Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Countdown To 007: Licence To Kill, Goldeneye, Tomorrow Never Dies

James Bond 007 Pierce Brosnan

My Countdown To 007 introduces another new Bond today after Timothy Dalton departs in one of the series' most contentious entries. Licence To Kill is a personal favourite of mine, drawing more inspiration from Fleming than many detractors give it credit for and featuring an outstanding performance from the lead man. When Pierce Brosnan took over six years later, his run in the role was a mixed bag but his opening movie, Goldeneye, was a perfect reintroduction to the character after the series was put on hiatus by legal troubles at parent studio MGM.

These write-ups have been republished from Flixist's ongoing Across The Bond feature, where fellow Bond nerd Matthew Razak (defiantly anti-Dalton) and I go through the series one by one. The feature will look at Brosnan's two remaining movies tomorrow, then Craig's two on Thursday before the Skyfall review on Friday.
  
LICENCE TO KILL

James Bond 007 Timothy Dalton Licence To Kill

Licence To Kill is my fourth favourite Bond movie, propping up such esteemed company as GoldfingerFrom Russia and On Her Majesty's Secret Service. It's also the most divisive entry in the series, going darker than any before or since. For those raised by the flippancy of a Moore or Brosnan, it's undoubtedly a culture shock and was the first Bond to be given a '15' certificate in the UK rather than the customary 'PG'. By today's standards it's ridiculously tame for that rating, even in the uncut version available on more recent DVD / Blu-Ray releases. That said, it's still a Bond movie where the main villain whips his lover, Bond's oldest friend is dismembered by a shark, a sleazy businessman's head explodes in a decompression chamber, and a henchman falls ankles-first into a rock crusher. Most of it is implied rather than explicit, but still a long way from Octopussy.

I understand those who yearn for more family-friendly fare from their Bonds, but as Timothy Dalton points out in the excellent documentary Everything Or Nothing, the character was never created for a young audience. Licence goes further than Ian Fleming did in its violence, but not by much. Leiter's mutilation is a straight lift from the Live And Let Die novel, right down to the sadistic joke left with him as a warning ('He disagreed with something that ate him'). Fleming was happy detailing the nastier side of Bond's job, proven by how tame the torture scene in Daniel Craig's Casino Royale is compared to its prolonged equivalent in the novel, where there's no hint of such mitigating humour as the 'scratching my balls' line.

In any case, Licence's violence is hardly needless: it establishes the stakes of a deeply personal revenge mission for Bond, and gives Sanchez credibility as a Latin American drug lord rather than pandering to the censors by paring him down, which would have made inappropriate light of a serious criminal problem. Is the underworld an appropriate fit for Bond to begin with? Well, Fleming featured the mob several times in his novels, with Bond getting a good beating from them in Diamonds Are Forever, and the Dalton movies are nothing if not timely. It sits perfectly well with me, but it's hardly surprising that more casual fans find it excessive compared to what they're used to from the series.

The most ridiculous argument is that the movie isn't 'Bondian' enough. Disregarding the Fleming influences already mentioned - and the Milton Krest character is named after a similarly brash American entrepreneur from short story The Hildebrand Rarity, who whips his wife in the same manner Sanchez does his mistress Lupe here - the movie features some of the series' most ambitiously staged set-pieces, all hitting the heights of badassery which Dalton made his trademark. The pre-credits sequence sees he and Felix capture Sanchez by 'going fishing' for his plane before it enters Cuban airspace, then skydiving to the chapel where Leiter is due to be married: a ridiculously cool way to enter a wedding, not to mention pre-empting The Dark Knight Rises by almost a quarter of a century. Later, Bond escapes an underwater death by harpooning a departing seaplane, waterskiing behind until catching up, then ditching the pilot and flying to safety. The climactic battle, meanwhile, takes place atop and inside a number of Kenworth tankers, which Bond systematically destroys in a series of elaborately staged stunts, including pulling a wheelie and avoiding a missile by tilting onto one side of wheels.

The best thing about these sequences is how difficult it is to imagine Bond getting out of them, even though the pieces of his escape have been carefully laid out beforehand. Dalton's Bond takes more damage, physical and emotional, than his predecessors, but is good at his job because of his quick, rational thinking. Unlike Quantum Of Solace, which turned Bond into an uncharacteristic psychopath for half the movie, Dalton reacts to his friend's murder with a show of devastating, calculated professionalism. (Dalton's Bond would own Liam Neeson's Mr. Taken every day of the week). He's guided by a desire to see justice done, not just targeting the few men responsible but systematically playing out a plan to take down the whole organisation responsible for his friend's dismemberment. He's burning with righteous anger, but never lets it impair his judgment: one by one, he brings Sanchez' lieutenants down, playing on the main villain's paranoia as his trap closes.

Despite his talent for the job at hand, this Bond is unmistakeably human. Dalton is the best actor to ever play the part and has some lovely scenes leading up to Leiter's fate. Tracy gets a beautifully understated nod early on, foreshadowing Leiter's soon to be curtailed marriage and justifying Bond's anger at what happened to him also happening to his best friend. In the scene where he discovers Leiter's unconscious, dismembered body, Dalton takes a short breath to steel himself against having his worst fears confirmed inside the bodybag lying on the sofa, perhaps the finest moment of acting in the series. Dalton's Bond is often compared to Craig's, but Dalton is more fully rounded and always guided by an inherent morality where Craig can too often seem more preoccupied by his own issues than the job at hand. Don't get me wrong, Craig did stunning work in Casino, but while he brings back many aspects of Fleming's character, he's too often out of control - from M and himself - to be as close a match as Dalton. In the You Only Live Twice novel, where Bond is heavily grieving for his dead wife and handed an opportunity to avenge her, he rallies himself to channel his anger into getting the job done. That's Dalton all over.

He's helped by a strong supporting cast. Davi's Sanchez has a fascinating code of honour deepening him beyond the one-dimension drug lord sterotype, always putting loyalty ahead of money. Benicio Del Toro (yes, that one) is terrifying as his enfant terrible sidekick Dario, who is unusually competent for a henchman and uses the actor's mad-eyed stare to great effect. Pam Bouvier is a standard all-action tough girl, but Carey Lowell plays her with enough sly humour to make her mark, even if her jealous streak is one of the movie's few bum notes - the other is Bond's constant attempts to send his allies home, which gets tiresome after the second argument.

Q gets some welcome time in the field, giving series legend Desmond Llewellyn his biggest role to date and leading to a hilarious sight gag where he discards a gadget with the same insouciance he so often criticised 007 for. Lupe Lamora's tortured moll shows a rebellious streak in the face of terrible consequences which makes her sympathetic rather than simpering, while crooked televangelist Professor Joe Butcher, played with joyful sliminess by Vegas legend Wayne Newton, is up there with the most Flemingian characters never actually created by the original author. Let's also not forget the Isthmus City presidente, who is played by Pedro Armendariz Jr., aka the son of the actor who played Kerim Bey in From Russia. Such touches are what make the movie such a delight for long-time fans.

Licence To Kill was the last movie to pitch Bond to his original adult audience, and despite producing one of the top five movies in an esteemed series, its mistake was perhaps not recognising how the movie character had expanded beyond the reach of his literary equivalent. You'll never hear anything but praise from me for the bravery of that attempt, though. Its supposed financial 'failure' also deserves to be put in context for those using it as a stick to beat the movie with: it grossed $156m on a $32m production budget, which puts it more or less in line with A View To A Kill. Secondly, MGM was undergoing some financial and executive instability at the time, leading to the movie opening into a summer minefield of BatmanBack To The Future Part IIIIndiana Jones And The Last Crusade and Lethal Weapon 2, all far bigger draws at the time than Bond. Problems behind the scenes with the advertising led to then-MGM president discarding a whole planned promotional campaign. There was even a last minute title change from Licence Revoked due to the term being associated by American audiences with the loss of a driver's licence.
  
Even with its more restrictive age rating, Licence To Kill had the misfortune of opening at a time when almost all the elements were against it. That it still went on to make such a notable profit deserves to be seen as an achievement in itself. Nevertheless, such circumstances compounded to delay the next Bond movie by a full six years, during which time Timothy Dalton departed for pastures new and the collapse of Communism and the Berlin Wall led speculators to suggest Bond might never return. If Dalton hadn't been there in the first place to take the character back to basics, perhaps they might have right. Fortunately, producer Cubby Broccoli disagreed, as did a man who had been waiting eight years for his turn with the PPK: Pierce Brosnan.

GOLDENEYE

Famke Janssen Xenia Onatopp Goldeneye

First, some alternate history: had Bond not been sent into a six-year hiatus following Licence To Kill and Timothy Dalton stayed on in the part, his third movie would reportedly have sent him to Japan and Hong Kong in order to track down the people responsible for blowing up a top secret research lab in Scotland. His Bond girl would have been American industrial thief Connie Webb, and his enemies would include a Yakuza assassin, a shady pair of identical twin Japanese business owners and, erm, a robotic female assassin. (Or gynoid, but I think I'm the last person on the planet to use that term). Frankly, from the fascinating rundown offered by Bond site MI6-HQ, the script sounds like it would have edged the series back towards the more fantastic tone of the Moore era, so I'm pleased in a way that Dalton's era ended with two fantastic movies and his legacy intact, as much as I'd like to have seen more of him in the role.

Back in the real world, Pierce Brosnan had missed out on playing Bond in The Living Daylights by a matter of hours when his Remington Steele contract was unexpectedly renewed - before the series was cancelled again shortly afterwards, just to give the poor chap a second kick in the teeth. With the political wrangling over MGM stabilising in the mid-90s, Brosnan was given a second chance as Cubby Broccoli sought to revive the series. Though I don't think Brosnan would have been the right man to immediately follow Roger Moore, as the series needed Dalton to earn it some serious dramatic credit back, there couldn't have been a better choice to remind audiences of what they had been missing since Bond had vanished from their screens in 1989.

One of my biggest criticisms of him, that he plays to the Bond stereotype rather than creating a character of his own, is a strength in GoldenEye, where a radical reinterpretation would almost certainly have led to audience confusion and the series being shut down for good. Despite being a bit too pretty-boy for my taste, Brosnan has buckets of charm and an easy manner at tossing out one-liners. In that respect, if Dalton was the heir apparent to (early) Connery's more serious Bond, Brosnan takes after Roger Moore, albeit with some much needed restraint. For now.

The movie itself, named after Ian Fleming's estate in Jamaica (itself named after a WW2 operation Fleming masterminded whilst working at Naval Intelligence), manages its more outlandish elements with a straight enough face to allow its plot to still be taken seriously. Xenia Onatopp, for one, is an absolute joy and the series' most striking villainess. I mentioned last week that televangelist Joe Butcher was a great example of a Fleming-type character never actually created by the author, and Onatopp is unquestionably top of that list, right down to the weird sexuality which defined so many of Fleming's villains, for better or worse. Famke Janssen is bombastically hot in the role, and there are few straight men who wouldn't be delighted to accept death by Janssen thigh-crushing. She play the character's uber-vamp sex appeal to the hilt and steals every scene she's in, right up until an absolutely perfect death and kiss-off line from Brosnan. ('She always did enjoy a good squeeze.') The plot, about a disgruntled former MI6 agent seeking revenge against Britain by detonating an EMP over London - after stealing all the moneys from its banks - is pretty silly, but has enough post-Cold War resonance to keep it on the straight and narrow, despite Alan Cumming's gratingly awful satellite programmer, Boris. Sean Bean, himself often mooted for the Bond part, is a great choice for the role of Alec, Bond's friend-turned-foe.

The Cold War elements are a sly riposte to everyone who said Bond couldn't survive in the modern era, and demonstrates how intelligently the series has evolved with changing times. Alec Trevelyan, a descendant of the Lienz Cossacks, embodies the type of villain born from the collapse of Communism, tying together disparate elements from the Soviet era still bearing a grudge over the fall of their previous regime. Gottfried John doesn't get much to do as General Ourumov, but represent an aged, old-school Russian bitterly yearning for wars long since lost. Daniel Kleinman's gorgeous title sequence make this post-Cold War theme explicit, and Tina Turner's theme song harkens back to Shirley Bassey without seeming old fashioned. Eric Serra's score is often the topic of debate, although I like its mix of (then) modern synth tracks with more sparse, Russian-sounding cues. (I'm no music analyst so those terms are probably all wrong, but hopefully my point is clear when you actually listen to the soundtrack). His choice of 'The Experience Of Love' for the closing song is awful, but his gunbarrel sequence arrangement is fantastic, almost as thrilling as the militaristic, bass-heavy version which was such a perfect fit for Timothy Dalton's swansong.

GoldenEye is by no means perfect, particularly Isabella Scorupco's nondescript (and drearily dressed) Bond girl Natalya and Bond being given a gadget-laden car whose tricks he never uses (bad enough that it's a BMW), but once again, it was the right Bond for the right time. Brosnan's performance was instrumental in taking the character right back into the upper echelons of pop culture, the villains are terrific, Judi Dench is an inspired hoot as M, there are some great one-liners ('You don't need the gun, Commander' 'That depends on your definition of safe sex') and the post-Cold War themes answer every question about Bond's viability for a new age with aplomb. Though the Brosnan era would quickly sink into bland mediocrity and then outright catastrophe, this is a triumphant, vibrant debut for an actor who perhaps always deserved better material than he was given. Plus, it brought in a whole new generation of Bond fans courtesy of the greatest video game ever made, even if it likely resulted in just as many educations failed due to Slappers Only in the Complex.

TOMORROW NEVER DIES

Tomorrow Never Dies Elliot Carver Jonathan Pryce
 
I think Elliot Carver is a fantastic Bond villain. I'm throwing that out there because it's probably the most contentious, and therefore interesting, thing I have to say about Tomorrow Never Dies, which for the most part is a middle of the road actioner as far as any movie goes, let alone a series with such a strong identity as the Bonds. It's not bad, but generally feels inert and lacking purpose. There's little Bondian about it, other than a couple of diverting gadgets and the obligatory scene where our hero strolls around in black tie before getting in a fight. The best Bonds exaggerate reality to make the villains that little bit more grotesque, the girls that little bit more beautiful, the situations that little bit more unusual. Where the Moore era too often took that notion to ludicrous extremes, Tomorrow is the opposite, making even its big action set-pieces fall flat.

Jonathan Pryce's evil media mogul, though, is a clever spin on the megalomaniac figure who has populated so many Bond movies to date. As he himself notes, the modern world is no longer controlled by governments and armies, but communication. On its own terms, his devising a scheme to start a global conflict just to get broadcasting rights in China sounds excessive, but makes a kind of sense when seen through Carver's eyes: one last territory to conquer before his influence spans the entire world. If GoldenEye looked at how the world had changed for its heroes, Tomorrow tips its hat towards how rapidly evolving technology requires a new breed of supervillain. With all the revelations about the Murdoch empire over the past year, the movie ironically feels more timely now that it did when first released. You can just imagine Carver sitting before an inquiry and saying it is the humblest moment of his life, before returning to his office and ordering his international news bureaus to start shovelling dirt on everyone who dared cross him. Critics often moan that Carver isn't a larger-than-life figure in the Goldfinger vein, but that's the point: he doesn't need to be physically domineering because his network does the intimidation work for him. He's a slimy little control freak, and while the big villains are fun, it's nice to have expectations mixed up a little.

The movie's other strong point is Michelle Yeoh, who may be wasted in a role giving her only one martial arts scene, but still pulls off the tough girl role with more charm than any other actress in the series to date. Despite her physical prowess, Wai Lin mostly ends up just following Bond around, but Yeoh is a constantly engaging screen presence despite her romantic chemistry with Brosnan being almost nil. That might be because Brosnan's Bond feels like he could be replaced with just about anyone, compounded in the climactic scene aboard the stealth boat, where he's running around firing dual machine guns like a Terminator. Brosnan does his best and has a few enjoyable moments (he and Desmond Llewellyn are always a great pair, and Bond's boyish delight at his car's self-inflating tyres is wonderful), but is asked to play a void of a character. He throws out a few half-hearted quips, but this is a Bond reflecting the sanitised sensibilities of his time. His 'filthy habit' line about a cigarette-smoking henchman would make Fleming turn in his grave. There's no edge, no vices, nothing to stir excitement other than an exceedingly fancy dress sense.

An attempt to make his assignment more personal by bringing in an old flame in the shape of Teri Hatcher's Paris Carver doesn't ring true for a moment, since Hatcher is so stiff in the role and, like Bond, lacking any discernable personality. Their big emotional reunion in Bond's hotel room, though accompanied by a lovely visual homage to Dr. No as he waits for her in much the same way Connery awaited Professor Dent, is meaningless because no context provided for why they seemingly share such a strong connection (most of the 'facts' we're given about their history come from the apparent lies Paris tells her husband), but neither are remotely interesting as people. The scene where Bond later discovers her body only manages to be interesting thanks to Vincent Schiavelli's eccentric Dr. Kaufman, one of the movie's few actual personalities. Naturally, he cops it after only a few minutes' screentime, leaving us back with Stamper (whose actor, Gotz Otto, won the part after describing himself as 'big, blond and German', thus entirely summing the depth of his character) as lead henchman for the remainder of the movie.

Of the gadgets, the remote controlled car is a wonderful idea, but its abilities are taken to a ridiculous extreme in the parking lot chase scene, with every enemy traps designed explicitly to show off one of the car's tricks, including a buzz saw at just the right height to cut through a taut cable. Why Bond would then consider it acceptable to drive said car over the side of the rooftop and down towards a street packed with civilians (certainly injuring everyone inside the office it crashes into) beggars belief. The much-publicised decision to swap Bond's PPK for a more modern P99 is further proof of the movie's misguided sensibilities: the PPK may be weak and old fashioned, but its shape is intimately associated with the Bond character. The P99, on the other hand, looks like any other handgun, costing the movie yet more character in favour of tedious realism. I suspect commercial interests were probably also at play, although have no idea whether Walther actually sponsored the movie.

Tomorrow Never Dies isn't terrible by any stretch, but makes no attempt to break out of first gear and confuses modernising for whitewashing every trace of identity from Bond's character. There's some good stuff in there - the baddie is pretty interesting (to my mind at least), Michelle Yeoh does a terrific job with a nothing character, the remote-controlled BMW is cool (again, despite being a BMW), Judi Dench has a wonderful snapping turtle quality as M and nails the movie's best line (in reference to an accusation of her not having the balls for her job: 'Perhaps, but it means I don't have to think with them all the time.') and the pre-credits sequence has an amusing use of a fighter jet ejector seat - but while it's the kind of movie I'll happily leave on in the background whenever it's on TV, it's pretty rote as an actioner and especially anodyne as a Bond.

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1 comment:

Silent Hunter said...

Another superb job, Mr Markham.

LTK was initially planned to be filmed in China, but the plans fell through. Probably a good thing what with Tienanmen Square.

GoldenEye was the first Bond movie I ever saw in full back in 1999 and it's thoroughly enjoyable. It's near the start of Sean Bean's long run of gruesome movie deaths, for one thing.

Re TND Carver is based more on Robert Maxwell (the line about a yacht accident) and William Randolph Hearst, but has been taken as a Murdoch satire. The bit about the President and a cheerleader became a great deal funnier the following year, what with Monica Lewinsky.