Casino Royale (2006)

Posted: January 11, 2021 in James Bond
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And so, we go from what’s widely perceived to be one of the worst Bond films, to what’s widely perceived to be one of the best. Whatever your view of Die Another Day and Casino Royale, you can’t deny that they feel like two wholly different kinds of films. One utterly ridiculous, the other utterly grounded. Of course, this isn’t new for the franchise. Look at OHMSS sandwiched between YOLT and DAF, or more relevant the gritty For Your Eyes Only following Moonraker. Only Roger Moore could go into space, but even he couldn’t stay there.

Time for the usual full disclosure. Whilst I wasn’t one of the “Bond can’t be blonde” muppets (Rog isn’t exactly dark haired, is he?) I was disappointed in the casting of Daniel Craig, and should I ever meet the fellow I plan to sincerely apologise, because, whilst the quality of his films has been variable, he’s been a superb Bond all the way.

Returning to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service for a moment, it’s interesting to note what else Casino Royale shares with that film. Not only do both feature genuine romance for Bond, they’re both also incredibly faithful (to a point) adaptations, and both feature a tragic death. Beyond this both are not only great Bond films, but they’re also great films full stop. For Craig this has on occasion somewhat hamstrung him, because after such an assured debut the only way was down—George at least began and left on a high.

We can always hope that No Time to Die will, eventually, provide a suitably great swansong for Craig, but only time will tell.

Back to Casino Royale. Things are different from the off, with no gun barrel intro and a black and white pre-title sequence set in chilly Prague and not so chilly, well it’s Pakistan but we never really find that out as all the cricketing preamble is wisely excised. All that remains is a framed cricketing print that gets knocked off the wall during the fight. Bond’s conversation with Dryden is succinct but loaded with information, yet never feels expository. Bond isn’t a 00 agent yet, and to become a 00 requires two kills. Though it quickly becomes apparent to Dryden that Bond already has one, and he’s to be the second.

There’s an interesting contrast between the two kills. The fight in the rest room is brutal and hot blooded, the discussion between Bond and Dryden cold blooded and polite, and Bond’s reaction to each death is very different. When he thinks he’s killed Dryden’s contact, Bond is in shock, and Craig does a wonderful job of portraying a whole host of conflicting emotions here. Bond is almost proud, yet horrified. You can’t quite decide if he’s about to punch the air or throw up, perhaps the perfect response to a first kill.

His execution of Dryden, and it is an execution, is calm by comparison, almost blasé, with Dryden not even getting to finish his homily that a second kill is always…

“Yes. Considerably.”. Interesting to note the flash of a family photo as Dryden topples back. A wife and child perhaps. Nice touch.

We flash back to Pakistan where it seems Bond’s first kill wasn’t quite dead. James quickly resolves this and we get the most imaginative gun barrel in the franchise, followed by titles that, for my money are the best in the series. Exceptionally cool, especially the bullet holes in the 7 of Hearts that morphs into 007 Status Confirmed. Chris Cornell and David Arnold’s fantastic ‘You Know My Name’ playing over the top is just the icing on the cake.

Casino Royale is a long film and, in many respects, an oddly paced one. Two of the big action sequences, after all, arrive early on. Bond’s pursuit of the bomber in Madagascar and his interception of the second bomber at Mimi Airport. Both are excellent, although the free running segment does go on a bit (and is it just me, but does the embassy guard already seem to be examining the bomber’s passport and radioing his superior before the bomber runs up to him?). Both showcase Craig’s physicality, and when he runs through a wall you genuinely believe he can do that. If I had a preference it’s for the Miami section, if only because Bond uses his wits a bit more here. That the film still works despite front loading much of the action is testament to how well the casino scenes are done. Here it’s helped by the source material, even if much of Fleming’s plot is jettisoned (no Bulgarians blowing themselves up) it’s also helped by the arrival of Vesper, and by having Bond and Le Chiffre finally face off.

Now at times I’ve been a little sniffy about the characters. Not the actors. Green and Mikkelsen are superb, but as villains go Le Chiffre always seemed to lack agency. Having him use his inhaler the first time we see him isn’t a great start, and he seems at the mercy of events rather than driving them forwards. He’s very nearly murdered by his own associates before Bond can get close enough to win the game after all. Similarly, Vesper suffers the same issues she does in the book, she’s a little insipid, at times you wonder what it is about her that Bond loves so much, and like the book she seems to go from hating Bond to falling in love in the time it takes to turn over a card.

But actually both of them fared much better in my eyes this time. Green’s chemistry with Craig is off the charts. Their first meeting on the train is wonderful—so good Eon will try to replicate it a few years later, with nought but a pale imitation—as are most of their interactions, the dress/dinner jacket scenes add very little to the story, but I love them. And her acting is spot on. I never noticed before how there’s a fantastic moment when she says goodbye in Venice, just a flicker, subtle as hell but wonderful. She really is saying goodbye for keeps.

It’s debatable how much agency she has, in part because we never quite know when she’s acting against Bond and when she’s not, but if nothing else she feels like she has agency, and she’s certainly a more rounded character than most Bond girls.

At times the poker stuff goes on a bit, and having Mathis mansplain poker to Vesper (and the audience) multiple times is wince inducing, but when the poker scenes work they do so superbly, even if the final denouncement is a trifle contrived (seriously every player gets one-upped by the next in line?).

But this is a film of contrivances, most Bond films are, but they do irk me slightly here. Look at Bond’s detective work in the Bahamas. It’s fortunate that Dimitrios sent that text just as he arrived and was caught on camera, and it’s the first tape 007 looks at. On the plus side I still have a lot of goodwill after Bond smashes the very obvious Goldfinger homage’s Range Rover.

Similarly, handy Bond had a defibrillator in his car.

These are minor annoyances though, and frankly the film is long enough without seeing Bond trek through dozens of tapes.

The car chase that isn’t really a car chase is excellently done, and for those unfamiliar with the novel it must have been one hell of a shock to see Vesper in the middle of the road.

Then there’s the torture scene, where Mikkelsen really comes alive. A slight change from the book but the mechanics are the same.

Mads Mikkelsen is wonderful, but…forgive the indulgence, but I like to think there’s an alternate universe where the weasely Le Chiffre is played by Christoph Waltz, and Ernst Stavro Blofeld is played by Mikkelsen—though could even arguably the best Hannibal Lector we ever had have salvaged Spectre (getting ahead of myself!).

Then we get poor old Mathis’ shabby treatment (I’m sure this will be made up for in the next film) and finally James and Vesper fall in love. Cue montage! Again, the pacing is a little off, because this comes so late in the film, by contrast Bond and Tracy’s courtship happened much earlier in OHMSS, giving their love a little more time to breathe. Still, it’s hard not to swoon over some of the dialogue. “You’ve got your armour back up again.” “I have no armour left, you’ve stripped it from me.” Just divine.

And then, finally, the Venice set piece in a collapsing building. Which is great. Really it is.

You know there’s a but coming, right?

The trouble is, not only does it elongate the film yet further, but it goes against the theme running through the film. Mano a mano. Practically every confrontation Bond has is him vs a single opponent.

Bond vs Dryden, Bond vs the guy in the bathroom, Bond vs Mollaka the free runner, Bond vs Dimitrios, Bond vs Carlos (seriously I never knew his name before today!) in Miami. Bond vs the warlord Obanno (technically there’s his right-hand man but Bond despatches him so quickly he might as well not be there). Then Bond vs Le Chiffre (poker) and Bond vs Le Chiffre (torture). Hell if you take Bond and Vesper’s verbal sparring into account you can even include them.

I mean, for goodness sake the theme hits you over the head right from the start of the Madagascar sequence. Cobra vs Mongoose!

So having Bond kill a bunch of anonymous guys at the end, seems a little lame. I guess they felt the film had to have a final set piece.

Vesper’s death isn’t quite an OHMSS gut punch, but it is still very moving, and Green gets a beautiful death. Glad they included the last line from the novel, shame they had to dilute it somewhat, but I can see why.

And finally we get the line, you know the one I mean, after James has thanked Mr White for saving his life by shooting him in the leg. (Sheesh why don’t you just shag his daughter).

So there you have it. An exceptional film, and one that I feel slightly embarrassed doesn’t sit in my top five (I mean it’s literally number 6 ok!) and I wonder if I shouldn’t move it up a notch or two because damn if it isn’t fantastic. Kudos to Martin Campbell, who also directed Brosnan’s debut Goldeneye.

It isn’t perfect, it’s too long (though god knows what I’d cut) slightly contrived in places, and though my view has changed quite a lot, it still feels a trifle embarrassed to be a Bond film at times. Then again Spectre isn’t embarrassed at all and it really should be (getting ahead of myself again!)

Great set pieces, great acting, a script so polished in places you can see your face in it, a wonderful soundtrack and a truly fantastic Bond. As I said, its main failing is that it’s almost too good, when you set the bar that high following it up can be tricky.

Bone Silence

Posted: December 19, 2020 in Book reviews, science fiction
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By Alastair Reynolds

And so we reach the final part of the trilogy that began with Revenger and continued with Shadow Captain.

I’ll try to keep spoilers for this book to a minimum but obviously may reveal things about the previous two novels, so be forewarned.

<insert spoiler gap here>

Having inadvertently caused a major financial crisis across the congregation the Ness sisters, Fura and Adrana, along with their mismatched crew, find themselves and their former pirate ship still hunted by a fleet of ships now led by an implacable enemy more ruthless than either of the sisters. Now they must not only evade capture, but also try and solve the twin mysteries that have intrigued them both. What is the true purpose of the Quoins, the curious currency in use across the thousands of worlds of the Congregation, and what force is it that restarts humanity after each Congregation falls into anarchy (humans are now in their 13th).

As the sisters become separated each must face off against nefarious foes, but if they’re lucky, not only will they survive, they might just discover answers to those questions, answers that may change the nature of the Congregation, of all future Congregations, forever.

Well after each of the previous books was told from the POV of one of the sisters, here Reynolds eschews the first person for a third person view that broadens the scope of the story, and its no surprise that this is the meatiest novel of the three.

I’ve really enjoyed the trilogy, and whilst Reynolds says in his afterward that this is the last we’ll see of the Ness sisters for a while, he also acknowledges that they might force his hand and shoehorn their way back into his thinking. I really hope they do, because while questions are answered, you feel there’s still a long way for the Ness sisters, and the Congregation to go, and having created such a vibrant far future world of pirates and privateers, it’d be a real shame if he doesn’t return to it because there’s still so much untapped potential.

As always Reynolds’ prose is superb, and I found myself caught by a horrible dilemma. On the one hand I could barely the put the book down—page turner doesn’t do it justice—but by the same token I really didn’t want it to end.

The Ness sisters are great creations, but the real star of the story is the world Reynolds created, a radically altered solar system tens of thousands of years hence, yet analogous with the 18th Century high seas, with the planets long since broken up to form thousands of tiny worlds, some planetoids, some huge space stations. Suffice to say from the grandest element to the absolute minutiae Reynolds’ worldbuilding is as superb as ever.

It isn’t perfect. Many of the supporting characters do blend into one another, the villain deserved more screen time, and the ending feels a little rushed, but these are minor gripes. A fab end to a fab trilogy. I only hope it doesn’t remain a trilogy for long!

Summer Crossing

Posted: November 5, 2020 in Book reviews
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By Truman Capote

Grady McNeil, a 17-year-old debutante, refuses to travel to Europe with her parents and instead remains in New York where she pursues a relationship with Clyde Manzer, a Jewish parking lot attendant. Over the course of a sweltering summer their relationship becomes increasingly serious, even as the cultural and class divides between them becomes ever more obvious.

I came to admire Capote quite by chance. A few years ago the university I worked at gave away free copies of In Cold Blood and, never one to turn down a free book, I took one, not expecting to read it. But read it I did and blimey it was amazing! Having enjoyed one book, I soon snapped up Breakfast at Tiffanys, and again I really enjoyed it. Of course even when I decide I like a writer I can be very slow in picking up other work by them, so flash forward a couple of years and I finally buy another Capote book when I got a copy of Summer Crossing.

This is Capote’s first novel, one he started writing in 1943 before eventually discarding it unfinished. For many years it was thought lost until a manuscript was found at the Manhattan apartment that Capote had lived until around 1950. The finders initially thought they’d located a fortune, but the manuscript failed to sell at auction because publication rights to all of Capote’s work are held by a literary trust. Eventfully the New York Public Library agreed to buy the manuscript for it’s Capote Collection and soon after the book was published.

This is both interesting but also important context. It explains why the novel is so sparse (more of a novella really) why it ends quite abruptly, and also why, in parts, it’s a trifle rough around the edges. Don’t get me wrong, Capote’s way with words is here, and his characters leap off the page, but this is clearly someone at the beginning of his career rather than someone more assured in his prose.

Grady is an interesting character, and I can see why people have made comparisons with Holly Golightly, although I’d say Holly is a much more fully rounded character. Grady is at first insufferable, in a way teenagers often can be, certain of her own importance, feeling invincible and disdainful of others. As the story progresses though our perceptions of her shift, until by the end we remember that she is barely an adult, and Capote deftly makes us care more about her when she realises she’s little more than a child playing dress up, and there are consequences to her fun and games.

Manzer is interesting too, especially his backstory and the tragedy relating to one of his sisters. Peter Bell—Grady’s friend and possible romantic interest—is intriguing. Is he genuinely interested in her, or is he actually closeted and does he see Grady as merely a cover to prevent awkward questions being asked? He clearly loves her, but is his amour platonic or romantic? Capote leaves us guessing either way.

The other major character is New York, and Capote evokes a time and a place I’ve only seen in movies. The oppressive heat is ever present however, providing a pressure cooker environment for Grady and Clyde’s tempestuous relationship as they bounce from practically breaking up to taking their relationship to a whole new level.

It’s fair to say this is probably my least favourite Capote work, so far, and you can see why he abandoned it, I do wonder where he would have taken the story, the ending we get is bleak yet ambiguous, and I can’t help but think he had yet more despair lined up for Grady, though perhaps with some form of redemption with Peter, though if some critics are correct about Peter’s proclivities this might have been a hollow kind of happiness. As it is Grady ends the book slave to her passions, but maybe that’s for the best.

An intriguing read, and hopefully it won’t be a few years before I buy another Capote book.

Maledictions

Posted: October 24, 2020 in Book reviews, horror
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At first look an anthology of horror stories set in the Warhammer universe seems a slightly odd decision, if only because for the Warhammer universe horror is second nature. 40K depicts a universe embroiled in near constant war, a galaxy filled with weird and deadly alien races, where even humans are not immune from the eldritch horrors of chaos that reside in the warp.

A second glance tells a different tale. Freed from the broad strokes of war, of horror on an industrial scale, this anthology allows horror to permeate on a more forensic level, less a meat grinder than a scalpel.

As with all anthologies the quality of the tales varies, and likely stories I liked others might not, and vice versa, but there’s something here for everyone, from visceral bloody horror, to more nuanced, psychological torment.

The highlight for me was Predation of the Eagle by Peter McLean, a gritty survival horror set on a humid jungle planet where the members of a platoon of Imperial Guard are picked off one by one by a relentless enemy. With more than a nod to Predator, there’s an overriding Apocalypse Now, war is hell feel to it. It might not have been the most original story in the book, but it was the most enjoyable.

I also particularly enjoyed The Marauder Lives by JC Stearns, a story of PTSD and how one can never escape the horror of one’s past as a former prisoner of war struggles to come to terms with what she endured.

The past catching up to characters is a popular theme, yet each tale that goes down this route does it very differently. Take Triggers by Paul Kane, which again centres on a character haunted by the past, but which tells a quite different kind of story in more of a Tales from the Crypt style.

Not every story features war, there are stories that could have just as easily been set in a Cornish fishing village, feudal Japan, or the sewers beneath Victorian London.

The big question is whether this is a horror anthology for everyone, or merely for fans of Warhammer’s various universes. Yes, knowing something of the wider context helped me to appreciate some stories, but my knowledge of 40K isn’t encyclopaedic by any means, and I think for most of the stories the wider backstory is just that, backstory, local colour of the kind you might get in any standalone fantastical story. There’s even an argument that a lack of knowledge might allow you to enjoy these stories even more, simply because you don’t have something to anchor them to.

A decent anthology for horror fans and Warhammer fans alike.

Die Another Day (2002)

Posted: October 18, 2020 in James Bond
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The first Bond film of the 21st Century, Pierce Brosnan’s last outing as 007 and, if the vast majority of fans are to be believed, the worst Bond film of all time…

Cards on the table here, in my opinion it’s not the worst Bond film, not remotely. Is it good, no, but it’s fun at least, in places.

The film opens in North Korea, with Bond and some allies infiltrating the world’s most secretive nation via…er surf boards (on the upside at least they don’t play the Beachboys!)

Bond replaces a diamond trader and meets with Colonel Moon who wants to trade weapons for conflict diamonds. Bond’s placed plastic explosive in the case of diamonds though, and obviously plans to set it off once he’s safely out of the way. Unfortunately for Bond, Moon’s right-hand man, Zao, is tipped off that 007 is, well, 007! His allies are killed, and Bond is set to be executed.

Lucky he has that plastic explosive, eh? In the chaos following the explosion Bond hijacks a hovercraft and chases Moon down. Eventually they end up fighting atop Moon’s hovercraft. The vehicle goes over a cliff, along with Moon, while Bond is saved by the bell.

And then Bond’s captured, thrown in a North Korean prison and tortured.

Wait, what now?

Let’s be honest, even as someone who kinda likes DAD, I accept it’s incredibly flawed, which is all the more annoying when it does things like this. Bond captured, not something we’ve seen before, certainly  not for the length of time he’s held here (fourteen months), which is surprising given this has happened to Bond in the books (between You Only Live Twice and The Man With the Golden Gun.)

Eventually Bond is released as part of a prisoner exchange that sees Zao, still sporting the diamonds blown into his face, go the other way. It’s a great scene, reminiscent more of John le Carré than Fleming. There’s no hero’s welcome waiting for him, there’s a familiar face in Charles Robinson but an unfriendly welcome as he’s drugged.

He wakes up under guard, and M arrives to tell him the reason for his release was because they believed he was haemorrhaging information. Bond says he’s been set up, but M’s not convinced. What’s a 00 to do? Bond escapes and swims to Hong Kong, after a run in with Chinese secret service he’s off to Cuba on the trail of Zao. There he’ll meet an intriguing young woman named Jinx. Eventually the trail leads back to England and a mysterious entrepreneur named Gustav Graves. What is Graves’ link to Zao, and where does his sun focusing satellite fit in? One thing’s for sure, Bond will need his wits about him, and an invisible car…

Okay let’s get the car out of the way from the off. Is it silly, undoubtedly, is it based on theoretical technology, well yup. I mean silly is Bond’s middle name, and is an invisible car any less believable than a hollowed-out volcano or a space station?

This is a film of two halves though, and the first is really rather good. I think some people just focus on the second half and forget the good stuff that’s gone before.

The pre-title sequence feels a little like a rehash of Tomorrow Never Dies, but is still good, and the ending, segueing into the titles where we see Bond tortured is, as said, great stuff, even if you can’t imagine Bond would really keep schtum for 14 months. I don’t care who you are, they’d have likely broken him in a matter of weeks.

The scene on the bridge is wonderfully eerie, and there’s some nice acting from Pierce because Bond clearly thinks this is it, he’s about to be executed.

Bond’s newfound ability to simulate death comes out of nowhere, but I guess he had a lot of time on his hands in North Korea, but his escape is fun. Nowhere near as joyous as a soaking wet, bearded and bedraggled Bond in pyjamas swanning into a luxury hotel like he owns the place and asking for his usual suite. With the Bond theme playing over the top this is one of my all-time favourite Bond moments.

Soon he’s groomed and back to his old self, just in time to rumble Chinese intelligence’s plot to film him having sex with a woman. (On a side note here why do foreign intelligence services imagine that having compromising film of 007 In flagrante would be, well, compromising? Shagging is what he does, no one’s going to be surprised at him making love to a beautiful woman).

That aside the interplay between him and Mr Chang is lovely.

Then off to Cuba, and a nice bit of espionage as Bond reawakens a sleeper agent, the owner of a cigar factory. Nice reference to the bird watching book Fleming got the name James Bond from.

Things dip somewhat when Halle Berry comes out of the water. The seduction scene between Bond and Jinx is painfully clunky, but not as painful as the sex scene that follows.

Things perk up as Bond and Jinx, unbeknownst to one another, infiltrate the Isla de Los Organos, where evil Cuban doctors are using gene therapy to provide the ultimate makeovers (again something less believable than an invisible car but nobody bats an eyelid).

Bond finds Zao, who looks to be on the verge of being turned into a copy of Gustav Graves (though I’m pretty sure they’re completely different hights.) They fight but Zao escapes after Jinx blows up the building. She then escapes by jumping off the cliff—the first, but sadly not the last bit of ropey CGI we’re going to have to put up with.

Bond’s return to London and back to MI6 is nicely done, the scenes in the underground laying the groundwork for Skyfall onwards? Even Cleese isn’t that annoying here. The least said about the VR simulation the better though (it’s painful and again, more believable than an invisible car apparently?).

Die Another Day (2002) L to R: Toby Stephens, Rosamund Pike, Madonna and Pierce Brosnan

Bond’s first (or should that be second?) meeting with Graves is a doozy. Try and forget Madonna’s wooden acting and just marvel at the inventiveness of that sword fight. One of the best fights of the franchise for me, and while some are sniffy about Toby Stephens, for me he’s a good Bond villain, a chameleon switching from sneering villain to harmless posh boy in the blink of a eye, with that bubbling rage we saw in Moon always simmering beneath the surface.

I like the ice palace, but Mr Kil might be one of the feeblest henchmen names ever. Bond’s escape from Graves, once he finds out he’s Moon is good, and for the second film in a row a woman betrays him.

Not sure why he runs for the jet car, where’s he planning on going? And of course, this leads to the worst CGI of all, you’d think 1996’s Escape from LA might have convinced people that CGI surfing looks bloody awful, but apparently not. Thankfully this is made up for somewhat by a fun car chase between 007 and Zao, who has a car that’s every bit as tricked out as Bond’s—nice use of the ejector seat there James, and thanks to the invisible car he gets the upper hand.

Cue a drab finale aboard a transport plane, and much as I like Graves, putting him in that exo-suit is just plain silly, and why go up in a plane anyway? Doesn’t that make him more vulnerable to attack? Like many things in this film it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Nice fight between Jinx and Miranda Frost though.

And then the worst bit in a film full of worst bits, as Moneypenny shags Bond in VR. Forget for a moment that it doesn’t make a heap of sense; it devalues the character completely. Awful, awful moment.

I feel somewhat sorry for Brosnan, he got to make four Bond films but realistically only one of them is classic. Sorry, but beyond Goldeneye it’s like they didn’t quite know what to do with him. He was a good Bond and he deserved better.

As I said I think Tony Stephens is a great Bond villain, he just doesn’t always get the best material to work with.

I like Halle Berry (she’s great in John Wick 3) but she isn’t a great Bond girl. Jinx has no real character beyond ‘sassy’ so she doesn’t get much chance to shine. Still heck of a thing to point out that the Bond girls here include an Oscar winner and an Oscar nominee.

Rosamund Pike gets some stick, but I think she does perfectly well with what she’s given. Controversial maybe but I’d suggest she has a better character than Berry does. Plus, she’s gorgeous, especially in that final fight.

As Zao Rick Yune is good, if a little paper thin, though I like that he has good chemistry with both Stephens and Will Yun Lee who does a good job laying the groundwork as Colonel Moon in the pre-title sequence.

Dench gets some nice scenes as M but nothing like as good as she got in TWINE, and while I can see why they didn’t want to use Jack Wade as the connection to US intelligence, Michael Madsen seems hopelessly miscast as Falco. Nice to see Colin Salmon get some gunplay (albeit virtually) and Kenneth Tsang is good value as General Moon, showing genuine affection for his son, even when his son is clearly a raving lunatic.

Some complain that the film was a little homage heavy, but it was the 20th. There are lots of call-backs in Q’s lab of course, the birdwatching book, several less than subtle riffs on Diamonds are Forever, Graves’ using a Union Jack parachute, Berry doing Andress etc. And some subtle ones I hadn’t even realised; Roger Moore’s daughter is the air hostess who brings Bond his drink.

Lee Tamahori’s direction isn’t bad, and the film trots along at a decent pace, it might annoy but it never bores. The use of slow motion is odd and brings nothing to the table however.

A film that’s much more fun than people give it credit for, DAD is a film of two halves. When it’s good it’s very, very good; Bond’s capture, the prisoner exchange, Hong Kong, Cuba, the sword fight, Bond and M underground, Pike and Stephens.

But when it’s bad it’s bloody awful: Madonna’s cameo, Madonna’s song, the CGI surfing, the exo-suit.

Really though watching it again what brings it down is its reliance on the ridiculous. There’s a screenwriting rule that says people will believe one unbelievable thing in a movie, but this piles them one after another: Invisible car, sun focusing satellite, gene therapy, VR etc etc. In the end you stop caring.

So that’s it for Pierce, he bows out with a commercial hit but not a critical one, and unlike a certain someone he doesn’t get one final go to exit on a high. Where will the franchise go next? Let’s just hope they don’t cast someone blonde. If nothing else now Bond’s gone rogue I’m sure they won’t do that again for a while…

Farewell my Lovely

Posted: October 10, 2020 in Book reviews
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By Raymond Chandler

In the middle of a dead-end missing person case, Philip Marlowe encounters a giant ex-con named Moose Malloy in a nightclub. Moose is searching for his former lover, Velma, who used to work at the club, the nightclub has changed hands and is now run by a black man who Moose kills. Marlowe is interviewed by a lazy cop who encourages Marlowe to do his leg work for him. Intrigued, and bored, Marlowe tracks down the widow of the former owner of the nightclub and plies her with booze to get information.

The next thing he knows he’s being hired as a bodyguard by a man named Lindsay Marriott. Soon Marlowe is up to his neck in crooked cops and jewel thieves, and his journey will take him to a corrupt town, a private hospital and an offshore casino before the various threads tie themselves together.

My second Chandler, and yes I am reading them out of order as and when I get hold of one. While Chandler’s prose continues to enchant (and occasionally irritate) I probably didn’t enjoy this quite as much as The Long Goodbye. In part I think that’s down to the plot, or lack thereof, Chandler pieced this novel together using several previously written short stories, and while he changes certain elements to fit them together, you can’t help but see the joins on occasion, and the narrative meanders all over the place, seemingly illogically until everything comes together at the end…mostly.

That’s not to say an ambling story is a bad thing— if nothing else Farewell my Lovely isn’t remotely predictable, though the nearer to the end I spotted the denouement coming— but it can be a little jarring. Then again, from what I can tell Chandler was less interested in plot than he was in the style of writing and his characters, and there are some lovely scenes at play here, and some great characters, with a whole heap of cops and former cops, some of whom are decent, some of whom are corrupt, and some of whom sit in the grey between. There are femme fatales and gangsters, yet Chandler’s skill is to never quite give you the character you, and frankly his prose alone is worth the price of admission and just aimlessly following Marlowe around is quite enjoyable, even if you can’t quite see where the story is heading.

So, aside from the flimsy plot (and some language about persons of colour that seems awfully unsettling these days) I enjoyed this greatly and I suspect I’ll soon be trudging the mean streets of LA with world weary cynic Philip Marlowe again sooner rather than later.

The World is not Enough (1999)

Posted: October 3, 2020 in James Bond
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And so we come to Brosnan’s third film, the last James Bond film of the 20th Century and the first with Purvis and Wade on board as screenwriters and, it has to be said, a film that I’ve never counted as much of a favourite, even from the first time I saw it, so I wasn’t looking forward to this viewing, but what’s intriguing about this rewatch is that it has caused me to reappraise some films, and I’m pleased to report that TWINE is one of them. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of issues I had with it previously I still have with it, but I think I appreciated its strengths more this time around.

The film opens in Bilbao with Bond visiting a Swiss banker. He’s there to retrieve money that was stolen, but he also wants to find out who killed an MI6 agent. Threatened, he retaliates, disarming his opponents, but before the banker can talk he’s killed by his secretary, “Cigar Girl” (have to love her eye roll at James’ innuendos.) Bond is then saved when a mysterious sniper kills one of the banker’s goons who’s about to shoot him.

The police arrive and 007 escapes with the money by abseiling down the side of the building.

Back in London he hands the money over to Robert King, oil tycoon and old friend of M’s. As Bond and M take a drink, he realises he has explosives on his fingers, and that the money is boobytrapped. He tries to warm King but its too late. The money explodes, killing King and punching a hole in the side of MI6 headquarters. Cigar girl is outside on a boat and Bond goes after her in Q’s latest invention. A high-speed boat chase along the Thames ends with cigar girl blowing herself up over the millennium dome and 007 being injured.

 At King’s funeral Bond is drawn to King’s daughter, Elektra (I mean of course he is) and after bribing the doctor (by sleeping with her) to put him back on active duty M assigns Bond to look after Elektra, presuming that the men who killed her father might come for her.

Flying to Azerbaijan he contacts Elektra and after they survive an attack by mysterious parahawk gunmen the two become lovers. As Bond’s investigation continues he’ll cross paths with a ruthless terrorist named Renard and gain a new ally named Christmas. What is Renard’s connection with Elektra, and just who is playing who?

Let’s get some of my annoyances out of the way first. For a lot of people the pre title sequence is one of the franchise’s best, but it leaves me cold. Oh, the Bilboa scenes are cool, and the boat chase has its moments, but even setting aside the fact that it goes on waaaay too long, something bothered me from the first time I saw it.

Cigar Girl is sat on a boat dripping with guns floating right outside MI6 headquarters…and NOBODY NOTICES! I mean, why is she even there? Assuming the bomb doesn’t kill King, is he going to lurch to the hole in the wall conveniently giving her time to shoot him? It makes zero sense. Let’s be honest, she’s there for one reason and one reason only, so Bond can chase her down the Thames in his cute Q-boat, copy his tie straighten from Goldeneye and hilariously splash some clampers (who were semi-famous thanks to a reality tv shot at the time).

And then we have Cigar Girl kill herself because Bond can’t protect her from HIM. I hate the “I’ll kill myself because my boss will kill me otherwise” trope.

Really the whole King assassination feels clunky and overly convoluted.

Next annoyance, Bond’s detective work with the money. It’s the exact amount that was the ransom for Elektra (which King didn’t pay under M’s advice). That’s right, despite some considerable time passing between the two events, the exchange rate stayed exactly the same. As clues go it’s a little thin. Bond has played detective well at times, most notably when Connery was in the role, but here it just feels contrived.

But there’s a lot of that going on. Cigar Girl’s presence on the river, the money, those parahawks and Bond following Elektra up the mountain. Not to say the parahawks aren’t intriguing, and you have to love the one guy whose clearly watched the pre-title sequence of The Spy who Loved Me, but it’s a scene that makes no sense, I mean Elektra seemed in actual danger here so what was the point? There are easier ways to throw MI6 off the scent.

I think the problem is that it feels like they created some set pieces, then built a script around them. Witness also the chainsaw helicopters, much like Chekov’s gun you know you’ll see them again!

Let’s talk Christmas. Now a Bond girl with an amusing name isn’t that terrible, and frankly she gets a less cringeworthy name than Holly Goodhead or anything like that, but let’s be honest, she’s a terrible Bond girl. I mean Denise Richards is hot, and contrary to popular belief I don’t believe she’s a terrible actress given the right material, but a convincing nuclear scientist she is not.

It doesn’t help that they dress her like Lara Croft, and it doesn’t help that she’s given no personality at all. At one point Bond asks her what she’s doing out in Kazakhstan and she says “Avoiding questions like that.” No characterisation, no back story. She’s there to be hot, trot off some exposition and give Bond someone to shag at the end, nothing more.

Of course the film has two female leads (three if you count M which it’s arguable you can here)  and Elektra King is about as far away from Christmas Jones as Earth is from Pluto, and it’s here that my opinion of the film really shifted.

Because there’s an argument for Elektra being one of the most three-dimensional Bond girls, and Bond villains, of the whole damn franchise. There’s so much going on in this woman’s head. Anger and deep routed resentment over her heritage, coupled with a glorious, evil playfulness as well. She’s mad of course, but not in a Drax/Stromberg/Zorin kind of way. She’s damaged. Resentful of her father, I imagine, even before he left her at the hands of Renard. This is a woman who seduced her captor, turned the world’s most dangerous terrorist( ™) into her henchman, who used MI6 to assassinate her own father, then fooled the world’s greatest secret agent (which let’s be honest probably isn’t that hard) but also played his boss (which is likely more difficult). Even when he figures out she’s a wrong un (which in fairness to 007 is relatively quickly) Bond still can’t conceive that she’s anything but a victim, that Renard must have turned her rather than the other way around. There’s something quite depressing about that, and about the fact that, to date, Elektra is the only true female Bond villain we’ve had (though a fair amount of henchwomen I grant you.) and Sophie Marceau really deserved to be in a better film.

And she gets a good death, providing Brosnan with another great line. “I never miss.”

Carlyle has grown on me, I think initially he was painted as the main villain which didn’t help endear him to me, but once you realise he’s just a henchman, he works better. There’s a tragedy at the heart of him that Carlyle plays really well, jealous of Bond sleeping with Elektra, of Bond being able to feel, he clearly knows Elektra is using him, but he’s too enraptured by her to care, and I suppose that even though her plan is about making her rich and powerful, and isn’t about to bring the western capitalist system crashing down, the anarchist in him probably appreciates the chaos it will sow.

It’s nice to see Zukovsky back and again Coltrane is very good value for money. “Can’t you just say hello like a normal person?” It’s a real shame they killed him off, but he does at least die saving Bond’s life. Goldie as his treacherous associate Bullion (just Bull in the credits) is ok but not one of the better henchmen.

Moneypenny doesn’t get much to do (really starting to feel Samantha Bond was somewhat wasted in the part) but Dench gets perhaps the most in the field outing an M has had to date, and it’s good to see them making good use of Dame Judi, and there’s definitely echoes here that will reverberate to Skyfall (not to suggest Purvis and Wade keep repeating themselves of course) as M is placed in danger due to a person from her past, and has to deal with an attack on MI6 headquarters. Dench is, of course, amazing.

There’s a real poignancy to the final signoff of another character, especially given Desmond Llewellyn died in a car crash not long after the premiere. He and Brosnan always worked well together, and their final scenes are a joy.

Cleese’s first outing as Q’s impending replacement isn’t great, he’s played too much for laughs. He’ll be better in Die Another Day when he’s actually Q, rather than R, but he’s too much of a like for like replacement when they should have gone for something radically different (as they will with Whishaw).

There’s some decent action, the shoot out in the missile silo and the finale in the submarine, and Elektra’s plan is perhaps the most grounded of any Brosnan villain.

And of course Brosnan is very good, working well with Sophie Marceau. Purvis and Wade do their best to make him vulnerable, but his shoulder injury comes and goes as the plot demands (and hey, something else that’ll turn up again in Skyfall). He is getting a little close to smarmy territory ala late era Moore, but he can only deliver the lines they give him I guess.

So in conclusion Brosnan is great, Marceau is great, Dench and Coltrane are great and Carlyle is good, but the film around them never quite lives up to their performances. I can see they were trying to dial things back a little after Tomorrow Never Dies (odd given they’ll soon be dialling it back up again) but I’ve always found the film somewhat drab. Maybe it’s the locations, lots of desert shots, and a very washed out colour palette, and it’s a little grim, which makes Bond’s innuendos even more jarring, but like I say I enjoyed it more this time than I have before, so it probably no longer sits in my worst Bond list. Damning with faint praise indeed.

Great title though!

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

Posted: September 16, 2020 in James Bond
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It’s two years since Goldeneye reignited the franchise after a long layoff, and Pierce Brosnan is back with his second film as 007. It’s a film that divides opinion (few Bond films don’t divide opinion) but for me it’s his second-best film, thought it succeeds despite itself and has a fair number of problems. At times it feels like Brosnan carries the show on sheer personality alone, but when it works it’s very good, and while some deride it as a by the numbers Bond flick, it is at least an enjoyable by the numbers Bond, and frankly at times I wish Daniel Craig had had the opportunity to do something like this.

We start with another corker of a pre-title sequence at a terrorist arms bazaar on the Russian border. Bond’s on site and M’s back home watching via video, along with Geoffrey Palmer’s grumpy admiral (amusing for those who watched Dench and Palmer in the romantic sitcom As Time Goes By). Bond’s ordered out by the Admiral who lunches a cruise missile at the bazaar, but Bond’s spotted a nuclear torpedo, and when the cruise missile can’t be aborted (seriously, it has a range limit?) Bond does what he does best, attacks the bazaar single handled and nicks the plane carrying the nuke before the cruise missile hits. It’s a great action sequence, and Dench and Palmer bounce wonderfully off each other. Forget the M of Goldeneye who was somewhat cool on 007, this time she’s his biggest fan. “What’s your man doing?” “His job.” I love that bit.

Then it’s time for Sheryl Crowe…sorry, love, but KD Lang’s ‘Surrender’ is the far superior song, and David Arnold riffs it throughout just to rub salt into the wounds. At least we’ll get it over the end credits.

Following in a grand tradition of calamity befalling British navel vessels in Bond films (The Spy Who Loved Me, For Your Eyes Only) the HMS Devonshire is sunk, and the survivors machinegunned, supposedly by the Chinese, but we know it was really on the orders of crooked media baron Elliot Carver.

Geoffrey Palmer wants to go to war, M wants to investigate, and Julian Fellowes just wants to go write Downton Abbey so he tells M she has 48 hours to investigate. Moneypenny contacts Bond, who’s brushing up on a little Danish, arf arf, and 007 reports for duty. M knows Bond used to be in a relationship with Paris, Carver’s wife, and suggests he pumps her for information.

Bond flies to Hamburg where he encounters Paris, and her husband—with 007 playing it cool and not intimating to Carver that he’s on to him right from the off with a series of comments about being adrift and all at sea! I don’t know, I prefer it when the villain isn’t quite so obvious from the off.

Soon Paris has been murdered and Bond is running out of time to prevent all out war between Britain and China, luckily he has kick ass Chinese agent Wai Lin to help him, plus a BMW (sigh).

Okay, let’s look at the positives. Certainly with hindsight the fake news plot feels awfully prescient, albeit a story based on print media rather than the internet, but still, the manipulation of facts is a neat touch, and it’ll seem an even neater touch twenty odd years later, and some of the jingoism seems very Brexit as well.

There are some great action set pieces. The aforementioned pre-title sequence being just one of them. Bond’s infiltration of Carver’s HQ is nicely done, and yes while it’s irksome that Bond drives a BMW (what were they thinking) the backseat driving sequence in the multi-storey carpark is still wonderful, Brosnan’s sheer glee is the icing on the cake (Daniel Craig couldn’t pull that off.) Bond and Wai Lin’s bike/helicopter chase is pretty damn good as well, and then there’s Wai Lin’s battle with a bunch of bad guy Chinese agents (the second best fight in the franchise not to feature Bond after Necros and the MI6 agent in The Living Daylights) which is top draw and let’s Michelle Yeoh kick some serious butt.

So where does TND fall down? Well firstly it’s in the casting. As I said in my previous review, Goldeneye was something of a perfect storm in terms of its actors, everyone is perfect for their role and at the top of their game. In contrast the talent in TND is far more variable.

Pryce is a good actor, we all know that, but he isn’t one of the great Bond villains. Carver is a smidgen too much on the moustache twirling side, his high-speed typing is laughable and the least said the better about his kung fu antics (I hope he was truly embarrassed about that). He isn’t terrible, and does have his moments, the maniacal glee when he says “There’s no news, like bad news,” for example, but on the whole he’s an average Bond villain. Maybe it’s a case of great actor, substandard material (see also Christoph Waltz)

Teri Hatcher is similarly bland as a Bond girl. I liked Hatcher in Lois and Clark, but she isn’t given much opportunity to shine here (though supposedly a lot ended up on the cutting room floor because she wasn’t great). It’s a shame we didn’t get Monica Bellucci as a Bond girl 18 years earlier, but she and Sela Ward lost out to Hatcher.

Much better is Michelle Yeoh as Wai Lin, although watching the film again she struggles with not much of a character. Kick ass secret agent is about the best we get, but she is at least damn good at that, really she’s just a cipher to help Bond out. Shame as an actress that good deserved better. Still her fight scenes are awesome. That said, and to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to be captured by Herr Stamper once may be regarded as a misfortune; to be captured twice by Herr Stamper looks like carelessness!

Ah Stamper. A bog standard, taciturn blonde henchman who somehow makes more of an impression than he rightly should, maybe it’s the hint of glee in his eyes when talking about torture, who knows but Götz Otto was more memorable than I remembered, and clearly he was supposed to have the no pain gimmick that Robert Carlyle would end up with in the next film.

Of course the best villain in the whole damn film is also the one with the least screen time. In fact, as a comparison of impact to minutes of screen time, Vincent Schiavelli’s Dr. Kaufman might arguably be one of the greatest characters in the franchise. Renowned character actor Schiavelli is a pure delight here. Kaufman is over the top, creepy, dangerous, ever so slightly ridiculous, yet stays just the right side of camp. That he creates such a vivid, fully rounded character in under four minutes is testament to Vincent Schiavelli’s acting. We understand more of his motivations in a few minutes then we get from Carver in ten times the screen time.

He also gives us one of Brosnan’s best moment. “I’m just a professional doing a job” “Me too.” Bang!

Let’s talk Pierce. He’s great here. So comfortable in the role after just two film, he inhabits Bond’s skin seamlessly, and as already stated there’s a gleeful schoolboy’ness to his performance. This is a Bond who loves what he does, a child who never grew up perhaps, yet Brosnan does get some pathos, mainly over Paris’ death, and he even manages to convince that he genuinely loved her. That said the bit where he’s waiting for her while drinking vodka is somewhat ridiculous, unless he’s actually drinking water he should probably be on the floor given how much he’s drunk!

A Bond at the top of his game.

As for the rest, we get a decent amount of Dench, and nice to see first sight of Colin Salmon’s Charles Robinson. Moneypenny is given short shrift but at least Q gets an amusing sequence in Hamburg where he introduces Bond to his new…sigh…BMW. Five forward gears eh, wow! Llewelyn and Brosnan have lovely repartee here though.

Joe Don Baker is back as Wade, shame we never saw him again after this. Ricky Jay is slimy as techno-terrorist Henry Gupta, but if they were trying to replicate Boris they missed by some margin.

And that’s it…oh aside from the stellar cast of actors aboard various British navel vessels: Gerard Butler, Hugh Bonneville, Jason Watkins and Julian Rhind-Tutt!

Plot wise the film is something of a mishmash of other Bond films, with the odd bit of originality here and there, and I can see why people call it by the numbers, but despite a slightly ropey script, production problems and off kilter casting (what if we’d got Sir Anthony Hopkins as Carver?) it’s a film I really enjoy. Yes it doesn’t take chances, and maybe after pushed the envelope with Goldeneye they thought it best to go for a more generic Bond film. It’ll never trouble my top five, but if I’m in the mood for good popcorn entertainment that I don’t have to concentrate too hard on, Tomorrow Never Dies is one I frequently reach for.

Which is more than can be said for the next one.

The Outsider

Posted: September 6, 2020 in Book reviews, horror
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By Stephen King

In Flint City Oklahoma a terrible crime has been committed. A young boy has been brutally raped and murdered, and Detective Ralph Anderson arrests popular teacher and little league baseball coach Terry Maitland for the crime. Ralph’s in no doubt that Terry did it. Eyewitnesses saw him lure the boy into a van, and saw him bloodied afterwards, not to mention the huge amount of forensic evidence placing Terry at the scene, including DNA and fingerprints.

There’s just one problem. There’s irrefutable evidence that Terry was in a neighbouring city when the crime took place.

How can one man be in two different places at the same time?

I’ve never read as much King as I should have, especially his earlier stuff, given he was doing for horror in the US what James Herbert was doing in the UK, but when I have read him my relationship with his work has at times been uneasy. I either love his novels, or I hate them. There never seems to be a middle ground.

Happily, The Outsider falls into the former category. This was a really enjoyable read and one that kept me gripped from the off. The first half functions purely as a police procedural, before it takes a sharp turn into something else entirely, which is good, because as much as I enjoyed the early stages of the book, for a while I thought this was just a straight thriller, and I was worried it was going to turn out Maitland had a secret twin brother who’d committed the crime. Thankfully, the explanation is much more interesting, and far more fantastical, and the novel shifts tone into something more akin to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with a band of plucky heroes seeking out the hiding place of a monster.

It isn’t perfect, it’s a trifle long for what it is, and the number of characters means some are more well-rounded than others, and sadly a couple seem to be there just to provide expendable targets for the bad guy, but some are more interesting, especially Private Eye Holly Gibney, a recurring character from some earlier King novels.

All in all, a great read, Yeah the monster isn’t exactly original but in King’s hands it hardly matters. Highly recommended.

Goldeneye (1995)

Posted: August 26, 2020 in James Bond
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A six-year gap between Bond films. While these days this almost seems normal (or at least not abnormal) back then it was a big deal, prior to this the longest gap between films had been three years between The Man with the Golden Gun and The Spy Who Loved Me and then the same Bond returned. In this instance the shift was major, especially once Timothy Dalton stood down.  There were claims in some quarters that this might be the end of Bond, especially with action films like True Lies threatening to steal Bond’s thunder. On the cusp of the 21st Century wasn’t 007 a bit, well, old hat?

Then Pierce Brosnan drove a tank through those concerns. Don’t get me wrong, I wish Tim had done at least one more Bond film, but Pierce knocks it out of the park here, backed by a top drawer script, a great cast and robust direction by Martin Campbell, a man who would direct another Bond’s freshman effort 11 years later.

Nine years ago Bond and fellow agent 006, Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) infiltrate a Soviet chemical weapons plant in Arkhangelsk. It’s a great opening. We only see glimpses of Brosnan initially. Our first proper look he’s hanging upside down and punching some hapless Russian solider who just wanted to go to the loo…

There’s a nice banter between Brosnan and Bean right from the off, and while Bond had to undertake an insane bungee jump to access the base, I can’t help imagining 006 just wandered in disguised as the milkman or something.

Before they can complete their mission, alarms sound and Alec is soon shot dead by villainous Ourumov (or is he?) Bond’s down but he’s not out and he quickly escapes leaving an exploding base in his wake.

A great title sequence follows. Tina Turner is spot on, and the imagery of women smashing Soviet iconography is nicely done, as is the image of a two headed woman, just like Janus. One of the best Bond titles if you ask me (but the best is still to come in a few years though).

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Next stop Monte Carlo for a collection of Bond tropes culminating in a Canadian admiral being squeezed to death between a beautiful woman’s thighs and a stealth helicopter being stolen. Then it’s back to London and the new M (cue Roger Moore incredulously saying “A woman?”) Judi Dench is great, and though she’ll never be quite as disdainful of 007 again until Daniel comes along, it fits perfectly within the tone of the film. The theft of the helicopter has been linked to the Russian Janus crime syndicate, and now it’s been spotted at a supposedly disused Russian base in Severnaya. MI6 analysts have discounted rumours that it’s a secret weapons testing site for an EMP weapon known as Goldeneye, so it’s a surprise for M when an EMP knocks out the satellite they had watching the base. Now it’s clear Goldeneye exists, M despatches Bond to Russia where he’ll make friends with one of the only survivors of Severnaya, cross swords with a sexy psychopathic, meet up once more with the man who killed Alec and, finally, meet the villain of the pieces, a familiar face he never expected to see again…

I always count Goldeneye in my top five Bond films, in fact I usually slot it in as number 2, yet much as I loved it when I first saw it, I recalled that it was a certain moment where the film clicked. Watching it again even now and it’s the same point. The moment where the tank bursts through the wall never ceases to make me smile. The epitome of James Bond, and a moment few other action franchises could ever hope to match, the perfect melding of the thrilling and the ludicrous, arguably one of the best set pieces of the franchise and one they’ve been trying to ape ever since (especially Pierce’s tie straighten- see him again in TWINE and Daniel Craig checking his cufflinks on multiple occasions) with variable success.

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Let’s back up a bit though, because this is a film that deserves forensic analysis, certainly various elements of the script really stood out to me this time.

The pre-title sequence is a corker, action packed and amusing, and both Brosnan and Bean are great here (if it’d been made now I wonder if we’d have a 006 prequel spinoff film?) and the only slight quibble is over the plane jump; the CGI is a little ropey here.

The first act is a little off, but there is a reason for this. I hadn’t realised before just how many Bond tropes they squeeze in here. Shag bird after flirting with other bird during a car chase, check, casino, check, dinner jacket, check, “The name’s Bond, James, Bond”, check, “Vodka Martini, shaken not stirred”, check, double entendres, check. It’s a trifle wearying, but the reasoning is clear. Look he’s been a way a while, and maybe you didn’t like that Dalton guy, but don’t worry here’s the Bond you remember, a lascivious lounge lizard without a care in the world.

Don’t fret, the films tells you, this is the Bond you know and love.

And then the film pulls the rug out from under you, much as the plot pulls the rug out from under 007.

First there’s Moneypenny, I love Samantha Bond’s interpretation, she doesn’t pine after 007, and she’s dismissive of his advances. Yes, the reference to sexual harassment is a tad clunky, but god it’s better than Caroline Bliss’ simpering.

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Similarly, Dench’s M. Sure M’s always been exasperated by 007, but the old M’s did at least understand his worth. No so this M. Remember what I said about Bond being old hat? She literally, lampshades it for the audience. Bond’s a sexist misogynist, dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War. The enemies Bond had no longer exist, who is it after all who aids 007 in St Petersburg? Zukovsky, a former KGB agent Bond shot (and Coltrane is great, and yes that is Minnie Driver strangling a cat). As Natalya says “All the heroes I know are dead.” They even manage to throw in a history lesson with the repatriation of Alec’s Cossack parents. “Hardly our finest hour.”

Then the ultimate rug pull. Everything Bond knew is wrong. His friend is a traitor, and the bad guy is a 00 agent (I’m amazed they didn’t do this before). Up is down, left is right, friends are enemies and enemies are friends. It’s a new world order, but 007 still has a place in it, after some mild (and again a little clunky) psychoanalysing courtesy of Natalya and Alex. “It’s what keeps me alive.” “No its what keeps you alone.” This was something very new for Bond. Sadly, now we’re used to Daniel Craig’s psyche being pulled apart in every bloody film, so it’s become old hat.

The theme of Janus runs through the film, not only with James and Alec as mirror images of one another but also Natalya and Boris. It’s the situations too. Watch how many times the pre-title sequence is played out. The scene in the archive (and small point or order, how many innocent Russian soldiers does 007 mow down?) for example. Outgunned by Russian soldiers Bond’s ally is taken hostage and he has to make a choice. He could just run, instead he goes after her. Again on the train, the friend or the mission, and again in the final act with the explosives set against tanks holding something unpalatable.

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There’s some wonderful script tricks at work as well. See how Wade’s exposition is lightened by having him use a hammer to fix his car, so we don’t realise we’re being lectured too.

Let’s talk the cast, because frankly there’s an argument that, pound for pound, this might be one of the best Bond casts ever assembled!

Brosnan will never supplant Tim (or Daniel or Roger) and he is a little too smooth for comfort at times, but he is very good here, and for his debut is also his finest hour.

Bean is wonderful as Bond’s dark reflection, and you can see why he might have been considered for the title role himself, sure Trevelyan’s plan doesn’t make a huge heap of sense. He talks about having more money than God, but that secret base in Cuba must have cost a fortune!

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At Alec’s right hand is Xenia Onatopp. My one and only encounter with Ms Janssen might have left me a little disappointed, but I will always love Xenia. She’s wonderfully bloodthirsty, practically orgasming when she kills people, and certainly has a thing about pain—I love the delight Famke puts into “He’s going to derail us.” I can’t be sure but Janet’s Leigh similarly murderous spy in the Man from UNCLE film ‘The Spy in the Green Hat’ surely formed a template (as must Fiona Volpe)? However, she came about it’s a perfect melding of actor and role, and it’s always nice to find a woman immune to James’ charms. Like Fiona she remains true to herself, right to the end. Shame about the end mind, she deserved better, but she’s still my second favourite Bond girl.

To have one great Bond girl is good, that Goldeneye has two is an added bonus. Izabella Scorupco is great. My favourite Bond girls are the (relatively) normal women who step up to the plate when thrown in at the deep end, and Natalya certainly does that. She’s smart and brave, and yes she has shit load of agency. Fooling Xenia, escaping Severnaya and making it to Moscow, conning her way into the IBM shop (500 meg hard drives, bless) before she even meets Bond. She eventually outwits Boris, foiling Trevelyan’s plan and hijacking the chopper that saves Bond’s life. She has her own mission, her own enemy. And she’s gorgeous into the bargain. Not bad for a level 2 programmer.

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Ah Boris, how super is Cummings? He takes what could have been a one note character and imbues him with such disdainful charm. They’ve tried to replicate the character again and never come close. A smirking man-child, he’d probably be an alt right or an incel these days. Know what though, he’s invincible!

Coltrane doesn’t get much screen time, but is also a joy (you can see why they bought him back) and Joe Don Baker is far more engaging as Wade than he ever was as Whittaker. And there’s Gottfried John as Ourumov, whose facial expressions are a wonder, whether watching Xenia get a little too excited, or staring is disbelief as a tank follows him.

The action is top drawer; the pre-title sequence, Severnaya, the tank chase, the train, and the finale. Yeah the ejector seat feels a little too similar to Die Hard 2 (and Alec why didn’t you kill them before putting them in the chopper?) but these are quibbles (see also 007 driving a BMW).

Great script, great action, great cast…oh and one more thing, they pack all of this into just a shade over two hours. This is a well-paced movie, not a flabby Spectre of a film (see what I did there?).

Know what else? I’m even one of those rare birds that kinda likes the soundtrack.

A top five Bond film in my opinion, and probably always will be.

Anyway, James Bond will return, and you won’t have to wait six years this time!

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