Men in Black II: some good ideas go to waste in a cheap sequel

Barry Sonnenfeld, “Men in Black II” (2002)

Five years after the events of the original “Men in Black”, at the end of which Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) retired from the Men in Black agency – the secret intelligence unit that monitors the activities of exterrestrial beings living and working on Planet Earth – his former MiB protege Agent J (Will Smith) is called upon to investigate the mysterious death of an alien at his (the alien’s, that is) pizza restaurant. There, Agent J interviews Laura (Rosario Dawson) who tells him her employer was killed by two aliens, Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle), a shape-shifting monster in the form of a lingerie model, and Charlie and Scrad, Serleena’s two-headed assistant (Johnny Knoxville), who are hunting for the Light of Zartha which Serleena needs for her own nefarious purposes. Agent J is attracted to Laura and decides not to neuralyse her.

As he investigates the crime, Agent J discovers nearly all leads go back to his mentor so he brings the former Agent K back to MiB headquarters for re-neuralysation. Before Agent K’s neuralysation is completed, Serleena and her minions attack the building and seriously trash it so Agent K’s memories must be restored clandestinely. Having regained his identity and memories, Agent K remembers that he partially neuralysed himself to erase what he knows of the Light of Zartha but left some clues to follow in case he needed to find out again.

Putting Laura under protection with various aliens, Agents J and K recover a video containing a fictional dramatisation of how, long ago, Queen Lauranna of Zartha entrusted the MiB agency to guard the Light from her enemy Serleena. Agent K could not save the Queen from the murderous Serleena so he neuralysed himself in order to forget his grief and at the same time forget what the Light of Zartha was and where it was held. The agents return to the place where they placed Laura but discover she has been abducted by Serleena.

While Smith and Jones work very well together – indeed, the movie limps along until Agent K recovers his memories (although the speed at which they come back is unconvincing and much potential fun is lost along the way) – and do what they can to maintain the old zing and energy from the previous film, the plot is flat and the entire film has a cheap and cheesy tone. Gags such as the talking-dog gag quickly wear thin and even scenes featuring Jeff the giant monster living in the NYC subway are not very scary. While Laura plays a significant part in the film, the romance angle between her and Agent J is very brief and superficial, and the heartbreak climax in which Laura discovers her true heritage and must go to Zartha does not give the film the emotional edge it could have had.

The message that once someone becomes an MiB agent, s/he is always an MiB agent, and the corollary that MiB agents can never be normal people with normal lives and normal relationships, but are permanently wedded to their employer, is present but unfortunately the script does not make more of it than it does. Similar could be said for characters like Laura, Serleena and Charlie and Scrad: what are their motivations, why exactly is Serleena interested in the Light of Zartha, and what do Charlie and Scrad hope to get out of working with Serleena? There are many interesting ideas in this film that could have made it much more entertaining, a little bit on the scary side, and perhaps even a bit thoughtful. What a pity that these ideas were not allowed to help write what could have been a good script.

Batman & Robin: so one-dimensional, it should be called “Flatman & Ribbon”

Joel Schumacher, “Batman & Robin” (1997)

Some folks probably call this film “Flatman & Ribbon” for the fact that the Dynamic Duo (played respectively by George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell) get well and truly steamrolled by a lousy stereotypical script in which two villains become a megalomaniacal tag-team with no motive other than to literally remake the world to their desires and hog screen time with their over-acting, silly puns and outlandish costumes. A big part of the blame must go to director Schumacher for steering the Good Ship Gotham Universe too close to the camp live-action television show that starred Adam West as the Dark Knight. The cast of actors which include Arnold Schwarzenegger as chief villain Mr Freeze, Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy and Alicia Silverstone as Barbara Wilson / Batgirl does what it can but the movie is far too crowded with them all and most of their characters end up so one-dimensional they may as well be paper cut-outs. “Flatman and Ribbon” indeed.

At least the script tries to inject an emotional element in a sub-plot about the importance of family and family loyalties by having Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Gough) fall ill with the same mysterious ailment that befell the wife of Mr Freeze who desperately needs money for research on a cure for the illness which puts her in a permanent coma. Mr Freeze embarks on a life of crime stealing diamonds that power his suit to keep his metabolism at subzero temperatures due to a laboratory accident. With Schwarzenegger as Mr Freeze, the villain’s desperate quest to revive his wife takes centre stage but Alfred’s illness is always in the background to remind Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson of the importance of being partners and working together, and to rope in Alfred’s niece Barbara Wilson who comes to Wayne Manor to look after her uncle. The scenes with Alfred are very touching and feature some good acting from Clooney who otherwise provides a sunny and not so tortured interpretation of Bruce Wayne / Batman throughout the film.

While on his mission to steal more diamonds including one from an observatory that Wayne Enterprises sponsors, Mr Freeze meets Poison Ivy, herself created from a chemical laboratory mash-up, who gets him out of jail and tries to wangle her way into his cold-hearted affections by pulling the plug on his wife. Together the two plot to freeze Gotham City and then the entire world with the assistance of Poison Ivy’s subordinate Bane, a huge monstrosity created with a drug called Venom. Fortunately the Dynamic Duo and Batgirl foil the Dastardly Duo’s plans and put them back into prison, but not before an endless and tiresome series of explosions, enough car crashes to turn all of Gotham City’s scrapyard merchants into millionaires, lots of dead bodies and other collateral damage, and too many implausible dramatic situations that would be impossible for even the most well-prepared superheroes to survive – or at least not risk shoulder dislocations or arms ripping off – all culminating in very sudden climatic change in negative Centigrade temperatures for Gotham City.

Little touches such as a conversation between Bruce Wayne and Alfred about being able to control the chaos around oneself – always an ongoing issue with Batman and those like him who view the world as essentially needing constant repair lest it fall back into even more evil and corruption – and Batman himself offering Mr Freeze a chance to redeem himself at least make some parts of an otherwise tired and bloated film franchise in need of new ideas bearable. Little surprise then that this flatlining film did not do so well at the box office and the film franchise ended with it.

Men in Black: a sci-fi comedy sending up intel agencies and immigration issues

Barry Sonnenfeld, “Men in Black” (1997)

Very loosely based on the original comic series of the same name, in which a secret organisation called The Men In Black polices the activities of extraterrestrial aliens on Earth and keeps these hidden from the rest of humanity, this film turns the original source material into parody and satire poking fun at bureaucracy and secret intelligence agencies, and posits the notion that even underground organisations investigating conspiracy-theory / tinfoil-hat topics need new blood, new ideas and a fresh way of thinking to survive. MIB Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) needs a new partner after his old one retires when a mission proves too sticky for them both. Coincidentally a new potential replacement presents himself when New York City police officer James Edwards (Will Smith) pursues a suspect into a museum. Impressed with the cop, Agent K interviews him and encourages him to apply for a vacancy with the MIB agency. After undergoing various tests, in which he supplies original and wacky solutions, Edwards is accepted into the agency, his old identity and former civilian life are expunged from New York City records, and he becomes Agent J.

While all this is happening, an alien searching for an energy device called the Galaxy, cunningly hidden in a cat’s collar jewel, kills a farmer called Edgar (Vincent d’Onofrio) and takes on Edgar’s form, though it is very ill-fitting. The Edgar alien kills two other aliens disguised as humans and their murders are reported in The National Enquirer (a newspaper specialising in conspiracy theories and UFO sightings). Agents K and J read about the murders and Agent K guesses the Edgar alien is a “bug” (ie cockroach alien). The two agents consult an alien informant disguised as a pug dog and follow other information to find the Edgar alien having kidnapped a morgue coroner (Linda Fiorentino) and in possession of the Galaxy.

The plot is simple and straightforward to follow, though once Edwards becomes J, it no longer becomes interesting and the eccentric zany quality fades out. What the narrative ends up becoming is a standard crime caper with two agents who are mirror opposites in almost every way – Agent K is very much an organisation man while Agent J retains his individuality and quick-thinking, quick-talking flair even after his fingerprints have been burnt off and his old name has been forgotten. Jones and Smith work well together as a comedy team, and their chemistry together and mix of deadpan humour and wit hold the film together. D’Onofrio, Fiorentino and Rip Torn also hold their own well though Fiorentino is underused.

The central theme of the film could be summed up as “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, to use that old cliched proverb, as plenty in the film, including characters, plot twists and various other elements, have the element of surprise. Humans living unremarkable lives turn out to be aliens in disguise, an old car suddenly displays advanced technology, and a tiny gun packs an almighty punch and a huge recoil. The concept of individuality is examined, even if in a simplistic way: a man may lose his name and past but is his individuality, his sense of self, erased as well? Or will it be just a matter of time before Agent J becomes as much an MIB organisation man as Agent K? Will the real conflict be between Agent J in trying to maintain his individual style and way of thinking, and perhaps change the organisation, on the one hand and on the other the MIB agency itself in moulding Agent J into yet another faceless MIB agent and staying the same, at the risk of becoming stale and bureaucratic?

The film also has something pithy to say about the perennial issue faced by Western countries regarding immigration and how law and order institutions deal with illegal migrants. The lesson to be learned is that most migrants, even illegal ones, desire to lead normal lives and keep their heads down.

Batman Forever: combining colourful camp and brooding darkness with duality as its theme

Joel Schumacher, “Batman Forever” (1995)

After Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns” scooped millions at the box office, there was the general feeling that his films of the Dark Knight were too dark for young viewers, and that the hero did not have a place in a Gothic noir universe where everyone is compromised in a corrupt society. For the next film in this particular Batman series, Burton stepped down as director (though he still producer) and Joel Schumacher directed instead. Scumacher’s approach to the Batman / Gotham City ethos was to draw on the live-action 1960s television series and Batman comics of the 1950s in which the hero is a square-jawed muscular bulldog hero who always defeats his enemies, no matter what dangers they put him and his sidekick Robin in. The result is a mix of shadow darkness and garish fluorescent circus colours: a film that wants to be two very different things – a noirish flick that wants to be serious yet still colourful and fun for young viewers – and this notion of mirror opposites combined in the one person is a motif that pervades the film in its characters and plotting.

Gotham City district attorney Harvey Dent (Tommy Lee Jones) swears revenge on Batman (Val Kilmer) after the latter fails to save him from a vicious acid attack that leaves half of Dent’s face severely burnt and disfigured and turns him into a man obsessed with polar opposites, one of which can dominate the other through a sheer random occurrence, exemplified in the toss of a coin. Dent disrupts a circus performance in which a family of acrobats manages to divert his bomb into Gotham City Harbour instead of destroying the cirucs, but the acrobats’ heroic gesture leaves them dead save for the youngest member, Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell). Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne, struggling with recurring dreams of his childhood, invites Grayson to live with him at Wayne Manor.

In the meantime, a worker at Wayne Enterprises, Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey) demonstrates an invention to Wayne but Wayne rejects it and refuses to continue funding it. After murdering his supervisor, Nygma leaves the company and, adopting the persona of The Riddler, teams up with Dent to continue raising the money (legally and illegally) to perfect the machine, copies of which are expected to be in every home in Gotham City: the catch is that this machine will draw in every viewer’s thoughts, feelings and knowledge, and transfer all these into Nygma’s own mind, thereby giving Nygma power over people’s hidden secrets and vulnerabilities. Nygma seeks out Wayne to destroy him for refusing to finance his project and discovers his secret Batman identity.

As if dealing with two major loopy criminals partnering to destroy him were not enough, Batman / Bruce Wayne also has to try to rein in Grayson who not only discovers his secret identity but also thirsts for revenge against Dent for killing his family. At the same time, after discovering his father’s journal, Wayne starts to doubt his purpose in life as a crusader for justice and yearns for a normal life. For help with his recurrent dreams, he seeks out a psychiatrist, Dr Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), who turns out to have the hots for Batman but considers him rather ordinary. Over the course of the film, the doctor develops feelings for Wayne but still holds a torch for Batman.

The plot is actually very straightforward though and while the scenes with Wayne and the doctor can drag, the film proceeds at a brisk pace to its conclusion. Thanks to The Riddler’s predilection for blowing things up, the film is full of explosions and noise. The sets are very good, maintaining a Gothic Art Deco look but with lots of bright garish colours and outlandish villain costumes. While Kilmer delivers a fairly straightforward dual character with just enough brooding darkness to pass muster with audiences, and O’Donnell plays a hot-headed Grayson / Robin without much nuance, Carrey and Jones ham up their respective characters. While Jones’ Dent actually doesn’t do much other than be a one-dimensional cartoon villain, Carrey goes to town painting Edward Nygma / The Riddler as a seriously disturbed and overbearing individual. While over-acting is perhaps to be expected of The Riddler and Harvey Dent – and at the time of filming, Carrey did have a reputation for playing crazed and crazy characters – over the course of the film this over-the-top style becomes very irritating and tiresome.

At the end of the film, we really do not know much more about Batman / Bruce Wayne, apart from observing that after revealing his secret identity to Dr Meridian and accepting that he needs a partner to share in his crime-fighting life – and Robin / Dick Grayson eagerly joining him in that respect – he finally accepts his dual nature and the nightmares presumably cease. It seems that by sharing something of himself with others, most of all with Robin / Dick Grayson, Batman / Bruce Wayne relieves himself of the burden of carrying his secret duality alone. It turns out that just about every significant character in the film, save for Dr Chase Meridian and Wayne’s faithful butler Alfred (Michael Gough), has either a secret alter ego or a dual nature. Interestingly, once Dr Meridian discovers that Batman / Bruce Wayne are one and the same, her interest in both of them seems to cool right off and at the end of the film, the couple go their separate ways with Bruce Wayne choosing to continue his career as Batman … forever.

In all of the fun and cheesiness and Jim Carrey’s zany antics and rubber acting that make him the real star of the film, what saves “Batman Forever” from being a camp re-run of the live-action TV show from the 1960s is Kilmer’s comparative restraint and nuanced acting as the hero wrestling with a troubling secret and a connected theme of duality and partnership. The Riddler’s quest to steal everyone’s thoughts, feelings and hidden secrets might be considered typical campy mad-scientist stuff but in the current world in which corporations spend huge amounts on social psychology and mass psychology in an effort to discover what people really are thinking and feeling, how they think and feel the way they do, and how to use this knowledge to manipulate people into certain moods and modes of thinking – and then sell all this knowledge to governments and intelligence agencies – the film takes on an eerie relevance and significance.

Seeing this film again 25 years after seeing at the cinema, I am surprised that it has lasted better than I thought it would and that Kilmer’s approach to Batman / Bruce Wayne stands up very well and might actually be the best of all the actors who have played the role in all the films centred around the character.

Batman Returns: a dark Gothic Christmas fantasy turns out tired, kitschy and bombastic

Tim Burton, “Batman Returns” (1992)

A Christmas movie that probably rarely enters most viewers’ lists of Christmas movies to watch is this wintry sequel to Burton’s “Batman” film. In that first film, Batman (underplayed by Michael Keaton) did battle with Jack Nicholson’s Joker, and quite a good, suspenseful and above all atmospheric film that was. In this sequel, Keaton again plays Batman / Bruce Wayne in a very minimal way, with most of the attention on Danny de Vito’s Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman aka Selina Kyle. Despite the dark and snowy Christmas setting, where it seems night reigns nearly 24/7, the sequel has little atmosphere from the first film, and in its stead is forgettable explosions courtesy of a fairly involved plot.

The Penguin arrives on the scene fairly quickly with an origin story and childhood history that emphasise his outsider status and inner yearning for acceptance that mutates into contempt and hatred for humanity in general. Over 30 years later, businessman millionaire Max Schreck (Christopher Walken) proposes a plan to build a power plant to supply Gotham City with electricity, a plan opposed by its mayor. Schreck is kidnapped during a speech that is interrupted by a terrorist attack staged by the Red Triangle Gang, and is taken to meet the RTG secret leader Penguin in the latter’s underground sewer lair while Batman fends off the gang members. The Penguin blackmails Schreck into agreeing to help him make his way back to the surface. In the meantime Schreck’s put-upon secretary Selina Kyle discovers the true nature of her boss’s electricity proposal but before she can do anything, Schreck throws her out of a skyscraper window and she plummets to the ground. Miraculously she survives and she swears vengeance on Schreck by adopting the persona of the Catwoman.

Through various ruses and with the help of Schreck, who has his own reasons, the Penguin campaigns for the office of Gotham City mayor but is undone by Batman / Bruce Wayne who is suspicious of the candidate’s motives and discovers his connection to the Red Triangle Gang. The Penguin and Catwoman briefly ally to try to bring down Batman but their alliance comes undone when Catwoman rejects his advances. Bruce Wayne meets Selina Kyle during a meeting with Schreck and the two misfits are attracted to each other. After Batman reveals the Penguin’s attitude towards the people of Gotham City by publicly broadcasting the villain’s remarks about the city, the Penguin’s mayoral campaign falls apart, he retreats to the sewers and plots to kidnap and kill all the first-born sons of Gotham City to avenge himself on his parents. The Penguin starts by gatecrashing a ball thrown by Schreck, threatening to take Schreck’s son, but Schreck offers himself up instead.

The state is set for an almighty pyrotechnical climax which, to be frank, is the least interesting part of a long film with characters who either over-act (in de Vito’s case) or under-act (in the case of Batman and Schreck). Pfeiffer’s Catwoman just manages to strike a balance between her mousy and inhibited Selina Kyle persona and Catwoman’s lustful mirror-image opposite. Though just over two hours long, the film makes little attempt at character development and at the end of it all, all major characters still seem as paper-thin as they were at the beginning of the film. While Keaton passes muster as Bruce Wayne, fairly confident in public but often ill at ease in romantic relationships, his Batman does not come across as being very authoritative (though the character has zero interactions with police – not even Commissioner Gordon has words with him) and seems cardboard-like. With less atmosphere and more emphasis on explosions, bomb attacks and violence, the features associated with films directed by Tim Burton tend to stick out as overdone, kitsch and tired. The music soundtrack is loud and overly dramatic, and has little energy and zest.

While Burton has championed marginalised outlier characters in other films, and in his own way satirises American social conformity and the repression that accompanies this, the Penguin’s portrayal and that character’s interactions with Gotham City folk seem to betray a shallow understanding – nay, ignorance – of how capitalist society works to keep people in thrall by dividing them and using those divisions as threats to enforce and maintain conformity and compliance. The Penguin is never able or given the opportunity to understand where the hatred originates, in the rich family that rejects him because of how his deformities might threaten its wealth and social status; in a way, he is a puppet of Schreck who hopes to use him in his own scheme to claim power and influence over Gotham City. Perhaps the Penguin is more to be pitied than treated as a true villain despite his vicious character; at any rate, one doesn’t take him seriously as a villain but as a pathetic clown instead. What might have made the film work better would be shifting the emphasis from the Penguin as a villain, and Batman’s concentration on him, to Schreck as the true villain – but it seems that Wayne and Schreck have too much in common, as millionaire businessmen and philanthropical types, able to exert influence on Gotham City politics, for Batman and Schreck to have a showdown after somehow sidelining the Penguin and Catwoman. Perhaps this is the problem behind the Batman narrative: that a supposed superhero everyone roots for actually turns out to be representative of the very class that is stealing resources from its rightful owners, the general public. In the real world, Batman would be an enforcer for corporate billionaire Lex Luthor.

Contagion: a pessimistic and unforgiving study of human society in crisis

Steven Soderbergh, “Contagion” (2011)

Unexpectedly discovering a new lease of life and relevance in the current COVID-19 near-global shutdown environment, this film purports to be a procedural thriller about how health professionals, government officials and ordinary people react to and cope with an outbreak of a mystery viral disease that quickly becomes a pandemic. The film takes the form of several narratives, each centred around a particular character or set of characters, running in parallel and sometimes intersecting, but basically in agreement with respect to the film’s themes. Flashbacks are used and often the film jumps forwards in time to portray the process of social breakdown or individual characters’ development as they try to cope with uncertainty, isolation and ongoing stress.

Returning from a business trip to Hong Kong and Macau, and meeting with a former lover on her way back home to Minneapolis, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) comes down with seizures and her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) rushes her to hospital. Her death and its mysterious cause puzzle the doctors. Mitch returns home to find that his stepson is also dead. He is put into isolation but is found to be immune to whatever killed his wife and stepson. He later returns home to his teenage daughter Jory and together they sit through self-quarantine and isolation, and observe their neighbourhood breaking down around them as the pandemic takes hold and people either rush the stores or queue for necessities or resort to arson and other forms of violence to get the things they need.

While the Emhoffs huddle together, in Atlanta, representatives of the US Department of Homeland Security meet with Dr Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and express misgivings that the emerging disease in Minneapolis is a bioweapon. Cheever despatches an officer, Dr Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), to investigate the situation there and she traces the outbreak to Beth Emhoff. Mears’ recommendations to local public health authorities to set up a field hospital and track and quarantine sick people fall on deaf ears. Unfortunately Mears herself falls sick and dies. In the meantime, a researcher at the CDC headquarters, Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), makes some breakthroughs in analysing the virus’ genome and finds it to be a combination of bat and pig-borne viruses. A professor in California ignores Cheever’s orders to destroy his own samples and identifies a cell culture that Hextall is able to use to create a vaccine.

Conspiracy theorist blogger Alex Krumwiede (Jude Law) posts videos on his blog about the mystery virus and boasts that he has cured himself of the illness with a homoeopathic remedy. Soon people in the US start raiding pharmacies and supermarkets for that remedy. In a TV interview, Krumwiede says that Cheever secretly advised his family and friends to flee Atlanta during the lockdown and this leads to a government investigation of Cheever’s actions.

While all this is happeing, World Health Organisation epidemiologist Dr Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) and other public health officials working in Hong Kong work through CCTV evidence of Beth Emhoff’s activities in that territory and in Macau, during which she visited a casino, and identify her as Patient X. One HK official, Sun Feng (Chin Han) kidnaps Orantes and takes her to his village as a hostage in an effort to get hold of the vaccine when it becomes available. Orantes is released months later when the vaccine doses are eventually delivered to the village by WHO officials, but on being told that these doses are placebos, she returns to the village to warn everyone.

The film flits from one narrative to another without going into any of them in much depth. Characters are little more than stereotypes and audiences may not feel much empathy for them. There is little for Mitch and Jory to do in isolation other than get on each other’s nerves and Jory turns out to be little more than a superficial and stereotyped portrayal of a supposedly typical American teenage girl whose main goal in life seems to be contacting her boyfriend by whatever means she can, even at the cost of endangering her health and life. The most interesting narrative – Dr Orantes being taken hostage and driven to a rural village – is treated the worst: after her kidnapping, the doctor all but disappears from the film and only very late in “Contagion” is she revealed to have accepted a new role as a schoolteacher. Audiences would have found her transformation much more interesting to watch than any of the other narratives. What would have been her motive and how did she come to be accepted by Sun Feng’s people to be trusted to teach children?

Through the use of interlinked narratives, “Contagion” explores the nature of human social interactions and how these are influenced by different environments and external factors that affect them. When order is threatened or breaks down, and people grasp for information and news, scammers like Krumwiede take advantage of the helplessness to advance their own agendas and profit financially. Even researchers and public health officials bend or violate the rules when self-interest is involved: the vaccine is produced despite the fact that at least two people broke protocols in its research and development. Public health officials hesitate to institute lockdown procedures in Minneapolis just before a major public holiday and this allows the virus to escape and turn into a true pandemic. Political cronyism is at work as well: Mears dies because the plane that was supposed to evacuate her and take her to hospital is diverted instead to rescue a politician. Weirdly, vaccines are allocated to people on a lottery basis and one suspects (from the Orantes narrative) that the allocations have been done in such a way that people with power, money and influence get their vaccinations first.

While presenting as a study of human society under pandemic crisis conditions and the uncertainty and instability these generate, the film turns out to be not so different from most other Hollywood films of various genres in portraying humans as essentially selfish, greedy, manipulative, untrustworthy and unreliable in a crisis. The reality during the current COVID-19 global crisis is that so far in most countries, people have become more community-minded, more caring and more mindful of weak and vulnerable people. Contrary to the mostly negative portrayal of social media in “Contagion”, social media in COVID-19 conditions have become a major source of information and community networking for many people. It seems far more likely that the kind of bestial and violent behaviour present in “Contagion” is more a consequence of the dysfunctional neo-liberal capitalist society that exists across the US, with the widespread acceptance of values that privilege exploitation, cheating, ignorance and the use of violence over negotiation and compromise to get what one needs. Above all, the reality is that the US response to the current COVID-19 pandemic has been criminally haphazard, resulting in tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths, among which the poor and particular groups like Hispanic and Afro-Americans are over-represented; and instead of a lone rogue blogger trying to profit from the suffering, the US government at Federal and State levels, and other Western governments, are seeking to profit from the suffering by threatening to sue China for an amount of US$1.2 trillion (coincidentally the same amount that the US owes China in US Treasury bonds) for its supposed failure to notify the WHO of the disease and its pandemic potential.

The film’s conclusion demonstrating the evolution of the virus from a pathogen infesting bats into one infesting pigs and human beings is so clumsily and sketchily done that any message about human encroachment on and destruction of natural environments and the role that industrial farming plays in transmitting exotic viruses and diseases to humans is lost in a narrative that appears highly racist. “Contagion” might appear to be relevant to our current world but turns out to be little more than pro-US propaganda.

Skyfall: revisiting the past for new inspiration and direction

Sam Mendes, “Skyfall” (2012)

Released in 2012, the year being the 50th anniversary of the first EON Productions’ James Bond film release “Dr No”, “Skyfall” carries the theme of a return to one’s past, either to resolve outstanding conflicts and problems before one can move on, or to draw inspiration from past history in order to forge a new, refreshed direction. Issues such as the contrasts between youth and middle-aged maturity, and whether attitudes, ideas and institutions that were relevant in a past age have outlived their usefulness in modern times, are referred to briefly and superficially. Aspects of past James Bond films and even the original novels by Ian Fleming appear in “Skyfall”. The film though is mainly remarkable in deviating somewhat from the franchise formula in fleshing out the characters of Bond (Daniel Craig) and his superior M (Judi Dench), giving them a motivation for doing what they do, in addition to flushing out and battling a rogue ex-MI6 agent in the form of Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem).

In the film’s opening scene, Bond and fellow MI6 field agent Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) chase mercenary Patrice (Ola Rapace) who has stolen a hard drive containing the names of various MI6 and NATO agents through the streets of Istanbul and later the railway line leading out of Istanbul into Bulgaria or Greece. As Bond and Patrice fight on top of a speeding train, Moneypenny is ordered by M in London to shoot Patrice, even though she does not have a clear shot. Under sufferance, Moneypenny follows orders and Bond, shot in the chest, falls 30 metres into a river and disappears, seemingly forever, down a waterfall while Patrice rides to freedom. For this bungle, a public enquiry is held into M’s conduct and she is pressured by Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), a former SAS officer, to retire. Naturally M refuses, preferring to stick out her job until she judges the time is right for her to leave.

In the meantime, MI6’s computers are hacked and MI6’s bizarre ziggurat London headquarters at Vauxhall Cross are blown up. (Good riddance, I say.) MI6 is forced to move to underground digs. Bond, who used his “death” to retire to a little island in Indonesia where he spends his days drinking alone in a bar, hears of the attack and returns to London to the consternation of M. She packs him through a series of physical and mental tests (which he fails) and despatches him on a mission to find Patrice and his employer, kill Patrice and get the hard drive back.

Through a series of adventures in Shanghai and Macau, Bond locates Patrice but loses the him when Patrice falls to his death from a skyscraper. Bond however receives unexpected help from Patrice’s colleague Severine (Berenice Marlohe) who takes him to an island near Macau where they are captured and taken to the employer, Raoul Silva, who turns out to be a renegade former MI6 agent with a grudge against M.

From this point on, the film traces a more familiar formulaic path as Bond does battle against the campy Silva, culminating in Bond taking M to his childhood home Skyfall in remote Scotland with Silva and his men in hot pursuit. Most of the plot features Bond in feats of near-foolish bravado that in real life no-one would ever survive; only an actor like Craig who is able to work gravitas and grit into ever more silly and ridiculous acts that Bond is required to do can make such crazy stunts look plausible. Craig’s Bond brims with the sort of complicated and dark psychology usually associated with DC Comics figure Batman; it surely is no coincidence that Bond turns out to have been an orphan during his childhood. With no family to call his own, anyone can see from a mile away that MI6 is Bond’s substitute family and M his substitute mother. Sigmund Freud would drop his cigar watching this film.

Very little in the film makes much sense: why on earth would Bond take M back to his childhood home (which he never liked much anyway) knowing that the crazed Silva’s arrival means it will be blown up sky high? Silva is so hilariously comic with his clown wig and his attempt to straighten out his dentures (a pity they don’t turn out to be shark’s teeth or made of venom-tipped steel, and they never get used at all in the film) that one wonders if Bardem had been told he was going to play the Joker in a Batman film. He sort of does anyway, playing the rogue MI6 foil to Bond, in yet another iteration of the motif in most films in which mega-criminals flaunt their wealth, underworld status and influence to Bond and jeer at his meagre pay and MI6’s cavalier treatment of its field agents if they are ever captured or killed. Bond is forced yet again to ponder why he keeps taking on dangerous assignments for a capricious employer – and none is more capricious and tetchy than Dench’s M – in a universe where Britain’s influence and status have long since gone into the garbage tip of history, where spy agencies have become corrupt and incompetent (as evidenced by M’s actions) and, in the age of the Internet, seemingly antiquated and irrelevant.

The only good thing about this film is Daniel Craig as Bond, the actor infusing his style of grit and balance of humour and seriousness into a fantasy character in a bizarre fantasy universe, and making the whole shebang look fairly convincing. The real world may be grubbier and not at all exciting, the ethics of MI6 and its employees may be more corrupt and expedient than the ethics of those MI6 pursues, and the competence of the people who would claim to save humanity from criminality and terrorism is questionable. MI6’s field agents may end up suffering from PTSD or survivor’s guilt after having seen so many of their comrades become incapacitated or dead from even just one mission. But in the Hollywood fantasy machine world, Bond is basically the same man as he was in the beginning: a blank slate on whom viewers can project their fantasies about a world they will never experience – because that world does not exist and has never existed.

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.