The Pitch: You only live, er, six times. Possibly seven.
The Review: Here we are again, then. For the twenty-fourth time in fifty-three years, Albert R. Broccoli’s Eon Productions unveil their latest film version of the escapades of the characters created by Ian Fleming in his series of novels. If you don’t know which characters those are, especially the one who has JB monograms on his towels, then this is probably the wrong review for you. It’s a difficult balancing act: hoping to attract in the ten people in the world who’ve never seen a James Bond film before while trying to satisfy the demands of three generations of Bond fans, each brought up on a different interpretation of the character and each longing for what they perceive to be Bond’s quintessential qualities. The pressure on Bond, and indeed on Eon and the production team, to deliver has never been higher and you only have to look at Skyfall’s box office in the context of the overall series to see why (worldwide, adjusted for inflation, in case you were wondering):
While first Pierce Brosnan and then Daniel Craig had begun to turn around Bond’s box office fortunes, Skyfall exceeded even the previous peak of the golden Sean Connery era. Now Bond is established in the modern era as a global brand, how do you go about replicating that incredible success with another satisfying adventure for the world’s least secret agent?
The first thing you do, if you’re the current heads of Eon (Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli), is that you do whatever you can to get Skyfall’s director Sam Mendes to come back again. You also ensure that the writing team of John Logan, Neal Purves and Robert Wade return to work out the next direction for the Bond franchise. The third and final significant step you take is to resolve all of the fuss and nonsense over rights to the most evil characters in the Bond universe – a rights battle that dates back to the fourth film, Thunderball and a wrangle that lasted nearly fifty years – and having reacquired the ability to use SPECTRE in your films you waste no time in making your next film the modern relaunch of Bond’s most nefarious nemeses. Thankfully you still have Bond’s MVP, Daniel Craig under contract, so it’s just a matter of filling out the cast, pitching Bond against SPECTRE and watching the fireworks fly. Or at least, it should be. But given the intensely personal nature of Skyfall, with Bond exploring his heritage and with the most prominent role for M of the entire series, the writers also feel the need to load Bond with further baggage, so we also get a return to the roots of the SPECTRE substitute organisation Quantum (set up in the first two Craig Bonds). We also get, somewhat unnecessarily and for the first time in the cinematic history of Bond, an exploration of Bond’s upbringing after his parents’ death with details lifted directly from the Fleming short story Octopussy.
All of this means that there’s a fair amount of exposition to get through and a large cast to navigate; as well as the returning characters of Bond, M, Q, Moneypenny and Tanner from MI6, we see Mr White (Jesper Christensen) and his daughter (Lea Seydoux), the standard verbally challenged henchman (Dave Bautista), a couple of other obligatory Bond women (Monica Bellucci and Stephanie Sigman), another oily British station chief C (Andrew Scott), and the mysterious link to Bond’s past in the form of Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), a man apparently doing rather well for himself at the evil organisation Bond finds himself investigating. For a secret agent, Bond’s spent surprisingly little of his time doing actual spying over the years, preferring instead to focus on causing women to fall swooning into his arms at the drop of a hat and getting steadily drunk to remind everyone he’s not perfect.
You might need a stiff drink if you think about the plot of this Bond for too long: it manages to achieve the double whammy of not only bloating the film out to a record two and a half hour running time, but it singularly fails to blend its disparate elements into anything resembling a coherent story in that time. Not only performing a little retconning on the last few Bond films but also on Bond’s previous history, what the plot actually does is see Bond globetrot around the world in his usual casual fashion, almost waiting for the plot to come to him. When it does, sometimes after interminable amounts of simply hanging around that didn’t need to be seen on screen, it fails to be either surprising or interesting. It’s pretty much the origin story again for SPECTRE and their leader, but in a story that could probably have been condensed into the first hour of a sharper film before we got on with the real business of SPECTRE’s plan. The attempts at making the threat personal fail to resonate in anything close to the same way as Skyfall, and the big third act reveals are thrown away so clumsily as to be almost risible. (You may also benefit from giving yourself a Daniel Craig Bond marathon before setting out for this one as all three of Craig’s previous outings are regularly referenced.)
Normally Bond films can get away with a half-baked plot if everything else is at the top of its game, but that’s where SPECTRE’s inadequacies truly become apparent. There’s no denying that the opening credits sequence is up there with the very best of Bond, a single tracking shot through thousands of extras capped off with toppling buildings and spinning helicopters. It’s a shame that no other sequence comes close to matching it, with a car chase which has Bond on the phone for most of it, ignoring the peril completely, being a particular example: set reports indicate that seven of the new Aston Martin DB10s designed and produced especially for the film were written off during filming, but the results of that carnage don’t seem to have ended up on screen. The finale is a particular damp squib, with an almost apologetic lack of action and a dilemma that feels overly familiar to anyone who’s seen any of the major comic book movies of the last twenty years (*cough Spider-Man *cough* The Dark Knight *cough*)
The performances are also a very mixed bag, and it wouldn’t be so much of an issue if SPECTRE’s continued attempts to trade on nostalgia weren’t constantly throwing the film’s failings into sharp relief. Take, for example, a train sequence which is reminiscent of both Eva Green’s first confrontation with Bond in Casino Royale and Sean Connery’s bust up with Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love; they’re both decent enough callbacks but all they do is remind you of how short they fall in comparison to the originals that they’re referencing. The writing for the female characters also borders on disastrous; Lea Seydoux and Monica Bellucci’s characters seem to be slipping back to being subjected to the sort of casual misogyny that Goldeneye was mocking eight films ago and Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny is made to look even more stupid here than she was clumsy in Skyfall (example dialogue: “You’ve got a secret. Something you can’t tell anyone.”). Christoph Waltz does his best with an underwritten role, but of the support it’s only Ben Whishaw, building delightfully on his role as Q that comes away with any real credit.
It’s a curiously empty film; seemingly the extras budget was used up in Mexico City as Rome seems to be virtually uninhabited and SPECTRE’s lair has around 1% of the staff of your average volcano lair, staffed mainly by people in black sweaters who look like they’re queuing for interviews for jobs at the nearest Apple Store. (I mentioned the five main roles for the 00 division earlier, and the film also does a cracking job of convincing you that no-one else works there.) I can’t even say good words about the music, Thomas Newman’s score inexcusably missing at least two open goals to throw in the Bond theme which would have elevated the brief moments when the action scenes work; when Goldeneye was rescored to put the theme back into the tank chase, you have to wonder why Newman and Mendes’ handling is so sacrosanct. Sam Mendes’ direction only really comes to life in the pre-credits sequence and in a couple of well-framed hero shots later on, and Hoyt Van Hoytema’s cinematography is serviceable without ever hitting the heights of Roger Deakins’ impressive digital lensing of Skyfall, yet another high bar from a film which wasn’t perfect but outperforms this follow up in almost every regard.
The one thing that saves it from being totally abject is its star: Daniel Craig has looked comfortable in the role from day 1, but now he fully inhabits it and feels as comfortable with the quips as with the moments of genuine emotion. We can only hope that this isn’t his swansong, as there’s plenty that could be done to improve matters for his next outing. When Goldeneye and Casino Royale launched the Brosnan and Craig eras respectively, they gave the series fresh momentum while capturing what made the series great; SPECTRE is absolutely content to replicate what it thinks made Skyfall a box office champion and as a result makes a film that’s overlong, languid and often listless and crucially missing the energy that made all of the aforementioned films work so well. This is mid-table Bond at best and would be lower but for Craig’s rock solid performance that at least anchors the film, but it failed to leave me either shaken or even stirred.
Why see it at the cinema: Much of the later action will be a complete washout by the time it gets to DVD or TV, so do catch it on the big screen. The big screen and sound system will also allow you to appreciate Sam Smith’s not-actually-bad theme song all the more.
What about the rating: Rated 12A for moderate violence and threat. Moderate, sadly, is the operative word; no-one would have faulted the BBFC for calling it “undercooked” or “a bit limp” instead.
My cinema experience: VIP seats at the Vue in Cambridge had plenty of legroom and the sound and projection were very reasonable; just a shame that the film’s middle stretch was so unengaging that someone two rows behind me fell asleep, judging by their rather prominent snoring. The lethargy of the audience in getting up to leave at the end told its own story.
The Score: 6/10
Box office figures courtesy of www.007james.com
Warning: I’ll be getting into a very thorough discussion of Skyfall here, on the presumption that you’ve already seen it. If you haven’t, take in my non-spoilery review of Skyfall first, then go and watch the damn thing, then come back.
Is it really two years since this all started? Two years since BlogalongaBond became a thing, and without which I wouldn’t have sat and watched
a Bond film a month for two years Bond films at increasingly random and desperate intervals. (It also wouldn’t have spawned goggle-eyed love child BlogalongaMuppets, but that’s another story, one to be told halfway up the stairs.) I set out to prove that Bond films have had an unerring effect on each other and also on cinema in general, that fifty years of history have developed a template from which Bond films are now almost able to be produced like vodka martini flavoured jelly from an Aston Martin DB5 shaped mould. So for a series of articles based on what the future effect of a series of films has been, how the chuntering thunderballs do I write about a film that’s only been out a week? In the words of our very own M, The Incredible Suit, “you didn’t think this through, did you?”
First, I’m going to distract you with a review of what’s gone before, and some Bond Legacy stats. I’ve been back over the past 22 Bond Legacy posts, and totted up that I found 91 legacies in total, all of which can either be felt in effect in subsequent Bonds or in cinema in general. I then worked out, giving the slight benefit of the doubt to two or three borderline cases, the number of that 91 which can be seen in Skyfall. Here’s what I found:
So out of 22 previous Bonds, eighteen have an element in them which was seen for the first time in a Bond film, but reoccurs in Skyfall. Out of the 91 total legacies, 48 can be seen in some way, shape or form in the film itself or the surrounding hype and marketing. That’s now one heck of a formula. If we’re trying to find the most influential Bond films, then clearly From Russia With Love and Goldfinger continue to set the pattern, sharing 13 legacies between them, although in terms of percentages, it’s the last two Brosnan films that have a 100% record, followed by Dr. No at 80%, and four Bond films (Moonraker, Octopussy, Tomorrow Never Dies and Quantum Of Solace) have no identifiable element unique originally to them which appears again here. Sadly, the wait for another double-taking pigeon goes on.
Of those 48, some are more influential than others, no doubt the increasing desperation of me in small part to keep the theme going all the way to the end. If you’re looking for a formula, though, then I’ve picked out the top third of that list for a slightly more detailed look.
1. Dr. No: Product placement. Lots and lots of really, really obvious product placement.
Yes, product placement has been in place ever since Dr No, but instead of a small British production company run by two ex-pat Yanks, we now have one of the biggest studios in the world protecting its profit margins by putting a brand on everything that isn’t nailed down, and a few things that are. But it has been, and always will be, a friend to Bond, and at least Daniel Craig hasn’t had to resort to making any dreadful commercials. Much.
2. Dr. No: The theme tune. Dum-ba-da-ba-dum-bum-duma-dum-ba-da-ba-dum-ba-da-da-BAAAAA-ba-ba-ba…
There are two regular Bond themes, one which makes an appearance in every film in some form – and be aware, Eric Serra, if you don’t put it in they’ll hire someone who will – and Thomas Newman takes the opportunity to sprinkle the theme liberally through the score. It won’t go down as one of the great Bond scores as it’s a little generic, but it feeds enough Bondy moments to soothe the senses rather than angering them.
3. From Russia With Love: First appearance of Q. Now pay attention, 007…
One of the biggest problems for twenty-first century Bond has been how to fill the void left by Desmond Llewellyn’s portrayal of the man who ensures Bond has manly guns and a good supply of exploding toothpaste. Ben Whishaw’s Q is a reinvention for the 21st century, happy to give Bond a gun and a radio and do all of the techy stuff himself, leaving Bond more the blunt instrument than ever. I don’t want a return to invisible cars, but it would be nice if the tech department could give Bond some more gadgets next time for, y’know, actual spying?
4. From Russia With Love: Bond soundtrack pattern. The case of the mysterious Wendy Crumbles.
I do think Adele was the right choice for a Bond theme (although I’d still like to hear what Muse could do with it; sadly my dream of the Manic Street Preachers performing one is probably now long gone). However, there is one big issue with that theme; many of the best soundtracks, from either John Barry, David Arnold or the occasional greats from others, take either the opening or closing title song and weave it through the score. But Paul Epworth’s orchestration for Adele’s song is so Bond-based in the first place, when the orchestral version of the title track kicks in as Bond enters Macau kicks in it feels as if the film is about to disappear up its own arse. Also, Adele’s lyrics are sometimes incomprehensible – I cannot now hear the track without thinking about the infamous Wendy Crumbles – and she also seems to be shoehorning in references to what Lolcats would think of Bond. Zat Skyfallz, indeed.
5. From Russia With Love: Bad guy with a hidden face. Hidden in plain sight, it seems.
Now here’s an interesting wrinkle on an old chestnut. Blofeld’s face was hidden out of sight for the first two and a half films he was in, building up to a big reveal. We see Javier Bardem’s gurning blond mug after just over an hour, but it’s not until he discusses the effects of his poisoning and removes half his face that we see the true nature of evil. One of the most satisfying and disturbing moments of the otherwise saggy middle of this Bond.
6. Goldfinger: Evil plans that defy rational explanation.
“So James, here’s my plan while I touch the inside of your thigh. I’m going to steal a hard drive which you’ll only fail to take back when one of your own team shoots you by mistake, which I’ll then use to moderately threaten the government of a former world power. I’ll then let you kill my rather dull henchman, allowing you to track him down via his gambling habit and then I’ll have a woman seduce you to bring you to my run down lair who I’ll later shoot for no reason. But it’s fine, because I know that even though you’ve failed your physical and mental tests at MI6 after being repeatedly shot, you’ll be good enough to capture me with perfectly timed helicopters, where you’ll take me back to your base so I can then escape again and kill my old boss in front of anyone watching dull government boards of enquiry on satellite news channels. If anyone tries to prevent my escape, probably you, then I’ll drop a Tube train on their head. This is all because I hate my old boss. I will then probably forget all about the other secret information I’ve stolen.”
“Really? Her flat is really easy to break into. I break in and sit in the dark all the time. Sometimes it’s hours before she comes home.”
7. Goldfinger: The coolest car in the world. Unless you get excited by VW Beetles.
One of the biggest gripes of nerds who need to get out more – in other words, people just like me – is that we get a brand new Bond who acquires a brand new Aston Martin in Casino Royale, but it appears he still has the fully kitted out one, with machine guns and ejector seat, in a dodgy lock-up in London somewhere. The look he gives when Silva blows it up, though, is priceless, and it’s good to see the man still has priorities. However, if he doesn’t get Q to kit out the one he won in Casino Royale with all the same gadgets, I’d be astonished; I’m willing to bet the winnings of a high stakes poker game that’s not the last we’ve seen of the Aston.
8. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: Bond’s complex relationship with women, especially closest to him. If this is a male fantasy, it’s not one I’ve had often.
Casino Royale was the first time that Bond didn’t end up with the girl. In this one, there are three main women; one who shoots him, and is so generally incompetent she has nothing better to do than to go halfway around the world to give Bond a wet shave before eventually taking a job as a glorified PA; one a a former sex slave who Bond immediately shags, then tosses off a casual witticism in an attempt to look cool around the lads when she’s shot in the head, and the third who’s become virtually a surrogate mother to him over the past three / seven films, he fails miserably to protect from becoming ever so slightly more dead. Good work, James.
9. Diamonds Are Forever: The increase in poor quality jokes. A secret agent walks into a bar…
When Bond hit the Seventies, it went from a spy adventure with occasional titting about in the bosses’ office and the lab to a full on gagfest with gags that left much to be desired. Poor old Roger Moore gets the stick, somewhat unfairly, for a lot of that, but Skyfall was too much of a compensation to the humourless and dry Quantum Of Solace on a couple of occasions; if there’s a version available on Blu-ray that doesn’t have any of the stupid scenes in the Underground, I’ll happily buy it.
10. Live And Let Die: The use of swearing to look proper hard. Language, Timothy!
Live And Let Die had the first “holy shit!” of the series, and Dami Judi kept up the PG swearing in Quantum before letting rip with the first ever F-bomb here. When driving home afterwards, Mrs Evangelist felt that an opportunity for the Denchmeister to let rip with a full, hard 18 rating torrent of f-, c-, m- and possibly even q- words was now sadly lost forever (her suggestion of “c***tacular almost caused me to drive off the road). Maybe Fiennes will be up for it.
11. For Your Eyes Only: The regeneration game. It’s all the same to me.
Despite a constant need to reinvent itself, up until the Craig Bonds the series did its best to maintain that this was always the same secret agent, who with the best will in the world would either now be into his mid-Seventies or going into carbon-freeze in between missions, so that Moore, Dalton and Brosnan all at various points mourned the loss of Tracy, even though technically none of them married her. Or did they? Skyfall takes this a step further, and goes out of its way to suggest that this is the same Bond we’ve always had, we just saw him get his first two kills six years ago, but somehow he’s magically earned fifty years’ worth of backstory. I look forward to John Logan’s next two films telling us the story of how Bond won World Wars 1 and 2 single-handedly.
12. A View To A Kill: The game’s the thing. Although I always preferred Sonic myself.
Yes, continuing a trend that started with A View To A Kill, there is game content available so that you can pretend to be the world’s greatest secret agent in the comfort of your own living room. The 007 Legends game has DLC (that’s downloadable content to anyone over 35) relating to Skyfall, which means you too can play as Patrice or Eve Moneypenny if you’ve got a PS3, each character having their own special gifts. (In Moneypenny’s case, it’s light typing and not being able to shoot straight. It does make the game really hard to finish in one sitting.)
13. The Living Daylights: Putting the (re-)boot in.
Despite all being one interconnected story, somehow the Bonds manage to reboot themselves every couple of films, with each new actor giving a different take on the same character, even though it’s regularly made explicit that this is the same character all the time. (Bond’s shrink must be on a massive retainer.) This is the third and most egregious Bond reboot of the last three films, with us now getting a new version practically every time, and this time we appear to have been rebooted right to the end of 1964. From shunning all of the trappings of the character and using a stripped down version, by the end of this film we now are totally in Bondage again; let’s try to stay there for the next one, and keep our hands off the reboot button, shall we?
14. Goldeneye: A relic of the Cold War.
Goldeneye was the first film where Bond had to justify his own existence; Skyfall takes that a step further and asks all of MI6 to state its place in the world. Dame Judes does this by rocking up at a hearing and, rather than making detailed statements about policy or effectiveness, just quoting some Alfred Tennyson. Classy.
15. Tomorrow Never Dies: No material from the novels.
Skyfall has to once again rely on an original plot, for most of the novels and short stories have now been adapted and there’s little to draw on. Significantly, one thing that Skyfall does do is delve deeper into Bond’s past, featuring the ancestral home and even the gravestone of his departed parents. Maybe future instalments will tap further into this peripheral history of Bond; for example, after his parents lost their lives, young Bond went to live with his aunt, Charmian Bond, in the village of Pett Bottom, and if that’s not an open goal waiting to be scored, I don’t know what is.
16. Die Another Day: The anniversary waltz.
After Die Another Day clumsily shoehorned in references to the rest of the series, including Q having Rosa Klebb’s shoe from From Russia With Love in his workshop, Skyfall imbues the golden film and diamond book anniversaries with some more subtle nods to the rest of the series and a few other tips of the hat, including Bond’s favourite whisky, a 1962 vintage. The going rate for a bottle of that make and era would set you back around £1,250 these days; if that’s how well being a spy pays, where do I sign up?
So, as you can see, the template is well in force; these are just a sampling of the most significant, but there are over 30 other cultural references from the Bond series that are in some way to be seen in or around Skyfall. Given that Bond films could now just recycle that for evermore, without ever having to invent anything new – and if the initial box office is anything to go by, they could do that very well – what will be the enduring legacies of Skyfall when we come to look back in a few years’ time? I thought I’d have a go at picking out four of the most likely things that crop up in Skyfall that we might see again someday.
1. China in your hand: I think we’ll see more trips to China
Bond’s been to Chinese territories before, including Macau and Hong Kong, and also to Chinese waters, but Skyfall marks the first time the series has been set in actual proper China. Following an increasing trend of films to have Chinese set sequences, and building off the back of the significant increase in box office that Quantum saw in the Chinese territories, it’s a big market which the Bond films will have to be increasingly creative if they’re going to continue to exploit. But one thing which Bond’s never done on screen is active military service in time of war; maybe if rumours of a two part story are true (even though Craig’s said they aren’t, but after Naomie Harris no-one’s going to believe anything any of them ever say again), then maybe Bond could infiltrate China as they look to take on other big world powers like the USA, Russia and Papua New Guinea? (All right, and Britain.)
2. Bond might be keeping the British end up in more ways than one
In the pivotal scene when Bond and Silva first meet, Silva makes some suggestive comments to Bond, only for Bond to dismiss the idea that it would be his first time. We’ve seen Bond take down any woman in his path, but the closest he’s come to bedding a minger is Grace Jones. What if Bond really had to suck it up for queen and country, and bed a woman with a face like a hippo’s arse? Or maybe Bond’s sexuality is actually a little more complex than we’ve all been led to believe, and actually he could bed both women and men on the path to world domination? The possibilities are potentially endless, and the template might have to be edged rather than pushed, but we live in more enlightened times and Bond’s bed hopping is one area ripe for further exploration now his psyche and his family have been laid barer.
3. Techno techno techno techno: Q Branch will keep the gadgets to themselves
The Bonds have moved further into the world of techno-terrorism, with Q Branch seemingly less keen to spend their cash on gadgets for dunderheaded spies and more keen to buy rooms full of servers and dodgy Sony Vaios. I give it about four Bond films before James loses it completely and tries to eradicate all of the world’s geeks to take us back to the dark ages, when men were men and women were, er, women. (Genuinely don’t know where I was going with that.) But cybercrime looks to be the way of the future, as long as it can be made to look interesting on screen.
4. The look of love: Skyfall could be the dawn of the auteur Bond
I’ve already mentioned it a lot across the three Skyfall-related posts I’ve written, but Skyfall was the best Bond visually by every one of the country miles between London and Scotland. Now that big names in their fields such as Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins have been allowed loose, and other contributors such as second time editor Stuart Baird and composer Thomas Newman have had their say, that Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson will have the confidence to let others loose. I will go to bed tonight dreaming that a Nolan / Pfister Bond may one day become a reality. (With a David Arnold score, of course.)
And that’s it. I don’t think I missed any significant legacies, although there were probably a few minor moments that slipped my gaze, and if I watched the whole lot again, maybe that fresh insight would leap out. (Not for a few years, though.) Still, if you’ve spotted a genuine legacy I’ve missed, then get commenting, always keen to receive feedback from my readers, which is normally people telling me where I’ve gone wrong. Why break the habit of a lifetime?
Next time: Bond returns in two years in Bond 24. The increasingly shorter titles to allow for Twitter hashtags and the like suggest Risico of the remaining titles, although equally short alternative options might be Bang, Phwoar or Oof. So, see you in 2014 for Oof, then.
Previous Bond legacy posts: Dr No / From Russia With Love / Goldfinger / Thunderball / You Only Live Twice / On Her Majesty’s Secret Service / Diamonds Are Forever / Live And Let Die / The Man With The Golden Gun / The Spy Who Loved Me / Moonraker / For Your Eyes Only / Octopussy / A View To A Kill / The Living Daylights / Licence To Kill / Goldeneye / Tomorrow Never Dies / The World Is Not Enough / Die Another Day / Casino Royale / Quantum Of Solace
Go deeper for the full BlogalongaBond experience, courtesy of The Incredible Suit.
The Review: Who’s your favourite James Bond? Throughout history, men have fought duels over lesser arguments. Whenever more than one actor has taken on the same role, in anything from Doctor Who to Robin Hood, it seems that human nature is to try to understand which one we have a personal relationship with. I’m not going to get into that debate here, other than to say I was brought up on Roger Moore, so have more of an affinity for his films than others who might have started with Sean Connery or Daniel Craig. None of them really look anything like Ian Fleming’s description of the character, so it all comes down to manner and behaviour. Daniel Craig’s first two films have set a new pattern, in the same way that the first Bonds of all his predecessors have also established a distinctive style, each markedly different. So how do you get audiences who are saddled with the expectations of specific Bonds, not to mention the cumulative weight of fifty years of history, into cinemas for the latest Bond?
Apparently what you do is create a curious hybrid of the old and the new. Firstly to the old: Daniel Craig’s Bond has gone from young stag to weather-beaten old sea dog in the space of two films, skipping through off-screen history to develop a back story that doesn’t feel earned. This Bond’s now well entrenched in MI6, and the core group from Fleming’s novels (M, Q, Tanner, played by Judi Dench, Ben Whishaw and Rory Kinnear) are now all present, correct and getting decent amounts of screen time, like a globe-trotting episode of The Office. The core elements of the series are all in place, including glamorous girls such as Berenice Marlohe, music and title sequences that feel Bond through and through from series regular Daniel Kleinman and newcomers Adele and Thomas Newman and actual globe-trotting, from Istanbul to the Far East and back to London itself. The net result of this is to make Skyfall unmistakably Bond, and old elements are regularly trotted out to crowd pleasing, if occasionally logic-defying, effect.
For the new, this is still a Bond willing to take a few risks, even if they are small ones. First and foremost is the overall structure, with a significant amount more emphasis on personal relationships. Goldeneye first pitched Bond against an old colleague, but at times Skyfall verges on an industrial tribunal with guns, innuendo and homoerotic undertones. It’s the latter, embodied in Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva, that gives Skyfall its most interesting edge, treading a line that’s finer than you’d expect between effete and brutal. New characters also widen the film mythology, including more government operatives in the form of Ralph Fiennes and Naomie Harris, and even an unseen element of Bond’s past in the form of Albert Finney. But there’s also a number of inversions of standard Bond themes, with some role reversal in the final face-off and a real willingness to put character before action, no doubt due to the influence of director Sam Mendes. The greater desire of the second generation Bond producers to allow directors and their teams to put more of their own stamp on the series has been increasing over the past ten years, and reaches thrilling new heights with the contribution of cinematographer Roger Deakins. Despite shooting on digital rather than film, Bond has never looked as sharp or as rich as it does here.
The melding of old and new, self-reference and mild innovation feel like they should be moving the series on, but somehow we’re left with the feeling of treading water; after three Bonds Daniel Craig’s tenure seems to have regressed into Bondian adolescence rather than progressing further. While the more character based approach is to be lauded, and it’s arguable that this is also the best acted Bond as well as being the most impressive visually, there’s a compact feel after the early expansiveness of the Istanbul pre-credits chase, and the action especially when running round London feels sub-Bourne and undercooked, as if the movie’s in need of one more strong action set piece. There’s also a slight regression in terms of character development, and attempts to retain the cold heart given to Bond by his previous experiences present a callousness verging on misogyny. The last frustration is the humour, of which 90% is a welcome lightening of the over-serious take of Quantum Of Solace, but 10% is sub-Roger Moore cheesiness and sticks out a mile. It’s frustrating, for while this is another great Daniel Craig Bond film it’s not the outstanding Bond film which we’ve never had, the mixture of elements not fulfilling their potential to be a best in series. But I have a sneaking suspicion that a few more folk will be answering the question of their favourite Bond with Daniel Craig’s name after this, and both they and I look forward to seeing what else he can do with the role.
Why see it at the cinema: If you’re going to wait for the DVD, you might as well be dead to me. Why do I bother? (Kidding. But seriously.) If you still need convincing, I will reiterate that it looks stunning on the big screen – so much so I’m tempted to hunt down an IMAX for a repeat viewing – and it’s the perfect embodiment of a mutual audience enjoyment experience. There was applause at the end of the screening I was at. If you’re in the UK, you might just need to book first though…
James Bond will return in my Bond Legacy review of Skyfall, where I’ll be looking at the previous legacies and their effect on Skyfall, looking at if anything was missed in my earlier Legacy summaries and trying to work out where we go from here.
The Score: 8/10
Science is well on the way to answering most of life’s great questions. Thankfully, science hasn’t yet found a way to take care of some of life’s more trivial matters, such as applying rigorous techniques to putting a series of motion pictures featuring the same central character into increasing order of quality, based on nothing more than personal preference. Whether he’s simply a violent, prurient escapist male fantasy taken to extremes, or actually the embodiment of everything desirable about popular culture wrapped up in a smart suit ordering cocktails, I’m still not quite sure after all this time, but at least watching all 23 films has enabled me to gain the gratification of ranking them into some sort of order.
Here is the list of all 23 official EON Bond films, in increasing order of competence. In case you are wondering, I loathe Casino Royale (1967) and Never Say Never Again, so they wouldn’t make a top 23 with a wider scope anyway. (Ha.)
23. A View To A Kill
Diamonds might be forever, but every Bond should know when it’s time to pack it in and hand over the Walther to the next fellow. AVTAK is a poor film in almost ever respect; Christopher Walken is weird but never menacing, Grace Jones is menacing but never sexy, Tanya Roberts is so anonymous her own family might struggle to recognise her and most of the rest is either old men toddling around the French countryside or one old man clambering about laboriously in various parts of California. We should all be relieved that this embarrassment didn’t kill the franchise stone dead.
22. Die Another Day
If this had actually been made as a cartoon, some people would still have griped over the lack of realism. Die Another Day sets itself up as a gritty, realistic take in the style of the films that followed it, then abandons that for abysmal CGI, charmless direction and a grating Madonna cameo. Your ears will feel abused listening to the Madonna song, not even the slightest fit for the opening credits, the bad guys are wet and their plan nonsensical and Halle Berry is less sexy here than she is in just about anything outside of Monster’s Ball. I have less of an issue with the invisible car than most people, but it’s still daft as a box of frogs.
Not so much bad as just eyeball-clenchingly dull, Sean Connery’s obvious ennui already after four films in four years and the unfortunate fact that Kevin McClory has to be involved after Ian Fleming handled their script badly doesn’t do anyone any favours. Sequences underwater which could have been exciting instead become interminable, and although it’s not one of the longer Bonds it certainly feels like it. The fact that Connery then signed up to the unofficial remake should make him and everyone else ashamed, and we can only be thankful that Kevin McClory’s passing spared any of the other Bonds a similar fate.
There are large stretches of Octopussy that are worse than anything in Thunderball, but it gets more credit with me for at least putting in some effort. The opening and closing airborne set-pieces are largely satisfying, Louis Jourdan is a suitably smarmy villain and the East German scenes do generate at least a modicum of tension. Roger Moore is by now in full-on arched eyebrow mode and Maud Adams is less effective here than she was in The Man With The Golden gun, but Octopussy isn’t a ride entirely without entertainment or intrigue.
19. Diamonds Are Forever
Anyone who thinks that the transformation of Bond into a more light-hearted, less ruthless entertainment vehicle rather than a cold-blooded killer who had any woman he wants started with Roger Moore obviously hasn’t watched Diamonds Are Forever in a while. It’s a Roger Moore type of film, and not a great one at that, in every sense other than its star, with yet another, increasingly uninteresting, version of Blofeld and Jill St. John’s brash, stroppy Bond girl being at time the cinematic equivalent of nails down a blackboard. The only real characters of interest, even if they are a sign of the times, are Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, but most of the rest is poorly handled and eminently forgettable.
Yes, it’s the one with the now infamous double-taking pigeon, but if you don’t mind it being an all-out romp that only exists because of Star Wars, then there’s reasonable amounts of fun to be had here. Bringing back Jaws is handled badly, turning him into a figure of fun and failing to gain sympathy, but the rest of the film never stands still long enough for its major flaws to become apparent. With a reasonable equal in Lois Chiles’ Bond girl and a decent villain from Michael Lonsdale, Moonraker is still the kind of Bond film to be reasonable Bank Holiday afternoon entertainment, but it’s about as far from Fleming’s vision as the series ever got.
17. Tomorrow Never Dies
Pierce Brosnan’s sophomore effort suffers slightly from never being quite sure what it wants to be. Michelle Yeoh gets to be dominant and agressive more often than sexy, which is a good match for Bond but isn’t compensated by Teri Hatcher’s flat portrayal of a woman Bond supposedly has a history with. (Of all the women he’s met, he’s coming back to this one?) The pre-credits sequence is a cracker, but the momentum of Goldeneye slowly dissipates after that, and Jonathan Pryce is at the bottom end of the Bond villain scale. There was a great movie to be made exploring tensions between the British and Chinese; this, sadly, isn’t it.
16. The Man With The Golden Gun
TMWTGG has one thing absolutely in its favour, a class act in the title role in the form of Ian Fleming’s step-cousin, Sir Christopher Lee. Whenever Lee’s on screen, the film instantly becomes more compelling, and it’s a shame he’s a peripheral figure for long stretches. There are other highlights, including (if you put your fingers in your ears) the spectacular bridge gap jump, but the more comedic approach that had started with Diamonds Are Forever really starts to take hold here, bringing back Sheriff J.W. Pepper for even
more less comedic effect than in Live And Let Die and also playing the ending for laughs as well. A mixed bag, but by no means the worst Moore film of the series.
15. The World Is Not Enough
It all started so promisingly, with the boat chase along the Thames, Bond’s injury and subsequent cold shoulder from M and the early scenes with Elektra. Then about half way through we catch sight of Robert Carlyle attempting to be threatening from underneath a challenging look, but that’s nothing to the attempts (if you can call them that) to pass off Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist. Add more flailing from a poor decision to bring back Robbie Coltrane’s thickly accented Russian, and the second half of TWINE gets weighed down by its baggage. It was the first seeds of what Bond has become in the last decade, but those seeds were choked back by a few difficult weeds.
14. Quantum Of Solace
If I’m being completely honest, about 75% of what I love about Quantum Of Solace is Daniel Craig. I was one of the doubters before he first took the role but he’s nailed it so convincingly that even a film of at best middling quality, hamstrung by not enough rewrites from one striking writer and further on-set dabbling, can be elevated significantly by his performance. The first direct sequel of the series, it does make Casino Royale feel like a film of seven acts, as if someone had recognised it had Lord Of The Rings-levels of endings and lopped the last few off into a new film, but between Craig and Judi Dench’s increasing presence in the series as M, QoS does a lot to compensate for some of its more obvious flaws.
13. Licence To Kill
Don’t get me wrong, I love both of Timothy Dalton’s portrayals as Bond, but Licence To Kill is trying far too hard to be a generic American action film rather than a Bond movie – even down to Michael Kamen’s score and some of the desert settings that make it feel oddly like a British Lethal Weapon spin-off – and two weak Bond girls and some uncomfortable lurches in tone do Dalton no favours. It’s a shame this was to be his last entry, but having six years of breathing space actually did Bond a few favours, making this an odd post-script to the first great era of Bond.
12. Dr. No
You can tell I’m a humble blogger and not a practised, literate film critic, when the best description I can come up with of Dr No is “it’s all right”. I’m resolutely whelmed by Sean Connery’s first attempt at the role; it’s got some great moments, from the iconic casino introduction to the cold-blooded bedroom killing, but it never quite takes off, suffering now by comparison to the later films and suffering from hindsight rather than benefitting from it. It does have one of the better villains, and puts a decent number of the regular ingredients in place, but this was a good start, rather than classic Bond.
11. Live And Let Die
The first Roger Moore Bond, and the first to be heavily influenced by other factors in popular culture at the time (other than the general love of spies and secret agents in the Sixties, of course). Moore manages to avoid aping Connery, and Yaphet Kotto manages to overcome the identity shenanigans of the plot to put in a solid baddie. Solid just about sums up Live And Let Die, it’s never truly spectacular in terms of either action or characterisation but never disappoints, as long as your J.W. Pepper tolerance levels are reasonably high. Points also for what remains the best Bond theme to date; even Guns N’ Roses managed a decent cover version of it.
10. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Regarded by many as the best Bond, and it would undoubtedly have placed higher on my list if it had featured Sean Connery. Actually, it would have placed higher if it featured anyone who could act. Lazenby, having blagged his way into the role in the first place, does his best but frequently looks out of his depth and also helps contribute to a few saggy sections around the middle. The ending has had an impact on pretty much ever Bond made since, and Diana Rigg is undoubtedly one of, if not the, best Bond girls of all time. Sadly, Telly Savalas doesn’t quite work as Blofeld either, and we’re left with a great film with two holes of varying sizes at its centre, but you can see how it’s inspired the likes of Christopher Nolan on to great things.
9. For Your Eyes Only
The last of the three decent Moore Bonds, it would have been a fitting cap to his years in the role. As it is, FYEO is still an effective Bond movie with more weight to it than you’d expect. That’s undoubtedly down to the strong story and themes of revenge that motivate the characters, and even Lynn-Holly Johnson’s role as the annoying youngster with a crush on James doesn’t manage to unbalance the overall effect. The marked reaction to the spacefaring of Moonraker makes for a more grounded Bond, but there’s still cracking set pieces (especially the assault on the cliff top) and there’s a tension here that’s lacking in most of Moore’s other Bond films.
8. You Only Live Twice
Probably the most spoofed of all the Bond series, with likely the most iconic set of elements outside of Goldfinger. It’s not often that a production designer can become a household name, even if only among movie geeks, but Ken Adam’s work on You Only Live Twice helps to mark it out as one of the most memorable Bonds in a visual sense. The Japanese theme gives a different tone to proceedings and helps to mark time until the final, all out blow-out, the grandness of which even this epic series of films has sometimes found hard to top since. Roald Dahl’s script does recycle a couple of Bond staples and Connery’s not at his best, but these are minor distractions.
For someone who seemed such a natural fit for the role and was connected with it for so long, it’s strange that there’s only one genuinely great Pierce Brosnan Bond film, and one in which he hadn’t totally nailed the demands of the role. Occasionally a little too cheesy, he still manages the required gravitas in more serious scenes and handles the mix of tones well. Where Goldeneye scores bonus points is for the Bond girls, the best in the roles in many years, with Isabella Scorupco’s feisty Russian finding Bond’s heart, and if you don’t enjoy Famke Janssen’s utterly over-the-top performance, you maybe need more joy in your life. (Especially her delivery of the line, “He’s going to derail the train!”) Tina Turner’s pounding title song helps ease the pain of Eric Serra’s excellent but completely inappropriate Bond score, and the fight between Sean Bean’s agent gone bad and Brosnan must rank in the top five fist fights of Bond.
6. The Living Daylights
Stepping in when Pierce suddenly found himself otherwise occupied, Timothy Dalton helps to resurrect the series from the worst excesses of the latter day Moore and gives a polished performance with dark undercurrents as Bond starts to steer back closer to Fleming’s original intent. The Living Daylights makes the most of the changing political landscape of the time, taking a plot based around various factions of Russian military power and bolting it to some superb action sequences, with one of the great car chases of the series and a truly insane stunt hanging out of the back of a cargo plane. Maryam D’Abo’s Bond girl is a bit wet at the best of times, but pretty much every other actor is on top form and director John Glen doesn’t waste the opportunity of finally having some decent material and a good Bond to work with. It’s a crying shame Dalton only got to make two, but at least we have this one to savour.
The latest Bond, in a fiftieth anniversary tale that paradoxically draws on the rich history of Bond and attempts to work once again with key elements, but in other ways is keen to put its past behind it and to find its new place in the world order. It’s a strange balancing act to even want to attempt, to be so in love with the past but in need of staying relevant for the future, but somehow Skyfall manages it, for the most part. Javier Bardem is 12A rating threatening, Dame Judi drops the first ever F-bomb of the series (and who’d have thought it would be her) and Bond gets to work closely with both Q and Tanner for the first time, in a surprisingly UK heavy set film. It’s a Bond film that looks gorgeous, is stunningly shot and calmly directed with both a sly wit and a general charm missing from Quantum Of Solace, but that never quite has the action beats to put it among the finest of the series and a plot that follows a recent blockbuster trend of relying too heavily on coincidence. If the remaining Daniel Craig Bonds can couple what’s great here with some of the finer action moments, then there’s still the potential for a best in series in Daniel Craig.
For anyone that’s seen even a good selection of Bond films, the standard to beat is always felt to be Sean Connery’s third outing in the tux, and the first where some of the more outlandish elements of the series first came into play. From Shirley Bassey’s theme song to the Aston Martin DB5, and with the single most famous quote of any Bond film, Goldfinger feels like it should be the best Bond, so it feels somewhat heretical to pick at its flaws. But flaws do exist, not least in the saggy middle that so many Bonds seem to suffer and which also afflicts this one, and from occasionally feeling just a little too far over the top. Connery’s at his laconic best here, often a man of few words and smouldering glances but his reliance on almost supernatural powers of seduction rather than any serious amount of sleuthing leave Goldfinger as the silver standard of Bond movies, rather than the somewhat more appropriately-coloured one.
3. The Spy Who Loved Me
Two days ago, I saw a man outside a cinema pointing at a poster, attempting to encourage his very young son to take an interest in James Bond. I’m not sure Skyfall is the best entry point into the series, but mine was The Spy Who Loved Me and it still works as an excellent introduction, blending together most of the traditional Bond elements and beating just about any other Bond hands down for pure, old fashioned Saturday matinee-style entertainment. When Carly Simon sings “Nobody Does It Better”, it’s hard to disagree, as TSWLM succeeds in marrying You Only Live Twice-style excess to Goldfinger levels of Bond iconography and to make Roger Moore seem stylish and enviable. There’s not a single weak link, although it’s a shame that Jaws’ impact here is retrospectively lessened by his return in Moonraker. (Although when Carly Simon’s next line is, “but sometimes I wish someone could,” do you think she’s still pining for Connery? You’d think this would have cured her of that.)
2. Casino Royale
An all new Bond for a new era, and for the most part a Bond that wasn’t afraid to take chances. Martin Campbell might have returned to the director’s chair again after Goldeneye, but the reinvigoration he performed there is nothing compared to the kick up the backside the series gets here. Craig’s Bond can be brutal, almost thuggish at times, but also has the effortless charm of the best of his contemporaries, and in his pairing with Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd one of the greatest pairings of the series. Bond is damaged goods, and despite being a reboot of sorts (but still with Dame Judi in the top chair) Casino Royale wastes no time in damaging him a bit more. The swap to poker for the central card game works in the context of the film and the modern setting, as do so many of the other choices, the only real failing being a lumpen story structure that feels like it’s carrying an unwanted epilogue. Mads Mikkelsen’s ocularly challenged baddie threatens but never dominates, but the blend of all the elements – especially a number of truly breathtaking action sequences – is pretty much spot on.
1. From Russia With Love
If Goldfinger has turned out to be the stereotype that much of the series followed, and Dr. No remains the prototype, then sandwiched between them and often unfairly overlooked is the archetype for the Bond series. It’s as close as the Bond formula has ever come to being perfected, from the SPECTRE training base and the first glimpses of Blofeld to the stunning train face-off between Bond and Red Grant. Everything is as you’d want it in a Bond film without being taken to excess, and a number of series firsts (including Desmond Llewellyn’s first outing as the quartermaster and Matt Munro’s first song with the title of the film in it) helping to make the Bond formula that still exists today. The recent Bonds have steered closer and closer to this template without ever successfully emulating it, and if only Skyfall had been this successful at both plotting and also a triple whammy of an action finale that just doesn’t let up. The cool, calculating charm that attracts women and makes men just a little bit jealous is all rooted in Russia, and it’s the Bond film I love the most.
Wow. Is it really only nearly two years since The Incredible Suit first had the idea of watching, and blogging about, a Bond film a month until the new one came out? That long ago, all we knew was that more Bond was coming, and we didn’t even know that it would be called Skyfall. Happier times. (Still don’t like that title, but seeing the film may change my mind. We’ll see.) When the twenty-odd bloggers embarked on their mission, many were providing their own take on the films in the form of a review; I sought the option to provide a different angle, so chose to look at the impact that the Bond films have had on both each other and on popular culture. But how do you assess the legacy of a film which only came out four years ago, when you haven’t even seen its successor yet?
Quantum Of Solace is a tricky beast, in that it not only bears the hallmarks of a history of nearly five decades of film making, but also that the legacy of that era was in turn now also starting to have an impact on Bond. The last decade had seen the emergence of two other high profile government agents with the initials JB in popular culture, and Jack Bauer bore all the same hallmarks of the Craig bond, but with the added ability to hack off people’s heads or shoot his boss if the need arose. It’s the other one, though, that had the most direct influence on this Bond, with second unit director Dan Bradley having also performed the same duty on the two Greengrass Bourne films, and here leaving his mucky paw-prints over all the action scenes.
That has, in the mind of many, left Quantum Of Solace feeling like warmed-over Bourne, when it’s actually just warmed over Bond in most respects. I really enjoyed Quantum the first time I saw it, and although that enthusiasm has waned over time, I can still see what drove it; Daniel Craig’s performance at the heart of the film remains as strong as it was first time around, and if anyone is going to be able to put together a run of consistent films to challenge the common perception that Connery / Dalton / Moore (delete as appropriate) is the best Bond, then Craig has two strong personal entries, in one excellent and one reasonable Bonds.
There’s still a lot to like, if not to love, including reasonable Bond girls and some exotic but gritty settings. The two weakest elements are the script and the bad guy, the former left horribly confused by the credited writer being on strike and by an uncredited writer performing re-writes on the day and the latter just a little weak and anaemic. If the Bond Legacy has proved one thing, it’s that your bad guys do need some distinguishing feature, even if it’s a personality.
Quantum Of Solace does tick off a number of firsts, including the first Bond not directed by a subject of Her Majesty’s Commonwealth, a Bond that premièred in India before the US, the first Bond film with an actual car chase in the pre-credits sequence and the first Bond released in a year that ended in eight. Mark my words, I predict there will be more Bond films released in years that end in eight. It’s also the first Bond to be a direct sequel, and I also feel that it mightn’t be the last. But what could the lasting legacy for Bond be from this, most recent, film?
1. All those vodka martinis finally take their toll
The one consistent element throughout all of the Bond films is his love of a drink. What we’ve not seen until Quantum is Bond actually starting to get a bit squiffy. I’d be fascinated to see this taken further in later Bonds, with a bearded, bedraggled Bond raging through the streets, Special Brew in hand, firing off his Walther at pigeons that look like they might be doing a double take. Or, possibly a more serious explanation of how a man who drinks this much hasn’t completely screwed his internal organs by now. Anyway, it was nice to see that enough cocktails can make even the great man a little worse for wear.
Next time: I’ll be taking a look into the far future, to examine the legacy of Skyfall. Before that, a review of the film itself and my breakdown of the Bond films, ranked into order.
Previous Bond legacy posts: Dr No / From Russia With Love / Goldfinger / Thunderball / You Only Live Twice / On Her Majesty’s Secret Service / Diamonds Are Forever / Live And Let Die / The Man With The Golden Gun / The Spy Who Loved Me / Moonraker / For Your Eyes Only / Octopussy / A View To A Kill / The Living Daylights / Licence To Kill / Goldeneye / Tomorrow Never Dies / The World Is Not Enough / Die Another Day / Casino Royale
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How would you cast a new James Bond? Would you be looking to take a mould of Sean Connery, then cast another from it? Is tall, dark and handsome enough to make a Bond, or is there some other ingredient required for the perfect suave, sophisticated spy? Ian Fleming had a very certain idea of what Bond looked like, and Daniel Craig certainly wasn’t it. In the novel of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond is described as:
“…certainly good-looking … Rather like Hoagy Carmichael in a way. That black hair falling down over the right eyebrow. Much the same bones. But there was something a bit cruel in the mouth, and the eyes were cold.”
That’s not Craig; but nor does it reasonably describe any of the other Bonds, save for possibly Welshman Timothy Dalton. In the novel of Casino Royale, Vesper also describes Bond as reminiscent of Hoagy Carmichael, but also “cold and ruthless.” In that pure description lies the heart of Daniel Craig’s performance, but what Craig also brought to the part was a sense of humanity and maturity. He also might as well have been green with pink spots as it might have caused less controversy over his looks.
But no matter, all of that CraigIsNotBond nonsense is well behind us now, and it goes to show that it’s not what it looks like, it’s what you do with it that counts. Emboldened by finally being able to exercise the rights option it got to the first Fleming novel in a swapsies deal for Spider-Man rights in 1999 (seriously), the studio embarked on a full-on reboot, taking the idea of reinvention at the fore since Dalton’s first and taking it to its logical conclusion. But Casino Royale captures something that no Bond before it has managed, not even the early Connery films, and that’s to capture a relationship between a man and a woman that doesn’t feel like either a series of cheap jokes or the inevitable advances of a man who’s bathed for a month in pure pheromones.
So without further ado, I present my legacies for the twenty-first EON production, based on the first Fleming novel.
1. James Bond finally comes of age, by going back to the start
We finally get the first adaptation in the official series of the James Bond novel that started it all, the last major novel of Fleming’s series not to be made by EON. In order to adapt this, the series is effectively rebooted, and for the first time all of the history is washed away; Bond is a clean slate, to be started with afresh and with no emotional baggage for an indeterminate number of years weighing him down. As long as you ignore the fact that M still looks the same as the last Bond’s did. Moving swiftly on…
But not only does the film take a fresh approach to the stunts, mixing in a greater sense of realism to the scaffolding-scaling antics, and is also not afraid to take big risks with the structure, devoting most of the second act to the poker game, but writer Paul Haggis seems to be the first person to attempt to take the words of long time story writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade – or indeed, of anyone else – and to make them sound as if they were emerging from the mouths of two grown adults. Often in the past Bond has sounded close to mature, only to be undercut by a mop-headed Bond girl, or just occasionally (*cough* On Her Majesty’s Secret Service *cough*) the other way round, but here the dialogue sparkles, the performances radiate and even two people flirting on a train is an absolute joy to watch. Just in case you’ve forgotten, see how efficiently Craig and Green even manage to skirt over the obligatory product placement.
It’s this sensible approach, favouring this kind of sparring over cheap chat-up lines, which carries through Quantum Of Solace – admittedly in a slightly more po-faced fashion – and one which I steadfastly hope is keeping pace through Skyfall, and many years of Bond to come, until the pendulum inevitably swings and we end up back at the gurning antics of the later Moore era, probably with Rupert Grint as the first ginger Bond.
2. No Moneypenny, no Q
The other notable achievement of Casino Royale in setting the template for the future is to break it even more wide open. While Live And Let Die had managed to get by without the quartermaster, Casino Royale really does strip it back to the barest bones, with both Q and Moneypenny getting the boot, and staying off for QoS, proving just what it is possible to drop from the percieved “formula” and still make a successful Bond film.
3. Black and white opening, black ending
The other bold decisions, at least in the context of the series, range from the stylistic to the dramatic. At the beginning, we see a black and white sequence, and while the series dabbled with slo-mo as far back as the Sixties, it’s the first time that the colour palette has been drained completely. Now anything goes, opening up Skyfall for the likes of Roger Deakins to come in as DoP, and the sky blue is the limit. Or the green with pink spots.
The ending is also a first, in that in every one of the previous films Bond gets the girl, even if she gets shot in the end. See that rule book? It’s just been torn up and tossed in the bin. Take that, authority, there’s a new Bond in town. Craig’s Bond ends both of his first two films alone, unless you count Dame Judi at the end of Quantum as the Bond girl. (No. Just no.)
Next time: If you had a choice of the remaining Fleming titles, would you pick:
a) The Hildebrand Rarity
c) 007 In New York
d) Quantum Of Solace?
Previous Bond legacy posts: Dr No / From Russia With Love / Goldfinger / Thunderball / You Only Live Twice / On Her Majesty’s Secret Service / Diamonds Are Forever / Live And Let Die / The Man With The Golden Gun / The Spy Who Loved Me / Moonraker / For Your Eyes Only / Octopussy / A View To A Kill / The Living Daylights / Licence To Kill / Goldeneye / Tomorrow Never Dies / The World Is Not Enough / Die Another Day
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The Review: Come closer, come right in, and I’ll tell you a tale. A tale of a youngster and his faithful companions on an epic adventure, which has been in the hearts of millions for many, many years. A tale of how a newly discovered map could prove crucial to success or failure. A tale of an attempt to recapture former glories and past treasures. There’ll be highs and lows, and familiar faces in unfamiliar situations. Yes, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have teamed up to bring Tintin to Hollywood for the first time, and to hopefully find him a position in cinema for many years to come. It’s famously renowned that Hergé himself said that Spielberg was the best person to adapt his tales for the big screen. With Lord Of The Rings director Jackson on board as well, what could possibly go wrong?
First then, to the tale of the youngster and his companions. That youngster is Matt Smith, and his adventures in Doctor Who for the past two years were what drew original screenwriter Steven Moffat away from Spielberg and back to Blighty. But the most recent series of Who has not been without its critics, especially of the Moffat-scripted story arc episodes; many find them too dense and too complex, filled with set pieces and big moments but a little lacking in heart and soul at crucial moments, or indeed time to just stop and breathe occasionally. Tintin suffers a little from the same flaw; it’s set-piece after set-piece, exposition often delivered on the run, and the pace is so frenetic at times all you can do is cling on and hope things continue to make sense. After Moffat left, Spielberg brought in two other Brits (and why not – who knows Belgium better than, er, the British?), Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish. There’s a whole host of witty asides and in-jokes which will be picked up which feel in tune with their writing style, but it cranks along in top gear for a little too much of the running time. You can’t help but feel that the decision to attempt to condense elements of three Tintin novels into one story was maybe one too many.
What then, of the map? Yes, this particular treasure is not gold or jewels, but believable motion-capture animated characters, and according to the map they can be found on the other side of the uncanny valley. If you look at the lines on the “map” to the left, you’ll see two upward curves. Apparently, we humans feel more responsive to something the more human it looks, but there’s a gap – if you look just short of believably human then that becomes more disconcerting to the viewer and we actually find ourselves repulsed. Problems with earlier mo-cap from the likes of Robert Zemeckis suffered from dead-eyes; the eyes are right here, but it’s the faces that are wrong. Somehow, Tintin actually falls into a double uncanny valley and it’s one the film unfortunately calls attention to. Not only do the facial expressions, and also the shape of Tintin’s head, feel just slightly wrong, but an in-joke of Hergé’s original drawing makes you realise that there’s a Tintin valley at work here as well, the character looking generally right, but whenever the camera settles on him in close up, you can see it’s not quite Tintin and not quite human; doubly freaky, in fact. Consequently Tintin works better whenever the camera is set back and the characters are mid-set piece, which is where the cranked-up pacing starts to work to the films advantage, keeping the number of character close-ups down to a minimum as events progress.
There are familiar faces, although they often don’t relate to the voices in question, one of the joys of the technique. Those that work best at creating a believable character include, somewhat unsurprisingly, Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock, who practically steals the entire film, a Nicholson Joker to Jamie Bell’s somewhat bland Keaton Batman. Oddly, Daniel Craig seems more animated here than he normally does in real life, somehow finding liberation but still retaining an edge; other than that, the voices could have been pretty much anyone and you may not have noticed. In particular, the third collaboration (of sorts) between Edgar Wright and the Pegg / Frost combo suffers from Simon Pegg seemingly not settling on one particular voice for any length of time, with random levels of gruffness affecting his performance. And the former glories and past treasures? Those are being sought by Spielberg, who was the master of this type of thing for much the Seventies and Eighties, but has lost his lightness of touch in recent years and many feel he still has to atone for the last Indiana Jones film. This shares a spirit with the likes of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, but where that’s pacing and storytelling perfection, this feels over-egged and over-enthusiastic, and doesn’t quite hit the same marks. Overall it’s a brave attempt, and it’s a lot of fun if you’re prepared to just sit back and cling on for the ride, but the problems mean that Tintin’s first Hollywood adventure doesn’t quite come up with the goods.
Why see it at the cinema: It is a visual feast, and you couldn’t ask for more in terms of the visual spectacle. You might actually ask for a little less, if anything.
Why see it in 3D: If this was made entirely with 3D in mind, it doesn’t show. There’s a few “wave a giant stick in the face of the audience” moments, but the editing isn’t always with 3D in mind, and the vertiginous shifts and sweeps of the opening titles could leave the odd person feeling seasick in 3D. So 2D will be fine if you fancy it.
The Score: 7/10
The Review: In the normal cycle of summer movies, it’s inevitable in the search for unique concepts that one genre may no longer be enough to satisfy audiences who’ve grown bored of superheroes and giant fighty robots. If you were looking for genres to splice together, near the top of your list would likely be sci-fi, a sure fire summer winner, and the Western, possibly the most distinct American genre and the most likely to appeal to the widest possible audience. So in the attempt to appeal to every possible demographic, mashing together the sci-fi and the Western genres should certainly have a pretty broad appeal. Want to guarantee your audience? Then how about picking one of the hottest directors of summer properties working at the moment, with two Iron Man films under his belt, and then pick two actions stars of the highest calibre to fill your two lead roles. How about Indiana Jones and James Bond? Huh? HUH?
The concept, the casting, the snappy title. There’s no way that this could fail. Which can only mean that complacency must be the reason why Cowboys & Aliens is a tedium-fest of the first order. It’s difficult to know where to start with this, so let’s aim for somewhere around the hour mark. This is about the point when the first thing of any interest and excitement happens in the entire running time, and even then it’s over mercifully briefly. Before that, we’ve endured an hour of set-up, which could and should have gone one of two ways. If you’re going to have cowboys and aliens, you should either make lots of subtle (or not-so-subtle) references and in-jokes to those genres, or in bringing them together you should find something new and refreshing in one or both of them. The assumption here is that purely having Cowboys & Aliens together is such a wheeze, having them on screen together is enough. It’s not, by a long chalk.
You’ll struggle to find a blander Western than the one the aliens stumble into. Daniel Craig does brooding and steely about as well as anyone, but here he’s been robbed of his memory, so that’s all he gets to do, and other than occasionally beating people up in frustration there’s no investment in him, because even he’s got no idea why he’s beating them up. Harrison Ford is some way short of his best, which normally occurs when he’s allowed to imbue his role with his natural charm, but gruff landowner fatally stifles that charm for vast swathes of the running time. In terms of the other characters, most of them get one-note roles, from Olivia Wilde (token woman) to Sam Rockwell (can’t shoot straight) and it’s only Clancy Brown as the town preacher who seems to have any warmth or depth to him. It also seems that Paul Dano only makes westerns these days, which serves as an instant reminder of how much better the other ones he’s been in are.
It’s the same old story, in more ways than one. Six credited writers and not one of them manages to come up with anything approaching a coherent story; it’s just a sequence of events that happen to the same people, developments generally just happen rather than being earned by the actions of the characters and little of it makes a jot of sense. It gets a little more interesting in the second hour, when the cowboys’ normal screen partners start to turn up in numbers and when they help the cowboys to take the fight to the alien interlopers. But this could have been so much more; instead it’s a flaccid excuse of a film, limping out in a sea of summer movies with superheroes and giant fighty robots that all turned up with more plot, character and charm than this. A few Daniel Craig moments and a large scale, if odd, climax, aside, then this is just one more indication why such disparate genres just don’t mix.
Why see it at the cinema: It’s not short of scale and wide open spaces, it’s just short of pretty much everything else. But if lots of shots of the Old West are your thing, then you’ll not be disappointed.
The Score: 4/10