Thursday, November 16, 2006

Bond Issues, Part 2

Keeping Marc's warning in mind, I nevertheless plunged ahead with the remaining "official" James Bond films. (Also, forgot to mention last time that I watched the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode "Operation Double 007," starring Sean's goateed brother Neil and about as good as you'd think. Still better than A View To A Kill.) The Moore Era gets tough towards the end, so brace yourselves....

Moonraker (1979): I think I can sum up this movie through one comparison -- it turned Jaws, the relentless, unstoppable killer from The Spy Who Loved Me, into Silent Bob. The big guy gets some moments of menace, most notably a creepy scene during Rio's Carnivale, but overall he's reduced to surviving improbably and mugging for the camera. Oh, and falling in love with another social outcast who wouldn't have been part of Drax's master race. I don't know if that's meant as biting commentary, given that Lois "Holly Goodhead" Chiles seems to have been cast for her looks, not her talent. I did like the gondola/hovercraft and the return of John Barry's alternate "007" theme, and if you grade the Bond movies on a Nick Fury, Agent Of SHIELD curve, Moonraker just seems to make it.

For Your Eyes Only (1981): Am I correct in observing that this is the only Bond film where the underlying conflict is simply Britain vs. the USSR, with no caveats for SPECTRE, crazy generals, arms dealers, etc.? It’s probably the most well-made of the Moore films. However, my unrepentant affection for The Spy Who Loved Me remains steadfast. Lynn-Holly Johnson is blackboard-scratching annoying, and I thought the obvious comparisons between the Countess and Bond’s late wife could have been explored more. Also, Bill Conti’s score is a little too bright and jazzy. Still, the cinematography is gorgeous, especially in Greece. Moore should have gone out on this one.

Octopussy (1983): This film gets points for working in the eponymous short story as being part of Bond’s and Octopussy’s shared backstory. Having the crazy Soviet general’s plot depend on manipulating NATO politics is also fairly clever. Unfortunately, once Moore dons that clown costume, the last shred of his dignity drops away. Good thing John Barry is in fine form, contributing what may be the quintessential arrangement of the Bond theme.

A View To A Kill (1985): This movie actually has a couple of good parts; namely, Moore’s scenes with Patrick Macnee, and the Paris car chase. I liked the blimp too. Okay, and I liked the Duran Duran song. The rest of it, though.... I mean, I know the Bond people want to present the so-called "Bond women" as more than bimbos, but if your geologist is played pretty unconvincingly by Tanya Roberts, what good is that? (See also Lois Chiles.) By this point, Moore looks like Bush 41.

The Living Daylights (1987): This isn’t a bad Bond movie at all, and it’s certainly an improvement over much of the Moore Era. However, Timothy Dalton never seems comfortable as Bond. To be sure, the movie requires him to be playful and charming, a la his predecessors, but to convey this he puts on a kind of nervous smile the rest of his face can’t quite back up. This does not support the two-crazy-kids vibe the movie wants to promote between Dalton and Maryam D’Abo. The movie itself is sprawling, almost bloated, with a plot that’s a challenge to keep straight. It feels about 3 hours long, so what should have been its climactic setpiece in Afghanistan only gives way to an anticlimactic showdown with Joe Don Baker and his sublimated erectile-dysfunction issues. The techno-flavored score provides a nice bit of late-'80s nostalgia.

Licence To Kill (1989): This movie’s straightforward revenge story goes too far the other way. Its dramatic beats are grounded in Bond’s friendship with Felix Leiter, and in the loss of his official status. (The resolution of the latter is, naturally, a foregone conclusion.) Unfortunately, the friendship had never really been established, thanks to the umpteen different Leiters over the years (including the stiff in The Living Daylights), and the actors don’t sell it here. Now, if Moneypenny's fiance/new husband had ended up fed to a shark, that might have worked out better. (For the movie, that is.)

GoldenEye (1995): Pierce Brosnan finally gets to play 007 in a fun, self-aware, self-confident performance that lifts the whole movie. Actually, everyone in GoldenEye seems to be having a good time bringing Bond into the post-Soviet Union era (not to mention the Internet age). It’s as if the producers made a list of essential Bond elements and decided to do right by each while still allowing for upgrades -- for example, Daniel Kleinman’s opening titles. The new M and Moneypenny both call Bond on his casual sexism, and Famke Janssen and Izabella Scorupco are both tremendously appealing in their roles. The only questionable part for me is Eric Serra’s minimalist score, wisely replaced with a full orchestra for the grandiose tank chase and not entirely out of place otherwise.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997): Perhaps the most openly satirical Bond film, but that’s not saying much. Most of it is running and fighting and shooting and driving, and that’s all done well. TND also benefits (at least for me) from incoming composer David Arnold, who recognizes the value of a flamboyant score to this series. However, like the object of its alleged satire, TND is ultimately pretty superficial, which for a Bond film is saying something. I do like a lot of little moments -- M's rolling briefing, Bond and Q at the Avis desk, and Bond and the torturer, in particular. Still -- not that I want this to be a Crime-Alley-"my-parents-are-dead" motif -- given the circumstances of her relationship with Bond, Paris’ death might have been another opportunity to remember Tracy’s.

The World Is Not Enough (1999): The best Brosnan Bond, Denise Richards notwithstanding. I thought Brosnan was a good fit from the beginning, but he grew into the part more with each movie. In this one he seems more mature, again romancing a woman comparable to Tracy Bond (and again, that aspect passing without explicit comment). TWINE also brings back Robbie Coltrane’s Russian gangster from GoldenEye. One of the least effective parts of the movie (again, besides Denise Richards) is John Cleese’s "R," but that gives Bond and the audience a chance to say goodbye to Desmond Llewellyn’s Q.

Die Another Day (2002): Perhaps this movie works best as a sort of coded commentary on the whole series. There are certainly enough Easter eggs, with at least one reference to all 19 movies thus far. However, in its move from gritty, post-9/11 realpolitik to orbiting death rays, invisible cars, and electrified body armor, it wants to be bigger than any of them. I could live with the orbiting death ray, and the cloaking device might actually work, but the body armor was too much. (It’s still easier to take than the rifle-plus-shield that Joe Don Baker wields in The Living Daylights.) Bond in Cuba thanks to China is an ironic treat, "London Calling" is played, and John Cleese seems more on the ball than in his debut. I can't remember if Hugh Grant was ever seriously considered as a Bond, but main villain Gustav Graves looks enough like Grant to make me wonder if that wasn't some kind of message too.

And with that, Brosnan closed out a series of four films which tried to ground themselves in espionage-flavored adventure stories but which ended up playing riffs on their predecessors. Under Moore especially, the Bond movies had settled into some pretty familiar formulae, so that by the time Dalton took over, the boundaries had been established. However, to me, Licence To Kill showed that erring unfailingly on the side of "reality" doesn't necessarily work either. Thus, Brosnan's movies inevitably included an element of self-awareness, not least thanks to Brosnan's love for the series and previous history with it. Depending on one's perspective, I suppose that either helps gloss over the Brosnan Era's shortcomings or diminishes it in light of the series' more undisputed high points. Me, I liked Brosnan pretty well as Bond.

Still, they all could have used the three-inch scar that Fleming gave him....


Matthew E said...

Octopussy trivia: the screenwriter was George MacDonald Fraser, the guy who writes the Flashman novels and who wrote the 1970s Three Musketeers movies.

Tom Bondurant said...

The credits all tend to blur together after a while -- was Frazer the one credited with "additional story material?" I remember that was an odd credit, but I can't remember for which film.

And I'm not breaking out the DVDs again to check!... ;-)

Anonymous said...

Good stuff (revisiting some of the danker Bonds sounds too much like work for me) -- I'm eager to hear your thoughts on Casino Royale!