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

Joel Schumacher, “Batman Forever” (1995)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Burton, “Batman Returns” (1992)

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martin Campbell, “GoldenEye” (1995)

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

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

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

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

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.

Bad Black: car chases, kung fu, vengeance, the plight of orphans in poverty and social injustice all rolled into one film

Isaac G G Nabwana, “Bad Black” (2016)

Despite the tiny budget – even less than its predecessor, “Who Killed Captain Alex?”, apparently being about US$85 – this film proves to be very well made with a complex story of two parallel sub-plots referring to social issues of importance to Ugandans (and, well, the rest of the world, come to think of it). Given that the cast consists of local people in director Nabwana’s impoverished community Wakaliga, a suburb of Kampala, the acting is very good and the child actors who appear are especially natural and very appealing. The cinematography is quite good as well, though with the camera being handheld and having to follow running people, it can be quite ragged. The film was developed as an acting vehicle for Nabwana’s US sponsor Alan Ssali Hofmanis who plays himself as a foreign medical professional helping families in Wakaliga.

The main sub-plot revolves around a girl called Bad Black (Gloria Nalwanga) who comes into the world under dramatic circumstances: her father Swaaz robs a bank to try to help his wife Flavia in labour and leads police on a wild car chase before defiantly going up in flames while machine-gunning everyone who tries to stop him. (Along the way Swaaz kills Captain Alex so we finally discover what happens to the police officer from the earlier film.) His sidekick manages to get the money to hospital but apparently not before Flavia dies. Flavia’s daughter is adopted by a family but when that family falls on hard times, the adoptive grandfather Hirigi turfs the girl out. The child falls in with a child gang led by a Fagin-like figure. Eventually the girl earns her nickname, Bad Black, by getting rid of that Svengali figure and becoming the leader of the gang. Years later, Bad Black plots vengeance against Hirigi for disowning her; for his part, Hirigi falls in love with her, marries her and hands over most of what he possesses to her. But Bad Black hasn’t quite finished with him yet.

Dr Ssali runs a makeshift clinic in the Wakaliga slum dispensing medication when Bad Black manages to get his business card, breaks into his home and steals his valuables, including some precious family dog-tags. Dr Ssali’s assistant, a nine-year-old boy called Wesley Snipes (!). teaches the doctor how to fight and defend himself with kung fu so he can get his dog-tags back. His training done, Dr Ssali hunts down Bad Black and her gang, at the same time that the police are hunting down Bad Black and Company as well to bust a drug-running scheme. Among Bad Black’s followers is Kenny, Hirigi’s son whom Dad (now a rich businessman) has recently disowned for making a ghetto woman pregnant.

Much of the story is very cleverly told so that what appears at times to be social commentary about daily life in Wakaliga, how hard it is for poor people to live from day to day, turns out to be part of quite an intricate plot. We do not learn of Swaaz’s connection to Bad Black until very late in the film after all the car chases, kung fu fighting, shooting, killing and the prison break-out have been done. Nabwana injects slapstick and sometimes very witty commentary into scenes that in other films would be treated very seriously. The importance of family, the consequences that occur when families are forcibly broken up and people make bad decisions, the heartbreak and tragedies suffered by children forced to grow up on the street and to join gangs, the trouble caused when people seek vengeance at any cost, the abuse of poor people by the selfish rich, the possibility of redemption – and, in the case of Dr Ssali, being true to your nature and not suppressing it – these are all themes that drive this film. Even the crazy car chases, the fighting, the machine-gun action and the constant obsession with Hollywood action-thriller actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean Claude van Damme and others tell viewers something about life and the culture, how uncertain one’s path in life can be, of urban slum neighbourhoods in Kampala. Most of all, the black humour that exists as a survival mechanism and a way of bonding with others equally suffering from poverty and social injustice is part and parcel of the film thanks to narrator / voice joker VJ Emmie who not only interprets for the actors and describes the actions but also gets fully involved in the plot and cracks jokes, puns and witticisms (“This doctor needs borders!”) along the way.

The plot might not make complete sense and much of it is bat-shit bizarre with hilarious characters and many situations that Western viewers will feel should be treated seriously, based as they are in a context of official corruption and social injustice yet are pumped by Nabwana for their black comedy potential. Women crowded together in a shit-hole prison? – no problem, they are populated with outrageous characters like the Big Mama prisoner known as Supa Zilla. But no matter how silly and implausible the various plot-lines turn out to be with their laughable plot twists, “Bad Black” has charm, self-deprecating humour, the most hilarious special effects and Nabwana’s enthusiasm and passion for making films in and about his community that infects everyone who comes into contact with him and his work – and that includes those who watch his films.

Elite commandos, Tiger Mafia gangsters and Ugandan Shaolin Temple monks go head to head in “Who Killed Captain Alex?”

Isaac G G Nabwana, “Who Killed Captain Alex?” (2010)

Reputedly made on a budget of US$200 (though American-born Ugandan producer Alan Ssali Hofmanis admits the budget was actually US$85), this action-packed comedy of Uganda’s finest military commandos taking on the country’s most dangerous criminal organisation is a riveting work of amateur improvised film-making under conditions of poverty in a corrupt and authoritarian state. Captain Alex (William Kakule), one of the finest officers in the Uganda People’s Defence Force, sets out to destroy the evil Richard (Ernest Sseruyna) and his Tiger Mafia, which controls the slum neighbourhoods of Kampala, the Ugandan capital. After losing most of his commandos in a near-botched stealth operation on a group of Tiger Mafia drug couriers, Captain Alex manages to capture Richard’s brother and bring him to the police. On seeing the bad news on Ramon TV, the major TV channel in Wakaliga (a poor suburb on the outskirts of Kampala), Richard swears vengeance on Captain Alex and sends out a female spy to the military headquarters to seduce the officer and lure him to Richard. Alas and alack, Captain Alex ends up very dead in his tent – but no-one knows who killed him.

Alex’s brother Bruce U (Charles Bukenya), a Ugandan Shaolin monk, arrives in town, having heard of Alex’s death, swearing vengeance on Alex’s murderers. Bruce U has a few adventures in which he must do battle with the local Kampala kung fu squad and is nearly seduced by Ritah (Prossy Nakyambadde), one of Richard’s numerous and expendable wives. In the meantime, Richard is determined to find out who killed Captain Alex and hires Puffs (G Puffs), a mercenary from Russia, to steal a military helicopter and bomb Kampala for revenge. The Uganda People’s Defence Force also swear to avenge Captain Alex’s death by capturing Richard, though this means having to work out an ambush plan which clearly taxes their brains. They manage to work out where in Uganda Richard is likely to be hiding and start to encroach on him and his minions. Bruce U is captured by Richard’s men who bring him to their boss, who then forces Bruce U to fight Puffs’ assassins. Just as Bruce U succumbs to one flying kick, the commandos arrive and proceed to bomb the warehouse where Richard and his people are hiding. At the same time, Puffs’ destruction of Kampala creates breaking news on Ramon TV and forces the Ugandan government to declare martial law in Kampala.

When the dust eventually settles and the remaining commandos and mafiosi have to count the huge numbers of casualties, viewers are still no closer to discovering just who killed Captain Alex. At least the exuberant and histrionic acting, the crazed machine-gun shooting and the resulting mayhem, the kung fu fighting, and most of all the hilarious dialogue and narration by VJ Emmie (“What da fuck?!”) maintain the cheerfully frenetic pace in this devil-may-care, self-referential work. With respect to VJ Emmie’s voice-over narration and commentary, filled with jokes and openly exuberant as Emmie becomes absorbed in the plot and the action, there are very many highlights but the funniest of all must be the conversation over a woman early on in the bar-room scene: 1st man says, “Are you crazy? That is my wife! Get off my wife!” – to which 2nd man replies, “I thought [she] was a goat!” Another gem, this one from Emmie: “… All Ugandans know kung fu! …” One joke clearly meant for Ugandans involves a woman who is tortured because she insists on watching Nigerian movies.

Surprisingly for such a cheaply made and shot film with meagre resources, the plot is very involved and quite sophisticated in its own way, even though many details of the plot are full of holes, with a mystery that remains unsolved despite the body count and the destruction, and the ending remains open as the Ugandan government puts Kampala under lock-down while Puffs flies off in his stolen chopper into the sunset. The cinematography can be astonishingly good, especially in Bruce U’s training and fight scenes. The action is brisk and keeps viewers on the edge of their seats, expecting the … well, the unexpectable!

Part of the film’s charm is that the cast is drawn from local people in director IGG Nabwanza’s home community in Wakaliga, and all the props used in the film are local as well. The action takes place in and around Wakaliga. The special effects are really very good when one considers they were done on computers that Nabwanza himself put together out of salvaged scrap. The film is highly self-referential, as VJ Emmie constantly reminds the target Ugandan audience what it is they are watching, and this continual self-referral builds up the notion of an all-embracing universe called Wakaliwood, in which supa-killa elite commandos and supa-crazy Tiger Mafia killers fight as much for the fun of fighting as they do for control and dominance.