SPECTRE (2015)

SpectrePosthumously ordered to Mexico by the previous M (Judi Dench) to kill Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona), James Bond (Daniel Craig) uncovers a secret organisation that connects Quantum and the deceased cyberterrorist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). He infiltrates a meeting of SPECTRE in Rome, following a tip-off from Sciarra’s widow (Monica Bellucci), where he is introduced to the group’s leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). Henchman Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) is dispatched to take care of Bond, stalking him all the way to Austria — to the workplace of Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), who 007 has promised to protect in exchange for Oberhauser’s location. With Bond AWOL, and both Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) suspected of aiding and abetting his illicit investigations, M (Ralph Fiennes) finds himself in conflict with C (Andrew Scott), who wants to disband the 00 programme as part of a controversial reform of the secret service that will see MI5 and MI6 merged to form a Joint Intelligence Service.

The James Bond film series is a mess, and always has been. Spanning over fifty years and twenty-four movies it has seen the lead role re-cast, the creative team replaced, and the narrative revised so often that James Bond now exists more as an icon than a character. It is this iconography that holds the series together, so that a Bond movie is as identifiable for containing a Bond girl and a Bond villain as it is for featuring Bond himself – heck, the main character has to introduce himself at the outset of every movie just so that the audience knows who is on this particular occasion supposed to be playing him. This formula has produced a number of memorable adventures, but the repetitiveness has made it predictable and over time this has rendered it rote. There is no character development, no narrative progression, no end in sight, just an apparently endless succession of explosions and innuendo that can sometimes stimulate but can rarely satisfy.

It is for this reason that Sam Mendes’ Skyfall — EON’s twenty-third production — was such a success, both critically and commercially. Tasked with celebrating fifty years of Bond, Mendes was really the first director to sit down and think about who the character is or where the series might be going. Even the fact that he was ostensibly operating in a rebooted timeline barely two films old couldn’t stop him from producing the most engaging and comprehensive Bond movie in decades — one that was both emotionally resonant and culturally significant. Skyfall simultaneously operated both within and outwith the series’ established continuity, referencing previous adventures while reinstating fan favourite characters who were nevertheless unknown to Bond. This allowed Mendes to comment on or even slyly mock established tropes while also hitting all of the usual marks. It was at once a standalone adventure and a distillation of everything the series stood for; in many ways it was the definitive Bond movie, and may either have been used to bring one of cinemas longest running sagas to a triumphant conclusion or stand it in good stead to see out the rest of the century.

Obviously, there was little chance that Sony was going to retire one of its most celebrated and lucrative tentpoles, and the existence of SPECTRE shows that of the two options it was going to go with the latter. To the film’s credit, it approaches the idea that James Bond has to adapt to survive head on: Andrew Scott’s character explicitly questions the relevance and validity of the 00 programme in the 21st Century, and spearheads a Joint Intelligence Programme that favours surveillance over espionage. Unfortunately, however, it stops at lip-service, and rather than reach for new horizons the film — as its name suggests — resurrects an organisation that hasn’t been seen onscreen since 1971 to concern itself with instead. Mendes, who after much convincing agreed to return for SPECTRE, is clearly aware of his film’s shortcomings, but having killed M off at the end of Skyfall he is no longer able to refocus attention away from narrative inconsistencies and onto the characters. He overcompensates, contriving to retcon a shared history between Bond and his latest antagonist, but it is neither as convincing or as compelling as the relationship he once had with M. Realistically speaking SPECTRE may only be as incomprehensible as half the other films in the series (it’s certainly as stylish), but after Skyfall it feels all the more inconsequential.

In an age of shared universes and multimedia storytelling, Bond really is beginning to show his age. Like Skyfall, SPECTRE may continue to mirror and directly reference past events (though a fight on a train and a video tape labelled Vespa barely registers as fan-service at a time where Marvel is cross-pollinating between sub-franchises and Fox is commissioning films with the express intention of reinstating some semblance of continuity) but it doesn’t have the same focus or sense of purpose as its predecessor — it confuses matters when it should be clarifying them. Rather than use Skyfall as a jumping off point for new adventures or dynamics, SPECTRE feels more like an epilogue, an after-party, or perhaps just a hangover. The franchise hasn’t been renewed, it’s outstayed its welcome. The suitably stand-out Day of the Dead sequence might have been more than a prelude; it may have been a premonition.


Everything he touches withers and dies (2008)

Attacked during an interrogation by a member of a mysterious organisation who had been posing for years as M’s bodyguard, James Bond (Daniel Craig) chases the traitor through the streets of Sicily, eventually overcoming and killing him. Discovering marked banknotes in Mitchell’s apartment, Bond is lead to Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), an environmentalist showing undue interest in an apparently unremarkable area of the Bolivian desert. Saving Camille (Olga Kurylenko), his ex-lover, from an assassination attempt, Bond goes off the grid leaving M (Judi Dench) with no choice but to react — first dispatching Agent Fields (Gemma Arterton) to bring him in and then cancelling all of his credit cards. Reuniting with Camille, Bond follows a tip to the Atacama desert where he discovers Greene’s plans while Camille seeks revenge for her parents’ murders.

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Christ, I miss the Cold War (2006)

Having recently earned his 007 status, James Bond (Daniel Craig) sets off for Madagascar where he kills an international bomb-maker and — through a text message on the man’s phone — makes a connection to Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a terrorist financer wanted by MI6. Following the trail to Miami airport, Bond foils the attempted destruction of a prototype plane, costing Le Chiffre millions that he had previously invested in shares. Entered by M (Judi Dench) into a high-stakes poker game that the banker had organised in order to recoup his losses, and aided by accountant Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), Bond attempts to win the game so that Le Chiffre has no option but to seek asylum in exchange for information.

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Welcome to my nuclear family (1999)

When the assassination of Sir Robert King (David Calder) raises concerns about the safety of his daughter Elektra (Sophie Marceau), who was previously held hostage for ransom by an ex-KGB agent called Bernard (Robert Carlyle), family acquaintance M (Judi Dench) dispatches her best man to protect the heiress. Arriving in Azerbaijan, James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is able to save her from an anonymous hit squad who attack during a tour of the King pipeline. Seeking answers from Valentin Zukovsky (Robbie Coltrane), Bond encounters nuclear physicist Dr. Christmas Jones (Denise Richards) at a Russian base in Kazakhstan. Unable to stop Bernard from stealing a half-quantity of weapons-grade plutonium, they fake their own deaths in order to investigate the terrorist’s plot. Meanwhile, M is kidnapped as Bernard’s true motivations are eventually revealed. Read more of this post

Good morning, my golden retrievers (1997)

Armed with an encoder salvaged from an arms bazaar destroyed by the British military, head of the Carver Media Group Network Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce) uses the device to manoeuvre the HMS Devonshire into Chinese waters, where the mogul’s ‘stealth ship’ sinks it and steals one of its missiles. With Carver’s own news reports suggesting an unprovoked Chinese attack, Admiral Roebuck (Geoffrey Palmer) deploys the British fleet leaving M (Judi Dench) with only forty-eight hours to investigate the real cause of ships sinking. When James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) arrives in Hamburg to explore Carver Media’s offices, he encounters old-flame-turned-trophy-wife Paris Carver (Teri Hatcher) and Chinese spy Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh).

Eon Productions’ James Bond franchise has seen some truly moronic moments over the years, be it death-by-bowler-hat or double-taking pigeon, but rarely has one film managed to house so many such instances as eighteenth instalment Tomorrow Never Dies. From the opening moments, as the British government and a Soviet arms bazaar take it in turns to shoot blindly at a nuke-toting L-39 Albatros, director Roger Spottiswoode (who, unsurprisingly, has barely been heard from since) continues to defy belief with a steady stream of set pieces that Daniel Craig wouldn’t touch with a quantum of solace. Whatever that might actually be.

Did I mention that in the above sequence James Bond is flying said fighter jet with his knees? Oh yes, he’s too busy being strangled from behind by his kamikaze navigator to use his hands, and must first ejected the assailant straight through the bottom of another plane before he can resume total control and – in the process – avert nuclear disaster, World War III and a particularly dismal end to one of Hollywood’s most iconic franchises, all in the name of Chinese broadcasting rights. And all this before Teri Hatcher can utter a single word. I’ve never been much of a fan of the reboot’s James Bourne, but at this rate he can’t strut out of the sea quickly enough.

But hey, it’s the 90s: the usual rules don’t apply. Providing you’ve drunk enough Sunny Delight to completely dumb your critical faculties, there’s still some fun to be had in this ridiculous little film. Brosnan remains a likeable presence as Bond, continuing to combine the best of his predecessors into a character you wouldn’t mind actually having to save the world with. Meanwhile, Michelle Yeoh is – as always – a pleasure as the series’ best approximation of a Chinese person, all karate-chops and high kicks as she takes on an entire kung-fu class, leaving Bond to pull occasional faces and deliver his inevitable double entendres from the safety of the sidelines.

He really is the worst special agent ever, continuously jeopardising national and world security as he blows his cover, gets caught and proceeds to haemorrhage government secrets. That said, the biggest problem with Tomorrow Never Dies – putting aside, for a moment, all of the medium-sized issues plaguing production – is Hatcher’s Paris Carver. A one-time love interest that we – the audience – have never actually heard of, she is supposed to generate sympathy and represent a stake in the narrative but falls short of being even remotely bearable. Even next to Jonathan Pryce atrociously non-threatening media mogul, she comes off worst of all.

This is the Bond I remember: a knowing wink, capable side-kicks and preposterous stunt-work as the franchise strives to be bigged, better and barmier than ever before. While two out of three might not necessarily be bad, without the cloak of boyhood nostalgia Brosnan’s Bond just doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. A beefed up role for Dench’s excellent M aside, there is very little in Tomorrow Never Dies to compete with the better – or in many cases worse – moments of the 007 franchise.

Once again the pleasure was all yours (1995)

Believing himself responsible for the death of 006 (Sean Bean) during a raid on a Soviet chemical weapons facility, James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) returns to London where he is confronted by a new M (Judi Dench) who wants him to promise not to go off on some pointless vendetta. Tasked only to investigate, he sets off for Monte Carlo to follow Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), a suspected member of Colonel Arkady Ourumov (Gottfried John) the Janus crime syndicate. He is too late to prevent Onatopp from stealing a prototype helicopter, however, and she uses it to massacre the staff of a control centre in order to acquire the access codes for the dual GoldenEye satellites. Teaming up with the sole survivor (Izabella Scorupco), Bond pursues Onatopp only to discover that she’s not working for who he thinks she is, but a far more familiar face. Read more of this post

He disagreed with something that ate him (1989)

Assisting Felix (David Hedison) in the capture of drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) before delivering his friend safely to his expectant bride (Priscilla Barnes), James Bond (Timothy Dalton) is preparing to leave after the wedding when he hears of Sanchez’s daring escape. Finding Della dead and Felix missing, Bond sets off on Sanchez’s trail without the backing of MI6, having resigned when they forbade him from pursuing his vendetta. With only ex-CIA agent Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) and a holidaying, off-duty Q (Desmond Llewelyn) to help him, Bond – haunted by the similarities to his own wife’s murder – seeks revenge on the man responsible for Della’s death – a man who has found a way of dissolving cocaine into petrol in a bid to sell it, undiscovered to Asian drug dealers.

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Correct, you should have brought lilies (1987)

When General Leonid Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies), the new head of the KGB, is believed to have revived an old program known as ‘Smert Spionam’ (Death to Spies), James Bond (Timothy Dalton) is dispatched to Tangier in order to kill the Russian before any more of his colleagues can be targeted, following the assassination of 004 during a routine training exercise. Gaining their information from a defector named Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé) who was himself apparently targeted by a gun-wielding cellist, Bond tracks down the musician, Kara Milovy (Maryam d’Abo), only to learn that she is in fact Koskov girlfriend. When ally Saunders (Thomas Wheatley) unearths information that instigates the defector, and not Pushkin, in the plot to kill Bond, 007 comes into conflict with the true spy-killer, Koskov’s henchman Necros (Andreas Wisniewski).

OH THE RELIEF! After seven months of watching Bond putrefy under the weight (and age) of Roger Moore’s franchise-consuming eyebrows, it is impossible not to feel somewhat rejuvenated with this, the fourteenth James Bond movie and the first to star Mr. Pricklepants himself, Timothy Dalton. From the moment he first spies danger amid the world’s most lethal game of paintball, it is clear that everyone involved, not just the icon himself, has earned a new lease of life. Gone are the killer animals, the pantomime villains and the barely disguised stunt doubles. There’s barely even any rape.

I feel almost embarrassed to have enjoyed A View To A Kill so much, because this, John Glen’s fourth entry in the series, is so clearly the better movie. While that last film might at best have been a guilty pleasure, this is a Bond movie to champion in daylight, in public, one that is played straight but not without humour, intricately plotted but not unintelligibly convoluted and action packed without being acting-light. While Dalton might lack Connery’s charisma and physicality, and Roger Moore’s…er, well, charm, he compensates with a believability and intelligence that marks him out as the first incarnation of 007 to actually convince as a secret agent, completely despite his delightfully devil-may-care attitude.

Dalton’s Bond is likeable, surrounded as he is by friends rather than merely antagonists, escorts and the odd comic sidekick. His relationships in The Living Daylights are unusually interesting; Bond’s growing respect for Saunders is genuinely touching, while his sparring with a newly revamped (and now sassy) Ms. Moneypenny (Caroline Bliss) introduces a warmth and mutual respect that was missing from Lois Maxwell decidedly more measured and, it has to be said, tragic performance. That’s not to say he doesn’t live up to Bond’s reputation as a Casanova, it’s just that there is more to his personality this time around than innuendo and libido alone. Maryam d’Abo is thus excused from swooning duties, enabling her to take a refreshingly active role in the film’s plot.

With a set of central performances, then, that stretch to slightly more than ‘shooty face’, the audience can invest in the action in a way that has rarely been possible before: the stunts actually meaning something. As such, when 004 is killed during the training-exercise-gone-wrong that comprises the film’s pre-titles sequence, the death impacts in a way that the previous fatalities never really managed. Perhaps the film’s best sequence, in which the assassin – dressed as a milkman – systematically kills his way through a supposed safe house, even manages to top a daring aerial battle which sees Bond and Necros sparring high above the Afghan desert whilst suspended precariously from the back of a plane.

A great film first, and a refreshingly well-rounded addition to the James Bond franchise second, The Living Daylights makes the most of its newly acquired thespian to flesh out a character that to this point was little more than a collection of trademark quips and ticks, best known for the cars he drives and the gun he carries. With Pierce Brosnan’s technological excesses now only one film away, it’s nice to finally know that the character has the necessary wit and cunning even if he rarely gets the chance to use them.

A little restless, but I got off eventually (1985)

As two cinema icons prepare to depart the franchise once and for all, there is one question on everyone’s lips: will Lois Maxwell finally roger Moore? With MI6’s Viagra supplies now running dangerously low, I wouldn’t bet on it.

Fresh from the recovery of a microchip from 003’s Siberian grave-side, James Bond (Roger Moore) returns to London where Q (Desmond Llewelyn) identifies the artefact as a product of Zorin Industries. Dispatched to Zorin’s (Christopher Walken) estate in Chantilly, France under the suspicion that the industrialist is fixing horse races, 007 narrowly escapes an attempt on his life by Zorin and his second in command, May Day (Grace Jones). When he discovers that, despite previous allegiences with the KGB, he has gone rogue, Bond teams up with State Geologist Stacey Sutton (Tanya Roberts) in a bid to stop Zorin from flooding Silicone Valley through a series of artificial earthquakes.

Having grown tired of Roger Moore’s increasingly decrepit form over the previous six Bond movies, I was prepared to wish good riddance and be done with his arched eyebrows and ridiculous tan trousers once and for all. What I certainly wasn’t expecting was A View To A Kill, a startlingly strong entry in the 007 franchise that finally strikes the perfect balance between credibility and camp, getting underway with one of the most stylish title sequences yet. As you might have guessed, one’s work as Devil’s Advocate is never over.

I’m not even completely certain what it was that I enjoyed so much about it; after all, it boasts the same ski tricks, car chases and aerial acrobatics as every other Bond movie reviewed so far. While we might be spared the usual shark pools and metal-plated henchmen, this is still by-the-numbers stuff, even if it does endeavour to combine the characteristic components into an original story. With its release met with strong box office but crippling criticism, I seem to be alone in my enjoyment of this fourteenth instalment.

Unlike previous entries which have either gone out of their way to dress the character up as a recognisable human being or given in entirely to the double-taking pigeons and crocodile hopscotch, James Bond is neither required to tone down or save the world by destroying an enemy space station. Zorin and May Day are far more interesting than the usual pantomime perpetrators, Christopher Walken stripped bare of gimmicks and left instead to play the psychopath he has cultivated across his career, aided by the first plot in a while that doesn’t disappear up its own arse.

Of course, the majority of the film is utterly preposterous, with a sequence in which one character is murdered by plastic butterflies, a submarine that is for all intents and purposes not disguised as an ice berg and an ever-changing rosta of look-unlikes taking over from Moore for everything more strenuous than ascending stairs. But the goofs are as intrinsically Bond as the dazzling stunt-work and jaw-dropping sets; I can forgive a plot that posits “geological locks” and a laughable escape by half a car when the characters are this well drawn and the narrative so unusually intelligible.

Not that there aren’t actual flaws, there are. While May Day might be everything that Jaws most definitely was not (watchable), the film’s other female lead is an affront to not only the movie but Hollywood in general. Tanya Roberts cannot act, she can’t even react; she wears the same expression and holds the same tone whether she is trying to seduce the walking dead or contemplating her near-inevitable death in a burning elevator. The accent doesn’t help either, drawing unflattering comparisons to the comedy hick police officer from a few films back.

On the whole, however, A View To A Kill is perfectly enjoyable, exciting even, boasting a finale that is steeped in actual tension as Bond, Zorin and an axe battle it out atop the Golden Gate Bridge. Throw in a satisfying conclusion to May Day’s character arc and bullet wounds actually bleed and you don’t even notice the second-rate euphemisms peppering the script – until you try to pick one for your title, anyway.

Now Put Your Clothes Back On, And I’ll Buy You An Ice Cream (1981)

James Bond (Roger Moore), forced to answer to The British Minister of Defence (Geoffrey Keen) and MI6 Chief of Staff Bill Tanner (James Villiers) when M proves too busy to play, is tasked with retrieving the Automatic Targeting Attack Communicator from a sunken spy boat before it falls into the wrong hands, as it could be used by the Soviets to order attacks by the Royal Navy’s Polaris submarines’ ballistic missiles. With his predecessor, a marine biologist named Havelock, dead, and the KGB already hot on the ATAC’s trail, Bond teams up with his deceased contact’s daughter (Carole Bouquet) and former crime lord Milos Columbo (Chaim Topol) in a bid to stop deceptive smuggler Aristotle Kristatos (Julian Glover) from acquiring the transmission device and delivering it to the head of the KGB.

No sooner had Lewis Gilbert returned to the director’s chair than Bond was back to his old tricks, hijaking hovering gondolas, prancing around space ships and making a general mockery of Ian Fleming’s cherished icon. EON, apparently as embarrassed as the rest of us, put replaced Gilbert with a franchise editor in the hopes of streamlining the character and hopefully making him half kind of respectable again. The result is a jarringly straight laced addition to the James Bond series, but rather than striking the perfect balance between fantasy and realism, John Glen comes alarmingly close to stripping For Your Eyes Only clean of fun.

This balance is important, and Bond is at its best when it can sustain a thematic duality which allows the series to both have its cheese and eat it. The character is just as well known for his double entendres and gratuitous gage try as he is for his wit and brawn, both parts of equal importance when making an engaging – but still enjoyable – 007 movie.  For Your Eyes Only‘s gritty, no-nonsense demeanour is curtailed rather than complimented by its more flamboyant elements, a ridiculous pre-titles sequence re-introducing an unnamed Blofeld only to drop him down a chimney stack and a sequence in which a computer picks one face from thousands from Bond’s description alone are completely at odds with Glen’s harder-edged directorial style.

While it might ultimately bore with a story hinged on a few bonkers codes rather than the end of the world, For Your Eyes Only isn’t without its stand-out moments. As I’ve noted, realism is integral to the Bond ethos and duly compensating for the madness of Moonraker is a collection of scenes and an overriding theme apparently warning against vengeance  helping to offset the plot’s monotony. The startlingly brutal death of Columbo’s mistress, Countess Lisl von Schlaf (Cassandra Harris), is uncharacteristically impacting, while a later assault on an abandoned cliff-top monastery in  St. Cyril’s is deliciously high on tension, as Roger Moore’s stunt double dangled precariously while an ill-fated henchman attempts to cut him from his perch. For me, however, it was an ice rink-based skirmish between Bond and a gang of hockey players that made the biggest impression of all, while Milos Columbo and Melina Havelock’s able assistance marks a welcome change of dynamic from Bond’s more traditionally solo adventures.

While a laughably drawn out pre-titles sequence might give way to a surprisingly well-directed and economic story that brings Bond crashing back to the real world (one in which people mourn their loved ones and where sharks live in the ocean), For Your Eyes Only takes its threadbare story too seriously to ever truly engage with its audience. Despite a scattering of brilliant stunts, astute characterisation and jaw-dropping set pieces, this may be Bond’s most uneven and uninspiring adventure yet.