The Series Project: James Bond (Part 5)

Welcome back, my friends, to our ongoing trek through all the known James Bond feature films, now in its fifth and penultimate week. This time around in The Series Project, we'll be delving into films 17 through 20, which means 1) that we are fast approaching present-day Bond, and 2) that we'll spend the entire time talking about Pierce Brosnan. This is fine by me for the following reason:

Pierce Brosnan is the best James Bond.

There. I said it. For realsies. Pierce Brosnan is – most certainly and categorically – the best to have played James Bond. Well, to be perfectly fair, I have yet to see the 1967 Casino Royale, so I don't know how David Niven stacks up, nor have I yet seen the 1957 episode of Climax! to feature James Bond (wherein Bond went by “Jimmy” and was American, played by Barry Nelson). But of the Bonds I've seen (including Daniel Craig), Pierce Brosnan is possessed of all the qualities I'm looking for in James Bond. He has Connery's sexiness, Lazenby's cuteness, Moore's cheekiness, and even some of Dalton's seriousness, all while cruising with all the suavity that James Bond ought to have. He's flip, but not dumb. He looks like he can handle himself in a fistfight, and seems capable of all the physical challenges Bond puts himself through. His silly quips all seem to stem from a need to diffuse a tense situation, and not from some Olympian dismissal of all danger. All the danger is real, and he's rising above. He's vulnerable, but not broody. Believably sexy. Strong, but not brutish. He is all Bonds.

Two of the Brosnan bond films are really excellent, and one of them is easily one of the best James Bond movies. One is merely fair, and one is, well… we'll get to Die Another Day shortly. I kind of whish Brosnan had made more than four. Four is a respectable run, but I am so fond of Brosnan in the role, it was a pity that we had so few of them.

In the 17th Bond movie, we've moved into a new era of world history, and we get to see how Bond reacts to his updated status in the world.

 

GoldenEye (dir. Martin Campbell, 1995)

Bond: Pierce Brosnan

Gadgets: A belt buckle with a repelling wire. A FAX machine in a car. A grenade hidden in a ballpoint pen. A watch with a laser in it.

The Babe: Natalya Simonova, played by Izabella Scorupco,

The Bad Guy: General Orumov, played by Gottfried John, and Alec, played by Sean Bean

Location(s): France, St. Petersburg, Cuba

Theme Song: Sung by Tina Turner and penned by Bono & The Edge

Bond Directly Kills :A few Russian guards. A lot more Russian guards. Xenia.

WTF Moments: The opening car chase seems to have porn music. The phrase “sexual harassment” is spoken aloud in a James Bond movie. There's a tank chase through the streets of St. Petersburg, and a large statue remains perched on top of the tank for a good deal of it. We learn that James Bond's parents died in a climbing accident, which is more backstory than we've ever had on him. There's a horrible rock ballad over the credits. Minnie Driver makes a cameo appearance as a really, really bad cabaret singer who croons “Stand By Your Man.”

You may recall from last week, the last James Bond film was made in 1989. Something else happened in 1989 that would adversely impact the way we look at James Bond: The Berlin Wall fell. The over-reaching threat of world Communism (which used to be so important, wasn't it?) was now coming to an end. In 1991, Russia underwent a coup, and fell from Communism. The Cold War was over. Most spy organizations were formed, or at the very least perpetuated, by the Cold War threat of The Other Side wiping us out in a nuclear blast. Such talk dominated much of the American political rhetoric of the 1980s. I remember it all. In such a climate of change, and the softening of international tensions, whither James Bond? James Bond is a relic of the Cold War, you see. He was the British intelligence agent assigned to take down the Russians. Even when he was ultimately going after an autonomous deranged billionaire, James Bond still had to sneak through the weaponry and military dealings of some wicked government or another. Now that all the governments previously our sworn enemies were now struggling has-been superpowers, what do you need James Bond for?

That existential angst is was drives the tone of GoldenEye, and actually elevates it from another spy flick into easily one of the best James Bond films. That's right, in addition to Brosnan being the best Bond, I declare this: GoldenEye is one of the best James Bond films. It also has one of the best Bond songs. I have love. Deal with it. You may have been feeling a bit uncomfortable with Bond's lack of political savvy in the world. The Moore era was only vaguely about the Cold War, and the Dalton era was more about the darkness of the character. GoldenEye is an earnest look at the present state of spies in 1995. Smart.

A few other changes: Moneypenny, for instance, is now played by a cutesy actress named Samantha Bond. M is now played by Judi Dench, and she is much more stern than any of the previous Ms. Indeed, she emasculates Bond right to his face. She calls him a dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War. Even MI-6 is uncomfortable with what Bond represents.

Bond, meanwhile, seems only mildly perturbed by his future. There is one scene (that I, frankly, could have done without) of Bond sitting on a beach brooding like Albert Camus. But otherwise, he seems to be taking all this in stride. Thanks to Brosnan's ineffable good humor, Bond gives the impression that, while he may have to rethink his ideas of politics, he is far from being retired.

But all this subtle political rethinking would all be for naught if the film weren't so flipping awesome. And it is. It's flipping awesome. The language of action movies has continued to evolve, and GoldenEye's director, Martin Campbell is so adept at shaping an action sequence, you'll be thrilled pretty much throughout. Dig this: In the film's opening scene, James Bond drives a motorcycle off a cliff, no parachute, to free-fall into the cockpit of an unmanned plummeting airplane. This was 1995. No CGI for that. Just an amazing, amazing stunt.

And, even though the film is slick and weighty, it's not without those charmingly bonkers elements that James Bond has become known for. Example: There is a minxy Russian babe in the film named Xenia Onatopp, played by a slinking Famke Janssen who seems to be in a state of constant mild orgasm. Xenia is the thug of the film, and she kills people by squeezing them to death with her thighs. Like for real. And when she does, she seems to climax. She is punched around and gets into fights, and she growls and gnashes her teeth like a grinning tigress. Xenia is amazing.

The story is also mercifully easy to follow. General Orumov and Xenia steal a stealth helicopter so they can then, in turn, steal control of two tactical satellites nicknamed GoldenEye, capable of emitting a powerful EMP that can blackout cities and make machines explode. Bond has to track down the comely computer specialist who witnessed the theft (Scorupco), and stop them. There is a twist too: It turns out Orumov and Xenia are under the employ of Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) an ex-MI-6 agent (he was agent 006) and an old friend of James. The hunt leads through the streets of St. Petersburg, where there was a wicked tank chase, and eventually to Cuba where James and his computer hacking buddy have to stop them.

Some other cool elements in GoldenEye: Alan Cumming plays a cocky computer hacker named Boris (and hackers were so hip in 1995). Robbie Coltrane appears as a Russian arms dealer. Joe Don Baker (who played the bad guy in The Living Daylights) plays James' American contact, and he's actually kinda funny.

I'll have to stop lumping praise on this film here, otherwise I'll just never stop gushing. Unfortunately for you, the next film was also incredible.


 

Tomorrow Never Dies (dir. Roger Spottiswoode, 1997)

Bond: Pierce Brosnan

Gadgets: A giant drill that can burrow through ships. A supercar with a German accent. A cell phone with a taser in it. The bad guy uses an iPad. In 1997.

The Babe: Wai Lin, played by Michelle Yeoh

The Bad Guy: Elliot Carver, played by Jonathan Pryce

Location(s): Hamburg, Vietnam.

Theme Song: Sung by Sheryl Crow

Bond Directly Kills: Two pilots. A guy he drops into a printing press. A warehouse full of terrorists. Vincent Schiavelli. A guard he stabs. About a dozen guards on a stealth boat.

WTF Moments: That drill was pretty weird. There's a scene wherein James and Wai Lin shower together in public while handcuffed together, and it's very fetish-y. The film opens in the midst of a terrorist arms bazaar, which is indicated as such with a subtitle. I didn't think terrorists had arms bazaars.

While it doesn't have quite the political heft of GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies is actually a pretty kickass action flick all the way through. It's well written, it has some really amazing chase sequences, it has a cool villain, and it's actually kind of relevant.

The villain is Elliot Carver, played with a gnashing glee by British actor Jonathan Pryce. Carver is a Rupert Murdoch-like media mogul who wants to start world wars not so he can rise from the ashes, but so he can have exclusive broadcasting rights to them. He's a cutthroat journalist with delusions of grandeur. In an age where cell phones are being hacked into, and our news comes from increasingly dubious sources, an action film about an amoral crackpot billionaire trying to lie to the world rings a little true. Perhaps Daniel Craig would do well to revisit this territory. He's also a witty fellow, and provides a really nice line of dialogue: “The distance between insanity and genius,” he aphoristically intones, “is measured only by success.”

In most films of the past, one can't help but suppress a giggle at the quaintly out-dated computer technology (which we've done with James Bond in the past, and could even do with GoldenEye), but in Tomorrow Never Dies, it all feels surprisingly up-to-date. Elliot stands in the middle of a room manipulating images with his little iPad-like device and chatting on a Bluetooth-like cell phone.

Elliot has a sidekick played by the deadpan magician and David Mamet-collaborator Ricky Jay, and I think the filmmakers missed out on a grand opportunity to have him throw razor-edged playing cards during the course of the film. C'est la vie.

Also on Elliot's tail is a comely Chinese agent Wai Lin, played by Michelle Yeoh. Yeoh is the first Bond girl since Grace Jones who looks like she could kick James' ass. She is strong, resourceful, and was hired for her action chops rather than for her breast measurements. As a result, we have a sweet professional regard between two equally matched agents, rather than the usual dynamic of Bond dragging the little woman along by her wrist.  Here's how well they work together: there is a really spectacular chase scene halfway through the film where Wai Lin and James are handcuffed together, and must share a motorcycle to escape. Since their wrists are handcuffed, he has to grip the left handlebar, and she has to grip the right. They must steer together. And then jump the motorcycle over a helicopter. Yeah, this chase is pretty neat.

Eventually James and Wai Lin find themselves on board a stealth boat out in the South China Sea, killing guards and stopping bad guys left and right. I think James Bond kills more people in this film than in any other. I know big gun battles in advanced vehicles is par for the course in a James Bond film, but James previously did little of the shooting. Here he kills about a dozen guys. Good thing he’s licensed. It's only during the final shootout that Tomorrow Never Dies begins to drag. The final 35 minutes of the film are a gigantic action climax that is constantly upping the stakes, after about 20 minutes or so, I started to get a little exhausted. The film also employs that really obnoxious film technique of pulling frames to achieve slow-motion. You know, like Peter Jackson did a whole lot of in King Kong. The effect never works.

Teri Hatcher appears in the film as James' ex-lover and Elliot's current wife. No points for guessing what happens to her. Veteran character actor Vincent Schiavelli appears in one scene as a German assassin who specializes in torture. He doesn't get to torture Bond, but talks menacingly like he will. I've always liked Schiavelli.

Tomorrow Never Dies is so tightly plotted and so well made, I have little to say about it. That's not a criticism. It's just a really, really good film. It's not quite as good as GoldenEye, but it's still fun, and, like I said, relevant. James Bond films have always tried to stay on the cutting edge of relevance, usually with a very strong note of pandering to current events. In this case, it's actually succeeding at relevance. Is it luck, or true prescience? I couldn't say. The film still kicks ass.

Can we keep the streak alive?


 

The World is Not Enough (dir. Michael Apted, 1999)

Bond: Pierce Brosnan

Gadgets: A floating hologram diagram. A superboat that can drive on land. An inflating jacket that turns into a big hamster ball. X-ray sunglasses. A grappling hook watch. A team of evil flying skimobiles (!). The bad guy uses an antique neckbreaking device on James Bond at one point. Does that count?

The Babe: Elektra King, played by Sophie Marceau. Dr. Christmas Jones, played by Denise Richards.

The Bad Guy: Renard, played by Robert Carlyle

Location(s): Scotland, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Istanbul.

Theme Song: Sung by Garbage

Bond Directly Kills: One banker. One Russian stooge. Several guards. Elektra. Renard.

WTF Moments: There are two opening sequences in a row. There is a chase scene wherein James drives a boat through the streets of London. It just sort of skitters over the pavement. This is the 6th James Bond movie to feature a ski chase. James Bond and Dr. Jones escape from a submarine by shooting themselves out of a torpedo tube, just like in You Only Live Twice. James Bond is actually injured, which has never happened before. In order to get a clean bill of health, he sexes up a nurse. At one point, Sophie Marceau rubs an ice cube on her vagina.

Ooh. Too bad. I guess we couldn't keep the streak alive.

Maybe it was a bad sign when I noticed this film had five screenwriters. The World is Not Enough is all over the map. It feels like Pierce Brosnan is trying to make a Roger Moore film. The bad guy is cartoonish and over-the-top. The story deals with oil, and tries for hints of seriousness, but then it'll have a chase scene that's weird and dumb. Like one with flying skimobiles. Or another where a boat chases a hot air balloon. There are two babes in the film who are written as if they're capable and strong, but one is played by Sophie Marceau who looks like a terrified fawn, and the other is played by Denise Richards, who looks like she's ready for her This Ain't Tomb Raider XXX audition. I like both these actresses. Yes, even Richards, who is, if I must remind you, very easy on the eyes. But they seem miscast. Especially Richards who plays an adventurous nuclear physicist. I don’t know any nuclear physicists, but I'm willing to bet they don't usually look like Denise Richards.

At least Robert Carlyle seems to be having some fun as the bad guy Renard. Renard was shot in the head a few years ago, but lived, and the bullet is now slowly working its way through his brain, killing his senses, deadening his pain receptors. “With every day,” M intones, “he gets stronger.” It sounds to me like he might die any second. Why is this guy a threat? Well he wants some weaponized plutonium. And why? He wants to blow up a city so that its oil pipeline will be defunct. So that his girlfriend (eventually revealed to be Sophie Marceau) can sell the survivors her own oil pipeline. Um… Isn't this way too much trouble just for an oil pipeline? I mean, you've spent millions on thugs, nuclear physicists, mines, mining equipment, a submarine, and flying skimobiles. Isn't that a lot of prep for a single building contract? This is not like when Goldfinger tried to blow up Fort Knox. The stakes seem so low. True, thousands will die, but that would be evil without the oil pipeline. Is oil worth all this?

(Answer: Look overseas, dude.)

This is also a film that crosses a few lines that should, perhaps, not be crossed in a James Bond film. For one, we get to see an attack on MI-6 itself, forcing the operation to move into a castle in Scotland. MI-6 has always moved around, but they've never been forced to before. The attack came in the form of an explosion, which was intended to kill a visiting entrepreneur named King. The other line is that M herself is kidnapped by the bad guys during the course of the film. Isn't M just a pencil pusher? M has never been a field agent. Q got in on the action in Octopussy and in Licence to Kill, but M was always back at base taking care of the important overhead stuff. M should, I think stay there. I know, I know. How do you up the stakes after 18 films? Well, for James Bond, you don't. Banality can be charming.

Speaking of Q, this will be the last film to feature Desmond Llewellyn, who has appeared in every James Bond film since Goldfinger, with the one exception of Live and Let Die. That's 17 films. Llewllyn was 85 years old, and he didn't die of natural causes. He died in a car crash. That's actually pretty badass. In the film, we see Q priming his successor in the more uptight and slightly more bumbling R played by John Cleese. I like Cleese as much as the next comedy fanatic, but he's played all wrong. Cleese's stock in trade is being peeved at the world around him. His R should have been peeved. But instead he's a stuffy nerd with poor social skills. A funny character, I suppose, but not a part for John Cleese.

What else? Oh yes. The story. Marceau plays Elektra, the daughter of the assassinated entrepreneur who wants to nobly build an oil pipeline, and who was once kidnapped by Renard. Never name your daughter Elektra. The Greeks and the Marvels have taught us how deadly that can be. About halfway through the film, we learn that Elektra's nobility was just an act, that she’s really in love with Renard (Bond defines Stokholm Syndrome to us), and she switches into an evil bitch. Rather dramatically. Like she's kind and innocent one moment, and a heartless villainess the next. Indeed, since Renard can't feel, they can only have sex by putting on shows for one another. She rubs an ice cube on her vagina. It's all pretty disgusting. Bond teams up with (cough cough) Dr. Christmas Jones to track down some plutonium that Renard has stolen to enact the scheme listed above. The final fight takes place aboard a submarine, and there's a lot of swimming and stuff. He also stabs Elektra. Right in the chest.

The film's final line of dialogue is “I thought Christmas only came once a year!” Yuk yuk.

It's a pretty dumb film, The World is Not Enough. It's like a sub-par Roger Moore film, but with some CGI. The story is implausible in an unappealing way, the cast makes the tone fluctuate between goofy and dark. James Bond is even tortured briefly. I'll just have to comfort myself with Pierce Brosnan's strength, and Denise Richard's pretty, pretty eyes.

But we ain't at the bottom yet.


 

Die Another Day (dir. Lee Tamahori, 2002)

Bond: Pierce Brosnan

Gadgets: A magical brainwashing machine that can teach you languages. A ring that can break glass with a tiny speaker. Another laser watch. Little personal planes that you ride like broomsticks. A little portable breather. An invisible car.

The Babe: Jinx Johnson, played by Halle Berry, and Miranda Frost, played by Rosamund Pike.

The Bad Guy: Colonel Moon/Gustav Graves, played by Will Yun Lee and Toby Stephens

Location(s): North Korea, Havana, Iceland

Theme Song: Sung by Madonna

Bond Directly Kills: A few hovercraft pilots, a Korean jeweler, Zao the thug. Moon/Graves.

WTF Moments: See below.

Oh Lord.

So Die Another Day came out in 2002, which was a year after the World Trade Center incident. My guess is, in 2002, not many audiences were clamoring for fanciful, far-fetched spy action. It would have been crass for a James Bond movie to incorporate 9/11 as a plot element as early as 2002, so the filmmakers seemed to be actively avoiding it. As a result, we have the single goofiest James Bond film to date. And I include Moonraker in that statement.

But wait… Had the film stayed goofy throughout, maybe I could have had fun with it. Even the silly ones are entertaining. But the filmmakers also felt a dark need to address the sadness that the world was feeling after such a dramatic act of terrorism. As such, they included an opening 30 minutes of James Bond being held captive for 14 months in a Korean prison camp, being tortured repeatedly. What? James Bond is being tortured now? Is that how we're raising the stakes? By beating James Bond to within an inch of his life? James Bond is suave and flip and calm in the face of danger. If you need to torture him, you allude to it in dialogue. You don't show it.

A friend of mine made the following Batman analogy: Die Another Day feels like the first 30 minutes of Batman Begins grafted callously onto the final 100 minutes of Batman & Robin.

This film warrants no plot description. Indeed, it would be more accurate to give a litany of all the crap that happens in it. The entire film is a WTF moment that lasts 133 minutes. Let's start.

In the opening “gun barrel” shot (which has been used in every film), we actually see a bullet fly toward the screen. James Bond surfs into a bad guy's lair with bombs in his surfboard. James Bond is tortured by Koreans. He injured a thug, leaving real diamonds embedded in his face, like really expensive acne. When he makes it back to MI-6, he is subjected to a Star Trek medical scan. James Bond goes rogue again (sigh). James Bond, to get nurses to rush to his aid, seems to use psychic powers to make his own heart stop temporarily. That's a nifty superpower.

James discovers a lab where people can have their faces changed entirely, and can be force-fed knowledge of other languages. He finds that the guy in the opening Korean sequence escaped death, and has been surgically transformed into a white British man named Graves. Graves owns an ice castle – in Iceland(!) – and a death satellite named Icarus, which can fire heat blasts from space.

Q (Cleese) shows Bond around his old lab, and we see gadgets from the previous films in the background. Like the gator submarine from Octopussy, and the jetpack from Thunderball. James Bond is given an invisible car. No lie. A BMW with a cloaking device. Oh yes, in GoldenEye, the famous Aston Martin was traded in for a BMW. But yeah, a car that can turn invisible. That's… uh… yeah. Q also trains James in a holodeck-like facility, where he gets to shoot holograms, and wear VR glasses. Moneypenny later uses those glasses to have sex with a hologram James Bond. At least she'll get some action.

Halle Berry is in the film as an NSA agent who is also investigating Graves. Her name is Jinx, who, I think, might have been a character in Mortal Kombat. She looks awesome in a bikini. She and James have sex in Havana, and they rub guavas on one another. Later in the film, they'll have sex again, but on a bed of diamonds. One is sticky, and the other can cause bloodshed. No fun.

Did you catch that bit about the ice castle? Graves has a huge castle made of ice. Like with sliding doors and ballrooms and security systems. But made of ice. It's also equipped with remote control laser beams that can cut you up real good. Late in the film, the castle begins to melt under the heat laser, and it fills up with water. This is the most impractical supervillain hideout since the giant ocean base in The Spy Who Loved Me. Well, and the space base in Moonraker. Aso, theres an invisible f*cking car.

Pop tunes are hardly ever used in James Bond movies (we usually just get a nifty theme song), but when he returns to London, we head The Clash's “London Calling” on the soundtrack. That's not quite as bad as when James Bond skied to “California Girls” in A View to a Kill.

Rosamund Pike (from Doom and Pride & Prejudice) plays a mousy MI-6 agent who will mutate into an evil, slinky master swordswoman. Yeah, there's some swordplay in the film. I'll say this: The swordfight in Die Another Day is actually really well choreographed and fun to watch. Stephens and Brosnan actually do all the fighting, and things have weight and reality. The scene is, sadly, undercut by the totally off-the-wall cameo by Madonna (who sang the obnoxious techno theme song), who stomps into frame wearing a black leather bondage outfit, holding a sword. She's not a thug or a villain, but a casual acquaintance of Bond's, who gives him the skinny on Graves.

In the finale, Graves puts on a suped-up super-vest. Like it covers his chest and shoulders and hands, but leaves his arms bare. This is an electrocution suit. He slaps people, and it sends animated bolts of lightning through their bodies. He has it on his plane. Why does a villain have a flying bomber, an ice castle, an evil heat beam satellite and an electrocution vest? Isn't any one of those things good enough to make you a supervillain?

And what's with the editing in this film? It's bad, that's what!

I look at Die Another Day, and I can only gape. It's like something broke, and we're watching the spinning shards of an exploded James Bond film flying toward us. The entire film is a big, colorful WTF mess. The tone is all over the place, the characters are all weirdo caricatures, and the plot elements would feel too far-fetched for an episode of M.A.S.K. There are ways to do goofy. Watch any of the seven Roger Moore films. This is not it. This is a clunky mess.

My guess is this film was so widely drubbed, it pretty much marked the end for Pierce Brosnan. Such a pity. Nobody did it better. What's more, in the post-9/11 world, filmmakers didn't know how to write terrorists anymore. They couldn't be the comical villains they were before. Now the action movie world began to move into a dark and serious territory that we're still sometimes living in.

 


Indeed, the franchise will, from here, dip into a much more gritty and brutal place as a new Bond will pick up the reigns, and the filmmakers will, in earnest, try to restart everything from day one. Be sure to join me next week for the sixth and final installment of The Series Project: James Bond, wherein I'll be discussing the two Daniel Craig James Bond films, the nature of the accompanying “reboot,” and the two non-canonical James Bond feature films, from 1967 and 1983. We're nearly there, agents. We can do it.