A Voyage through the Star Trek Movies

Merry Christmas all! The usual apologies about the lack of activity on these pages, something I never intended but as ever real life has a manner of getting in the way. I’m about ten films short of covering the Alfred Hitchcock filmography, so that series of articles should be available before too long (and it will be a series – thousands of words already committed, so it can only ever be published over instalments), though my hope was to have it ready by now. Alas not.

In the meantime, I’ve been working my way through the Star Trek films boxset. They look lovely in HD, and for the most part – though not always – the achievements in effects and cinematography have not aged very badly at all. The series has always been a part of my life. I went to see a lot of the movies at the cinema, I think from the second episode onwards, while the rich body of TV work means that the universe conceived by Gene Roddenberry is never very far away. But are they any good? To date there have been thirteen cinematic entries, and in 2019 it will be forty years since the original motion picture was released. The results, as we will see, are mixed. Some are great, some okay, a couple rotten. For the record I don’t hold entirely with the notion that the even numbered titles are better than their odd numbered siblings. Most are worth something. So here are some thoughts on each film, with once again the wish that anyone reading these words has a very happy holiday, and all my best wishes for (a better) 2019 go to you all!

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Star Trek: the Motion Picture

My oath of celibacy is on record, Captain.

Over the years, my opinion of Star Trek: The Motion Picture has shifted considerably. Upon first viewing I was bored, really nullified, that said I was seven years old and the marketing had given the false impression of this one as an action adventure as opposed to the philosophical piece they were actually going for. Still, for some time I thought of this one as ‘The Slow-Motion Picture‘ and it took subsequent showings for my feelings about it to soften. It’s worth warning through that it remains rather glacial in terms of its pacing. There’s a thee-hour(ish) scene that simply shows a shuttle performing a fly-by of the Enterprise and it feels indulgent and designed to showcase the effects work, which is admittedly superb. If you like that element of reverence then fine, otherwise the film can sometimes drop to torturous slowness.

I did mention my changing opinion though, and in truth this is a film I’ve come to love. I’ve thought about why and it comes down to this – if a project is made with real love, a sincere effort to create something great via its production values, a plot that aims for some degree of profundity and the sheer abilities of the talent involved then I’m more than fine with that. You don’t hire Robert Wise to direct if you don’t care. Ditto Alan Dean Foster on writing duties, and a score by Jerry Goldsmith that really touches the heavens – it’s gorgeous. The Motion Picture looks great (the effects have been ‘touched up’ to make it look more 21st century, though in an unobtrusive way rather than garishly), and credit goes to the acting, especially William Shatner, who conveys his character’s human fallibility so well and completely looks the part.

I don’t think the film can ever be thought of as a blast, as a fast-paced adventure yarn, but taken on its own merits it’s a brilliant work all told, and worthy of re-appraisal. I think there are better entries in the series, but many try to capture a degree of fun and dramatic weightlessness that this one bypasses, aiming instead for thoughtful science fiction, living up to the story’s remit of space exploration and discovering new life forms, which it ends up pulling off to fine effect.

Read the full review

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Stark Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

To the last, I will grapple with thee! From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee! For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee!

The second entry in the series is now considered such a success that it’s hard to remember the tough times involved in getting the thing made. First the budget, with Khan having less than a quarter of The Motion Picture’s money invested in it. You can see that on the screen occasionally, from some of the effects work to shots from the first film that have simply been recycled. Gene Roddenberry, blamed for The Motion Picture’s relative lack of success, was kicked off having any direct involvement in this project, Khan being handed to producer Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer (the young director who at the time was best known for Time After Time, one of those forgotten movies that really deserves better). The pair was hired to deliver a film that could be made on a fraction of the original’s budget, and between them came up with perhaps the best and certainly the most exhilarating entry in the entire series.

Khan’s a lot of fun, and if you want to judge its impact on the franchise, let alone its wild profitability, then consider there might not have been future films nor The Next Generation without it, while the recent, rebooted movies have been made with this one’s spirit in mind. It achieves a very fine balance between action adventure and a story carrying some heft, ruminating on the theme of Kirk’s advancing age and casting Ricardo Montalban’s revenge obsessed Khan as a future Captain Ahab, locked in his own version of Moby Dick (he even quotes passages from Melville’s text) with Kirk his whale. Considering the combatants never meet in person, their duel taking place entirely over ship to ship communication, their enmity produces pure electricity. Throw in a sub-plot involving Genesis, the sci-fi device that can somehow create new Earths from lifeless planets, and you have an outright winner. Leonard Nimoy famously wanted to make this film his swansong as Spock, part of what feels like a perpetual struggle to move beyond the pointy ears. As it happened, he had such a good time making the film that he agreed to stay on, not only helping to dictate the future plotline of the series but relegating Saavik to a lesser role. Kirstie Alley’s feisty Vulcan cadet was initially intended to replace Spock and enjoyed enhanced screen time, killing off most of the cast in the opening scene’s teaser that turns out to be a training exercise, but Nimoy’s decision to return put paid to her future development.

Khan remains a real blast of a picture, even more than 35 years down the line. It’s certainly good enough to make any update of it redundant, a fact that would be unfortunately ignored in the future.

Read the full review

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)

All systems automated and ready. A chimpanzee and two trainees could run her.

The base rule about Star Trek movies is that the even numbered ones are good, the odd numbered poor. I would argue this entry provides an exception to the rule (which was completely thrown out by the time the Next Generation crew took over). Leonard Nimoy, excited about his time on The Wrath of Khan decided he wished to return and took over directorial duties after Nicholas Meyer left the project. Harve Bennett turned in a script that padded out the film’s fairly rudimentary plot (I mean come on, they were always going to find Spock!) by taking the ultimate fan servicing step of destroying the Enterprise itself. There’s a great Klingon villain, played by a pre-Doc Brown Christopher Lloyd, and the Federation are outed as overly bureaucratic and short-sighted.

The theme for Kirk is one of giving up everything for the sake of saving his best friend. The Captain’s son dies. His career is ruined, his ship in pieces over the equally devastated Genesis world. It’s a heavy price to pay and thank goodness it’s worth it as he goes through the wringer in achieving his goal. The Enterprise’s theft and escape from space dock, involving the old crew foiling the pursuit of the allegedly superior Excelsior, is staged with bravura, while the tussle against Kruge’s (Lloyd) Bird of Prey is impressive and echoes some of the previous film’s best moments. The script also has space for an injection of humour, which Nimoy directs well, along with giving everyone in the crew something to do. On the downside, the film’s budgetary limitations are shown up from time to time, visual reminders of the fact it cost less than half of the year before’s Return of the Jedi to make. The stuff in space is fine enough with ILM producing the goods and conjuring a dramatic detonating Enterprise, but the footage on the Genesis planet very clearly takes place on a sound stage, matte paintings to give a sense of depth looking like exactly what they are.

For all its limitations, The Search for Spock is a worthy entry, confidently helmed by Nimoy (no mean feat for a debut turn behind the camera) and showcasing a rather beautiful score by James Horner. Recommended.

Read the full review

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

They like you very much, but they are not the hell your whales

The premise for the crew’s fourth outing wasn’t especially promising. An intergalactic Swiss Roll turns up to threaten the Earth’s atmosphere, its message unidentifiable and making the planet’s destruction an inevitability. The only ones who can help are the Enterprise crew, by now flying a Klingon Bird of Prey and returning to Earth to face justice for their transgressions during the previous movie. Working out that the Roll’s noises are in fact whale calls, said mammals being extinct in their time, the only course of action they can take is to fly back into the past, find two humpbacked whales, and somehow return them to the future. Sounds silly, right? Not to mention overly polemical about environmental issues (which were emerging globally as the big deal back in the mid-eighties), and that’s before we explore the practicalities. Apparently, time travel can be achieved by sling-shotting around the sun at warp speed, and you can imagine the writers’ meeting where that one was pitched – yeah, it’ll do…

And yet it works, it works really well, largely because the film plays up to its comic potential with a cast that’s prepared to take itself not at all seriously. One of the main criticisms of the ‘lazier’ Trek movies is that beyond the Holy Trinity of Kirk, Spock and McCoy the rest of the crew just kind of stands around and watches, and that doesn’t happen here as everyone gets a significant sub-plot of their own. There’s the delicious sight of Chekov asking passing San Franciscans where the ‘nuclear wessels‘ are in a thick Russian accent. Scottie loses it with a computer that he has to operate using the keyboard rather than talking to it. Best of all is Bones’s visit to a hospital, emitting a series of complaints about primitive techniques – ‘My God man, drilling holes in his head is not the answer!‘ Amidst all this the potentially heavy handed message about humanity’s folly in not protecting the environment is managed carefully and touched upon as lightly as possible. The whales are for the most part animatronic models, and I couldn’t tell, and I’ve watched this entry many times. It’s all directed with great confidence and aplomb by Leonard Nimony, who gives his own character some of the best lines (Spock discovers swearing on 20th century Earth – ‘The hell they did‘) while ensuring the whole crew gets more or less equal billing.

Star Trek IV was a box office hit, well received by the critics, and ensured the series’ longevity. What could have been a dull tubthumper turns out to be one of the most entertaining entries in the franchise, a genuinely fun and wholesome attempt to show the possibilities inherent within the Trek universe.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

What does God need with a starship?

By some distance the least appreciated of the ‘Original Series’ films, Star Trek V reads like an extended ego massage for its star and on this occasion director, William Shatner. The premise is that Kirk defeats God, which leads to some very easy criticisms of the Captain, by all accounts no stranger to arrogance and hubris (though it’s worth arguing that many of his appearances, especially on the likes of Boston Legal, play up to his image and suggest a level of self-awareness for which he has not always been credited). And that’s only the start of the film’s problems. Limited budgets were ever a problem during the 1980s run, but it’s only here that Star Trek actually looks cheap, much of the effects work struggling to match the movie’s ambition. And certain scenes just jar. There’s the jaw-dropping moment when Uhura performs a feather dance to distract some guards, which spits in the face of narrative logic, the feline bar dancer with three breasts, the Klingon captain pursuing the Enterprise who’s ultimately dealt with as a very naughty boy…

For all that, it isn’t without worth. The film spends some time taking a deep breath as its characters go on vacation, and the campfire scenes between Kirk, Spock and McCoy are warmly handled, just three dudes chilling out. The main story, in which Spock’s half-brother – who’s ruled by his emotions – methodically takes over the Enterprise via a combination of mind control and faith techniques, provides some good material and effectively alienates the main cast members from the rest of the crew. We get to explore some of the reasons why McCoy is as jaded and cynical as he’s become, which is really well directed, nicely acted by DeForest Kelley and carries emotional weight. But these moments are distractions from a plot that largely disappoints, especially at the climax, and too often the film relies on weak humour, as though Shatner wanted to reprise the comic tone of The Voyage Home but didn’t have the material nor the ‘fish out of water’ basis that made that previous instalment such a winner. Worst of all perhaps is the decision to relegate the Klingons to secondary characters, a sideline threat, a mistake that would not be repeated in the series’ next instalment.

These problems were reflected in a relatively poor (though not disastrous) return at the box office, and it remains the worst reviewed of the entire franchise, according to Rotten Tomatoes. Fair? Personally I’m not sure, though there’s little arguing with the episode’s status as the weak link within a very strong field.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Must have been your lifelong ambition

The existence of a sixth big screen outing hung in the balance for a time, concerns over the poor returns for The Final Frontier and the now rapidly advancing age of the cast suggesting the original crew had enjoyed their last star trek. But the increasing success on television of The Next Generation made the project feasible, and once Nicholas Meyer was installed as director there was a growing sense of all becoming right with the world again. Scouring the known universe for a plot, they did what any good Western used to do and turned real-life events into the backdrop for a story, this time the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, translated here into the end of the Klingon Empire as a military threat after the destruction of their main energy source. Against the better wishes of anyone with peace on their mind, Kirk and his crew are dispatched to escort the Klingon Chancellor to Earth in order to begin talks about ending hostilities. Disaster ensues when the Chancellor is murdered and his ship fired upon, apparently by the Enterprise, which leads to Kirk and McCoy being tried and found guilty of murder. They know they didn’t do it and so do we, and so a desperate bid for escape takes place before further assassinations can take place and war is resumed.

The Undiscovered Country turns out to be a fine end to the crew from the Original Series, packed with wit and adventure and ever poking fun at the players’ ages, their status as defunct warriors in a new era of intergalactic Glasnost. It has a good pace, especially when the film focuses on Kirk and McCoy’s stay at a dismal frozen prison camp and their action packed efforts to get away. The Enterprise plays host to a compelling Whodunnit mystery, Spock leading the investigation, alongside Kim Cattrall as a young Vulcan officer. David Warner features briefly as the slain Ambassador, but the most fun is to be had from Christopher Plummer, almost unrecognisable as a Shakespeare quoting Klingon war veteran, ever with a thin smile on his face as he deals happily in death and destruction.

The costs for this one were trimmed considerably as Paramount ruminated over the film’s potential box office. An original budget of $41 million was cut back to $27 million over the course of production, the cast taking pay cuts and lavishly developed scenes being simply excised from the script. That makes The Undiscovered Country one of the series’ cheaper entries, far less costly than The Motion Picture from thirteen years beforehand, and yet it never really matters. Meyer uses humour, pace and characterisation in place of expensive special effects, building to a good natured ending point that places a nice seal on the old crew’s antics.

Star Trek: Generations (1994)

It was… fun. Oh my…

If there’s an entry in the series that has me disagreeing with the general consensus, then it’s Generations. I think it’s fascinating. The Nexus ribbon that forms the film’s object is a really interesting idea and it’s very nicely played out, giving Patrick Stewart the kind of emotive material to work with that he so rarely got and in any event being the kind of entity you can imagine people fighting to enter, hence Malcolm McDowell’s scientist, obsessed to the point of psychosis in returning there. The movie exists as a handing over of the baton from Kirk to Picard and the Next Generation crew, and it almost entirely works, from the former’s unease over the ceremonial duties he has to perform through to the fateful decision he makes to work alongside his successor in stopping McDowell’s mad scientist. For Kirk it’s a fitting send-off, letting him go down as a man of action, as having made a difference, even if for fans it felt like a death happening too easily. All this can make me overlook the film’s plot holes, of which there are many. If you were Jean-Luc and you could have returned to any time in reality, would you have chosen the moment he did…?

In other places, Generations doesn’t work quite so well and perhaps it’s here that the film’s troubled production comes into sharper focus. Fighting budgetary restraints and relying often on the TV production crew, the film sometimes looks like an expanded episode of the series rather than a big screen feature, with several scenes thrown in – notably the crash landing of the Enterprise’s saucer section on a forested world – to lend a little cinematic gloss to the proceedings. Worse still is the forced humour deriving from Data’s decision to have his emotion chip fitted, the shtick relying on the viewer’s willingness to find hilarity in the character’s tics and cheap gags. I wasn’t willing. It stunk.

Whether through the novelty of seeing two Trek captains in the same film, goodwill from audiences or the fact it’s actually not a bad film (the effects too look to have taken an upward shift, thanks to improved technology and despite the limited costs), Generations was a box office success and ensured further entries for the series. Personally, it’s one I’ve always rather liked.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

You broke your little ships

The Borg, huh? Sound Swedish, and they remain one of my favourite villains in Science Fiction, I think because their hive mind and lack of emotional involvement make them the stuff of sweaty nightmares. I remember watching the old Next Generation two-parter, The Best of Both Worlds, the delirious anticipation between the the third series’ close and the start of the next – how could they leave things the way they did at the end of Season 3? What a cliffhanger! In many ways, the decision to give the Borg an individual ruler in First Contact comes across as a shame. Despite a fine turn from Alice Krige, the Queen’s existence flies into the face of the species’ many ranks of anonymous servers somewhat, the idea you could kill millions of them and they would just keep on coming.

The film was a big success and it stands for me as a high point in the series, easily the best of the Next Generation movies with a fast-paced plot designed for the big screen and never fails to entertain. It’s also a two-hander, Stewart’s beleaguered Captain tussling with the Borg on board the Enterprise while Ryker leads a team on Earth of the past aiding James Cromwell’s grizzled Zefram Cochran to achieve ‘first contact’, the legendary moment of humanity’s future history when warp speed is first achieved. The latter serves up some choice moments as Cochran, this revered historical figure, turns out to be a drunk who sees only profit in his advancements, but the film wholly belongs to Patrick Stewart. Burdened with memories of his past encounter with the Borg, Picard transforms their efforts to take over the Enterprise as a personal crusade, the script offering clever allusions between his battle and that of Captain Ahab, not the first time Star Trek would refer to Moby Dick but very effectively done. Data gets a decent slice of the action as the crew member who spends his time with Krige’s unnaturally sexy Queen, giving him more to do than react to stuff happening as in Generations.

It’s a confident directorial outing for Jonathan Frakes, who prior to this had helmed a number of TV episodes but was given his debut cinematic job on First Contact. He opts for an action adventure playing at breakneck pace, which is good because the sheer speed at which things happen obscure the film’s various illogical twists and turns, the plotholes that can occur when a story messes around with timelines. More than one viewing ensures these are exposed, but they don’t detract from what is a cracking couple of hours’ entertainment, arguably drilling down the ‘science’ of some Star Trek entries but optimising instead on fun and spectacle, which is no bad thing.

Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)

I kiss you and you say “yuck”?

Insurrection stands as one of those great missed opportunities for me. After First Contact goodwill in the franchise was high. The series could have gone anywhere, done anything. A direct sequel might have been in order, but instead it was decided to make something in the vein of the fourth outing, an episode light in tone that could find favour with audiences in the same way that the ‘one with the whales’ had done. Jonathan Frakes’s services as director were retained, and Michael Piller, responsible in part for creating Deep Space Nine as well as many of the Next Generation’s highest regarded scripts, wrote the screenplay.

The result is a film that, while never really bad, plays like an extended TV episode rather than a bold cinematic outing. The story, about a planet with rings that contain some life rejuvenating properties and is contested over, is quite a decent one, leading to the crew members regaining elements of their youth. These range from the nice – La Forge no longer requiring his visor – to the rather less edifying sight of Riker getting some sex scenes with Troi. Just put it away, Number One! The early plotline during which Data appears to turn rogue is good, largely because it shows the potential for the series’ ubiquitous android as a villain, albeit temporarily. And the film offers roles for two fine actors – Anthony Zerbe plays a Federation Admiral who has dubious morals, while no less a figure than F Murray Abraham is on hand as a bad guy who is more or less unrecognisable thanks to his character undergoing perpetual face stretching operations in order to stay alive.

As an episode in the TV series, Insurrection would have been fine. It isn’t boring and the scenes in space – by now, CGI was used entirely for these bits and offered up some rather ravishing spacescapes – are fluid and exciting. But it just doesn’t have the dramatic heft and scope of a feature film. The humour doesn’t really work for anyone not overtly familiar with the characters and perhaps, in the end, unlike their original series counterparts the Next Generation was unable to transfer so successfully to the big screen.

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

You’re too slow, old man

There comes a point watching Star Trek movies, specifically those that transfer a crew seen on TV onto the big screen, where you have to wonder what the point of it all is. What do they do to make the adventures more cinematic? Where in the film is the justification for making fans part with their money to see their heroes at a multiplex? The movies featuring the original cast got that, I think, whether serving up visuals that TV budgets could never aspire to creating or using directors and crews with skills honed in producing for the cinema. Even The Final Frontier, for all its deep flaws, and they’re deep indeed, had a level of scale and ambition that made it appropriate for movie audiences. Contrast that with an entry like Nemesis, and the previous Insurrection, and all that goes away. As does much in terms of characterisation here. There’s about a third of the film’s footage that was excised from it as they focused on moments of character interaction, the aim being to present a trim, lean action movie that captured the spirit of The Wrath of Khan with its opposing captains being the driving force.

The result is a largely incoherent mess, one that wastes the potential of a riveting plot that pits Picard against a clone of himself, played here by a young Tom Hardy. Hardy plays Shinzon, created by the Romulans as a version of Picard to be used as a spy but is instead confined to slavery, before he emerges in adulthood as the leader of the Remans (the second class subordinates to Romulus). Instigating a coup over the Romulan Empire, Shinzon lures the Enterprise to meet him as part of a plot to capture Picard and use his blood in an effort to stop his own rapid ageing. But things don’t go to plan; the Captain smells a rat, especially when he learns that Shinzon’s real intention is to invade the Federation using a new super weapon. Sounds well enough, yet it’s wasted due to a staggering level of indifference from all concerned. Action scenes are inserted for no good reason, such as the exploration of a planet using dune buggies, which doesn’t make any sense and is just done to insert an artificial sense of urgency. A prototype version of Data is discovered seemingly for comic effect (it isn’t funny), and to give the character an ‘out’ when he sacrifices himself at the end of the film. There’s a subplot involving the marriage of Riker and Troi, which only works at all because of the actors’ chemistry, while the space scenes feature some gorgeous CGI but have no dramatic heft. They’re there to make us go ‘ooh pretty‘ rather than mattering. Even the scene when the Enterprise rams Shinzon’s ship lacks weight; we’ve seen worse happen and the moment doesn’t have any real consequences for where the story’s heading towards. Jerry Goldsmith, hired once again the provide the music, doesn’t really offer anything new. Like everyone else, he isn’t trying. As for the cut footage, we’re talking potentially about some of the series’ best bits, the little interactions that make us care for these characters. Without them, why should we be interested?

Sad then, to see the franchise go out – as indeed it was about to on TV schedules as Enterprise disappointed towards cancellation – with such a tired sigh. At its best, Star Trek could be both thrilling and smart, was capable of depicting a crew presented with problems with which they dealt intelligently, just as you imagine a group of humans given the best and most optimistic vision of the future doing, but here it just feels like everyone had had enough. Nemesis should have been a final hurrah to the franchise; instead it’s a death knell.

Star Trek (2009)

Green-blooded hobgoblin

Sometimes you just have to judge a film based on how much fun you had watching it at the cinema, and I admit I had a blast with the rebooted Star Trek. As a long-term sort of fan (having seen all the films, many of the TV shows, not having a clue about the Klingon language and missing half the fan-servicing references) I was sceptical about this one. Given the semi-successful nature of cinematic relaunches, the spate of which we’re undergoing still, I was worried that Star Trek would turn out to be a quick buck-making bit of nonsense, and so it was pleasing to enjoy it as much as I did.

J J Abrams has his fans and detractors, but he knows how to inject pace and generate excitement. There’s a great Red Letter Media video that goes on at some length about everything that’s wrong with the Star Wars prequels. Lots of walking and talking, no sense of urgency, and the contrast is made with this one, characters who seem to spend their lives running around in blind panic, everything cut to enhance the frantic action, and not only does it play splendidly it can make viewers overlook the nonsensical plot, how fragile it all holds together. It’s certainly a lot of fun. The young cast bring a great deal of energy to their roles, and apart from Karl Urban’s hysterical impression of DeForest Kelley do a lot to enhance their famous characters. A note on Chris Pine’s Kirk, played here as a wisecracking superhero and displaying none of the vulnerability Shatner went for in his big screen outings. It’s fascinating to watch Kirk’s rise from cheeky outcast to ship’s captain, while the fan servicing scene in which he beats Spock’s Kobayashi Maru simulation is bravura storytelling, telling you everything you need to know about both characters.

The question remains whether it’s actually Star Trek at all. I guess it’s a reboot for people who got a ride out of the Transformers movies, mixing high velocity action with nods and allusions to its sources. It’s better than those films too because Abrams has enough respect for the material to make it worthwhile. Is it up to the standard of the original series of movies? Not sure about that, and there’s an element of pointlessness about trying to compare films made in the 1980s with those for twenty first century audiences – different films for different viewers – but, as mentioned above, I had a great deal of fun watching it, and that counts for a lot.

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

I’m going to make this very simple for you

Given the success of the 2009 relaunched Star Trek, was it the best idea to recycle a much loved character and storyline from earlier in the series for the sequel? For the first half of Into Darkness it all works well enough. Kirk and the Enterprise wilfully break the Prime Directive in rescuing Spock (seasoned viewers will be smiling at the sheer number of times this impossible rule has been shattered previously), and they’re then tasked with getting rid of a mysterious figure who’s been sabotaging the Federation. It’s only when this man is revealed to be none other than Khan Noonien Singh that the plot unravels into a retread of The Wrath of Khan, even rehashing the death of a major character in saving the ship and the frustrated bellow of ‘KHAAAAANNNNN!’.

There’s an extent to which all this is very nice, multiple winks to long term viewers – hey look kids, it’s just like before but a bit different – and entertaining action adventure for the casuals. Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan is about as good as Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan is likely to be, in fact he’s great – composed, cold and brilliant where Montalban was all bombast and spat out curses. The plotline that has a Starfleet Admiral (played, in a great bit of casting, by Peter Weller) using both Khan and Kirk as pawns within a scheme to spark off a war against the Klingons, is pretty good stuff. And the movie runs at a suitably frantic pace, as before packed with sufficient action to stop all but the most jaded audience members unpicking the nonsensical logic and plot-holes.

On the downside, in a universe that could have gone anywhere the decision to supply a rebooted franchise with a rebooted plot smacks of laziness and feels a bit unnecessary. Was there any need for any of it? Did Cumberbatch’s Khan do a number on Montalban? Did you burn your copy of Wrath of Khan because it was simply done better and ‘right’ this time around? Of course not. Where Kirk’s anger over Khan’s actions in the earlier film held real weight, the culmination of mounting frustration, when Spock does the same here it just feels contrived, present as a nod for the fans. Similarly the sacrifice Kirk makes in his one, echoing Spock’s actions earlier in the series, carries little heft because the film has already posited an ‘out’ for his character, a means to bring him back to life, whereas Spock’s death way back in the early 1980s was emotionally devastating due to its (apparent) finality. No amount of Simon Pegg’s Scotty cheering up the screen or Alice Eve appearing solely for the scene where she strips off (for virtually no reason) can mask the emptiness at the heart of this film, the fact it was made because it could be, for the money, and that’s a shame.

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

In Loving Memory of Leonard Nimoy

The most recent Trek movie has been tinged with tragedy. First there was the passing of Leonard Nimoy, the legendary actor without whom the series just feels a bit less, indeed it was his cameo appearances in the two previous entries that lent them an indefinable amount of credibility and continuity. And then there was the tragic loss of Anton Yelchin, just 27 years old and already with a fine catalogue of appearances hinting at a great screen acting career in prospect. For this film, J J Abrams had jumped over to some other relaunched science fiction epic, staying on as producer only, and the reins were handed over to Justin Lin, the genius behind those loud, brash and disposable Fast and Furious movies. The signs were ominous. Would Beyond turn into a sequence of elaborate set piece action sequences linked with superfluous plot points?

The answer, happily, is no, and I would argue that for the first time in the rebooted series there’s a sense of these films having the conviction to go their own way rather than endlessly reference their own past (though it’s filled with nods all the same, with special mention for allusions to Star Trek: Enterprise). The worst thing I can say about Beyond is that Idris Elba makes for a surprisingly weak villain, but that’s more or less okay because the rest clicks into place really well. The entire crew gets significant parts to play, including Simon Pegg’s Scotty (surely just a coincidence that Pegg co-wrote the screenplay), and Sofia Bouletta’s alien warrior makes for an agreeable addition to the cast. It moves along at the usual breakneck pace and some of the visuals are astonishing, in particular Starbase Yorktown, which shows a level of care and attention to stretching the limits of the human imagination in a science fiction setting.

On the downside, the entire effort seems to be on offering spectacle at the expense of anything close to science; it’s fine enough as a pure fantasy, yet when you think of what they aimed to make with The Motion Picture all those years ago you realise that the premise’s initial intentions have been pretty much trodden underfoot. Does Beyond, therefore, do anything that you can’t get with the rebooted Star Wars series, for example, or perhaps more pertinently Guardians of the Galaxy, which was already stealing this franchise’s thunder. Once those elements linking the Star Trek universe with scientific possibilities have been expunged, does anything remain that’s special or unique, or is this just another blockbuster property swimming to keep up with the rest?

Who knows? More instalments are promised, with no less a figure than Quentin Tarantino linked at some point in the future, and in the meantime a new series has been commissioned by CBS, which has attracted mixed reviews but, speaking personally, I rather enjoyed it. The existing movies pretty much span my lifetime, with the original series released beforehand and many additional Star Trek shows on television occurring in the intervening years. All told I find it a mixed bag, some genuinely great ideas colliding with the occasional plodding storytelling and dull characters. And yet its central thesis, of a future in which the world has combined its collective powers and set out to explore the universe, is a very encouraging, fascinating and ultimately optimistic one. As I write these words it seems a very long way away, whether the last gasp of old, deep rooted values or something fundamentally unsavoury at the heart of the human condition, but for me the vision of mankind’s destiny that Star Trek posits is about as hopeful as these things can ever get, and there’s nothing very wrong in watching that.

Dances with Wolves (1990)

When it’s on: Monday, 1 January (1.30 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

The received wisdom is that Goodfellas was the best film of 1990 but it lost out to Dances with Wolves, Kevin Costner’s directorial debut that told an all-too worthy story about the Frontier and helped to conceive one of the most infamous snubs in the history of the Academy Awards, up there with the time How Green was my Valley triumphed over Citizen Kane.

In the history of Oscar controversies, this is up there with the most notorious. While I’m not about to argue the merits of the two films involved, what I will say is that I love Dances with Wolves. I loved it when I first caught it at the cinema (with a very bored girlfriend – she didn’t last), and I feel the same way now. The version I own is the extended cut on Blu-Ray, which doesn’t add a lot in terms of plot development but does flesh the characters out a little more and, best of all, gives me more time to spend with this fascinating and lovingly made picture.

One of the contemporary notes I would like to make is that when it was made, the Western was to all intents and purposes extinct. There was the usual scattering of B movies, but mainly the genre was used as comic reference (Back to the Future Part III) or to indulge the young stars of the day (Young Guns II). It was a gamble, not least because Costner was untried and had given little impression he was ready to step up to the chair, only taking the job when established directors turned down the assignment. Handed a $10 million budget by Orion, he crowd-sourced a further five million from foreign investors and paid for the three mill overspend out of his own pocket. The story, based on writer Michael Blake’s research into Native Americans, chimed with Hollywood sensibilities of the time, the revisionist attitude to Vietnam that had produced the likes of Platoon and now took in the pushing back of the American frontier, and the inglorious fate of the people who were indigenous to it. While Western movies had long since abandoned the treatment of Indians as mindless savages, telling stories as far back as Broken Arrow that showed them in a sympathetic light, Dances with Wolves offered more, entering the homes of Sioux tribes and exploring in some depth their culture and language. The effort was to depict Indians as decent, honourable, and without the technology of the expansionists every bit as sophisticated and in fact better at protecting their environment.

The story follows John Dunbar (Costner), a Lieutenant in the Union Army during the Civil War. Injured in battle and then performing an act of heroism in order to save his leg from being amputated, Dunbar is given his choice of postings and volunteers to join a frontier regiment. Turning up at the remote and abandoned Fort Sedgwick, he takes to the task of rebuilding it and holding on until the arrival of relief soldiers. Alone, he battles the solitude by exploring his new environment, keeping a diary of what he discovers. All the while the neighbouring Sioux tribe is watching him, attempting at one point to steal his horse in an effort to intimidate him, before eventually visiting him. An uneasy friendship starts. Dunbar finds himself respecting his neighbours, fascinated by them and their customs, making efforts to learn their language, and when he discovers the arrival of a buffalo herd he takes it as an opportunity to improve relations. The Sioux have problems of their own. As well as depending on the declining buffalo population for sustenance, they face attacks from the warlike Pawnee tribe, and are aware of the long-term threat of settlers moving west.

If Dances with Wolves has issues, then they begin with the stately pace at which all this takes place. Costner takes his good time in soaking up the natural wonders of the frontier (filmed largely on private ranches in South Dakota), while the critical development of his relations with the Sioux happen organically, over time and highlights all the barriers as well as the benefits to their friendship. This is either great or interminably slow, and while I’m happily of the former opinion I can understand that the film’s leisurely narrative has the potential to frustrate some viewers. Added to this is Costner’s performance. I have no problem with it and think he carries the film well enough, however in a story that aches for authenticity it’s possibly tough to watch this native Californian with his neat, modern West Coast dialect and wonder how he could be there at all. Dunbar’s mission as an open-minded adventurer who falls for the Sioux way of life also becomes difficult to take. Practically every white man apart from Dunbar is evil, morally corrupt against the implacable nobility of the Sioux, which is intended to generate an air of tragedy, the sure knowledge that ultimately the latter will vanish in their native form, but a bit more balance would surely have worked in its favour.

For all those elements, it’s still a film I really enjoy, and I’m happy enough to sit through more than three hours of it and even prepared to lump on the extra hour of director’s cut material. Whatever my issues with the ‘black and white’ treatment of its characters, I find the steady build-up of Dunbar’s understanding of the Sioux to be quite fascinating, intended to educate us at the same time as he learns things and doing it successfully. Graham Greene’s performance as the tribe’s medicine man, Kicking Bird, is superb, rounded as the character’s conservatism is balanced with his wish for friendship with Dunbar. As Stands with a Fist, a white woman adopted by the tribe and eventually Dunbar’s wife, Mary McDonnell produces some fine work, reluctant to endear herself to the Sioux’s ‘alien’ visitor and yet drawn to him. Rodney A. Grant plays Wind in his Hair, a young warrior who takes more time to get over his mistrustful instincts of Dunbar, and is also very good. The film has to convince us of the reality of these people, and does it very well thanks to casting Native American actors and breathing life into their customs and attitude. In one of the film’s more poignant moments, tribe elder Ten Bears (Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman) shows Dunbar the helmet of a Spanish Conquistador, a symbol of the invaders who will eventually pass into history and leave them alone, but thinking this is going to happen again with the Americans is a fantasy, one of which Dunbar is only too aware.

Beyond the story, a sympathetic treatment of Native Americans that for its time was relatively fresh, the film’s technical elements are superb. I have been playing the John Barry score while writing these comments, and it feels like a perfect fit. The music offers all the epic sweep of the frontier, but with heavy melancholic notes, like it knows as well as the viewer that despite Dunbar’s romanticism and the tribe’s nobility none of it will endure. The pushing back of the frontier is inevitable, and an entire way of life will be lost. Barry won the Oscar for his score, as did Dean Semler, the cinematographer who had the job of bringing the virgin frontier to life. Quite simply it’s a gorgeous effort, all untamed landscapes and endless skies, in every frame the big country that the Midwest was for its explorers. Added to that are the logistics of putting more than 3,000 buffalo on the screen and getting them to ‘act’ the role of being a herd that’s pursued by the Sioux. In an era when digital effects were too new to recreate the animals with any semblance of reality, those really are thousands of animals being made to stampede, which they would do for miles and represented a danger to the actors working with them, and anybody unfortunate enough to be standing in their path. And yet the effect is worth it; the sight is something you don’t see in real life anymore and was recreated brilliantly for the film.

So, a movie that perhaps isn’t perfect. Its sympathies are clear, bordering on hand-wringing, and when Roger Ebert described it as a ‘sentimental fantasy’ you know exactly what he meant. Though a fictional character, it’s possible that someone like Dunbar really did exist, enchanted by the Indian tribe to the extent of integrating himself as one of them, but the stark reality is that western expansion just swallowed up everything and everyone in its path, which ensures the film carries an air of sadness. And yet it’s also a great adventure yarn, made with care and attention to detail, its attempts at accuracy so painstaking that the occasional fault can be overlooked within the overall effort. Dances with Wolves can also be credited with breathing life back into the Western genre. As mentioned elsewhere on these pages, Westerns were at their best when reflecting contemporary American sensibilities, using the setting to hold a mirror up the values, beliefs and concerns of the time. During the genre’s Golden Age of the 1950s, the movies were a perfect counterpoint to attitudes in the USA, and Dances with Wolves continues that grand tradition.

Dances with Wolves: ****

A Night to Remember (1958)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 8 August (12.30 pm)
Channel: London Live
IMDb Link

You’ve probably heard of James Cameron’s 1997 film, Titanic. All those Academy Awards aside, there were the endless queues of people going to see it – I caught it twice, hopelessly swept up in its sheer spectacle and seduced by the breathless action movie it became after the ship had its fateful meeting with an innocent iceberg. There’s a sense of the film’s second half being told almost in real time, and I defy any viewer not to have their own doubts about the Titanic being sinkable, as for a seductively long time it remains afloat even as the crew are rushing people to the lifeboats and, way beneath the first class opulence, water relentlessly fills the decks.

Possible it is to think of Cameron’s sledgehammer of a movie as definitive. At the time it was by some distance the most expensive ever made and had taken a long time to put together. It took advantage of research undertaken at the actual wreck, underwater exploration – including expeditions taken by Cameron himself – that confirmed the contemporary eyewitness accounts claiming the ship had broken in half moments before it sank completely. The film did all it could to recreate the actual vessel, and while some of the computer generated effects have aged considerably over the two decades since its release there’s an attention to detail that is difficult to argue with. True, the main romantic plot that mops up all the class differences experienced by the passengers feels contrived and heavy handed, but all told it’s a likable piece of populist work that ticks most of the boxes, even if Cameron mashes his points about the social orders home with all the subtlety of a house brick.

And yet it was by no means the first time cinema attempted to recreate the events of 1912 that depicted the Titanic tragedy as a last word in human hubris and folly. A Nazi propaganda film was released in 1943; ten years later Clifton Webb and the unsinkable Barbara Stanwyck starred in a melodrama that used the fateful voyage as the backdrop to their failing marriage. Then there’s A Night to Remember, the 1958 entry that is quite possibly the most accurate version. The title comes from the book from which it was adapted, Walter Lord’s riveting minute by minute account of the sinking that drew on the accounts by survivors he’d spoken to extensively. It was a bestseller and made the film an easy inevitability. Despite the obvious technical difficulties faced by a modestly budgeted British effort and its far from blockbuster returns at the box office, A Night to Remember was universally praised by critics and for viewers it remains a straight choice between this and Cameron’s epic. The fact it can rub shoulders with the second highest grossing movie of all time is testament to its enduring appeal.

Unlike Titanic, it makes a rigid attempt to stick to the facts and tell a straight story, achieving an almost documentary drama atmosphere as the camera moves from person to person, picking out individual tales and predicaments. A Night to Remember features more than 200 speaking roles, or around a tenth of the actual ship’s complement, which is no mean feat. The star is Kenneth More’s Lightoller, Titanic’s Second Officer whose personal drama is told from before he steps foot on the ship to his efforts to shepherd passengers onto the lifeboats in an orderly and typically British ‘women and children first’ manner. But it makes clear Lightoller’s is only one voice among hundreds. There’s Michael Goodliffe as Thomas Andrews, Titanic’s builder and the first to realise the seriousness of their predicament. Laurence Naismith plays the stolid ship’s captain. Honor Blackman and John Cairney take the roles of passengers from first class and steerage respectively, showing how different their experiences of being on Titanic are both normally and when faced with a crisis. The wireless operators are Kenneth Griffiths and a very young David McCallum. Their roles in the unfolding story are crucial but until the collision they’re an afterthought, holed up in their cabin and conveying messages from the passengers that stops them from relaying all the warnings they receive from other ships about ice… In a small and rather comedic role, George Rose plays the ship’s baker, who reacts to the mounting chaos by getting blind drunk. After leaving the ship and treading water in the sea for a time he’s picked up by a lifeboat, the liquor in his bloodstream remarkably keeping him warm and ensuring he feels no ill effects from the freezing temperatures of the water. The crews of other ships near to Titanic are also shown. The RMS Carpathia steams towards it once it becomes clear that it’s floundering, but the SS Californian, only ten miles distant, its lights visible from Titanic, doesn’t respond because its radio operator (Geoffrey Bayldon) has turned in for the night.

The film’s tension is achieved from the sureness of what is about to happen, viewers waiting for the collision and what happens next as Andrews explains Titanic has two hours of life remaining. The unfortunate kiss from the iceberg takes place early, meaning the main running time is taken up with the crew fighting a battle to save as many lives as possible, at first struggling to persuade bewildered people that the ship will sink and they really need to leave, and later making efforts to stop the evacuation from turning into outright panic. It’s impressively told, the sheer number of cast members and the suspense faced by everyone up against the clock ensuring it never loses pace. The film’s director was Roy Ward Baker, later to establish himself on television and as a regular for Hammer studios, and here making full use of his powers to produce brisk and economical storytelling, capable of not short changing his characters while never over-egging their accounts. Of course, this is 1950s British cinema and so the use of models occasionally becomes obvious, but it was a necessary evil and the crew did the best they could with the finite resources available.

It remains to provide a verdict on which is the best Titanic film. The 1997 take is visually stunning and mounted on the grandest scale possible, yet it suffers from some bloat and clearly strip-mined A Night to Remember for numerous images and set pieces. The similarities of the stories being weaved no doubt made this an inevitability, but personally I could do without Billy Zane’s by-the-numbers villain and some unnecessary padding that relates to a mythical lost necklace (a purely fictional device). And that means I prefer the 1958 account, a muscular version that loses absolutely nothing in the way its told, features excellent production values and maximises its massive cast. It’s a watery delight.

A Night to Remember: ****

Everything or Nothing: 007 from Worst to Best

Ranking the Bond movies is naturally a hazardous and completely subjective process. Some entries that I see as terrible are other viewers’ catnip, and vice versa. There are various articles on the web that involve some lucky dude eating fifty hours’ of their life working through the lot and feeding back, and the lists are never the same, which of course is a good thing. If we all felt the same, etc. But just to offer some context to this list, the aspects influencing my decision were:

1. Datedness
Cinematic 007 has a history stretching back more than fifty years, with literary traditions covering a further decade. 1953, the year Casino Royale was published, was a very different time to ours, featuring attitudes that we would rightly view as belonging with the dinosaurs, and some of this translated to Bond’s earlier cinematic outings. I’m not talking here about effects work. Most often, though notably not always, the technical craft behind even the earliest entries is top notch and deserves to be celebrated, and I feel a sense of affection for moments that perhaps show their age now. More problematic is the misogyny, racism and outright homophobia that raise their head – the idea, posited in Goldfinger and Diamonds are Forever, that gay people are evil unless they can somehow be ‘converted’ to the light side by Bond’s administrations, is very worrying. The treatment of women, particularly during the long Moore years, reaches uncomfortable levels that bely any affection one might feel for the series. To some, all this may come across as a charming anachronism – it’s of its time, don’t let political correctness go mad, etc. Sorry, I don’t agree. I watch these films to be entertained, not to squirm.

2. Fantasy versus Spycraft
That these films often leave any credibility behind and lurch into entertaining tripe is a given; personally, I don’t think there’s any point in tackling this project if you judge these films on their realism, because often there isn’t any – that Smiley’s People set is for you. Goldfinger established Connery’s 007 as more or less a superhero, emerging from perils that would crush 99.9% of the viewers with a smile on his face and the toupee in beautiful order, and I think you need to accept the number of liberties these movies take, otherwise it just collapses. Some of the loopier episodes – You Only Live Twice being a prime example – have emerged as guilty favourites because their internal logic embraces the fantasy from the start and takes you along with it. That aside, it’s surely impossible to hate a film that is filmed so lovingly, which serves up shots dripping with Far Eastern loveliness to go with one of the more luscious John Barry scores (which is really saying something). Where I do quail, however, is in those films that attempt a certain level of realism only to take left turns on a whim. One or the other, guys. Don’t mess us around and while you’re at it, there’s never a point when gondolas that convert into a hydrofoil is okay!

3. Gadgetry
The concoctions of Q Branch are a celebratory part of the Bond series. The idea that Desmond Llewellyn heads a department creating impossible things – items that often enough come with a staggering foreshadowing of helping Bond out at the optimum moment – is part of the fun and I’m fine with that. I personally prefer films where 007 relies on his skills, but I can accept part of that skill-set is the resourcefulness of knowing when to use his special toys. Where I have a greater problem is when there’s no need for Bond to be talented because his reliance on the gadgets is complete, their status as a Deus Ex Machina overriding his abilities. The other thing is that whilst I can accept a lot in terms of what Q produces, when the gizmos begin jumping the shark I start to feel insulted. Cars that come equipped with missiles and protective shields = more or less okay. Cars with the capacity to turn invisible = stupid. Let’s face it, when you can produce items of this calibre then what need do you have for 007 at all?

I hold an affection for these movies that lingers long beyond their actual worth as cinematic art. They’re a lot of fun on the whole, and the effort to maintain a certain level of production quality is praiseworthy. Bond films were never made on the cheap. Even the more economical entries came with high values, meaning the poverty row funding that blighted certain other franchises was never an issue. There’s an earnestness when it comes to pleasing the viewers that I find rather adorable, and it only ever started to fail when trends within the industry and audience preferences for certain other tropes influenced its direction. I think the Bond brand is its own special thing, quite apart from whatever else is going on in the celluloid industry, and so an increased level of hard-edged violence that seemed a reaction to the success of Die Hard in the 1980s, or a 1970s entry that riffed on the wave of popularity for Blaxpolitation cinema, or the infamous cash-in on the Star Wars craze, sits uneasily with me. Sure, don’t be left behind. The more recent elements creeping into the series, for instance the episodic continuity that makes each of the Daniel Craig films flow into each other, with recurring characters and Bond affected by past events, is welcome. At the same time, they’re sitting on a rich tradition that’s entirely self-perpetuated. It’s for 007 to set the trend, not follow it, and when the latter happens I automatically lose interest.

In order to keep the word count to a reasonable level, I’m only including ‘canon’ movies here – no 1967 Casino Royale, which is no great loss to me, nor any reference to 1983’s Never Say Never Again, apart from in passing. I rather like the Connery starring remake of Thunderball, despite some of its more dated elements, but it isn’t part of the official series therefore out it goes.

And so, with a dry martini in hand and licence revoked (because I know what the word bloody means!), it’s time to pay attention, attempt re-entry and aim for poor Miss Moneypenny’s ever hopeful hatstand…

24. Die Another Day
Year: 2002
Star (his age): Pierce Brosnan (49)
Lass (her age): Halle Berry (36)
Evil Doer: Toby Stephens
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $544m (13)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘I think I broke her heart’
Title Song Performer: Madonna
Glamorous Locale: Iceland, Andalucia (doubling as Cuba)
Gadget: Invisible Aston Martin, glass shattering ring

I have been known to keep my tip up

Bond films live or die depending on each viewer’s willingness to accept the levels of fantasy on display. If, for instance, you can’t square the sight of Bond performing some incredible stunt in public while simultaneously operating as a secret agent, then most of these films aren’t realistically for you. Where do you draw the line? Little Nellie? The gondola-hovercraft gliding across a crowded St Mark’s Square? The frankly ludicrous Xenia Onatopp? 007 in space? How about the sheer number of special skills Bond possesses – you can swallow him being a great skier, even enough of an extreme sports enthusiast to be capable of handling high dives, bungee jumps, etc. And yet his instant capability when handling any vehicle he commandeers is asking a lot; people train to be fighter pilots for years, but he can prevail in aerial combat like a master. Seriously? And then there are films like Die Another Day, which transform our hero into such an indestructible superhero that any whiff of credibility is gone. I think you can take certain liberties with Bond viewers, but once you have him surfing a CGI tsunami you’re simply taking the piss out of them.

It’s for this, for the invisible car, for the look of lust a nurse sends Bond’s way after he has assaulted her workmates, for various other elements, that make this the series nadir. Die Another Day is an expensive film. Production quality levels are high and by this point Pierce Brosnan is in his fourth outing, surely as at ease as he’s ever going to be and neither looking as decrepit as Roger Moore or jaded like Sean Connery became. Everything should be fine. The film even has the cheek to start really well, when Bond is imprisoned and tortured for fourteen months, adrift in North Korea and with no hope of escape. We are shown images of what he goes through – water torture, being stung by scorpions and then kept alive by receiving the anti-toxins, gaolers who seem to take pleasure in hurting him again and again. His hair and beard grow. His clothes become rags. Bond suffers, clearly broken by the treatment by the time he’s traded, and you get a glimpse of the movie this might have been – a fatally damaged, mentally compromised Bond, bent on vengeance and plagued by memories of what’s been done to him. There’s even a scene when M castigates him because she believes he must have cracked under pressure, hardly the hero’s welcome he might have expected. Instead it takes a left swerve, our hero getting over his privations and M’s distrust within seconds to go after the villains, apparently undamaged and ready for a couple of hours’ spectacle. Okay…

To provide the ultimate Bond girl they produce Halle Berry, fresh from Oscar winning glory and playing an American agent who’s Bond’s equal and with whom he teams up. And that’s the character. Like 007 himself there’s no development, no emotional depth. At one point her character drowns before Bond revives her (because of course he does), and there’s no sense of PTSD, just getting back into the groove. The villain is played by Toby Stephens. His character, Gustav Graves, is actually a North Korean terrorist who’s genetically altered himself into an Englishman in order to realise his plans for destroying the West. Stephens sneers his way through the film, at one point telling 007 he looks this way as a parody of Bond himself, because that’s how he perceives him. The potential for some great character development is there, the withering view of Western decadence, the suggestion that Graves has nailed the underlying pomposity of Bond and his type – does he even have a point? But its forgotten because (i) Bond’s the hero (ii) the film is seen to be needing another high concept action scene so enough with the socio-political philosophising.

The film’s best bit comes when Bond fights Graves with swords. Despite costing thousands of pounds’ damage to the club they casually destroy during their duel, the scene has real weight and teases out the growing personal dislike between combatants; it already exists within Graves, whereas Bond realises he’s up against someone who’s out to get him and therefore has to fight for his life. It isn’t even ruined by the fencing instructor, performed by Madonna in the kind of poorly acted, grandstanding cameo that might as well have a bubble on the screen declaring ‘Look kids! Madonna!’ to drill home the point. Elsewhere, take your pick of set pieces – the car chase/fight between Bond and Rick Yune’s villainous Zao, both vehicles rigged with a ridiculous array of gadgets and weapons; Bond being pursued by a laser beam that is powered by the sun’s rays; escaping from a crashing plane in a helicopter; the whole hovercraft sequence. 007’s Aston Martin can be rendered invisible, and even remembering that in the past he’s been given cars capable of doing all manner of crazy things it’s a step into the utter bizarre. And did I mention that Bond can now surf his way out of danger, riding a massive wave, all of it rendered using CGI that even at the time didn’t measure up and now just looks cheap and tacky?

Some further notes – Samantha Bonds’ Moneypenny (up to this point, a decent and disparaging replacement for Lois Maxwell) using Q’s virtual reality machine for shagging 007 is a mighty ruination of her entire character and the years of friendly flirtation between them for the sake of a stilted and not very funny moment. Q, now played by John Cleese, is an inflated arse, written and performed as though wanting viewers to miss Desmond Llewelyn. There’s an evil henchman who’s actually called Mr Kill. Berry gets some of the most terrible dialogue ever committed within the series. Madonna not only appears in the film, she provides the title song as well, and it’s awful and especially poor is the ‘stuttered editing’ on her vocals that was fashionable for a mercifully brief time back then.

Die Another Day was the sixth highest grossing picture of 2002, and in a year that contained Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Harry Potter movies that’s no mean feat. And yet, like Moonraker in 1979, the sense that the line had been crossed is impossible to ignore. Where do you go from this? Back to basics is where, indeed the recasting of Bond as Daniel Craig gave EON the opportunity to reboot their franchise, return to the pages of Fleming and tell of 007’s origins. This remains a complete mess of a film, virtually a joke entry, difficult not to laugh at and so ludicrous that it actually becomes quite tiresome long before the close. Given this was Brosnan’s last appearance it would be easy to blame him, but it isn’t his fault. He deserved better in the role, capable of providing depth and dramatic heft in those rare moments when it was demanded of him. Berry’s made her fair share of stinkers, but again this isn’t her responsibility, while the co-starring role offered to a young Rosamund Pike remains one of the series’ more blatant wastes of talent. Everyone involved just dropped the ball this time, not least the script writers for inserting awful puns at every opportunity, as though they had previously watched Arnold Schwarzenegger’s endless ice-related quips in Batman and Robin and thought that was the right direction to take.

23. A View to a Kill
Year: 1985
Star (his age): Roger Moore (57)
Lass (her age): Tanya Roberts (29)
Evil Doer: Christopher Walken
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $321m (23)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘Anyone else want to drop out?’
Title Song Performer: Duran Duran
Glamorous Locale: Paris, San Francisco
Gadget: Submarine disguised as an iceberg, bug-finder posing as an electric razor, x-ray sunglasses, ring camera, ‘Q Dog’

I’ve been known to dabble

The 1980s were a difficult time for James Bond. Audiences were mainly looking elsewhere or waiting for the film to release on video, leading to the bottom four entries in 007’s box office figures coming from this decade. Star Roger Moore was patently too old by the time he made A View to a Kill, the credibility of him playing a man of action stretched to breaking point when he discovered he was older than his co-star’s – Tanya Roberts – mother. Like the main man, there’s an air of exhaustion about the picture. No one seems to know how to breathe anything fresh into the franchise so they don’t even try. The plot of Goldfinger is rehashed, even down to the villain discussing his scheme to destroy a major American financial hub with the use of an expensive visual display. Lots of it makes little sense. Why, for instance, does Bond steal a fire engine to escape the police and then spend time during the pursuit farting around the rig? Surely for a better reason than the possibility it might have made for a fun scene… Roberts is a terrible Bond girl; she plays a damsel in distress, the sort of screeching moll who makes viewers miss the days of Anya Amasova and Holly Goodhead, capable women who were easily Bond’s equal. It’s also a surprisingly boring film, and that’s something 007 – even at its most fantastical – should never allow to happen. Once the ‘action’ moves to Zorin’s stables it stays there for a very long time and slows down horribly.

That it isn’t a total dead loss is mainly down to the presence of Christopher Walken as the movie’s psychotic villain, Max Zorin. He seems to know he has to rescue the film and so dials up the eccentricity of his performance to magnificent levels, killing with glee even when firing on his own men. He’s great value, in Top Trumps the magic card in terms of outright madness levels. Grace Jones, a performer who could only have emerged from the eighties, makes for a unique sidekick to Zorin – no one looks like her, and no one could have as effectively combined hard-edged beauty with muscular action like she does here. Between them, Walken and Jones make a brave stab at saving A View to a Kill, but it’s tired stuff elsewhere, never more so than in the shape of its star, nearly 60 and looking it. Moore’s age adds an unwished for sleazy quality to his trysts with Roberts, signifying that something had to change. And it did.

22. Octopussy
Year: 1983
Star (his age): Roger Moore (55)
Lass (her age): Maud Adams (38)
Evil Doer: Louis Jourdan, Steven Berkoff
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $426m (21)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘Game, set and match’
Title Song Performer: Rita Coolidge
Glamorous Locale: India, Germany
Gadget: Acrostar Micro-jet, Acid pen, Homing device within watch, Alligator boat

Sounds like a load of bull

Of all the classic (i.e. pre-Brosnan) Bonds, Octopussy is by some distance the one I’ve watched the fewest times. The reason, simply enough, is that I don’t like it very much, and whilst I’ve discovered positives about many of the other ‘lesser’ titles during this re-watch my opinion of this one hasn’t changed. It feels like a film lacking in confidence, one emblematic of a business that was running scared because at the time it had an ‘unofficial’ rival in the box office – Never Say Never Again – that forced it to play safe and go back to the tried and tested winning recipe they had successfully pulled back from with For Your Eyes Only. Whereas Roger Moore’s previous outing suggested a new and more realistic direction for the gentleman spy, Octopussy returned by and large to high concept thrills, a fantastical extravaganza, albeit with certain elements present to show what it might have been. In the end, it did enough to win the battle of the Bonds, despite the draw of Sean Connery in Warners’ retread of Thunderball (Connery’s pretty good but the film is nothing special, proof if you like that the world wasn’t desperate to see Thunderball again, and that’s understandable), but in relative terms audiences were looking elsewhere and the film falls well short of 007 at his best.

A visible ageing Moore (returning to the role after other actors, notably James Brolin, were screen-tested before EON decided a sense of continuity was required) gets to show glimpses of the harder-boiled Bond he’d played in For Your Eyes Only. He displays real anger to Steven Berkoff’s warmongering Russian general, a nice moment of the film showing its sensibilities during a period when the real Cold War was regaining some of its 1950s tension, albeit against the backdrop of a world tired of hostilities, represented by Walter Gotell’s far more reasonable and realistic Soviet high-ranker. Racing against time to defuse a bomb that will go off and reignite East-West military action, Bond rushes across West Germany only to come across problems – cars refusing to stop and give him a lift, stealing a vehicle and being pursued by the police – that create some much needed tension. There’s some fine acting from Moore, a sense of desperation and harshness that the character would show in these moments. Elsewhere, the early appearance of a slain 009 shows that MI6 secret agents can in fact die in the field, teasing at the peril to come.

But these are snatches of the picture Octopussy might have been. The Cold War plotline fights for space amidst a tale set mainly in India, involving Faberge eggs, a harem of women and Louis Jourdan’s smooth villain. Jourdan effortlessly out-suaves Moore and has a delicious way of enunciating the word ‘Octopussy’, but he’s an under-cooked bad guy who’s solely present because the film needs to have one. A key scene in which he leads a great hunt against the escaped Bond should have suspense levels reminiscent of The Most Dangerous Game, but it’s spoiled because it’s played for comedy – 007 pulls a ‘Barbara Woodhouse’ and orders a tiger to sit (it does), barks ‘hiss off!’ at a snake and then swings through the trees, pulling a Tarzan cry presumably to… no, I can’t think of a single reason for it. A chase through the crowded streets of India should be thrilling but is far too high concept, twisting on the presence of tennis pro Vijay Amritraj who at one point uses his handy racket, a joke that could only work with people who knew what his day job was.

Churls are welcome to argue that it’s just meant to be entertainment, that the sight of Bond turning up to the villain’s headquarters in a hot air balloon emblazoned with an enormous Union Jack is nothing more than the daft, knockabout fun they were aiming for. For me, it isn’t quite at the bottom of the barrel but it’s close, that lack of any real credibility undermining the moments intended to ratchet up the tension.

21. The Man with the Golden Gun
Year: 1974
Star (his age): Roger Moore (47)
Lass (her age): Britt Ekland (32), Maud Adams (29)
Evil Doer: Christopher Lee
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $448m (19)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘Flat on his coup de grâce’
Title Song Performer: Lulu
Glamorous Locale: Hong Kong, Thailand
Gadget: Next to nothing for Bond, but Scaramanga’s car-plane takes some beating

You’re that Secret Agent! That English secret agent! From England!

Christopher Lee must have been the most off-the-shelf Bond villain imaginable. Related to Ian Fleming, it was speculated that Lee might even have played 007 himself, but it was only when Jack Palance turned down the role of Scaramanga that he was approached to play Bond’s arch-enemy in The Man with the Golden Gun. On paper, it’s a mouth-watering part. Francisco Scaramanga is the world’s best assassin, taking jobs at a cost of $1 million per hit. No one knows his face, and he lives in seclusion on a paradise island. The prospects for a tale in which he and Bond face each other is tantalising indeed, the stuff of a splendidly taut two hours.

Instead, the opportunity is squandered within a weak and rushed entry, an attempt to cash in on the success of Live and Let Die by dashing it out. The production values are typically high, so the shortfall comes in the scripting, a lazy mish-mash of tropes that are present because they’re what people expect to see. Car chase? Tick. Beddable women? Two of ’em. Extended scene in which the villain explains his plan in exhaustive detail to Bond? Of course there is, a boring several minutes of twaddle involving a solar something-or-other, when what we really want to get to is the duel between the pair. Lee is walking charisma, but his character – with all the potential that comes with playing a cold-hearted killer – is soft-boiled and gadget-dependent, which dilutes the personal threat level he ought to possess.

Maud Adams in a femme fatale role is pretty good, hard as it is to believe that after Bond tortures her for information she later falls effortlessly for him. The other female presence, Britt Ekland, is horrifically short changed, eclipsing even Jill St John for incompetence. The script’s aim for Ekland appears to stop at getting her to run around in a bikini; she inevitably ends up in bed with Bond, in spite of the fact she knows his reputation, is trapped in a wardrobe while he shags Maud Adams, and is shown nothing but scorn by him for much of the picture. The reason? ‘I’m weak,’ she tells 007; weakly scripted, more like. Other moments of potential brilliance are casually wasted or cheapened. A fine stunt depicting a car doing a 360 degree spin over a broken bridge is shot for laughs by playing a slide whistle over the action, and it’s made considerably worse by shoehorning Clifton James’s pot-bellied, racist Sheriff into the car alongside Bond. There’s no reason for this, save for heavy-handed comic effect. And don’t get me started on Herve Villechaize, Scaramanga’s midget sidekick whose deadliness is no match for an open suitcase.

All told a real misfire; even within Roger Moore’s aegis it’s an entry best forgotten, which is a shame. I’m not a fan of Lulu’s title track, but John Barry’s score drips with loveliness. Much of the photography, particularly the climax at Ao Phang-Nga National Park, is glorious. An inspired little touch comes when Bond enters MI6’s Hong Kong headquarters, based within the wreck of the RMS Queen Elizabeth, corridors and offices set amidst odd-angled walls. These are glimpses of a much better film, but glimpses are all we get.

20. The World is Not Enough
Year: 1999
Star (his age): Pierce Brosnan (46)
Lass (her age): Sophie Marceau (33), Denise Richards (28)
Evil Doer: Robert Carlyle
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $492m (16)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘See you back at the lodge’
Title Song Performer: Garbage
Glamorous Locale: Turkey
Gadget: Q Boat, Visa card disguising a lock pick, ski jacket, x-ray glasses

I thought Christmas only comes once a year

The World is Not Enough is an apt title for this entry given that it wants everything – dramatic weight, character development, the usual spectacle and thrills. The result is a very mixed bag; a convoluted plot that is far more labyrinthine than it needs to be, stunts that are present for the sake of showing them. The speedboat chase along the Thames showcases the series’ increasing reliance on CGI, belongs firmly in the realm of fantasy and leads to nothing. It’s present because there hasn’t been an action scene for a bit. Similarly with the set-piece on skis; no real reason for it. There’s little weight because it’s obvious Bond will emerge unscathed. One of the characters, Denise Richards playing the unlikeliest nuclear physicist imaginable, is completely unnecessary to the main sweep of the plot. Richards favours the standard scientific uniform of dressing like Lara Croft (Tomb Raider was big at the time) and is called Christmas Jones, for no better reason than to produce the film’s lascivious closing pun.

And it looked so promising too. The narrative has Bond protecting Elektra King (Marceau) against her former captor, Renard (Carlyle). But there’s a twist! Elektra and Renard are lovers. He’s going to help her oil pipeline to monopolise supplies by blowing up Istanbul, and while 007 – who of course is already courting her by this point – suspects a trap, his suspicions are ignored by M (Judi Dench) who was close friends with Elektra’s father and is blind to her treachery. Good, hard-boiled stuff, almost approaching Noir territory as Bond comes to realise he’s been duped along with everyone else, his face hardening with the revelation, Pierce Brosnan having to act his character’s feelings of betrayal. It helps that Marceau is good at conveying the reasons why everyone is suckered in by her act, and Carlyle does his best at playing a man who feels nothing and yet does it all for love.

The plotting is strictly by the numbers stuff, following expositional moments with action, giving Bond x-ray specs so that he can do the obvious with them, spoiling the last, genuinely poignant appearance of Desmond Llewelyn’s Q by replacing him with a buffoonish John Cleese, making a strangely weak villain of Robert Carlyle, giving us helicopters armed with giant chainsaws for the hell of it, and worst of all turning out to be a bit boring. At least Dench gets more to do as M, as though director Michael Apted scrabbled around for ideas and suddenly realised they had one of the most gifted actors of her generation to work with. Forgettable, and it shouldn’t have been.

19. Diamonds are Forever
Year: 1971
Star (his age): Sean Connery (41)
Lass (her age): Jill St John (31)
Evil Doer: Charles Gray
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $649m (10)
(Not) Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘Your problems are all behind you now’
Title Song Performer: Shirley Bassey (second appearance)
Glamorous Locale: Amsterdam, Nevada
Gadget: Fake fingerprint, voice algorithm recorder, water transport ball

As long as the collar and cuffs match

At one stage it was felt that Diamonds are Forever would be an immediate sequel to On her Majesty’s Secret Service. Bond, devastated over the slaying of Tracy and out for vengeance, would become a killing machine as he ruthlessly fought his way to the upper echelons of SPECTRE and ultimately Blofeld himself. George Lazenby was once again slated to star, before he resigned and the figures for his single episode were not as fulsome as was hoped. It wasn’t a financial failure, but neither was it a blockbuster hit in the region of previous entries and something had to change. Thoughts then turned to rehashing Goldfinger, a defining instalment in the series, with Gert Frobe sounded out about playing his character’s own brother. Bond himself was to be Americanised, John Gavin signing up for the part and in the end being paid off for doing no work when United Artists offered a king’s ransom to coax Sean Connery back for one more spin as 007. Connery’s return meant that the ambitious new directions being dreamed up for Bond could be shelved, the departure already witnessed in Lazenby’s film quietly pushed into the background.

The results are mixed. After a glimpse of what 007 could have been, Diamonds are Forever returns to the realm of Bond as superhero, breezing through the action, by happy chance stumbling on the villain’s diabolical schemes and much of it played for laughs. This is definitely one of the series’ bawdier entries. Tom Mankiewicz’s script conjures dialogue that borders on the obscene, while Blofeld is reimagined as a highly camp bad guy, Charles Gray at one point appearing in drag (impossible to believe the shadowy SPECTRE head from the earlier movies allowing this to happen). Despite the usual generous budget, there’s something oddly cheap looking about this one, and a definite tiredness and lack of dynamism creeps in, as though everyone’s given up and is simply going through the motions – thank you, here’s the product, now give us your money please.

All the same, there’s a fair amount to enjoy. Gray’s Blofeld aside, the main villains are henchmen Mr Kidd and Mr Wynt, played by Putter Smith and Bruce Glover as gay lovers who are also assassins. Allowing for the traditional worries over homosexuality doubling as evil-doing, they’re good value, treating their work lightly and coming up with imaginative ways to dispatch Bond, albeit unsuccessfully (the bit where they aim to do away with him by leaving him in a pipe beggars belief – just shoot him!). Even a Connery in his fifth decade, the midriff thickening and toupee more and more obvious, is still Connery playing James Bond (incidentally looking a lot like Cary Grant, the actor originally considered for the role), which translates into instant charisma and action man heroics. Director Guy Hamilton shoots a fistfight between 007 and Peter Franks (Joe Hamilton) in a cramped Amsterdam elevator, the claustrophobic confines and two 6′ 2″ men trading blows making for a thrilling and surprisingly brutal bout to the death. A shame they didn’t do Jill St John’s character any favours. She starts as an assiduous diamond smuggler and ends a hapless damsel waiting around to be rescued. Maybe that’s how Bond likes his women, but it doesn’t play well.

18. Moonraker
Year: 1979
Star (his age): Roger Moore (51)
Lass (her age): Lois Chiles (32)
Evil Doer: Michael Lonsdale
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $656m (9)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘Play it again, Sam’
Title Song Performer: Shirley Bassey (third appearance)
Glamorous Locale: Venice, Brazil, Argentina
Gadget: Wrist dart gun (standard issue!), 007 camera, ridiculously souped-up gondola, watch containing explosives

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season

Where to begin with Moonraker? Over the years it’s become the Bond film it’s okay to loathe, for many the moment the series truly lurched into self-parody, indulgence and outright silliness. Famously, the aim was to follow The Spy Who Loved Me with For Your Eyes Only, but then Star Wars happened and science fiction cinema became catnip for audiences, prompting Cubby Broccoli to order 007 in space. Belying its subsequent reactions, Moonraker was respectfully reviewed upon its release and did great business with viewers, but are there problems? Undoubtedly yes. The movie makes next to no attempt to be a credible spy thriller. Roger Moore’s Bond has become a figure of fantasy, reliant on a succession of improbable toys whilst also as indestructible is Richard Kiel’s Jaws, who inexplicably defies endless horrible deaths to remain in constant – and increasingly incompetent – pursuit, prior to (draws breath before typing) turning good when he finds love.

Strangely enough, the central storyline that pits Bond into the heavens (one that at no point appears in Fleming’s novel) makes the most narrative sense. It’s hokum, depicting technology that nearly forty years since its release still does not exist in reality, but the idea of Michael Lonsdale’s Drax killing all human life on Earth in order to restart the species from space is a fascinating and chillingly realised one. Try and forget that it’s a virtual retread of Stromberg’s megalomaniac scheme in The Spy Who Loved Me. Lonsdale plays a terrific villain, figuring more heavily in the plot than Jurgens’s arch-enemy, and issuing orders to kill with cold psychopathic finality. His dispatching of Corinne Dufour is the stuff of nightmares, as she’s hunted down and eaten by dogs. The madness of Drax’s vision is beautifully brought out by Ken Adam’s grandiose set designs, notably his control centre, all screens and black lines assembled in crazily angled towers.

An enormous budget was thrown at the film in order to make it as lavishly realised as possible. Ignore low-key. The action moves breathlessly from its French base to scenes set in Venice, Rio de Janeiro and the Igazu National Park, all eye-catchingly shot and coming before the space-based finale upon which Moonraker was sold. The stunt work is simply stunning. The film opens with a fight over control of a parachute by men in free fall, thrillingly filmed, a naked attempt to one-up the set-piece filmed at the start of The Spy Who Loved Me, and it’s a testament to the daring and craft of the crew and performers involved that it somehow all works and looks great. But here the problems start. The sequence is ultimately played for laughs; Jaws’s parachute fails and leaves him attempting to flap his arms while dropping to the earth. A chase scene that takes place along the canals of Venice spins on Bond’s gondola having a motor, and if that wasn’t daft enough it then converts into a hydrofoil so that he can mount the streets and escape his pursuers. Again this is supposed to be funny. As 007 laughs in the face of his character’s own clandestine status by floating across a packed St Mark’s Square, we see a pigeon do a double-take and Victor Tourjansky glance worriedly at his wine bottle.

These moments come with zany musical cues to advise viewers of their comic value. Later, Bond dons a poncho and goes on a horse ride while the theme from The Magnificent Seven plays, for no other reason than heavy-handed entertainment. In contrast, Bond’s fight to the death against Toshira Suga’s henchman comes across as surprisingly vicious and authentic, even if it causes the destruction of numerous priceless Venetian glass artefacts. The scene features some of Moore’s best acting, the look of hatred on his face as he trades blows appearing heartfelt and real. This is more than can be said for his relationship with Lois Chiles, the love interest developed as a reprisal of the winning ‘love among equals’ affair built with Anya Amasova in The Spy Who Loved Me. Chiles isn’t terrible and there’s always something to be said for the Bond girl being more than a simpering female, but their romance lacks the edge of Agent Triple X’s dilemma over whether to kill or kiss Bond and appears to happen purely because he can, and she can, and that’s enough. Also, it’s at this stage the age differential between Moore and his female co-stars begins to tell.

To an extent it’s fine innocent fun, and I don’t think Moonraker was intended to be viewed in any other spirit. But the shark was well and truly vaulted, and it’s easy to see the reasons for its high concept thrills being reined in for the series’ subsequent entry. The silliness is juxtaposed with some of finest work John Barry committed to his collaboration with 007, special effects for the space sequences painstakingly realised if primitive to modern screenings. The sight of Drax’s space station emerging in the face of the rising sun counts amongst the best money shots ever seen in Bond, the cast and music both suitably awestruck at the sheer ambition being displayed.

17. Tomorrow Never Dies
Year: 1997
Star (his age): Pierce Brosnan (44)
Lass (her age): Michelle Yeoh (35), Teri Hatcher (33)
Evil Doer: Jonathan Pryce
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $479m (18)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘They’ll print anything these days’
Title Song Performer: Sheryl Crow
Glamorous Locale: Hamburg, Bangkok
Gadget: Remote controlled BMW, cell phone that doubles as a remote control

Another Carver building. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he developed an edifice complex

With certain entries in the series my feelings about them adjust with every viewing. Such is Tomorrow Never Dies, a film I reviewed rather harshly on these pages a couple of years ago, but which I enjoyed this time around. Perhaps it’s within the context of watching Bond after Bond in order and knowing there are worse movies. I would never argue that it’s very good, that it is in fact anything more than an entertaining watch, one pockmarked with flaws and the problems inherent of the Brosnan era – complete invulnerability, ceaseless self-referencing, naked product placement – present and correct. There’s a nagging sense of it going through the motions, never really attempting anything new for fear of upsetting the all-important demographic, but ultimately it’s 007 and that signifies an intent to please.

The problem seems to be Brosnan himself. Not that there’s anything wrong with the actor, surely born for this role, but rather what he’s given to do. Despite being the main character the focus is rarely on him – we get lots of Michelle Yeoh’s martial arts heroine, Wai Lin, and much is made of Q’s latest gizmo, a BMW that can be driven by remote control. In contrast Brosnan recedes into the background, as much a part of the scenery as the delights of Thailand, there because it’s titularly about him, though the interest is never in him. At moments, Brosnan gets to act. Teri Hatcher plays a former flame who briefly reignites before being killed, and Bond is visibly upset over her death. It’s effective; for a few seconds, you see the consequence of the sort of life he leads, the feeling that he can’t form attachments because they are destined never to last. But then it’s over as another high concept action scene kicks in and dramatically the film returns to the ‘light as air’ weight that is its preferred modus operandi. It’s a great pity that we don’t see more of that side of 007, an aspect of his personality teased out to greater effect in the Dalton and Craig years.

tnd2

Despite that flaw, and it’s rather a fatal one really, Tomorrow Never Dies is two hours of explosive fun. Yeoh brings fantastic energy to her breakout role in cinema beyond China, almost balletic in her fighting skills and pitched as the equal to Bond. When working together the pair have some great scenes, notably the motorbike chase along the packed streets of Bangkok where they are handcuffed together and she has to keep changing positions while they’re hurtling down narrow paths. There’s a nice juxtaposition in the pair’s fighting styles, Bond becoming a blunt instrument against her graceful combat work. Against them, Jonathan Pryce’s media mogul villain is a considerable step down from the personal nemesis represented by Sean Bean in GoldenEye. While the idea of a Rupert Murdoch figure being the film’s bad guy is a fascinating one, Pryce generating international crises in order to get the scoop on them, he turns out to be a bit of a non-entity, present because the film needs a dastardly enemy and responding with a comic book performance. Gotz Otto as the inevitable henchman, Stamper, is similarly wasted. Both characters’ demises are strictly ‘by the numbers’ stuff. They happen because they have to, within the movie’s last ten minutes, and no better reason than that is ever offered.

tnd3

By all accounts, Tomorrow Never Dies had considerable problems in production and perhaps it’s for this reason that the end result has such an uneven and, in places, a ‘forced’ feel about it. That it isn’t terrible is something to be thankful for, but given the money spent on it, a cool $110 million, a grateful insistence on stunts being performed rather than digitally inserted in post-production, and a frankly superb Bond girl, it could and perhaps should have been a lot better.

16. Thunderball
Year: 1965
Star (his age): Sean Connery (35)
Lass (her age): Claudine Auger (24)
Evil Doer: Adolfo Celi
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $1,015m (2)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘I think he got the point’
Title Song Performer: Tom Jones
Glamorous Locale: Bahamas
Gadget: Underwater camera, Geiger counter disguised as a wristwatch, breathing apparatus

My dear girl, don’t flatter yourself. What I did this evening was for Queen and country. You don’t think it gave me any pleasure, do you?

Imagine a celluloid world before Marvel, before Star Wars, before all those franchises that dominate today’s cinema were conceived, and you have mid-1960s 007, at the absolute height of its success, where every new picture was an event in itself, when the actual movie was almost an afterthought within an ever spiralling cash cow of merchandising and publicity. The original idea was to make one film per year. You can picture a situation similar to that surrounding the Lord of the Rings films in the last decade, when each release picked up the momentum left by the previous entry. Watching the early Bonds now, fifty-plus years later and all that hype consigned to history, and we really only have the movies to consider; in reality they were part of the endless marketing machine surrounding Sean Connery’s gentleman spy.

Credit to the producers that they didn’t just churn out any old rubbish. Whatever you think of Thunderball, you have to agree the quality controls were set to high and the film retains an eagerness to produce spectacle, and not just that but actively seek new backdrops for the action. Production returned to the Caribbean, the agreeable setting for Dr No that made the film look as though it all took place in paradise, yet everything important happens beneath the waves. Considerable investment went into underwater filming, developing the lighting for a clear image, and the results work. Thunderball looks excellent. Terence Young from the first two films returned to direct this one so of course it’s beautifully done, but there was a commitment to technical finery also and it pays off.

Thunderball went on to slay the box office and remains the series’ second highest grosser of all time, but seen now and much of it is a snorer. It breaks the two hour barrier and feels longer, the biggest culprit being the aqua-action because it moves as slowly as scenes filmed underwater obviously would, but the film perseveres and it goes on and on. I was bored two-thirds of the way through, and I shouldn’t have been. This is 007, after all! Connery is showing his first signs of being long in the tooth, the tedium that would punctuate his later appearances as the lead. The ravishing Claudine Auger makes for a weak leading lady; better value comes from Luciana Paluzzi’s enemy assassin, who has the sex appeal to match her deadliness. In contrast watching Auger at 24 in an early English speaking role is like listening to Coldplay – pretty enough, but completely without substance. Worse still, Adolfo Celi’s nemesis, SPECTRE’s number two no less, is just plain dull. Bond goes on this mission at the head of a team. Rik Van Nutter appears as Felix Leiter and the always interesting Martine Beswick is peripheral as 007’s assistant, Paula. I would have liked to see more of them, to find how Bond operated as the boss of other agents. It doesn’t happen.

15. GoldenEye
Year: 1995
Star (his age): Pierce Brosnan (42)
Lass (her age): Izabella Scorupco (25)
Evil Doer: Sean Bean
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $530m (14)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘She always did enjoy a good squeeze’
Title Song Performer: Tina Turner
Glamorous Locale: Saint Petersburg, Puerto Rico
Gadget: Laser equipped wristwatch, explosive pen

What’s the matter, James? No glib remark? No pithy comeback?

After a six year hiatus, GoldenEye marked several changes in the series. Cubby Broccoli had handed production duties over to his daughter, Barbara, who in partnership with Michael G Wilson would produce every subsequent release to date. There was a new Bond, Pierce Brosnan, and in a sign of Hollywood bowing to equal rights his bosses no longer represented a boys club. Bernard Lee passed away after Moonraker, but M remained male until Judi Dench took over for this one and made the Lee tenure appear a cosy pushover by comparison. Even Moneypenny stopped longing for 007’s attentions and began pulling him up for his attitude. As for the action, in the 1990s post-Glasnost world much of GoldenEye was shot in Russia, with emphasis placed on the uneasily optimistic climate, iconography from the Communist past stored in a statues’ graveyard and Bond himself wrestling with the realities of being a Cold Warrior and a potential relic.

The Timothy Dalton era led to some of the lowest box office returns of the series and it was probably logical that GoldenEye would hark back to the fantastical spectacles of earlier. This is both good and bad. Brosnan seems an ideal fit for the lead role, famously almost taking it a decade earlier but looking instantly at ease ordering a vodka martini. The plot pits him against Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean), a onetime Double-Oh operative who emerges as a megalomaniac villain and represents an enemy with exactly the same skill set as Bond himself. Trevelyan is assisted by Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp, an outright psychopath who climaxes through violence and has the ability to literally kill using her thighs. Go with it… The film moves at a lightning quick pace, contains a number of blistering, sometimes logic-defying action set-pieces and Brosnan plays 007 as though he’s having the time of his life. It’s a lot of fun. There isn’t a lot about it to dislike, especially where established fans are concerned.

On the downside, GoldenEye marks the beginning of Bond done as pastiche, as a homage and send-up of its previous glories. In its writing, there’s a sense of elements being included by checklist, because they’ve always been there and the public want to see them. You can almost imagine the process – scene where Bond banters with Q: check… Villain’s base is an elaborate and costly hideaway: tick… Obligatory casino scene: done, etc. The tank chase through the streets of Saint Petersburg is thrilling and brilliantly mounted, but stop and think about it and it makes very little sense. It’s there for the sake of it, and that’s fine because it’s being done in the name of exciting film making and yet narratively it’s just bizarre. Similarly, this is one of those entries where absolutely everyone apart from 007 is a completely inept shot – you can only have so many scenes where he survives a hail of bullets before it loses any credibility. Eric Serra’s score, the only one he contributed to the series, is largely terrible. Viewers can’t be blamed for counting down to the hiring of David Arnold and music made to replicate the spirit of John Barry.

Still, it’s a highly entertaining couple of hours, and it comes dramatically to life whenever Brosnan and Bean share the screen, such moments when it seems too small for the pair of them.

14. Live and Let Die
Year: 1973
Star (his age): Roger Moore (45)
Lass (her age): Jane Seymour (22)
Evil Doer: Yaphet Kotto
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $825m (5)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘He always did have an inflated opinion of himself’
Title Song Performer: Paul McCartney and Wings
Glamorous Locale: Jamaica, Louisiana, New York
Gadget: Trinket-heavy wristwatch

Names is for tombstones, baby! Y’all take this honky out and waste him! Now!

There’s a dated quality about Live and Let Die that’s difficult to shake off. Made during the Blaxploitation craze, it’s stuffed with references and comments that are tough to watch now, and it’s at this point I wonder whether to ignore my twenty first century sensibilities and just enjoy the movie for what it is. As an introduction to the Roger Moore years, it shows just about everything that was good and bad about his time in the role – the ironically cocked eyebrow, the age difference between ‘Rog’ and his female co-star (he was twice the age of Jane Seymour), the distaste for killing, the way he had only to look at a lady for her clothes to fall off… You either love this stuff or hate it. In truth, Moore brought subtle differences to the character owned by Sean Connery – changing Bond’s dress sense, his favourite tipple, even the weapon he uses. I like his approach to violence, that unlike Connery he didn’t especially like resorting to it, though when pushed he could be deadly, and it’s at these brief moments that he shows the ‘other side’ of 007, the easy charm that slips away to reveal the killing machine lurking beneath.

The other gap in the picture is a John Barry shaped one. The usual composer was unavailable for this one, so in a film for Bond’s new era they instead called on Paul McCartney to write the theme tune, as it turns out an especially good rock song. In a cost saving measure (Macca was expensive) Beatles producer George Martin wrote the rest of the score, one that riffs ceaselessly on the title track.

Live and Let Die was a constant highlight on TV when I was young. I loved it, and though recent viewings have shown up its weaknesses I confess I was riveted when watching it again for this write-up. It might be miles away from the low key thrills of From Russia with Love, but it never slows down and refuses point-blank to be boring. Yaphet Kotto is a fantastic villain with an equally lurid cast of henchmen, including the memorable Julius Harris’s steel-armed Tee Hee. Seymour does an excellent job of conveying her character’s blend of sexuality and virginal purity, and she was just a knock-out. It’s a great looking film too. Bond’s appearance in Harlem, standing out garishly in his smart suit and not caring about it for a moment, is very funny, but once the action moves to the Caribbean and later the Bayou it’s all shot rather gorgeously. It’s so much fun that the fact barely any of it makes sense never really matters. Why represent Louisiana’s finest with a pot-bellied redneck, played expansively by Clifton James? How is it that the voodoo scene features Bond shooting a dude, only to find it’s a clay model that he’s fired upon? Why does Geoffrey Holder meet his end in a coffin filled with snakes, but then appears again at the film’s close? Who knows? And for that matter who cares, when the film moves at roller-coaster speed and piles thrill upon thrill in the name of sheer entertainment?

13. Quantum of Solace
Year: 2008
Star (his age): Daniel Craig (40)
Lass (her age): Olga Kurylenko (28), Gemma Arterton (22)
Evil Doer: Mathieu Almaric
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $622m (11)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘Got pulled into a meeting’
Title Song Performer: Jack White and Alicia Keys
Glamorous Locale: Austria, Italy, Chile
Gadget: Too tough for gadgets

It’d be a pretty cold bastard who didn’t want revenge for the death of someone he loved

I now have three confirmed viewings of Quantum of Solace and I think I get now. Daniel Craig’s second outing has always divided people, from viewers who think it stinks to those who believe it’s misunderstood. There are problems within it, sure, and I have an issue with any film that takes several goes before it works, but I am now in the latter camp.

Any Bond flick starring Craig is worth something because the actor brings so much to the part and is never dull. In Quantum of Solace, it’s possible to see the character he’s trying to essay, the tortured hero aiming to do a professional job while beneath the surface his boiling personal vendetta and rage against the world continues. This is best brought out in his scenes with M (Judi Dench). You can tell from her questions and the way she regards Bond that she knows exactly what’s going on with him, and he knows that she knows, but they have enough respect for each other to let the story play out. It’s great acting from the pair and no doubt led to the decision to give them significantly more time together in Skyfall. The film’s a direct sequel to Casino Royale, a first for the series in which the stories are normally self-contained, yet it’s faithful to Ian Fleming’s narrative in which actions most definitely had consequences for future instalments. That realisation leads to the fascinating premise that Craig’s spy is the same man who was so recently betrayed by Vesper Lind, and so goes on a spree of vengeance beginning with the capture of the mysterious Mr White (Jesper Christiansen). However, as teased in the previous film and made more explicit here, there’s the steady uncovering of some large and shadowy criminal organisation to deal with, one that had Casino Royale’s Le Chiffre terrified for his life and for which Mr White works also. Seasoned Bond viewers will know where this is leading to and may also be aware that the rights for making it explicit were not yet EON’s so for the time being we have this slow reveal, which makes the film one link within a longer chain. Thought of like that, and the actions of Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) make a lot more sense. Even Greene, whose scheme is to monopolise – and potentially withhold – Bolivia’s water supply, is only a middle man, a cog within a bigger picture.

The main problem with Quantum of Solace lies in its script, which fell victim to the writers strike. Craig and director Marc Forster were issuing rewrites during the shoot, and what we’re left with is certainly under-cooked and just about coherent. There’s a suggestion that the film is little more than a bare-bones plot stringing together the action scenes, and unfortunately it’s hard to deny that entirely, though in part that’s because Forster directs the set pieces so frenetically and with such an expert hand that the rest tends to pale. Forster goes for the flash cutting, snap editing style that came in for a lot of criticism at the time, complaints that it was too fast to follow what was going on. For my part, car chases taking place at such impossible speeds should be shot this way; because everything’s happening so quickly the sense of near-chaos ought to be present in the editing. And in truth the film’s at its best in other moments. The Tosca scene is gorgeous, the opera taking place on a surreal set designed on a grand scale, members of the Quantum organisation present in order to communicate as the audience’s focus is on the stage, while Bond watches from a vantage point and eventually intervenes. When he and Greene confront each other, the subsequent action scene, with its shower of bullets, is cut from the soundtrack and the music takes over, making the chase almost balletic. It’s really well done.

Forster wanted to make a tighter, less bloated Bond film, and Quantum of Solace is by some distance the series’ most expedient entry, well short of the usual running time that was routine by this stage. Perhaps it’s for this reason that everything feels a bit compressed, as though some of its key plot points fall victim to the desire to wrap it up. This might also do for Almaric, who stands as one of the franchise’s weaker villains and too easy to defeat, although thought of in the context as a ‘middle man’ (which isn’t made clear when watching the film, but becomes so with subsequent entries) he’s a more credible operator. Other traditions fall by the wayside. There are no gadgets for Bond to use, which is hardly a bad thing given how ubiquitous and ‘Deus Ex’ they could be at times. Romance is in short supply. Gemma Arterton’s Agent Fields is present to play an innocent consumed by the dangerous game in which Bond is involved, but her appearance is all too brief. More screen time is given to Olga Kurylenko, playing a Bolivian agent with her own reasons for investigating Quantum. It’s a fine, ballsy part, but the spark between her and Bond never really lights and it’s with the unrequited kiss he gives her at the close that you find neither of them are really interested in each other beyond getting the job done, while the shadow of Vesper continues to loom large.

If the film’s a failure, then it isn’t because it’s boring. Missing something, certainly, and not without its issues, but it’s hardly car crash cinema and watched within the context of a wider narrative there’s much to enjoy here. Not least is David Arnold’s score, a wonderfully epic piece of work. The title song, initially intended to be performed by Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse before legal issues denied that possibility (can you imagine a better ‘Bondian’ vocal than that of Miss Winehouse? What a pity), from a collaboration by Jack White and Alicia Keys, is rather less satisfying, something of a muddle of the two talents played over the decidedly strange animated mess of a credits sequence. Bring back Maurice Binder’s leaping ladies…

12. For Your Eyes Only
Year: 1981
Star (his age): Roger Moore (53)
Lass (her age): Carole Bouquet (23)
Evil Doer: *Spoiler – it’s a twist!*
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $487m (17)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘He had no head for heights’
Title Song Performer: Sheena Easton
Glamorous Locale: Greece
Gadget: Q’s Identograph, with its Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy graphics

You get your clothes on, and I’ll buy you an ice cream

For Your Eyes Only is a good but flawed film. Its origins lay in the decision over where to take 007 after the excesses of Moonraker. They could have gone for a further extravaganza and counted the cash, and it’s to EON’s credit that they understood there was nowhere beyond space and called for a stripped-back spy story, back to basics, back to the pages of Fleming, from which this one was culled. It was the first to be directed by John Glen, who would go on to helm Bond’s run throughout the 1980s. Roger Moore stayed on, no doubt relishing the chance to play a more mature title character that for once depended on his abilities as an actor.

Far from world dominating megalomaniacs, the story concerns Bond’s efforts to retrieve a lost nuclear decoder before it’s stolen by smugglers and sold to Soviet Russia. The pre-credits sequence begins with 007 laying flowers at the grave of Tracy Bond, the kind of sombre attempt at continuity that shows the film’s serious intentions. Later, the flash Lotus is destroyed so that the film’s key car chase involves Bond hurtling along hairpin Greek roads at the wheel of a Citroen 2CV, and there’s no reliance on gadgetry (beyond Q’s Identograph), just our hero’s abilities and smarts. His relationship with the vengeance obsessed Melina (Carole Bouquet) has a developing, organic quality, the sense they take the time to get to know each other and understand the mutual benefits of their partnership. The plot even has that most unusual of narrative devices in 007’s world – a twist! It’s at the point that Julian Glover and Topol’s characters aren’t what they appear to be you realise just what a treat this is; normally a villain is introduced and it’s clear from the beginning that’s what he is. Not the case here. Both actors are fantastic, indeed there’s a fine array of players on show, from Michael Gothard’s professional killer (and amongst his team a cameo for a young Charles Dance), through to Walter Gotell reprising his role as a humanistic Russian general and Cassandra Harris’s sexy, doomed Countess.

The action scenes are perfectly fine – the ski chase is blisteringly paced and well shot, and the scaling of a sheer rock face to reach the villains’ lair takes the time to illustrate the moment’s sense of sheer peril. In previous entries you can picture Bond using some improbable device to help him get to the top in seconds, but here you just have the man and his climbing abilities, the danger exacerbated by Moore’s palpable fear of heights. A water torture scene, lifted straight from the pages of the novel Live and Let Die, is so nicely put together that it seems a crime they didn’t use it for that movie. Elsewhere, Lynn-Holly Johnson’s ingenue skating champ is inserted into the plot mainly to emphasise 007’s newfound sense of maturity. A spirited teenager who latches onto him, Bond rejects her advances, offering to buy her an ice-cream when she turns up naked in his bed, only to discover she intends him to be nothing more than a conquest – good, subversive stuff for a series that had tended to show the ageing agent as irresistible.

However, it is flawed. Too many moments played for cheap laughs indicate a picture that is never fully confident in the story and mood it’s attempting to convey. An appearance by Janet Brown as Mrs Thatcher is cloying. The bit where Bond’s defeat of some menacing ice hockey players to the musical cues of the scoreboard feels strained and unnecessary. And the early defeat of a familiar, bald, cat-toting figure is cheap, the scene put together as a two-fingered salute to SPECTRE rights owner Kevin McClory. None of this is enough to ruin For Your Eyes Only, which is a bold and fine introduction to Bond’s eighties tenure, but it does show the unease with which this new direction was ushered in.

11. Spectre
Year: 2015
Star (his age): Daniel Craig (47)
Lass (her age): Monica Bellucci (51), Lea Seydoux (30)
Evil Doer: Christoph Waltz
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $881m (4)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘What do we do now?’
Title Song Performer: Sam Smith
Glamorous Locale: Mexico, Italy, Austria, Morocco
Gadget: Wristwatch containing built-in explosive

You’re a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr Bond

Spectre is the first of the rebooted Bonds to tell a classic 007 story, a high concept epic of megalomaniac villains, deadly henchmen, far fetched action scenes and beautiful women for our hero to jump along the way. After the more realistic, hard-edged approach of the previous Daniel Craig entries, there’s an argument for suggesting it’s all a bit of a climb-down, that those films are locked in the past and cinema has moved on, so why return to them? Throw in some much-publicised ennui from the star, a sense of the boredom that crept into and finally undid Sean Connery’s tenure, and the impression you’re left with is of a franchise reaching crisis point once again.

That’s one take, certainly. It isn’t mine, at least not entirely. While I don’t think it quite reaches the heights of Skyfall, let alone Casino Royale, I find Spectre to be a blast. There’s the bravura opening scene, smartly filmed as though one long take that tracks Bond wearing a skull mask from the streets of Mexico City, where the Festival of the Dead takes place, to the roof of his hotel and an assassination attempt. It’s wonderfully done, with its 1,500 extras, pulsating drum-heavy score, Craig and girlfriend moving smoothly through the action as though simultaneously part of it and following their own contrasting plotline. The sequence screams of excess; it’s filmed the way it is at the behest of director Sam Mendes, following a vogue for long take cinema and opening the movie with one just because he can, because it’s possible and finally because it’s so good for generating suspense. Most importantly, it sets the tone for everything that follows, an effort from all concerned to transform Spectre into the kind of thrill ride that underpinned some of the best in the series. It proves there is life still in this old dog.

Talking of whom, Craig continues to provide a muscular Bond, hard acting with a refusal to simply go through the motions. While the film insists on shoehorning references to the previous stories in, to make Spectre something of a culmination, even including Skyfall (Silva was in on it, apparently), 007 carries less of the emotional baggage that punctuated his earlier appearances. By now that makes some sense, not quite resetting the character in the mode of ‘classic Bond’ but realigning him as fresh and ready for dealing with the episode’s challenges. The tension with his paymasters remains intact. Ralph Fiennes’s newly installed M is irritated with his loose cannon tendencies, and for once it’s nice to see why he gives a hard time to this man who dispatches Enemy Number One time after time. There’s affection between the pair also. M trusts Bond implicitly when it comes to the pair having to deal with an enemy within, Andrew Scott’s oily C who is on a mission to replace the ’00’ programme with a global data sharing network. The mention of C getting such a top job as a consequence of judicious contacts within the government is a lovely reference to Conservative cronyism, a slap in the face to the likes of M and Bond who have got to where they are through merit and battle scars. This storyline also gives Q and Moneypenny things to do, far more than the cameo appearances they used to enjoy and developing a sense of teamwork between the characters.

The narrative contrives to pitch Bond on his own against the machinations of Blofeld, here played by current rentabaddie of choice, Christoph Waltz. Almost born for the role, Waltz has the just the right mixture of charisma, playful dialogue and the sense it’s all a grand game to make for an absorbing arch-villain. The briefly discussed plot point of Blofeld and Bond sharing some family history adds to the intrigue, though blink and you’ll miss it, and in reality there’s a feeling of simply winding Waltz up and letting him go off on his trademark schtick. His first appearance – heavily prominent in the film’s trailers – is the best, Blofeld cast as the shadowy, all-powerful head of a cabal of global villainy, capable of dealing out death and judgement with a whispered word to his aides. Once his relationship with Bond becomes more personal and the pair share time together, his inscrutable headship of SPECTRE begins to lose some of its impact, and considering the build-up he’s far too easily dealt with. For all that, the torture scene that depicts Blofeld literally boring into Bond’s head is a gruelling nightmare, less visceral than Casino Royale’s Le Chiffre’s old school methods perhaps, but in line with the character’s sophistication levels. You can imagine him spending hours on coming up with a device that will really hurt Bond, creating the machine that will do the job, and the glee with which he wields it is all too palpable.

Old problems that pockmarked the series are visible in Spectre. Dave Bautista plays Blofeld’s wrecking ball henchman; he has a fight scene with Bond that destroys half a train, losing some of From Russia with Love‘s claustrophobia by simply having the characters crash through furniture that should confine them, and after such an experience our hero emerges without a scratch. Really? All right, so Roger Moore was never shown to be battered and bruised as a consequence of his adventures, but surely we’re past that by now… Lea Seydoux as the heroine is a return to the ‘damsel in distress’ Bond girl, existing to be captured and then saved. This is buried beneath character development, which at least gives Seydoux some emotional range, but it’s there and the key bargain between Bond and her that compels the former to spare Blofeld’s life never really suggests this will be anything more than her one appearance in the series. A nice try at creating a love interest to at last replace Vesper and let 007 move on, yet lacking much of the dramatic weight you’d expect from the Craig era.

The feeling that the producers have given up on all the careful restart of the series to give us a more human and credible hero for the sake of telling an old-fashioned Bond story is difficult to avoid. It undermines Spectre, even though we’re a long way from the grotesque excesses of Die Another Day and it’s all played with more respect for its audience, and itself for that matter. Flawed, yes, but worth it? Spectre gets away with it in the end. It’s very well made and crucially is its own thing rather than following trends set by other movies, something that too often blighted the series in the past. The worry is that the retooled franchise is already running out of steam, and that’s a problem.

10. The Spy Who Loved Me
Year: 1977
Star (his age): Roger Moore (49)
Lass (her age): Barbara Bach (29)
Evil Doer: Curd Jurgens
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $693m (7)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘All those feathers and he still can’t fly’
Title Song Performer: Carly Simon
Glamorous Locale: Egypt, Sardinia
Gadget: Lotus Esprit possessing submarine facilities and underwater weaponry, wristwatch with ticker tape, ‘Wet Nellie’ (water motorcycle that can be assembled, presumably in the same family as Little Nellie – see You Only Live Twice)

In our business, Anya, people get killed. We both know that. So did he. It was either him or me. The answer to the question is yes. I did kill him

The mid-1970s found 007 in crisis. The Man with the Golden Gun had been a (relative) box office failure. Harry Saltzman’s financial problems led to a dissolvement of the Broccoli-Saltzman production partnership that had fuelled the series to this point. Kevin McClory remained a spectral (do you see?) presence on the periphery, forever threatening legal action over what he considered to be his intellectual property. The Spy Who Loved Me was the riposte, a big budget, no-holds barred extravaganza that would hark back to what was already perceived to be a golden age. After going initially with Guy Hamilton and then considering a young Steven Spielberg, they eventually chose Lewis Gilbert to direct, a decision that perhaps makes this one the closest to You Only Live Twice, his previous instalment at the helm, though in truth the film feels like a Greatest Hits of the 1960s entries with elements from Dr No, Goldfinger and Thunderball all discernible.

The movie’s wild card is the insertion of Anya Asamova aka Agent Triple X, a Russian spy played by Barbara Bach. It’s as much Asamova’s story as it is Bond’s, the pair teaming up in the spirit of Detente to foil Curd Jurgen’s megalomaniac, but with the added edge that she becomes aware he previously killed her lover in the line of duty, meaning once the mission is over she has vowed to do for him. For the most part she is entirely Bond’s equal, getting the better of him several times and certainly taking advantage of his way with the ladies, which is shown up to be as much about perception as reality. The team works, especially as they have to take on Jaws (Richard Kiel), the towering henchman whose best scene is when he battles the pair in a railway carriage, the cramped surroundings playing to his size advantage. Jaws is a lot of fun and rightly the focus is on his constant tussles with the agents, which places Jurgens’s Stromberg in the background. Blofeld in all but name (legal issues again), Stromberg’s scheme is to destroy the world and reset the human race beneath the sea. A wacky, high concept villainous scheme that involves the capture of nuclear submarines and triggering their missiles at the usual major cities, and all the better because there’s no ransom involved and therefore no reasoning with the man.

A silly story no doubt, but it’s breathlessly told in the finest tradition. The shoot takes advantage of the naturally beautiful locations of Egypt and Sardinia to produce some breathtaking imagery, the former knowingly riffing on Lawrence of Arabia, so transparently in fact that I had to check whether Freddie Young had been recruited to reprise some of his award winning cinematography from that film. Christopher Wood’s script realigned Bond to be less like Connery, and more the smooth English gentleman spy that would define Roger Moore’s approach. Criticisms of Bach’s acting abilities seem a little churlish. She’s fine, composed and regal, and almost impossibly gorgeous; the issue is more that by the film’s close the character reverts to ‘damsel in distress’ status, which short-changes the highly capable agent she has been carefully developed into up to this point. Ken Adam’s cavernous submarine hangar is another design classic, and the crew pulled a great trick in building a 65-foot scale model of Stromberg’s tanker, all so they could reproduce the sea wake that would add to the prop’s authenticity. The first use of IT in 007 finds Bond sitting down at a computer console and referring to the instruction manual in intercepting the rogue submarines; this could only have been made better had he first retrieved his ‘readers’.

The Spy Who Loved Me isn’t without its problems, notably Marvin Hamlisch’s disco-influenced score that automatically dates the film. Bond’s Lotus Esprit, a prototype vehicle that converts into a miniature submarine, is perhaps a step too far into the realm of fantasy. The car helps him to evade a pursuing helicopter piloted by Caroline Munro, but the moment it emerges from the sea onto a crowded beach makes you wonder where he was when the ‘secret’ part of secret agent training took place, especially as he casually opens his window to toss a fish out. Pass the wine bottle, Victor. Then again, considering this film as anything other than broad entertainment is folly. The tone is set as early as the opening scene, where Bond skis off the side of Mount Asgard on Baffin Island, free falls for what seems like ages and then unfurls a Union Jack parachute at the last moment. This stunt was filmed for real, a winning act of daring and craft that would doubtlessly be done using CGI now. Little wonder that it earned applause in theatres, and helped the film to become a favourite with the public.

9. Licence to Kill
Year: 1989
Star (his age): Timothy Dalton (43)
Lass (her age): Cary Lowell (28), Talisa Soto (22)
Evil Doer: Robert Davi
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $285m (24)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘Looks like he came to a dead end’
Title Song Performer: Gladys Knight
Glamorous Locale: Florida, Mexico
Gadget: Signature gun

Watch the birdy, you bastard

In terms of money, Licence to Kill is the least successful of all the Bonds, a white elephant that very nearly killed the series off altogether. It was the first to earn a ‘PG-13/15’ certificate, the comic book violence of previous entries giving way to some real gore in places, the influence of Die Hard creeping in to what could be shown. It turned out, EON found, that what audiences wanted was the likeable fantasy of the Roger Moore years, not the harder-edged killer represented by Timothy Dalton’s tenure, and as a consequence it did for the lead actor, took Bond off the screen for six years and reverted back to type when it eventually returned. Years later and able to enjoy the film on its own merits, there’s a reason why many viewers see it as in fact one of the best.

After a conventional opening, Licence to Kill sails into uncharted territory when Bond is compelled to ‘go rogue’, refusing to serve when he isn’t allowed to pursue his personal vendetta against Robert Davi’s drugs baron, Frank Sanchez. The possibilities of where this takes the agent are compelling. Suddenly, this highly capable and dangerous man is off the leash, free to pursue the villain in his own way, and Licence to Kill is at its most interesting when 007 infiltrates his way into Sanchez’s operation, effectively retelling Yojimbo with Bond implying treachery where it doesn’t necessarily exist. Dalton takes the character into new territory, visibly angry over the assault on his friend, giving a real sense of consequence to Bond, while emerging battered and bruised from confrontations in a way that didn’t happen to the other fellows. A scene of him in bed, his upper body criss-crossed with scars and bullet wounds, shows the effects of a life spent in deadly game playing, all those experiences shaping Bond into the living weapon he has been honed and sharpened into.

The film is a refreshing change from type, the endless recycling of the same basic plot that Bond had followed over the years. Dalton makes for a credible hero and isn’t especially likeable, while Sanchez’s motivation – to make as much money as possible from drugs – feels contemporary and believable. No attempts at world domination; it’s all about the green, and it roots Sanchez as a wholly 1980s villain. Some of the stunt work is breathtaking. It culminates with an extended set piece involving a fleet of tankers driving along dangerous Mexican roads (so dangerous, in fact, that the roads had been closed to the public by this point) and it’s incredible, high octane stuff that is up there with some of the series’ best work, particularly because – unlike, for instance, some of the more fantastical skiing sequences – it all looks so real.

Licence to Kill includes a most welcome extended supporting part for Desmond Llewellyn’s Q. The female co-stars are uneven. Cary Lowell’s gutsy CIA operative who allies with Bond is good fun, but Talisa Soto as Sanchez’s moll suffers from some ‘all over the place’ plotting and is frankly not well performed. Davi is great and effortlessly charismatic as Sanchez however; it probably isn’t an accident that he emerges as a more enjoyable character than Bond. There’s also an early appearance for Benicio Del Toro as one of his henchmen. Overall a fine entry, wholly undeserving of its ‘black sheep’ status within the Bond family, and the possibility of what might have happened to the franchise had it been a success was sadly never realised.

8. You Only Live Twice
Year: 1967
Star (his age): Sean Connery (36)
Lass (her age): Akiko Wakabayashi (25)
Evil Doer: Donald Pleasence
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $757m (6)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘Just a drop in the ocean’
Title Song Performer: Nancy Sinatra
Glamorous Locale: Japan
Gadget: Little Nellie, the flat-pack helicopter

Darling, I give you very best duck

Bond films walk a tightrope between serious-minded spy thrillers (From Russia with Love, The Living Daylights) and light-hearted fantasy romps (the majority of the Moore and Brosnan eras). My feeling is that either is fine as long as that’s what it purports to be – the only problem is when a film made for fun starts taking itself seriously, a problem that turned Thunderball into a plodder. You Only Live Twice is every step a daft fantasy – it aims to do nothing more than entertain, to punch the viewer in the arm and laugh over what a great lark all this nonsense is. Once it transpires the villains have constructed their secret base from a hollowed out, extinct volcano, not only doing this in total secrecy but also sending their own satellites, undetected by anybody, into space for the purposes of ‘eating’ American and Russian spacecraft, then you realise Bond has finally jumped a shark the size of Megadon and kissed goodbye to any semblance of credibility. If you are prepared to accept that from your 007 then the film works wonderfully. For me, it’s a wholehearted guilty pleasure, the sort of picture that offers a complete escape from reality. Sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Not that it’s a perfect film. You Only Live Twice underwent a difficult production process, in particular Sean Connery’s declaration that this would be his last outing as Bond. In hindsight a rash thing to come out with, but it sent the franchise into a tailspin, suggesting at one stage that without its star there could be no more 007. The lethargy that Connery started showing in Thunderball develops into full-on boredom here and, in fairness, there’s just about enough spectacle in virtually every cell that it nullifies seeing the main man sleepwalking through his performance. Little of Fleming’s novel remains, and for that matter you only know the screenplay was by Roald Dahl because it’s credited to him. There are various continuity problems and other bits that make no sense, even within this film’s loose grasp on logic e.g. the car being picked up by a helicopter wielding an enormous magnet is a fun, throwaway scene, dreamed up during production, but Bond watches the action on a little screen, despite no one being present to actually film it for him. An aerial cameraman lost his foot during a grisly accident while shooting the chopper fight, and then Japanese authorities refused to let the crew fire rockets over its volcanic terrain, meaning these scenes were moved to Spain. There are mixed reactions to Donald Pleasance’s appearance as Blofeld (a late casting change, scenes featuring the original actor already in the can, which led to costly re-shoots), the first time we see SPECTRE’s chief – personally, I think he’s a weak villain. And at the end of it all, this is the Bond that remains most open to parody, the Austin Powers movies and Team America sharing out bits of the picture to poke fun at.

For all that, there’s really very little to dislike. The piss-takers have a certain redundancy because You Only Live Twice is pretty much a parody of itself to begin with. There’s a point with the volcanic base when you just need to go with it; if nothing else then admire the human effort that went into designing and constructing the enormous set, which of course was physically put together, has actual helicopters taking off from inside it, and those are real stuntmen abseiling down from its ceiling. Ken Adam’s creation cost more than the entire production of Dr No and at the time there was nothing quite like it. I defy anyone to despise Little Nellie, the pint sized chopper Bond pilots to scout locations for SPECTRE’s lair, the fact it comes flat-packed in suitcases and carries the kind of weaponry that can see off a squad of pursuers. The apparently unreconstructed attitudes in Japan – where, we’re told ‘men come first’, women come second‘ – are so bizarre as to add to the sense of unreality, let alone the frequent bastardisations of the Japanese language and the frankly surreal scene where Bond is made to look like a local, which he doesn’t and the point of all this never emerges. You might as well criticise Dr Seuss for his books’ lack of reality – there isn’t any and the film tells us it doesn’t matter.

And besides, it’s stands as one of the most beautifully shot and scored movies in the series. Freddie Young, the Oscar winning cinematographer lent his talents to turning Japan into a place of almost alien gorgeousness – all sunset vistas, Tokyo lit by neon, and countryside that looks like the surface of the moon but with vegetation. John Barry submitted another ravishing musical accompaniment, tinged with Oriental influences, while the title song, featuring the vocal talents of Nancy Sinatra, remains one of my favourites. Lewis Gilbert, in the first of his directorial assignments, made some really interesting choices, notably the rooftop fight scene, filmed from a distance to remove the moment’s visceral qualities (fights in Bond films were always shot in close-up) and therefore any feeling that real damage was being done.

7. The Living Daylights
Year: 1987
Star (his age): Timothy Dalton (41)
Lass (her age): Maryam d’Abo (26)
Evil Doer: Jeroen Krabbe, Joe Don Baker
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $381m (22)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘He met his Waterloo’
Title Song Performer: A-Ha
Glamorous Locale: Vienna, Morocco
Gadget: Keyring with many special features, Aston Martin with ‘a few optional extras installed’

Tell M what you want. If he fires me, I’ll thank him for it.

You wonder whether Timothy Dalton views Daniel Craig’s success in the role of James Bond with disdain, after all the agent in his current guise is close to the character he essayed back in the late 1980s. Too soon? The world didn’t seem ready for a take on 007 that aligned him with the source material and added a harder edge that had become entirely absent during the Roger Moore years. Critics honed in on the lack of humour, the grumpiness, the expunging of the fun factor. Dalton himself added to the problem by refusing to play along with the bandwagon, demanding the sort of privacy that was routinely denied the man who would be Bond.

A pity. The Living Daylights is a terrific movie, a vital injection of energy and a serious minded central character who breathed life into this tired franchise. Dalton came with a stronger acting pedigree than any of his forebears in the role and it shows. Tiny glimpses, the look of shame when he pulls his gun on a terrified child, the rush of irritation when Kara (Maryam d’Abo) wants to return to her flat for the cello, the set jaw when he resolves to go after the assassin in the film’s prologue, offer ample evidence of an actor not merely reading his lines in a manly way but constantly questioning Bond’s motivation. He’s the heart of the picture and he’s riveting to watch.

The Living Daylights is the last opportunity the series had to cover the world of the Cold War, and it’s probably the best section of the movie. This is the other side of the Iron Curtain, the one from a hundred spy thrillers, all muted colours and suspicious eyes, and strangely enough it’s the one in which Bond seems most at ease, light-hearted in his dealings with the nervous Saunders (Thomas Wheatley) and confident in his defection plan. It shows 007 as a consummate Cold Warrior, rather less sure of himself back in Britain where the perceived lack of danger leaves him restless.

The villains aren’t great, though Andreas Wisniewski as the strongman, at one stage wielding grenades disguised as milk bottles, is good value. D’Abo as the Bond girl gets some decent characterisation and has fine chemistry with Dalton that is allowed to build organically. Best of all perhaps is the score, John Barry’s last for the series and a really enjoyable piece of work. I think that sums up the film, like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service an underrated entry that deserves a kinder retrospective.

6. Goldfinger
Year: 1964
Star (his age): Sean Connery (34)
Lass (her age): Honor Blackman (39)
Evil Doer: Gert Frobe
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $912m (3)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘He blew a fuse’
Title Song Performer: Shirley Bassey
Glamorous Locale: Swiss Alps
Gadget: Aston Martin DB5

You’re a woman of many parts, Pussy

After two movies that established James Bond and introduced his world, Goldfinger defined the series’ direction by ditching the more serious, earthy aspects and focusing on high concept thrills. With a box office return that intimated overwhelmingly this is exactly what people wanted, the die was cast, 007 reimagined as a virtually indomitable superhero, showing few of the vulnerabilities his character underwent previously in favour of swapping playful barbs with the villain. There’s something innately pleasing about the fantasy. Bond drives along hairpin Alpine roads in a beautiful car rigged with special ‘modifications’ courtesy of Q Branch, living a life that no viewer could ever come close to experiencing, one that pays lip service to real world problems because there’s some improbable megalomaniac to deal with and gorgeous women to seduce. It’s impossible to dislike, and Goldfinger does this better than subsequent entries because Sean Connery was in his prime, still interested in his work, effortlessly charismatic, looking as though he’s having as much fun as the people watching him on the screen. Gert Frobe makes for a fine bad guy, ruled by a love of gold to the extent his first name is a play on the Latin word for the precious metal, while Olympic wrestler Harold Sakata is the last word in memorable henchmen thanks to a steel rimed bowler hat, brute strength and virtually mute performance.

The movie has shortcomings that only become really apparent after several viewings because it’s film making as a thrill ride – you’re having too much fun to care that (i) Goldfinger lavishes millions on a playroom that converts into schematics of his plan to destroy Fort Knox, and then he wastes the men for whom he designed the room in the first place (ii) he keeps Bond alive and under capture for reasons that never truly matter, naturally allowing the one man who can foil his schemes to stick around (iii) Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore, the first in a long line of euphemistically named females, is a (strongly implied) lesbian and a villain, who is made good after Bond beds her and presumably shows her what she’s been missing in her life i.e. a good man. The latter point aside, a worrying note of intolerance that would endure in the series, these elements are all part of the roller coaster experience this film happens to be. It clearly had a lot of money spent on it (ignoring the back projected Miami scenes that show up all the more obviously when watched in HD) and it’s wonderfully shot, particularly in the film’s Alpine scenes. Barry’s score is amongst his most iconic, the arrangement for the title track lingering long after Goldfinger’s closing credits have rolled. The sets are beginning to show their large scale glory that Ken Adams would become renowned for. Most notable is the interior of Fort Knox, an imagined chamber of hoarded gold and steel floors. It’s here the thrilling denouement takes place, Bond shackled to a ticking (ticking!) atomic bomb and having to deal with Sakata’s lumbering death machine. If what happens appears hackneyed, then it’s worth remembering Goldfinger did this first and it’s been copied many times, not least by the people who produced it and returned again and again to the winning formula.

5. Skyfall
Year: 2012
Star (his age): Daniel Craig (44)
Lass (her age): Judi Dench (77), Naomie Harris (36), Berenice Marlohe (33)
Evil Doer: Javier Bardem
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $1,109m (1)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘Last rat standing’
Title Song Performer: Adele
Glamorous Locale: Turkey, London, Scotland
Gadget: Radio tracker

I always did hate this house

To celebrate 40 years of Bond movies they gave us Die Another Day. Thanks for that. For the 50th anniversary we got Skyfall, a vastly improved product from a studio with much to prove after the loss of momentum that came with Quantum of Solace. A lot of money was spent on it. An Oscar winning British director, Sam Mendes, was recruited, and with him came top cinematographer, Roger Deakins. The multi-nominated Thomas Newman became the ninth composer hired for the score. Adele, possibly the biggest name they could recruit, performed the title track. Marquee names like Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney and Naomie Harris were added to an already strong cast list of regulars. Little was left to chance, and audiences responded by transforming it into the series’ biggest financial success, while the critical reaction was broadly very positive.

A triumph then, and it isn’t hard to see why when Skyfall pulls off the tricky balancing act of blending Daniel Craig’s battle scarred, enigmatic hero with a plot more rooted in traditional Bondage. Q’s back, played by Ben Whishaw as a wet behind the ears IT expert. Moneypenny also makes a return, albeit via an unusual route. In a story that stands alone rather than playing as part of a wider arc, Bond’s mission puts him into contact with Javier Bardem’s rogue MI6 agent, another instance of 007 fighting someone who’s virtually his equal, albeit with the extravagant flourish of classic franchise villains. Best of all, everyone finally realises that having Judi Dench on contract means that an expanded role for M is a good idea, and the Dame more or less becomes the film’s Bond girl as the story harries both she and Craig to an explosive climax at the agent’s ancestral home in the Scottish Highlands.

With Deakins on board, Skyfall is possibly the best looking Bond picture since You Only Live Twice, a gloriously shot extravaganza whether photographing the rooftops of Istanbul, rain-soaked London or a misty, rural Scotland locked in some endless yesteryear. Under Mendes’s guidance, the action scenes are edited less frantically than in Quantum of Solace, and there are relatively few of them, the film having enough confidence to spend time settling in with its characters and expanding their personalities. This suits Craig’s Bond, who is shot and lost for dead in the exciting prologue and lies low for a time, losing weight and taking on a pinched, wolfish look, haunted by just about every demon imaginable. When he returns to the fold, it’s clear that he’s older, not necessarily wiser, physically unfit for duty and only recommissioned by M out of a deep-rooted sense of trust. It sets him up for a great clash with Bardem’s Silva, harbouring similar feelings of resentment to his former masters and hoping to find in 007 a kindred spirit. Bardem’s entrance is one of the best in just about any film, shot in a single long take as he monologues to Bond, moving steadily and gracefully into the frame’s foreground. Then he seems to try it on, though his orientation is never made clear and more likely is his inclination to provoke, to see where his advances take him. It all serves to add nuance and depth.

Skyfall is far from the perfect Bond experience. Silva has too many opportunities to take M out for her longevity to have anything besides plotting convenience going for it. The finale at ‘Skyfall’ makes little sense, again ending up there because the story wants it to rather than via narrative logic, though there’s much to enjoy in the action that takes place there. The contrivances stand out a little more here than in other entries, perhaps because so much of Skyfall screams of its own quality and so the weaknesses are starker. The question is whether the film has built enough goodwill with its viewers to let these things go, and the answer should be a resounding yes. It’s a cracking episode, if a long one, and if it falls short of the series’ absolute heights then it still wins in so many areas. I love Newman’s music, Adele’s song, Deakin’s photography, the performances, the sense of celebration surrounding the film that is present but never writ large, allowing audiences to enjoy Skyfall on its own merits.

4. Dr No
Year: 1962
Star (his age): Sean Connery (32)
Lass (her age): Ursula Andress (26)
Evil Doer: Joseph Wiseman
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $441m (20)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘I think they were on their way to a funeral’
Title Song Performer: Monty Norman, performing Under the Mango Tree
Glamorous Locale: Jamaica
Gadget: His wits, dear boy!

That’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six

Watching Dr No now is fascinating. All the series elements aren’t yet in place (the title song doesn’t play over the opening credits, there’s no Q, therefore no gadgetry) and the plot sometimes runs parallel to Fleming’s novel whereas most veer off spectacularly, retaining little more than the title. The penchant for investing heavily in moving the production to glamorous places is present and correct however – you can imagine contemporary audiences falling for the delights of Jamaica easily enough. And at the centre of it all is Sean Connery, in his first starring role and quickly establishing himself as a living, breathing gentleman spy. Handsome, groomed, spry, pithy – picture this film with Cary Grant in the leading role (he was considered) and you get a Cary Grant movie. Instead, Connery is Bond, carrying no preconceptions of what you expect from a Connery picture. It’s a great job of work from the Scot, at ease in the part and enjoying a love affair with the camera that makes scenes as superfluous as 007 checking his hotel room for bugs attractive and watchable.

The film’s lack of gadgets and souped up cars turns into one of its biggest strengths. Without his ‘Deus Ex Machina’ props, Bond has to rely on his wits and talents. Not only does this lend credibility to the character, it also leads to moments when he has to be vulnerable and out of his depth. The invulnerable superhero he would become in later entries isn’t yet here and that’s a positive. Despite this, we’re clearly watching a fun fantasy flick without serious nods to the world of spycraft. Henchmen who appear periodically to offer moments of action and die just as quickly are here. Joseph Wiseman’s megalomaniac villain, complete with a lavishly appointed and staffed lair, turns up for the climax. The beautiful Bond girl (Ursula Andress, her Swiss vocals dubbed by Nikki Van der Zyl) is an impossibly gorgeous creature, emerging from the waves wearing a white bikini in the film’s iconic shot. It’s a heady mix of stylised violence, photographed in places of real beauty that would be inaccessible to the average viewer, all costing a hefty amount to bring to the screen and looking it too. Dr No found instant favour with audiences and guaranteed further episodes. As the kick-off for a franchise that would run and run, it’s a fine entry and in Connery introduced a star who would endure as its finest exponent.

3. Casino Royale
Year: 2006
Star (his age): Daniel Craig (38)
Lass (her age): Eva Green (26)
Evil Doer: Mads Mikkelsen
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $670m (8)
(Almost) Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘That last hand nearly killed me’
Title Song Performer: Chris Cornell
Glamorous Locale: Bahamas, Italy, Czech Republic
Gadget: Aston Martin containing a field medical kit

I’ve got a little itch, down there. Would you mind?

Looking back it’s probably difficult to imagine the risk they were taking with Casino Royale. A new actor as Bond, one who had already been dismissed by many disgruntled and web savvy critics. The series rebooted, taking the character back to his roots, to the early days of his Double-Oh status. A return to the source novels with a fairly straight retelling of Ian Fleming’s first Bond yarn. And most critically, a conscious decision to reprise the mood and tone of the Timothy Dalton movies, recasting the hero as a dangerous weapon, shorn of the winning charm some of his previous guises had exhibited, memories of films that were the series’ least profitable no doubt writ large in the producers’ minds.

Of course, the celluloid world in the mid-2000s was a very different place from the eighties. Matt Damon’s adventures as Jason Bourne were both critically acclaimed and adored by audiences, suggesting it was possible for the protagonist to be an inscrutable killing machine and people would still love him. Bourne’s shadow looms over Casino Royale. Daniel Craig’s take on Bond reveals little of his past, peels away his emotional layers deliberately and leaves us with a man of action, a deadly and blunt instrument, the last person with whom you’d want to pick a fight. In the role, Craig is toughness personified. The accent, posture, fine tailoring, appreciation for a good vintage – they’re all present, but the Bond he essays gives the impression of being schooled in these elements and in fact the actor he most resembles is Robert Shaw’s Red Grant in From Russia with Love, low-born and dirty, handy in a scrap, happy to get his hands dirty. That he makes Bond an empathetic character is little short of a miracle. I think it’s because Craig performs the character well and is given the time and space to do so. Alongside Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd, he shows tenderness and caring. There isn’t the necessity to jump her bones within two minutes of meeting her; Moore would have had her in the sack with one raised eyebrow, but here the relationship develops organically and when ‘love’ blossoms between them it’s as a consequence of their shared experiences.

Director Martin Campbell deserves a lot of credit for eking suspense from a card game. What could have been tedious turns out to make for some of the film’s most tense scenes, all those meaningful glances between Bond and Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre, Vesper staring disapprovingly on. The action, of which there is surprisingly little, is electrically filmed, in particular the free running chase that juxtaposes the pursuant’s graceful parkour with 007’s bull in a china shop. Mikkelsen is a fine villain, a less ambitious character than the standard megalomaniac and all the better because he’s given some motivation, a desperation to win the card game as his life is on the line. Once Bond triumphs, he resorts to violent measures and the visceral ‘chair scene’, strong stuff for a 12/PG-13 release and surprisingly for the series one that has visible consequences as our hero needs time to convalesce. Perhaps best of all, at this point there’d traditionally be a fade, 007 having won and got the girl, only it keeps going and you know that it can’t be for reasons that will end happily. Getting to that stage is gut wrenching, Bond apparently finding peace only for a final, tragic twist to unfold. The film’s aim is to establish why he becomes the man he is, and it succeeds.

Casino Royale is a muscular and confident entry, successfully resetting the series, giving us a hero for modern times and closing the curtain on the increasing anachronism he had been turning into before that point. Is there really anyone who still thinks Daniel Craig is not Bond?

2. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Year: 1969
Star (his age): George Lazenby (30)
Lass (her age): Diana Rigg (31)
Evil Doer: Telly Savalas
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $506m (15)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘He had a lot of guts’
Title Song Performer: None (Louis Armstrong performing We Have All The Time In The World takes place during the film, not over the titles)
Glamorous Locale: Switzerland
Gadget: Just what’s underneath the kilt

It’s all right. It’s quite all right, really. She’s having a rest. We’ll be going on soon. There’s no hurry, you see. We have all the time in the world

For two thirds of its running time, On her Majesty’s Secret Service is that strangest of things within the Bond series – a low-key spy thriller. With Sean Connery’s departure, the producers made a conscious decision to return to the spirit of Ian Fleming’s secret agent – out went the gadgets, the high concept action, the thrills and spills. In came a 007 who carefully infiltrates the villain’s lair using an assumed identity, pieces together his opponent’s plan via clues and the things he discovers, even gives us glimpses into his private life, in which he meets a girl and – gasp! – falls in love with her. It’s a different Bond for a franchise that must have felt it was pushing the limits of what the character could do before leaving any semblance of reality in its wake. Audiences responded positively on the whole. The film turned a healthy profit, though the returns weren’t as staggering as they had been and that pretty much did for its reputation. For years, On her Majesty’s Secret Service became the curio of the series, an oddity that almost neatly bisected the Connery and Moore years.

For sure, there’s a Connery-sized hole in there. George Lazenby, the Australian model who through a combination of bluff and looks won a single bite at the cherry, is still seen by many as a weak Bond – not tough enough, can’t act especially well, a vacuum where the charisma normally goes. Once it became clear he was only going to star in one film Lazenby became a vilified figure – stories of his inflated ego on the set abounded, tales in which the ‘discovery’ pissed everyone off. In reality, he plays a different character to what came before. Connery’s Bond could never feature in the film because it wasn’t made for him. It called for a more sensitive portrayal, more human, less certain of himself at every turn. There’s a bit in the film where Bond just sits down, defeated, his enemies closing in and he’s run out of ways to foil them. That wouldn’t happen to ‘the other fellow’ and it adds layers of humanity to the character that suddenly make him seem more empathetic, more the reaction you or I would have under similar circumstances.

As such, it helps to make this one of the best entries in the series, and even if you aren’t convinced by Lazenby there’s so much else to enjoy. The film has a sizzling Alpine setting, the Piz Gloria Revolving Restaurant at the summit of the Schilthorn doubling as Blofeld’s headquarters making for the most dramatic of locations. It leads to some thrilling ski-based action sequences, wonderfully shot by professional skier Willy Bogner. Telly Savalas excels as a more dynamic and charming arch-villain, while Diana Rigg plays the love interest to fine effect, a neurotic death-lover who’s saved by Bond just as she gives him roots. John Barry produces some of his best work for this one, a score so finely tuned that its title track plays over the credits without a singing accompaniment, though his love song ‘We have all the time in the world’ appears during the film, performed with emotional resonance by Louis Armstrong. The revisionists have it right. On her Majesty’s Secret Service is top drawer Bondage.

A note on continuity, which I raise because in the film Bond and Blofeld meet each other as though for the first time, despite having traded barbs previously in You Only Live Twice. There is a feeling of the series being rebooted for On her Majesty’s Secret Service, long before ‘rebooting’ became a Hollywood staple, though it’s worth pointing out that this film was considered ‘the next one’ since Goldfinger was in the can – Thunderball eventually came next due to rights issues and then seasonal shooting schedules put You Only Live Twice on the agenda for Bond’s fifth outing. The fan theory, which has developed over time, goes that ‘James Bond’ – as much as 007 – is a label rather than the character’s actual name. Bond becomes the moniker given to whoever is promoted to the position, which allows for the different actors taking the role on. Perhaps that explains why Bond happily drops his name to all and sundry, despite being a supposedly secret agent. Theory, speculation, or a grain of truth? The decision is up to the individual viewer.

1. From Russia with Love
Year: 1963
Star (his age): Sean Connery (33)
Lass (her age): Daniela Bianchi (21)
Evil Doer: Lotte Lenya, Robert Shaw
Inflation-Adjusted Gross (Series Ranking): $576m (12)
Post-Death Quipmanship: ‘She had her kicks’
Title Song Performer: Matt Monro
Glamorous Locale: Istanbul
Gadget: Gizmo-laden briefcase

You may know the right wines, but you’re the one on your knees

From Russia with Love is set mainly in Istanbul, that gorgeous Bosphorean capital where ruins and memories of the Byzantine Empire linger on every corner and the streets reek of centuries old history. It was on the front line of the Cold War, a strange atmosphere of agents on both side of the Curtain trailing each other, almost through duty and with a sense of near affection creeping in to their activities. In this post-Cuba climate, hostilities between America and the USSR had thawed to such an extent that the latter are never portrayed as villains. That status is reserved for SPECTRE, the criminal organisation that aims to play both sides off against each other as a pre-cursor to assuming world domination. Bond is targeted to get embroiled in a tangled plot that will lead to his demise at the hands of Red Grant (Shaw), a onetime petty thief who under SPECTRE’s tutelage has been transformed into a deadly assassin, in many ways 007’s equal.

We’re still in the brief age of Bond before Goldfinger, before the hero as ‘superhero’ was established. While Connery’s agent is highly capable and moves with an almost catlike grace, in this film he’s far from impervious and at certain stages, notably when his friend, Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz), has been killed and he’s on his own, works on a palpable nervous tension. It’s great acting from Connery, who by now was comfortable in the role and relished playing the sense of vulnerability that would rub off on audiences, especially as we’re well aware that he’s being tracked, every step of the way, by Grant. The confrontation between the pair is nicely filmed in a train compartment, lending a claustrophobic element to their tussle, Bond only getting an upper hand after minutes of desperately appealing to Grant and finally offering him money. Lenya plays Rosa Klebb, a Soviet officer secretly in SPECTRE’s service, and there’s a great cameo from Vladek Sheybal as a Chess grandmaster who’s tasked with using his strategic talents to formulate the organisation’s labyrinthine plan.

Despite the complicated plot, the film’s a beautifully scripted winner. Istanbul looks glorious. Daniela Bianchi is one of the more memorable Bond girls because she’s intrinsically involved in the narrative and spends some quality time with Bond, winning us over with her sheer adorable qualities. The action moves quickly, is driven by Bond’s adventures rather than stringing together the set pieces, and John Barry’s score is just smashing, sparking a love affair between the series and his music that made the two synonymous. It’s such virtuous and gripping stuff that the fixing of the template that took place in the following film seems a real shame.

Goldeneye (1995)

When it’s on: Friday, 5 February (9.00 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

Looking back at Goldeneye and it’s easy to forget what a throw of the dice it was. Six years had elapsed since Licence to Kill, the last entry in the series, with many suggesting the gentleman spy had fired his last Walther PPK. Perhaps it was time. The underwhelming late Moore years, which saw 007 lapse into self-parody, gave way to two films starring Timothy Dalton that threatened to harden the tone of the character only to run into audience apathy. During Bond’s hiatus, a new film franchise introducing the character of CIA researcher Jack Ryan, based on Tom Clancy’s bestselling novels, seemed to serve up a replacement action hero. Ryan, played once by Alex Baldwin and twice by Harrison Ford, worked in a modern world that was comfortable with up to date technology and fought against contemporary opponents in the shape of terrorist cells and drug dealers. The biggest difference between Bond and Ryan was that the latter remained an implacable family man – Patriot Games pivoted on his wife and daughter being threatened – and had nothing but chaste respect for his female colleagues. A nail in the coffin of Bond’s old school casual liaisons with members of the opposite sex, possibly. Ryan appeared to be a hero for the post-AIDS 1990s. And then there was the fact the world itself had changed since Licence to Kill. During 007’s six year lay-off, the Berlin War had collapsed and the Cold War ended. Russia was blinking in the sunlight of a new capitalist era, consigning the Communist iconography to the graveyard. Did this include Bond, the character created to be a Cold Warrior and now without a war to fight?

At the time of Goldeneye’s release, I think most of us were just relieved that it wasn’t rubbish, in fact it was surprisingly good and part of its success was that it dealt directly with two of the franchise’s biggest issues – Bond’s womanising, and his existence within a post-Iron Curtain world. The new M was played by Judi Dench and made it clear at her first meeting with Bond that she didn’t think much of him, putting him firmly in his place after the sighing patronage of Bernard Lee. Goldeneye’s two female protagonists were also strong women. Izabella Scorupco’s computer programmer had an uncanny ability to stay alive without needing Bond’s help, whilst compensating for his technical limitations when the plot required some IT acumen. Femme fatale Xenia Onatopp(!) was played by Famke Janssen as an outright psychopath, capable of killing men with her thighs and achieving orgasm when gunning people down. A worthy adversary for 007, who at one stage nearly fell victim to her murderous legs.

As for the new world of the 1990s, Goldeneye made great use of the former Cold War by filming some action sequences in St Petersburg and placing one of its key scenes in a graveyard for Communist iconography. Old adversaries, such as Robbie Coltrane’s Russian gangster (watch out for a brief cameo by Minnie Driver as Coltrane’s wife, gleefully murdering Stand By Your Man as a heavily Russian accented country singer) are now uneasy allies in this spirit of Detente, one that leaves Bond feeling visibly uneasy. As M suggested, he’s a relic, uncertain of his place in this new era, and he knows it.

For their new actor, Eon went back to a previous drawing board and recruited the Irish star, Pierce Brosnan, who famously almost landed the part years earlier until contractual commitments to Remington Steele meant he couldn’t be released and it went to Timothy Dalton instead. Brosnan certainly looked the part and was capable of both levity and hard-nosed action, which pretty much made him ideal for the role. It’s too simple to look back at Brosnan’s quartet of Bonds as lightweight missed opportunities and see the actor as shouldering some of the blame. The intention of his movies was clearly to riff on the success of Goldfinger and the sequence of entries that followed, dropping the tough and gritty Dalton 007 in favour of a spy crafted in the Connery template – cheeky, sexy and fun. Brosnan played his part, recreating Connery’s invulnerability especially when making it unscathed through a hailstorm of bullets, but he also showed a neat harder edge when the role called for it. In the film, his former 00 colleague, Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean), who Bond believed to be dead, resurfaces as a villain and proves he’s a match for the hero. Having to face and ultimately kill Trevelyan, the pain of this tells on the ordinarily chipper Bond, who contemplates his upcoming mission with suitable levels of solemnity. It’s a change in tone that only takes place in the film sporadically, but it fits the character and his situation, and demonstrated Brosnan was more than capable of acting these moments out.

The yin and yang aspect of the two former friends working against each other elevates Goldeneye into the best of the Brosnan series. Bean, saddled with some terrible moustache twirling dialogue, gets by thanks to sheer charisma and throwing himself into the action, a contrast to Jonathan Price’s more ‘classic’ villain in the following entry, which showed just how much this dimension – and Bean himself – added to the mix. Martin Campbell,  best known previously for helming the acclaimed BBC series Edge of Darkness, jollies the narrative along nicely as director, allowing the usual brilliant stuntcraft to become part of the story rather than the focal point of the entire movie. A good thing, as certain moments – such as Bond falling off a cliff edge behind a plane, skydiving into the craft’s door and then piloting it back to safety – stretch credibility to beyond even the breaking point of sequences in past entries, and it’s scenes like the Communist graveyard that really resonate.

There’s a thoughtful premise hidden within this one, a serious 007 that might have chimed with Bob Peck’s tortured hero in Edge of Darkness, or Daniel Craig as a young Bond in Campbell’s only other directorial outing in the series, Casino Royale. But Goldeneye never quite commits to either route. Too often, it wants to be both a thriller of substance and a bit of fun, and the two jar. Bond driving a tank through the streets of St Petersburg, whilst a laugh, does slap the face of anyone wanting to prefix 007’s agent status with the word ‘secret’, and the whole thing ends up in – but of course! – a lair hidden beneath a Caribbean lake. All the same, there’s nothing to really dislike, and Brosnan’s energetic performance was enough to breathe life back into old Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. At least for a while.

Goldeneye: ***

Event Horizon (1997)

When it’s on: Saturday, 19 December (10.55 pm)
Channel: Movie Mix
IMDb Link

Sometimes you get to watch a film at exactly the right moment. In 1998 I was working for a big oil company whose name was rhyming slang for ‘sheer hell’. They were in the process of buying out another business and I was part of a team dispatched to Cheltenham to oversee the takeover and continue customer service as normal. Every Monday in the early hours, I caught a train down and came back on Friday night; my week was spent in hotels, all on company expenses. Despite being allowed to spend pretty much what I wanted to, hotel living quickly became a soulless and solitary experience. I did what many people would in my shoes and ate badly, drank too much and ordered films on the TV, which is how I came to be watching Event Horizon one night, a few Budweisers in and ready for some – any! – entertainment. Needless to say, it hit me in the right place – a bit sozzled, on my own in a strange place, few external distractions so that I could become immersed in the atmosphere. I thought it was great, just as terrifying and claustrophobic as it was supposed to be.

And since then I have wondered how much the setting for seeing it contributed to my enjoyment. It’s not as though I think Event Horizon is a bad film, but I really got into it, on a par with Alien, that bona fide science fiction horror classic, and something from which it borrowed at will. By all accounts early discussions about the story involved a physical entity that’s steadily picking off the unlucky crew, until a wiser head alerted everyone to where this was all leading and it was instead resolved to make the ‘evil’ on Event Horizon a vague and intangible presence. This works. It works surprisingly well, and suggests the horrors experienced by the people could be a result of shared delusions brought on by the extreme loneliness and being cut off from the rest of the human race. More recent viewings, and I’ve now watched Event Horizon a number of times over the years, have made it clear that it isn’t as good as I first found it.

It was directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, back when he was plain old Paul Anderson (not to be confused with the Paul Anderson responsible for heavyweight modern classics like There Will be Blood and Magnolia) and before he developed a reputation for poor genre cinema. Being generous, I’ve rarely found Anderson to be so bad. There was his utterly dreadful version of The Three Musketeers, a relatively rare instance of trying to track him down and demand not only my money back but also the lost two hours, but I’ve come across worse film makers and there’s a certain level of cinematic artistry to be found amidst the high gore levels and his unfathomable insistence on nightclub/heavy rock music blasting out during the action scenes. Event Horizon marked a definite artistic high point, made when his was an emerging name and the budget attached to the project was a sizeable $60 million. At the time of its release, it flopped both critically and with cinema goers, and it’s time that has improved its reputation. Now it’s considered a cult classic, offering something genuinely unique to the genre and, importantly, being regarded as frightening.

Two elements stand in its favour. The first is its visuals. Event Horizon is set in the near future, when humans have started colonising the solar system and exploring its outer reaches. The ship destined to go father than anyone has gone before is the eponymous Event Horizon, which has been fitted with a prototype faster than light engine. The ship disappears without trace, somewhere in the orbit of Neptune, but then it’s rediscovered there, albeit apparently floating along dead in space. Another vessel, Lewis and Clark, is assigned the happy task of investigating what’s happened, and the team includes Dr Weir (Sam Neill) who invented the revolutionary ‘FTL’ capacity. Weir is shown early, staring out into the ether from a space station above Earth, an astonishing shot as the camera tracks back from his window to take in the man-made body and then the planet below. The effects that reveal the Lewis and Clark and Event Horizon are also very good. For the latter, a 70-foot model was constructed, and what really works is that it looks like a lived-in vessel, a bit grimy, built for purpose rather than to be aesthetically pleasing. You can imagine a future exploration vehicle that’s similar to the Event Horizon, a practical and unwieldy behemoth that’s far removed from the sleek and fun spaceships of science fiction. The ship interiors are well designed too, in particular the ‘gravity drive’, a spinning globe housed within a spiked chamber that already looks as though it’s part of some hell dimension.

The second real highlight is the film’s cast. By chance, Anderson got to work with performers who were either reliable character actors or rising stars. Laurence Fishburne had been active within the industry for some years, and was at this stage moving beyond the string of Spike Lee joints in which he’d figured, developing a reputation for notable, understated work for those who’d managed to catch him in the likes of Deep Cover, but before he found fame as Morpheus in The Matrix. Playing the Lewis and Clark’s leader, Captain Miller, he brings bags of charisma to the role, emerging as likeable despite the script demanding that he do little more than issue orders for much of the film. Clearly the crew respect him, even when things become increasingly desperate. Neill plays Dr Weir like a character who becomes more on edge and giving in to his insanity. Over the years, he’d developed a reputation for being capable at turning his hand to any kind of part, whether villainy or Jurassic Park‘s unlikely action hero, so the complicated role of Weir – a man who has to display escalating levels of madness, the terror of his early moments on the Event Horizon giving way to acceptance and even rapture – is one within which he can convince. Other solid performers, mainly Brits like Jason Isaacs, Joely Richardson and Sean Pertwee, make up the remaining crew members. All are given their opportunity to shine and let the personalities of their characters ease out through very little screen time. I especially like Pertwee’s sardonic pilot, and the look of undiluted fear on his face when he realises the game is up for him and there’s nothing he can do about it.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot, which follows a fairly standard narrative, suffice it to say I’m really pleased that the mystery at the centre of the plot is never fully resolved. Where the Event Horizon jumped to when it activated the gravity drive and, more importantly, what it brought back, is explained in part but not completely, and whilst Anderson is the kind of director who shows rather than suggests it’s a good decision to let viewers’ imaginations fill in some of the blanks about what’s happened to the ship’s original crew. What we do see is a collage of very quickly edited images of people at the height of madness, all extremely disturbing, and legend tells of several minutes worth of lost of footage that displays in graphic detail the carnage that takes place as a consequence of their visit to ‘wherever’. Fortunately this material is lost, presumably for good, and the film is better for teasing at the gory end of the Event Horizon’s people rather than serving it all up. What remains intact, and here the film’s similarities to Alien come to the fore, is a sense of claustrophobia, of their ships’ thin walls being the only thing that protects everyone from the emptiness and certain death of space. They’re closed in, irritable with each other and suitably spooked by the ghost ship they come across when they access the Event Horizon. It’s this that adds to the film’s tension; when the horrific moments arrive, they’re in a second half rush, the first relying on atmosphere, which is built carefully.

Event Horizon: ***

The Prophecy (1995)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 27 October (9.00 pm)
Channel: Movie Mix
IMDb Link

There have been numerous attempts to portray the Devil on screen over the years. Two films in this week’s Halloween run of write-ups feature Old Nick, my favourite coming on Saturday, and personally I prefer my Satan to be a subtle and persuasive presence. You can keep shouty Al Pacino from The Devil’s Advocate. Give me Robert De Niro as a mysterious, sinister Louis Cypher in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart any day, or play him for dark laughs as Peter Cook did in the Faustian Bedazzled.

In The Prophecy, a young, pre-Aragorn Viggo Mortensen essays Lucifer as an almost businesslike fallen angel, turning up on the unlikely side of the humans because the Archangel Gabriel is trying to capture an unmitigatingly evil soul that will create a second Hell, which is one Hell too many. Beautiful and malevolent, there’s an undeniably sinister aura to his Satan. Everyone who comes across him knows who he is on sight because the Devil is an unmistakable character, and he comes out with outrageous lines like ‘I can lay you out and fill your mouth with your mother’s faeces, or we can talk‘ without missing a single beat. Lucifer appears in the film for the last ten minutes, but it’s a brilliant cameo from Mortensen who plays him completely straight and conveys everything that’s both attractive and terrible about the character.

Mortensen is just one member of a finely chosen cast of characters in this movie, a rather silly (but no less compelling) entry about the war between angels spilling over into events on Earth. Eric Stoltz, who always strikes me as one of those perenially ‘under the radar’ actors, plays Simon, a ‘good’ angel who passes on the soul of the cannibalistic General Hawthorne – a veteran of the Korean War who treated the conflict as a personal playground for his atrocities – to a little girl in order to shield it from forces that would use it for evil. Simon might be on the side of right, but he’s also practical and the seedier side to his interactions with the girl have real power. The villain is Gabriel (Christopher Walken), attempting to end his war with God by releasing Hawthorne’s soul into Heaven and allowing the essence of evil in to finish the favouring of humankind. This could be a concept treated with hopeless solemnity, but instead director Gregory Widen and actor Walken have fun with Gabriel and turn the plot into a pulpy thriller, never taking itself too seriously. Walken in particular has a whale of a time, dealing with the recently dead people he’s reanimated as servants to be toyed with, and using his powers with wild abandon. There’s a brilliant scene where he’s chatting with a bunch of schoolkids as he’s checking each one to see if they contain Hawthorne’s soul. He’s actually great company for the children, but with that element of being able to smite them with one wave of his finger if he so chooses.

If any characters come across as lesser presences, then it’s undeniably the human ones, played by Elias Koteas and Virginia Madsen, and it’s unfair on them because the angels get all the best lines and scenes. Koteas, like Stoltz one of those reliable performers who’s never received the plaudits his work deserves, plays a detective who earlier in his life was training to be a priest, only failing to be confirmed when his visions of the war in heaven overtake his faith. His career turn of joining the police is an inevitable development, turning down the priesthood for a job in the most earthly role possible, one where he gets to experience human horrors on a daily basis. When his character interacts with Simon and later the bad angel that tried to destroy him, he finds himself being sucked into the story and becomes opposed to Gabriel, an uneven battle but one in which he’s determined to play a part. Madsen is yet another ‘what if’ actor, here playing a schoolteacher who by association with the luckless young Mary and her encounter with Simon fights alongside Koteas.

The daft, overblown plot runs more like an action/crime thriller with horror overtones, which favours it as the whole thing plays like a knowing wink with the audience, the sort of gesture Gabriel himself would no doubt make. Widen cut his teeth as a screenwriter, coming up with the screenplay for Highlander, which proved his talent for producing high concept drama that has no idea of a ceiling – the story only really unravels with its sequel, which tries unsuccessfully to make more of the characters than the plot can support. A firefighter, he experienced personally a backdraft, which led to his writing work on Ron Howard’s film of the same name.

It’s a shame that Widen didn’t get to do more work in film – The Prophecy is lots of fun and definitely holds together. He uses an actor like Walken exactly as he should, taking advantage of the actor’s unearthly, pallid look to present Gabriel as a white-faced spectre with a shock of black hair. Walken shifts through the film with real grace. Even scenes where he enters a room and looks around are attractive because, with a glance, he can get across his character’s otherworldly quality, and I love the way he and the other angels perch on the edge of chairs and other objects like birdlike, weightless sprites, emphasising their unreal natures that seem impossible to humans, without the need of special effects to make the point. On the whole, it relies on good actors over storytelling with the heavy use of CGI or practical effects. This betrays The Prophecy’s relatively low budget (despite its strong cast, most of the actors were recruited without great cost, a stroke of fortunate timing), but the quality of the performances transcends most shortcomings.

The Prophecy: ***

P.S. Another shout out for Multitude of Movies, the magazine I’m proud to be part of and that has recently published its third and best issue to date. Running over 100 pages and featuring articles on such diverse topics as Sean Connery’s Bond movies, the non-horror work by Mario Bava and spaghetti western Black Jack, there’s something for everyone and as always I’m impressed with the scope of the features and the quality of the original writing and artwork. A lot of heart goes into this publication – you can purchase it from the website, which also features a growing series of original content reviews. I have contributed to this with a look at Alec Guinness in The Scapegoat, a title to which I owe Colin my thanks for introducing me to it.

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

When it’s on: Saturday, 18 July (10.15 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

I once read a Tom Clancy novel, back when his works were seen as the quintessential fiction for men. It was a struggle. I’d never known that it was possible to talk about the features of some military hardware for several pages, but Clancy did it, loads, and the book, Clear and Present Danger, could not be finished too quickly.

It’s therefore fortunate that the film adaptations, all five Jack Ryan stories, have thrown out much of the ‘technoporn’ and focused instead on the thriller element of these tales. The first, 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, may be the best of the bunch, a taut yarn about Cold War politics that drips with tension and handles swathes of plot and characterisation deftly.

The film was directed by John McTiernan, at the time coming off two considerable successes in Predator and Die Hard, the latter considered a high watermark in high concept action cinema. One of the things that made it work so well was that McTiernan took time to develop its story, introducing the characters and giving them motivation, before letting the gun play, stunts and fighting take over, making us care about what was happening and appreciating the stakes involved. It was fine grounding for The Hunt for Red October, a film that depends upon considerable amounts of setting up.

It stars Alec Baldwin as Ryan, a young CIA analyst who, in 1984, unconvers the significance of a newly developed Russian nuclear submarine, that it can move through the oceans more or less silently and therefore has the capacity to ‘sneak up’ on America. Handily, Ryan also knows all about the boat’s captain, Marko Ramius, a longstanding and respected seaman within the Soviet hierarchy who he believes is about to defect rather than attack. He’s right. The plot focus on his efforts to communicate with Ramius before the presence of Red October in a threatening position pre-empts hostilities between the superpowers.

Ramius is played by Sean Connery, by now the Academy Award winning actor who was entering a potentially interesting phase in his career playing older characters. Connery was famous enough to not even attempt a Russian accent, playing the only Scottish Lithuanian in celluloid history whilst the likes of Sam Neill as members of his crew work on their Slavic. Even if he had no time for perfecting dialects, Connery got by on sheer charisma, effortlessly essaying Ramius as a great captain audacious enough to pull off his desperate defection. He even let the Soviet High Command know of his intentions, prompting a sea chase across the North Atlantic in which every available Russian vessel attempts to smoke out the Red October.

Also in the mix is the Dallas, an American submarine commanded by Scott Glenn that realises something is happening and pursues what turns out to Red October, making it the unlikely place for Ryan to join in his efforts to reach out to Ramius. The main threat comes from Stellan Skarsgard’s Russian sub, the Konovalov, which also gives chase and does most of the firing.

The one thing that really lets the film down are the underwater action scenes. Murky shots of submarines floating through the depths appear as gloomy submerged turds, whilst the missiles and countermeasures deployed make use of early CGI, which these days appears to be rather primitive. These scenes are mercifully sparing. More time is spent on the decks, especially Ramius’s, a wonderland of dials and flashing lights that is apparently far more interesting than what these things really look like. At the centre of it all is Connery, spouting the wisdom of his many years in service and outwitting his adversaries. There are a couple of great moments when Red October is being fired upon, the closeness of the torpedoes defined by beeping that gets intermittently more frequent as it approaches, while Ramius uses his experience and wiliness to overcome them.

Both Connery and Baldwin play characters who think laterally, beating those around them in terms of their ingenuity and resourcefulness. For long swathes of red October, Ryan is on the right track about Ramius and nobody believes him, because the way he sees things is completely unprecedented but the idea is that only he and the Russian think so far outside the box and are therefore kindred spirits of a sort. Both are at their best in the cramped surroundings of their submarines, thin corridors and claustrophobia adding to the suspense of their situation. Their story is only marginally better than the fun diplomacy conducted in Washington, Richard Jordan and Joss Ackland’s Russian attache exchanging witty barbs as they attempt to get the better of each other and demonstrating the sort of edgy affection that you’d get from old adversaries. And then there’s James Earl Jones as Ryan’s superior, Admiral Greer. Baldwin only starred in one Jack Ryan film but Jones’s services were retained, that deep sonorous voice matched by a wry, larger than life presence that strikes a note of authenticity within the corridors of supreme military personnel.

A Cold War film made in 1990 might sound like it’s missed the boat somewhat, with Glasnost in the air and the relations between America and Russia changed forever. And really, a movie that features few action scenes and runs for longer than two hours sounds a bit of a stretch. But it’s tense, really tense, the stakes high and escalating all along as everyone involved knows and makes clear what’s involved and the potential consequences if they misstep. I like the bits where Red October is damaged, the consequence of a saboteur being on board; at these moments, the essential fragility of being deep beneath the ocean inside a tin can is palpable.

I don’t really know which of the two great submarine-based thrillers of the 1990s I prefer – this, or Crimson Tide, which came out five years down the line. Both feature great supporting casts and two excellent lead actors. I certainly can’t recall Baldwin being better than he is here, a great star making turn hinting at the sort of future greatness that he never quite realised. I also really like Neill’s character, the very loyal second in command who obeys Ramius slavishly, defends him to other crew members when the captain appears to be defying all logic, and getting a great scene when he reveals to Ramius that he’s looking forward to living in Montana. It features some lovely cinematography from future director Jan de Bont, who keeps his camera tilted to film the characters at askew angles and emphasise the tension, also the sense of being closed in. Good stuff.

The Hunt for Red October: ****

Jurassic Park (1993)

When it’s on: Sunday, 14 June (1.35 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

It’s almost certain that we will be visiting the cinema this weekend to watch Jurassic World, so I thought it might be timely to talk about Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg’s 1993 behemoth of a movie that kicked it all off. Everyone else is discussing it, after all, and I am rather enjoying the number of podcasts I listen to at the moment, often managed by people who would have first seen it when they were children, where the critical faculties have given way to gushing and memories of younger years, the sheer joy of the first time they caught it. I was 21 when Jurassic Park came out and, whilst suitably enchanted, it seems to be regarded as something really special by those who were around the age I was when I first saw something like The Empire Strikes Back and knew, innately, that I’d experienced greatness at exactly the right age to experience it.

For the record, my trip to watch Jurassic Park at the Showcase Cinema in Stockton with a group of friends was one of my first times at a multiplex. Several screens were showing it; at one point I nipped to the loo and returned, sat down, and then carried on watching for several minutes before I realised the film wasn’t at the right point, I was sat next to complete strangers and, eventually, that I’d walked back into the wrong theatre. D’oh!

It’s worth remembering that, before this one, Spielberg was undergoing a bit of a lull. His previous films, Always and Hook, whilst not exactly bad, were widely viewed as below par works from him (I’ve no particular desire to see either again, which says it all for my feelings), so there was something ‘make or break’ about Jurassic Park. 1993 would turn out to be an annus mirablis of sorts for Spielberg. With his pet project, Schindler’s List, also released that year, the two films formed the consummate home run of home runs, instantly conferring on him both the commercial and critical crowns, the latter building to Academy Award glory with Oscars showered on his story of another Oskar. Over the years, my views on both movies has changed somewhat. I can’t watch Schindler’s List without getting the sense that my feelings are being manipulated, when the subject matter is surely powerful enough to stand on its own without the need to deploy such cinematic tricks (the girl in the red coat, good grief). I should save my comments on that particular work for another day, suffice it to say here that, as far as I’m concerned, all the praise seems to be for the devastating subject and the film’s success in bringing it to peoples’ minds, rather than its greatness as a piece of cinema.

As for Jurassic Park, I’ve grown to love it, even now – numerous viewings down the line – soaking up the tension, the special effects, the brilliant design work, the very fine acting, the masterly way it conveys swathes of exposition and scientific background to viewers without collapsing under its own weight. That last point is important. We’re asked to take in a lot of information about (i) how the dinosaurs were artificially created (ii) the reasons for doing so (iii) what dinosaurs actually were (iv) how the park works (v) the man who would steal its secrets, and yet it never really slows down. That’s some damn fine storytelling. We’re kept waiting for the first full shot of a dinosaur, and it’s worth the wait, the little jeep carrying Sam Neill and Laura Dern stopping long enough for them to gawp in helpless wonder at the sight of Brachiosaurs eating. It works for two reasons. One is the reactions of the actors, which only adds to the moment’s sense of authenticity and gravitas. The second is the use of CGI. Jurassic Park was like a great leap forward in special effects technology. Before this, the only way to see dinosaurs on film was the stop-motion animated models shot painstakingly by Ray Harryhausen and his peers. Suddenly, all that was consigned to cinema history thanks to digital effects, work that holds up today because Spielberg knew how to use CGI judiciously rather than too often, also when to deploy animatronics instead for the more interactive scenes.

Naturally, the film’s story of a theme park housing real-life dinosaurs reaches its point when the security breaks down and its denizens start running amok, looking for food. Jurassic Park is careful to describe the creatures as animals rather than monsters, which makes them feel more real. In the meantime, Jeff Goldblum’s character is a chaos theorist who argues that the park’s creator, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has shown a critical lack of judgement in reviving beasts that are extinct for a reason, which comes to pass when things start going horribly wrong. All this makes the attack by a Tyrannousaurus Rex the perfect exercise in tension. Announced by the now famous water ripples formed by its approaching footsteps, the king of carnivores sees two young children as lunch and goes to work, systematically destroying their oh so fragile car in its efforts to reach them. The combination of CGI and puppetry to create the dinosaur looks seamless, and whilst it must have been painstaking to develop and film there’s no doubt it’s great to watch, not to mention listen to with the Rex’s roar filling the screen every bit as much as its body.

The Tyrannosaur is the main star from a dinosaur perspective, but its impact is overshadowed by the smaller Velociraptors, those pack hunting hyenas of the reptile age. A little larger than human height (though in reality, they were about the size of chickens) and working together in order to attack from all directions, the raptors make for fantastic pursuers as the human characters try to run and hide. The scene in the park kitchen is much celebrated and rightly so. John Williams’s score is absent – as it is for the Tyrannosaur attack – to allow the natural noises of the dinosaurs and the panicked movements of their prey to take over. Whether you’re hearing a talon tapping on metallic work surfaces or a raptor snorting into the air, it all leads to a gripping chase that’s a masterclass in tension and classy editing. A quick further word on the sound design, which is truly excellent, adding an iconic and quite unique soundtrack of animal life that sounds completely alien because it’s been extinct for 65 million years.

For all their brilliant realisation, the dinosaurs actually occupy little screen time overall, harking back to Spielberg’s earlier Jaws, in which the shark was rarely seen. Investment therefore has to be made in the actors, both for their reactions to what’s happening and their overall characterisation. Spielberg went for a cast devoid of A-list stars, going instead for reliable character actors to tremendous effect. Sam Neill leads as Alan Grant, a serious minded fossil hunter who has no time for children (so naturally, he ends up caring for Hammond’s grandchildren) but an innate knowledge of dinosaurs, so that he can provide the survival tips when faced with carnivores. His partner, Ellie Sattler, is played by Laura Dern. She’s more an expert on extinct plant life, is practical enough to dig with her hands through a pile of droppings to investigate the ailments of a sickly Triceratops, and fends off the attentions of Jeff Goldblum’s suave Ian Malcolm with wry amusement. The latter provides the film with its questions of philosophy and morality, having some great sparring conversations with Hammond, who in Attenborough’s hands is a well meaning, grandfatherly figure (with a Scottish accent that, ahem, comes and goes) rather than the heartless businessman as presented in Michael Crichton’s source novel. Of the supporting players, Samuel L Jackson puts in a pre-Pulp Fiction appearance as a chain smoking site engineer, Bob Peck is on hand as the big game hunter who finds himself ultimately out of his depth, and Wayne Knight plays the treacherous Dennis Nedry who kicks off the story of the park turning to hell before meeting his own ‘sticky’ end.

If Jurassic Park’s effect has dimmed a little over time, then there are those lesser sequels to take into consideration, the second one a further Spielberg helmer that has some good moments but little of the original’s sense of majesty (it’s a monster movie, pure and simple) and the rather tired third instalment, which largely replaces suspense with CGI. But this first episode is really good. There’s a lovely sense of characters being genuinely awestruck by the returning to the world of long dead creatures, helped along by Williams’s music, which gives the whole thing an air of respect and legitimacy.

Jurassic Park: *****

Gattaca (1997)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 19 May (11.00 pm)
Channel: Movie Mix
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There have been some brilliant films that depict a dystopian future, Blade Runner being the obvious example, Brazil another. I’m not a big fan of these sorts of stories though, because I like to hope that tomorrow’s generation will get to live in a world that hasn’t turned to shit – call me naive if you like, but I’d take the optimistic Star Trek vision any time, an Earth that has learned the lessons from its chaotic past and created a co-operative, positive future.

Still, some take the concept of a future shaped by present issues and created something really interesting with it. George Owell’s ideas, developed during the 1940s when Communism appeared to be a rapidly expanding, unstoppable force, beget 1984, imagining a nightmarish present where personal liberties, down to one’s very hopes and dreams, no longer exist. And then there’s Gattaca, made in 1997 when advances in our knowledge about DNA allowed for reproductive engineering and the possibilities of human beings ‘altered’ at their genetic level to remove all imperfections. That’s the very world it posits. In the future, humans fall into two groups – those born naturally, with all the defects that such a process entails, and the ones who have had all potential problems taken away. Such tampering leads to society containing two very distinct types of people. The ‘engineered’ are the supermen, taking the top jobs, given the best opportunities, considered for the space programme to explore Saturn’s moon, Titan. The ‘naturals’ take whatever’s left, constantly reminded that their place is and will always be somewhat less.

Enter Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) – naturally born, his parents told at birth that there’s a 99% possibility of him suffering from a heart condition when he’s older, constantly in the shadow of his younger, artificially idealised brother. Vincent doesn’t have much in terms of prospects, but what he does possess is ambition. Lots of it. Via the black market, he’s put in touch with Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), someone with perfect DNA but confined to a wheelchair because he broke his back in an accident, and who is now prepared to ‘swap places’ with Vincent in exchange for money. This means Vincent taking Jerome’s identity, to painstaking levels, carrying sachets of his blood and urine so that he can pass the DNA tests, scrubbing himself clean of all loose skin and hair before he leaves the home so there’s less chance of anyone coming across evidence of his real status. And then he goes to work at Gattaca, a space flight organisation, posing all the while as a ‘Valid’, as Jerome. Quickly rising through the ranks due to sheer will and hard work, he is ultimately chosen to be the navigator on a planned trip to Titan.

Everything appears to be falling into place for Vincent, but the murder of a Gattaca administrator changes everything. An eyelash he accidentally sheds at the murder scene is discovered and identified, which makes him the main suspect, but nominally he’s okay as long as the tests for which he provides samples continue to ‘reveal’ him as Jerome. Even the fact the police (led by Alan Alda and Loren Dean) have a photo matters little, as test results count for far more than visual evidence. All the same, the number of tests increase, Vincent having to resort more and more to tricks in order to stay in the clear, whilst he senses the net closing in on him. He also falls in love with a co-worker, Irene (Uma Thurman), who has a heart condition that prevents her from entering the space programme, not realising that beneath his ‘borrowed’ identity Vincent has similar problems.

Gattaca was the debut directorial effort of Andrew Niccol, raised in New Zealand and better known at the time for his work in commercials. It wasn’t a box office success, but it had critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination for its art direction, which went a long way with its relatively small budget in creating a realistic near future world, in particular the austere, clinically clean interiors of Gattaca’s monolithic building. I’ve never been a real admirer of Ethan Hawke, finding him to be one of those actors whose range is too limited to be very interesting (surely the great charm of his work in the Before series is that he’s the bland everyman, and Julie Delpy the fantasy figure), yet he’s fine as the narrator-protagonist, with the cause for which he’s fighting – albeit a selfish one within an imperfect world – just about holding everything together. Far better is Law as the damaged Jerome. At the time he was best known for playing beautiful people, notably in Wilde, and there’s something innately tragic about his character in Gattaca, turning to drink and cigarettes after his accident and showing baleful levels of humour to mask the pain he’s been left in. Despite being disabled, Law provides all the life in his partnership with Hawke. Thurman on the other hand has little to do but look gorgeous. There are fine supporting performances by veterans Alda, Gore Vidal and Ernest Borgnine. The latter stands out as Vincent’s supervisor on the cleaning rounds who later no longer recognises him when he’s in the guise of Jerome.

At the heart of Gattaca is its central conceit, an idea that at the time felt frighteningly credible and could yet become something like reality as health bills rise and solutions for diseases are sought. As entertainment it certainly works, suggesting an essentially paranoid future in which DNA checks are everyday occurrences, meaning that everyone is a prisoner of their own genes. The concept of a society every bit as discriminatory as anything we have today is fascinating, particularly as the disproportionate treatment echoes all manner of current prejudices and yet is one based on advances in science, which is supposed to be benign.

Gattaca: ***