Friday, December 25, 2015

Best of Bond, Part VI

The Pierce Brosnan Years

While Timothy Dalton gave the franchise depth and emotional darkness, the returns at the box office were poor.  After two films the franchise went into a hiatus for several years, to return with Pierce Brosnan as the new Bond.  Brosnan had been the first choice to replace Roger Moore, and he was a natural for the part of Bond.  With more charm and elan than Dalton, he helped re-popularize the franchise.

And the Brosnan years started well.  Goldeneye is widely recognized as a great Bond film.  But each of the following films was weak in some way.  By the end of the Brosnan run, the films were sinking into the same trap that ruined the Moore movies: an excess of silly gadgetry, too many recycled plots, and a few really awful casting choices.  But even the otherwise awful Die Another Day features great supporting work by Halle Berry - all of the films have some redeeming qualities.

Let's recall the criteria in this series of evaluations again:

  • Bond – who the actor is, how good he is, and what he brings to the role
  • the Villain- Mr. Big, Scaramanga, etc.  I judge the films on how compelling the villain is.
  • the Bond Women – some films have few, some have many, but I’m pretty sure all have at least one. The quality ranges from Denise Richards’s absurd nuclear physicist to, of course, Mrs. Bond herself, not to mention Pussy Galore
  • the Good Guys – M, Q, Moneypenny, Felix Leiter in his many incarnations and other sidekicks
  • the Henchmen on the other side like Jaws, Oddjob, and Nick-Nack.
  • the gadgets – not just judging how neat the gadgets are, but whether they were unwisely allowed to take over the film (as often happened with the later Roger Moore filims)
  • whatever else I happen to think of

The first (and best) of the bunch is


Goldeneye  opens with two MI-6 agents infiltrating a Soviet base at a dam in the area of Archangel.  007 opens with the film with a bungee cord jump off the top of a dam, presumably to set the tone. He meets 006 (Alec Trevalyen, played by Sean Bean), the inflitration goes bad, 006 is captured and executed by a Rusian officer, but 007 escapes by using a timer to detonate a bomb.

That's all pre-credits.

The main part of the plot concerns a laser platform named "GoldenEye" put in space by the Soviets.
Early in the movie the dish that controls the platform is destroyed by the rogue general we earlier saw "kill" 006, accompanied by psychotic assassin Xenia Onatopp (played by Famke Jannsen).

Alan Cumming plays the super-programmer Boris who works with them, while Izabella Scorupco plays the sexy young programmer Natalya who happens to hide while the rest of the staff is being slaughtered by the general's men.  The British notice the explosion from satellite and send in Bond to investigate.  They track the helicopter from the attack to a mafioso known only as "Janos".  Bond meets with CIA contact Wade (played by Joe Don Baker, who previously had been a baddie in The Living Daylights), who points him to another Russian mafia contact, a former enemy of Bond named Zukovsky.  Bond had shot him at one point.

Bond tracks down Janos who turns out to be his old buddy Trevalyan.  This leads to some action sequences in Moscow, with Bond at one point trapped in an exploding helicopter where he meets Natalya, who conveniently had been kept alive for a classic Bond "let's kill the hero in a complicated fashion which he might be able to escape" scenario.  Later there's a chase through Moscow involving Bond in a tank, and a standoff on a train.  Trevalyan and Onatopp escape while Natalya tracks Boris to Cuba.

The final sequences are at a secret radar dish, that surfaces from its hiding place under a volcanic lake.  (Homage to You Only Live Twice.)   For some reason, of all the people on the planet who could accompany Bond on this mission, MI-6 chose Natalya.  Bond has some cool fight scenes with Trevalyan. Natalya hacks the computer to mess up the satellite guidance system.  The pen bomb blows up everything except Boris, who stays alive long enough to be frozen by liquid nitrogen.

So we've got main plot #2 (seen also in Dr No, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds are Forever, and Moonraker) - a space-based conspiracy.

The story features Bond inexplicably driving a tank through Moscow at one point.

The final scenes have Bond and the programmer Natalya infiltrating the GoldenEye control dish in Cuba.

The general tone is lighter than the two Dalton  films.  Brosnan brings Bond back to his traditional womanizing ways.  Also - Baccarat!

Our checklist:

  • Bond – Brosnan is sharp as Bond.  He brings the charisma and flair we knew he had back in his Remington Steele days.  He's smoother than Dalton, not quite as aristocratic as Moore, and not as violent as Connery.  Possibly the smoothest of the Bonds.  For Bond fans who didn't like Dalton, and who thought Moore got too old, Brosnan was the first credible Bond since For Your Eyes Only.  

  • the Villain- Sean Bean is a good actor, but he doesn't really fit the role of a Mr. Big/Blofeld.  It's more like he's Bond's old school buddy who's gone bad.  

  • the Bond Women – the most memorable is Famke Janssen as Onatopp.  She's delicious as the psychotic killer.  Izabella Scorupco plays the charming young ingenue programmer Natalya.  Minnie Driver has a minor role as a tone-deaf singer working for Zukovsky.

  • the Good Guys – Judi Dench takes over the role of 'M'.  This is the first of seven movies with her.  She owns the role.  Her no-nonsense matriarch plays well against Brosnan's old-school sexism.  Desmond Llewelyn is back as Q for the umpteenth tim. Samantha Bond plays Moneypenny.  Michael Kitchen of Foyle's War plays Bill Tanner.  Joe Don Baker is back as CIA's Jake Wade.  Remember he played a villain back in The Living Daylights? 

  • the Henchmen - hard to say whether General Ouromov is a henchman or really in charge.  German character actor Gottfried John is very good.  Alan Cumming is fun as Boris the hacker. 

  • Other - Robbie Coltrane is a lot of fun as Russian casino owner Zukovsky.  

  • the gadgets – Q provides Bond with an explosive pen that is key to the plot.  Not a lot of gadgets this time.

  • I give GoldenEye a healthy 8.0. users give it a respectable 7.2.  Rotten Tomatoes certifies GoldenEye "fresh" with a 78% rating.

    The second is

    Tomorrow  Never Dies

    After the opening credits, we see a British ship hijacked by a "stealth ship" near Vietnamese territorial waters.  The ship is tracking some Chinese MiGs when the stealth ship attacks it with a bizarre penetrating torpedo.  The Brits think that the torpedo was dropped by the Chinese, so they retaliate by shooting a MiG down before they go down themselves.  This creates an international incident that is immediately seized upon by the main baddie, Eliot Carver, played by Jonathan Pryce.

    MI6 doesn't have much to go on except the fact that Carver's newspaper syndicate somehow got the story about British sailors being shot with Chinese air force bullets before the Vietnamese got the information themselves.  So Bond is sent to investigate Carver.  He meets Carver at a lash party in Hamburg, Germany, as does Chinese agent Wai Lin, played by martial artist Michelle Yeoh.  Bond also meets Carver's wife, Paris, played by Teri Hatcher.  Hatcher was a very big deal at the time this movie was released, as the star of Lois & Clark.  Of course Bond and Paris have a history.

    Paris lies to her husband, claiming that she barely knows Bond.  Carver's surveillance shows this to be a lie and after Bond humiliates Carver but shutting down his inaugural satellite broadcast, Carver threatens Paris.  She runs off to Bond's bedroom.  She tells Bond of a secret laboratory.  Bond later breaks in and steals an encoder, but when driving away, he gets a phone call from Carver informing him that Carver knows both about the stolen encoder and the encounter with his wife.

    Bond returns to the hotel to discover Paris is dead.  And one of Carver's thugs, a Dr. Kaufmann, played by character actor Vincent Chiavelli. Bond turns the tables, kills Kaufmann, and escapes in his souped-up BMW, which he controls via remote control from the back seat.  (It's really cool.)

    The movie transitions to SE Asia, as Bond skydives from an American plane, accompanied by our buddy from GoldenEye, Wade (Joe Don Baker). He dives to to wreckage site of the British ship, where he runs into Wai Lin again.  They surface and banter about, but her ship has been seized by Carver's thugs.  Bond and Lin are taken prisoner, brought to Carver's headquarters in SE Asia in Ho Chi Minh City.   They inexplicably escape before being killed (hey, why not?  We're an hour into the movie and this is already Bond's third escape.)   Next is a neat motorcycle chase while Bond and Wai Lin are still handcuffed to each other - one of the highlights of the film.

    After some bickering, Bond and Wai Lin decide to team up, and they find the stealth ship in the South China Sea, where it's again trying to stir up conflict between the British and the Chinese. Stamper captures Wai Lin as the two of them are trying to set explosives.   Much fighting ensues.

    It turns out that Carver has a cruise missile that he wants to use to start a war between China and Britain.   Bond starts shooting and "in the confusion" Wai Lin escapes.  Much chaos ensues, shooting, fighting, kicking, etc., as the bomb counts down.  Stamper captures Wai Lin a second time, Bond kills Carver after he gloats about how the plan cannot be stopped, and then Bond comes face to face with Stamper, who has Wai Lin in chains.  Stamper drops Wai Lin underwater, Bond fights Stamper, etc.

    Then everybody dies.  Just kidding.  Of course Bond manages to a) destroy the cruise missile, b) kill Stamper, and c) rescue Wai Lin before she drowns.  Oh, and d) destroy the stealth ship.

    Hope I didn't ruin the movie.

    This Bond film takes an interesting new direction, by having a media mogul as the big villain instead of just your run-of-the-mill psychopath.  Sure, he's trying to destroy Britain and have his stooge Gen. Chang take over China. (Really, General Chang? This guy?)

    Nope, not Christopher Plummer from Star Trek, just another baddie with the same name.

  • Bond – a good movie for Brosnan.  By now he owns the role.  He does well with the action sequences and with the moments the require more charm.

  • the Villains - Elliot Carver.  Jonathan Pryce is a very good actor and, indeed, this isn't a role that really challenges him.  He plays against type here, as we're used to him as a more mild-mannered fellow. 

  • the Bond Women – basically two in this one, Teri Hatcher as Paris Carver and Michelle Yeoh as Wai Lan. I feel that, if anything, Hatcher was under-utilized.  Her scenes with Brosnan are very good, but there aren't enough of him.  Yeoh is used more for her skill as an action star - her romantic scenes with Bond seem to be an afterthought and don't have half the chemistry as the scenes with Hatcher.  But, having said that, Yeoh is very good as a Chinese secret agent.  She brings a lot of credibility to her martial arts scenes.  

  • the Good Guys – most of the crew from  Goldeneye is back:  Judi Dench as 'M', Desmond Llewelyn as 'Q', Samantha Bond as Moneypenny, and even Joe Don Baker as Wade.  Colin Salmon is good as a new character, Charles "Robby" Robinson.  

  • the Henchmen - Ricky Jay is his usual understated self as Gupta.  Gotz Otto is yet another German brute.  Vincent Schiavelli is charming in his brief apperance as Dr. Kaufman. 

  • the gadgets – the most important is the BMW.  It rocks.

  • On the whole, a decent-enough film. Strengths? Hatcher and Yeoh and the plot. Making the media into the bad guy is an interesting twist. It's a nice change from the standard bad guy in a secret hidden fortress. Oh, and the BMW is great.

    Weaknesses? Pryce just isn't intimidating as the Big Baddie. Also, it feels like half the movie consists of Bond and/or Wai Lin either being captured or escaping capture. Not exactly written at a very high level.

    I give the film a 7.0. users give it a 6.5. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a mediocre 57% freshness rating.

    The third is

    The World is Not Enough

    The film begins with an assassination at MI6 headquarters in the Docklands of London. Sir Robert King, an international businessman, is taken out by some explosive fake money.  There's a great chase scene through the waterways of East London, featuring Bond piloting a special boat designed by Q (naturally) that is capable of diving under barriers.

    Anyway, that scene resolves itself with the (female) assassin killing herself rather than be taken captive and face the wrath of her unnamed boss.

    The main part of the story involves Bond's efforts to protect Elektra King (Sophie Marceau), Sir Robert's daughter and heir.

    She was the victim of a kidnapping several years earlier by a criminal named Renard.   M advised Sir Robert to not pay the ransom, but she was eventually rescued and her captor received a bullet in the brain for his trouble.  Funnily enough, the only effect of the bullet was to deaden Renard's ability to feel pain.  Oh, and the bullet is still moving and will eventually kill him. 1990s science - this was before CSI and greater demand for passable science in our entertainment.

    After Sir Robert's death, Elektra takes over the family business, which is involved in building a gas pipeline through central Asia.  While she is inspecting the pipeline, Bond insists on accompanying her, skiing over some snow-covered terrain.  A bizarre attack comes at them from a group of parachuting snowmobiles.

    Bond fights them off and finds evidence that Renard was behind the attack.  He goes to Robbie Coltrane's casino, where he finds out that Renard had been cut loose from the KGB.  After their tete-a-tete, Elektra enters the casino, to play a game of high-stakes High Card with Coltrane.  She loses a million dollars on the draw of one card.

    There's a sequence where Bond visits a nuclear facility in Kazakhstan, on the trail of Renard.  He meets American physicist "Christmas" Jones, played by Denise Richards.

    Renard manages to steal a warhead and put it in the King pipeline.  Bond confronts Elektra, accusing her of being Renard's accomplice, of having turned to his sign during the kidnapping as a result of Stockholm Syndrome. Elektra rejects the accusation.  And the events trigger M's desire to be "on the scene," joining Elektra and Bond in the area.

    While the whole crowd is in the pipeline command center, Bond notices the bomb is in the pipeline.  He volunteers to defuse the bomb and Christmas goes with him to do so.  They get into the pipeline and defuse the nuclear charge, but allow the trigger explosive to blow a hole in the pipeline.  This leads to Elektra thinking that they're dead, at which point she reveals herself to be a baddie and takes M hostage.

    The ending is somewhat anticlimactic.  Renard still has half of the nuclear material and intends to detonate it in Istanbul, destroying the city and forcing the world to use the King pipeline to ship gas to the Med.  M has a cool escape sequence.  Zukovsky's HQ is bizarrely attacked by an aerial saw carried by a helicopter.

  • Bond – Brosnan continues to provide what the audience needs as Bond.  He is smooth, capable of action sequences, and convincing as the charmer.

  • the Villains - Renard and Elektra.  Robert Carlyle is tough and strutting as Renard, but the real villain here is Elektra.  And Sophie Marceau is terrific.  She's at the peak of her beauty in this film, and has the acting chops to carry off the dual-natured role of Elektra.  If only the writing had been a little better!  Her actions don't always make that much sense.  Her loyalty to Renard really isn't motivated by the script.  Oh well.  

  • the Bond Women – in addition to Marceau who is excellent, we have Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist.  Richards is absolutely awful.  Quite possibly this is the worst casting decision in the entire series.  She's simply not remotely convincing as a nuclear physicist.  In the final third of the movie, it's really hard to not want her to meet some kind of gruesome fate.  But at least there's Sophie Marceau, who is arguably the best "Bond Girl" of the Brosnan years.  I would say she's the best actress of the bunch, though both Michelle Yeoh and Halle Berry bring a lot to their respective roles.

  • the Good Guys – Desmond Llewelyn makes his seventeenth and final appearance as Q.   Judi Dench makes her third apperance as M, and does her usual great job.   Samantha Bond continues playing the Brosnan-era Moneypenny.  John Cleese makes an appearance as "R", Q's successor.  He's decent at the role, but ultimately he didn't find these films terribly satisfying. Michael Kitchen has a small role as MI-6 operative Bill Tanner that doesn't really utilize his considerable talents.  [Aside: I highly recommend his series Foyle's War.]

  • the Henchmen - pop artist Goldie plays "Bullion", Zukovsky's right-hand man who is revealed to be secretly allied with Renard and Elektra.  He's amusing.  There's also Elektra's bodyguard, Gabor, a huge black guy who quietly lurks in Elektra's vicinity at all times.

  • the gadgets – well, there's the boat that Bond.  And the flying snowmobiles.  

  • ludicrous - pretty much any scene with Denise Richards in it.  

  • There are good aspects of The World is Not Enough, and bad aspects.  Sophie Marceau is great as Elektra.  Denise Richards is terrible as Christmas Jones.  The major plot twist has the effect of making some of the early sequences nonsensical.  (If Elektra is a baddie, isn't the entire aerial kidnapping scene illogical?)

    I give the film a 7.3. users are not impressed, giving it a 6.4.  Rotten Tomatoes gives it a mere 51%, the worst since A View to a Kill.

    The fourth is

    Die Another Day

    It came out shortly after Halle Berry won her Oscar for Monster's Ball.

    Starts with Bond going undercover on a mission to North Korea.  He's selling conflict diamonds to a Colonel Tan-Sun Moon for a variety of weapons. Of course his cover is quickly blown by Moon's associate Zao.  He improbably steals a hovercraft (these Koreans use hovercrafts to travel around the minefields of the DMZ) and leads the Colonel on a merry chase.  The chase results in the hovercrafts going over a waterfall.  Bond is captured and Moon is believed dead.

    After 14 months of captivity (and the opening credits), Bond is returned to the UK as part of a prisoner exchange for Zao.  Colonel Moon and Zao had been betraying North Korea with the help of a traitor in the West, who also betrayed Bond.  MI-6 was happy to let Bond rot in prison until some intel appeared that led them to think that Bond had cracked.  At that point they felt it necessary to get him out before he did more damage.

    M grounds Bond and cancels his double-0 status. He's held captive in a hospital in Hong Kong, but escapes.  He wanders into a swank Hong Kong hotel and gets the Presidential Suite thanks to his connection to the manager.  Uses that connection to track Zao to Cuba. There his local contact points him to a surgical clinic on a fortress island. But first, the best scene of the movie.

    It takes these two about five seconds to hook up.

    The next day they go separately to the clinic (unbeknownst to each other), where Zao is trying to get plastic surgery to turn him into a German.  Jinx targets the doctor who runs the place and kills him.  Bond finds Zao and gets into a fight.  Zao escapes, Bond and Jinx discover each other there and slowly figure out that each of them is up to something - Bond when he finds the dead doctor and Jinx when she sees Bond carrying a gun shooting at the helicopter Zao escapes in.

    But Bond has taken diamonds from Zao before he got away.  He tracks the diamonds to German magnate Gustav Graves.  Graves has discovered a new diamond mine, but Bond suspects it's a front from conflict diamonds.

    On to London...Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens) makes his appearance via parachute, greed by a mob of media as well as his aide Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike).  Then there's a fencing scene with Madonna (uncredited) as a fencing instructor named Verity.  And then Bond and Graves have a fencing match.  Starts with electric swords than switches to old-fashioned sabres, cutting skin, etc.  Essentially a pissing contest that doesn't fit in the plot very well.

    Next, Bond talks things out with M, and then there's a scene in which Bond is defending MI-6 headquarters, but it just turns out to be the most realistic virtual reality training session since the Holodeck. Courtesy of the new Q, as the role is taken over by John Cleese.

    New gadgets: ring with ultrasonic glass breaking capacity.  New watch.  Invisible car.

    Next, it turns out that Frost is actually working for M.

    Off to Iceland with Bond and Frost and Graves.  And of course Jinx shows up.  And Zao.  The plotting here isn't really all that smooth.  Turns out Graves is really Colonel Moon post-"genetic therapy to give him a new identity".  And he's got a secret weapon, a satellite platform named "Icarus" that brings extra sunlight to the planet.

    Bond and Jinx do lots of running around, investigating, getting captured, escaping, etc.  As an homage to Goldfinger, Zao orders Jinx sliced by a laser.  Actually, there are nods to all the previous Bond films in Die Another Day.  This site explains all of them.  The two most impressive are the into of Jinx seen above, reminiscent of Honey Rider in Dr. No, and the laser carving table.

    Jinx has a lot of corny lines.  Really a lot of them.

    So Bond escapes in Graves's ice speed racer, then comes back and gets his invisible.  At this point I feel like the plot is being driven by the devices, not vice versa.  Anyway, Bond and Jinx escape Iceland, as do Graves, Zao, and Frost.

    Quick segue to a huge crisis in Korea: somehow Graves has enough contacts in North Korea to start a minor coup, toppling his father the general.  His plan is to use Icarus to clear a path through the DMZ, allowing the massive North Korean army to an invasion of the South.

    At this point one has to wonder where the US Air Force is.  The movie seems to rely on the idea that a mine field is key to the defense of South Korea.  To say that is "simplistic" doesn't quite cut it.  It would be more accurate to say this plot device is "horribly unrealistic".  Oh well.

    So Jinx and Bond infiltrate Graves's command plane.  By chasing it down.  On foot.  Which is easy to do when a plane is taxiing at, say, less than 10 mph.
    Anyway, Graves kills his father with an electric glove, which feels like one gadget too many.  Jinx takes over the pilot's chair, but is confronted by Frost.  Somehow a sword fight happens.  Here it is (non-English, but you're not missing anything):

    Or skip to 4m10s in this video.

    There's not much more to say about this movie. It just has a weak screenplay: too many over-clever puns at ridiculous moments.

    Anyway, on to the checklist.

    • Bond – Brosnan is pretty good here.  He does the escaped prisoner bit well.  Wish he had a bit more chemistry with one of the female leads.
    • the Villain- Graves just isn't that compelling.  The weakest villain in some time.
    • the Bond Women – Halle Berry brings a lot as Jinx.  Her action sequences are very good.  And of course he's gorgeous.  But the dialogue they give her is often dreadful.  The writers cannot quite figure out what to do with her.  They have a small number of roles that they like: ditzy 1-night stand, bad girl rescued by Bond, or evil villainess.  Jinx should be, in theory, co-equal with Bond, but they don't quite do it right.  
    • the Good Guys – Judi Dench is still great as M.  Cleese gets one movie as Q.  Reportedly he thought the movie was silly.  Samantha Bond had a virtual reality fantasy sequence as Moneypenny.  Michael Madsen plays the CIA chief, Falco.  Mostly he walks around expressing sarcasm.  Colin Salmon is back as Robinson, but he isn't really used much.  
    • the Henchmen - Rosamund Pike as Frost is very good, though the ambiguity about who she is actually working for make one wonder how many of her inconsistencies are intentional.  A good early movie for an actress who's become A-list.  The other henchmen are pretty much forgettable.
    • the gadgets – way too many.  I can live with the ring and the watch, but the invisible car crosses the line to utterly ridiculous.  And the movie really didn't need the electric power fist.  

    Ultimately there was no guiding principle to this movie other than "stuff as much into it as possible" as well as "take advantage of Halle Berry".  And while she's fine (oh so fine), that doesn't excuse the chaotic plot and poor writing.

    I give Die Another Die a 6.1.  So do users.  And 57% from Rotten Tomatoes, which really isn't very good.

    Considering the Brosnan era as a whole, it started well, and Brosnan himself is great, but the later movies became unwieldy: bad writing, bad plotting, a lack of fresh ideas.  I wish there had been a bit more pruning of the bad ideas.  The movies made good money - much better than the Dalton movies, but nowhere near the Connery films when adjusting for inflation.  But even though Die Another Day set a new record for (unadjusted) revenue, it was not well received, critically.

    The Brosnan era also meant the transition from Albert to Barbara Broccoli.  It would be fair to say that she's done a good job maintaining commercial success in the aftermath of the Dalton era.  More about her when we finish this series by looking at the Daniel Craig movies.

    No comments: