Casino Royale (2006) - Insanely Long Preliminary Comments
Four years ago I left the theaters a broken man - filled with self-disgust and loathing. The franchise that I had obsessively loved for nearly my entire life had produced a massive steamer that can be ranked second only to Gigli in the annals of cinematic stench. Should I try to spark my tiny brain into generating the electric impulses necessary for me to pull myself into the mephitic ooze of the nearest tar pit so I could molder away in blissful forgetfulness? No. Suicide was not the answer. Better to lower my head in shame and slink off like a sewer rat into the fever swamps of my imagination and fervently pray that the franchise would die. But then to the fetid dampness of my crypt-like resting place came the news - possibly borne on black wings from Hell itself. The franchise lived! And this fact perched on my shoulder like Edgar Allen Poe's raven - cawing "Nevermore" and denying me my craved for surcease from sorrow as long as I lived. Yet another actor! Some unknown British blonde guy! And in the ultimate existential insult - some goofball who is actually younger than I am! It was as if I had become the eponymous portrait in the story of Dorian Gray and I was decaying away heartsick, saddened and embarrassed while the franchise itself became even younger and more gratuitously insulting to the intelligence.
Then came the day - November 19, 2006. Furtively purchasing a ticket while clad in dark glasses and a trench coat I slunk to the back of a Sandy Springs theater. Why was I here? Did I want to finally abandon all hope and joy? Did I want to confront the soul shattering possibility that we are all inconsequential specks cast adrift in a cold and uncaring universe? The lights dimmed. And what I witnessed was the second most miraculous resurrection in history. Well, third actually because that Lazarus thing is definitely on a higher plane too.
OK. For the sake of you dear readers, let's ratchet back the rhetoric just a bit. And for the sake of myself let me ask His forgiveness for comparing a Bond film to his far more spectacular handiwork. Simply put, Casino Royale is the most exciting Bond movie I've seen since Dalton's first time at bat in The Living Daylights. And even Dalton's movie had the benefit of being viewed through some pretty rosy glasses. I was in college, ready to graduate, best friend in attendance, our best girls by our side. We were filled with hope and optimism about the future. It was hard not to be swept away by the movie while at the same time we dreamt about the limitless vistas that lay before us. Now I'm old and wizened. Hopes and aspirations have turned to ashes on the tongue. Muttering away in a ratty bathrobe in the corner, I seek to deaden the pain and disappointment with cheap liquor. OK. Again with the rhetoric. What I'm trying to say is that the Bond franchise has once again nearly 20 years after my salad days reinvented itself, deeply touched the heart of a now middle-aged man, and produced what will easily be counted as one of the best films in the series. I can't easily slide it into my countdown at this early date, but I'm sure it would still be yet to appear in my currently aborted list.
To make this movie even more miraculous, its greatness comes from an entirely unexpected direction. Given the release of this movie and its attendant hype, most people are probably aware that Casino Royale was Ian Fleming's first novel. Over fifty years ago when Fleming was looking around to sell his stories to Hollywood, this book slipped into the possession of some TV producers. The result of this I am ashamed to say I've never seen. The inestimable Agony Booth has the rundown. Rights to Fleming's other books were purchased by the film company that produced the seminal Dr. No and the rest is cinematic history. The surrendered rights to Casino Royale fell into the hands of a bunch of freaky 60's movie making squares that fantasized themselves as being in tune with the hippy-dippy, pot smoking acid droppers of that era. The result was a completely ridiculous "comedic" version of the story that's only memorable for providing another unwarranted forum for future step-daughter shtupping pervert Woody Allen. Once again I defer to the Agony Booth to provide you the whole sordid story.
Legal machinations and corporate restructurings, however, have led to the rights to Fleming's novel falling back into the hands of the Bond production team. Here was the one Fleming novel not used for plot points, or simply in the shakier adaptations as an excuse for a movie title, and those rights have enabled them to draw on heretofore unavailable source material. To be honest, however, until today I've never really regretted the loss of Casino Royale to the legal sharks. I always thought that it was a novel that would require a lot of embellishment before appearing on screen. Fleming's The Spy Who Loved Me would of course win the prize in the "How the heck can we make a movie from this?" sweepstakes, but his first novel also has peculiarities that don't reappear in any of his other books. I think that Fleming was understandably quite tentative when he wrote his first book. He was well aware that his foray into fiction writing might be immediately forgotten and I think he felt the need to wrap the entire story up into one complete package. At the same time, however, Fleming was so deeply and personally involved with his creation that he also must have desired a chance to write a sequel or two. I defer to the great Mark Steyn to elaborate on this point and not only do justice to Fleming's rhetorical gifts but also point how much of the Bond cannon was hinted at in this early work.
The story found in Fleming's first novel is quite straightforward and easily summarized in a paragraph or two. The head of a French labor union is actually on the payroll of a bunch of dirty rotten Commies - the Russkie organization SMERSH that will reappear in subsequent books. The man has named himself Le Chiffre - English translation The Number - as a cutting protest against bourgeois materialism the likes of which has not been seen since some parents named their kid Seven in those old Charlie Brown cartoons. Le Chiffre has lost his patron's money in a series of bad investments and his only hope in recouping the losses is to win at some high stakes card games at Casino Royale. The British Secret Service sees a chance not only to destroy Le Chiffre but embarrass the Commies by sending Bond to clean him out at the casino. Aided by a fellow agent, Vesper Lynd, and the Americans in the person of Felix Leiter, Bond does indeed wipe out Le Chiffre. Le Chiffre doesn't give up easily, however. He kidnaps Vesper, entices Bond to follow and captures him as well. Bond is viciously - and quite memorably to those who have read the book - tortured to get him to turn over the winnings. But Le Chiffre's treachery catches up with him and Bond survives. Other than the odd exploding Bulgarian, this represents all the book has to offer in the way of action. At this point we are at most 2/3rd's into the book and the final chapters involve Bond recovering from torture, extensively (perhaps far too extensively) discussing his job and his future with a friend, and a very sad little plot twist that I'll tap dance around given that the movie is still in theaters.
Now while I could stick to the letter of my claim about the difficulty of adapting Casino Royale by pointing out all the emendations made by the filmmakers to the original story, I'm humble enough to say that I was entirely wrong in spirit with my prediction. At a clearly defined point in the film, Fleming's plot is reproduced in astonishingly faithful detail. Fleming fans who have read his first novel will be amazed at how every single dramatic event and plot point from that book have their clearly defined counterpoints in the movie itself - right down to the unmentionable torture and the downbeat ending itself. One would need to dust off the nearly forty year old On Her Majesty's Secret Service if one wanted to watch a Bond film that so closely followed the plot of one of Fleming's books. This fidelity to Fleming's book is the reason that I've tended to blanch at the discussion of this film as a "reboot". It’s bad enough that this has led to a lot of cringe inducing comparisons between Bond and that action-movie johnny-come-lately Batman. After all Bond was clearly a military man - most likely the British WWII equivalent of a Navy Seal - who simply decided to continue to serve his country after the war ended. He didn't decide to flounce around the city after dark with a teenaged boy while dressed up in tights. He really doesn't need an "origin" story. And while I think that the conceit that this may be Bond's first mission gave an unprecedented chance to the filmmakers and Daniel Craig himself to abandon all of the more risible elements of the franchise and they used this chance to tremendous advantage, I also think that the movie's success is most clearly due to how respectful it is to Fleming's story. After all they could have created an "origin" story out of whole cloth where we find out that Bond's ability to hypnotize Halle Berry with his crotch is due to a bad case of polonium irradiated crabs he picked up in Vladimir Putin's Russia. I doubt that such an approach would have revitalized the saga as this movie has, however.
The movie's teaser introduces its conceit by showing us Bond's first two assassinations and earning his 00 distinction as a result. While they don't go down quite the way Fleming described, the number of kills required to earn the 00 prefix is definitely part of the canon. While these particular incidents don't appear to drive the future plot in any way, it is still strongly implied from this point forward that Bond is a very newly minted 007. Unfortunately we'd have to again go back twenty years to Licence to Kill to find a less memorable theme song than the one that follows the teaser here, but at least we aren't being purposely being tortured by it as we were when the geriatric Madonna started caterwauling four years ago. After the teaser, we watch as the villainous Le Chiffre shows up in some sub-Saharan hellhole promising to safely sequester the funds of some African warlord types. The cash is not even fully loaded aboard the truck, however, before we seen him planning to embezzle the funds for his own investment schemes. Perhaps simultaneously, Bond himself is in some other sub-Saharan hellhole surveilling a known terrorist suspected of plotting a future attack. While the surveillance goes bad, one spectacular foot chase latter Bond finds himself in possession of the terrorist's cell phone and is able to determine that a recently received call originated from the Bahamas.
Bond heads to the Bahamas and discovers that the man that called the terrorist from the earlier scene is the swarthy Dimitrious - a man that has been named 2nd Runner-Up in the Annual Bahaman Eric Bogosian Look-Alike Contest for 4 consecutive years. In an absolutely fantastic bit, Bond totally embarrasses the guy by winning his car - a classic Goldfinger-era Aston Martin - from him in a card game. There's something almost mystical in Fleming's obsession with games, as if the cosmos itself intervened to overturn the laws of chance so that evil always left the table (or golf course) vanquished. The busted Dimitrious is then seen visiting Le Chiffre himself and we learn that he is the middle man - hiring mercenary terrorists at Le Chiffre's behest. Since Bond has iced the African terrorist previously hired for the job, Dimitrious is off to Miami to hire someone new. Bond learns of the destination from Dimitrious' wife and takes off in hot pursuit.
In Miami Dimitrious spots Bond following him and initiates a truly ill-advised physical confrontation. One dead Dimitrious latter, Bond is again in possession of a cell phone that allows him to identify the terrorist that has been contracted by Dimitrious. As an aside if you yourself are a betting man or woman take that mortgage payment and put that money down with your bookie, because there is no way that this movie is not going to win Best Picture at this year's Wireless Technology Awards. The terrorist's destination is the Miami airport and a new experimental passenger aircraft that is being unveiled by the thinly-veiled Bond universe version of that bloated socialistic taxpayer-funded European aircraft company that dropped the Airbus on an uncaring world a couple of years back. Because of a very tasteful decision on the part of the screenwriters, the experimental plane is actually on the ground outside a hanger when the attack takes place. I'm grateful for this because I still find midair terror a little too traumatizing after 9/11. In any event, longer story given below, the attack is foiled by Bond and the plot of the novel proper begins.
The novel's plot is introduced when the uber-annoying "M" jets into the Bahamas to p@ss and moan about the body count that Bond is racking up. OK, I see that. After all, he's killed all of two people - one undeniably in self defense and the other arguably so. The Western World hasn't seen such carnage since the Allies firebombed Dresden. Is MI6 supposed to operate under U.S. Army rules of engagement in Bagdad now? Are 00's supposed to sit around idle at their desks at Universal Exports so as not to appear culturally insensitive? In any event, the old harridan lays out the motivation for the subsequent action. Le Chiffre has used the money he received from the African warlords at the start of the movie to buy puts on the stock of the aforementioned European aircraft company. Said puts are now worth zero and Le Chiffre has some serious 'splaining to do to the machete wielding madmen he stole money from. In a desperate bid to save his keister, Le Chiffre is hoping to win a no-limit poker tournament at Casino Royale. Bond is to enter the tournament in an attempt to bust him. The screenwriters have actually done a pretty clever polish here, because there was no completely solid reason in Fleming's book as to why Le Chiffre shouldn't have simply been greased. The only reason given for playing the guy at chemin de fer was that if he were to be killed outright, he would end up a martyr to the Commie cause. Here the game is much better motivated in that MI6 hopes that Le Chiffre will be so in fear of his life after losing that he will squeal about his knowledge of terrorism to save his skin. Not only does this tighten up the plot a bit, but it makes Bond's torture at Le Chiffre's hands later in the movie even more disturbing. As Le Chiffre points out, even if Bond doesn't break and give him the money, MI6 will still put him in protective custody in return for what he knows.
I hate to indulge too much in speculation given my complete lack of imagination, but there are also some intriguing hints as to where the franchise will go from here given the setup so far. For example Le Chiffre was introduced to the African warlords by another man tagged as Mr. White simply as someone who was a master money launderer. Just as in the novel Le Chiffre is at best a conspiracy middle-manager, not an actual mastermind of same. A tool of the Commies in Fleming's book, Le Chiffre here is a tool of a more shadowy organization. It is almost certainly the case that the African warlords that Le Chiffre embezzled from are not involved in any way with the attempt to blow up the aircraft at the Miami airport. As the money man behind terrorist acts, however, Le Chiffre misappropriates miscellaneous funds in his charge and uses them to place bets on the aftermath of those attacks. Bond most decidedly insures that Le Chiffre's luck runs out, but the bigger organization that is responsible for the terrorist machinations remains mysterious. Is there something in fact somewhat SPECTRE-esque about those behind Le Chiffre? Only the next few movies will tell.
At this point what can I say other than that every detail of Fleming's plot is so loving recreated that it is easier to discuss the differences rather than the similarities? Very early on I winced when I heard that they were changing the game played from chemin de fer to Texas hold 'em. I took this as evidence that once again the filmmakers were trying to be trendy/and or further dumbing down the series. But now I must confess that even were my suspicions about the filmmakers correct, the change to poker plays out tremendously well on screen. Even those who have no personal familiarity with baccarat variations will probably remember from earlier Bonds in which they appear that they are blackjack type games where the goal is to reach 9 rather than 21. All betting is up front, usually only one card can be drawn and there are rigid rules about whether one can draw that card or not given his current hand. I really can't imagine that unless you're Rain Man and can count cards, there is all that much more to the game than pure luck. Poker however, especially in its hold 'em variant here, requires a large element of skill. It seems as describing the mathematics of the game has become something of a modern cottage industry with scores of books describing how to calculate odds of certain hands and how to relate those odds to the expected winnings from a pot and how to use game theory to randomize bluffing strategy. Thus as the game between Bond and Le Chiffre unfolds here it is clear that the game has become a battle of wits and not just a matter of who is luckier, and I think this adds tremendously to the tension of the gambling scenes. In addition, the nature of the game allows some foreshadowing aplenty. Bond rather arrogantly takes pride in his ability to read his opponents at the gaming table, but in retrospect it becomes clear that his ability to read others is sorely lacking in other far more important situations.
The exploding Bulgarians fail to put in an appearance here, with the attempt on Bond's life during the game being made with poison. The poisoning itself plays out quite well on screen, but does introduce the only instance of a somewhat implausible gadget. Poisoned with digitalis, Bond finds himself going into cardiac arrest and must use a defibrillator to restart his heart. I have to ask however - why in the world do defibrillators come standard in tricked out Secret Service Aston Martins? Do the 00's have to shuttle Dick Cheney around during their downtime? A pair of very dissatisfied clients of Le Chiffre shows up after having learned about Le Chiffre's embezzlement. These guys don't show up in the book, but there inclusion is truly inspired in that their visit results in some great acting moments on the part of all the major participants in this enterprise. Other than this the film wraps up in a way almost identical to the way the novel wraps up. The truly nasty torture scene is faithfully replicated and the disheartening ending, while far noisier here, is in spirit identical as well. The last line of dialogue in the book - one that any Fleming fan will be able to tell you on the spot - appears here as well, although just as in the novel Bond doesn't really mean it here either.
Because Casino Royale has been so cleverly conceived, Daniel Craig has taken his place alongside Rush Limbaugh and Alton Brown as one of the luckiest men alive. The only way he could have failed to appear acceptably Bondian given the script would have involved his stumbling around the set going "Melvin glavin!! La, la, la, nice lady!!". To put Craig's success down to serendipity, however, is to slight the masterful performance that he has turned in. No matter how good the current project, Bond carries 40+ years of cinematic baggage and has been portrayed now by 6 different actors (more if you count crazy stuff like the TV and the comedic versions of "Casino Royale") not to mention the original source material the oldest of which is now more than 50 years old. The infernal horned one must surely have whispered in Craig's ear and told him to strut and preen and try to be the hip, cool, impossibly suave and indestructible iconic caricature that Bond has too often become in the movies. Craig, however, has done the exact opposite. Far from being some kind of monument, Craig's Bond is a well fleshed-out likeable human being. Cocky, but humbled more than once. Very tough, but softly tender. Literally deadly serious, but willing to joke - even at his own expense. Happy and carefree when things turn out well, petulant and angry when things go bad. In short Craig's Bond is an ordinary man sharing all the faults and foibles that all the rest of us have. While it's far far too early to buy into hype about the best Bond ever, I think that Fleming himself would be enormously pleased. Fleming's stories are so enjoyable because Bond comes across as a generally likeable person, not some eccentric weirdo like his rival in the iconic character sweepstakes Sherlock Holmes. Anyone who's read Fleming knows the little human touches - Bond's love of boozing it up and joking around with his buddies, Bond's fear of flying, Bond's vexation over women drivers, the less than savory opinions about foreigners - a grab-bag of feelings good, bad and ugly that find counterparts in all of us.
Craig has drawn me back to theater 3 times now, and each time I found myself enjoying his performance more and more. Bond has an unfortunate history of making smart-a#* quips in the movies - a tendency that turned into downright smuttiness during the Bronsan era. Craig however is genuinely humorous - deprecatingly so. Bond during his first run-in with Vesper childishly wants to prove his sagacity by launching into a bunch of boorish intimations about her personal history. After getting cut off near the knees and asked how he found his lamb dinner he answers "Skewered - one sympathizes". Credit the screenwriter for good dialogue, but its Craig’s willingness to be so deservedly chastened that makes his Bond so real. I also loved the bit where Bond tries to tell Vesper that she has to go undercover with the name "Stephanie Broadchest" just to get a rise out of her. Juvenile to be sure, but clearly born of affection. One of my favorite more serious bits comes after Bond has blown it at Casino Royale and lost his stake. Other reviews have focused on Bond's request for a martini. Asked whether it should be shaken or stirred he replies that he doesn't give a damn. The joke is actually less interesting than the framing story. Bond doesn't care about the booze because he thinks he's failed in his mission. The next scene sees him grabbing a steak knife and going off to try to kill Le Chiffre in some nasty hand to hand combat. Timely intervention by the CIA prevents this course of action, but forget the martini. Who doesn't completely empathize with his desire to lash out?
Some of Craig's best work actually comes when he's showing his good-natured everyman side. A great moment comes when upon arrival at Casino Royale, Bond demands that Vesper wear some revealing dress he brought because he thinks that she can put the other card players off of their game. Vesper shoots right back and demands he wear the jacket she picked out for him so that he plausibly resembles a high-stakes gambler. There is no doubt that the origin story intrudes here with the hint that Bond is some sartorially challenged rube that needs instruction on picking out the proper dinner jacket. What I like so much about this however is the more down-to-earth interaction between Bond and Vesper. I can't help but view Bond's request as again being a good-natured one. He is all but saying that Vesper's so attractive that she can cloud men's minds just by walking into a room, and I don't see that the dress he picked out is all embarrassingly hootchie mamma. And what rational man wouldn't treasure the opinion of an intelligent and attractive lady when it comes to his wardrobe? I'm telling you fellows that unless that jacket is made of red and white flannel and sports a bow tie that lights up and spins like a propeller, I'm going to put in on and be extremely grateful for the assistance of a lady friend. I also love the dinner enjoyed by Bond and Vesper in the aftermath of his win against Le Chiffre. In another perfect touch by the screenwriters, the crazy drink that Bond thought up in Fleming's book plays a major role in the movie. Its not so much the fusel oil laden liver poisons that make up that concoction that compel, but rather the goofy pride Bond takes in creating the thing in the first place. And as exhibit A in the case for Craig's great acting, watch how he clearly shows how much he's fallen for Vesper by going from preening over his crazy drink to being needingly self-deprecatory to possessing a sad wistfulness because he's long realized that Vesper's necklace was given to her by her lover and that there's a good chance he'll never see her again now that the mission is done. The piece-de-resistance from not only Craig, but Ms. Green as well, comes in the aftermath of the vicious fight between Bond and Le Chiffre's unhappy clients in a stairwell that spreads to involve Vesper as well. Bond enters the hotel suite afterwards and finds Vesper sitting in the shower fully clothed, disgusted and nauseated at the violence and her participation in same. Watch how perfectly Craig plays this. First he simply sits down next to her in the shower himself without initiating any contact until she is ready to do so (And he's fully dressed too you pervs). He's unsure in fact as to whether or not anything he says or does will only make things worse. Only after some time passes and Vesper does reach out to hold him does he tenderly put an arm around her shoulder and hold her. I've been racking my brain and I'm still unsure as to whether I can point to another moment in the whole history of the series that shows Bond so down-to-earth, caring and chivalrous. I can think of some moments again as far back as On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but even there Bond's more tender moments with Tracy came after some encounters decidedly less than chivalrous on his part.
I'm a compulsive reader of movie reviews, so I'm always afraid that my opinion is influenced by those more talented than myself. Skimming through reviews of Casino Royale however I'm surprised by how many critics have called Craig's Bond nasty or cold-hearted or brutish. As one can probably tell from the above, I'm largely of the opposite opinion and I'm not entirely sure why this impression is as widespread as it is. Is it due to the fact that Bond has become so risible that any remotely serious approach is going to look "gritty"? Is it due to the fact that the first third or so of the movie is so action heavy and Bond so death-dealing that the more human elements introduced later are not as clearly remembered? Or is it due to the fact that Craig has a forehead that most unfortunately for him brings haunting visions of Ted Danson's Frankenstein like physiognomy to moviegoers? Critics will have to answer these questions for themselves, but I'd point out that Bond doesn't do anything in this movie that we haven't seen him do numerous times in the past. And Craig again so clearly wears his heart on his sleeve that every act of brutality is again wrapped by incidents and intimations that lets us see Bond's feelings and emotions while events are taking place. Make no mistake. Bond isn't slipping into his jammies here and enjoying a warm glass of milk after a hard day of antiquing. Bond is a tough S.O.B. possessed of whatever callousness is necessary for a man in his line of work, but just as Fleming tells us he doesn't enjoy killing people there is no evidence in this movie that Craig's version enjoys it either. We watch Bond's first two kills during the teaser, but the same teaser clearly shows how tough the first one was. Bond does coolly quip about how easy the second is after getting the drop on his second hit, but is there any question that it is more out of a sense of enormous relief than a cruel streak. It's true that Bond is disparaged in various ways as uncaring or as a blunt instrument or as soulless or as bad but I note that it is only by characters that are either a complete pain-in-the-#ss ("M") or are not completely reliable (Solange, and to a lesser degree Vesper), so the source of the comment needs to be kept in mind while judging their overall validity. After a few viewings I do have to admit that Bond really didn't need to gun down the terrorist he was chasing early in the film, but even there I bet that he thought his chances of living through the whole thing given his situation were slim enough that he might as well take the rotten b*st@rd with him.
On the subject of brutishness, or more accurately caddishness, I have to discuss some more fascinating subtext that the movie introduces. The character of Solange is quite literally a throwaway one. (Incredibly esoteric aside - Solange is the name of the female lead in a Fleming short story "007 in New York"; a story so obscure I've never managed to get my hands on a print version of it.) Solange here is the wife of the unfortunate Dimitrious and is aggressively hit upon by Bond after he wins her husband's Aston Martin. I think it is clear from the ensuing scenes and some later dialogue in which Bond tells Vesper that she's not his type because she's single, that we are supposed to view Bond as a cad who preys on married women so as to easily avoid commitment. There is, I'm sorry to say, a Fleming-esque element here because I distinctly remember an offhand reference in one of the novels to the effect that Bond was carrying on with one or more married women in London. What's so interesting here, however, is how truly uninterested in Solange Bond seems to be even after asking her back to his place. Even with the little bit of smooching and pillow talk, Bond spends most of the time asking questions about her husband. After he learns Dimitrious is off to Miami, Bond walks out on her altogether. It comes across not as some caddish compulsion to hit on married women as much as a hit or miss try to get information useful to the job at hand. Solange has already displayed some decidedly uncaring proclivities vis a vis her husband, so Bond may have just been asking what he had to lose in making a pass. And couple this indifference to Bond's later interaction with Vesper; feelings often tender and affectionate, but not so much that he'll accept her refusal to help him beat Le Chiffre. It’s clear that what matters most to Bond here is the job. In fact I'm not even sure the job takes place of pride versus his desire to win in general - at cards, in a foot chase, at tracking down the location of M's cauldron, etc. Is it possible that women come in a distant third to Bond after winning and his job? Yes. I admit that's absurd in a way because statistics show that approximately 93.8% of all men's thoughts do indeed concern woman, but once again the subtext humanizes Bond here in a very original way. I can promise you ladies that as much as we think about it, we are not all satyrs and we don't all aspire to be horny, rump-slapping old lechers in either comedic (Moore), loutish (Connery) or sleazy (Brosnan) incarnations. There is no better indication as to just what an oyster the world is to Craig than the interaction here between him and the leading ladies. If he has truly been able to abandon some of the lizard-brained sexual obsessions that have burrowed into Bond's movie persona like Fleming's rhetorical death-watch beetle of the soul, he will be able to take his characterization absolutely anywhere that he feels necessary to make it uniquely his.
The wonderful freedom granted to Craig to create a real down-to-earth human Bond was also extended to Mads Mikkelsen to create the same in an adversary. Mikkelsen's Le Chiffre is light years away from changing his DNA and never sleeping or building his own space station or cross-dressing, cloning doubles and launching diamond powered satellites or any of the other wackier extremes of Bond villainy. In a sense, he's not even all that villainous. He promises to launder money for terrorists and expropriates it for his own investment schemes. When said schemes go bad, he finds himself so desperate for money that he sets up a high-stakes poker game in the vain hope of saving his bacon. I don't think Mikkelsen particularly matches the description of Le Chiffre in Fleming's book. While I haven't read it in a while, I remember feeling that the novel's Le Chiffre was middle-aged and maybe overweight (What the heck is a stone people??) - more of a Goldfinger/Gert Frobe type than Mikkelsen. But Mikkelsen's performance is so riveting it's a moot point. Somehow the man with his precious little bow-shaped moue and his lightly Brylcreemed Euro-trash comb over simply oozes loathsomeness every time he's on screen. Indeed so effortlessly and scene-stealingly loathsome he is, I fear for his future. I shudder to think of the poor man strolling through the grocery store in the future shopping for herring or lutefisk or some other cold-packed Scandinavian delicacy while all the other patrons aware of this movie are seized with disgust and hatred at the sight of him.
The screenwriters have inflicted Mikkelsen's character with an unfortunate malady that involves weeping blood, but he has stolen the scenes he's in long before this wrinkle is introduced. As faithful as this movie is to Fleming, I wonder if the screenwriters introduced this as a nod to him. Fleming's villains are frequently described as having a glint of red in the eye or having some weird white around the pupil. Neither is cinematic, however, so the eye problem here might be the best approximation. The inhaler that he occasionally uses is also a welcome nod to Fleming as his Le Chiffre used an inhaler as well. Le Chiffre prides himself in maintaining an emotionless, icy, creepy exterior and Mikkelsen uses the prop well to convey the character's uncertainty and hesitation. The little extrusions of humanity from Le Chiffre are also very well done. The oft mentioned African goons that have touched so many lives in this story also bring out some great acting from Mikkelsen. They first appear in Le Chiffre's hotel room after a break in the poker game, choke him half to death and threaten to chop his mistress' arm off. This results in another one of the great humanizing moments in the movie when Le Chiffre, who is not a man of action, abandons the facade and croaks out in despair at how helpless he is to prevent the mutilation of his mistress. The scene of course is Bond's torture at his hands, and the Craig/Mikkelsen duel is one for the ages. Bond of course is beaten and nearly broken - merely trying to make it to the end without giving Le Chiffre information. Le Chiffre is just as desperate. Wonderfully much of Le Chiffre's dialogue comes directly from Fleming's book, but while he tries to stay calm his threat is belied by the fact that he is sweating and falling apart just as comprehensively as Bond. And finally after a movie long attempt to maintain a calm exterior after a host of setbacks the volcano bursts and Le Chiffre loses it. He prepares to subject Bond to the same insult hinted at in the novel, but meets his fate before he can carry through. Mikkelsen does a fantastic job as he progressively breaks down over the course of the film and there is a clear intimation that he is just as completely beaten as Bond is at the end of this very disturbing sequence.
While it pains to me to have to say it, the third leg of the Bond-Villain-Bond Girl stool is not quite as sturdy as the first two. In all fairness to Eva Green, she was faced with two very big complications in inhabiting the role of Vesper Lynd. As Fleming's first female character, she is nowhere near as distinctive as those found in his subsequent works. Fleming's novel just doesn't give all that much to hang a characterization on. Secondly, the plot of the movie and novel require a degree of opacity on Vesper's part. Still I can't help but wonder if Ms. Green found herself chained by the same movie conventions that Craig and Mikkelsen cut loose from. I just get the feeling from her initial appearances that she felt as if she had to strut out as some hyper-confident super-glam ballsy broad that could give as good as she got instead of simply trying to come across as a regular person. Her first appearance is particularly egregious as she meets Bond on the train to Casino Royale. Bond undeniably lets loose with a bunch of boorish intimations about her private life, but it’s almost understandable after being hit with her "This is such a stupid idea. It can't possibly work with an eyebrow-ridged Neanderthal like yourself involved." attitude. The unpleasantness continues upon their arrival in Montenegro. Bond blows his cover by checking in at the hotel under his true name rather than the Beach alias that's been set up for him. Vesper again goes into a snit about what an egomaniac he is, etc., etc. At this point I just had to prevent myself from shouting out at the screen - "Vesper, hon, you work for the Treasury! What the h@ll do you know about undercover espionage?". I can just see how it could have all gone so much better. How about a general skepticism over the plan and Bond himself, but a desire to do whatever she can to help nonetheless? Even the anger over the busted alias might be understandable if she felt that it put her in danger personally. Why not show a little fear over that fact instead of primly chewing Bond out over it? I couldn't help thinking back to Die Another Day when Halle Berry's ditzy flooze Jinx flounced out of the water to ogle Bond's package and talk dirty before jumping into bed with him. Now with Vesper, Bond has to put up with the kind of ice queen treatment he receives every year from "M" during his performance review. Is there no middle ground here?
On the other hand, there are some fantastic touches that Ms. Green brings to the performance as well. I've previously mentioned Bond and Vesper's fight with some African goons in a stairwell. One of the goons takes a gainer off a high floor, but the second is harder to dispatch. During a brutal hand to hand fight between Bond and the goon, Vesper herself intervenes to prevent the goon from getting hold of a dropped gun - undoubtedly saving Bond's live in the process. No whimpering and helplessly crying "James, James" here and nothing ridiculous like whipping out a cyanide pen or cigarette laced with knock-out gas - just a desperate and terrifying attempt to help followed by nausea and self-disgust. Here's that middle ground that I so desired earlier. No trembling leaf fainting from the stress and no super-woman distaff Bond hoisting a leg into a simacrulum of a karate kick - just a regular person thrust into the most stressful of situations and doing her best to cope. I've already described the aftermath of this above with Bond doing all he can to comfort the understandably sickened Vesper. Here in one of the best scenes in the movie, Ms. Green's performance is just as perfect as Craig's. Her performance throughout the denouement is also quite good. I particularly liked her visit to the battered Bond during his recovery. Bond - lucky to be alive and still a man - is totally pie-eyed over Vesper after her visits to him. That opacity I referenced earlier now comes into play, and Ms. Green wonderfully projects how torn up she is about offering the poor dope any further affection. The longer the movie ran the more I found myself liking her performance. I just wish it had been so much more to start. By coming across as so abrasive initially, she doesn't end up with enough screen time to dig herself out of the hole. On the other hand we'd still have to go back to The World Is Not Enough to find a female lead as remotely interesting, and she was actually the villain of the piece!
A few words about secondary characters are also in order. First, I devoutly wish that the "re-invention" of the franchise had resulted in Judy Dench's annoying "M" getting the boot. I barely tolerated her during the Brosnan era because the overall quality of those films was already shaky enough that "M" was the least of their problems. Here in a very good film, however, it is totally inappropriate for her to be stomping around like Darrin Steven's witchy mother-in-law from "Bewitched". Fleming's "M" was crusty to be sure and tended to get Bond involved in all sorts of personal matters on his off time, but he didn't despise Bond - the only feeling Dench seems to be able to express. The man is out risking life and limb for queen and country every week. He doesn't need to suffer some obnoxious old crone reaming him out every five minutes. Frankly, I'm afraid there's some scene stealing going on here. "I'm Judy Dench. I'm an Oscar nominated actress. I need to be the center of attention in every scene I'm in." As secondary as M's character has come to be over in the years in the Bond films, such grandstanding is just not warranted. We'll probably be stuck with her for the next film as well, but I'm hoping that her intrusion in same is minor. Interestingly enough Bond himself shows her next to no respect throughout the film - at one point breaking into her home and stealing her passwords to access confidential files. Perhaps he's just as sick of her as we are.
Felix Leiter is far better served by Jeffrey Wright's portrayal. Fleming fans have long been acclimated to the fact that Leiter's character would never be as important to the films as he was in the novels. He's probably been played by at least 9 or 10 different actors in as many movies and none of the actors remotely resembled the character of the books. Wright is actually the second black actor to play Fleming's blond Texan. His portrayal is well suited to the film, however. Just like Craig, he plays it all straight - no "M" style over-the-top histrionics from him. And even though his inclusion in the plot differs from Fleming's novel (Leiter was in on the casino scheme from the very beginning in the book), I'm sure the interaction between him and Bond here would have made Fleming smile. Leiter here is trying himself to beat Le Chiffre but finds himself hopelessly out of his league. What does he do? He turns to the British of course! Leiter cheerfully admits to Bond that he's hopeless, and is more than happy to play the role of Mr. Moneybags. Some critics of Fleming have maintained that this was Leiter's role in the novels all along - an American foil not quite competent to do anything himself but always on hand to aid those who were the real masters, the British. I think that this implication by Fleming was subconscious at best, but I can't remember another film that more clearly hinted at it. All in all I would be more than happy to see Mr. Wright return. I think he could most probably handle a bigger role in the plot quite effectively.
A third character I'm going to refer to only obliquely as I don't want to engage in spoilers while the film is still in theaters. Readers of Fleming's book, however, will immediately see the disservice done to someone that plays a rather large part in the novel's plot. The only real complaint in fact that I have about the film's adaptation of Fleming's novel is the demotion of this character to red herring. I'm not even sure if its a case of being too clever or not trusting the audience to follow the plot. This isn't Agatha Christie, so there's really no reason to mislead anyone. At the same time, however, I wonder if the screenwriters were trying to desperately draw attention to the fact that treachery was taking place because they didn't think the audience would pick up on it. In a film this good, however, I can't make too much of this disappointment. Its most unlikely than it can propagate forward into another Bond film.
Oh yeah. There's some action oriented material in this movie as well. As the verbosity above makes clear if all they could do this time was muster the usual desultory batch of gunfights and car chases that made the Brosnan era so mediocre, I would have still tremendously enjoyed this movie. This film, however, incredibly marks the return of the fantastic stunt work that was a staple of the series prior to the 90's. Where the h@ll have these stuntmen been for the last 16+ years? Had Saddam Hussein been holding these guys hostage in his spider hole since Gulf War I? The fantastic foot chase that starts the film is a steal at 5 times the admission price alone. Apparently the African gentlemen, Sebastien Foucan, that plays Bond's quarry in this chase has made a discipline of this "free running" and all I can say is I hope they paid the guy enough to retire. The sequence is pure kinetic genius as these madmen leap around, over and through obstacles, scramble up the sides of buildings and jump from height to height. What makes this so exciting I think is that unlike tedious gunplay or even my far more favorite fist fighting, none of this action requires any creative editing. All they had to do was point the camera at these lunatics and start the film rolling. They've done this in the past with one-offs like the leaps that start The Spy Who Loved Me or Goldeneye, but here the effect continues to accumulate as if all these moments from earlier films were strung together one right after the other. Now I have a list of phobias that would rival that of Monk himself in its length but numero uno is heights, so much of the adrenaline produced in me from watching this sequence stems from my visceral fear at watching someone simply standing on a great height. And leaping from height to height!? Forget it!! All I can say is that were I stuck standing on that crane I would be desperately clinging to a strut and blubbering like a baby, not jumping to an adjacent building! I awake in a cold sweat from nightmares that find me standing high above the ground on a steep staircase with no hand rail! And as the duxelles on the Beef Wellington, the sequence ends with a bit of gunplay that is actually exciting for a change - largely because the limited number of options a lightly armed man has when confronted with a score of others with automatic weapons is pretty realistically portrayed.
Not content with creating a series highpoint, we're off to a nail-biting staple of the genre done to perfection. After catching up to Dimitrios' man at Miami airport, Bond sees him drive off in fuel truck bent on blowing it up under the experimental aircraft that's on site. This necessitates that Bond leap on top of the moving vehicle and hang on for dear life. Admittedly the ensuing bit is somewhat derivative; not only of Dalton's last Licence to Kill but also of the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark as Bond has to use his purchase on the fuel truck to get to the front and highjack it. Still derivative doesn't mean bad - especially given the fantastic bit that sees a leap from the top of the truck to the tarmac followed by a roll away from an oncoming vehicle. And while we’ve seen all the difficulties attendant on leveraging a desperate purchase on the exterior of a vehicle into an actual invasion of the cab - not to mention the problems involved in starting a fight to the death with the driver - that doesn't mean that those difficulties aren't worth seeing laid out before us once again. It's also good to know that in the aftermath of 9/11 they have apparently encased all jet fuel trucks in depleted uranium or something, because its clear that its just not possible to ignite that highly flammable cargo no matter how many full-speed collisions with other vehicles the driver gets into.
Now if you've read any of my other reviews you know by now that I loves my fistfights. I think fistfights are very difficult because they are critically dependent on good editing to be effective. If the director just points and shoots and everything is printed, its going to be clear that no one is landing any blows. If the editing cuts become too severe however, you just can't really tell what is going on and the sequence doesn't satisfy. The one mild criticism that I can make of this movie is that the fight editing unfortunately seems to have come down a little too much on the choppy side. The absolute best brawl in this film is Bond's exceedingly difficult takedown of his first assigned hit. As Bond and his mark hurl each other through stall partitions and heads are cracked across porcelain urinals and sinks in some Czech men's room there's no doubt that some serious hurting is taking place. Bond's forcing the guy's face into a sink and drowning him into unconsciousness is another rivetingly nasty touch. The problem however is that too much of this is intercut with scenes from Bond's confrontation with his second mark. At one instant we see some guy's head smacking into a towel dispenser or something and an instant latter were watching some low key urbane dialogue in a posh office. Granted the cross-cutting results in a very creative excuse for the "rifle-barrel" gunshot that has begun these films for so many years, but I wish the fighting had not only been extended but had been more of one piece. I've already extensively discussed the ripples thrown through the picture by Bond's takedown of a pair of African goons in a stairwell, but the fight itself is a touch mundane. Its not that it doesn't have its moments. Some of the grappling around the machete is exciting, but it just lacks that certain something that would set it apart from the pack. Please understand that this criticism is offered only in the spirit of being as constructive as possible because Craig's Bond has within him the seed of an epochal savage knock-down vicious brawl the likes of which we haven't seen since Connery's Bond strangled the life out of Red Grant on the Orient Express. I just want to see that flower sprout. If by any chance the crew that choreographed, staged, filmed and edited the fight between Bond and Trevelyan back in Goldeneye weren't on board for this one, may I suggest that EON get them on board for the next one. That fight was not only the highpoint of Brosnan's tenure but one of the better in the franchise's history, so I'm hoping that Craig gets the same chance.
The final admittedly somewhat overblown action set-to takes place after Bond chases some of Le Chiffre's former associates into an old Venice house in the process of renovation. The only thing that apparently keeps the building from sinking into the water is a battery of floats near the waterline. I guess that there was no way we were going to make it to the end of Bond film without some gun battles, and in this case some of the flying bullets tear into those floats and the resulting loss of buoyancy causes the house to begin sinking into the canal. I'm very conflicted in my feelings about this concluding set piece. We've got the usual stretches of actors firing off hundreds of blanks at each other in the typically vain effort to generate excitement. On the other hand we've got some intriguing little wrinkles this time out, like Bond picking up the motion of a henchmen in a piece of broken glass and using this to his face-smashing advantage. The gorge rises after we watch another unfortunate henchman get pulped when an elevator shaft falls on him. And as the melee proceeds until the last henchman is deceased, a nail gun also intrudes to bring misery and disgust to everyone inside the sinking house. Unfortunately, some of the editing weaknesses that marred the earlier fights in the film arise here as well. The gunplay that takes place is, of course, just as uninvolving as always even if it does take place in a sinking house, and as with earlier instances of grappling that which takes place here as the house sinks comes down a bit more on the confusingly edited side. I hate to once again bring that lightweight Batman into this review, but the whole sequence did put me in mind of the choppily edited fights between Batman and the Joker's henchmen on the very similar belfry set in Tim Burton's first movie. In the last analysis, however, this scene has such an intrinsic importance to the plot that the fact that its not a franchise action highpoint is not of great importance. To do justice to Fleming's novel, the event that ended the book had to be made suitably cinematic. Fleming in his novel was able to explain everything through the literary expedient of a composed letter, something not easily adapted to screen. The overarching concern surrounding this scene, therefore, is the commitment to Fleming's story so any criticisms or disappointments surrounding it are by definition picayune given that the scene so markedly serves it purpose.
Now we come to the end of my insanely long comments and its probably clear that I was shaken to the core by this movie. So impressed I am by Casino Royale, I find that my feelings and thoughts about earlier movies and earlier Bonds are undergoing major changes. My regard of the master himself, Ian Fleming, has expanded a hundredfold now that I see that a faithful dedication to a novel that I thought weak, tentative and uncinematic has produced one of the best films in the franchise's 40+ years history. Wherever you are Ian, please forgive one of your biggest fans for being so quick to underestimate your talent. From the sloughs of despond where I fervently wished to never see a new Bond film again, I'm now counting the minutes until I can see where Craig, et. al. go from here. Three times I've left the theater as giddy as a man who - I don't know - has won 150 million dollars at a high stakes poker game after being dealt a straight flush. And dare an old man hope that this film has cultural implications? Now that the knowledge that this film is so close to Fleming's work has been widely disseminated, will a legion of younger Bond fans - those who have never seen a Bond film in the theater that included anything more than a passing reference to one of the master's works - actually pick up one of Fleming's novels? I have no statistically valid evidence that this might be occurring, but I have anecdotes. A good friend of mine (one of the usual suspects), a guy much younger than I, joined me at my post-Thanksgiving get together and I found out that he was so pleased by the movie that he not only sought out a copy of Fleming's novel to read, but picked up a few of the later books to boot. And dare I gloat over an even more personal satisfaction? My wife, surly because I dragged her to the film and cursed with the obstreperousness borne on the X chromosome, refused to believe my claim that a 50 year old novel could possibly be the source of this movie. Only she can tell you the reason for her disbelief. It's certainly implausible to think that a chain-smoking, hard-drinking British semi-dilettante could have sat down in 1952 and written a novel that so presciently predicted shadowy, terrorist organizations that have been responsible for such atrocities as 9/11 that occurred nearly 50 years later. And after nearly 40 years of cinematic Bond (at least post-On Her Majesty's Secret Service), there has never been an ending showing things turning as horrendously wrong for Bond as they do here. Convinced I was wrong as always, she demanded I produce a copy of the book so that she could judge my veracity by reading it herself. Yes, dear friends! This movie has enticed the love of my life into reading one of Fleming's novels for herself and, as much as she continues to feign disinterest, I can see her eying that copy of "Live And Let Die" that I brought out in addition to "Casino Royale". For this reason alone - even though my slide into outright senility continues apace and I'll soon find myself less and less able to recall any of the things I've discussed above - I will always hold this movie dear to my heart.
I know I have readers out there even though I rarely hear from you. I have taken some time off from the countdown because a computer crash totally wiped out my new review. I just couldn't work up the energy to begin again from scratch typing exactly the same thing over. I will continue counting down to number one, but I just needed some time away before commencing the recovery of the next step in the countdown.
The next review will be either my best or worst. Either another iteration will polish it more than the other ones, or I'll be so sick of discussing this particular film that I won't be able to do it justice. Either way, I'll be up and moving after the Superbowl so check back the first week in February.
Since I've branded The Spy Who Loved Me as being the dead center of the Bond movie bell curve, it necessarily follows that we've now arrived at the films that constitute superior, if not yet classic, Bond fare. It struck me upon glancing at the master list of films that this next burst of reviews are of films that can be considered to be in the nature of not quite successful experiments. These films mark the producer's attempts at moving away from the Bond movie conventions in some way. And even if these moves were not quite successful enough to be repeated, at least the attempt to do something unique resulted in films that are above the norm in terms of memorability. The current object of dissection in particular centers around an idea so audacious that Fleming himself would never have gotten near it. Even if the film ultimately disappoints on several dimensions, I still find its unique plot conceit to be fascinating enough to recommend this film on that basis alone. Before we start discussing what is Brosnan's best movie by a wide margin, however, I want to state up front that in order to do it justice I will have to employ some major spoilers ahead. To even describe why I'm so fond of it in the first place, I will have to give the whole game away below. Thus if you are reading this and for some reason still haven't seen The World Is Not Enough, I suggest you give it a look before continuing on here.
Once again a Brosnan film means the absence of any Fleming material. The title of the film derives from a visit by Bond to the British College of Heralds that took place during the film On Her Majesty's Secret Service. During that visit Bond was shown his family's coat of arms and his family motto - orbis non sufficit - or in rough translation - the world is not enough. This film earns even more points due to the fact that this will not be the only reference made to that earlier feature. Before launching into the plot, I should admit that I've seen the film several times and I'm still not quite clear as to the reasons for many things that take place. Fortunately not only is the film not hurt by the lack of complete explanations, in some ways the lack of simple answers adds depth to the story. The plot in some ways resembles that of a hardboiled detective novel which is itself a fictional genre in which detailed explanations of events are not a priority. The film begins with Bond visiting a shifty Swiss banker in Spain (?) to recover the money of British industrialist Sir Robert King. How things came to this pass is one of the things never made clear by the film, but we learn that King was trying to buy a report that was stolen from an MI-6 agent. Who the agent was, why King really wanted the report, and how the Swiss banker got in the middle of the transactions are among the questions never answered by the film. Yet even at this early juncture we sense something isn't kosher about the whole set-up when we learn that "M" and King are old college friends. There are questions already as to whether "M" is using the secret service to run errands for personal friends or whether King is throwing money around in an effort to save "M" from the consequences of a botched MI-6 operation. In any case, King's money has been dipped in explosive urea and when he approaches it, the money detonates and kills him.
After a few straining and heroic leaps of logic, Bond ties the killing of King to a botched kidnapping of his daughter. King's daughter Elektra was kidnapped by a group lead by terrorist Renard, and "M" advised King not to pay the ransom. Elektra managed to escape the kidnappers herself, and "M", again grossly abusing her authority, sent a double-oh agent to assassinate Renard. The agent put a bullet in Renard's head, but the bullet failed to kill him. The conclusion reached by Bond and "M" is that the killing of King was Renard seeking revenge on those involved in the earlier debacle. "M" thinks Elektra King may be next on Renard's list and sends Bond out to bodyguard her. I'll point out that this again involves using government employees for personal reasons and so constitutes another abuse of authority. As the film unspools, the viewer gets a distinct feeling that much of the ensuing mayhem in fact stems from very poor decisions on "M"'s part. Whether this was intended or not is debatable, but it does finally put the filmmakers' overexposure of this secondary character to good use for once. And I'll also point out how "M" expressly orders Bond to keep his hands off Elektra even though she's upbraided him in the past for his sexism and misogyny. Given "M"'s concerns about Elektra's chasteness during the crisis, her choice of Bond as bodyguard is another instance of very poor judgment.
Bond trails Elektra to some reasonably scenic part of the former Soviet Union where she is currently engaged in trying to complete the building of an oil pipeline begun by her father. Elektra poo-poos the need for a bodyguard, but Bond insists on keeping close to her. A welcome nod to Bond's past takes place here when Elektra, alluding to the loss of her father, asks Bond if he's ever lost a loved one. Bond still remains touchy on this point and immediately changes the subject. Soon after Bond's arrival, however, an apparent attempt is made on either Elektra's or Bond's life while they're both out skiing. Afterwards Elektra quite forcefully comes on to Bond. He initially resists but, after doing some snooping into the assassination attempt, he finally weakens. After succumbing to Elektra's charms, Bond's snooping leads to his finding a body in the trunk of the car driven by Elektra's head of security, Davidov. Bond hides in the trunk and when Davidov opens it pretty much shoots him down in cold blood after kicking him in the head! It’s a good thing for Bond that guy was actually guilty of something, because that was a textbook example of shooting first and asking questions later. In any event, Bond impersonates Davidov and goes off to what was an arranged meeting between Davidov and Renard at a Russian nuclear weapons facility. Bond finds Renard involved in the theft of a nuclear weapon (again with the nuclear weapons!) but fails to stop him from purloining the device.
One of the more interesting things about this film is how often it causes one to wonder if its more intriguing aspects were intended by the filmmakers or purely serendipitous. Note for example here how Bond has been disobeying orders since "M" put him on the case. He's expressly disobeyed "M"'s order not to get intimate with Elektra at this point. Even if we were to take this as being in the nature of these films, however, he has also flown half-way across Russia to learn what Davidov was up to. Frankly if he had leaned on the guy for answers instead of summarily executing him, he may have been able to learn about Davidov's scheme without abandoning the woman he is supposedly protecting. Part of the reason he failed in eliminating Renard at the weapons facility stems from Renard's claim that the unprotected Elektra will be killed on Renard's orders if he can't phone to prevent it. In addition Bond is caught out on abandoning his job when Elektra calls "M" herself to tell her of Bond's disappearance and ask "M" herself to come down in person. Even though "M" not too long after this calls Bond her best agent, his performance up until now honestly makes us wonder whether or not he was the worst choice for the current assignment. In addition to derelicting his duty, Bond makes himself look even worse by breaking into Elektra's home to badger and threaten her. While at the weapons facility, Bond heard Renard use a phrase used by Elektra while she and Bond were in bed together. The phrase, however, certainly isn't so baroque or unusual that it couldn't be coincidental that both Renard and Elektra used it. Bond, however, is now convinced that Elektra and Renard are allied in some way and lets loose a stream of psycho-babble about "Stockholm syndromes" as a supposed explanation for this. Elektra, however, slaps Bond down both literally and figuratively and he ends up still suspicious but uncertain.
"M" arrives on the scene but before she has time to read the riot act to Bond for disobeying orders, an apparent attempt is made to destroy Elektra's pipeline with the stolen nuclear device. Bond heads off to disarm the bomb only to find that half of the bomb's plutonium is missing and what's left will not cause a nuclear detonation. Bond decides to let the bomb explode in order to convince the one who planted it that he was killed in the blast. The film is somewhat cavalier on the environmental impact of scattering highly radioactive nuclear material across the Russian countryside. After all isn't this the dreaded "dirty bomb" that the media has been worrying us about so much recently. At least Bond doesn't seem to suffer any immediate harm from the cloud of radioactive dust created by the explosion, though I can't speak for his future fertility at this juncture. After Bond's apparent demise, however, Elektra finally reveals that Bond's suspicions did have some basis in fact by having her henchmen gun down "M"'s guards and take "M" prisoner. Before you think that Elektra's revealed villainy makes my prior comments on Bond's failure to do his job seem like nit-picks, let me point out that it was Bond's abandonment of Elektra that allowed her to talk "M" into coming in person. Later dialogue also implies that Bond's seduction was in itself planned by the villains. Even though its ultimate purpose remains unclear, it's another example of Bond's insubordination playing into the villain's schemes. And as we shall see, even Bond's psychological speculations about Elektra are way off the mark.
It becomes clear that "M"'s abduction has been planned by Elektra and Renard as revenge for her poor advice to Elektra's father and the subsequent attempt to assassinate Renard. The revenge, however, is just a small part of their plans - an attempt to kill too many birds with one stone. Bond learns from the mildly amusing left-over Goldeneye character Zhukovsky that Elektra and Renard have paid a Russian submarine crew to meet with them for purposes of smuggling. In fact, Elektra and Renard plan to hijack the nuclear sub and meltdown its reactor with the nuclear bomb's plutonium. We are told that a nuclear meltdown in Istanbul will contaminate the Bosphorus for decades and leave Elektra's oil pipeline the only one capable of exporting oil to the West. I honestly have my doubts on this score given the fact that the other half of the bomb's plutonium is blowing all over the central Asian Icky-stans to no apparent ill-effect. Before Bond can contact the submarine's crew, however, Elektra and Renard capture him. Zhukovsky comes to the rescue, but winds up shot himself by Elektra. In a very improbable bit he fires a concealed weapon at Bond's restraints rather than at Elektra herself. It's all so that Bond can free himself and hold Elektra at gunpoint himself in order to set up the film's most disturbing moment. Bond threatens to shoot Elektra if she doesn't call Renard in the submarine and order him to desist from causing the meltdown. When she refuses, Bond guns down the unarmed woman in cold blood. Bond's viciousness here is entirely unwarranted given the fact that after shooting her down he still has to board the submarine to stop Renard. She could certainly have been held prisoner while Bond did this. Bond's evident show of remorse after Elektra's death shows vividly that he realizes too late how savage and unnecessary his actions were.
Regrettably after this memorable moment, the movie sputters to its conclusion. Bond boards the submarine and creates havoc of various kinds causing it to sink to the bottom of the Bosphorus. In the clearest instance of deus ex machina in the franchise, Bond kills Renard by reattaching one of the sub's air hoses, pressing a few buttons, and causing a reactor rod to fly into his chest. Not since Scotty bypassed the warp feed circuit to repower the impulse conductor drive has technology been more conveniently deployed to foil evil. With Renard dead, Bond escapes the imploding submarine with a female lead so completely extraneous I've been able to ignore her up until now. In one last act of insubordination, we find that Bond hasn't reported back to headquarters and MI-6 tracks him down by satellite. Whether the Secret Service has had a microchip implanted in his buttock or something remains unclear, but in a very ridiculous Roger Moore type ending Bond is caught on screen in in flagrante with the extraneous female. One totally egregious and smutty quip later, the end credits roll.
The unprecedented and audacious conceit that elevates this film far above Brosnan's other turns in the role may not be clear from my synopsis above. What becomes clear upon watching the film, however, is that the villain of this movie and the female lead are one and the same person. The film argues that the sub meltdown will result in the destruction of all of Elektra King's competitors and make her fantastically wealthy. Note in addition how Elektra here is given the villain's requisite megalomaniacal speech as she explains her scheme to Bond. Plot-wise Renard appears as a mere henchman who helps with her scheme because he is terminally smitten with her. In fact, I can't see how Renard's actions aboard the sub can be construed as anything other than a suicide mission on his part. And to bring what has to be the trickiest role in the series to life the producers found the perfect actress in Sophie Marceau. Every time I see the film I like her performance more. The first half of the picture sees her managing to put herself in the first rank of Bond female leads. While her seduction of Bond seems to be part of her plan, her directness in approaching him never seems anything other than appealingly flirtatious with no hint of the conniving or predatory. She's so ravishing that, despite my lambasting of Bond for disobeying orders, its inconceivable that Bond could resist her for long. I also find it fascinating how sympathy for her far outruns the point at which suspicions about her arise. Bond seems to look an ass time and time again next to her. While the two are in bed early on, for instance, Bond boorishly quizzes her about how she escaped from Renard. Since Bond knows that this involved her allowing a kidnapper to have his way with her, Bond seems pretty tasteless to say the least. Later when Bond breaks into her home and starts making accusations, we feel even more sympathetic towards her. Bond strutting around spouting pseudo-Freudian nonsense and snapping his fingers in her face makes him look like a complete d#ck. Even if she's the eventual villain, he deserved the smack she gave him.
There are times later when she has to deliver the stock villain speech at which she nearly goes over the top, but this is arguably more due to questionable scripting. For the most part Ms. Marceau slices the ham expertly enough to put together one of the franchises better forays into megalomania. Her speech drips with the traditional self-righteous justification and egotism. We are even treated to that touch of madness when, in one of the film's ghastlier moments, she pulls off an earring to reveal that she cut off part of her own ear in an effort to make the kidnapping look real. I'm intrigued by the possibility that this may be another homage to the earlier On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Fans of the earlier film may recall that Blofeld, the main villain, had cut off his earlobes in an effort to pass as a European count. But even with all the elements of super villainy on display here, Ms. Marceau still remains eminently desirable. When Bond is captured, Elektra has him strapped into some ancient Turkish torture gizmo that can be used to break someone's neck after slowly strangling him. While being tortured, Bond again demonstrates both his cluelessness and shortage of class when he brings out the old "It didn't give me any pleasure" chestnut that we last saw him using in Thunderball. While such a claim already seemed juvenile in the earlier film, here it seems particularly pathetic when Elektra, instead of engaging in the macho posturing of Fiona Volpe, simply shrugs it off as the absurdity it is. Bond frankly has always been pretty easy, and Elektra played him like a violin. Ms. Marceau is nearly in danger of going over the top when she sits on Bond's lap and asks if he knows what happens to a man being strangled. I'm deeply afraid this is a reference to involuntary turgidity and therefore raises some disturbing possibilities. Still Brosnan insists on spouting one of his trademark witless quips about "one last screw" so once again he seems in need of mocking. Rather than seeming kinky, Elektra seems to be too merciful in allowing this boob any physical contact whatsoever. When the most shocking moments arise and we see Bond brandishing a weapon in her face, Ms. Marceau again projects the perfect picture of put-upon femininity in the face of masculine brutishness. Her death comes across as Bond's moment of madness. Rather than a deserved comeuppance, Bond's shooting of an unarmed woman seems not only to be a senseless barbarity but an ineffectual attempt to salve his own ego over his many personal failures. I have to give the filmmakers and/or Brosnan credit for recognizing what happened here and following it up with a show of deep regret on Bond's part.
As I've already mentioned, this film has somewhat the structure of a hard-boiled detective novel and given that it could do with some explanatory flashbacks. A big mystery that remains unsolved here is the nature of Elektra's relationship with Renard. It's obvious that Renard is smitten, but Elektra's feelings remain unclear. Is Renard a mere stooge being led around by the nose, or does Elektra love him? There's ample evidence for either interpretation here. When the film nears its climax, we see Elektra jumping with girlish glee at seeing Renard's return to their hideout. Yet while she throws her arms around him and plants a big wet one on his mouth, he is after all bringing the plutonium she needs for her evil plan. Later Renard and Elektra are in bed together and he says something to the effect of "so warm, so smooth" as he caresses her. In the most lacerating way imaginable she poutily asks how he would know. Recall that Renard has a bullet in his brain and that we have clearly been told that he is incapable of feeling anything. Presumably this implies that he is also incapable of sexual response, so a more cutting reference to his masculine inadequacies is hard to imagine. Still and all married man all over the world are aware that feelings of vague dissatisfaction on the part of the missus are eminently capable of causing a host of unwarranted rebukes. Did Renard have too many beers and come to bed bombed or was he playing cards half the night with his men? Furthermore his subsequent inquiries on the subject of Bond's time with Elektra amount to just asking to be hurt. Is Elektra's subsequent attempt to soothe his ego and recall happier times before his injury part of keeping him on the line or indicative of serious intimacy? There is no clear answer to these questions.
While a little ambiguity is a good thing, I'm afraid that the ambiguity discussed above does tend to undercut Robert Carlyle's performance as Renard. Over all the performance is reasonably good, but as I've mentioned his role can only support one of two interpretations. Either he's being played the sap, or he is Elektra's partner in evil and love. There is no room here for soul-searching portraits of Euro-trash nihilism and unfortunately there is an attempt to shoehorn some in. Certainly the man is destined to die soon, so there is justification for a certain resignation and world-weariness. When Carlyle takes it to extremes, however, we start to question why Renard would be helping Elektra at all. If he's so despondent that he all but demands Bond put him out of his misery in the weapons facility, why is he even bothering to go to all the effort needing in stealing the plutonium? When he's going off on his final suicide mission to meltdown the sub's reactor, Elektra warmly kisses him but he responds with cold indifference. This doesn't seem quite right whether he's playing the sap or he's her partner. In either event, it seems he should demonstrate some kind of longing or desire. He still has some good moments at the weapons facility, however, when taunting Bond about having Elektra first. Renard's relationship to Elektra only becomes clear later on so at this point Bond thinks Renard is speaking of violating her. While I thought the scene didn't feel right when I first saw it, on a second viewing it seems shrewdly done. While Renard's speaking of breaking Elektra in and having her while she was innocent is undeniably repulsive and crude, it does seem that this brutal and thuggish man would be incapable of speaking of his feelings in any other way. As we will see below, another problem with Renard here is that he is not given a scene in which to prove himself a true physical menace to Bond. Given Carlyle's death's head makeup and ghoulish demeanor, he could have been used to much better effect in this regard.
A character I've been scrupulously trying to avoid discussing until now is one Dr. (?!) Christmas (!?) Jones played by Denise Richards. Ms. Richards has taken a lot of ribbing about playing a nuclear scientist, but I feel compelled to present a qualified defense of her performance. It is true that she appears far too young to play a doctor, but she frankly appears too young to be convincing as Bond's romantic interest in any guise. When the movie nears its end and her and Bond are sitting on a terrace with drinks, one gets the distinct feeling that they don't check I.D.'s in Turkish bars. Still when it comes to spouting expository dialogue about reactor coolant and weapons-grade plutonium, Ms. Richards does an adequate job. She's by no means an evident ditz, and one certainly must suspend disbelief while watching a Bond film. In fact, this casting is looking less and less questionable given Halle Berry's embarrassing attempt to pass as a secret agent in Brosnan's latest. Anyone that can swallow that casting won't even give Ms. Richards' turn as a doctor a second thought. Ms. Richards' true problem is that she is trapped in what may be the most inessential role in franchise history and even if she weren't, she would vanish into the woodwork in any event when Ms. Marceau appears. As I tried to stress with my synopsis above, Jones has absolutely no important plot function whatsoever. She does go along with Bond to defuse the nuclear weapon in the oil pipeline, but Bond has done that alone himself in earlier films. It's even strange how she apparently doesn't even have any important job to do in the world of the film itself. After meeting up with Bond at the Russian weapons facility, she just abandons whatever she was doing there to tag along after Bond. In the last analysis, Jones only real reason for appearing is to provide Bond with someone to canoodle with when the end credits role. Her being named Christmas in itself only serves as the weakest possible rationale for a pair of smutty quips at the film's end. Confronted with such an utterly unnecessary character such as Christmas Jones, even someone as long-winded as myself finds it impossible to say much concerning her.
The most disappointing aspect of this film by no means the job done by the unfortunate Ms. Richards. The sad fact is that, other than the excellent pre-credits sequence, the film is completely lacking in exciting action set-pieces. I don't find it coincidental that the Brosnan film that pays the least attention to muddled gun fights and car chases also turns out to be his most intriguing film. Still there is such a total lack of action here that a simple fist fight could have raised this film one or two spots in the countdown. At least we get nearly a full quota of action from the nearly 15 minute long teaser itself. The teaser starts with Bond's trip to Spain to recover Sir Robert King's money and get a lead on the person that killed an MI-6 agent. The Spanish offices of Swiss bankers apparently come stocked to the gills with heavily armed goons and Bond is forced to knock a couple of them around before pressuring the banker for names. The banker is disposed of before he can talk and Bond, showing a reasonable reluctance to let the arriving police get their hands on the suitcase full of money, repels down the side of the building using a goon as a counterweight. Back in London at MI-6 headquarters, Bond turns the money over to King only to have it explode when King approaches it. The teaser could have easily ended here and still started things off with a literal bang, but the explosion only makes the teaser's midpoint. After the blast, Bond looks out a hole in the wall over the Thames to see a woman that was at the banker's office earlier standing in a boat on the river. Since the bomb has successfully killed King at this point, the woman on the boat doesn't really need to start firing at Bond but we're probably supposed to think that she opened fire in response to Bond's recognizing her. Bond commandeers "Q"'s powerboat and speed off down the river in pursuit of her. The ensuing chase is quite well done, especially in contrast to the interminable mess that dragged Live And Let Die to a dead stop. The Thames locale makes for an interesting backdrop, the screen time taken up by the chase is not excessive, and the powerboat's gimmicks serve to spice things up. I have some very minor quibbles about the Moore style silliness that sees Bond motoring down the street and through a restaurant in the boat, but I don't recall any animal double takes. Even the end of the boat chase doesn't quite mark the end of the teaser as the woman from the boat leaps ashore and commandeers a hot air balloon. The police finally show up while Bond clings to a mooring rope. The woman commits suicide by blowing up the balloon's gas tanks and Bond plunges down onto the roof of London's Millennium Dome. Some things appear questionable in retrospect concerning the woman's relationship to the plot. She clearly seems to be working for Renard, but Renard never comes to seem the sort that a woman would kill herself over. Really though this is just a bit of a nit-pick of one of my favorite teasers.
Next up for our viewing distraction is one of the franchise's signature ski chases. Yet again I wonder if the nod to On Her Majesty's Secret Service is just coincidental. The chase comes immediately after Bond appears at Elektra's side with notions of bodyguarding her. Bond insists on tagging along with her during her inspection of pipeline locations and they are both accosted while skiing by parahawks. It's a pity that the resulting chase falls so flat on screen because there are some flashes of technical competence. For the first time in many years it seems as though the actor playing Bond is actually the one doing the skiing. Either blue screen technology has advanced by leaps and bounds since Moore was in the role or Brosnan did indeed hit the slopes for some of the shots. Still the chase itself is regrettably uninvolving and I think that the problem stems from the fact that the parahawk contraptions are made the center of the action. The parahawks are interesting machines and are apparently capable of sliding along the ground like snow mobiles and motoring through the air while supported by parachutes. But in featuring these machines, the filmmakers have given the stunt skier nothing to do other than stay ahead of them on the slopes. The whole sequence plays more as an advert for winter sports equipment than as an action set piece. Just note one of the segment's key moments when Bond succeeds in causing one of the things to sail off the mountain. Instead of crashing into the rocks below, the thing deploys another parachute and flies back for another go at him. This is clearly meant to be a "Gee Whiz" type moment for the viewer, but at this point I was just hoping to move on and instead of being awed I ended up damning the indestructibility of these things. In the end the sequence just provides another of the series' expensive object lessons, and in this case that lesson is that simpler is better. The basic team of armed men on skis featured in On Her Majesty's Secret Service would have provided immeasurably more excitement here.
What is even worse is the fact that fans of stunt work will find even less to thrill to as the movie continues. The next thing that could loosely be called "action" is a gun fight between Bond and Renard's men at the Russian weapons facility. I doubt, however, than anyone would be so starved for entertainment that they would find the lackluster exchange of machine gun fire found here all that exciting. Bond's attempt to flee a fireball produced by a detonating bomb by hanging from a chain attached to a track in the ceiling looks downright goofy. When Brosnan swings around on the end of the chain after being pushed down the track by an on-set grip, he reminds me of my schoolyard days when we would attempt to twist around while in the air on a playground swing. And while it's questionable enough that one could possibly move fast enough to escape a fireball, here I also have to wonder if one could move faster hanging on a chain than they could by simply running away. Even more annoying is a truly interminable run-in between Bond and some helicopters that occurs while Bond is pressuring Zhukovsky for a lead on Elektra. In an effort to dispatch both Bond and Zhukovsky, Elektra has sent helicopters sporting saw blades on their undercarriages to slice them both up. What follows has to be the series' least-welcome action set-piece, although the endless boat chase through Louisiana runs it a close second. Bond eludes the helicopters' saw blades by running around a lot, squeezing off a few shots, and firing off some rockets from his gimmicky car. The whole thing is not only totally unexciting, but insultingly played for laughs as well. The helicopters saw Zhukovsky's warehouse to pieces and the building collapses at the scene’s end. Unbelievably the 'copters are capable of sawing Bond's car in half as well! I guess "Q" was just blowing smoke up Bond's Clymer with all that talk of "titanium armor" earlier in the film. And by this time I'm becoming thoroughly convinced that, as Bond, Brosnan must spend fully two thirds of his time on screen running away from things. With Bond ever more taking on the attributes of the Road Runner, I half expect Wile E. Coyote to show up next time out on a pair of ACME rocket powered skates.
The truly debilitating disappointment comes at the end of the film, however, when one last chance for salvation comes to naught. Renard has been set up as a man who feels no pain and one who is possessed with extraordinary endurance and strength because of that. As the dénouement approaches Bond has both cuckolded him and killed his lover. This elaborate set-up simply screams for a vicious mano a mano grudge match between Renard and Bond to close the film. By simply bringing back the fight choreographers from Goldeneye here the filmmakers could have caused me to bump this film up several rungs in the countdown. Unbelievably, incredibly, even tragically, however, the movie fails to deliver on its promised battle. The climax of the film takes place aboard the sinking Russian sub and the struggle between Bond and Renard in the ship's reactor room is lackadaisical in the extreme. The pair of them do a lot of that Moore style grabbing of ceiling fixtures to launch a few anemic kicks into each other and with that the fight essentially closes. Even worse, the tussle also has a faint air of absurdity brought about by Renard's attempts between blows to stick this huge cylindrical object in a hole in the submarine's reactor. Even though I want to think that nothing Freudian was being implied here, it still looks slightly silly. The thought of being trapped underwater has always given me the heebie-jeebies, and in a different context I might have found the scenes of the sub sinking to be quite suspenseful. The leads' gasping for air and bulkheads slammed ahead of encroaching seawater sure played well back in The Poseidon Adventure, but I can't accept them in lieu of the brutal hand-to-hand combat that I was being psyched up to expect.
I'm a little sad to have to end this review on downbeat notes because I still find the film quite enjoyable - faults and all. The World Is Not Enough may be the most frustrating film in the franchise's history, however, because it could have easily been a true Bond classic. Just a handful of minor changes to the plot and a modicum of attention to crafting a memorable post-credits action sequence could have put this one over the top. The addition of the promised fight between Bond and Renard is the most obvious quick fix for this film. Perhaps abandoning the sinking sub idea for a brawl on land over a ticking nuclear bomb would have amply fit the bill in this regard without altering the plot in any way. While it is probably inconceivable now for the filmmakers to release a Bond film that doesn't see him in bed with a woman at the end, this film could have benefited greatly from the elimination of the extraneous Dr. Jones. Ms. Marceau's fascinating Elektra is more than capable of carrying this movie by herself. Given Bond's extreme irresponsibility here, it also would have been fitting were Bond to end up with no one but that sour old prune "M" at the end as his "reward". It is also probably too late to hope for less Moore style levity in a Bond film, but this movie would have also benefited from a more somber tone. And finally of course, a hint of exposition concerning Renard and Elektra's relationship and history would have worked wonders in guiding the actor's performances. Despite its obvious faults, however, I think that this is the one Brosnan outing that time will be the kindest to. The audacity that went into making a female lead the feature's villain is something that most likely can't be repeated and something that in itself will make this movie a unique addition to the Bond filmic canon. Before seeing this film I would have thought that, like womanly preaching, it was something that would be incredible to do at all. The World Is Not Enough, however, proves that it can be quite well done indeed.
James Bond will return on the edge and not playing by the rules.
As we take another step up in the countdown, we come to another film whose financial success was instrumental in ensuring the series continuation. Just as Goldeneye's triumph at the box office rejuvenated the franchise after its financial troubles in the late 80's, The Spy Who Loved Me marked the series return to major profitability after the artistic and financial disappointments of the tedious The Man With The Golden Gun. It's also interesting to note that both films were made in the wake of legal troubles and bankruptcies that threatened to put an end to the series as well. Goldeneye was made after the legal mess surrounding the bankruptcy of distributor United Artists was finally cleared up, and The Spy Who Loved Me was made after producer Harry Saltzman's personal bankruptcy threatened to put an end to production of the series. The legal settlement eventually left Albert Broccoli as sole producer of the franchise until his death in the 90's. Yet while the financial success of both films must be celebrated because they allowed the franchise to survive, their artistic success is another matter. The Spy Who Loved Me is a film that has always left me a bit underwhelmed. It's not a bad movie by any means, but rather it is relentlessly generic. While it touches all the bases, it does so by recycling things we've seen to better effect in earlier films. Not only is it a blatant remake of the earlier You Only Live Twice, but it also marks the arrival of the no-imagination-required female lead. From this point on the female opposite number served as an easy and uninspired way for the screenwriter's choice to introduce a female role to the movie. I believe the author's of the wonderful Bond reference Kiss Kiss Bang! Bang!, Alan Barnes and Marcus Hearn, described this movie best when they called it a greatest hits package. In the last analysis The Spy Who Loved Me is the center of the Bond movie bell curve - an average entry by which all others can be ranked. Lest this seem too harsh let me point out what should be obvious from my ongoing labor of love here. I still feel that average Bond is still far better than practically anything else out there, so the current subject of discussion is definitely worth a look but tends to be only sporadically rewatchable.
While it became commonplace for the filmmakers to throw out the plot of Fleming's novels and script an entirely different story around a series' title, The Spy Who Loved Me is the only one of the bunch for which they were required to do so. In selling the film rights to his novels, Fleming specified that the plot of this particular novel could not be used for the movie version. Fleming's novel was a complete departure for him. The book is narrated in the first person by the female lead and Bond doesn't even put in an appearance until the final third. In truth Fleming was probably hoping for a bit more critical acclaim as a serious author for this book, but when it wasn't forthcoming he again tried to downplay his serious intent as a writer to hide his disappointment. The demand that his version not reach the screen was probably just his way of ensuring that the screen version wouldn't have to be a reminder of that disappointment. Thus for our purposes here, we must once again rehash the plot to You Only Live Twice. The film starts with the capture of a British nuclear submarine by an as-of-yet-unseen means. A cut to the Commies in Russia informs us that a Russian sub has gone similarly missing. General Gogol, a recurring Russkie version of Bond's "M", puts his best agent on the case. His best agent turns out to be a woman, Anya Amasova - code name XXX (oh, brother!). Although I will raise objections later to the implication that she is the best agent in general, I will grudgingly admit that she might be a good choice for the job at hand here. Back in London we see the British putting their best agent - Bond of course - on the case of their missing sub.
Actually what ensues is not exactly an attempt to locate the missing subs from either end of the political spectrum. Rather various unsavory types have offered to sell the plans of a submarine tracking system to the highest bidder. Reasoning that the subs couldn't have been tracked and captured without such a device, Bond and Amasova both head off to make contact with those claiming to have the plans to the tracking system in the belief that it will provide a lead on the missing subs. It turns out that the tracking system plans have been stolen from Carl Stromberg, submarine thief and villain of the piece. Stromberg has gone with the shark tank to dispose of traitorous underlings instead of the piranha-filled pool and after using it to dispose of the one who stole the plans, he dispatches his goons, Jaws and Sandor, to dispose of those trying to sell the plans. The interaction between Bond, Amasova, the crooks trying to sell the sub tracker, and the assassins trying to eliminate everyone involved takes altogether too much screen time. Its ultimate purpose is simply to provide Bond and Amasova a roundabout lead on Stromberg, so the multiple contacts, the fights with both henchmen, and Amasova's ultimate double-cross of Bond could all have been pared back. Amasova's double-cross after they have both gotten hold of a copy of the plans is particularly unnecessary given the fact that they are immediately back working together on the orders of their superiors. The upshot finally comes in the form of a symbol of the Stromberg shipping lines that shows up in the copies of the tracking plans, and Bond and Amasova both head off to snoop on Stromberg himself.
Bond and Amasova pose as a husband and wife team of marine biologist and assistant and gain an audience with Stromberg. There's an eerie moment here when Bond spots what are probably the remains of Stromberg's treacherous underling in an aquarium. Immediately after Bond and Amasova leave Stromberg's aquatic lair, an attempt is made on their lives and they are confirmed in their suspicions that Stromberg is involved with the sub thefts. Stromberg has recently launched an enormous oil tanker called the Liparus of an unusual design that Bond and Amasova decide should be shadowed by submarine. This sub, however, is consequently spotted by the Liparus and captured in what apparently is the same manner as the sub in the teaser. Stromberg identifies Bond and Amasova and he is polite enough to explain his plan to use the stolen subs to them. Stromberg has ordered his flunkies to launch nuclear missiles at Moscow and New York in an effort to precipitate a nuclear exchange. Now as I've indicated, the villain's plan in You Only Live Twice was identical. The difference being that the villain there was working for the ChiComs who hoped to profit from the resulting devastation. Here Stromberg simply has an insane plan to escape the global carnage by constructing a city underwater. If all he wants to do is live underwater, then why doesn't he just move there and leave everyone else alone? Who's stopping him? It might have made a bit of sense had he espoused some kind of environmentalist wacko line about preventing mankind from destroying the oceans, but he doesn't even do that. He just claims mankind will destroy itself eventually so he might as well hurry things along.
For a man ruthless enough to kill millions by instigating a thermonuclear holocaust, Stromberg is surprisingly reluctant to kill the crews of the submarines that he has captured. I suppose it goes without saying that he is even indisposed to having Bond shot, and both these failures of nerve cause his scheme to unravel. After the lecherous Stromberg hightails it back to his lair with Amasova in tow, Bond inevitably breaks free of his guards and manages to release the submarine crews. This proves rather effortless in that guards are standing directly inside the cell doors on catwalks above the captured crews and are just waiting to be shot. I also have to ponder how long it’s been since those crews were taken prisoner. There's nothing in the cells but rows upon rows of benches. It must have been impossible to get any sleep, and I don't even want to think about how they went to the bathroom. It's would have been like being held prisoner in a high school gym. One thing I will give Stromberg; his control room is a whole heck of a lot better protected than Blofeld's was in You Only Live Twice. In one of the film's tensest sequences, Bond employs a nuclear missile's detonator to breach the armor protecting it. I still have to chuckle at the who-else-here-is-almost-dead moment in which the captain of the Liparus manages to tell Bond he's too late to stop the submarines just before expiring from his completely non-visible injuries. In any event, Bond and friends manage to destroy both submarines by ordering Stromberg's submarine crews to fire at each other. I'd still imagine though that those two thermonuclear blasts necessitated a lot of 'splaining on somebody's part.
Bond and the survivors leave the sinking Liparus and are subsequently ordered to torpedo Stromberg's hideout. Bond gets an hour delay from the sub's captain so that he can jet ski over to save Amasova before the sinking. Before freeing Amasova, Bond dispatches Stromberg in one of the franchises nastier comeuppances. Stromberg has some kind of gun rigged below his table and when Bond sits at the end across from him, he fires some kind of charge at Bond's chair. The missile is pretty slow moving, however, and Bond jumps clear. Bond then fires two shots down the muzzle of Stromberg's gun into what has to be Stromberg's groin. While Stromberg groans in agony, Bond fires several more into his chest as the coup de grace. Given that Stromberg has to be one of the series most decrepit villains, Bond's heartless dispatch of the guy makes for some pretty uncomfortable viewing. After an extremely anti-climactic run in with Stromberg's assassin Jaws, Bond finally locates Amasova and the two make their escape via Stromberg's escape pod. Just in case we had any lingering doubts about this being a complete rip-off of You Only Live Twice, they end the film in exactly the same way by having Bond and the female lead picked up at sea while they're smooching away.
One big problem with The Spy Who Loved Me stems from the fact that Karl Stromberg has to be one of the franchise's tamest villains. The filmmakers originally strove to make the rip-off nature of this film crystal clear by having You Only Live Twice's Blofeld return as the main villain. The legal problems surrounding the Blofeld character, however, eventually caused them to abandon that idea and just create the new character of Stromberg. Whether Blofeld would have improved things or not is questionable, but there's no doubt that Curt Jurgens as Stromberg is far too quiet and controlled to be interesting as a heavy. One odd thing I can never get out of my head when watching this film is how closely Jurgens resembles an Israeli prime minister. Just so I'm not misunderstood let me stress that this resemblance has nothing to do with ethnicity or politics. It's merely that it always seems to me that when I see an Israeli prime minister, he's inevitably a slightly stocky, middle-aged, and lightly accented man with white hair just as Jurgens is in this movie. Also, given the @*#& that the Israelis have to put up with everyday, I seldom have anything but the utmost respect for Israel's rulers. Consequently the fact that Jurgens bears a passing resemblance to Ariel Sharon does nothing but make it harder for me to accept him as the villain of the piece. Even setting this aside, however, Jurgens fails as a villain because he frankly just seems too elderly and infirm. Practically all his screen time is spent sitting in chairs of various kinds, and the effort put in arising from them seems to tax his strength. Perhaps the filmmakers would like to think that Jurgens' performance was given to get across the character's profound world-weariness and make his actions plausible. Rather than seeming world-weary, however, Jurgens just comes across as someone badly in need of a nap. Even his occasional instances of anger and irritation make him look crotchety rather than villainous. Particularly absurd is the traditional abduction of the female lead for purposes of immoral advances. What in the world does the aged Stromberg want with Amasova anyway? He doesn't even appear to have the energy to get through lunch without nodding off in his chair, much less the wherewithal to do you know what. As one final annoyance, Stromberg seems to be incapable of saying Bond's name properly. He's always referring to Bond as "Mr. Bund". I know he's got an accent and all but how difficult is it to say "Bond"?
Barbara Bach assays the iconic role of Anya Amasova here and while no one would claim the top spot in the Bond girl pantheon for her, I still think she acquits herself quite well. She's definitely the only one of these female secret agent characters to generate any romantic sparks with Bond. And while her performance is relatively staid in many respects, I'll try to give her the benefit of the doubt and attribute it to her mock Russian stoicism rather than her somewhat wooden acting style. It's too bad that Halle Berry didn't ape Ms. Bach's performance here and spare herself a considerable amount of embarrassment in her role as the laughable Jinx in the execrable Die Another Day. The problem with the female secret agent character stems from the fact that it is just not really all that plausible that a woman would be good at the job Bond does. Now I know we don't go into a Bond film with plausibility foremost in mind, but Bond after all is a bit of a commando. Much of his job consists of killing people in cold blood on the orders of his government. Is this something any society would really need or want to recruit women to do? At least to Ms. Bach's credit here, she remains appealingly feminine by not trying to pretend that she is either capable or willing to perform Bond's job as assassin. While she competently brandishes a small automatic and makes a brief and half-hearted attempt to prepare a judo chop, in general very little attempt is made to try and convince us that she has any really lethal abilities. It's quite mysterious in fact as to how she could possibly serve as the KGB's top agent in most any capacity. At the start of the film when she and Bond are trying to get a hold of plans for the submarine tracking device, I will admit that an attractive woman may have a better chance of charming the plans away from their seller than Bond does. There are certainly real world instances of seductive sirens capable of seducing secrets out of the enemy, but given the fact that Ms. Bach's portrayal in no way suggests that Amasova is some smoldering sex bomb I don't think that seduction is in her job description either. Given that she wears proper business attire and travels with a pair of goons to the pyramids early in the film, perhaps she's simply the KGB's most effective office manager.
The interaction between Bond and Amasova is far better here than in any other appearance of the fem-spy character. Particularly nice work is done by both Ms. Bach and Rog himself during Bond and Amasova's early meeting in a Cairo nightclub. While the subsequent games of one-upsmanship between Bond and Amasova become annoying and tiresome, here Ms. Bach seem genuinely warm and flirtatious in trying to get the upper hand by recalling facts about Bond to him. I like how she quite unintentionally goes too far in this and brings up a tragedy from Bond's past - resulting in a display of evident hurt on the part of Moore. Later after she and Bond fight back an attempt on their lives aboard a train, their subsequent intimacy seems far more plausible in context than usual and makes for a romantic moment despite the cheesy sax on the soundtrack. Just compare and contrast the shared moment together aboard the train here to Bond and Wai Lin's afterthought coupling aboard smoking wreckage in Tomorrow Never Dies to see why I'm so grateful for little romantic moments like this in the franchise. The film also introduces another source of melodrama in the form of a subplot concerning Amasova's former lover. During the film's teaser we saw Bond kill a pursuer while escaping an ambush. It turns out that the man Bond killed was another agent and Amasova's lover. Sadly, I feel that this subplot just didn't really work out very well in the last analysis. While Moore has a strong scene in explaining himself to Amasova, Ms. Bach is just too stiff to pull the confrontation off convincingly. I've already said that Amasova doesn't seem particularly deadly, so when she promises to kill Bond for revenge it just doesn't seem possible that she'd ever be able to get the drop on him. The whole thing devolves into unintentional giggles when the two are lowered together from helicopter to a waiting submarine. Bond is grinning up at her like an idiot trying to get her to loosen up I guess, and Amasova has that really tight-lipped expression you get on your face when you're desperately trying to keep from busting out laughing. The film just devotes too much time to spectacle and set pieces to do this subplot justice. Still, I am going to give credit for the effort here simply because an attempt at bringing character depth itself makes Amasova far more memorable than her subsequent two-dimensional clones.
The Spy Who Loved Me marks the initial appearance of the franchise's most unwelcome and ridiculous character. The enormous Richard Kiel dons a set of metal teeth to play Stromberg's assassin Jaws. If you'll allow me a six-degrees-of-separation type aside, I'll mention that my dad of all people met Richard Kiel briefly while the latter was stranded at the Des Moines (!?) airport. I bring it up because my dad said that Kiel was an extremely personable and friendly guy, and I think that says a lot given the fact that Kiel is so incapable of maintaining a low profile he probably still has to put up with gawking wherever he goes. He's definitely a guy that I hope found his moderate success lucrative and fulfilling. Still, even though it's not Mr. Kiel's fault, we have to face the fact that the character of Jaws is one of the series major miscues. There is no doubt that Kiel could have made a truly menacing strongman had the role been written straight. Jaws, however, is frustratingly and ludicrously indestructible. He's also apparently possessed of superhuman strength. The character Jaws in fact gives a graphic illustration of how important intangibles are to fostering suspense. In a meta- sense for instance, we really know that Bond - being the hero - is never really in any danger of not making it to the end of the picture. Still we can usually manage to forget this in our desire to vicariously thrill to Bond's escapades. When his foe is similarly immune to danger, however, this becomes impossible. No contest between the two seems any deadlier than the run-ins between Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam in an old Warner Brothers cartoon. The contests in fact quickly become tiresome because we become quickly aware that - given Jaws invincibility - each one will end with Bond using some goofy trick to momentarily incapacitate him. We see Jaws buried under a ton of rock and climb out unscathed. We see him smashed into a stone wall by a van reversing at full speed only to have him shake it off and lift the rear of the van off the ground. It's even hard to pin down the most ridiculous bit. Personally, I'd vote for the time that we see a bullet bouncing off his teeth (!), but the scene in which he kills a shark (!) with those same teeth is a close runner-up. The only positive thing that can be said about Jaws here is that he doesn't come as close to single-handedly sinking the entire picture as he does in the subsequent Moonraker.
Given that this film kicked off the period of over-the-top spectacle in the Bond series, I always am surprised on rewatching it to find how light it actually is on the action front. It's actually nearly Brosnan-esque in its reliance on gun battles and vehicle chases. I think it tends to be remembered as being more action packed than it is due to the fact that the opening teaser showcases one of the franchise’s most memorable stunts. Immediately after we see portions of the theft of the British submarine, we see Bond heading back to headquarters after being summoned by the Secret Service. Bond leaves a mountain top chalet on skis and is soon ambushed and pursued by a Russian hit team helmed by what we will later learn to be Amasova's lover. Bond eventually escapes the ambush by skiing over the edge of an enormously high cliff. The stunt itself is remarkable. The stuntman falls and falls for what truly seems like several minutes before finally opening his parachute and floating off to safety. Not only is the footage of the stunt beautifully shot, but the silence that accompanies the fall adds dramatically to the effect as well. The chase music cuts out just as the skier leaves the mountain and starts to fall and only restarts on a Bond theme as the Union Jack parachute opens. Unfortunately, even here I must admit to being a bit of a wet blanket because I've always felt the build up to the stunt was a bit weak. The series' problems with back projection are on glaring display with some very unconvincing attempts to make us believe that Moore is actually on the slopes himself. In addition, the chase on skis that proceeds the jump has always seemed a little too cursory for my tastes. There are some quick shots of men on skis and a few shots are squeezed off at Bond. Bond himself manages to slowly turn around and fire a projectile from some gimmicky ski pole he's carrying, but all these incidents end much to rapidly to build any suspense. It's feels as if the filmmakers were timing the teaser and had to bring it in under a set number of minutes. It also doesn't help that the action is accompanied by a very dated "disco Bond" score that's really only good for laughs all these years later. It's really a shame they didn't lavish a bit more care on the ski sequence itself in order to give the fantastically dangerous jump the lead in it deserved.
After the teaser nothing happens on the action front until Bond finds himself in Cairo trying to contact those selling plans to Stromberg's sub tracker. Bond goes to the home of a man named Fekkesh involved in the sale, but finds him gone. A woman in Fekkesh's home seems willing to put the moves on Bond but when he spots Stromberg's goon Sandor ready to gun him down he uses the woman to block the bullet! He chases Sandor to the building's roof and a hand-to-hand fight breaks out. One of Roger Moore's weaknesses in the role of Bond was always his tendency to look stiff in his fight scenes and his run in with Sandor suffers a great deal from this defect. The actor who plays Sandor, Milton Reid, is a squat well-muscled little guy whose height looks to be equal to his diameter. He may have the stuntman skills to look formidable under other circumstances but here he is forced to slow up to match Moore's lumbering pace, and the two of them look poorly co-ordinated to say the least. Moore's patented move whereby he grabs portions of the roof enclosure, pulls himself up, and launches a kick look particularly ineffectual. Sandor seems to have until the end of the film at least to dodge or prepare himself for that kick. Moore seems to have had several bad days during filming here because another fight later between Bond and a pair of Amasova's flunkies is just as lackadaisical if not more so. In the end what seems most interesting about this sequence is not the fighting itself, but Bond's total callousness. The woman Bond uses to block the bullet screams upon seeing Sandor holding a gun, but Bond lets her die anyway. It's not the least bit clear that the woman had anything to do with the attempt on Bond's life. The scream in fact makes it seem that she was totally taken aback by Sandor's presence. If so, Bond's use of her to save his own skin is one of the cruelest things he's ever done on screen. After the brawl between Sandor and Bond, Sandor finds himself holding on to Bond's tie in order to keep from falling off the roof. After Bond gets information from him, Bond chops the tie out of Sandor's hand so that he plunges to his death. I hope we aren't supposed to think that this cold-blooded killing is payback for the woman, because frankly James that was really your fault.
I've already discussed how tedious the appearances of Jaws become in this film. He engages in several tussles with Bond and the combination of his invincibility and Moore's stiffness assures that each one is ultimately a bore. A typical joke appears early in Cairo when Bond throws a punch and nearly breaks his hand on Jaws' teeth. Bond is forced to drop a ton of rock on the guy to slow him down. Next Bond and Amasova are accosted aboard a train by Jaws. Jaws throws Bond around before beginning to strangle him with a hand the size of a fielder's glove. Bond breaks a lamp and begins moving an exposed light bulb filament slowly towards Jaws' mouth. Even though Jaws has superhuman strength and all the time in the world to grab Bond's arm and make him drop the lamp, he instead stands stock still and lets Bond touch his teeth with the filament. I alluded to the fact way back in my Tomorrow Never Dies review that You Only Live Twice and its remakes all feature a totally anti-climactic fight between Bond and the number one henchman. The final confrontation with Jaws in Stromberg's aquatic lair is the worst of the lot. By this point the filmmakers have abandoned all pretense that Bond can injure Jaws in any way so they conveniently provide Bond with a convenient electro-magnet that he can use to pick up Jaws by his teeth and drop him in a nearby shark tank. Why one would need an electro-magnet in a room full of sharks remains one of the film's great mysteries.
No Bond greatest hits package would be complete without a retread of Goldfinger's gimmicky car chase. In this movie Bond is issued a squat, wedge-shaped Lotus Espirit fitted out with the usual array of gadgets. I've made my low opinion of vehicle chases clear again and again, but at least when Bond's car is tricked out there exists some surprise potential. Here Bond finds himself pursued by a variety of Stromberg's lackeys when he and Anya return from their visit to his ocean lair. First up is someone riding Fiona Volpe's old exploding sidecar sporting motorcycle from Thunderball. When the sidecar fails in taking Bond out, Jaws and a car full of goons step up to the plate. Some gray sludge spewed onto the pursuing car's windshield causes it to crash. Regrettably this makes for yet another demonstration of Jaws invulnerability after the car falls a jillion feet onto some old man's cottage and Jaws walks away unscathed. Next a machine gun armed helicopter takes off after Bond and he is only able to escape by driving the Lotus into the ocean. In what is unfortunately not one of the most implausible surprises in the series, the Lotus reconfigures itself into a submersible and motors away underwater. Actually, I'll give the filmmakers credit up to this point as the onshore chase unfolds crisply. Had they ended the bit with Bond sailing away to safety it would have been an inspired if faintly silly sequence. Unfortunately the chase is prolonged when Bond has to dispatch more of Stromberg's goons that show up underwater in mini-subs and sleds also left over from Thunderball! How many lethally armed assassins does Stromberg keep standing around on the payroll anyway? How many different forms of transportation does he keep gassed up and at the ready? The end is also marred when Bond drives out of the water onto a beach full of people and we are treated to the goofy double takes on the part of animals (a dog here) and drunks that show up periodically in the series to plague us with their idiocy.
After the car chase there remains only one really extended set piece and it takes place aboard Stromberg's oil tanker. No You Only Live Twice knock-off would be complete without the commando style raid on the villain's headquarters and here that raid is carried out by the crews of the captured submarines. All of these large-scale free-for-alls tend to be tedious, so it’s hard to really rank one as vastly better than another. They all consist in most part of a lot of people in conveniently color-coded jumpsuits emptying magazines at one another and bloodlessly meeting their makers. Yet while the gun battle here is woefully Michelle Yeoh free, it is one of the better ones in the franchise. Most of the battle's brunt seems to be borne by the British submarine crew and a couple of those crewmembers are given heroic and distinctive moments. In a scene that actually rivals the pre-credits jump in terms of memorability, Bond has to use the detonator from a nuclear missile to breach the walls of Stromberg's control room. The removal of the detonator from the missile itself is tensely touch and go. After it's out, Bond rides one of the ships observation cameras on its track to the wall of the control room. After arming the bomb, he casts off from the camera and attempts to ride the camera's track to safety. Bond only rolls a few yards away from the bomb and gets stuck in the track. Coming directly after the typically loud and noisy gun battle, this moment serves as graphic illustration of how less is often so much more in thrillers. The tense moments that feature Bond dangling hundreds of feet above the ship's deck while the bomb ticks down to zero right before his face provides immeasurably more excitement than the thousands of rounds of ammunition discharged in the film's preceding minutes.
In looking back at The Spy Who Loved Me, I think that the most succinct way for me to describe it is as a dress rehearsal. Coming after the rather ramshackle affair that was The Man With The Golden Gun, this film was a first attempt at the budget busting spectacle that would end up marking the best of the Moore era films. And yet while its epic scale puts Moore's minimalist and tedious initial outings to shame, it still doesn't quite come up to the scale of Moore's later films. While lavishly funded for the time, The Spy Who Loved Me features nothing in the way of set pieces that hadn't appeared in earlier outings outside of the spectacular initial parachute jump. This film also somewhat schizophrenically serves as a trial run for some of the truly buffoonish and juvenile material that would mar several of his later turns while simultaneously demanding he bring moments of seriousness to the role. Thus this movie just lacks anything in the way of a distinctive personality that would make it stand out from the rest of the series. The film's silliness is not redeemed by much in the way of unique stunt work and the film's more serious side is underdeveloped and character moments tend to fall flat. In a sense The Spy Who Loved Me is the Bond film equivalent of a sports bar and grill's hamburger platter. It is tasty and satisfying while experienced, but it remains essentially indistinguishable from others of its kind.