Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

When it’s on: Sunday, 3 September (9.00 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

I love history. This stems in a large part from poring through Bible stories when I was a child. The New Testament was fine enough, but it was the tales of the Old Testament – with its endless wars, suffering on a mass scale, fire and brimstone – that entranced me. God as a character was envious and unforgiving. Entire races of people were enslaved and treated like dirt. Heroes, born to beat insurmountable odds, emerged, and they dealt out death and judgement rather than sacrificed themselves for the sake of others’ sins. None of this led to a belief in Christianity, but it did ferment my supreme desire for a good yarn, and the early books from the Bible were the pages to refer to for exactly that.

It’s no surprise that people have tried to bring Biblical stories to the screen for almost as long as cinema has existed. This stuff is gold. Great tales, and for a long time the sort of fare that audiences just lapped up. Cecil B DeMille adapted the book of Exodus twice, first in 1923 that was much a fable of The Ten Commandments in contemporary life as much as it was about Moses. In 1956, he went for a more straight retelling, pitting Charlton Heston’s Moses against the Pharoah, played by Yul Brynner, to wildly profitable box office returns. I admit it’s probably one of my all time favourite movies, partly thanks to my respect for the vaulting ambition and ego of the director in bringing such a story to the screen in so emphatic a fashion. It’s incredibly powerful. DeMille had the smouldering intensity and mutual resentment between Heston and Brynner, but also storytelling on an enormous scale, and the best special effects of their day, which have of course dated over time but still look impressive now. One scene in particular stays with me. Having suffered a series of plagues, Pharoah is implored once more by Moses to free the slaves, but he’s implacable and orders nothing less than the killing of each Jewish first born son as the ultimate punishment. Unwittingly, it’s a course that rebounds. One terrible night, God takes away each Egyptian first born, his wrath personified by an eerie green mist in the sky, which develops tendrils gliding with ominous silence to earth and stealing the boys’ souls. It’s haunting stuff, a trick repeated in Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt in 1998, where the mist becomes a deadly whirlwind.

Given the above, I’m likely to view Exodus: Gods and Kings with a subjectively kind eye, looking forward to the spectacle and human drama whereas many critics have shown only scorn. Finding reasons for the latter isn’t difficult. The production was dogged with controversy, notably for its ‘whitewashing’ of the main characters. Ramses, Moses and the rest of the cast would simply not be Caucasian, it was argued, so why in a modern movie fall for the classic tradition of casting the likes of Christian Bale and Joel Egerton when more ethnically realistic casting would do? Furthermore, it’s difficult to tell the tale without turning the Egyptians into villains, greedy slavers, and sure enough the film was banned in that country upon its release. Its director, Ridley Scott, retorted that the film would never have been funded without Hollywood stars, and besides it’s only loosely a historical tale. How much truth lies in the book of Exodus is open to extreme interpretation and translating the events as dramatic representations of what actually happened. There’s some evidence that the Egyptian Empire kept the Hebrews as slaves, but nothing is confirmed. The story is wrapped in mystery, and was committed to writing only after centuries of being handed down in the oral tradition. As such it’s as faithful a source as Homer’s The Iliad – no doubt there’s a kernel of truth in there, but it’s blended with mythology and the contemporary audiences for whom it was written in the first place.

Perhaps more pertinent is to question whether the world needed another Biblical epic at all. Noah, released earlier in 2014, had not been received rapturously, more like quizzically, suggesting the clamour for Bible stories was just not there, and Exodus: Gods and Kings was already gaining an infamous reputation for the reasons mentioned above. Hardly the basis for a box office smash, which indeed it would not turn into, though the reality was it had been in the planning for several years and was something of a passion project for Scott. As expected, the devil was in the detail, the crew building sets and using computer effects to create an ancient Egyptian world that is probably as close to the real thing as you will ever see. The word here is scale. Massive statues, glorious decorations, those different coloured tribal banners billowing behind the war chariots, the juxtaposition between Ramses’s palaces and the Hebrew ghetto; it’s all there, on the screen, and it looks fantastic. And yet the concern was never about how the film looked. Scott’s 2010 entry, Robin Hood, reimagined ‘merrie England’ in fleshy, realistic tones, for all intents and purposes travelling back in time for the sake of absolute authenticity,  and yet the movie was a boring clunker, overly serious and its stars uninspiring. Not a lot of fun. Would this fare any better?

One of the biggest issues with Robin Hood was its script, written by Brian Helgeland. For this one, Scott employed Steven Zaillian, the Oscar winner (for Schindler’s List) who was faced with the obstacle of adapting Exodus for a twenty first century audience. How to bring the Pharoanic court of Ancient Egypt to life, to make it feel like a working reality and avoiding polemics? The result is a Seti (John Turturro), the old ruler who oversees the affection between Ramses (Egerton) and his adopted son, Moses (Bale) while recognising the potential for a future rivalry, emphasising their need to protect each other. Made explicit is the throne room as a nest of vipers, high ranking officials who protect their own interests, in the classical style seeing Ramses as their best bet for maintaining the status quo while Moses has a dangerously radical side to his nature. The latter has grounded views about prophecies (they’re hokum), the nation of slaves (they deserve to be treated better), and the prospect that he believes in very little. A portent about the kingdom’s future hints at Moses becoming its ruler, something that results in Ramses discovering his Hebrew heritage and casting him into exile. Moses wanders the desert for a time, before coming upon a remote shepherds’ village and marrying.

Adapting to a simple life in the wilderness, it’s clear Moses’s spirit is restless. He then meets God, personified as a small boy, who tells him to go back to Egypt and accept a mission to free the slaves. Scott made a decision to tell the story of the resulting plagues and Moses’s interactions with God in as realistic terms as he could, suggesting that the former might have been the result of natural causes and the rest exists in the main character’s head, that ‘God’ might simply be the directions of his subconsciousness. When Moses first returns to Egypt he naturally sees his role as that of a military general, harking back to the position he held before his exile. Hebrews are trained to be freedom fighters, a rather clever allusion to the state of affairs in more recently occupied countries within the region. But progress is slow. Ramses responds to the acts of ‘terrorism’ committed by Moses’s underground army by publicly hanging slaves on a daily basis, his brutality increasing with the sedition. This in turn prompts ‘God’ to intervene, via the plagues that might very well have happened without any divine assistance, though it suits the narrative to explain these as more than acts of natural disaster.

Bale committed mountains of personal research into the life of Moses as part of his preparation for the role. His is a very human performance, from the wise leader he plays in the early acts, when his position in the hierarchy is more or less cemented, to the constant doubts he’s plagued with later in the film. When I talked about Kingdom of Heaven elsewhere on these pages, I mentioned the vacuum at the centre of the film that is Orlando Bloom; Bale is far more capable of commanding the screen and forces his character’s human drama to shine through the massive scope of the picture. Egerton and Turturro, while looking nothing like Egyptians, are fine as the two Pharoahs, and there’s capable support in relatively small roles from Sigourney Weaver and Tara Fitzgerald. Ben Kingsley plays the Hebrew elder with typical stoic resolve, and Ewan Bremner provides the film with a slim, much needed sliver of humour.

As with much of Scott’s work, there isn’t much comedy in Exodus: Gods and Kings, though that seems appropriate given the subject matter. What it does have is spectacle, artistry and weighty drama. It looks incredible, with the technical departments firing on all cylinders, and while that’s normally true of films with Ridley Scott’s name attached the narrative and performances are not ignored in favour of the visuals. It’s probably as good as a modern retelling of Exodus could ever hope to be, even if the demand for it just wasn’t there, and that was reflected in its losses at the box office.

Exodus: Gods and Kings: ****

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FOTB at the Oscars!

This year I made an effort to see every film nominated for Best Picture before the Oscars ceremony took place. I failed, taking in each title apart from Moonlight, which of course means it will claim everything and leave me wondering. There’s an argument I could make that this is the fault of my local multiplex, its unwillingness to offer a single screening to many of the nominees when there are endless showings of cartoons about singing koalas to accommodate, but in truth I had my chance and missed it. I could have travelled. I didn’t.

Of the rest, the impression I’m left with is that of the Academy so fearing the #OscarsSoWhite mania it ensured race was at the forefront of this year’s agenda. There’s the aforementioned Moonlight, also Hidden Figures and Fences that overtly place issues of race in the limelight. The former I felt was a slight effort with some good performances and an achingly endearing insight into more innocent times. What I took from it was not the personal battles fought by its African-American heroines, more the challenges NASA faced in achieving its goal of sending people into space. The maths involved look mind boggling, the resources available so primitive that I was left wondering how on earth they managed anything. Of the main performers Olivia Spencer is clearly the best; she carries a sort of wounded dignity through the picture that is never less than affecting. Kevin Costner is really good at this kind of thing, and I admit to enjoying Jim Parsons playing basically the same character he always plays, possibly a distant ancestor of The Big Bang Theory‘s Sheldon Cooper.

As for Fences, I was very impressed. The film’s stage roots can’t be denied and are instead embraced, much of the action taking place in the Maxsons’ back yard, banter and arguments taking precedence over the titular fence that stubbornly refuses to be constructed. Denzel Washington has made a career habit of playing bastards and Troy Maxson is a real gem, a monster of a man whose own motivations are teased out over the course of the picture. While Troy rages, his wife – a superb, quietly devastating Viola Davis – suffers, mostly in stoic silence, and if both actors walk away with Oscars tonight then I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Fences has been criticised for playing too much like a filmed stage performance, an issue I don’t fully understand. If the material’s good enough then it’s good enough, and one thing Fences remains is good enough. A triumph, albeit one that’s likely to fade from public consciousness once the awards season dies down.

The main challenger to Washington in the acting stakes is Casey Affleck, who puts in an entirely convincing lead turn in Manchester by the Sea. It’s been suggested that Affleck’s alleged ‘sex pest’ history ought to bar him from winning anything, which has set up an unfortunate sideshow to what is a riveting and compelling job of work in the movie. He plays a man reeling from a past tragedy, one so gross that it’s made him pretty much shut down on the pleasures of life. He lives in a flat that’s as close to a cell as it gets and does menial janitorial work, all to endlessly punish himself for one terrible mistake. When he’s made to return to Manchester (the film was shot in the actual Massachusetts town, and a lovely location it is), his proximity to those past events forces the bitter memories to resurface, which in turn makes him withdraw. His character’s given numerous opportunities to start enjoying life again. He can’t. The most affecting element of Affleck’s performance is his achievement of showing all the pain going on beneath the surface, slumped shoulders and wandering eyes, while he presents a shell to the world, devoid of humanity and any sense of hope. It’s heartbreaking.

Almost as gut wrenching is Garth Davis’s Lion, the true story of a young Indian man who resolves to find the family he was involuntarily separated from years earlier. This shouldn’t work. It’s basically an advert for Google Earth – Saroo, played by the brilliant Sunny Pawar as a little boy and then Dev Patel when he reaches adulthood, uses the software to try to piece together the location of his hometown, a painstaking process as India is such a massive, sprawling country and he only has his childhood memories to work from. It helps that Patel doesn’t play Saroo as a tortured hero; he’s self-absorbed and hits out at those he loves, though you’re with him all the way. Pawar is wide eyed, adorable and five years old when he falls asleep on a train, which then carries him halfway across the country and deposits him in Calcutta. Left to fend for himself in a big city where mean things clearly happen, that he makes it out at all in one piece is reason enough to carry on cheering for the character as he ages. I was very moved, and if there’s one slip in judgement on the movie’s part then it was to promote Patel and Nicole Kidman over Sunny Pawar. The older actors are absolutely fine, especially Kidman in one of her mature, quietly devastating roles, but the film’s heart belongs with that little lost boy.

Hell or High Water is perhaps the surprise entry amongst the nominations. It’s an independent picture, a modern Western that takes place now, and it’s completely absorbing. The film has something to say about difficult times prompting desperate measures, a withering comment on contemporary America being an uncaring country that has no time for its losers, but it can also be viewed more simply as a tale of two brothers who resort to robbing Texas banks in order to save their ranch. They’re played by Ben Foster and Chris Pine, both delivering career best performances and for me effortlessly over-shadowing Jeff Bridges, an Oscar darling who these days seems to specialise in out-mumbling his previous turns. What the film has is effortless tension, not only the law steadily catching up on our anti-heroes but the increasingly erratic behaviour of one of the brothers, clearly losing it as he resorts to spiralling levels of brutality. It’s also beautifully filmed, New Mexico shot as empty expanses of flat wasteland and endless vistas. The sparseness of the location adds to the film’s bleak and unsparing tone. I don’t expect it to win. It was released months before the usual window for Oscar hopefuls, suggesting a surprise hit that entered the Academy’s minds from left field, but it deserves its place and the recognition that comes with being nominated.

Mel Gibson has undergone a kind of cultural rehabilitation that has culminated in nominations both for his latest film, Hacksaw Ridge, and for himself as best director. In truth, I consider this one to be far from his best work. I think it’s a toss-up between The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, both made when Gibson was a pariah and his antics were adding an unfortunate sheen to their worthiness as movies, and yet they’re a pair of visceral glories that deserve to be seen rather than ignored as sideshows to the man’s personal controversies. There’s nothing much wrong with Hacksaw Ridge, the true story of a man who refuses to wield a gun when he enters the armed services, only receiving recognition when he shows undue bravery while serving as a medic in the Pacific theatre. Andrew Garfield is fine as the film’s likeable hero, and once the action moves to the Okinawa ridge it lets Gibson do what he does best, which is to show the horrors of war at their most violent and immediate. But it takes a long time in getting there and the amount of setting up to reach this stage is unnecessarily long and insufficiently captivating. All the same, the war scenes are impressively staged and do all but serve up the heat and sticky aroma in giving us an authentic experience.

Arrival is probably the entry that has most divided my circle of friends. Some think it’s a masterpiece; others have damned it as overly pretentious and pointless, and I can see what they mean. I was happy enough to go along with it, seeing its science fiction plotline as a feint for what turned out to be a very personal and human drama, but even taken on its SF merits there’s a lot to enjoy, not least the decision to try and do something fresh and original with the genre rather than the traditional and rather tired invasion rhetoric. Whether you think Arrival is good or not, surely there’s no comparison between this and Independence Day: Resurgence, released the same year and nullifying me to point of actually falling asleep in the cinema while it played. Sure, there are big holes in Arrival’s plot, and the whole deal of super intelligent visitors from another world turning up on ours without bothering to first learn the lingo is somewhat baffling, but accept this and the film becomes a smart and affecting piece of work. It’s bizarre to me that Amy Adams was missed off the list of nominations, while Arrival has gone on to feature in eight categories otherwise. She’s terrific and pulls off the tricky feat of being the focal point in a film featuring enormous alien vessels.

The most likely winner remains La La Land, despite a simmering of backlash that the film hardly deserves. Sure, it’s less weighty than many of this year’s offerings. It’s unapologetically old fashioned, and the musical aspects seem loaded to win approval from an Academy that has notably favoured these films in the past, but I’ll confess to having a big smile on my face as soon as the freeway scene exploded into a boisterous song and dance number. That smile, or at least a feeling of intense goodwill towards the picture, never left, and if it goes on to achieve glory at the ceremony then I won’t be the least bit disappointed. A movie that’s both a musical and about Hollywood comes with a sense of cynicism, a glimmer of the production team noting down what does well in the Oscars and coming up with something that ticks all the boxes. When the end result is as good-natured and appealing as this, however, such concerns begin to lose any traction. It’s a smashing entry, and several of the numbers have stayed with me weeks after seeing the film.

If I was in charge, I would probably hand my little gold man over to Manchester by the Sea, which stood out for me as the most heartfelt and affecting of this year’s offerings. On the whole though, I’ve been impressed with nearly all the films included and in every instance entertained. Of those not featuring on the list, I would like to have seen a little more love for Silence, which while hard work at times is a gorgeously mounted picture that covers a difficult subject very convincingly. Michael Shannon has been nominated for his supporting role in Nocturnal Animals, but the lack of recognition for his and everyone else’s work in Midnight Special strikes me as a shame. The Lobster features solely in the screenplay category; it deserves better than that, a very bleak and funny piece of work. I should also like to have seen I, Daniel Blake figure – film rarely does something as powerful as this, a little story about a little man trying to survive within a big system that is not allowed to show any human empathy. That said, I can imagine the Academy looking at the politically outspoken Ken Loach as though throwing an angry hand grenade into the Dolby Theatre and deciding it needs not the hassle. That’s to fatally misunderstand Loach, of course, but it’s hardly the first time the Oscars stand accused of playing it safe.

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.

The Two Faces of January (2014)

When it’s on: Sunday, 31 January (9.00 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Several years ago I tried following a published list of great novels, the aim being to read and then blog about my own findings. The project didn’t last, but before giving up I managed to take in Strangers on a Train and that led to a bit of a love affair with the work of Patricia Highsmith. The piece is here, by the way – it’s a bit of a rambler, but that’s nothing new from me. Getting through the book was easy enough; after all, I love the film adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock and it turned out that he’d cherry picked from the text. In the novel, both ‘strangers’ become mired in guilty acts whereas the film diverts from this path, making Guy into a fairly straightforward hero who never quite falls into Bruno’s trap. The book, told largely from Guy’s perspective, gets into its villains’ heads and actually generates some sympathy for these people who have committed evil acts and the guilt that completely ensnares them by the close. It’s definitely worth a read, if for no other reason than for the appearance of a hangdog detective who surely helped to create the template for the long-running Columbo.

The Two Faces of January is a less celebrated Highsmith, but it explores many of the same themes as covered in Strangers on a Train and is no less fascinating. That it took fifty years for the 1964 novel to be adapted for the screen is a little curious considering it won awards at the time, but script writer Hossein Amini had always wanted the job and got to do it for his 2014 directorial debut. The story is classic Highsmith. Set in Greece, the narrative follows three characters, none of whom are especially nice, on a doom-laden descent. Rydal (played in the film by Oscar Isaac) is a petty young grifter, based in Athens and hiring himself out as a tour guide, seducing young women and using his Greek language skills to weasel shoppers who don’t understand the currency exchange rate out of their money. He comes across Chester and Colette MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst), on the surface a pair of easy marks, wandering the Acropolis, well dressed, affluent and floating through their holiday. Rydal makes their acquaintance and finds them to be pleasant company, particularly the lovely and apparently guileless Colette. But then the action starts following the couple, back to their hotel room where Chester is disturbed by a private investigator. Money is demanded from him on behalf of some swindled investors. We learn that Chester has gone under different aliases, that the cash he throws around might come from unsavoury business practices. A fight breaks out and the dick is accidentally killed. Chester tries to hide the body and Rydal turns up to help him, from then on becoming the couple’s accomplice as they attempt to flee the scene of the crime and relocate to Crete. As Rydal and the MacFarlands journey across the island, trying to avoid any collision with the authorities and waiting for the fake passports that are being arranged by the young man’s shady Greek contacts, their friendship begins to crack. Chester turns increasingly to drink, and Colette becomes closer to Rydal who is nearer her age. Jealousies and tension threaten their relationship, all of which comes to a head as they’re stuck in the Minoan ruins at Knossos.

While the story could take place any time, Amini stays with the novel’s early 1960s setting, giving his film a period feel and pacing it in contemporary style. The sexual tension, while present as Chester starts suspecting his wife and Rydal of sparking an affair behind his booze-soaked back, is more oblique than shown and is actually toned down from what takes place in the novel. A key scene, in which Chester sleeps off his hangover with sedatives leaving Colette to make herself available to Rydal, is cut at the exact moment when it appears she’s moving in for a kiss. Does anything happen? The film implies yes, but it’s an unreliable narrator and you’re left wondering about the exact truth, whether Colette is a flighty piece of work or it’s all part of Chester’s mounting paranoia, which leads to him getting soaked and taking to the streets in a drunken, attention-grabbing pursuit.

Reviews have compared The Two Faces of January to The Talented Mr Ripley, another Highsmith adaptation that came out in 1999. If anything though, Amini appears to stick closer to Strangers on a Train and makes a film with definite shades of Hitchcock, Alberto Iglesias’s violin-driven score carrying heavy overtones of Bernard Herrmann as the suspense mounts. It’s lusciously filmed, the Greek scenery looking like an earthly paradise as a backdrop for the film’s dark deeds. Amini was fortunate enough to be given the rarely granted permission to film at the Acropolis, and at times had to stop shoots due to nearby riots taking place over the Greek government debt crisis.

At its heart, the film works on the performances of its three leads. I’ve been a fan of Mortsensen for some time, though I did get the initial impression his casting was a bit off the mark given Chester is written as a well fed, middle aged drunkard and the actor seems to have far too much charisma to make it work. In fact it’s just fine. Mortensen channels the spirit of Joseph Cotten in his playing, especially his tendency to mumble through some of the character’s drunker moments, and he even gets to copy Cotten’s malicious tone from Shadow of a Doubt when passing on some cynical life lessons about jaded maturity to Rydal, who transforms into a kind of spiritual son. As Chester’s veneer of easy charm cracks, his descent into drink and delusion is terrifying and Mortensen gets it across perfectly. Kirsten Dunst made little impression on me until her work in Melancholia, perhaps a case of waiting for the right and more mature roles to come along. The duplicity of her character, and her willingness to use beauty to switch her allegiances from Chester to Rydal as she realises the former is going down, is really well conveyed, suggesting a somewhat seedy back story of how she married the older man in the first place. And then there’s Oscar Isaac, an actor who has become ubiquitous with the last few years and in great form here. Rydal isn’t an especially great guy, but the personal tragedies that have relocated him from America and the fact he finds himself out of his depth as his fate intertwines with the MacFarlands makes him an engaging third lead, not so much a hero but certainly the least guilty of the three.

Made like a classical thriller, a bit like Mad Men in its decision to keep sex scenes and gaudy violence mostly off the screen, the Two Faces of January is a film I really enjoyed and I was disappointed that it vanished almost as soon as it appeared. It certainly warrants another look, especially with Highsmith’s work once again being promoted as the more personal Carol does the rounds and its performers receive recognition in Academy circles.

The Two Faces of January: ****

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

When it’s on: Monday, 28 December (5.45 pm)
Channel: ITV2
IMDb Link

Watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in the cinema was a somewhat disorientating experience. As someone who loved the Lord of the Rings films, I was only going to buy the best tickets for this one and so we took it in at the IMAX, with 3D and the film’s much vaunted ‘High Frame Rate’ on exhibition. The latter element, projecting the film at 48 frames per second rather than the standard 24, produced the strange effect of the camera and characters appearing to move around at high, unnatural speeds. The aim was to make it more immersive, to show a more realistic image, and in fairness once my eyes adjusted to it I was able to forget it was there, but it made no difference in terms of anything positive. It was just queer. Cinemas were already offering audiences the choice in terms of FPS, and when I went to see the series’ subsequent entries I ignored HFR entirely. I think many people turned away from it also, despite the studio’s pig-headed determination to make it available.

Years later, with all this long in the past and the film judgeable on its own merits, how does it hold up? Without wanting to go into too much detail about it, I was seduced entirely by the LOTR films. If I remember rightly I caught each one twice in cinemas and followed with numerous further viewings on DVD, throwing in several reads of the book in order to get my fix. I was someone to whom the Hobbit movies was aimed directly, fans of Middle Earth who would want more, no matter the quality. By all accounts, the project was in pre-development hell for some time. Kingpin behind the Rings films, Peter Jackson, always had some connection with it but was mired in legal battles and for much of the time appeared to be taking on an Executive Producer’s role, with Guillermo Del Toro attached as both the writer and director. But then Del Toro quit, citing endless delays, and Jackson was on board again with his familiar production team. This made sense as the Hobbit films would take on a more continuous look and feel with the Rings entries, however though everything was in place for ‘more of the same’ there was a major question over the level of investment Jackson was willing to make. It’s well known, partly via the exhaustive appendices that come with the extended LOTR DVDs, that Jackson was as involved as he could be, that he led by example in terms of immersing himself entirely into the production. The result was a set of films that have ‘labour of love’ written right through them. Yes, they were big hitters at the box office, but the frankly insane levels of detail (down to real swords being forged for the actors, in an effort to make their performance feel that bit more ‘real’) emphasise productions that came with genuine seals of quality. Like the films or not, there’s little arguing with the sheer talent in overdrive that was behind them.

Controversies running behind the scenes suggested a tug of war between Jackson and studio interests. The main one was the decision to transform a project designed to cover two movies into three, thus stretching the contents of a children’s novel that runs for 368 pages (a shorter length than any of the three Lord of the Rings books). The logic was that this would give the production capacity to create a true set of prequels, adding plot elements that bridged the gap between both stories. And that’s there in the films, although it can equally be argued that things have been shoehorned in, such as the entire storyline that involves Thorin’s long-running feud with Azog the Defiler. Would the film be any poorer if it excised this altogether?

Of course, the main thrust is to return us to Middle Earth, beginning with an extended opening scene that spirits Martin Freeman’s Bilbo from his comfortable Hobbit Hole in Bag End and on the road to adventure. Freeman is a massive highlight in the film. According to Jackson, he was the only actor to ever be considered to the extent that the production didn’t start until he was available to commit to it. Freeman’s usual acting tropes – nervous, tending to peevishness, underlying resolve – all come to the fore here as he fully inhabits the little halfling whose creature comforts are invaded by the boorish dwarves. A lot of thought has gone into the majority of these characters also, from James Nesbitt as comic relief, Graham McTavish’s gruff warrior, to Aidan Turner and Dean O’Gorman as the laddish younger dwarves and Ken Stott’s worldly wise Balin. They’re led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), instantly noble and highly capable, though also with a sense an air of impatience and prejudice, especially against the elves, who failed to come to his aid when his mountain home was taken over by Smaug. Ian McKellen returns as Gandalf, bringing all the characteristics we loved him for in the Rings films, indeed playing like a repeat performance, mixing action moments with pep talks to Bilbo along the way that are only reminiscent to words he’s had previously/later with Frodo.

It takes quite some time to move the action away from the Shire, and that’s fine to an extent because it introduces us to the major players, establishing the dwarves as capable of cheeky fun and enjoying a song. It also lacks any of the urgency of the Rings plotline, which had to condense weighty tomes into movies that were already longer than three hours and necessitating extended editions on home formats. Here, there’s a creeping sense of bloat, of stretching Tolkein’s slim text as far as it can go, and this stays throughout the films, as little episodes are expanded into major sequences as though everyone is trying to fill in as much time as possible.

And then there’s the issue of CGI. One of the real highlights of the Rings films was the perfect mixture of digital effects and location shooting, opting to film in parts of New Zealand that had been scouted exhaustively for their suitability. Here, there’s a larger degree of green screen, never more so than during the mountain scenes. The fight and flight the dwarves undergo whilst in the halls of the Goblin King are intended to be breathtaking, but as the stunts and action grows into impossible feats done at breakneck speed, it starts taking on the shape of a platform videogame. It’s a lot of fun, but it lacks any of the heft you got in, say, the battle against the Uruk-Hai in The Fellowship of the Ring, which focused on the effort and toll of all the fighting. Whilst you can argue that it’s supposed to be a more family friendly adventure, there’s no real need to ramp up the action in the way it does, transforming dilemmas that fall within the credibility of the drama into comic book set pieces.

It again raises the question over who was pulling the strings. Jackson’s been guilty enough of overplaying his hand (King Kong, The Lovely Bones) beforehand and so it’s quite possible that he’s culpable for slapping CGI onto the screen rather than following the ‘less is more’ rule that made Rings such hits, but there’s a curious lack of care about the film that hints there was more at play. Often, too obviously often, those previous films are referenced, whether through Howard Shore’s musical cues or a gratuitous reappearance from Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel for no better excuse than because they could (she wasn’t the last of the Rings characters who wasn’t actually in the Hobbit novel to turn up in the films). Whether it’s because of a misplaced desire to please the fans or a basic lack of imagination isn’t entirely clear, but these moments look and feel like a tribute track, like there wasn’t sufficient trust in the story to play as its own entity. Either way, the bits taken directly from the book are about the best on screen. Gollum’s scene, a very famous chapter in the novel, is brilliantly done. He’s a great character and watching him here reminds us of that, but also his interplay with Bilbo – most of which is through simple dialogue and a sense of threat – works really well.

I wanted to like The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey more than I did. Around the time of its release I was amongst its defenders, because like many others I’m happy enough to watch further Middle Earth adventures. I even bought the extended cut on DVD and saw that version again for this write-up, though I’d have to point out that whereas the added material in the Rings films actually enhanced the material and inserted missing story elements, here it does nothing more than flesh out the characters, and that unnecessarily. It’s nothing like a bad film, but the one thing I can go on more than any other is the fact I watched those LOTR flicks many times and I’ve barely bothered with this one. The quality just isn’t the same. Whilst I’m aware that sequels are nothing new within the movie industry, the craze for reboots, updates and (bizarrely) prequels is becoming more and more prevalent. Some of this year’s biggest box office hits were titles that either returned us to well trodden places (Jurassic World, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), gave us more of the same (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Furious 7) or rehashed familiar tales (Pan, Mad Max: Fury Road). I’m not trying to say all these films are terrible; that just isn’t true. But the lack of imagination is staggering, the attempts by certain titles, like Tomorrowland, to do something original have no hope due to the recycling and endless spin of marketing. I find myself believing that this film is as guilty of that as anything, a rather naked attempt to get our bums squarely back into cinema seats because, oh look, it’s another Middle Earth flick. And it isn’t the same. The heart that went into Lord of the Rings is absent and the result, several years down the line, is a product about which I care little.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: ***

Shutter Island (2010)

When it’s on: Saturday, 12 December (11.10 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

I am yet to cover a Martin Scorsese picture on these pages, which seems a ridiculous oversight considering his films are rotated frequently enough and there’s always something worth saying about them. Perhaps the problem is that many are undisputed classics, and all I could add is that yes, indeed, they’re very, very good. Personally, I would far rather cover one of the less screened works, like The Last Temptation of Christ or Kundun, because for me they’re really interesting pieces of work that are a little off Scorcese’s beaten track.

And then there’s Shutter Island, his 2010 release that harks back to his clear love for genre cinema, in particular Film Noir. It’s a great example of ‘Neo Noir’, with its 1950s setting and the typical trope of a hero battling personal demons that are just as prevalent as his actual objective. I think these films are fascinating. Whereas movies made in the fifties could do little more than hint at the dark deeds taking place on the screen, by now almost anything goes and Shutter Island can depict all the gore, nudity and bad language that simply was verboten back then. Sometimes that can be a double-edged sword. Scorcese’s remake of Cape Fear surprisingly lost some of the original’s power because it unflinchingly showed Cady’s nastiness in a way that the 1962 version only suggested, failing to understand that the ‘suggestion’ expanded the character’s power and sadism in the minds of the audience. You end up knowing precisely what Robert De Niro is capable of in the update, whereas the original’s Robert Mitchum was a proper bogeyman, with untold depths of horror lurking off the corner of the screen, your imagination filling in the blanks, and then some.

The other element of noir that matters here is length. The economical storytelling that resulted in films rarely capping the 90-minute mark was almost miraculous, something that has tailed off in the modern era with running times longer than two hours seen as quite normal. One of the major criticisms of Shutter Island was that it took so long in reaching its conclusion, to those clever viewers who ‘got’ where it was heading making for an interminable waiting time. I can understand that point of view, though personally I was happy enough to be swept along by the plot and Teddy Daniels’s investigation. There’s always something going on, for instance Scorsese dragging out the tension of entering Shutter Island’s Ward C for the longest possible moment because Daniels, the director and the viewer knows that whatever’s in there is going to be awful.

Shutter Island is an island in Boston Harbour that is the location for Ashecliffe Hospital, a home for the criminally insane. It can only be accessed by ferry, and the region’s frequent storms make it possible for anyone visiting to be trapped there. The year is 1952. Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a US Marshall who, along with his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) is investigating a woman who’s gone missing from the hospital. The patient, named Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer) is there because she killed her three children, but in her delirium refuses to acknowledge her crime. The trouble for Daniels is that there’s no easy way she could have escaped. The door to her cell was locked and Rachel would have had to slip past numerous people before making her way out, and that’s before taking the treacherous climate of the island itself into account. Meeting the lead psychiatrist, Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley), Daniels finds him to be less than completely helpful and ever so slightly cryptic in his answers. Daniels’s own state of mind comes increasingly into account also; he suffers flashbacks in which he returns to the Dachau concentration camp, a place he helped to liberate at the end of World War Two, and to visions of his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams). His ulterior motive for visiting Shutter Island is that it houses Andrew Laeddis, the arsonist whose fire starting antics killed Dolores. If he can find Laeddis and confront him then he reasons he’ll find peace of mind.

One of the biggest reasons the film works is that it introduces its horrors slowly. For some time, things go as expected. Teddy and Chuck talk about the case, the hospital is exactly what it appears to be. Certain facts are denied to the Marshalls, including access to the personnel files, which is important because there may be a doctor on the staff who can reveal more about Rachel’s condition. Then Daniels’s flashbacks start. He begins seeing Dolores, along with a pale little girl. The German psychiatrist (Max von Sydow) seems antagonistic , a red rag to Daniels whose terrible memories of the war make him naturally ill disposed to people from that country. And is Cawley all that he appears to be? Despite appearing every inch the humanitarian who cares for the welfare of his patients, there’s something not quite right, an unease amongst the inmates, rumours that the island’s lighthouse is the scene for experiments on the brain. As Daniels’s paranoia rises he finds himself isolated, even from his partner, and begins to investigate alone.

DiCaprio, who by now was established as a regular collaborator with Scorsese, makes for a fantastic Teddy Daniels. At first he’s stable and professional, but it doesn’t take long before the cracks start to appear and the fact he’s barely holding it together is reflected in a great performance in which his sense of guilt steadily rises to the surface. The next best performance is by the hospital, hardly a slur on the other actors but established as a place that despite the best of intentions is the site of waking nightmares and terror, all dark corners and gloomy metallic walkways.

Neither do I hold with the viewpoint that the film’s entirely about the twist and that’s it. A key speech at the end reveals everything about guilt and using delusions as a masking agent. This tiny moment, delivered after all the movie’s revelations have apparently been laid bare says it all about the motivation of the characters and the willingness of the human mind to shield itself from horrific truths, to show the thin line between sanity and madness. To say more would be to give the game away, but I really enjoyed getting to the end and never felt that the point was too stretched out. For fans of Noir in general, and especially those who enjoyed the likes of Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor, to which Shutter Island has strong links, it’s recommended.

Shutter Island: ****

’71 (2014)

When it’s on: Thursday, 26 November (9.00 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

A Freeview TV première that’s showing on Film4, ’71 is a very tense drama set during the Troubles in Belfast, a period of almost unbearable unease thanks to the sheer number of political factions involved and the incapability – at least at the time depicted in the film – of the small British army to handle itself within a hostile environment. There’s an element of confusion over who can be trusted, the shifting of allegiances that seems to turn on single events, and this environment adds to the film’s overall tone of disorientation. Into this mix is tossed Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), a young private who gets cut off from his unit and left to fend for himself. As local Nationalists try to find and kill him, and the army just tries to find him, Hook is stuck on the back streets, terrified and bewildered, and much of the story tracks his efforts to get back to base.

Viewers are invited to watch ’71 as either a political drama or a thriller, though it works better as the latter, the events at their dizzying finest as the camera tracks Hook scrambling forlornly for safety. O’Connell, increasingly established as a rising star when he featured in this, is fantastic in the lead role. Early scenes show him larking around with his little brother, who’s in a care home, the antics of the pair suggesting Hook is little more than a child himself, albeit one with a gun as he enlists with the army. His character is never portrayed as a hero, and rightly so. Hook gets lost, panics, has strokes of good and bad luck, is badly hurt, and becomes lucky to survive. His first slice of poor fortune is to be sent to Northern Ireland rather than West Germany. It’s clear the army is out of its depth, pushing raw recruits like Hook and his comrades into the scene of a street riot, the unit led by a typical posh boy (Sam Reid) who has as little clue as anyone about how to handle the situation.

Overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the people closing in on them, the unit departs quickly, leaving Hook and a comrade behind, the latter shot dead simply because he’s confronted by a young man (Martin McCann) with a gun in his hand. Hook bolts. The man, Haggerty, chases, loses him, and takes to the streets with Quinn (Killian Scott) and a boy called Sean (Barry Keoghan) in a car, searching for the lost soldier. They represent a more youthful and militant branch of the IRA, incessantly violent, and in conflict with older heads represented by Boyle (David Wilmot) who’s in contact with the British counter insurgency unit, which has a typically grizzled and jaded Sean Harris at its head. All are looking for Hook, who makes friends with a Loyalist boy, only to find the pub he’s taken to blown up thanks to a makeshift bomb going off. By now seriously injured, he’s picked up by a Catholic ex-army medic, Eamon (Richard Dormer), who does his best to repair the damage and then contacts Boyle to help get him back to his barracks. But Boyle’s being tracked by the younger men, who converge on Hook’s position, forcing him back out into the open.

’71 was directed by Yann Demange, better known for his work in television and relishing the opportunity to make a sharp thriller. Sheffield was chosen for filming as it looks more like the downtrodden Belfast streets of the early 1970s, most of which have since been pulled down. The washed out palette adds to the sense of dourness, a poverty stricken and desperate community that’s at war with itself. Kids play in the streets, mess around with fire. Guns are stored beneath the floorboards of bedrooms. Much of the shooting is done using a handheld camera, as though audience members are running alongside Hook, adding a kinetic and fast-paced energy to the action. It’s as good a chase scene as they get.

The film’s attempt to grasp humanity emphasises the violent showdown between Hook and Haggerty, a sequence that ends with the two holding hands as one of them dies, sharing sympathy even though they’re enemies. There’s no attempt to highlight anyone as a villain or hero, just people with goals and jobs to do. The only ‘good guy’ is Eamon, and even he’s motivated by a mixture of fear and cynicism, the doubts in his mind teased out by Dormer’s great performance. Harris is good also, the man who can see the big picture but with the knowledge that there’s little chance he will be able to influence it. It’s such an authentic performance that you can imagine him walking straight off the actual streets of Belfast and onto the set. And then there’s O’Connell, carrying ’71’s energy as he continually tries to evade danger. There’s a reason he’s so highly regarded. He’s electrifying. As is the film itself, which stuffs swatches of authenticity and action into its running time to produce a mix that is quite intoxicating.

’71: ****

The Woman in Black (2012)

When it’s on: Saturday, 30 May (9.00 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

Fans of classic British horror – like me – must have raised a cheer when Hammer Films was sold to a consortium in 2007 with the promise that $50 million was going to be invested in new productions. While this ensured that much of the company’s vast back catalogue was due to be rereleased, the big draw was the upcoming output, and the relative sigh when this turned out to be largely underwhelming. Let Me In was good, but it was an English language remake of the Swedish film, Let the Right One In, with the original secure in its superiority. The Northern Irish based Wake Wood suffered from a very limited release (it’s far from terrible, though), and worse came with The Resident, a thriller featuring a fan-pleasing cameo from Christopher Lee that seemed a tired retread of a theme that had been done before, and better. And the less said about Beyond the Rave then the happier we’ll all be.

A bit like old Hammer, the revitalised studio was churning out a very mixed bag, but then came The Woman in Black and all that latent promise seemed to blossom. Fortunate to recruit one of the best known young faces in the acting world, Daniel Radcliffe, as its star, and in James Watkins having a director who in Eden Lake had made one of the more tense and visceral thrillers in recent years, it promised much, not least in its choice of much loved source material. The novella, The Woman in Black, feels like a chiller from another era, as though a long lost manuscript by Henry James had been discovered, though in reality it was a Susan Hill book that was first published in 1983. Hill set out to write a full length ghost story in the classic style, and indeed it reads like a great slice of Gothic Victoriana, stuffed with florid prose. But it also sets a gloomy, desolate atmosphere, which worked really well, and it went on to become not only a bestseller but a set text on GCSE and A-Level Literature curricula. The stage play, which was another enormous success followed, assiduously adapting the text with its play-within-a-play structure and telling the entire story using just two actors (plus a woman in black).

Arguably, the film follows the play as closely as it does the book, copying many of the former’s jump scares as well as replicating the creeping sense of dread about which Hill wrote. Radcliffe, who appears in every scene, plays Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer who is sent by his firm to North Yorkshire in order to arrange the sale of Eel Marsh House following the death of its owner. Kipps is in trouble. He’s failing at work and his boss (Roger Allam) makes it clear that the prosecution of his task is to be seen as a last chance. Four years before, Kipps’s wife died in childbirth, something that still haunts him, with even the presence of his young son doing little to soften the blow. Arriving in the little town, he finds himself in a largely hostile environment, one where many children have perished, inexplicably at their own hands, and no one taking kindly to the arrival of this outsider. His only friend here is Sam Daily (Ciaran Hinds), who refuses to believe the local superstitions that cite a mysterious woman in black as being responsible for all the deaths. Kipps goes to Eel Marsh House, a crumbling mansion that is built on a spit of land, the road to which is regularly submerged by the sea. He gets to work, realising that the documents he has to trawl through are innumerable, but of more concern is the house itself, with its faded grandeur, dark corners, creaking floorboards and the possibility of ethereal presences haunting its corridors.

More than Radcliffe, Eel Marsh is the star of the show. It’s the classic haunted house, filled with dusty memories and unhappy secrets, solemn children’s playrooms decorated with toys and dolls that take on sinister lives of their own thanks to the clever, shadowy way they’re shot. The gloomy atmosphere is instant, the best scenes when Marco Beltrami’s score gives way to creeping silence, the creak as Kipps moves in his chair, the sounds off-camera of someone/thing else in there with him. It’s the sort of place built for Janet Fielding, Derek Acorah and the Most Haunted gang to be running around in the middle of the night, lit by night cameras and jolted by random noises.

As for the main star, the film lives or dies depending on your acceptance of him as a mature, grown-up character. Is he credible as a young father, or has he not yet shaken off the Harry Potter robes? I think he acquits himself superbly, convincing as a man haunted by his own tragedy and determined to deal with the one unfolding before him as the revelations he discovers at Eel Marsh compel him to take positive action. The best part of his performance is the degree of stillness he manifests, all that grief bottled up inside and yet clear on his face, particularly in the scenes where he imagines he sees his wife.

If The Woman in Black strikes any false notes, it’s in the number of jump scares it goes for. There’s a sense, especially when Kipps tramps around Eel Marsh, chasing – or being chased by – sounds, of Watkins throwing everything at the screen in the hope something will stick, for example the moment he’s jolted by the cawing of a crow that’s entered one of the rooms, and it all feels a bit unnecessary. The atmosphere is palpable and should have been allowed to carry the first half, building an air of unease and oncoming dread, which certainly takes place when the gloomy house turns the dial to eleven in its terrorising of the lawyer.

All the same, it’s a very effective frightener, a cut above the films being put out by the likes of James Wan and many times worthier than those relying on gore instead of a careful development of suspense. Its commercial success made the sequel, The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death, an inevitability, which I went to see on New Year’s Day. Sadly, whilst the atmosphere from the original remained, the powerful central performance was missing and the script ran out of steam and fresh ideas long before the finish. The future for Hammer remains uncertain.

The Woman in Black: ****

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

When it’s on: Monday, 25 May (9.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

Being a parent isn’t easy, unless perhaps you’re a member of the royal family and your media comments about sleepless nights because of baby are transferred from nanny’s words. Whilst there is a mass of stuff you can read about the process of giving birth, what you can do to help as a new father, etc, I don’t remember finding much to do with how the new arrival affects your family, dealing with the psychology, essentially how to suddenly flip your role from being an adult with your own life to the sudden impact of turning into a carer, and being happy doing so. I don’t know if that makes a lot of sense. When we had our son, I admit I was unprepared for it emotionally and took some time to get used to the idea. I liked the life I had beforehand and felt some resentment at it becoming something else whilst having no one to focus that towards. As I said, not easy.

I expect it’s like that for many new parents, and fortunately there appear to have been few ill effects as our boy has transformed into a fifteen year old with some definite teenage surly qualities but, more importantly, signs of becoming a fully rounded human being that I put down more to good luck than our high quality nurturing skills. But I will confess to feeling many of the insecurities experienced by Eva (Tida Swinton) in We Need to Talk About Kevin, which is where the sense of fortune comes into play. What if our son hadn’t been so good? What if he had shown signs, from a very early age, of being a demon child? What if he had apparently exerted every effort in making my life – or my wife’s – a living hell? What if his behaviour led to the slow break-up of our marriage as we failed to talk about what do do with him? What if all this was building to some awful, tragic event that left me attempting to pick up the pieces afterwards, hated by a community that saw me – as the parent – to blame for what happened?

We Need to Talk About Kevin is about the aftermath of the ‘event’ and Eva’s efforts to deal emotionally with it, more importantly her survival when there’s nothing left that’s worth surviving for. She gets up one morning and finds that someone has splashed red paint all over the front of her house and car. She walks past a couple of people, one of whom strikes her viciously. In the shopping mall, she avoids another shopper and then discovers that all the eggs in her trolley have been broken; she pays for them as they are. It’s a hellish existence, punctuated by sleeping pills, alcohol and of course memories, endless memories, the flashbacks of her life up to this point replayed in a pointless loop in which she tries to find some meaning. She realises that she was happy before she met Franklin (John C Reilly) and happy too for a time after. Then they had Kevin, moved from the city to a mansion in the suburbs. Things start to go wrong. As a baby, Kevin does nothing but cry for her and she stands with the pram by a pneumatic drill to drown out his screams. Later, he refuses to engage with her in any way. Toilet training is a nightmare of non-co-operation and exasperation, leading to a moment when, in a spark of anger, she throws him against a wall, breaking his arm, something he uses against her from then on. The only moment in their entire time together that things improve is when she’s reading him a story about the legend of Robin Hood, which sparks his interest in archery, something you just know will have terrible consequences later. They have another child, Celia, who becomes an object of further dislike and jealousy for Kevin, now a teenager (played by Ezra Miller) whose every comment is a barbed spike of hate and bile. Celia loses her pet hamster, then an eye. Both are put down as accidents.

It’s a difficult film to like, It’s far too uncomfortable for that, just like the book by Lionel Shriver (which I’ve started reading) has a gnawing, compelling quality but isn’t something I can imagine recommending to people who want some good bedtime reading. The project spent some years in gestation, attached to Lynne Ramsay before being made as the novel was seen as pretty much unfilmable (it’s told as a series of letters from Eva to Franklin), though the end results are impressive indeed. The principal cast members are all superb. Swinton, best known for playing icy characters, like her performance in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (and being by some distance the best thing in that surprisingly underwhelming adaptation), knows to put any change in outward emotion at a premium, making Eva the sort of character where everything is happening beneath the surface. A tall actor, Swinton does all she can to recede into the background, avoiding any human contact because she knows that all eyes hate her, making hers a deliberately awkward piece of work. Reilly plays Franklin as the oblivious, ‘good’ husband, having no idea what Kevin’s like because he’s being played by his son all along. It’s a revelatory turn by Miller as Kevin, made to look like the male equivalent of Swinton’s character so that, when he commits his act of hate, it’s as though he’s done it all for her, like she’s his audience, his chip off her old block.

The colour red features prominently throughout, from the Spanish tomato festival Eva enjoys in her pre-marital days, looking like she’s bathing in blood, through to the splashes of red paint on her property and the Ketchup sandwich Kevin fixes for himself, all pre-figuring the deed for which both he and she will become notorious. The use of sound is also noteworthy, screams entering the background soundtrack all too often to outline that what Kevin did is never far from the surface of Eva’s thoughts, also the noise of water sprinklers for reasons that become horribly apparent.

Incidentally, I watched The Babadook for the first time over the weekend. This too is a film about parenting, the difficulties that come with raising a troublesome child, and whilst they’re very different movies in terms of content both focus on the subject and play on the fears of being responsible for a kid. It’s hard. And it can go horribly wrong, often enough through no real fault of your own. After all, we’re all flawed in some way; we just have to hope those flaws don’t transfer into the behaviour of our offspring.

We Need to Talk About Kevin: ****

Byzantium (2012)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 11 February (9.00 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

As a History graduate, I was quite excited when I heard there was a film coming out called Byzantium, imagining an epic saga about the Eastern leg of the Roman Empire. To my shock, it turned out to be a low budget vampire flick, not even one set in glamourous Constantinople but instead the faded seaside glories of Hastings. On the plus side, it was to be directed by Neil Jordan, who had kind of gone off the radar a little after hitting his prestigious peak some twenty years ago with Interview with a Vampire, nor was this the first foray into horror by him – The Company of Wolves, made in 1984, was a visually rich effort filled with original ideas. For its time, Interview with a Vampire was a fairly novel step for the genre. The tale of a bloodsucker who has no passion for his vampiric ways, it was a major departure from the traditional concept of vampires as ruthless monsters, with varying degrees of sex appeal chucked in.

By the time Byzantium arrived, the sub-genre had developed into an outright war between those who thought vampires should be portrayed as frightening and inhuman, as depicted in 40 Days of Night, and the romantic objects of fantasy popularised for the female teenage market by the Twilight series. This is no place to rubbish the latter, not least because I quite like the Stephanie Meyer novels, even if the adaptations make for an uneven bunch, but it’s good to see people trying new directions with the mythology, exploring all facets of what vampires are, how they are created and what they do with their immortal lives.

Many stories suggest that vampires have used eternity to accrue massive wealth and live in luxury, but that is decidedly not the case in Byzantium, which tells of mother and daughter, Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saorise Ronan). Whilst the blousey Clara makes ends meet by taking stripping jobs and resorting to prostitution, Eleanor is allowed to maintain the existence of a perpetual sixteen year old, endlessly writing her story and then throwing the pages away. They’re being pursued by a shadowy patriarchal vampiric order, one of whom is killed gruesomely by Clara, which prompts the pair to flee from their grubby flat and move south. They have no money and even fewer plans, sleeping rough and relying on Clara’s wiles with menfolk to scratch out a living. It’s pure luck they fall in with Daniel Mays’s lonely Noel, who just happens to own an abandoned hotel, the eponymous Byzantium, which Clara duly converts into a bordello. The possibility of settling down gives Eleanor the opportunity to enrol in a sixth form college, based in the same building where, two hundred years before, she grew up as part of an orphanage, her place funded by Clara. Here, she meets hemophiliac Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a winsome, artistically minded young man who reaches into her like-minded soul. Against Clara’s and, you suspect, the audience’s better judgement, she commits her life story to paper for him. In the meantime, the order, led by Sam Riley, tracks the women to Hastings.

Byzantium started life as a play, A Vampire Story, written by Moira Buffini, who converted it into the film’s screenplay. The play deliberately avoided vampire clichés and even suggested the characters were just women and the supernatural elements were the product of Eleanor’s imagination, and whilst the film makes it clear what they are, there’s a marked absence of fangs; they feed by extending a fingernail and piercing the victim’s vein before latching on and sucking. Over the course of the story, we learn how Clara and Eleanor became what they are. The former is a fisherman’s daughter, who one day gets picked up by Johnny Lee Miller’s nasty piece of work officer and left to exist in prostitution. Worse, he leaves her pregnant, and she is forced to give the baby up for adoption. Succumbing to tuberculosis, she’s close to death before coming across Riley and learning of an island that offers eternal life, at the expense of her mortal soul. She sees it as a price worth paying and becomes a vampire, or sucreant. Some years later, Miller turns up again to ruin Eleanor, leaving her with little choice but to take her to the island. However, this has awful consequences. Female sucreants are frowned upon and Clara converting Eleanor is viewed as nothing less than outright heresy, turning the women into fugitives.

The results on screen are spellbinding, crammed with interesting shots and absorbing roles for the two main stars. Ronan is brilliant as Eleanor, in reality almost tallying the character’s teenage shell whilst effectively conveying the two hundred year old being locked within. For sustenance, she seeks out the old and infirm, offering death as a release, and it’s easy to imagine this as a ritual, practised and perfected over the years. Arterton’s just as good. A world away from shallow roles in blockbuster movies and channeling her gutsy performance in The Disappearance of Alice Creed, her Clara is beautiful and earthy, a survivor. At times, the women appear to hate each other, Eleanor sickened by Clara’s lies and grubby existence, but the bond between them is just as thick and the possibility of being parted draws them together.

The womens’ history is woven throughout the narrative, drip-feeding us the tale of their origins, mainly via Eleanor’s memories. Equally good is the camera work, scenes filmed in a constantly imaginative way so that it never gets dull. One of the best sees Eleanor walking through a hospital and passing a ward within which lies a dying old woman. She enters, approaches the patient, and we follow from outside, the view obscured be the patterned glass. It’s obvious what is about to happen, but the way it’s filmed lends the scene a sad, discrete element that would not have been present had the death simply been shown.

Byzantium is a stylised and highly recommended film, and it’s good to see Neil Jordan displaying this sort of form.

Byzantium: ****