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Never Say Never Again (1983)
Never Remake Thunderball Again
I freely admit that "Never Say Never Again" may be the toughest movie for me to review unbiased. It is a James Bond movie, but it exists outside canon. Every other has distinct markings that tell a viewer's mind "You are watching a Bond movie!" Once somebody has seen them, it is no longer possible to view this picture without your brain telling you that you are watching counterfeit.
One of the most common complaints is the missing John Barry musical score. That is certainly legitimate. At the time only four other composers had scored a Bond movie, and only Bill Conti wrote a score that sounds remotely Bond-like. I was not alive in 1983, and my first Bond movie was "GoldenEye," so the absent music should not affect me as much as it did the audience of the time. It would not, except Michael Legrand's score made my ears file a lawsuit against me. This music is *dreadful.*
I wrote that Bill Conti's "For Your Eyes Only" score clashed with the action, although I also complimented it. Legrand's music is bad enough to ruin the action. He also wrote the eponymously titled theme song that obnoxiously plays over the opening action. My suggestion is to mute the television and play "The Final Countdown" or some other bombastic song during this section.
Returning Bond actor Sean Connery brings the movie immediate credibility. It is the other shared characters where "Never Say Never Again" trips up. Moneypenny (Pamela Salem) is all right. Q (Alec McCowan) is, well, different. I still like him. M (Edward Fox) is a disaster. This M is an unpleasant clever dick always ready with a new complaint. Fox actually does a near-flawless job playing the horribly- scripted, misbegotten excuse for Bond's boss.
Being partially a remake of "Thunderball," "Never Say Never Again" shares the same plot. SPECTRE, the criminal group above all others, steals two atomic weapons, and then contacts NATO with the conditions they must meet to prevent the ultimate nightmare from ending badly. This movie goes about the theft more believably than the original. Nobody has ever come remotely close to accomplishing a fraction of what is needed to steal nuclear weapons, so the story will be almost as implausible as "Moonraker" regardless of how it is told.
"Never Say Never Again" most improves upon its predecessor with the supporting characters. The lead villain is Max Largo, played by Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer. Unlike Thunderball's Emilio, Max is clearly in charge. When this Largo speaks with the villainess, there is mutual respect and he gives the orders. His girlfriend is Domino, this time Petachi (Kim Basinger). While Domino Derval was nearly Emilio's prisoner, Petachi loves Max and is happy with her life. When Bond first sees her, she is dancing by herself on the deck of his yacht.
Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera) takes the place of Fiona Volpe. Volpe was a good yet unspectacular villain. Blush takes the character and ratchets up the setting several levels. In a nice role reversal Blush is the one who seduces Bond, simply because she wants to. Her over-the-top clothing adds more fun to the movie and nicely harmonizes with Carrera's alluring, feral performance. As for beauty, Carrera trails only Jane Seymour as the most gorgeous actress to play a Bond girl.
The health clinic section is an improvement over "Thunderball" since Bond is not sexually harassing the staff, and it has the movie's best action. Actor Pat Roach, famous for airplane propeller fight in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," shows up as a SPECTRE hit-man after Bond. Connery and Roach give us a long, fun, and creative altercation, but its ends awkwardly. Roach's baddie gets a cupful of 007 urine to the face that affects him so badly that he backs into a shelf of glass jars with enough force to kill himself. Bond is so manly even his urine will burn your skin.
Like before, Bond needs information from Domino and uses Largo's murder of her brother to change her loyalty. While Fatima keeps the movie from growing boring, it moves so slowly that Bond does not meet Domino until the halfway mark. The turning point happens during Largo's ballroom party, which includes Legrand's one good contribution, ironically presented as in-movie music and not part of the soundtrack. Most of the best scenes come here, and Bond's brilliant and hilarious handling of the doorman is the highlight of movie. However, it follows up with a mostly lifeless chase and then snails towards a finale that, while tepid, avoids the endless underwater battle and tacky speed up effects from "Thunderball."
SPECTRE founder Ernst Stavro Blofeld returns, played by cinema legend Max von Sydow. This Blofeld is as good as any, but is woefully underused. After Largo's defeat, the movie forgets about him entirely. It would have been great if the movie left enough time for a second climax, but I would have been happy with any type of resolution, even a passing statement of some kind. The complete lack of resolution with Blofeld made the ending feel a little empty for me.
Looking past the missing music, gunbarrel opening, title arrangement, familiar sets, and familiar actors is not easy for anybody who has seen a canon Bond movie. "Never Say Never Again" is objectively superior to "Thunderball," but comes up short on entertainment. Compared to "Octopussy," the official Bond movie released the same year, "Never Say Never Again" is bland, even though it is technically better. Armed with a more focused screenplay, a more balanced story, more good action, and a soundtrack that enhances the movie, this could have been great. Instead, it falls short and Thunderball now rests in pieces.
Barely Good Enough
I have gathered from my reading about "Thunderball" that both past audiences and today's viewers consider it a drop in quality compared to its three predecessors. Try as I may, I cannot find reason to disagree. Every positive I find is matched by a drawback. "Thunderball" has no exceptional aspects to hide those flaws, and that makes them really hurt. I have pondered and analyzed this Bond movie more than any other over the years. All of those thoughts cannot be placed in one review, so I am going to stick to some of my main thoughts on the fourth James Bond movie.
James Bond (Sean Connery) spends the first section of the movie at an inpatient health rehab clinic. Officers of SPECTRE, returning as the enemy after a one-movie absence, are using the same clinic to set up their next project. First, Bond discovers a murder. Then he is recalled to work when the English Prime Minister and the American President receive an extortion demand from the now nuclear armed SPECTRE. James recognizes the murdered man from a photograph in his briefing file, and embarks for Nassau to find the victim's sister (Claudine Auger). Bond soon discovers that in order to have access to her, he must deal with Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), who is also SPECTRE'S second-in-command.
1) Sean Connery gives his final good performance as Bond. He carries an innate toughness and confidence along with charm and likability. Even down to his smallest mannerisms and inflections, Sean took complete ownership of the part. Bias is not the only reason he is still considered the best in the role; he earned that respect.
2) The early Bond movies boasted a lineup of great villains. First came the calm genius Dr. No; second, the demanding authoritarian Rosa Klebb; and third, the ever creative Goldfinger. Largo is an acceptable villain, but falls far short of the prior three. He has his moments, such when he murders an employee for failing a mission that never had any chance of success. Overall, Largo never makes the audience feel the great authority he wields; he just comes off as smug. Part of the problem comes from the next item.
3) Luciana Paluzzi plays beautiful villainess Fiona Volpe. Paluzzi's predator-in-disguise acting makes Volpe far more fearsome than Largo. Regrettably, the script tarnishes the strength of the character by making her look good through the stupidity of the male villains. Count Lippe (Guy Doleman), the lead bad guy during the clinic portion of the movie, is incompetent. Volpe is a good enough character to be taken seriously without displaying her next to Lippe's carelessness.
That flaw repeats itself when Volpe turns up in Nassau. She openly rebukes Largo at one point, and then speaks to him as if she is in charge. If Largo holds the second highest rank in SPECTRE, who is she to give him orders? Largo is supposed to be more powerful than any of Bond's opponents so far.
4) Felix Leiter has made nine appearances so far. In "Thunderball," Leiter is his best. "Goldfinger" portrays Felix Leiter like a surrogate uncle to Bond. Rik Van Nutter takes over the role here. Of the six others to play Leiter, only the underused David Hedison has matched Van Nutter's sincerity. He shares an unforced chemistry with Connery. Bond and Leiter are best friends and make the perfect team, so much so that Bond reminds Leiter that he "knows him better than that." It is too bad that Van Nutter only had three English speaking roles, because many movies, Bond or otherwise, would have benefited from his presence. My favorite moments in "Thunderball" are ones with Felix on screen.
5) Approximately half of the action occurs underwater, where the photography is remarkably clear and colorful. The climax is set down there, but at over eight minutes far outstays its welcome. It soon becomes repetitive shots of two men floating in circles trying to best each other along with a few wide shots where rising air bubbles are potentially distracting. Contrast that with the Wavekrest scene in "Licence to Kill," which worked perfectly because of its variety and brevity.
6) The rest of the action is fine. The pre-title scene contains one of the series' most rousing and creative brawls followed by one its most delightful surprises. It is the highlight of the movie. Bond has a lot of gadgets here, and their use is dispersed well throughout. That is always a plus.
7) Terence Young, an excellent director, tries to manufacture tension during times the script fails to provide it. One embarrassing scene stars a traction machine with settings ranging from "Therapeutic" to "Homicide." As with too many other scenes, the music is more menacing than what happens on the screen. These scenes are awkward.
8) Finally, the movie runs too long because it moves too slowly. No major cuts would be needed to fix that. "Thunderball" spends far too much time displaying the mundane. Removing ten seconds here and 15 seconds there in a dozen or so scenes would have made a giant difference without removing a single scene.
Overall, "Thunderball" is not a bad movie. I think the term "Thunderbore" is unfair. Compared to "From Russia with Love" or "Skyfall" it is boring, but I never felt like I was going to lose interest. "Thunderball" receives a passing grade on the strength of Connery and Van Nutter, and on Young's stalwart direction. It could have been better. It also could have been much worse. I say a five out of ten is a fair number.
Die Hard (1988)
Remarkably Good Movie in Nearly Every Way
"Die Hard" is an ingenious marathon of claustrophobic and acrophobic action. It features superior action, a script sparkling with great lines, stalwart characters in the three biggest roles, high-quality sets, and a neat Michael Kamen musical score. The greatly successful careers of Alan Rickman and Bruce Willis can be traced to "Die Hard." Sadly, one recurring mistake prevents it from reaching its awesome potential and ruined the movie for me my first several viewings.
Nearly the whole movie occurs at Nakatomi Plaza, a beautiful property with a skyscraper at its center. On the 30th floor, an innocent Christmas Eve party morphs into chaos upon the arrival of Hans Gruber (Rickman) and his twelve-man squad. While posing as a terrorist taking hostages, the wily Hans really seeks the treasure in Nakatomi's vault. Mr. Gruber has planned one of the truly perfect crimes, except for the one element nobody could have predicted.
Holly McClane (Bonnie Bedelia), who is Nakatomi Corporation's Vice President, has invited her husband John (Willis) to the Christmas party. John is not merely a police officer, but one with exceptional skill and toughness. The terrorists cannot take control of the people quickly enough to prevent McClane's retreat to the unfinished upper floors. With John now roaming in the building, Hans's criminal master plan goes from flawless to critically endangered.
I cannot say much about the action that has not already been said. It is great, no question. Some Arnold Schwarzenegger movies of the time contain more brutal violence. I prefer Indiana Jones or Timothy Dalton's Bond movies for quality, but any superiority those movies have is small. Fans of automatic weapons in movies have plenty to feast on here. Few people know the name Charlie Picerni, who was a stunt coordinator for several famous television shows before working "Die Hard." His effort here deserves special mention, as does cinematographer Jan de Bont's. It is no surprise that their careers have been successful since.
LAPD Detective Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) joins McClane and Gruber in the trio of main characters. All three rise above the level of average hero, supporter, and villain. "Die Hard" wisely takes pauses from the tense moments to let those three characters rule the movie for awhile. One of the movie's best scenes comes when McClane tearfully admits to Powell that he regrets never saying the words "I'm sorry" to his wife. Michael Kamen effectively tones down his memorable and often grandiose musical score to fit these scenes.
With all of the high praise given so far, and "Die Hard" deserves every word of it, there is one huge problem. It is called Idiot Plot Syndrome. Roger Ebert is known for using it, although he did not coin the term. When a plot has easily solved problems but they take way too long to solve because most of the characters are idiots, the movie is infected with Idiot Plot Syndrome.
"Die Hard" puts on an idiots' convention. Let's consider Idiot Number One. McClane plans to lure the police to Nakatomi Plaza any way he can. With the phone lines cut, he uses a radio to report the hostage takeover. The brilliant 911 dispatcher completely ignores the report of terrorists with military weapons because she prefers to argue that the channel is reserved for emergency calls. Even machine gun fire loud enough to hurt her ears is not enough to punch reality through her lead skull into her stubborn brain.
The police eventually arrive, and with them Deputy Chief Dwayne T. Robinson (Paul Gleason). Robinson readily accepts every possible explanation except the real one. His stupidity is not too bad at first, and actually plays a critical role in advancing the plot. It becomes annoying when he sees what is really happening and fails to wise up. He even hates McClane after he saves the lives of multiple officers because he does not like how he did it. Even worse are Johnson and Johnson from the FBI. If FBI agents honestly think losing 25% of a group of hostages is acceptable, I want to change countries. Then there is the coke snorting brownnoser who works with Holly, turkey television reporter (William Atherton), and the hack doctor who describes "Helsinki Syndrome" on the evening news. I could go on.
When I saw "Die Hard" the first time, I had no idea if the movie was supposed to be a rousing action thriller, and action comedy, or a parody. The action is too hard hitting to be absurd, but the supporting characters are too goofy to be taken seriously. As a result, I did not enjoy the movie as an action or a comedy. I was confused and annoyed. I ended up frustrated with a movie I should have loved. Without Idiot Plot Syndrome and the misplaced humor it brings, "Die Hard" would certainly rate an eight of ten, and probably a nine. As it stands, six out of ten is all I can fairly award it.
24 Karat Bond Adventure
By consensus, "Goldfinger" remains the best of the Bond movies. The third James Bond movie took 1964 by storm and influenced action movies for years afterward. It was the fifth Bond that I saw, and it took me awhile to sweep aside the aura and focus on the movie. I liked what I saw then, and I still like it now. I prefer "From Russia with Love" and some of the later Bonds, but "Goldfinger" should not be discounted as an excellent movie.
The movie opens with a fun scene where Bond sabotages a heroin dealer, but he spends the bulk of the movie locking steel with a completely different villain. Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe, voice of Michael Collins) is an obese international businessman whose obsession with gold is so extreme he will "welcome any enterprise which will increase his stock." This naturally concerns the Bank of England, since gold was still used in 1964 to set the value of the pound and large scale smuggling could reduce their accuracy.
This is where James Bond (Sean Connery) comes in to gather evidence for the bank to use in court proceedings. That soon becomes unimportant as Bond quickly discovers that everybody has been thinking way too small regarding how far Goldfinger's greed will drive him. On Goldfinger's payroll are a pilot named Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) and a Korean named Oddjob (Olympic weightlifting silver medalist Harold Sakata).
Oddjob is the best supporting villain in the series. As a man of no words, he allows his gaze and smile to speak for him. Oddjob possesses massive physical strength and prefers to kill his targets with a chakram doubling as the brim of his ever present bowler hat. Although he is intimidating from his first appearance, it is not until the movie's splendid climax that we see the awesome extent of his physical capabilities. Only Jaws rivals him in the debate for most acclaimed henchman in the entire series, and I think Jaws is overrated.
Unfortunately, Oddjob also spawned a bad habit. Starting with "Diamonds Are Forever" eight years later, the producers often looked to emulate the style of "Goldfinger" in future movies. By the middle of the 1970s, they had already filmed the most memorable of the James Bond novels and had to start writing their own stories. Jaws was the first of four nearly invincible supporting villains, but, unlike Oddjob, they often looked farcical. It is a feat of toughness to absorb a direct hit from a gold bar. Being able to lift up and throw a motorcycle is corny and stupid.
"Goldfinger" is lighter than the first two 007 adventures. Composer John Barry employs relaxing violin measures during a scenic drive through the mountains of Switzerland, contrasting the horn crescendos in the score of "Dr. No" and the foreboding notes heard during "From Russia with Love." The indoor scenes are more brightly lit than before, and the humor is increased. The running tension between Bond and MI6 equipment manager Q (Desmond Llewelyn) started in "Goldfinger" and grew into one of the Bond series most endearing elements.
Twenty-three James Bond movies have made the series' hall-of-villainy crowded at the top. Goldfinger belongs in that crowd. The fact that Oddjob works for him boosts his credibility by itself. Mr. Goldfinger sees no need to be loud, unpleasant, or brutal to make his point. Pussy Galore, who along with Octopussy has spawned quite a few questionable jokes through the years, is more useful than Honey Rider and Tatiana Romanova were, but also a slightly inferior character. Shirley Eaton provides some additional beauty as Jill Masterson, the first and greatest golden girl.
Connery is splendid as usual in the action scenes, especially the showdown with Oddjob, and some good special effects and a witty script help along the way. Finally, the fun gadgets elevate the overall quality, from Bond's special scuba suit to the great Aston Martin DB5 with modifications.
The movie's first 50 minutes stand up to any film in the series. Every chapter, from the "shocking" opening moments, the mental jousting of the golf game featuring a delightful bit performance by Gerry Dugan, to the factory spying and the car chase, are as good as any Bond film can hope for. The middle act is short on excitement and runs slightly too long; on the other hand, it is hard to find anything to remove that would make the movie better.
Many of the Bond movies' recurring trademarks started in "Goldfinger." I have never thought is should be declared best Bond movie for that reason. It also would be wrong to give later movies too much credit because they improved on what "Goldfinger" started. In a way, its legacy lives in each of the 20 Bond movies that have followed. In the end, the reason I do not place in my top five Bond movies comes mostly from my personal preferences and not any weaknesses of the movie. As I said, I liked it the first time, and I like it just as much now. High quality movies often do that.
It Uses and Unconventional Approach, but it Is Fun and Impressive
A Bond movie's pre-title section often indicates how the rest of the movie will be. There are a few exceptions; "Moonraker" is not one of them. James Bond (Roger Moore) is on the "last leg" of a mission, introduced with the first of many genuinely funny puns in this movie. Naturally, the unnamed villains plan to eradicate Bond, leading to an action scene in free fall with one parachute too few. It is nonsensical, but genuinely entertaining, thanks partly to composer John Barry's music. This scene is not fitting in a James Bond movie, yet, like the rest of the movie, it is great fun to watch.
Goofiness has decimated more than a fair share of Bond movies. "Moonraker" does not fall victim itself because the filmmakers did not try to mix silly with serious, and never made a mockery of their characters. That is the reason I was pleasantly surprised on my first viewing. I responded negatively after my second because I started to analyze it. I should not have been so serious. The enjoyment I felt the first time gave me all the information I need. Just because I did not understand why I enjoyed it the first time does not mean I have to hate it.
"Moonraker" is one of the two least popular Bond movies among the series' hardcore fans. It also made the most money until "GoldenEye," and drew the most viewers and repeat viewers of all the Bond movies between Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan. No matter how different the movie's tone is from the "James Bond standard," it has enough positives to stand on its own. That is why both critics and audiences in 1979 voiced approval with their money and keyboards.
Its production set at least three world records that are still unbroken: most break-away glass in one fight, largest sound stage ever used in France, and the greatest number of actors in simulated weighlessness. Ken Adam became a legendary production designer with his work on the James Bond movies. "Moonarker" is his final, and he saved his best for last. The fact that the two-time Oscar winner was not even nominated for his work in "Moonraker" is a sad example of how political the Academy is. Like the movie or not, the Venice, Amazon, and space station sets are more than likely to impress even the most skeptical Bond fan.
After reporting to his boss's secretary (Lois Maxwell) that he fell out of a plane without a parachute, Bond is tasked with investigating the loss of an American space shuttle that disappeared en route to England. He first visits Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), the shuttle's owner. When informed that the shuttle itself was not destroyed, Drax offers full co- operation, then orders Bond's elimination as soon as the latter leaves the room. I have either discussed or viewed this movie with a number of people. Even though this twist occurs less than 20 minutes in, the movie conceals Drax's villainy so well that none of these people suspected him.
Drax's plot takes implausibility to its highest level. I will give no details except to say that it makes Karl Stromberg's grand scheme from the previous movie look sophisticated and sane. As advertised, the story boldly takes 007 where no British spy has gone before. Drax's space station remains the coolest set in the series. The simulated weightlessness remains impressive to watch more than 30 years later.
In tune with the movie's comical nature, Drax is often unwilling to harm Bond unless he can amuse himself with the creativity of it. Drax has more off-beat lines than the next two or thee Bond villains combined. I am not sure there is anybody who would seriously say, "you appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season" or greet a stranger with, "you have arrived at a propitious moment," but Drax has at least a dozen such lines. Lonsdale adds surreal humor to his role by speaking them with an almost bored somberness. A majority of actors work a whole career without having to say anything so weird. If Lonsdale realized that back in 1979, he certainly was not going to let anybody know.
In the meantime, Jaws (Richard Kiel) from the previous movie is back. Jaws' outrageous physical power and invulnerability made him a liability in the previous movie. "Moonraker" stretches it and uses it as a reliable comic device. In one scene, he stops a gondola wheel with his bare hands. The wheel starts to move again, but one look from Jaws makes it think twice about being rebellious.
The gadgets feature not one, but two special made boats. The first can convert to a hovercraft. Of course, Bond takes advantage of it, just in time for Victor Tourjansky to make another appearance as The Man with the Bottle in arguably the best running joke in the series. Q (Desmond Llewelyn) tops off his contribution by ending the movie with one of the cleverest double entendres in history.
Does all of this lavish praise equal a recommendation? Perhaps it does. My girlfriend condemned "For Your Eyes Only," Roger Moore's most serious Bond movie, as too cheesy. "Moonraker" joined "Tomorrow Never Dies" and "From Russia with Love" as her favorites. That told a lot to me about how the casual Bond fan views "Moonraker." It does not deserve elite status because it does not deliver the excitement a Bond movie should, neither is it an example of great movie-making even with numerous strengths. That noted, it sells out completely to its premise and is not reluctant to take the extra effort to entertain. I disagree with the filmmakers' comedic approach, but they did aim to entertain. In that area, they succeeded. For that, I give "Moonraker" seven out of ten stars.
A Disappointing Follow-Up to Roger Moore's Strongest Bond Film
"Octopussy" is full of mistakes. "For Your Eyes Only," its predecessor in the series, returned to the cold war tensions that dominated two of the first five Bond movies and a number of the James Bond stories. "Octopussy" was filmed in the final days of Leonid Brezhnev, the man who reversed previous reforms in the USSR, and was released with the more brutal Yuri Andropov in power. The Cold War was very much on people's minds.
The opening shows a lot of promise that the good momentum from "For Your Eyes Only" will continue. It does not take long for the wheels to start falling off. What starts as a straightforward story about a Soviet conspiracy degenerates in to silliness and self-parody. Several characters are military authorities, but what "Octopussy's" production needed was Graham Chapman to show up in his colonel's outfit and restore sanity.
After the lame opening to the last movie, "Octopussy" provides one of the series' most exciting pre-title scenes; it is so inventive that I will say no more. Rita Coolidge's title song is among the top five to date. Agent 007 (Roger Moore) is called to duty after 009 turns up dead in possession of a phony Fabergé Egg. Since the real egg is about to be auctioned in London, British intelligence suspect the Soviets are using the jewels to fund illicit operations.
The auction scene is brilliant. Bond himself bids for the egg to confirm his suspicion of Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan), one of two lead villains. Later, in India, James uncovers that Khan is working for a sociopath Soviet general called Orlov (Stephen Berkoff) and that a rich benefactor called Octopussy (Maud Adams) may be involved in more sinister dealings than she realizes.
Roger Moore delayed his retirement from James Bond due to Sean Connery's presence in a competing Bond film. He appears to be giving a good effort, but his success is restricted by the frequently humiliating script. Moore is flawless when Bond exposes Khan cheating with loaded dice. The shot where he says, "double sixes, imagine that," without even looking is pure genius. Moore could still make the most of a funny line.
Louis Jourdan is not bad as the unflappable Khan. Berkoff, on the other hand, is an absolute disaster. He speaks his lines in furious jerks and streaks of overemphasis. Berkoff moves his body as if somebody is running electricity through Orlov's rear and he is trying to hide it. His introductory scene breaks eggs all over the movie's face. Gobinda (Kabir Bedi) provides the physical presence, and is another failed Oddjob clone. He even crushes the loaded dice, which is far less believable than a hollow golf ball. Bond is too often docile around him, and he never has a signature action scene.
Only "You Only Live Twice," "Live and Let Die," and "The Man with the Golden Gun" embarrass themselves more often than "Octopussy." An action icon screaming like Tarzan while swinging from vine-to-vine crosses very far over the line of bad humor. The movies keystone sequence is a 25 minute chase covering several miles. It is intercut with circus scenes, which are good to narrate the passage of time, but are far too long. The other moments that are supposed to be funny sabotage the potential for several minutes of hair-raising suspense. Seeing Bond teased by teenagers or dressing as a clown, or being stuck behind a long-talker at a phone booth is all wrong. My mind replayed Simon Gruber explaining, "There was a fat woman on the phone and it took you a minute to get her off!"
The comedic approach worked with "Moonraker" only because the filmmakers went all out with the concept and never made a mockery of their characters. Trying to graft silliness onto a serious story in the context of a serious world-problem transforms good potential into a clashing, inconsistent mess. Roger Moore deserved better.
Dr. No (1962)
Great Film Making, Short on Interest and Excitement
The consensus in the scientific community seems to be that non-verbal elements make up 55% of what we communicate. That is what I first noticed watching Sean Connery play James Bond. Bond is a powerful and cunning man, and Connery communicates that to the audience simply by moving. When he makes the bed, we see a man of focus and purpose in the way he pulls off the bed sheet and casts it aside. He tells the viewers that he is in charge just by how he walks. When he discerns that somebody is trying to trick him, all he needs to do is stare ahead and we know that somebody is in big trouble. Watching Sean's performance in "Dr. No" from an analytical perspective is fun. Sadly, the movie does not have enough interest or excitement to match either his performance or its other strengths.
Terence Young directs "Dr. No" and scores a triumph in film-making. The cinematography, acting, set design, creativity, and atmosphere are all laudable. The screenplay is intelligent, the story is linear, and the action scenes are uniformly competent. Young photographs Ken Adam's soon-to-be legendary sets with a great sense of scope and a thorough lens. I even have enough information to imagine the geography of the small island Bond visits because the camera and the characters gave me enough information to do so. There is not a weak performance to be found. That is what I call a triumph of directing.
James Bond's first screen mission is uncomplicated. Unknown assassins murder a member of Great Britain's foreign intelligence shortly after he starts gathering information for the CIA. James Bond of the 00 division is assigned to find out what he uncovered. The CIA's Felix Leiter (Jack Lord), Bond, and their local contacts quickly suspect a man known as Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman). No, however, is a resourceful foe not to be taken lightly.
Besides Connery, Wiseman gives the other standout performance. The script builds up to his appearance through numerous conversations between other characters. Wiseman must match the impressive image the audience has of his character prior to meeting him. Wiseman plays No as a polite, articulate man whose self-control reaches the point of becoming a weapon of fear. Insults and disrespect do not even affect him. No may be the most intelligent villain in the series; he can even design a nuclear power plant. His one conversation with Bond is the highlight of the movie.
As good as all of that sounds, I have never been able to embrace the movie as much as I want. The movie simply does not have enough to remain interesting for its entire length. Ursula Andress plays a gorgeous Bond- girl, Bond's sidekick (John Kitzmiller) is good even though a couple of moments seem to stereotype him and make me uncomfortable. The script is well-written, but none of these elements overcome the fact that the movie is too uninteresting. No matter how many times I watch it, I always find myself looking at the clock or the time-index on my DVD player. This happens both before and after Dr. No has been introduced. I can expound on "Dr. No's" virtues all day long, but the movie ends up in boredom. Even the climax is underwhelming. Far inferior movies are more enjoyable because there is enough meat to the story to engross its viewer for its entire running time.
In summary, "Dr. No" does not earn more than five out of ten stars. The ingredients were there, and they would be used again in the powerhouse second chapter of the Bond series. It is fortunate that it took less to excite a movie audience back then, because an action movie of such a plodding pace would not be allowed a sequel today. The franchise may have started slowly, but many great Bond movies were yet to come. If I watched "Dr. No" before the others, I would have predicted that.
The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
The Absolute Nadir of the Bond Series
"To me, the Bond situations are so ridiculous, so outrageous. I mean, this man is supposed to be a spy and yet, everybody knows he's a spy...What kind of serious spy is recognized everywhere he goes? It's outrageous." -Roger Moore
Is that really what James Bond is supposed to be? "Dr. No" is not a comedy, and the movie's villains learn about him only via their own local spy network. Only after the events of that movie do Bond and the SPECTRE organization know about each other. Auric Goldfinger likewise knew nothing of him at first. Even Kamal Kahn in "Octopussy" believed him to be an adventurer and blackmailer. People did not attend the first seven Bond movies expecting to howl in laughter, nor do they today, nor did the readers of Ian Fleming's novels. "Diamonds Are Forever" began a very sad era for the James Bond movies, and "The Man with the Golden Gun" is the saddest example of how far they fell. By a large margin, it is the worst of the James Bond movies.
James Bond movies began by setting the trends, not copying them. As the years have passed, the James Bond movies have been best when they move with the times without placing their identity in them. Just as "Live and Let Die" heavily pilfered from the, and I hate to use the word, "blaxploitation" genre, "The Man with the Golden Gun" often tries to make itself like the emerging martial arts movies of the time. That sin is bad enough on its own, but it is made even worse because those movies, while popular and new, were poor quality.
One sequence in the middle of the movie most gloriously displays both faults mentioned so far. Remember, everybody knows James Bond is a spy. The screenplay forgets this, and he walks into a trap only to be defeated by a midget disguised as a gargoyle. Of course, the midget waits until after Bond defeats a sumo wrestler (in Thailand?) in a truly unfunny fashion.
The following degenerates into brain-freezing silliness. Bond is forced to fight in a martial arts school but quickly escapes in time for his ally Hip (Soon Tek-Oh) to show up with his early teenage nieces. What comes next involves the two girls effortlessly beating half of the school, the getaway car leaving without Bond, an unfunny encounter with a young boy selling wooden elephants and the racist Sheriff from the previous movie (Clifton James) spouting his garbage before being given his comeuppance by a baby elephant.
Bond (Roger Moore) is drawn into action when a golden bullet with his code number shows up in the mail. How far these movies have fallen since the time when Bond punched one of his best friends in the stomach to keep that number secret. Only pricey assassin Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee) is known to use such bullets. Bond decides to find Scaramanga first, but his reputation precedes him. Yes, another character says that. What an international celebrity our "secret" agent is! His female teammate is Mary Goodnight (Britt Eckland), the kind of person who can make everybody in a room think, "Does she understand anything?" Her most important purpose is to prolong an already boring movie.
The early part of the story has the potential to turn into a neat battle of two extremely skilled people constantly trying to gain the upper hand. Instead, "The Man with the Golden Gun" continually comes back to an annoying MacGuffin that made me think "that again?" and roll my eyes in frustration. Boredom rules the movie. It has its share of great sets and scenery, but very little interesting action or story happens around them. Director Guy Hamilton spends inordinate amounts of time on camera shots that desperately needed to be shortened or cut altogether. That flaw is magnified with a screenplay that also needs major editing.
The final act is the worst. It is at this time that the movie is supposed to give its best. Instead, the boring MacGuffin dominates once more. This segment does have one of the series' defining moments when Bond tells Scaramanga that he only kills under the orders of his government and that those he kills are themselves killers. Unfortunately, the decision-makers behind the most recent Bond movies may be losing sight of that. If they do, they will be losing the essence of the character.
Maud Adams plays a minor but important role, and the only one who earns praise for her acting. Scaramanga's puny sidekick is a complete embarrassment, Britt Ecklund plays a role that would make any actress look bad, and Christopher Lee has been better in every other part I've seen him play. Bernard Lee and Desmond Llewelyn have some amusing moments as M and Q, but some of M's lines and reactions, are out-of- character. Roger Moore is no longer tentative and unsure, but now smart, suave, and courageous. The problem is that the entire movie is embarrassingly fatuous and Moore is too serious. Even the signature stunt, whose awesome difficulty I did not realize until I watched the DVD feature, is completely ruined by a dreadful sound-effect. The encore appearance of the imbecilic Louisiana Sheriff butchers the rest of that action scene.
"The Man with the Golden Gun" marks the end of what I call "The Unholy Trilogy" in the Bond series. Fans around the world also detected that a great deal was missing, and voted against "The Man with the Golden Gun" with their money. Some real soul-searching was in order on the part of the producers, who did make the series right again. I only save this a one star rating because of James Bond's character defining line and Q's great return after a one movie absence. Overall, it is a boring, bad movie of interminable length. The Bond series survived this golden misfire, but barely.
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
And X-Men Jumps the Shark
EXTREME SPOILERS FOLLOW! CONSIDER YOURSELF WARNED!
"We are betraying the very principles upon which the Federation was founded," states Jean-Luc Picard in "Star Trek: Insurrection, "It's an attack upon its very soul." That same statement applies to "X-Men: The Last Stand." "Insurrection" is based on the moral dilemma quoted above. Too bad "The Last Stand" features no conflict so compelling. Worse, it is not the characters who betray the X-Men concept, but the writers themselves.
The protracted, somewhat convoluted ending, of "X2" has resulted in the most peaceful co-existence between humans and mutants to date. Hank McCoy (Kelsey Grammar), a furry, blue mutant who can float in the air, presides over a new department in the President's (Josef Summer) cabinet. Magneto (Ian McKellen) has fled with his two associates and Charles Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters is flourishing. On the bad end, Cyclops (James Marsden) cannot recover from the death of his girlfriend and the day both Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto dread has arrived. Pharmaceutical leader Warren Worthington (Michael Murphy) has invented a permanent cure for mutations. This is not Kryptonite to Superman. Kryptonite works only at close range, and no mutant can boast Superman's invincibility.
The supernatural abilities of otherwise normal people comprise the foundation of the entire X-Men world. Remove a skyscraper's foundation and it falls upon itself. These circumstances can be compelling if they are never more than a threat, but making it a mass-production weapon is like detonating charges inside the skyscraper's foundation. If there is another fictional series in which fans sit still for that, I will be surprised. Introducing the weapon on a minor mutant would not have been as bad, but making Mystique (Rebecca Romjin) the first victim deprives the audience of one of its favorites.
"X2" ended by setting up the Dark Phoenix story arc. Her inclusion is as serious a misstep as the cure weapon. Killing Cyclops in the first 10 meters of the sprint is bad enough, but the problem lies in the entire concept. Superman cannot be defeated without kryptonite, but it still takes work for him to defeat even the simplest foe. Defined as a "Class 5," Phoenix (Famke Janssen) can defeat an army literally without moving a single muscle. It takes more than computer effects and mass destruction to entertain a mature audience. The NFL would not be popular if the quarterback could stand completely still and throw a touchdown pass every play. It would be incredibly boring. When a character can win with no effort, it ceases to be entertaining. The visuals are hardly special, either, despite the fact that "The Last Stand" cost more to make than the first two X-Men movies combined. The Phoenix destruction effects are similar to the Sandman effects in "Spider-Man 3," but far inferior.
Finally, killing Professor Xavier is an unforgivable sin. The manner in which he dies is nearly as disturbing. If he died saving the planet, or attaining a permanent peace, it would not be as bad. He dies in failure. From the popularity standpoint alone, that is like killing Q in the James Bond movies, Alfred in Batman, or Luke Skywalker or Yoda in Star Wars. What is the X-Men's home called? It is called Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. Not Wolverine's school, nor Storm's, nor Iceman's. Professor X is credited second and first, respectively, in "X-Men and "X2." Even though he is not a lone hero like Bond or Spider-Man, Xavier is the wheel around which all the other characters turn. The X-Men start disbanding after his death. From the importance standpoint, it is like killing James Bond himself and then giving his mission to 008. The writers try to undo their action by giving him a new body after the credits, but that just adds insult to injury. Xavier has been the same for over 40 years, and two rogue writers do not have the right to change him or be licentious with his life.
Wolverine's healing factor is much different than before. In "X-Men," it took several seconds for him to get back up after being ejected through a car windshield. Here, the Phoenix blasts him so badly that we can see parts of his skeleton. Losing flesh that quickly should be fatal even for him, but it takes about second for him to fully regenerate. The climactic action contains some neat ideas and sleek execution. However, the long awaited battle between Pyro (Aaron Stanford) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) is about as unimaginative and juvenile as I've ever seen. I had better ideas when I was 12. Roger Ebert wrote in this review of "X2" that he imagined them standing in hot water. They should have consulted him before using the simplest concept that came to mind.
"X-Men: The Last Stand" suffered from a shortened production schedule, and it shows up in the lack of polish in the dialogue, the substandard nature of many action scenes, and the shallowness of some character development. Still, its enormous problems cannot be blamed on circumstance. I realize that the character of the Phoenix and the concept of the cure come from the comics, but not every idea in their hundreds of issues makes a good story. Even with that considered, killing Professor X and giving him a new body after the credits is the worst of many ways that "X-Men: The Last Stand" jumps the shark.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
This Movie is a Total Waste of Time and Money
Three years is a long time to wait. For some, it is a wait for redemption after "X-Men: The Last Stand" relentlessly assaulted what made the X-Men so appealing in the first place and grandly blasphemed two of its most beloved characters. For those who enjoyed the movie, it is the anticipation of seeing another story in the unique world of mutants. Shame on Marvel Enterprises and Fox Studios for violating the hope of the first group and the trust of the second.
"X-Men Origins: Wolverine" has five major problems. First, it has too many mutants to develop. I am familiar with each character and still felt overwhelmed. Second, there is too little substance to the story. Third, the action has too much glitz and too little entertainment. Fourth, writers David Benioff and Skip Woods mangle already established fact. Finally, a great many mutants are altered from their original form. That final error, while not noticeable to some viewers, is possibly the deadliest offense to fans of the X-Men cannon.
There are 11 significant mutants in the story, and that does not count minor characters. The original "X-Men" has ten total. The most well-known mutants are included in those ten. That is one difference. Also, "X-Men" has at most half as much action as this movie. Less character time is needed in "X-Men," yet more is given. That focus adds importance to both the story and the violence. Bolt (Dominic Monaghan), the Blob (Kevin Durand), Agent Zero (Daniel Henney, giving one of the movie's coolest and most focused performances), and especially Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), are most gypped by "Wolverine."
As Roger Ebert has often pointed out, Wolverine, also called Logan (Hugh Jackman), possesses powers that are mundane compared to those of Storm, who can control the weather, or Magneto, who can rip a train car in two with the power of his will alone, or even this movie's Emma Frost (exceedingly beautiful Tahyna Tozzi), who can turn her skin into diamonds. Wolverine's appeal arises from his aggression and his struggle to remember his past and its unknown hurts. The movie never really investigates what formed Logan into the one of the most unique personalities in Marvel Comics. His motivations, the emotional impact of his decisions, the exploration of his nature, and later-forgotten trauma are insufficiently explored. Of the four X-Men stories released to date, this one should be the slowest and most thoughtful. It is the fastest and least thoughtful.
Like Marc Forster in "Quantum of Solace," director Gavin Hood looks totally lost trying to choreograph action. Imagine watching a baseball game where the camera appears so close to the baseball that we cannot see the hitter until the very last instant. Without a good view of the baseball's position in the environment around it, it is difficult to see how it travels from the pitcher's hand to home plate. That is similar to the effect created by zooming the camera in too far during action. The action in "Wolverine" is mostly close-quarters involving unnaturally fast moving people. Hood also uses way too much fancy trash. I lost count of how many double-sideways flips someone performs during a fight. One of them involves teleportation, but falls way short of the Riddick vs. Lord Marshal battle from "The Chronicles of Riddick."
One of the high points of "X2" is Logan's discovery of the room where his memories were lost and his metal claws gained. His flashbacks, combined with a later conversation with Colonel Stryker, provide an outline of what occurred. "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" clearly establishes itself as a prequel, not a separate movie. Therefore, it should not ignore what we learned in "X2."
"Wolverine" not only does that, its replacement story far less compelling. Logan's signature personality is neutered even after his breaking point. He was never supposed to be a peaceful man. Whatever happened to "You were always an animal, all I did was give you claws"? William Stryker's (Danny Huston in a role previously manned by Brian Cox) behavior when threatened and the later consequences make his status in "X2" impossible to believe. The timeline places "X-Men" far earlier than it claims to be. Even the story behind Logan's amnesia is cringe-worthy. What previous movies establish needs to be honored.
Another problem is Logan's self-healing abilities. As in "X-Men: The Last Stand," he has become too invincible. Judging by his rate of healing in the first two X-Men movies, he survives at least two traumas that should be enough to kill him. Agent Zero of the comic books can nullify Logan's healing factor and absorb damage to his own body. His only skill here is good aim. Jason Bourne has good aim. Police snipers have good aim. That is not a superhuman ability. Deadpool spends so little time on screen that including him in the promotional material borders on false advertising. Logan's final battle is against an enemy whose signature weapon rips off both Optimus Prime and "Castlevania: Curse of Darkness." The second may sound ho-hum, but many comic book nerds love gaming too.
This movie simply has far too many problems and too few redeeming factors. It proves that the X-Men series has not merely had a bad day. It has completely jumped the shark and is all but certainly beyond redemption. Taking Marvel's most popular character and making a dead-on-arrival movie shows serious incompetence from the creative team. The ending answers all questions, but those answers are not worth a free ticket to see the movie. My only wish is that I could forget the entire movie, except for the fact that it is despicable.