In celebration of the James Bond film series’ 50th anniversary, a variety of publishers and websites are examining the movies. Entertainment Weekly, Life Books, Cult Britannia … all (so far) rife with butt-kissing, the opposite of critical acumen, and even flat-out inaccuracies.
So, in the run-up to Skyfall (which I pray is good), I will join in by taking on one of 007’s credos: if you want something done right…!
In the name of full disclosure, I love James Bond, but I love James Bond the way I first discovered him. The first non-kiddie movie I ever saw was Dr. No, which led to my reading all of Ian Fleming’s 007 books, and then breathlessly awaiting each film sequel. This was my Bond: the character who set the (shaken, not stirred) bar for all who followed. He was a Bond who was smart, sharp, and serious (but far from humorless), who let his calm, witty, mask drop the moment evil was enjoined.
I daresay he was even the man who inspired me toward film criticism. My first articles were impassioned defenses of the actors/filmmakers who were so roundly (and unfairly) dismissed by the media mainstream. These reviewers didn’t know what they had until it was gone, then galloped to the defense of the campy nonsense that they felt more comfortable with. But more on that below.
Here then is my own 50 Years of James Bond Films: The Heart and Soul of 007.
DR. NO (Terence Young)
A great start, with style, wit, and significance. My favorite moment (besides Sean Connery’s iconic Bond introduction): “You’ve had your six.” This was not a man to trifle with.
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (Terence Young)
You saw their style, wit, and significance, now they’ll raise you. Still the most “authentic” Fleming adaptation, with the most “honest” espionage. MFM: The fight with Robert Shaw’s Donald “Red” Grant on the train – essentially the birth of Western kung fu screen fighting.
GOLDFINGER (Guy Hamilton)
Between the title character’s name and that of his pilot (Pussy Galore), more obvious outlandishness was creeping in, but the still-serious filmmakers balanced it with the most dramatic approach yet, making this the least action-packed and most suspenseful installment – seemingly inspired by Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (which starred Cary Grant, who was the producers’ first choice for Bond, and had only turned down Dr. No after they asked him to sign a multi-film deal). MFM: “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”
THUNDERBALL (Terence Young)
The crew went all in with complexity of plot and character, leading to a bit of bloat, yet this remains the series’ apex and the most financially successful Bond of all. MFM: Bond’s honest reaction to the torture death of fellow agent Pauline (Martine Beswick) leading to his panicky escape through carnivale, and culminating with his vengeance on Paula’s killer (“She’s just dead”).
YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (Lewis Gilbert)
Connery was tired, and producer Cubby Broccoli’s friend Roald Dahl was dying. So satirist Dahl was given the screenplay (its fee paying for his remaining comfort) and off the crew went to Japan for an obvious lampoon of what had come before. Although spiced with some solid fights and action, it was also filled with trap doors, helicopter magnets, an outlandishness bordering on silliness, and a remarkably ineffective, repeatedly fumbled reveal of the series big bad (after setting the stage with a threatening, ominous presence in the preceding films, the crew first cast Santa Claus-esque Czech actor Jan Werich as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, then replaced him at the last second with diminutive “cracked egg” Donald Pleasance – perfect for a Dahlish approach, but counter-intuitive for a Bond). MFM: “Ninja, Bond-san.”
ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (Peter H. Hunt)
Peter Hunt, editor of the previous Bonds, was unhappy. He didn’t like the satire, gimmicks, gadgets, and campiness. So when he finally got promoted to the director’s chair, out they went. Only one problem: out Connery had gone too.
An international search for a new 007 started … and ended with the wrong one (I have been a George Lazenby apologist/defender for decades, but finally, given his subsequent behavior, even I have to admit they should have chosen someone else (to see what could have been, check out http://life.time.com/culture/james-bond-behind-the-scenes-at-007-auditions/#1).
Lazenby wasn’t bad, but his inability to handle the sudden fame cursed the series to years of flippant self-consciousness. The only one he really did in with his one-time-only license to kill (besides himself) was Hunt, who could’ve guided the series to continuing greatness. The action, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas (finally, an imposing Blofeld!) and other superlatives were albatrossed by this Bond’s diffidence. This remains the best James Bond film without James Bond in it. MFM: “We have all the time in the world.”
DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (Guy Hamilton)
James Bond is back … uh … no, he isn’t. The Sean Connery who returned for this farce was a pod person whose one overriding goal was to perform aversion therapy on his fans, so they would never again identify him with, or as, 007. So out came the pink shirts, too-short-ties, ruffles, double-chin-enhancing turtlenecks, ill-fitting suits (and wigs), and in came a mincing script that had an out of shape, smug Bond running away throughout, until he sits and slaughters two gay stereotypes. This was the first (but not the last) time the producers wasted the opportunity to have Bond’s vengeance for a great love’s death mean something. The worst James Bond film with James Bond in it. MFM: 0
LIVE AND LET DIE (Guy Hamilton)
Bad Bond sign #1: When the pre-credit sequence exists solely to glorify only the bad guy. Roger Moore’s introduction as 007 is squandered in favor of some nonsensical “wouldn’t-it-be-cool-isms,” followed by uneasy blaxploitation tropes and credibility (as well as villain) popping nonsense. But it’s easier to make a “just kidding” film than a serious one. And after all the drama of Lazenby’s and Connery’s exits, is it any wonder the filmmakers just wanted to take it easy for awhile? MFM: Jane Seymour, Paul McCartney’s theme song, and the croc stepping stones.
THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (Guy Hamilton)
Another villain-glorifying pre-credit sequence, another swishy story, complete with an unthreatening little person henchman. Although they “tried” to toughen up Moore’s Bond, they only made him sadistic. All you need to know about how serious the filmmakers were was the ludicrous return of the wildly stereotyped good ol’ boy sheriff J.W. Pepper from LALD. They even made fun of kung fu, and you can imagine how happy that made me. MFM: Christopher Lee and Yuen Qui (later of Kung Fu Hustle) showing Moore how it’s done.
THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (Lewis Gilbert)
The best of the Moore 007s, and one of the best Bonds. Finally, they got the lighter mix right, right down to Marvin Hamlisch’s score. Although a sea-faring carbon copy of YOLT, it was more wittily self-aware than derisively campy, with a pre-credit sequence for the ages. MFM: The attack on the sub-swallowing tanker.
MOONRAKER (Lewis Gilbert)
Bad Bond sign #2: When the humor comes from “outside the film.” Bond making wisecracks: inside the film. A pigeon doing a double-take and loud satirical musical cues: outside the film. Everything TSWLM got right was ruined by this one’s wink-wink nudge-nudge overkill, plus a Bond Girl performance so wooden I thought Holly Goodhead would be revealed as an android at the finale. MFM: Bond’s believable reaction after being nearly killed in a centrifuge (Moore could act, if required to).
FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (John Glen)
Good Bond sign #1: When Bond’s murdered wife’s name is evoked. Moore’s reaction is great when she’s mentioned in TSWLM, and this “Moore’s version of From Russia with Love” starts with him at her grave. Outside of some weird comments by the “man they cannot call Blofeld (for legal reasons)” — who 007 dispatches pre-credits — and the uneasy presence of an underage Bond(ish) girl, this world and tech hopping adventure is solid and satisfying. MFM: the ski chase.
OCTOPUSSY (John Glen)
Ex-Bond editor Glen got the shot Peter Hunt should’ve had, and tried not to squander it with his second 007 directorial effort. And it’s a pretty solid … until Bond goes into clown-face at the climax. Everyone who loved the character couldn’t get over that. The barely tolerable alligator-sub, overuse of Q, and Bond’s admonition of “sit!” to a tiger became deal-breakers in retrospect. MFM: Battle on the circus train top.
A VIEW TO A KILL (John Glen)
Bad Bond sign #3: When 007 becomes a constant and consistent “danger to public safety,” rather than “danger to villain safety.” It started in LALD when the filmmakers thought it hilarious that Bond, not the bad guys, ruined a wedding, and continued aggressively here. One Moore too many, and one of the worst (and certainly the most boring) of the entire series. David Bowie turned down the villain role, and little wonder. MFM: 0.
THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (John Glen)
Moore was finally replaced by Timothy Dalton, who should have been everything Lazenby wasn’t, but, for some reason, decided “serious” meant morosely averse. See Dalton in The Lion in Winter to see what his Bond could, and should, have been. Still, this is pretty fun, marred only by a needy Bond Girl even Bond was all but rolling his eyes at. MFM: The new Bond’s intro bookended with the mid-air cargo ship net fight.
LICENSE TO KILL (John Glen)
Once more the series squanders a “Bond unleashed” approach, only this time because Dalton’s seeming unease blossomed into full-fledged psychosis – presenting a mirthless, tight-arsed 007, whose irrational peevishness results in the deaths of multiple protagonists. Like a spoiled brat who barks “no” just because he likes to upset others, this bureaucratic bastard with a bug up his bum makes this a mess from beginning to end. MFM: In another film, the tanker truck wheelie might’ve been cool.
GOLDENEYE (Martin Campbell)
Everything LTK did wrong, this does right, starting with the best pre-credit sequence since TSWLM. Pierce Brosnan’s long-delayed intro resulted in a smooth, sharp, and cool Bond. The girls are great, the action sequences are fine, and the climax features the best martial arts since OHMSS. MFM: Bond’s short, simple head move to avoid a ricochet while continuing to set booby traps.
TOMORROW NEVER DIES (Roger Spottiswoode)
Surprisingly good, considering the circumstances — in that Teri Hatcher was supposed to be the film’s main Bond Girl … until her diva behavior on set resulted in her surprise (most of all to her) dismissal and the scramble to make the movie on the fly with Michelle Yeoh promoted from supporting sacrificial lamb to full fledged co-star. Brosnan even went on record about Hatcher’s conduct, suggesting that she treat people nicer, but that filmed/telecast interview (which I witnessed) has long since been suppressed. MFM: Helicopter vs. motorcycle.
THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH (Michael Apted)
What’s the point of having a villain with a bullet in his head, which makes him grow stronger and more impervious the closer it gets to his brain, if you’re not going to use it in the plot? Famed actress Sophie Marceau was supposed to evoke memories of the late Mrs. Bond, but they chickened out on that plotline as well. Add one of the series’ most ludicrous “dangers” (a helicopter with a hanging chainsaw), more reckless endangerment to public safety, and a Bond Girl who demanded to be treated (and dressed) like a serious actress, and you’ve got a missed opportunity the size of a satellite dish. MFM: Can’t think of one.
DIE ANOTHER DAY (Lee Tamahori)
Bad Bond sign #4: Trying to evoke classic moments past. Whenever the producers attempted a shout out to an iconic moment or character from the past, it never bode, or turned out, well. Here they tried to reshape Halle Berry as a modern combination of Honeychile Ryder and Pussy Galore, but she was sabotaged by the filmmakers who ultimately reduced her to just another shrill damsel in distress. Complicating the issue further was some of the lamest digital effects ever seen in a major motion picture and a unwelcome cameo by Madonna. MFM: The pre-credit hovercraft battle.
CASINO ROYALE (Martin Campbell)
Having beautifully introduced Pierce Brosnan in Goldeneye, director Campbell does the same for the “(Jason) Bourne-again Bond,” Daniel Craig. One of the best conceived, constructed, and sustained Bonds, it’s only major misstep was having the main villains killed off-screen three-fourths in, then hastily wedging in some faceless baddies for the climax. MFM: the first fifteen, and the last five, minutes.
QUANTUM OF SOLACE (Marc Forster)
A stunningly bad follow-up, supposedly sabotaged by a writer’s strike, leaving the gun-shy crew with a shambled script. But even all that didn’t sound this abomination’s death knell. QoS was DoA simply because it wasn’t about the only thing it should have been about: Bond’s obsessive revenge against the man who doomed his soul mate in CR.
Originally Croatian actor Goran Visnjic (of TV’s ER) — who was also in the final running for the 007 role — was supposed to play that betraying boyfriend and go mano-a-mano with 007, while the evil organization Quantum kept getting in the way. But when the film went into production, that integral plot was MIA, replaced by a nonsensical mess … and a production team without even the courage of their convictions.
Gemma Atherton was supposed to play a character named Strawberry Fields, but they shied away from that. She also suffered a Goldfinger shout-out fate, covered in oil instead of gold. Only one problem: it, like most of the movie, didn’t make sense. But even that wasn’t the most cowardly, confusing aspect.
The fate of Mr. White, CR’s big bad and QoS’s instigator, was actually filmed, along with the film’s traditional gun-barrel intro (here planned as an outro), but those, too, were chicken-shitted away — leaving the edited-with-a-shredder film with a tacked-on, wimpy, hasty, anti-climatic, boyfriend-arresting cop out. MFM: double-0 nothing.
So now Skyfall is almost here, with the most award-winning director and cast the series has ever gathered. Will it rank with the best (FRWL, Goldfinger, OHMSS, The Spy Who Loved Me, Goldeneye and Casino Royale), the worst (Diamonds are Forever, A View to a Kill, License to Kill, and QoS), or the rest? You can rest assured, inshallah, that I’ll let you know what I think when the time comes….