals mercilessly. Escaping from the hospital with the orderly’s car keys, she commandeers his van and while she teaches herself to walk and fight again, and makes plans to eliminate the people who tried to kill her earlier, viewers are treated to a partly animated interlude about one of those people, O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), her background as an orphan losing her parents to Japanese yakuza, her later training to be an elite assassin and her current position as head of the yakuza underworld. The rest of the film follows The Bride to Okinawa where she commissions a sword to be made by Hattori Honzo (Sonny Chiba), a former master swordsmith now working as a sushi chef, and then seeks out O-Ren Ishii at a restaurant, The House of Blue Leaves, where she fights off Ishii’s squad of fighters, the Crazy 88, and Ishii’s improbably schoolgirl bodyguard Gogo Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama). The two women later face off against each other in a snow-covered garden.

The thin plot is well structured though perhaps some sequences are a little too long and could have been edited for length. The animated interlude enables the violence and an act of paedophilia to be viewed from a distance, and probably helped the film gain a rating that allowed it to be viewed by a mainstream adult audience (as did filming the scenes where The Bride fights the Crazy 88 in black-and-white). Cinematography and the use of split screens – I actually think the split-screen filming technique to tell part of the story could have been used more – are very effective and help to give the film a distinct appearance and style. The sadism, while intended as cartoonish, can appear brutal and excessive to audiences unfamiliar with low budget slasher and porn films. Aliens from outer space viewing films like this might conclude that Western civilisation is brutal, exploitative, seedy and sordid, not realising that such a world is part of the grindhouse movie phenomenon.

The acting may not be great and fight sequences are ridiculous but those are expected in a grindhouse homage of the nature of the “Kill Bill” films. Ultimately the two Tarantino films are no more than what Tarantino set out to do. Perhaps the most significant part of “Kill Bill: Volume 1” is the fight between Vernita Green and The Bride, and what the characters themselves could have represented in that scene. Green actually manages to get what she and the rest of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad denied to The Bride: marriage, a daughter and a nice suburban life in a Californian city. The fight might have had more poignancy if The Bride had expressed some jealousy in a voice-over at what Green enjoys, and if the conversation the two have before The Bride knifes her had included something from Green about her life in the suburbs, how good it is or isn’t, and how she might be missing (or not) her former life.

GoldenEye: betrayal, duplicity and loyalty to one’s brother spy

Martin Campbell, “GoldenEye” (1995)

Named after original James Bond creator / novelist Ian Fleming’s estate in Jamaica, itself named after an Allied WWII operation spying on Spain’s possible connections with Nazi Germany, this film first featured Irish actor Pierce Brosnan as the MI6 wonder spy in an adventure that takes Bond to post-Soviet Russia and Cuba. The film begins back in the 1980s when Bond and fellow MI6 spy Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) infiltrate a chemical weapons facility but are sprung by Colonel Ourumov (Gottfried John) who apparently kills Trevelyan while the Brits try to escape. Years later, Bond tries to stop the outlandishly named psychopathic pilot Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) from stealing a Eurocopter in Monaco but is held back by others. MI6 traces the stolen ‘copter to a military radar base in Severnaya in northern Siberia. An electromagnetic pulse suddenly destroys the base and knocks out all satellites orbiting above. MI6 determines that the pulse came from a Soviet-era satellite codenamed “GoldenEye” and Bond suspects the involvement of the now General Ourumov who has high-level military access to the satellite’s codes.

Bond travels to St Petersburg to connect with CIA agent Jack Wade (Joe Don Baker) who tells him to meet Valentin Zukovsky (Robbie Coltrane) who in turn can organise a meeting with Janus, a crime syndicate. When Bond does meet Janus, he is astonished to discover that Trevelyan is not only still alive but is the head of Janus. Bond is sedated and wakes up to find himself trapped in the stolen Eurocopter with a Severnaya survivor, computer analyst Natalia Simonova (Izabela Scorupco). The two narrowly escape being blown up and after a number of chase sequences during which Simonova is abducted by Ouromov and rescued by Bond, and several priceless historic buildings in St Petersburg are demolished, Bond and Simonova travel to Cuba when Simonova discovers that a work colleague of hers, Boris Grishenko, has also survived the Severnaya destruction and his location is discovered to be somewhere in that Caribbean nation. Bond and Simonova are due for a surprise when they reach Cuba and search for the Janus syndicate base and its satellite dish, flying their light plane over a lake which looks innocent enough to them.

The plot is a bit complicated to follow at first but after Bond and Simonova meet, it becomes fairly straightforward with plenty of action sequences – maybe too many and too irrelevant to the plot – to keep mainstream audiences entertained. The St Petersburg scenes look dirty and gritty and the film-makers don’t treat the city’s buildings and monuments with much respect at all. Brosnan plays a good Bond, tough and intelligent, with enough sensitivity to make his romance scenes with Scorupco’s feisty Natalia credible. Other characters range from the sinister (Ouromov) to the oddball (Grishenko) and the comic and unbelievable (Onatopp). Onatopp in particular must have been a left-over from the Roger Moore period of fantasy villainous hench-men: she is a jarring presence in what is otherwise a fairly realistic adventure thriller. On the other hand Bean puts life into a character stereotype (a Bond doppelganger) though the character’s motivation seems implausible: would MI6 really employ as a spy someone whose background might suggest he could easily turn double agent during his employment? The film might have built up the friendship between Trevelyan and Bond a little more at its beginning so that Bond feels the betrayal and duplicity of Trevelyan more sharply than he does, and his inevitable cruel despatch of Trevelyan becomes more understandable.

Themes of loyalty to one’s country and friends, betrayal, vengeance and the very thin line between good and bad in a morally indifferent universe – with perhaps a related issue of whether blood ties and self-interest count for more than friendship, loyalty and patriotism – are paramount in this film about two brother spies in arms who become enemies. Not for the first time is Bond challenged by a villain who chides him for being loyal to a bureaucratic organisation that belittles him by not paying him terribly well and expecting him to carry out dangerous life-threatening assignments and rescue damsels in distress, not all of whom he manages to save, for no better reason other than defending Britain and its interests. That Bond remains resolutely loyal to his crotchety employers in spite of the lack of gratitude MI6 often displays is always a given in the Bond films but is not explored in any of them in much detail. Apart from these observations, “GoldenEye” is a good straightforward introduction to Brosnan who fills the character of James Bond very well indeed.

The Living Daylights: bringing James Bond back into the real world of grubby self-interest

John Glen, “The Living Daylights” (1987)

With a new actor playing the role of British spy James Bond, this 15th film in the James Bond movie franchise adapts to its new lead actor Timothy Dalton’s gritty, down-to-earth interpretation of the character and presents as a more conventional and grounded spy action thriller. The plot is still as convoluted as previous James Bond film plots have been, starting from one incident and developing new twists from there that take the character to different parts of the world and coming up against new antagonists, and the action is as prolonged and ridiculous as can be to keep a mainstream audience entertained and attentive. At the same time there is a bit more emphasis on character development, to ease audiences into accepting Dalton as Bond and to make his developing romance with the requisite Bond girl, in this film the cellist Kara Milovy (Maryam d’Abo) more plausible.

Initially Bond helps a senior KGB officer, General Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbe) defect from the Soviet Union by shooting a sniper’s rifle from Milovy’s hands during a concert performance in Bratislava, rather than killing Milovy as he is supposed to do, and then popping the general into a gas pipeline and sending him through to Vienna and later Britain. Just as soon as the general enters a safe-house, he is abducted by presumed KGB agents and whisked away. Bond is then assigned by MI6 to hunt down new KGB head General Pushkin (John Rhys Davies) in Tangier and kill him, the general apparently having revived an old KGB directive to all its agents to kill foreign spies. Visiting Milovy in Bratislava, Bond discovers Koskov’s defection was a set-up. The couple go to Vienna for Bond to meet his MI6 contact Saunders who tells Bond of contacts between Koskov and a rogue US arms dealer Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker) who fancies himself an army man. After Saunders is killed by Koskov’s henchman Necros (Andreas Wisniewski), Bond and Milovy continue on to Tangier and Bond meets Pushkin who tells the spy that he did not revive the directive and that Koskov is wanted for embezzling Soviet state funds.

Bond agrees to work with Pushkin while Milovy meets up with Koskov (they are former lovers) who convinces her to drug Bond so he can be captured. Bond and Milovy are then flown to Afghanistan and imprisoned by Koskov’s men. They escape prison with the help of another prisoner, Kamran Shah (Art Malik), who turns out to be a local mujahideen leader. Bond discovers that Koskov is using stolen Soviet money to buy huge amounts of opium from the Afghans and to use the profits from opium and heroin trafficking to buy weapons from Whitaker.

The villains may not be of the billionaire stature and eccentricity of past Bondian villains and minions; they tend for the most part to be colourless and grubby men keen on advancing their own financial self-interests and not on subjugating the world to their wills. As henchmen go, the only thing special about Necros is his unfortunate name. Whitaker seems a more pathetic creature than a scheming villain. The team-up between Bond and Kamran Shah’s mujahideen was dubious even in 1987 and in the light of Afghanistan’s post-Soviet period is even more dubious given that the mujahideen then were receiving arms and money from Saudi billionaire and al Qa’ida leader Osama bin Laden. The film does nothing to distinguish Koskov and his rogue set of Soviets from the Soviet soldiers working and fighting in Afghanistan and the part of the film that takes place in that country devolves into anti-Soviet propaganda combined with the usual chase sequence, lots of fighting including an improbable fight between Bond and Necros in a cargo plane, and explosions galore.

While the acting is solid and Dalton is highly credible as Bond, the role of Milovy seems ill-thought out and inconsistent: sometimes the character will do something smart and then at the next moment retreats into a ditzy blonde stereotype. Maryam d’Abo is certainly quite a beauty but is unable to stamp her character with any individuality. The rest of the cast does good work around Dalton and d’Abo.

While far from being the best film in the series of James Bond films, “The Living Daylights” saves the character from the fantasy bombast from previous films and restores some semblance to reality to the character and the world he inhabits: the world of drug-trafficking and the illegal arms trade that stretches across continents, impacts the lives of millions around the globe and influences geopolitics and world and regional alliances. In this world, political and ideological loyalties count for little more than cynicism, greed and self-interest, as Bond has to learn again.

Never Say Never Again: a pedestrian remake with an overstuffed spy action plot

Irvin Kershner, “Never Say Never Again” (1983)

The main attraction of this “unofficial” James Bond flick – “unofficial” because it was not made by EON Productions – is that British actor Sean Connery returned to playing the main character of MI6 agent James Bond after a hiatus of some 12 years. Apart from Connery’s comeback, the film is a pedestrian remake of “Thunderball” which Connery made with EON Productions back in 1965. Like the other James Bond films of its time, ” … Never Again” features an unnecessarily convoluted and padded plot and a cast of mostly forgettable characters and caricatures of character types. The settings in the film can be picturesque and some have a distinct character of their own but the cinematography is not great and some of it looks quite muddy indeed.

Connery breezes through his role as Bond – he might almost be sleepwalking through the role – but he does look too old (even though he is younger than Roger Moore who not only starred in “Octopussy” at the same time but went on to make “View to a Kill” a year or so later) and even a bit weary and nonplussed at what his character has to do. Bond starts off having to attend a health clinic for reconditioning after failing a routine training exercise. While at the health clinic, he witnesses a patient being tormented by his nurse, and then later using an eye-scanning machine. Bond is caught by the nurse eavesdropping on the patient and later a hitman tries to kill Bond. Bond ends up killing the hitman but not before much of the health clinic ends up being demolished.

The patient turns out to be Captain Jack Petachi and his nurse is Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera), both working for the secret criminal organisation SPECTRE headed by Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Max von Sydow). The two work together to steal two nuclear warheads for SPECTRE by circumventing the US Air Force’s security checks using a dummy eye based on the iris and retina patterns of the then US President’s eye. After the successful heist, Blush kills Petachi. MI6 is forced to reactivate the 00 section and press Bond into service again to find the nuclear warheads before SPECTRE can use them to blackmail governments. A hair-raising series of adventures in the Caribbean, France and northern Africa ensues, during which Bond meets and spars with SPECTRE agent and billionaire entrepreneur Maximilian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and romances and spars with Blush before literally writing her off with a fountain pen that also serves as a dart-gun. Bond also meets Largo’s mistress Domino Petachi (Kim Basinger) who initially is unaware that Largo ordered her brother’s death. Domino decides to leave Largo for Bond and nearly ends up a slave to North African desert tribesmen when a petulant and vengeful Largo discovers she has betrayed him.

The over-padded film features an unnecessary videogame battle between Bond and Largo among other unnecessary pieces that don’t exactly advance the collage plot. Some of the fighting can be overly long. Barbara Carrera quickly becomes a bore with her flouncy portrayal of the psychopathic Blush. Brandauer’s Largo is boyish, at times immature and prone to tantrums: hardly the sort of fellow to be a senior SPECTRE operative or even a billionaire businessman. (Well I suppose there is Elon Musk … ) The rest of the cast tries hard but in the end, perhaps the only actor who really impresses Yours Truly is Max von Sydow as Blofeld.

The filmed underwater scenes can be quite murky in a film whose budget was very stretched to accommodate the locations and Connery’s salary. Overall the cheap-looking film presents a very dated appearance and its plot has not aged gracefully with the times.

For Your Eyes Only: a film of vengeance and its consequences in a morally dubious world

John Glen, “For Your Eyes Only” (1981)

After the excesses of previous Bond films which among other things referenced popular Hollywood films like “Jaws” and “Star Wars” at the time, “For Your Eyes Only” returns to the grittier style of the early Bond films of the early 1960s with a theme of vengeance and its vendetta-style consequences and a narrative based around two brothers-in-arms who fought in the Greek civil war in the 1940s and later became bitter enemies. This narrative embodies another theme that periodically surfaces in the James Bond films: people considered criminals due to their history and current activities are often more moral and committed to justice than are people who look clean and are favoured by governments for their heroics. Of course this 12th instalment in the James Bond series of films still has to satisfy a mainstream audience so it features its fair share of ogling at exotic locations, cultures and women as do the other films in the series.

The plot is densely packed with incidents that lead into various others, with lots of violence, chase sequences and much spent ammunition and bodies, which in turn lead into other incidents much like them. A UK reconnaissance vessel in the Ionian Sea, containing among other things an ATAC computer that communicates with UK Polaris subs, is sunk by an undersea mine. Both MI6 and the KGB learn of this incident and send their respective agents – MI6 sends Bond (Roger Moore) – to try to retrieve it. About the same time, British marine archaeologist Timothy Havelock is asked to search for the UK spy ship, which he does but he and his wife end up being shot dead by Cuban hit-man Gonzalez who had just brought their daughter Melina (Carole Bouquet) to them from abroad.

Bond is then tasked with finding Gonzalez which he does, and also discovers that the hit-man was paid for the job by Belgian criminal Emile Leopold Locque (Michael Gothard). Before Bond can approach Gonzalez, the Cuban is killed by Melina Havelock with a crossbow. Bond then goes to Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy to find Locque; here, he also meets Greek shipping tycoon Kristatos (Julian Glover), once handsomely rewarded with a medal by the British government, who tells Bond that Locque is employed by Milos Colombo (Chaim Topol). After a number of hair-raising incidents in which Bond has to rescue Melina again, is chased by the supposed ski champion boyfriend (John Wyman) of Kristatos’ protegee, aspiring figue skater Bibi Dahl (Holly Lynn Johnson), nearly ends up being a puck in a hockey game and fails to save Colombo’s Austrian countess girlfriend (Cassandra Harris) from being run over by Locque, Bond finally meets Colombo who informs him that Locque is actually working for Kristatos and Kristatos himself is working for the KGB.

Bond then accompanies Colombo on a raid on one of Kristatos’ warehouses in Albania where he discovers mines of a similar nature that sank the UK spy ship. Later, teaming up with Melina, he retrieves the ATAC from the sunken ship but Kristatos snatches it off them and subjects them to a harrowing ordeal (lifted out of the Ian Fleming novel “Live and Let Die”) of being dragged by a speedboat over coral reefs to be eaten by sharks. Bond and Melina narrowly escape but later discover that Kristatos has taken the ATAC to a cliff-top former Greek monastery to await the arrival of the Soviet agent for the handover.

The complicated plot barrels along breathlessly with very little time to take in the sights on Corfu and other Greek islands, let alone indulge in anything expendable like character development. Still, Glover and Colombo acquit themselves well in their respective roles mirroring each other even if their one and only direct confrontation doesn’t last long. Bouquet does solid duty as a vengeful Melina who turns out to be the one reliable ally Bond can depend on when he realises all others are either duplicitous or end up dead.

Of course most of the action pieces aren’t really necessary and the violence and sadism may be totally uncalled for – why not just shoot Bond and Melina dead instead of taking them for a water-ski ride? – but then there would not be much of a film left and it would only be a mundane spy flick.

The Man with the Golden Gun: surface glamour obscuring an interesting plot and themes

Guy Hamilton, “The Man with the Golden Gun” (1974)

Mainly memorable for the scene in which the stunt people managed to get a red coupe sports car perform a gymnastic full layout twist flying through the air from one end of a bridge to the other end – because the middle part was missing, and yes, I know cars can’t do piked or tucked twists – “… Gun” has a few things in its favour (and quite a few bad things against it) that make it easy on the eye and good for leisurely television watching in an age of COVID-19 corona virus lock-down when one needs light-hearted reassurance. The stunning scenes of island mountains hiding sun-kissed beaches (and evil villains’ multi-million-dollar hide-outs!) in Thailand’s Gulf region; a decent villain in the form of Christopher Lee playing assassin-for-hire Francisco Scaramanga; a plot that refers to the global energy crisis of the period (mid-1970s) and ingeniously matches Scaramanga and the cynical Bond (Roger Moore) as mirror twins of one another – what is not to like here? On the other hand, the film features minor cast members who drag out the plot and film-time much longer than they should have done, and Bond is paired with a ditzy agent, Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland), who should have been thrown over by the script-writers and substituted with Scaramanga’s girlfriend Andrea Anders (Maud Adams, who was to return in a later Bond film) as a serious love interest.

The only elements in the film brought over from the eponymous Ian Fleming novel are the names of the main characters. The action is transferred from Jamaica to Beirut, Macau, Hong Kong and Thailand, and includes hefty doses of kung fu and kick boxing, sports which were becoming popular in Western pop culture in the 1970s. The plot divides into two main strands: Bond is being hunted by Scaramanga; and Bond needs to retrieve a solex generator device that harnesses the sun’s energy before it falls into Scaramanga’s hands and he tries to sell it to the highest bidder, which may be one of the West’s ideological enemies in the Soviet Union or China at the time, or an international crime syndicate like SPECTRE. Bond decides to hunt Scarmanga instead and this decision leads him to Beirut to collect a used golden bullet, and then to Hong Kong and Macau to find the manufacturer, where he also comes across Andrea Anders. From then on, Bond has to work to find the solex generator, which he does, but not before having to outwit an entire academy of martial arts students ordered to kill him, being chased in a sampan in crowded canals and failing to save Anders from Scaramanga’s wrath when the assassin finds his mistress has betrayed him. Bond passes the solex generator to a Chinese aide who then passes it to Mary Goodnight but Goodnight foolishly has ideas of her own and ends up being whisked away by Scaramanga and his assistant Nick Nack (Herve Villechaize) in a car that converts to a mini-plane to the Scaramanga hide-out.

The plot can seem confusing and overly drawn out with sampan and car chases, and an irritating American tourist (Clifton James, playing Sheriff J W Pepper), but it cleverly poses Scaramanga and Bond together as brothers of a kind: professional assassins in the loneliest profession in the world, yet both well-known among intelligence agencies and the global criminal underworld alike. One kills for money and a good life, yet seems alienated from the rest of humanity with just his assistant, a girlfriend and one maintenance engineer on his remote island for company; the other kills in service to his country, yet always has to be at MI6’s beck and call to perform dangerous work for which the benefits can be many but are very temporary. The downside of such work is always having to put one’s personal life a distant second priority, and attracting people like Scaramanga on your tail. A bit of pruning here and there in the film to get rid of Pepper, less grovelling to popular Western cultural trends of the period, and perhaps a bit more to say about how the lives of people who put themselves on the frontline to save society and of those criminals they chase, and how they often end up having much in common, and the plot would have been better and darker.

The acting varies from good (on the villains’ side) to woeful (on the heroes’ side) and Moore had yet to settle into his preferred Bond persona (bored playboy type), playing the character as still a tough and sardonic spy with rare flashes of wit. His acting is sometimes wooden but he manages to scrape through adequately enough. Lee combines menace and friendly pleasantry in a split second and is easily the best actor in the film. Shame that Scaramanga comes to a seemingly ignominious end with no bangs or flashy explosions but it seems appropriate that he is brought down by an ordinary proletarian bullet, the cheapest on the MI6 budget. The richest assassin in the world brought down low in a common shotgun killing.

The film might not make compelling viewing and it has not dated very well, but in its own way it is a document of the period in which it was filmed.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: a surprising sleeper film that packs a punch

Peter R Hunt, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969)

Fifty years after its cinematic release, this James Bond film may look dated but its plot and themes may still be relevant to modern audiences. Apart from its apocalyptic sub-plot of an evil mastermind threatening to unleash worldwide chaos using innocent and unwilling brainwashed agents to scatter bacteriological weapons among their nations, the film also has something to say about how one cannot escape one’s fate and the consequences of one’s actions, and how those consequences affect others’ lives, especially if one works as an undercover intelligence agent.

In this movie episode of the series of James Bond films that began in 1961 with “Dr No” and still continues, the spy is played by the then inexperienced Australian actor George Lazenby who might lack the suave confident charisma of his predecessor Sean Connery and the wit and humour of the actors who followed him but presents a more human, vulnerable and even sometimes thuggish Bond. Bond has been on the trail of sinister villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld (played by Telly Savalas) for some time when he stumbles across the beautiful but wilful and possibly disturbed Contessa Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg) on a beach and then driving her red coupe. He is intrigued by this woman who seems not to care whether she lives or dies, or wins or loses at the casino. He later discovers that she is the daughter of underworld crime boss Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti) who implores Bond to strike up a relationship with her to keep her sane and stable after a series of personal disasters including marriage to an unsuitable Italian count and the loss of an infant child. Bond will only do so if Draco can reveal what he knows of Blofeld. Draco later directs Bond to the offices of a law firm in Bern in Switzerland, where Bond discovers that Blofeld has been corresponding with famed genealogist Sir Hillary Bray in order to claim the title and inheritance of one Count Balthazar de Bleuchamp. Somewhere along the way, Bond argues with his superior M (Bernard Lee) and resigns from MI6.

Posing as Bray, Bond insinuates himself into Blofeld’s mountain-top resort Piz Gloria to discover that he and assistant Irma Bunt run a health resort for a bevy of beauteous demoiselles from all over the planet who suffer from various food allergies and need therapy. Through a secret bedroom liaison with one of the girls, Bond discovers what that therapy is: hypnosis that impresses instructions into the girls’ unconscious minds that will be later turned on through stimuli to direct the girls to release dangerous bacteria embedded in toiletries given them at Blofeld’s whim. Blofeld and Bunt quickly uncover Bond’s identity and Bond himself barely manages to escape Blofeld and Bunt’s goons in a series of hair-raising incidents in which he nearly loses his fingers to a cable car lift and his life racing down a mountainous ski slope. Bumping into Tracy in a village, Bond further evades his pursuers with Tracy’s help. After spending the night together in a hayloft, the couple race for their lives again down a ski slope but Blofeld sets off an avalanche which overwhelms the couple. The villain captures Tracy and leaves Bond for dead. Bond anyway makes his way back to London where he learns of Blofeld’s intent to blackmail governments into declaring an amnesty for his crimes and allowing him to inherit the title and fortune he wants, or risk the destruction of the world through his brainwashed agents. MI6 intends to pay the ransom to Blofeld but Bond has another idea that not only will destroy Blofeld’s plans but rescue Tracy.

The film follows the original novel’s plot closely up to just over the halfway mark where Tracy rescues Bond from Blofeld and Bunt’s fury. This first half of the film can be quite slow for most audiences expecting fast and furious action but it establishes the film’s plot and sub-plots, and more importantly describes the motivations and personalities of the film’s most significant characters – Bond, Tracy, Blofeld and to some extent Draco – even if those motivations might seem bizarre and sexist to modern audiences. One might see Tracy’s past behaviour as typical of an intelligent, headstrong and resourceful woman whose only fault is to have been born female to a crime boss who wanted a son to take over his business. Draco’s solution to his problem is to ship his daughter off to a finishing school to take care of her emotional needs – which of course it fails to do. In Bond, Draco sees another solution to his succession problem and which will also provide Tracy with the stability she needs. Interestingly, in the second shorter half of the film, where the screenplay becomes original if rather more stereotyped, what with another ski chase and an operation to destroy Piz Gloria and Blofeld’s scheme, Blofeld becomes smitten with Tracy and offers her riches and status if she will marry him – which she refuses. From then on, Blofeld nurses vengeance against Tracy when he discovers that she and Bond, who defeats Blofeld in a fight on a racing bobsled, become engaged and marry.

The film’s style is plain and straightforward, with few quips and puns, and runs at a brisk pace. Blofeld’s numerous henchmen fall afoul of various disasters during the film’s two ski chases including one man’s unfortunate encounter with a snow plough. The film’s winter setting gives it a particular ambience, in contrast to other James Bond films where the action takes place in tropical environments or glamorous cities around the planet. The quality of acting varies throughout the film – Lazenby’s inexperience is obvious though he acquits himself very well in the tough fight scenes (and performed most of his stunts as well) – while Rigg and Savalas, who had previously worked together on another film “The Assassination Bureau”, do good work as their respective characters, Savalas in particular playing a vicious and vindictive Blofeld.

After the action of the ski chases, the rally car championship in which Tracy and Blofeld bump off all their competitors, and the action thriller invasion that destroys Piz Gloria, the film has two endings, one happy, one unhappy in which Lazenby finally redeems himself as an actor when Bond is forced to confront what Blofeld and Bunt have done to Tracy and their future life together. Bond is forced to admit that he can never really leave MI6 and the life of an undercover agent, because in carrying out his assignments for MI6, he has made numerous enemies and set off in motion a series of actions that come back to bite him, no matter that his actions originally saved the world, or at least Britain’s political establishment on which his salary and life-style depend. After “OHMSS”, subsequent James Bond films for the next three decades portray the spy following a devil-may-care and rather dissolute life bedding women and discarding them as he carries out his assignments with brutal efficiency, as though embodying something of Tracy’s former unstable life and Blofeld’s psychopathic nature, for the benefit of his employer which has Bond firmly back in the fold.

In an age where chemical and biological weapons are now looming large in global popular culture – particularly at this time of review, with a virulent coronavirus strain wreaking havoc and devastation through Europe and North America, destroying the European Union and all it supposedly stood for, and threatening perhaps also to finish off NATO and the global financial industry – this film regains a sharp relevance for current Western audiences. The hypnosis of unwitting young women to act as agents, perhaps to assassinate world leaders, in an age of CIA-sponsored mind manipulation and torture, followed by rumours of current terrorist organisations such as ISIS using drugs such as Captagon to modify jihadists’ behaviour and turn them into brutal killing machines, should also be significant to modern audiences.

A straightforward filming approach, a good cast playing complex characters with complicated motivations, sub-plots that still have the potential to surprise modern audiences … “OHMSS” turns out to be an excellent sleeper in the James Bond movie series.