Murder on the Orient Express (dir. Sidney Lumet): a pedestrian treatment of a murder mystery

Sidney Lumet, “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974)

Initially beginning as a lavish drama set in an exotic 1930s Istanbul, Sidney Lumet’s “Murder on the Orient Express” turns out to be a pedestrian treatment of the Agatha Christie novel. Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney), urged by his superiors to return to London straight away after having solved a case for the British Army in Transjordan, manages to secure a last-minute place on the famed Orient Express long-distance train with the help of his friend Bianchi (Martin Balsam), a director of the company that owns the railway line on which the train runs. Aside from Poirot, Bianchi and a Greek doctor (George Coulouris), thirteen other passengers have also boarded the train and these include Samuel Ratchett (Richard Widmark), an American businessman who, on hearing that Poirot is aboard, tries to secure the detective’s services as a bodyguard as he, Ratchett, has been receiving death threats. Poirot senses something distasteful about Ratchett and turns down the American’s offer of $15,000 for his services. Later in the day, Poirot and Bianchi exchange compartments and Poirot ends up sleeping not far from Ratchett’s cabin. The train is trapped in a snowdrift while travelling through Yugoslavia and during the night Poirot is awakened a number of times by noises in the corridor. The following morning, Ratchett is found dead in his cabin from numerous stab wounds. Bianchi asks Poirot to solve the case before the train is freed from the snowdrift which might allow the murderer to escape before his/her identity is discovered.

From here on, Poirot interviews the passengers and discovers the connections they all have with one another and the murder victim. Ratchett is really Lanfranco Cassetti, a gangster who, five years ago, kidnapped and murdered the infant daughter Daisy of British Army colonel Hamish Armstrong and his pregnant American wife Sonia. On learning of Daisy’s death despite handing over the ransom money, Sonia miscarried her second child and died giving birth, and her grieving widower husband committed suicide. Their maid Paulette was suspected of working with Cassetti in kidnapping Daisy; to avoid being arrested and charged, Paulette killed herself. The train passengers turn out to be either relatives, personal friends or former domestic employees of the Armstrongs or related to Paulette. Having figured out all the passengers’ connections to the Armstrongs and Paulette, Poirot describes two possible solutions to Ratchett / Cassetti’s murder: the first solution can simply be that an unknown passenger on the train killed the gangster and managed to escape; the second solution is to link all thirteen passengers in the coach to the murder. Bianchi, now knowing how depraved Cassetti was, has to choose which solution the Yugoslavian police would prefer.

The plot runs smoothly and surely to its climax (though there are significant gaps within, forcing viewers to guess what happens during those gaps) with Finney’s strident and shouty Poirot coming close to hammed-up parody with an accent hard to understand and gesticulations conforming to the worst stereotypes about excitable French-speaking people. The cast of actors, all of whom were either film legends or popular actors at the time the film was made, perform barely adequately in the tiny amounts of time they are given to shine. The stand-out performances come from Anthony Perkins as Ratchett / Cassetti’s secretary Hector McQueen and Martin Balsam as Bianchi who is given the unenviable task of playing God in a climax that side-steps away from Poirot’s existential unease at burying the truth in order for vigilante justice to be served on an evil man who ruined so many lives and left others in psychological limbo. Vanessa Redgrave is wasted in a tiny role, Lauren Bacall is all brass as Harriett Hubbard and Ingrid Bergman lays on a thick Swedish accent while camping up as mousy missionary Anna Ohlsson. Sean Connery is perhaps rather too charismatic in his role as Colonel Armstrong’s friend and John Gielgud, for all his reputation as a formidable stage actor, struggles with small details (like holding the murder weapon correctly as he stabs Ratchett / Cassetti) as Edward Beddoes, butler to the odious gangster.

The film finishes up rather too tidily and there is nothing of the unease that Poirot feels at his universe being less than orderly and logical: a universe where people act according to the law and refrain from impulsive acts of retribution no matter how repulsive or evil the target victim is. The result is that viewers may end up not having much sympathy for Poirot at all, given that his character is more likely to irritate and alienate people than to gain their support. When Poirot’s worldview is challenged by Bianchi’s decision, viewers are likely to think Bianchi did the right thing even though in a sense justice has not really been served and the sweet taste of revenge and closure may be all too brief and sour consequences take place.

There is little sense of the film’s action taking place in a confined space, with all the tension and claustrophobia that could have been generated. What we end up with is a peek into what the world might have looked like for a privileged layer of American and European society between World Wars I and II: a world of luxury and decadence that would soon be swept away forever. But this peek reveals nothing of the arrogance and decay that would be responsible for the short-lived nature of this world.

The World Is Not Enough: this film is just not enough

Michael Apted, “The World Is Not Enough” (1999)

Sent to protect a wealthy oil heiress after her father is killed by explosives in money delivered to him at MI6 headquarters in London, super-spy James Bond finds himself embroiled in yet another humdrum series of incidents that take him back and forth between Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Istanbul, and which among other things keep drenching him in water or throw him into huge underground mazes that end up being destroyed by bomb explosions. Oh, and of course there are the obligatory chases, whether in speedboats, on skis or by a helicopter carrying an aerial saw for trimming trees. The original twist (long overdue in the film series, actually) is that one of the villains turns out to be a classic Bond girl supposedly in harm’s way from the other villain. Such is the film “The World Is Not Enough”, for the most part a highly derivative flick plundering some of the earlier JB films like “From Russia With Love” and the original Ian Fleming novels like “Casino Royale” for inspiration. Not only is the action predictable and the plot lacking in freshness and originality but even small details in the plot reveal either laziness or an appalling lack of general knowledge on the part of the scriptwriters and the rest of the film production crew. Do people not realise that since the early 1990s Azerbaijan has been primarily a Muslim country?

Anyway, once Bond (Pierce Brosnan) has been tasked with protecting Elektra King (Sophie Marceau), the unfortunate daughter of the slain oil billionaire Robert King, he flies out to Azerbaijan where she is overseeing the construction of an oil pipeline that will go from the Caspian Sea through Azerbaijan and Turkey to Europe, bypassing Russia and the Black Sea. Bond and Elektra King narrowly escape being killed by a hit squad so Bond contacts Valentin Zukovsky (Robbie Coltrane), a former Russian Mafia boss / current casino owner, to get information about the hit squad; at Zukovsky’s casino, he unexpectedly meets King again. King loses $1 million at the casino and this makes Bond suspicious of her behaviour – but he eventually ends up seducing her anyway.

Under the guise of a Russian nuclear scientist, Bond later travels to a Russian ICBM base in Kazakhstan where he meets US nuclear scientist Dr Christmas Jones (a badly miscast Denise Richards) and comes across the former KGB agent now turned terrorist Renard (Robert Carlyle) who had earlier sent the money laced with explosives to Robert King. Renard steals a bomb from the ICBM base and escapes, leaving everyone else there to die in the inevitable explosions but Bond and Jones get out in the nick of time.

After more shenanigans, in which Bond and Jones again narrowly escape with their lives from an explosion and King kidnaps Bond’s boss M (Judi Dench) as part of a revenge scheme (because M had advised her father against paying ransom money to Renard after Renard had kidnapped King), Bond learns that King and Renard are working together to set off a nuclear meltdown that would destroy Istanbul and irradiate Russian oil pipelines in the Bosporus; Europe would then become dependent on King’s oil pipeline and King would reap enormous profits in manipulating oil supplies. Jones is captured by Renard who takes her on board a submarine captained by Zukovsky’s nephew and Bond is subjected to garrotting by King. Bond’s dilemma is how to escape in a limited amount of time to rescue Jones and also rescue M who is being held prisoner in a watch-tower.

The poor script and Apted’s lack of experience in directing action thriller films result in a badly made film with overly long and implausible chase sequences, and equally unconvincing escapes from impossible situations. The actors just manage to get by in their respective roles: Richards especially has the unenviable job of making her nuclear scientist role look credible, the character itself lacking a backstory that might justify the actor’s casting. It may be though that with Brosnan having settled on a Bond persona that is an odd mix of pretty-boy seducer / New Age sensitive / cold-hearted killer and not quite getting it right, the film has to settle for a cast of characters that make his Bond look good and so the characters are either comic or utterly bizarre. The usually good Carlyle is wasted as the villain Renard who can feel no pain and Marceau’s character becomes sillier and more unbelievable as the spoilt rich kid who throws in her lot with the crooks because her John-Paul-Getty styled Daddy wouldn’t cough up the ransom money.

This film about shifting energy politics and the ructions it can cause in geopolitics and even personal loyalties – not to mention how past decisions and actions can have devastating blowback effects as M, not for the first or last time, discovers for herself and for the King family – could have been a thoughtful if perhaps not exciting work under Apted’s direction. It ends up being buried under a puerile script crammed with character stereotypes and plot elements that have been overused in other films within and outside the James Bond film series. In such films, audiences cannot fail but notice other details that reveal a woeful lack of research and general knowledge.

Tomorrow Never Dies: satire on the power and influence of media trapped in a formula that never dies

Roger Spottiswoode, “Tomorrow Never Dies” (1997)

The second of four films that Irish actor Pierce Brosnan starred in as British wonder spy James Bond for EON Productions, “Tomorrow Never Dies” is competent enough but after accounting for the JB film formula’s requirements of megalomaniac villain, a super-violent henchman, two overlong chase sequences, two or even three flings with attractive women, product positioning galore and a convoluted plot set in various exotic locales that culminates in a mushroom-cloud explosion in the villain’s underground labyrinthine hide-out, the film has very little to commend it. Viewers can almost see the film going through a check-list of required plot detours and comedy mini-sketches to flog some life into a narrative about the power and influence of global media corporations and how they (and by implication, other private mega-companies) can deploy that power to change world politics and set international relations on new and dangerous courses.

In this film, the second made after the end of the Cold War, China has become a significant protagonist for Western intelligence agencies and MI6 especially to deal with. Global media mogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce) plans to exploit the tensions between China and the West by using an encoder obtained online at a black market bazaar in Russia by his employee Henry Gupta to send a British frigate off-course into Vietnamese maritime territory in the South China Sea where it is ambushed and sunk by his own stealth (ie off-radar) ship which also steals a missile from the frigate. At the same time, the stealth ship brings down a Chinese fighter jet and uses Chinese ammunition to kill off the frigate’s crew. Carver’s media organisations broadcast the news about the crisis the sinking of the frigate has caused and M (Judi Dench) becomes suspicious. She sends Bond to investigate the Carver media empire because she knows that Carver’s wife Paris (Teri Hatcher) is an old flame of Bond’s.

Bond travels to Hamburg to seduce Paris and get information out of her to retrieve the stolen encoder. After the requisite violent encounters with various of Carver’s thugs and the seduction, Bond obtains the information and successfully infiltrates Carver’s newspaper printing press and recovers the encoder. While he is gone however, Paris is killed by one of Carver’s henchmen. The thug also tries to kill Bond but Bond escapes in a prolonged car chase through a car park with the encoder intact.

Examining the encoder at a US airforce base in Okinawa, Bond learns it has been tampered with and goes to investigate the sunken frigate where he meets Colonel Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), a Chinese spy who is investigating the shootdown of the fighter jet and the theft of its ammunition. The two are captured by Carver’s No 1 henchman Stamper (Gotz Otto) and held prisoner in Carver’s tower in Saigon – erm, has no-one told the film-makers the city is no longer called Saigon? – but they escape by rappelling down the side of the tower and breaking into a lower floor and then evade Carver’s thugs through the streets of Saigon on a motorcycle. Deciding to work together, Bond and Wai notify their respective governments of Carver’s plans to push their countries into war, from which Carver’s media conglomerate will profit by obtaining exclusive broadcasting rights in China.

From then on the film grinds its way to the showdown between Bond and Carver amid the requisite capture and rescue of the Bond girlfriend, confronting No 1 henchman, blowing up the hide-out and romancing the girlfriend among the wreckage – which is presumably leaking radiation and toxic chemicals but don’t let those facts spoil the ending. Along the way the cast of actors have done the best they could with their scripts – Brosnan works at balancing his New-Age sensitive pretty boy persona with the tough gritty spy character and Yeoh basically updates the Bond girl stereotype with her HK martial arts action film persona. Pryce hams up his scenes as Carver where possible and Hatcher does well with her minimal approach to playing the embittered trophy wife. The “Saigon” scenes (actually filmed in Bangkok) probably do no justice to Ho Chi Minh City in the late 1990s and might actually be seen as racist in future years, otherwise the Asian locations in the film’s second half are among the better features along with the carpark car chase and the motorcycle chase of a pedestrian film in thrall to an overused and tired script formula.

Live and Let Die: as it says, live and let this film die

Guy Hamilton, “Live and Let Die” (1973)

Cashing in on the blaxploitation film genre that was popular in the early 1970s, this instalment in the James Bond film series has not aged well and abounds in racist and sexist stereotypes. “Live and Let Die” is the first of seven films to feature Roger Moore as the British super-spy and his portrayal is light-hearted and mild compared to predecessor Sean Connery. Unfortunately the shallow use of themes associated with blaxploitation films, crammed into the usual James Bond film formula emphasising gimmicky technology, prolonged chases and bizarre criminals, makes Moore’s debut film one of the more forgettable episodes in the JB movie series, notable mainly as a snapshot of pop culture trends in a particular decade of the 20th century.

Bond is sent to the US to investigate the mysterious deaths of three MI6 spies in New Orleans, New York and the tiny Caribbean nation San Monique in the space of 24 hours, all of whom were monitoring the activities of San Monique dictator Kananga (Yaphet Kotto). Bond’s snooping leads him to Harlem mob boss Mr Big, who runs the Fillet of Soul chain of restaurants, and the boss’s assistant Solitaire (Jane Seymour), a tarot reader with the power of second sight. Mr Big tries to get Bond killed but Bond escapes and travels to San Monique where he meets with local CIA agent Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry) there. After a few hair-raiding incidents, Bond suspects Carver of working for Kananga; Carver tries to escape but is killed by Kananga remotely. Bond later meets and seduces Solitaire but this means her clairvoyant abilities are lost along with her virginity. Her life now in danger from Kananga, Solitaire tags along after Bond. They escape to New Orleans but are captured by Mr Big who reveals himself as Kananga to Bond. The link between Mr Big and Kananga now becomes clear: Kananga is growing opium in poppy fields across San Monique, using voodoo to terrify his people and keep them poor and oppressed, and manufactures the opium into heroin which he then exports to the Fillet of Soul restaurants where it is given away for free to increase the number of addicts and at the same time run other heroin dealers and networks out of business. Once Kananga becomes the sole supplier of heroin, he will jack up prices to reap enormous profit at the expense of those he has enslaved to heroin.

From then on, the film dives into familiar JB territory of Bond narrowly escaping death from crocodiles by literally using the animals as stepping stones to freedom, a tedious speedboat chase through Louisiana’s bayous, Bond rescuing Solitaire from becoming a voodoo sacrifice and Bond’s final confrontation with Kananga in the dictator’s underground lair which results in Kananga’s outlandish demise. Along the way we meet a cast of odd characters, notably Kananga’s collection of henchmen like iron-fisted Tee Hee (Julius W Harris), Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder) and Whisper (James Ellroy Brown) and Louisiana sheriff J W Pepper (Clifton James) who embodies the worst stereotypes about Deep South racist redneck white people. (Odd that the lower classes, whether white or black, are being exploited for giggles.)

The use of blaxploitation motifs in an uncritical way, mostly for laughs, makes the film appear racist even if such motifs were not intended to be racist but satirical: instead of being a megalomaniac intent on taking over the world, Kananga is more content with ensnaring people into the clutches of heroin and exploiting them that way. Granted, Kananga’s ambitions are more convincing and possibly grounded in reality – in those days, Haitian presidents François Duvalier (1957 – 1971) and his son Jean-Claude (1971 – 1986) governed their nation as absolute or near-absolute rulers and used voodoo to foster a personality cult – but the nature of Kananga’s villainy tends rather to reinforce 1970s stereotypes about African-American involvement in drug crime and to demonise voodoo as a primitive cult obsessed with death and sacrifice. Furthermore, why should Kananga be happy being just another exploitive global drug lord while his white counterparts in other James Bond films are hellbent on holding governments and central banks to ransom?

Action sequences are overlong and boring, Bond’s seduction of Solitaire is frankly creepy and manipulative, and the cast of characters is flat. The actors do what they can to inject life into their characters but they all deserved a much better script. Probably the only decent highlights of the film are Jane Seymour’s ethereal beauty and sweet nature as Solitaire, and Yaphet Kotto’s sinister and tense Kananga.

You Only Live Twice: tired and formulaic film shouldn’t have lived even once

Lewis Gilbert, “You Only Live Twice” (1967)

By the time this, the fifth film in the James Bond spy movie franchise, came along for the blockbuster treatment, the original Ian Fleming novels were looking tired and outdated and so “You Only Live Twice” becomes the first in the JB series to depart significantly from its source material with a completely new story that hews closely to the movie franchise’s formula. With each new film, and the hundreds of millions being made in global box office profits, the formula became more and more set in stone. Character development and a proper plot that made sense were secondary to a fast-moving string of linked set pieces. With Fleming having died in 1964, screenplay writer Roald Dahl – who had had previous experience working in British intelligence during World War II in Washington DC – nutted out a script that included various characters, plot and scene elements and devices from the novel and which stuck closely to the formula. The result is a spy fantasy that plays loose even with details and aspects of the plot and which presents flat, even stereotyped characters. The freshness of earlier James Bond films has gone and lead actor Sean Connery as Bond appears fed up, even exasperated at times.

The film is set firmly in the period of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union and their respective allies, and also references the split between the Soviets and the Communists in China under Mao Zedong. After the now customary opening scene that sets up and readies Bond for his next assignment, the film sends him to Japan straight away where he is to discover how a remote volcanic island in the country is linked to mystery disappearances of US and Soviet spacecraft while in orbit around Earth. Through a series of sketches that involve a lot of fighting, killing and furniture being thrown about at Osato Chemicals corporate headquarters, and Bond being rescued twice by Japanese intel agent Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) in ways that suggest she has the power of clairvoyance, the MI6 super-spy obtains secret documents that, when examined by the Japanese secret service, lead Bond and Aki to investigate the cargo ship Ning-po in Kobe. The two are ambushed by thugs and Bond is captured by none other than the Osao Chemicals CEO (Teru Shimada) and his secretary Helga Brandt (Karin Dor), both secretly working for global criminal organisation SPECTRE. The two try to kill him but Bond escapes.

Discovering from the Japanese secret service that the Ning-po had unloaded rocket fuel in the area of the remote volcanic island, Bond surveys the area in an armed autogyro; he is attacked by four helicopters and manages to defeat them all. He meets with Aki and Japanese secret service head Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba) to arrange for him to infiltrate the volcanic island disguised as a Japanese fisherman married to a local girl pearl-diver. While Bond prepares for his mission to discover the island’s secrets before the US launches another spacecraft, SPECTRE sends out people to assassinate him: Bond thwarts all their attempts but Aki ends up as the film’s sacrificial lamb.

When the US revises its schedule to launch the spacecraft earlier than anticipated, Bond has to marry the pearl-diver Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama), also a protegee of Tiger Tanaka, and the two go off to the volcanic island. Their discovery of a secret rocket base hidden inside the volcano leads Bond to come face-to-face with SPECTRE head Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasance) and Blofeld’s bodyguard Hans (Ronald Rich).

To reach the point where Bond meets Blofeld, the film has to navigate (and sometimes just crash) through a web of often unnecessary plot detours that often look like last-minute additions such as the autogyro scene, his encounter with Brandt and the fight scene with Hans that sends the bodyguard into the piranha pool. The scenes with Blofeld come very late in the film and look rushed. Pleasance is wasted in the film yet his understated portrayal of Blofeld is vivid enough that it has become the template for evil villains in Western pop culture. The actors do what they can with the plot; at least their reputations and future careers weren’t too badly affected by being in the film. The action scenes and special effects pall after too many repetitions and make the film too long. Given his career writing children’s books, Dahl’s attempts to insert often infantile humour into the film fall flat.

At least the film’s later scenes set in southern Japan (Kagoshima Prefecture on Kyushu island, Nachikatsuura in Wakayama Prefecture on Honshu island) are lovely; pity they are wasted in a silly and forgettable film.

The film’s title derives from a haiku by 17th-century poet Matsuo Basho: “You only live twice / Once when you’re born /And once when you look death in the face”. Take his advice and fill the time between birth and death watching better films.

Goldfinger: enjoyable escapist spy-thriller fantasy of its time

Guy Hamilton, “Goldfinger” (1964)

Third in the series of James Bond spy film series, “Goldfinger” remains the standard to which all other films in the series are compared and usually found wanting. “Goldfinger” more or less established the template for successor JB films to follow: an opening scene before the credits that is not always related to the film’s plot; a megalomaniacal villain with a bizarre scheme to hold the world to ransom; the villain’s main enforcer employee having a bizarre modus operandi along with a taste for brutal violence; James Bond failing to save one or two sacrificial lambs; the super-spy himself dropping sarcastic one-liners about the villains he’s disposed of; the action taking place in several foreign locations; and an emphasis on fast cars and the latest technological gizmos, even if nearly 60 years later those gizmos look quaint and cartoonish. Of course the film always ends with Bond and his love interest with the double-entendre name sinking into each other’s arms with the theme music starting up and the end credits starting to roll.

Even if viewers have seen other JB films and know what they can expect, at least “Goldfinger” does not take itself seriously – indeed, the film does overdo its self-mockery – and the actors acquit themselves well. The plot holds together well with the right balance of the plausible, the logical and the fantastic, as it strides briskly through various sketches in which Bond (Sean Connery) and the villain Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) battle each other through deception and persistence on Bond’s part. Initially holidaying in Miami, Bond is directed by CIA agent Felix Leiter (Cec Linder) to observe Goldfinger cheating in a game of gin rummy: Bond discovers Goldfinger’s ruse and blackmails him into losing the game, but this results in the death of Jill Masterton (Shirley Eaton) who had been helping Goldfinger cheat. After returning to London, Bond volunteers to continue following Goldfinger to compensate for his having failed to protect Jill and to ascertain how Goldfinger is smuggling gold bullion across national boundaries in order to manipulate and game international gold prices. Bond and Goldfinger meet again to play a round of golf, during which the villain again tries to cheat but is foiled; Goldfinger then warns Bond to stay away from him in future. The spy tracks Goldfinger to Switzerland where he meets Jill Masterton’s sister Tilly (Tania Mallet) who intends to kill Goldfinger for having killed Jill. Later Bond sneaks into Goldfinger’s refinery where he discovers how the villain is smuggling gold (it is incorporated into the body of his Rolls Royce) and hears mention of Goldfinger’s plan to steal the gold held in Fort Knox in the US state of Kentucky. Bond ends up being captured and Tilly, who turns up on her own, is killed by Goldfinger’s enforcer Oddjob (Harold Sakata).

Bond is flown to Kentucky as Goldfinger’s prisoner by pilot Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) where, through his own devices, he discovers that Goldfinger plans to kill all military personnel guarding Fort Knox by gassing them with nerve gas and then plant an atomic bomb in the gold vaults there that will detonate and irradiate the gold, rendering it useless and causing the value of Goldfinger’s own gold reserves to skyrocket and create global market chaos.

The plot is straightforward and fast, with just enough dialogue papering over any holes and other implausible aspects. Most of the violence occurs in the later half of the film and it can be brutal. For a large part of the film Bond is Goldfinger’s prisoner and must use his wits and charm to convince Pussy Galore to switch sides and betray her employer (and risk being killed later) but this significant part of the plot is treated in a crude manner. Bond’s guilt in failing to protect Jill and Tilly Masterton plays a large part in his decision to pursue Goldfinger and Oddjob to the extent that he risks his life several times but this aspect of the plot is dealt with superficially when it could have been a major part of Bond’s character development. Unfortunately though, scriptwriters back in the early 1960s were dealing with source material for the film that was homophobic and misogynist, and they did what they could to scale back the characterisations of Pussy Galore and Tilly Masterton, both portrayed as lesbians in the original novel, not to mention Bond’s aversion to homosexuality and attitude to women who refused his advances, to something more credible even in the James Bond fantasy film universe. On the plus side, the film does portray a range of women characters from capable and intelligent individuals to others, admittedly minor characters, who were little more than wallpaper.

As it is, “Goldfinger” is enjoyable for its plot, its look and its characters, but beyond those, it is no more than what it set out to be: escapist spy-thriller fantasy.

Be Water: a dull and over-long biography of global pop culture icon Bruce Lee

Bao Nguyen, “Be Water” (2020)

A stolid documentary, Bao Nguyen’s visual biography of global pop culture icon Bruce Lee is a conventional retelling of his life, starting with his birth in San Francisco in 1940 and his early years in Hong Kong as a child actor and his introduction to martial arts as a young teenager. Through the use of archived films and photographs, and interviews with people who knew Lee, “Be Water” follows Lee’s journey between two very different worlds that he was part of, and yet not part of, as his family sends him away to SF and then to Seattle for further education after the teenager gets involved in fighting other kids and runs afoul of Hong Kong police. Lee completes high school in Seattle in 1960 and later travels to Oakland to continue his martial arts training and to teach others, Chinese and non-Chinese alike. He is criticised by people in the SF Chinese community for teaching martial arts to non-Chinese students. He participates in martial arts exhibitions and comes to the attention of Hollywood producer William Dozier in 1964 who sees potential in Lee as an actor. This leads to a role as Kato in the TV series “The Green Hornet” which lasted one season from September 1966 to March 1967. During this period Lee meets and marries Linda Lee Cadwell and they have two children, Brandon and Shannon.

From then on, Lee continues to develop his particular style of martial arts, which he called Jeet Kune Do, a hybrid art drawing from different martial arts and combat sports including boxing and fencing. In this, he was influenced by the examples of Muhammad Ali and other rising boxers of Ali’s generation, many of whom were African-American. He also appeared in other TV shows and worked as a stuntman and martial arts instructor to actors who sought him out. After being turned down for the lead role of the television series “Kung Fu” – the role went to David Carradine – Lee returns to Hong Kong on the advice of a Hollywood producer to make a film there that he could later show to Hollywood studio execs. Lee discovers that he is a huge star in HK where “The Green Hornet” was broadcast. Signing contracts with Golden Harvest and later forming his own production company, Lee makes three films “The Big Boss”, “Fist of Fury” and “Way of the Dragon” in which he is the lead actor: these films rocketed him to stardom across Asia.

The documentary can be very long and quite dull in its chronological layout, and for an in-depth work it does contain some inaccuracies about details of Lee’s life and some of the work he did. The concept for the “Kung Fu” television series was developed independently by three script-writers and Lee had been invited to audition for the show: Lee had independently developed his idea for a similar TV series “The Warrior” based around a martial arts practitioner but, contrary to what the documentary says, the “Kung Fu” series was not based on “The Warrior” though the two shows shared similar ideas. Despite the documentary’s heavy reliance on interviewees like Lee’s widow Linda Lee Cadwell and their surviving child Shannon, and others close to Lee, the information about Lee’s philosophy that underpins Jeet Kune Do and its heterodox approach seems to have been cherry-picked and shoehorned into fitting the film’s agenda about Lee himself trying to find an identity in two societies and cultures that initially reject and then accept him. Lee’s own emphasis on being inclusive and how his adaptability and open-mindedness led him to become an innovator as a martial artist, actor, film-maker (director and script-writer) and philosopher are given short shrift. I have the impression that Lee himself regarded his path as a continuous work in progress, the “identity” of which would not and would never be complete until death, yet the film insists on imposing its own notions of what Lee was carving out for himself within the framework of identity politics.

While there is interesting information about past discrimination against Asian-Americans in US society and in Hollywood in particular, and how Asian-American people have been patronised by American culture as well-behaved and subservient minority American citizens (implying that African-American citizens are bad because they dare to protest at the discrimination they suffer), at the same time there is not enough information about Lee’s own impact on US popular culture and how his example and work influenced Hollywood beyond his death in 1973. How his work influenced his children – and many others – to follow in his foot-steps as actors and martial artists themselves is not discussed. In the wake of other film documentaries and other material about Bruce Lee’s life, this recent documentary adds very little that is new apart from pigeon-holing him as an Asian-American attempting to “bridge” two cultures..

Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 6: Building a World-Class Gymnastics Team) – how athletes become fodder for nationalism in team events

Bess Krugman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 6: Building a World-Class Gymnastics Team)” (2020)

The final installment in this fascinating and informative documentary series follows MyKayla Skinner as she aims to do what very few other US gymnasts before her have done: leave the US national team to concentrate on collegiate gymnastics which helps her regain her original love of the sport and then attempt to break back into the elite level and win a place on the US Olympics team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Previously Skinner had been an alternate for the team at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro: she still had to practise and work on all her routines for those Games in case she had to replace a team member; unfortunately for her, no-one on the team got sick or injured enough that she was needed. After years of hard work and struggle, and periods when her motivation was flagging, Skinner retreated into collegiate gymnastics (which makes different demands on gymnasts) and rediscovered the joy and her childhood dreams. Moving back into the elite however demanded more exacting standards from her so, with the help and advice of her coach, Skinner changed and upgraded her routines, began the strenuous conditioning and practice again … and somehow, in 2019, got engaged and married to her boyfriend.

The episode explores the politics and sometimes powerful nationalism underlying the team event in major women’s gymnastics competitions like the Olympic Games and the world championships, and how geopolitical events and issues can have a deep influence on the young women competing for Team USA in gymnastics. The boycotts that affected the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, both political in nature, had a huge impact on the team and individual competitions in both men’s and women’s gymnastics: the Los Angeles competitions will always be seen as lesser compared to the 1984 Friendship Games gymnastics competitions organised by the Communist nations in eastern Europe. The example of the team competition during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, in which US team member Kerri Strug famously performed her second vault with a badly injured ankle and collapsed after hitting a perfect vault with no hops and saluting the judges, is described in considerable detail by fellow team member Amanda Borden with archival video film to illustrate her words. Borden also talks about her self-doubts even after making the 1996 Olympic team and the psychological uplift she got when all the other girls on the team voted to make her team captain.

Other gymnasts like Jordyn Wieber, Aly Raisman, Dominique Moceanu, Samantha Peszek and Betty Okino describe their experiences as US Olympic team members and how at some point in their careers they mentally switched from performing for themselves and their families to performing for the other members of their teams and ultimately for their country at team competitions. Svetlana Boginskaya remembers her time as a member of the Unified Team (formerly the Soviet Union team) for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics as bittersweet, as she and other team members won their gold team medals and then went home to new individual nations, never to perform as one team again.

While much screen time is devoted to how changes in team competition rules and scoring affects coaches’ strategies in selecting particular gymnasts for national teams, very little is said about how nationalism might have a pernicious effect on gymnasts’ psychologies and add extra pressure on the girls to perform to the expectations of not only their coaches and team officials but also of the news media in their countries, the corporations that sponsor them and the general public who follow the girls’ progress. Competing at the Olympics, especially if held in a country the gymnasts are unlikely ever to visit again, should be a fun experience where they meet new people and come in contact with new cultures and different ways of thinking and seeing things; instead it becomes an experience often filled with dread, anxiety, even fear and pain, or a reinforcement of ugly chauvinist attitudes and stereotypes about other people and countries.

As the last episode in the series, this installment might have gone out on a high note with various gymnasts and ex-gymnasts interviewed for the series saying what they believe gymnastics has done for them: has it improved their lives, given them opportunities to discover what talents and strengths they have, led them on career paths they might never have had otherwise? What do girls like Skinner, Jade Carey, Sunisa Lee, Morgan Hurd and Jordan Chiles think on their present journeys through the sport – what do they believe will open up to them in their future careers by gymnastics when they finally hang up their hand-grips and leotards for good? Apart from this, the series has been an interesting if perhaps very US-oriented exploration of the recent history and culture of the sport.

Since this series was completed, Skinner succeeded in her dream to represent the United States at the delayed 202o Tokyo Olympic Games but as one of two non-team individual gymnasts, the other being Jade Carey. Consequently Skinner did not compete in the team competition but performed as an all-round competitor in the qualification rounds. She did not qualify to compete in the all-round final but did compete in the vault final after fellow US gymnast Simone Biles dropped out of that competition; Skinner ended up winning a silver medal for vault.

Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 5: Abuse and Healing in Women’s Gymnastics) – how a toxic culture obsessed with success enabled sexual predation on minors

Bess Krugman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 5: Abuse and Healing in Women’s Gymnastics)” (2020)

A major theme of “Defying Gravity …” has been the dysfunctional culture of the sport obsessed with success and winning medals at all costs to the detriment of the health and well-being of the athletes involved. The competitive and exacting nature of women’s gymnastics and the willingness of young female gymnasts to please their superiors has led to individual coaches, officials, judges and others to manipulate, shame and abuse young women. A toxic culture is created that further attracts manipulative, often sociopathic individuals who may have their own agendas with regard to the gymnasts – agendas that include the sexual abuse of under-age girls.

This episode explores the sexual abuse scandal that rocked US gymnastics in the 2010s when gymnasts and former gymnasts like Jamie Dantzscher, Jordyn Wieber, Kyla Ross, Dominique Moceanu and others exposed Larry Nassar, a sports doctor employed by Bela and Marta Karolyi at their gymnastics camp in Texas during summer holidays, as a sexual abuser. Dantzscher and Wieber describe the camp and the competitive, often abusive atmosphere created by the Karolyis which pitted girls against each other and made them afraid to complain to their parents or other significant adults. The Karolyis did not allow parents to attend the camp and this made for a cult-like ambience where girls were cut off from people who could have challenged the Karolyis and their treatment of the gymnasts. Moceanu points out the qualities that Nassar had that endeared him to Marta Karolyi in particular – among them, his eagerness to please her and flatter her – and how he was able to take advantage of her friendship towards him to assault the girls in his charge.

Unfortunately Nassar is not the only person in the gymnastics world to have abused numerous gymnasts: former US national women’s gymnastics coach Don Peters was also found guilty of sexually abusing gymnasts and many coaches in the US have been put on a banned list – although as sports journalist Blythe Lawrence observed, the criteria for banning a coach are not clear as so many coaches who should have been banned were not on the list. Former Soviet star Olga Korbut speaks bravely about the abuse her coach Renald Knysh inflicted on her and on other gymnasts he trained back in the 1970s. There is no mention of whether sexual abuse occurred in other countries’ gymnastics programs though the physical abuse Romanian coaches meted out to gymnasts (and of which Romanian gymnasts themselves have spoken to the press) is well known.

Driven by interviews with Dantzscher, Wieber and other gymnasts, the episode climaxes in trial hearings at which the gymnasts testify before judges and speak about their abuse. The court case against Nassar climaxes when he is sentenced to 175 years’ jail time. For this, the gymnasts are awarded the 2018 Arthur Ashe Award for bravery.

Ironically perhaps the very qualities instilled by their coaches into these young women – persistence, grit, grace under pressure – are the qualities that enable them to stand up to their abuse and their abusers and to speak out against a culture and organisation that for too long have condoned abuse and allowed abusers to prey on succeeding generations of young gymnasts. However, as long as gymnastics and other sports continue to prize a winner-takes-all attitude, and derive their values from a competitive and combative neoliberal capitalist ideology that winks at bullying and abuse, the potential for a sports culture that enables physical abuse, psychological manipulation and sexual predation on minors will always exist.

Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 4: Unlocking Gymnastics’ Most Powerful Event: The Vault) – not the most powerful episode in the series

Bess Krugman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 4: Unlocking Gymnastics’ Most Powerful Event: The Vault)” (September 2020)

Compared to previous episodes in this six-part series, this fourth installment is not nearly as fascinating and the human stories featured seem rather superficial. The vault, its history and development, its place in gymnastics as an exacting and often the riskiest and most dangerous apparatus for gymnasts, and the experiences of various gymnasts, past and present, with that apparatus dominate nearly the entire episode.

The gymnasts who are the primary focus here are Grace McCallum and Jade Carey (both of whom later competed at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games after the series was made): McCallum comes from a large family with limited resources and Carey is coached by her father. The episode could have made much more about these families’ involvement in their daughters’ training and gymnastics careers, including the sacrifices parents and other family members have had to make, and covering the social and economic contexts (even if in a very general way) in which families are often forced to make decisions to forgo things or experiences to put their children into private sports clubs to get the opportunities to develop their talents. What sort of neighbourhood or town do these families live in, that compels them to enroll their daughters in gymnastics and not any other sport? Why do some families support their daughters in pursuing gymnastics, knowing the sacrifices they have to make and the perils that might await their children in the sport, while other families with equally talented daughters do not? There could have been references to families pushing their daughters to continue training even when the girls have lost motivation or are in pain, and the pressure and guilt gymnasts may often feel knowing that their parents and siblings have given up or denied themselves opportunities so that the girls can continue with gymnastics. The issue of whether gymnastics and other popular sports other than team sports like football or baseball should be subsidised by state or federal governments or charities – so that Grace McCallum’s family would not have needed to pay private fees for her gymnastics and maybe one or more of her siblings could also have opportunities to excel in a sport or creative activity also supported by government or charity money – would become a theme underlying the episode.

As usual, the episode is driven by interviews with past and current gymnasts who often provide good, even penetrating insight into the sport and the often toxic and cult-like culture surrounding it. Kathy Johnson especially is an excellent commentator and critic of practices within the sport that have harmed gymnasts in the past. Unfortunately though there is not very much information given about reforms and changes in the sport with regard to safeguarding and improving young gymnasts’ self-esteem and general mental health.

There is brief mention of the tragic story of Julissa Gomez who suffered brain damage after botching a vault at a competition in Japan in which she hit her head and injured her neck, and was later starved of oxygen while being treated in hospital in Japan. This incident is passed over very quickly. There is no mention of the pressure Gomez was under to perform the type of vault that led to her catastrophic injury and later death.

I rate this episode as a lesser entry in what otherwise has been a fine series so far.