(Second Viewing, On Cable TV, September 2019) After the six-year hiatus that followed the disappointing Licence to Kill, Bond is back with Goldeneye, an exemplary return to form for the series with a new creative team, new lead actor (Pierce Brosnan), new setting, new attitude and an impressive mixture of Bond formula and self-awareness about said formula. From a twenty-first century perspective, the opening flashforward is a useful reminder that the Soviet Union crumbled to pieces in between the previous film and this one, posing a rather vexing problem for a series that had started relying on rogue Soviet antagonists as a substitute to the original SPECTRE. But the moviemaking world also changed between 1989 and 1995: After a spirited opening sequence, good credits show off the series’ new ability to use CGI as a creative assistance, reminding us of Lenin’s statues being torn down and Bond’s usual motifs. What’s perhaps most impressive about Goldeneye is that it manages to return to the formula (complete with a better-than-average villain who’s the equal of Bond, a villainous lair, over-the-top action sequences, and a top-notch dark Bond girl) while also being aware enough of the formula to make it feel fun again. In between lapidary lines such as “I might as well ask you for the vodka martinis that have silenced the screams of all the men you’ve killed … or if you find forgiveness in the arms of all those willing women, for all the dead ones you failed to protect,” we get a still-exhilarating tank chase that destroys part of St. Petersburg and an evil lair underneath the Arecibo observatory. Famke Janssen gets a Bond Hall of Fame mention as one of the most dangerous Bond Girls in the franchise, while Sean Bean portrays the kind of evenly matched villain that makes the better Bond movies so much fun. Where Goldeneye has lost a bit of its lustre since 1995 is in its self-brooding rumination about whether Bond is relevant to its current era—twenty-five years later, we know he is and will forever remain so. Nonetheless, at the time, it was a valid question as the franchise reset itself. The later Brosnan follow-ups wouldn’t feel as fresh (although Brosnan himself is a good combination of Bond’s better traits, with added consideration for his female partners), and would drive the series in increased silliness as it went on. Still, Goldeneye does remain as a remarkable freshening up of the franchise. The mid-to-late 1990s were a wonderful time for action movies, and Goldeneye was in near-perfect synch with the mood of the time.
(Second Viewing Perhaps, On Cable TV, September 2019) I could have sworn that I had seen Licence to Kill once on TV in the early nineties, perhaps distractingly, but now that I have seen it, I’m not so sure — Unlike most of the other Bond movies that left deep impressions, this once felt almost brand new. Of course, it also felt far more generic than the others. The Timothy Dalton years were weird ones for the Bond franchise — The last of an era for many of the earliest collaborators of the franchise, but also a reset away from the silliness of the Moore movies and a harbinger of far darker interpretations of the character. Dalton was a more serious Bond, a more violent one as well, and Licence to Kill is often surprising in how it portrays him as a cold-blooded revenge instrument, going after a drug kingpin for maiming friend Felix Leiter and killing Leiter’s bride. Alas, for much of its duration Licence to Kill feels like a very ordinary 1980s American action revenge film with some familiar names sprinkled in — A Chuck Norris film featuring the Bond theme, Desmond Llewellyn hamming it up as Q and a decent budget for stunts. Per Bond standards, we’re stuck away from espionage and far too long in a murky narcotraficante story that would have been a subplot in other Bond films. (There’s a thirty-second intersection with Hong Kong policing, but that’s it for a film focused only on the Florida Keys and Mexico playing a renamed Panama.) The Bond Girls are not bad (Talisa Soto is beautiful but doesn’t have much to do — while Carey Lowell is plainer but has the plum action role.) but their role marks a noticeable change (for the better) from the usual Bond formula — They even both survive at the end! Heck, even Wayne Newton shows up playing a TV preacher caricature, not to mention an early role for Benicio del Toro as a menacing thug. This off-brand direction for the movie meant that it didn’t do particularly well with audiences or reviewers at the time — After Licence to Kill, the Bond series underwent its longest eclipse until 1995’s revitalized Goldeneye. Of course, in hindsight, Dalton’s run doesn’t seem as bad today, sandwiched between the debonair silliness of both Moore and Brosnan, and its more serious tone prefigures Craig’s tenure. Still, let’s not praise Licence to Kill as an overlooked gem: It’s surprisingly dull for much of its duration, only showing signs of life in action sequences and a particularly intricate action climax featuring a lot of moving parts and classically unbelievable Bond stunts. (The trailer-tractor side-driving is great; the wheelie not so much.) It’s late in its third act that Licence to Kill finally regains the panache of the Bond movie — Too late to be completely satisfying, but at least enough to avoid being a complete let-down. No wonder the series took a six-year break after that, coming back with a new headliner.
(Second or third Viewing, On Blu Ray, November 2018) By the time Timothy Dalton took over the James Bond role from Roger Moore in The Living Daylights, the ground had shifted a bit underneath the Bond franchise. Suddenly, the womanizing wasn’t as appealing, and dozens of other movies were aiming for the same thrills as the Bond series. As a result, The Living Daylights attempts a light retooling of the character. There’s only one woman for Bond this time around and the film goes back to its spying roots in delivering an authentic late-period Cold-War thriller that has a ring of authenticity to it. Dalton has his best movie here—still relatively charming compared to his much-darker follow-up License to Kill, but hard-edged enough to ensure that we wouldn’t mistake it for another Moore entry. I remembered only a few things from a previous viewing sometime in the early 1990s, but one of them is the incredibly cool Walther WA 2000 sniper rifle used early in the film. The other is Maryam d’Abo as one of the best Bond Girls up to that point, and a relative rarity in the pantheon as a Bond Girl portrayed as a complex skilled character (a cellist) but not an enemy agent equally able to match Bond’s fighting skills. The film’s opening half is a bit better than its concluding act, which suffers from some contemporary weirdness in heading to Afghanistan and fighting alongside the anti-Soviet pre-Taliban Mujahideen. (To be fair, Rambo III ended up in the same place for the same reasons at about the same time.) Still, The Living Daylights remains a step up for the series, and it’s still remarkably good watching even today as we’ve grown accustomed to a much dourer Bond during the Craig years. Alas, Dalton would squander much of his accumulated goodwill in the follow-up film…
(Second Viewing, On Blu-ray, November 2018) Roger Moore is the Bond through while I discovered the series, so he’ll always remain my definitive take on the character … but he was clearly far too old to play the role in A View to a Kill. Bond’s tendency to date far younger girls gets overwhelmingly uncomfortable here, especially after the somewhat more mature heroines of the previous films. Various other structural mistakes, such as passing far too much time on the opening penny-ante villain horse-doping scheme rather than his ultimate evil plan, further damage the picture. Still, I still enjoyed quite a bit of the movie. There’s something about the action scenes that feels more modern than previous instalments, and both the chase sequence through Paris and the other in San Francisco feel well-handled. Then there are the antagonists: Christopher Walken is typically indescribable as genetically-engineered villain Max Zorin, his line delivery being much better than the actual lines. Then, of course, there’s Grace Jones: Not a gifted actress, but a spectacular evil Bond Girl more than capable of taking on Bond and make him sweat a little. Goody-two-shoes Tanya Roberts doesn’t compare, and there’s a fantastic lost opportunity here to bring back a recurring KGB agent character. Patrick MacNee shows up in a supporting role as a fellow agent, with some fun banter between him and Bond. Duran Duran’s title song is terrific, and it does underscore the peak-eighties nature of the film. Still, it’s hard to watch the film and not wonder about the wasted occasion of what a younger Bond, a tighter script, and a more daring director could have done with the raw material of the film. Still, as a swan song for Moore in the role, A View to a Kill is not quite bad. There have been far, far worse movies in the franchise and even in Moore’s tenure.
(Third viewing, On Blu-ray, October 2018) This is probably my third viewing of Octopussy, first after seeing it as a kid when it first played broadcast TV, and then again later as a re-run as a teenager where I found it far more interesting given the film’s higher-than-usual-for-Bond sex-appeal. As a middle-aged man, I’m a bit cooler on the film, but not by much—Octopussy is a slightly better than average Bond, with a strong heroine and one of the finest sustained suspense sequences of the series. Moore can’t help but let some of his characteristic silliness contaminate the film (It would be significantly better with about ten seconds’ worth of cuts to take out the dumbest moments and sound effects) but he also manages one or two of his finest acting moments as he realizes the nature of a nuclear-driven plot to destabilize Europe. Fully playing into Cold War dynamics does lend a bit of authenticity to this instalment, even though the film seems determined to undermine this seriousness with sillier moments ranging from a chase through an Indian city where all the clichés are used in rapid succession, to a dumbfounding Tarzan yell. While I wasn’t particularly fond of Maud Adams in The Man with the Golden Gun, her character and appearance here are far more mature than most of the Bond Girls—she’s an older woman with significant power, and the film does toy with the idea of Bond finding something of an equal. Alas, Octopussy does mess it up with a seduction scene that is less than enthusiastically consensual, and then again when it transforms this capable character into a damsel in distress. It’s really too bad that a handful of sequences can significantly damage an otherwise enjoyable film. The stunts are rather good, some of the narrative twists are interesting, and then there’s that breathless chase sequence in Germany that pushes Bond to his limits and maintains the suspense for a surprisingly long time. Octopussy evens out to an OK film, with a few frustrating issues but not as bad as many of the films in the series—or even just in Moore’s run.
(Second viewing, On DVD, October 2018) There aren’t that many good creative reasons for Never Say Never Again to exist. It’s a movie that owes its existence to a rift between the original James Bond movie creators, resulting in the rights to the Thunderball story and Spectre as a plot element being given to someone other than Eon Productions. Money is a powerful motivator, and so we ended up with a legal James Bond movie not made by the usual Bond people, but somehow starring Sean Connery in one last go at the character, graying temples and all. The story itself is a blatant remake of Thunderball, not only with stolen nuclear weapons being used as a plot driver, but with similar narrative stops at a health clinic and fancy yacht, not to mention similar character names. While the film’s pacing sharply improves upon Thunderball-era Bond, most of the “updates” affirm the early-eighties origins of the film more than anything else—there’s a particularly funny sequence involving Bond battling it out with the villain not on the casino table, but in a video game with deadly controls. That part really hasn’t aged well. But what did age well is Connery himself—there’s a real treat in seeing him, obviously older, taking up the character once more. Speaking of aging well, it’s also fun to see Kim Basinger in an early role (sheer aerobics jumpsuit and all), but it’s a reminder that she looks just as fine today than back then—and she’s now a far better actress too. This being said, Barbara Carrera is often more striking than Basinger, with a villainess role that she embraces with a relish rarely seen from other Bond girls. Klaus Maria Brandauer is not bad as the film’s overall villain, and Rowan Atkinson shows up in a small bumbling role. While Bond’s sexual conquests are still dodgy, they do feel like a step up from the original Thunderball, and the film is notable for suggesting that Bond will live happily ever after in a committed relationship. It ends up being a decent swan song for Connery, far better than the ludicrous Diamonds are Forever. While Never Say Never Again is not part of the official Bond continuity (and probably won’t ever be, even if the film’s rights are now owned by MGM) it does fit in a Bond completist’s viewing order: It’s not a great Bond, maybe not even a good Bond, but it’s worth a look especially if you’re going through the entire series.
(Second or third viewing, On Blu-ray, October 2018) I saw For Your Eyes Only in theatres when it came out! This definitely deserves an exclamation point given how, as a kid, I never went to the movies. My parents weren’t rich enough to take us out regularly, the nearest theatre was more than twenty kilometres away (in fact, more like thirty at the time—closer ones were built some time later) and since we only spoke French in an Anglophone province, going to the movies would have been an exercise in frustration for everyone. We did watch a lot of movies on TV, though, and if I recall correctly, we happened to be visiting relatives in the greater Montréal region when everybody (including a six-year-old boy) agreed to go to the theatre to watch the latest James Bond film. In French. I distinctly recall the scary underwater sequence from the theatre—I suspect that most of the rest of my childhood memories came from watching endless reruns of the film on Radio Canada TV. Now that I’m going through the entire Bond series in order, For Your Eyes Only does take on a very different feel. Coming down from the giddy silliness of Moonraker, it’s a film that goes back to the roots of the Bond character with far more restrained stakes, clearly echoing both From Russia With Love and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to produce the best of the Roger Moore movies. Bond calms down with the indiscriminate sleeping around: the main female character (played quite well by Carole Bouquet) is strong enough to create some real tension between the two, the secondary Bond girl has her own agenda, and there are some laughs in seeing Bond fend off the advances of an overly pushy teenager. There are other highlights beyond the more grounded approach: Plot-wise, there’s a nice twist midway through, and the film’s standout action sequences involves an underpowered Citroen 2CV. After the space adventure of the previous film, taking up a Cold War-themed thriller mostly set in Greece is a welcome change of pace. But here’s the thing: For all of the talk about a more down-to-earth Bond, For Your Eyes Only doesn’t skimp on the action sequence – there’s a new one every few minutes, and they take us from the mountains to the Mediterranean and then back up again. There’s also some variety to the action in between impressive helicopter stunts, a winding road car chase, downhill ski thrills, underwater action and tense mountain-climbing. It all wraps up in a highly satisfying Bond film that manages to find difficult balance (well, other than the pre-credit sequence) between Roger Moore’s debonair charm, Bond’s tougher roots, competent plotting and hair-raising tension. There was a lot of behind-the-scenes drama in the making of For Your Eyes Only (Moore being unsure if he’d take the role again, and numerous crew changes) but the result ranks as an upper-tier Bond movie.
(Second or third viewing, On Blu-ray, October 2018) It’s said that everyone’s favourite Bond is the one they grew up with, and so I discovered the Bond series during the Roger Moore era, most specifically in between the TV broadcast of Moonraker and the theatre release of For Your Eyes Only. (If memory serves, because the series was regularly broadcast on French-Canadian TV, we had just got a VCR and you can imagine the rest.) I even remember watching the movie and talking to the adults in the room about special effects (how that skydiving sequence was made!) and budgets (they were really impressed by how Bond went around the world in the movie, most notably when he rides in Guatemala). So, yeah, I imprinted on Bond at the silliest time possible, on the one movie in the series that is widely regarded as the most outlandish, perhaps even the silliest in a series of movies not always known for their seriousness. I was a science-fiction fan even back then, so that Bond was only a step removed from Star Wars (which also played on TV a lot in the early 1980s). All of which to say that even if I can reasonably agree that Moonraker is a film with glaring problems, you will never—ever—manage to talk me away from an irrational fondness for that film. Third and perhaps worst outing for Moore as Bond, Moonraker shows the extent of the Star Wars craze of the late seventies as Bond goes through the motions of the usual formula, only to spend the last act of the film in orbit, all the way to a fancy space laser battle between American Marines and evil henchmen. No Bond movies ever went that crazy nor as silly than the infamous Venice sequence in which even a pigeon does a double-take. But that was the nature of the Moore years, and it’s rather unfair to start picking at the film’s numerous logical impossibilities when the point is having Bond escape death every ten minutes and showing off a special effects budget clearly much increased over previous films. It’s a rollercoaster ride across the globe, as the action moves from one continent to another and from one set-piece to the next. It doesn’t always work: “California” looks a lot like France (hilariously acknowledged by the film itself), and the special effects work is very uneven, especially during action scenes where impressive stunt-work is intercut against rear-projection shots of the main actors. The character of Jaws is reduced to an annoying running gag, Bond’s serial conquests are exasperating (especially how it callously leads to a nightmarish death that feels jarringly out-of-place with the silliness surrounding it) and the quips are lame. Still, I really like Michael Lonsdale as the villain, Lois Chiles is not bad as an agent who’s at least supposed to be Bond’s equal (as usual, the film inevitably falters on true equality, although at least it’s better than the abysmal Connery years) and—this is the crucial part—there is a space laser battle around an orbital evil lair. I won’t argue that Moonraker is at the extreme silliness spectrum of the Bond series, nor will I renege on my outright admiration for the more serious entries such as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Casino Royale or Skyfall. But I still like Moonraker a lot as a middle-aged adult even if I can see the flaws that completely escaped me as a kid.
(Second viewing, On Blu-ray, September 2018) Now that’s more like it. The Spy Who Loved Me, third Roger Moore outing as James Bond, finally puts all of the elements of Moore’s sub-formula together: Good action sequences, interesting plot (even if reprised from You Only Live Twice), a strong Bond Girl and, perhaps more than everything else, Moore’s debonair charm used to good purposes. His Bond here is far funnier, much less violent (although there’s one execution-by-tie that still rankles), better behaved around women (not by much, but the pairing with an almost-equal works in favour of a more balanced relationship) and unflappable in the face of crises. The globetrotting takes us to Egypt and the Mediterranean, while the gadgets include the classic submarine car, Union-jack parachute and personal Jet Ski. The film manages to hit just the right balance between a simplistic but not completely stupid plot and the silliness that we’ve come to expect from the Moore years. It’s not fancy, but it works. The villain’s lair is truly spectacular (in fact, there are two of them) and the action sequences have some kick—the car chase is particularly enjoyable. I won’t pretend that it’s a perfect film: The Bond girl is still used as a plot device to be rescued at the end, the Bond seduction shtick has worn thin, and there are more than a few instances of villain stupidity. Still, it works surprisingly well and presents a sharp return to form for the series after a lengthy fallow period—it’s probably the best Bond since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I saw the film as a boy (I was introduced to Bond between Moonraker and For Your Eyes Only) and had forgotten much of the details—it’s fascinating to see what sticks in mind and what doesn’t, and how I was sometimes able to anticipate the gist of the next thirty seconds of the film without quite knowing exactly why.
(On Blu Ray, September 2018) Roger Moore’s second outing as James Bond isn’t particularly good, clearly showing how the producers didn’t yet understand how to best use Moore’s debonair natural charm. The Man with the Golden Gun doesn’t manage to control its comedic impulses, sometimes trying to bring back the written Bond’s violence and at other times going way too far in silliness. It starts with a disappointing theme song that can’t manage to do honour to its fantastic signature riff (à la Live and Let Die) with on-the-nose silly lyrics and a weak vocal performance. The odd thing about the film is that it does have undeniable strengths: Moore is naturally likable, Scaramanga is a fantastic idea for a villain, Christopher Lee is exceptional as the antagonist and the corkscrew jump two thirds through the film is easily one of the most spectacular shots in Bond history. Alas, each one of those aspects is undermined by filmmakers who don’t quite understand how to showcase their assets: Bond is too often unnecessarily aggressive or rough, Scaramanga’s build-up isn’t matched by the third act, Christopher Lee isn’t given much to do, and the stunt is accompanied by a stupid slide whistle sound (and wrapped in dumb dialogue between Bond and one of the worst characters in the series), deflating the impact of the shot. The entire film is like that: Bond Girl Britt Ekland makes a strong first impression as a Foreign Service agent able to verbally spar with Bond, then devolves into an idiotic damsel-in-distress throughout the movie. The film’s third act sputters through an anticlimactic duel and a butt-activated solar death ray. Even the film’s attempt to cash on the early-seventies kung fu craze (after doing its best with Blaxploitation in the previous instalment) feels like an extraneous afterthought with an incredibly dumb payoff. I still have some enduring sympathy for the Moore-era Bonds because that’s when I first encountered the series (between Moonraker and For Your Eyes Only), but my patience was sorely tested with The Man with the Golden Gun—In fact, I almost snapped at the film’s iteration of the series’ frankly insulting seduction plot device. At least there’s a bit of a bedroom farce to take the edge off, but despite the winged cars, exotic trips through Southeast Asia and the great idea of using the Queen Mary wreck as a secret base, The Man with the Golden Gun is just frustrating. Fortunately, the next instalments of the series would learn how to best use Moore’s specific take on the character.
(Second viewing, On Blu-ray, September 2018) And so the Roger Moore Bond years begin in Live and Let Die, without SPECTRE, but with tarot, voodoo and tons of Blaxploitation. The globe-threatening antics of previous films are reduced to a drug trafficking movie, albeit with a considerable amount of early-seventies flair. Moore’s performance is not quite Moore’s Bond yet: His approach is still more intense than debonair, his quips are restrained and he still feels like a holdover from the Connery era. The film around him, however, is a clear relic of its time: I happen to like Blaxploitation a lot, so it’s not as if its intrusion on Bond territory is not welcome—on the other hand, this is clearly a black-focused film written by white people, so the folkloric aspects of black culture are played up and character stereotypes abound. It’s also missing a lot of what made Blaxploitation feel fun—no funk, no going up against the man on behalf of the black man. Oh well; we couldn’t really expect much from such a combination. Elsewhere in the movie, the ludicrousness abounds: there’s an uncomfortable aura of supernatural floating around the film, even when you can explain most of it rationally through dramatic plotting, impossibly clever schemes and an impressionistic final shot. It does dovetail with the increasingly silly nature of the Bond series going into the Moore years, especially when tarot and voodoo are used as exotic window-dressing for the series’ globetrotting. Speaking of which: It does feel like an overdose to go back to America in back-to-back Bond movies, even if New Orleans isn’t the same as Las Vegas. (I saw Live and Let Die as a teenager, but I had forgotten all about Bond’s detour in New York City. I did remember the tricked-out card deck, though.) I’m not particularly impressed by the film’s action showpieces, especially the boat sequence which, while containing some spectacular moments, doesn’t seem to build to something as much as it just strings stuff along until it runs out of its budget. Jane Seymour is one of the most intriguing Bond Girls as Solitaire, but I’m not sure that she actually fits in the Bond universe. Yaphet Kotto is not bad as the villain, although one wonders how busy his agenda is in-between the ruling, the trafficking and the evil plotting. Among bit players, David Hedison is great as Felix Leiter, Geoffrey Holder is terrific as Baron Samedi, Madeline Smith is cute as the Opening Bond Girl and Gloria Hendry is welcome as the Bad Bond Girl. Alas, Sheriff Pepper is intolerable, Q is missing and the plot is a bit dull, suggesting once again that the Bond series is at its silly best when it goes bigger-than-big. Speaking of which, Paul McCartney’s title song is terrific, probably my favourite of the series. Otherwise, Live and Let Die is a formula Bond movie, perhaps more interesting as a period piece and as a transition point for the series rather than by itself.
(Second Viewing, On Blu Ray, September 2018) There’s the end of a James Bond era and the beginning of another in Diamonds are Forever. It would be the last of the Bond movies to focus on Spectre and Blofeld (due to rights issues, no less) until the 2010s, and also the last of the EON-sanctioned productions to feature Sean Connery. It also marks the first Bond to truly lean on the craziest possibilities of the Bond franchise: Far from the relatively grounded On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, here we are with satellite laser weapons, gymnast bodyguards, a moon rover chase, body doubles, a pair of camp gay assassins, a reclusive billionaire, circus intrigue and so on. Whew. It sounds like a lot, and indeed at times we wish for the film to calm down a little bit. The result is firmly in the tongue-in-cheek Bond formula phase that would be so firmly exemplified by Roger Moore’s tenure. This being said, Connery’s return to the role is welcome even if the film isn’t as good as his other ones—he’s visibly older than in previous films, and the added touch of gray and world-weariness suits him well. Lana Wood makes for an intriguing Bond Girl, although her role becomes less and less interesting as the film advances. Indeed, there is a sense of missed opportunities in Diamonds are Forever that is made worse by the deliberately silly tone—the first minute of the film is awesome as an angry 007 travels the world and brutalizes informants in the search for Blofeld, but this soon turns to mush with an unrelated smuggling plot and a limp return to Blofeld later during the film. There are plot holes and dumb character decisions everywhere, not helping the film’s credibility or impact in the slightest. Some of the action scenes do work well, though—the chase through Las Vegas has a uniquely American flavour that sticks out (although, after being immersed in the very British atmosphere of the Bond series for a few movies, it reminds us by contrast that American culture and way of life is really, really weird) and even if the car-on-two-wheels stunt makes no sense, it’s still remarkably fun to see. While clearly the worst Connery-era Bond (I abhor Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd), I still have a bit of a fondness for Diamonds are Forever, largely because it’s closer in tone to the Moore movies through which I was introduced to Bond.
(Second viewing, On Blu Ray, September 2018) As far as Bond movies go, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a weird one. It has quite a bit running against it, but substantial assets as well. It’s the one that introduced snowy mountain fortresses (and subsequent downhill chase sequence) to the Bond lexicon. It’s the one that, at least until 2006’s Casino Royale, had the most character development for Bond, whether we wanted it or not. It’s the one that, even more than Thunderball, stepped up the frequency and intensity of the action sequences that became part of the Bond formula. It’s the one that stuck most closely to the original Fleming text, once again whether we wanted it or not. It’s the one with the best Blofeld, with Terry Savalas in fine form as an evil mastermind unafraid to take up guns and get down with the killing. It’s the one with the best direction of the early Bond movies (thanks to Peter R. Hunt), perhaps all the way to Skyfall—it’s sometimes visually interesting in its presentation, which is more than can be said for the unobtrusive style preferred by other Bond directors. It’s the one with the nice instrumental title tune that’s been remade so well by Propellerheads. On the other hand, it’s the one with the sucker-punch of a downer ending, the one that doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the movies. It’s the only one with George Lazenby as Bond—he’s not exactly a bad Bond, but he doesn’t have the je-ne-sais quoi that the best Bonds have: the suaveness of Connery, the debonairness of Moore, or the brute force of Craig. It’s the one that compounds a decent villain plot with an over-the-top brainwashing fillip that makes the entire thing feel silly. It’s the one with the cutest early Bond Girl (Diana Riggs) but also the most mystifying, popping up at random intervals doing things solely to help move the plot forward. It’s the one that messes with the film formula, not quite going for the gadgets and not quite respecting how M and Moneypenny are best used. Some are fond of praising this film over the others and I can certainly see their point, but the truth is that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is distinguished because it stands alongside the other Bond movies—I’m not sure it would have done as well as a purely standalone film. It does feel a bit long at times, and rather arbitrary in far too many respects—the opening sequence alone piles up the coincidences to an untenable height. Even though this isn’t the most popular Bond movie, you can see its influence on later films of the series and most clearly on the Craig cycle—Skyfall was just as upsetting in the way it played with the formula, and the lesson here is that you get to do these off-Bonds once every generation. My take is that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is just as good a Bond as the others … but it cannot be evaluated along the same criteria as the ones immediately preceding and following it.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, September 2018) On paper, I’m sure Casino Royale was a great idea. In fact, the film does work better from a conceptual viewpoint than a practical one … which is a fancy way of saying that the film is a mess. From a cold viewing, the film makes no sense: it’s an attempt to satirize Bond, and it goes off in all directions at once, making failed jokes in multiple segments that barely relate to whatever plot we can identify. Some moments are funnier than others, and the high-spirited finale is pure comic chaos (in the good sense of the expression), but much of the film simply falls flat. Coherence is a major issue when entire scenes have their own idea of what humour is, and when the actors aren’t following the same plan. And what a list of actors! A young Woody Allen, a remarkably fun Orson Welles goofing off with magic tricks, First Bond Girl Ursula Andress playing (a) Bond, David Niven as “The original” Bond (before Connery ruined the name), Jean-Claude Belmondo for thirty seconds and a bunch of other cameos. Peter Sellers is occasionally fun, but he seems to be acting in another film entirely. The film’s production values are high enough that we’re left to contemplate a bizarre result, clearly made with considerable means but without a coherent plan. What to make of it? The key to understanding Casino Royale is to read about the film’s unbelievable production. It started with the intention of copycatting Connery’s Bond film series through the rights of Fleming’s first Bond novel, but was realigned to a satirical comedy once Connery made himself unavailable. Then, for some reason, the film became a creation from five different directors, with a sixth trying to patch the gaps between the sequences. Then Peter Sellers, who wanted to play a dramatic Bond, started sabotaging the production before leaving it entirely before his scenes were completely filmed. Given all of this, it’s a minor miracle if Casino Royale makes even the slightest sense. That doesn’t make it a good movie (although there are maybe twenty minutes of good comedy here, as long as you keep only the scenes with Sellers, Welles and Allen) but it certainly explains how we got there. There may have been messier productions and movies out there, but Casino Royale is a case of its own. (I saw the film as a young teenager, but the only moment I remembered from it was Allen’s line about learning how to tie women up in the boy scouts. Go figure. Or don’t, given that I was a boy scout.)
(Second viewing, On Blu-ray, September 2018) Bond goes to mid-sixties Japan in this fifth instalment (after a three-year break), and the film soon becomes one extended Orientalism riff. To be fair, Japan was considerably more exotic to Western audiences fifty years ago and the film wisely avoids much of the truly regrettable stuff. (Which isn’t to say that watching Bond doing in-universe yellowface isn’t mystifying, or that there isn’t a laugh or two in seeing the film laboriously explain what is a ninja.) The sexism is worse than the racism, but again there’s some slack to be cut given that the movie is fifty years old. Once you get past those problems, You Only Live Twice remains a strong Connery-era entry by codifying two of the series’ most defining icons: showing the scarred-face cat-petting villain Blofeld (later becoming Austin Powers’ Doctor Evil) and setting the climax in an underground lair in an extinct volcano. Add some spiffy space-age plot, a travelogue through then-mysterious Japan and you’ve got the making of a classic-formula Bond. (The script is from no less than Roald Dahl—and if you think that’s weird, check out who wrote the script for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang—who famously complained about the instructions he had been given regarding the number and nature of Bond Girls.) Bond doesn’t spend a single moment in England, but M and Q and Moneypenny all show up a few times to keep him on the right track. The special effects are ambitious and flawed, but the spirit of the sequences they serve is there. All things considered, You Only Live Twice remains a slight improvement over Thunderball. I first saw this film as a boy and remained mystified for a long time about the opening sequence and How could Bond actually come back from the dead?!?. The best thing about a jaded middle-age re-watch is that it now makes perfect sense that they faked his death, even if the specifics of the scene seem elusive.