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.

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

Martin Campbell, “GoldenEye” (1995)

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

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

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

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

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

John Glen, “The Living Daylights” (1987)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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