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03.27.09

bond


ONE OF THE LAST really enjoyable assignments I had at the paper that laid me off was a six-part series where I tried to find out what it would cost, physically and financially, to be James Bond. I pitched the idea, and it ran pretty much as I imagined it, with some necessary scaling back due to time, expense, and word count. While I was writing it, I actually allowed myself some optimism about the paper, and my future there, despite all the warning signs. I've always been an idealist - it's my fatal flaw.


The series ran as a prelude to the release of Quantum Of Solace, and was just a part of our near-saturation coverage of the film, which included at least another half dozen features before we ran our interviews with the director and cast and review. It was the last gasp of the paper's moviecentric entertainment coverage before sections and word counts began shrinking, and the new editor began filling the gaps with columnists. It'll probably be a long time before I'm able to disassociate QOS from what were to be my final months at the paper.

I'M A BIG FAN OF THE BOND FRANCHISE. It was probably inevitable - the first Roger Moore Bonds were hitting the theatres on the back of massive publicity campaigns when I was a boy, just as the Connery films were playing on television, as big deal weekend evening events on the big three U.S. networks. It's a strange boy who won't respond to the appeal of Bond, and I might have been a bit odd, but there was never a chance that I wouldn't respond to the siren song of cool gadgets, bit explosions, loathesome baddies getting dispatched with a quip and - gradually, though with undeniable effect - the allure of the Bond girl.

As long as there's a new generation of boys responding to the louche fantasy of being Bond - and there probably always will be, despite the best efforts of the public education system - then there will always be new Bond films, though some part of me shudders to think what they might be like around the hundredth anniversary of the franchise, and we're already nearly halfway there.

The Connery Bond seems comfortably ensconced as the gold standard, and the Moore era is distant enough to have become fondly remembered kitsch - when I was researching my series for the paper, I encountered no shortage of men who sheepishly admitted that they preferred Moore to Connery. You may even know one, and if you do, I suggest you act as if nothing's made you suspicious - who knows how they'll react to being shamed - but keep something heavy close at hand.

George Lazenby's single shot at the role has its share of defenders - though I suspect that Diana Rigg's stint as Bond girl might have a lot to do with that - and Timothy Dalton's brief tenure has had its share of cautious appreciations for heading in what seemed, at the time, like a darker direction (though a majority would still prefer to describe them as dreary.)

With time, no doubt, even Pierce Brosnan's Bond will have its defenders - whenever we reach the point when the '90s have retreated into a more distant past, and reveal some charming aspect or unforeseen quaintness that will allow us to be nostalgic about them. I can't imagine it either, but the '70s have already passed from regretful to retro in my lifetime, mostly thanks to a generation that wasn't alive to experience them first hand.



The "re-booting" of the series with Daniel Craig as Bond in Casino Royale three years ago was a huge critical and box office success, restoring the franchise to Connery-era esteem, though the release of Quantum Of Solace last fall has already made me nostalgic for the previous film, and the possibility that the people in charge of the series weren't suffering from the misapprehension that Bond has to be relevant to whatever undergraduate theory of geopolitics is currently gripping Hollywood.

The film begins, in ritual fashion, with a car chase along the lakeside roads of northern Italy before Craig's Bond dispatches his pursuers rather too neatly in a Carrera marble quarry. It's the first sign that the producers haven't chosen well by putting Swiss director Marc Forster in charge; by his own admission, and everyone else who was in a position to hire him, he's not known for his action movie chops, which you'd think might have been considered for a film with at least half a dozen major action sequences.

It's not surprising then that the intro car chase, and almost every other action scene - with one notable exception - is shot and cut in the incoherent, overedited style that'll doubtless be a style cliche as particular to today as magenta gels and Tangerine Dream soundtracks were to the '80s. Second units are usually tasked with the shooting of car chases and scenes featuring stunt doubles, but you get the feeling that Forster has abandoned every creative decision in these scenes to a whole second unit province of the film.

The payoff at the end of Casino Royale was Bond, honed into an unerring instrument of revenge, hobbling the new Blofeld - Jesper Christensen's Mr. White - with a sniper rifle and standing over him, triumphant. The new film begins just moment later, and after dispatching his pursuers before the titles roll, Bond and Judi Dench's M get down to the business of interrogating the man in a dank basement underneath Sienna.

It all goes very badly, alas, and White escapes, disappearing so that a new villain can emerge - Matthieu Amalric's Dominic Greene, a shady European industrialist in the classic Bond baddie mold, with a public cover as an environmental philanthropist, as embodied in his rather broad jape of a name. Before absconding to the sidelines, however, White dispatches his primary duty as a Bond villain, which is to spill the beans on his criminal enterprise, revealing to Bond and M that Quantum, the new SPECTRE, is both ubiquitous and one step ahead of their secret services. You have to wonder how much more successful these guys would be if they could just keep shtum.



The action detours to Haiti to introduce Greene, the Bolivian general and former dictator who's his principal client, and the film's principal Bond girl - Olga Kurylenko's Camille, a Russian former model playing Latin American with a generous coating of liquid tan. There's a fight, a boat chase, and a revelation that the CIA is in bed with Greene, with the reluctant complicity of the latest Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright.)

The action swings back to Europe, and the annual opera production in the Swiss town of Bregenz, which is being used as a cover for the annual shareholder's meeting of Quantum. Bond eavesdrops on the meeting, then blows his cover by announcing his presence to all assembled while he uses his Sony Ericsson cell phone to take photos of a few of Quantum's principals. Anyone who's ever tried to take a decent shot with a cell phone will marvel at how implausibly some proprietary MI6 software turns a 2 megapixel image taken from hundreds of feet away into verifiable mugshots that identify a Russian mining oligarch, a former Mossad agent turned telecom giant, and a close adviser to the British PM.

Bond's clash with Greene's henchmen as he escapes is the sole departure from the stock standard action scenes in the rest of the film, and Forster admitted that he's lavished more than the usual care on it when I interviewed him last fall. As the sound gives way to the score of Tosca, the opera being performed, Bond and Greene's gunmen trade fire in the restaurant and lobby of the opera house, while the film cuts back and forth to the bloody murders and executions onstage. At the risk of offending casual viewers interested in status quo bang-bang, you wish that Forster had followed his muse a bit more and given the same care to the rest of the film's action scenes; it wouldn't have dissipated from the film's other problems, but it would at least have given QOS some idiosyncratic style that's been missing from the series since the Moore years.

With his traveling privileges pulled by M, Bond needs help, so he turns to Giancarlo Giannini's Mathis. When we last saw him in Casino Royale, he'd been tasered and dragged away for interrogation as a double agent. Rehabilitated and living in a fabulous pad on a lake in Northern Italy with a foxy Lombard babe, he's pulled reluctantly back into the action as Bond's wingman, and as a prick to his conscience.

While it's always nice to see Giannini in a film, it's jarring to hear that Mathis was actually innocent, even more when he winds up dead a few scenes later, after being used as a human shield by Bond and left in a dumpster. The writers were probably trying to underscore Bond's calloused nature, and the gruesome realities of life as a spook, but Giannini's Mathis was one of the few really likeable characters introduced in the reboot of the series; Jeffrey Wright's Leiter had better watch himself, though previous Leiters haven't done so well. Turning Mathis into a bloody prop, though, is just one of the miscalculations in tone and intention made by the writers of QOS.

The balance of the film plays out in Bolivia, where Gemma Atherton gets to play the thankless role of the expendable Bond girl, named Strawberry Fields in the cast list, though the filmmakers seem to have been overcome by second thoughts, and we only ever hear her called Fields. Her death is a notably sour reworking of the Bond legacy - echoing Shirley Eaton's Jill Masterson in Goldfinger, she's found dead on the bed in Bond's hotel room, naked and covered, not in gold, but in oil.


Yes, I get it. No, really.

You can only imagine how clever the screenwriters must have felt when they wrote the scene, and it's not surprising that at least part of the script was the work of Paul Haggis, Hollywood's go-to guy for knitting recycled Chomsky and Howard Zinn into films. Oil is the new gold - get it? Get it? I like to think I'm not alone in resenting anyone who squanders the precious remaining value of the Bond franchise with cheap lunges at political relevancy, dissolving the Bond high style into the frantic paranoia of the Bourne films, and the dreary realpolitik of latter John Le Carre.

In a scene where Judi Dench's M is called on the carpet by the British foreign minister, she's told that "Mr. Greene's interests and ours now align," as a justification for calling Bond off the villain's trail. Briefly alluding to peak oil, he tells her that "Right or wrong doesn't come into it - we're acting out of necessity." It's sort of thing cynics and sophomores imagine powerful men in suits sound like behind closed doors, and it signals an intent to diminish whatever moral purpose Bond could once count on when he got his marching orders. Craig's Bond is even moved to make a sharp crack to Leiter later in the film about "cocoa communism" and American complicity in South American political instability. The Che Guevara t-shirt can't be far behind.

What's amusing is how inconsistent this is with the basic plot of the Bond film, which requires that Quantum's objectives and Greene's intentions in particular are meant to be undeniably evil. Even as we watch Greene deliver some disingenous environmental browbeating to a gala crowd at a fundraiser in La Paz - while conspicuously sporting a red thread "Kabbalah bracelet," one notes with a snort - we know that the fate of the planet is the furthest thing from his mind, and we learn shortly thereafter that he's the cause of an artficial drought in the region, from which he intends to profit once the new dictator gives Quantum the resource rights to the area. Water is the new oil, er, gold - get it? Get it?

Even more drolly, we can't help but note that the fire that consumes the desert hotel in the explosive climax is apparently caused by the hydrogen fuel cells powering the "green" establishment - environmental correctness proving itself ultimately lethal. One can't help but wonder at how the film's conspicuous evocation of global warming and environmental apocalypse will sound in ten or twenty years - will they play like the Cold War stage sets of the Connery films, or as querulous, dated fits of theatrical panic like those that once played out under the media-driven threats of overpopulation, insect plagues, ozone holes and impending ice ages.

There was once a time when Bond villains would threaten the world with some implausible arsenal of atomic threat, pandemic or environmental catastrophe (Blofeld in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Hugo Drax in Moonraker, Max Zorin in A View To A Kill,) with a hint of comic menace that parodies of the genre - Our Man Flint, the Austin Powers films - would broadly satirize. Like so much of popular culture today, the Bond films have lost their self-correcting sense of irony, and we've reached a point where a climatic castrophe scenario straight out of a Bond film is actually considered not just plausible, but imminent, by something like a majority of the population. And admit it - after George Soros, Al Gore is probably the closest thing we've got to a Bond villain in the real world today.

The ending of Quantum Of Solace ultimately chokes on its highmindedness; finally confronting Vesper Lynd's ex-boyfriend, a Quantum agent charged with turning female secret agents, the film works on the presumption that Bond, still blinded by vengeance, will kill the man and waste the last best chance at cracking the criminal conspiracy. We know that he won't, thanks to the film's agonizing set-up of the moment, and of Bond's transformation into a cold-blooded professional.

Almost absent-mindedly, the film ends with the trademark shot of Bond firing at the camera down a gun barrel that fills with a curtain of blood, a traditional prelude to the title sequence that Forster and the producers toss in at the end like an afterthought. It seems like a small complaint, but it's typical of the carelessness and disregard for form that's overcome the Bond franchise so quickly after its successful reinvention with Casino Royale. If Bond's cinematic overseers continue on the current course, they'll manage to accomplish the creative disembowelling and audience evacuation that Octopussy and Moonraker didn't.

A NEW EDITION OF SEAN CONNERY'S final turn under the Bond toupee is being released on DVD the same week as Quantum Of Solace, though comparisons between the two films are probably unfair - except for one thing.

There's a loose rule that a good Bond theme song means a good Bond film, and it plays out pretty well under scrutiny. The Connery films - Dr. No excepted, though you could say that Monty Norman's twanging guitar theme will do more than ably in a pinch - were all blessed with fantastic theme songs, sung by Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Matt Monro and Nancy Sinatra, and the Roger Moore films were given a good start with Wings' "Live And Let Die," after which things trail off with diminishing returns in a sonic porridge of Carly Simon, Sheena Easton, Duran Duran, a-ha, Sheryl Crow and, at the bitter end of the Pierce Brosnan years, the baleful nasal keening of Madonna.

I actually enjoyed Chris Cornell's Casino Royale theme, which had the right mix of jauntiness and bombast for me, but knew well enough to gird myself when I heard Jack White and Alicia Keys' entirely chemistry-free duet for Quantum Of Solace. With this in mind, I knew not to expect much when I heard Lani Hall's breathy performance of the title tune of Never Say Never Again, the 1983 film that came about mostly because of Connery's ego and the labyrinthine legal complications surrounding Ian Fleming's legacy.

To be fair, Connery looks better in Never Say Never Again than he did twelve years earlier, in Diamonds Are Forever, his last "official" Bond film. The short retrospective production documentaries included on the disc, however, strenuously point out that action sequences had to be dialled back drastically to accomodate the aging star, and almost everyone admits with a shrug that the film, essentially a remake of Thunderball, really wasn't much, and that they'd have admitted it at the time if they'd felt like being honest with themselves.

Connery and his stunt doubles manage not to look too tired as the film globetrots through the usual cartoonish locations, and Klaus Maria Brandauer and Kim Basinger do what's expected of them as Bond villain and girl respectively, while only Barbara Carrera seems to be having any fun as the Bond bad girl. Michel Legrand's abysmal soundtrack makes one miss John Barry - and even Bill Conti and Michael Kamen - rather sorely.

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© 2009 rick mcginnis all rights reserved

WHO

i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters. i've worked as a photographer, journalist and, recently, tv columnist. currently a member of the growing workforce awaiting new employment opportunities. church-going catholic.

punk rock was my crucible, lodestone and avalon.

i look nothing like william powell.

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