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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goldfinger: enjoyable escapist spy-thriller fantasy of its time

Guy Hamilton, “Goldfinger” (1964)

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

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

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

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

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

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.