Category Archives: James Bond

Thrilling Cities, James Bond, & Ian Fleming’s literary fiction

IF YOU HAVEN’T READ Ian Fleming’s Thrilling Cities, I reckon you probably should if you like witty, readable books. At least have a glance at a witty, readable review of it. One key passage that could do with some elaboration is this one:

Fleming was periodically weighed down by a kind of directionless, spiteful ennui, which often fired his best writing – Casino Royale, From Russia, with Love, “The Living Daylights”, “Octopussy”. Reading his novels in sequence, one is bewildered by the mood swings between, for instance, From Russia, with Love, the cynical book in which Fleming comes closest to Le Carré, and actually kills 007 at the end (obviously, it didn’t stick), and its follow-up, the dizzyingly exuberant Doctor No. Today, he’d probably be called bipolar.

It’s unsurprising, really, that Fleming in a foul mood should kill off 007. It wasn’t only his general attitude toward life that was affected by his mood swings, but also his attitude towards his most famous creation. Gleefully pulpy Bond adventures such as Live and Let Die, Moonraker, Doctor No, Goldfinger and Thunderball burst with such genretastic staples as pirate gold, disguised Nazi war criminals, Chinese evil geniuses, all-lesbian crime gangs and missing atomic weaponry. Fleming grew up reading about the exploits of John Buchan’s Richard Hannay, Sapper Morton’s Bulldog Drummond, and Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, and at his most carefree seemed delighted to be keeping alive that lineage.

At other times, he was rather more cynical about his place in the literary world and seemed, as with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, to view his creation as an albatross keeping him from achieving greater literary respect.

Of course, Fleming did have some heavyweight admirers in the literary world. Kingsley Amis was the most prominent, writing two books of analysis of the character, one serious and one tongue in cheek, as well as a continuation novel after Fleming’s death. Roald Dahl, too, counted himself as a fan and wrote the screen treatment for You Only Live Twice. Raymond Chandler thought Fleming a fine thriller-writer, and he should know. Anthony Burgess noted that he had read and enjoyed every one of the Bond novels.

What Fleming lacked, though, was any body of work outside of Bond on which to be judged, with the small exceptions of the children’s book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and two nonfiction books: the aforementioned Thrilling Cities and The Diamond Smugglers, cobbled together from leftover research for Diamonds Are Forever. That’s not to say that the Bond books are entirely without literary merit; just view the passage below from “Octopussy” for evidence:

Octopussy

-it’s just that the obvious limitations of the Bond format of exotic locales, dastardly villains, daring escapades, and sex and booze and food and sex and cigarettes and sex and death don’t much reward experimentation, which is likely why most of Fleming’s occasional stabs at literary fiction are in the short-story format. “Octopussy”, excerpted above, is a slow and rather melancholy rumination on guilt and probably the peak of Fleming’s ability as a writer.

In the same collection appeared “The Living Daylights”, which returns us to somewhat more familiar territory with Bond ordered to snipe a Soviet sniper in order to aid a defection. We’re thoroughly in Le Carré territory here, and treated to such stylistic flourishes as Bond’s mental description of Berlin as “a glum, inimical city dry varnished on the Western side with a brittle veneer of gimcrack polish, rather like the chromium trim on American motor-cars”.

Earlier, Fleming had taken Bond as far away from formula as he’d ever get with “Quantum of Solace”, a stylistic and thematic homage to Somerset Maugham with Bond appearing only to listen to another character whose party he’s attending tell him a story about two other figures and their broken marriage. It’s good stuff if a little pastichey, with the only really unconvincing element being the questionable necessity of having Bond himself appear at all.

Mind you, the Bond of the short-stories spent about as much time relaxing as he did going on missions. “The Hildebrand Rarity” introduces us to a truly vile American businessman, Milton Krest, and his vessel the Wavekrest. Krest has no plan more dastardly than to use somewhat unethical fishing techniques to retrieve the rare fish of the title, but he’s a more convincing portrait of evil than a whole cartoonish parade of Draxes, Goldfingers and Blofelds. We finally end up in murder-mystery territory as Krest is found murdered with two possible suspects (we as readers are allowed to know James Bond didn’t do it) and a subversive lack of solution.

Finally, there’s one Bond novel that attempts to enter literary-fiction territory (though look out for flourishes in Casino Royale and From Russia, with Love): The Spy Who Loved Me, in which a nice yet somewhat broken Canadian girl recounts her life and sexual history for two-thirds of the novel before Bond shows up and takes care of the thugs menacing her in the present. It was released to reviews ranging from indifferent to hostile, and Fleming quickly decided he was embarassed by it, leading to a film “adaptation” that used the novel’s title and very little else. Actually it’s really not that bad (aside from one cringeworthy line extolling the merits of “semi-rape”) if one’s able to accept that it’s really not much of a Bond adventure.

Still, its reception seems to have put Fleming off from doing anything other than sticking to what he knew best, and he stuck to formula for the superb On Her Majesty’s Secret Service before the rushed You Only Live Twice and The Man with the Golden Gun. One wonders how he would have fared in the literary world had he not been so afraid to experiment; the presence of Bond himself in each of these stories feels like nothing more than a crutch and they’d all be the better off simply ditching the whole pretence. But I suppose albatrosses aren’t easily got rid of.

 

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Ian Fleming, Thrilling Cities, & the reluctant traveller

TRAVEL WRITING STEMS from a variety of motives – to inform, to amuse, to educate, to show off or to make a bit of money. But sometimes the best travel writing comes from writers who don’t even want to be there in the first place.

That was the case for Ian Fleming in 1959, when The Sunday Times all but forced Fleming to make a several-weeks’ trip around Asia and then on to the United States via Hawaii. Despite Fleming admitting himself to be “the world’s worst sightseer”, who “had often advocated the provision of roller-skates at the doors of museums and art galleries”, the trip went ahead and resulted in a series of articles for the paper, one for each city visited; these articles were later compiled to form one of Fleming’s few non-James Bond books, Thrilling Cities.

But Bond aficionados will find much that is familiar; not only the glamour, but the seediness, the snobbery, the murky threat of violence, the constant boozing and the malaise of the novels can all be easily recognised throughout the travels recorded here. The first city visited is Hong Kong, where Fleming’s descriptions are enjoyable both for what has changed – “when the remaining forty years of our lease of the mainland territory expire, I see no reason why a reduced population should not retreat to the islands and the original territory which we hold in perpetuity” – and for what is still eminently recognisable: “the streets of Hong Kong are evidence that neon lighting need not be hideous, and the crowded Chinese ideograms in pale violet and pink and green with a plentiful use of white are entrancing not only for their colours but also because one does not know what drab messages and exhortations they spell out”. While staying in Hong Kong, Fleming also makes a jaunt to Macau, where he latches on to stories about the gold-smuggling trade, with “the internal Geiger-counter of a writer of thrillers ticking furiously”, before making his way on to Tokyo.

“I hate, small, finicky, breakable things, and I am slightly over six feet tall”, complains Fleming, who has had reservations about Japan from the beginning: “Before and during the war they had been bad enemies and many of my friends had suffered at their hands.” But in his short three days there, Fleming is won over both by his companions – Orientalised Australian Dick Hughes and Japanese “Tiger” Saito – and by the eccentricity and charm of Japanese culture. Despite feeling clumsy, awkward, and out of place, a good-humoured, “when in Rome” attitude soon overtakes him, and in a brief three days he manages to take in a meeting with Somerset Maugham, a Judo demonstration, a Japanese bath, a visit with a soothsayer, and an evening with geishas, all sake-soaked and never in violation of his anti-itinerary: “no politicians, museums, temples, Imperial palaces or Noh plays, let alone tea ceremonies.” The judo, bath, geishas, and Maugham are uniformly delightful, but the soothsayer is rather a wash, predicting Fleming will live to eighty, return to Japan, and is about to enjoy a streak of good luck. The latter cheers him, his companions having dispensed grave warnings to him against his flight out of Tokyo: flying on Friday the 13th is bad enough but, going Eastward to Hawaii, he will cross the dateline and experience two Friday the 13ths in a row.

As with the soothsayer’s other predictions, the streak of good luck is nonsense. The flight gets off to a bad start, rattled by Typhoon Emma, but Fleming doesn’t mind. His devil-may-care alter ego Bond actually prefers to fly on the 13th, he reminds us: “There are practically no passengers and it’s more comfortable and you get better service.” The comfort, the service, and the drinks see him asleep by midnight. After four hours, the voice of the captain awakes him: “There has been an explosion in number three engine and a fire […] I have no hydraulic pressure.” Luckily, this happens to be the most unflappable airline pilot in the world: “We have altered course for Wake Island where I shall carry out a no-flap landing at an unusual altitude and faster than is the custom […] I have made many three-engine landings and also many without hydraulic pressure, so – see you on the ground!”

In their own day, most of the appeal of the Bond novels and, by extension, Thrilling Cities, was aspirational; the diabolical villains and lurid exploits were just conventional story-building elements. Air travel alone was a thrilling and romantic experience, beyond the means of most, never mind staying in the best hotels, playing in the best casinos, wearing the finest suits, drinking the finest wine, eating the best caviar – the novels work as a sort of lifestyle porn, and Thrilling Cities, lacking the villains and the exploits, still works on the same level. Today, air travel, exotic places, skiing, fine dining and cocktails are no longer unobtainable for the average person, but that aspirational element remains; rather than vicariously living like an international playboy, today’s reader instead longs for a time when boarding an aeroplane was an adventure rather than a chore.

With a USAF rescue-plane and two Navy craft deployed, the captain breezily makes his landing (“To lighten the load, I am about to dump fuel, so there will be no smoking please.”) and Fleming’s en route to Honolulu, where his spirits remain high despite his failure to take to surfing, his distaste for plinking ukulele music and his dismay at hordes of elderly American tourists.

Fleming’s thriller-writer senses kick in once again in Los Angeles as he discusses the Mafia with Police Captain Hamilton, and his gambling connoisseurism in Las Vegas, providing a quick summary of how to gamble sensibly that is the level-headed antithesis of Mr. Bond’s high-stakes play. Speaking of Bond, Fleming was so wearied and miserable by the time he reached New York (via Chicago) that, as an apology for his rubbishing of the city, American readers were offered a humorous short-story about him. “007 in New York” isn’t much of a thriller but its throwaway nature is precisely what makes it enjoyable, with a rare and light-hearted ending in which Bond fails his mission – plus, there’s a recipe for “scrambled eggs James Bond”.

Fleming’s trip was so successful that, having barely finished submitting his articles, Fleming found himself being asked by the paper to make another trip. The Sunday Times had Latin America in mind, suggesting the appropriately thrilling Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and Havana, but an already-weary Fleming was only willing to go as far away as Europe, making most of the trip in his own car and finding many of his destinations boring or repellent.

First on the agenda was Hamburg, where Fleming – often caricatured as an old Tory, but really more of a libertarian – briefly praises the sex industry (“normal heterosexual ‘vice’ is permitted to exist in appropriate ‘reservations’ and on condition that it remains open and light-hearted. How very different from the prudish and hypocritical manner in which we so disgracefully mismanage these things in England!”) before moving on to Berlin where he is oppressed by Modernist architecture, Cold War tensions and the spectre of Hitler.

In “The Living Daylights”, James Bond thinks of Berlin as “a glum, inimical city dry varnished on the Western side with a brittle veneer of gimcrack polish, rather like the chromium trim on American motor-cars”. If anything his creator is even harsher, but one wonders whether it’s the ghastliness of the city itself or the ghastliness of his mood that’s to blame. Fleming was periodically weighed down by a kind of directionless, spiteful ennui, which often fired his best writing – Casino Royale, From Russia, with Love, “The Living Daylights”, “Octopussy”. Reading his novels in sequence, one is bewildered by the mood swings between, for instance, From Russia, with Love, the cynical book in which Fleming comes closest to Le Carré, and actually kills 007 at the end (obviously, it didn’t stick), and its follow-up, the dizzyingly exuberant Doctor No. Today, he’d probably be called bipolar.

Even so, Fleming takes out some frustrations in a still-thrilling description of buzzing down the Autobahns, which takes up a good third of the chapter and makes the arrival to pleasant, dull Vienna rather an anti-climax, as is Geneva (“to include Geneva among the thrilling cities of Europe must seem to most people quixotic”). Italy is a bright spot: tracking down retired gangster Lucky Luciano in Naples, and Gracie Fields in Capri, before noting down an amusing bit of bother in Pompeii when a French tourist’s wife is refused entry to the Lupanar, where “childish pictures […] show you how to make love – if you were the right shape and extremely athletic”. The unimpressed Frenchman protests, “Pah! […] You think I have come a thousand miles from Paris to see that? Why, I was doing it myself when I was sixteen! […] These stupid Romans had no idea how to make love. And you mean to say you won’t let my wife see this nonsense!”. And after a discourse on how ugly and dull lava is, our author makes his way to Monte Carlo, where an amusing encounter with a sarcastic English girl and a visit to Jacques Cousteau both prove so restorative to the author’s spirits that he ends up closing the book with an incongruous “What fun it all was! What fun ‘abroad’ will always be!”

Still, travel at the best of times tends to take it out of us, but in another six weeks, six months, or a year we find ourselves looking back on our adventures with nothing but fondness, and presumably it was so for Fleming too, who probably expected to make a third trip once he’d recuperated sufficiently. Sadly, a heart attack at 56 meant that not only would there be no third trip, there’d be no more of his Bond novels either. Given how many of his experiences and impressions from Tokyo made their way directly into You Only Live Twice, it’s hard not to wonder what sort of adventures he was planning for Bond in Macau, Honolulu, or Naples. Still, the adventures recorded here provide an appropriately thrilling little volume which, if it is too dated to be of much value as a guidebook, is so of its time as to be indispensable as social history, and should be treasured and re-read as the witty, crotchety, yet always endearing record of a reluctant traveller.

Ian Fleming Author the creator of James Bond 1963

Tomorrow Never Dies, Police Story 3, & a hopeless spinoff

I’VE ALWAYS THOUGHT that, as exciting and underrated as it is, Tomorrow Never Dies probably features a bit too much action for a Bond picture, which have always leant towards the “adventure” side of action/adventure – it’s a noticeable difference if you compare the series to such Bond competitors/derivatives as the Indiana JonesBatman or Mission: Impossible series, or Marvel’s brand-new stab at the long-dormant “black 007” genre in Black Panther.

For a long time, though, I’d been mistakenly thinking of it as a film that’s overly keen to ape violent American films, in the manner of Licence to Kill or Quantum of Solace. After defining its own subgenre in the 60s, the series has occasionally, and rather sadly, borrowed from other genres, many of them partially derived from the Bond formula itself: blaxploitation in Live and Let Die; Kung Fu in The Man with the Golden Gun; Star Wars in Moonraker; Lethal Weapon, Die Hard and their ilk in Licence to KillBatman Begins in Casino Royale; Bourne in Quantum of Solace. What hadn’t struck me previously is that Tomorrow Never Dies represents the Bond series’ attempt to piggyback on Hong Kong action cinema of the sort codified by John Woo. That’s the real meaning of Bond dual-wielding a P99 and an MP5 as he mows down Carver’s henchmen, not to mention the use of pre-Matrix bullet-time showing off Wai Lin’s cartwheels and high kicks.

Wai Lin, of course, is played by the Hong Kong star Michelle Yeoh, who had already submitted an audition tape for this precise rôle with her appearance in Police Story 3: Super Cop. In that film, Yeoh plays a no-nonsense Chinese policewoman, an orthodox communist who bickers with the partner she’s assigned: Jackie Chan as a policeman from (then still-British) Hong Kong. In Tomorrow Never Dies, Yeoh plays a no-nonsense Chinese spy, an orthodox communist who bickers with the partner she’s assigned: James Bond, a spy from Britian. (An earlier draft of Tomorrow Never Dies would actually have revolved around the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China, which was scrapped when a) production took too long for the issue still to be relevant, and b) the handover went very smoothly and afforded little opportunity for action set-pieces or communist-vs.-capitalist quipping.)

It isn’t only the character dynamic between Bond and Wai Lin that feels borrowed from Police Story. After about eighty minutes of standard Bond stuff, the film sends us to Asia, after which the action is nonstop for about a solid half-hour. Among the setpieces are Bond and Wai Lin rappeling down a skyscraper by clinging to an enormous and slowly-tearing poster adorning its side, and a rooftop motorcycle chase for which the pair are handcuffed to one another for the duration. The combination of eye-popping action and physical comedy comes straight from Jackie Chan, and it’s a shame that Pierce Brosnan is an actor and not a stuntman, for scenes like these work best when they’re done fully in-camera, without swapping between actors and stuntmen.

Wai Lin was apparently one of the series’ more popular Bond Girls, though I always found Yeoh a little stiff and awkward here compared to some of the wonderful performances she’s given in Chinese and HK films. Still, a spinoff was originally intended for her character who, of several Bond Girls set up as female counterparts to Bond (The Spy Who Loved Me‘s XXX, Die Another Day‘s Jinx) is the most convincing. Yeoh was already used to such spinoffs, having starred in one of her own featuring her character from Police Story 3: Super Cop. That spin-off was confusingly marketed in various territories as SupercopSupercop 2, Police Story 3 Part 2, Supercop, Police Story IV, Project S or Once a Cop. I wonder whether the producers would even have started thinking about spinoffs if the Police Story series hadn’t gone there first.

And I wonder if the Police Story series first came to their attention with the wide release of Police Story 4: First Strike, aka Jackie Chan’s First Strike. It takes the series away from Hong Kong cop action in favour of a globetrotting plot obviously intended to launch Chan’s character as a Hong Kong alternative to Bond, and was seen by plenty of international audiences previously ignorant of the series. Once again, Bond was borrowing from its own imitators.

As for the Wai Lin spinoff, it never materialised, and the producers turned their hopes to Jinx in Die Another Day, envisioning a “Winter Olympics” scenario in which her films and Bond’s would alternate. After the rough reception given Halle Berry not only in Die Another Day but also X-Men, Swordfish and (especially) Catwoman, the spinoff idea was once again abandoned, and I have to wonder: does anyone really want or need to see Bond without Bond? If they do, they already have a rich array of alternatives from which to choose.

Tomorrow Never Dies

Licence Revoked, Licence to Kill, & bad Bond luck

Tim Dalton

IN MY LAST BLOG POST, I was chatting about how the 16th Bond film, Licence Revoked, suffered an undignified and expensive last-minute name change to Licence to Kill. That wasn’t the only thing going wrong behind the scenes on one of the least inspired, least successful entries in what is, for the most part, a reliable series.

To begin with Timothy Dalton, who had made his début in 1987’s The Living Daylights, was certainly the 007 with the rottenest luck. First approached by the producers in 1969 to replace Connery for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Dalton’s conscience or sense of purism wouldn’t allow him to accept the part, believing himself to be too young. In 1981, however, he was all set to take over in For Your Eyes Only; a condition of accepting the rôle was that the script take Bond in a darker, more gritty direction that took more cues from the Fleming novels and short stories. In the end, Dalton didn’t end up appearing in that film either, but the script intended for him supplied Moore with one of his best, and certainly his darkest, outings as Bond. By the time Dalton was finally ready, in 1987, the tables were turned, and The Living Daylights sees him awkwardly making his way through a script intended for Moore. The resultant high-camp doesn’t sit well with the character Dalton is playing, and the picture is largely confused and forgettable, with a few honourable bright spots. GoldenEye, an exceptionally sharp scipt written especially for Dalton, would eventually star Pierce Brosnan, and in the meantime Dalton was lumped with the only script written for him that he would ever actually appear in, something called Licence Revoked.

In many ways, it was to be the tentative first modern Bond, in the sense that many series mainstays were either gone or on their way out. The early entries are magnificent pictures due to their good fortune in having a wonderful production team behind them. It was time to prove that the formula could outlast its creators: it was the first film not to bear a title from Fleming, and the last for some time to use any Fleming elements in its script. It was the last to star Timothy Dalton. It was the last written by Richard Maibaum. It was the last directed by John Glen. It was the last with titles by Maurice Binder. It’s the last to depict Bond as a smoker, and the last in which the original version of Felix Leiter appears. It’s the last outing for second Moneypenny Caroline Bliss, and second M Robert Brown; it will be the last appearance of a Male M until 2012’s Skyfall. It was the last Bond production by Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, though he would be retained on GoldenEye as a consultant producer. Harry Saltzman and Peter R. Hunt had long since left the series, and it was the first film following John Barry’s departure. It was also the first to feature a photographic, rather than a painted, poster; would receive a novelisation, just like all of Brosnan’s entries, and unlike most of the previous pictures; and it was the first to subject Bond’s masculinity to scrutiny, something that has been retained in all eight subsequent films.

You have to admire Dalton, for his devotion to the Bond literature, his willingness to put artistic integrity before commerciality, and the fact that he’s a damned fine actor, not to mention that his overlooked status in the franchise makes him automatically sympathetic. But I’ve always found that Sean Connery’s ability to play high charm with a threat of violence that may explode from under the surface at any moment to more authentically capture the character of Bond than does Dalton’s portrayal, which is a perpetually ticked-off but ultimately not very dangerous type of rogue. The Licence Revoked script picks up on the worst aspects of that characterisation, stripping out even the tenderness that makes up for the many flaws of The Living Daylights.  Here, Bond is as totally cold as he ever got, going up against a bunch of drug-dealing lowlives responsible for various acts of rape, torture and murder, including putting his friend Felix Leiter in a coma. Naturally, Bond goes into a full-on white rage, murdering his way through a script full of such horrors as shark feeding frenzies, maggot tanks, viscerally exploding heads, bad guys burnt alive, crooked televangelists and huge clouds of cocaine dust. He even attacks his old friend M, going rogue without a Licence to Kill (it’s never explained why he escapes prosecution for going on a murder-spree, nor what strings could possibly have been pulled to see him reinstated by the time of GoldenEye).

A Bond script is a plastic thing, though, and surely a series of rewrites could have salvaged Licence Revoked, were it not for the unfortunate timing of the 1989 Writers’ Strike. Director John Glen was on his fifth Bond outing by this point; a former second-unit director, he made efficient, satisfying and cheap Bond pictures with none of the grandiosity of Guy Hamilton, the cool of Terence Young, or the humour of Lewis Gilbert. One of those directors might have found some hidden inner charm or flair that would give Licence to Kill an identity. Glen’s approach is workmanlike and drab, doing nothing to compensate for the lack of an engaging script.

Another sorely felt loss to the Bond formula was sex, vetoed due to AIDs. The Living Daylights reformed Bond; he’s a chaste, yet deeply romantic and tender figure. It’s one of only a handful containing a convincing romance, along with From Russia with Love, The World is Not Enough and Casino Royale. Licence to Kill doesn’t lack sex; depicted or implied sexual violence is commonplace, but its already unlikeable protagonist is made more inhuman yet by his seeming sexlessness. There are women for him in the picture, two of them in fact, but the bizarre culmination of their flirtation is that he pushes both of them into a pool, like some kind of sensually asexual psychopath able only to get his jollies through humiliation. It should be noted that he blows off Felix Leiter, the friend that all this revenge was supposedly in aid of, to do this. Not to fuck either girl, or even both at once, but to push them into a pool while a fish winks at the audience. Even the cringing nature of Moore’s romance with young-enough-to-be-his-daughter Tanya Roberts in A View to a Kill is preferable.

Something else A View to a Kill had that Licence lacks is a great theme song. “Licence to Kill” is probably the worst of the lot, histrionic, synthetic and ultimately forgettable.

Floundering to find a market and making do without classic elements and without writers able to write around that absence, the producers looked to American audiences to secure a future for Licence Revoked. The change of title was made to court American audiences, who apparently found the existing one comical, it being a phrase commonly used by the DMV, a favourite fallback target of American humour. Changing the title at this point, however, with much promotional material already printed, cost the producers not just in cash but also in marketing momentum.

The issue may not necessarily have been in changing the title partway through production, but in gearing up the marketing machine before a sensible title was settled on. There’s something dark and enticing to my ears about the Licence Revoked title, but at least Licence to Kill more clearly connects with the Bond brand. That brand was less in evidence given other tweaks to the established formula also presumably tailored to please American audiences; Licence to Kill plays out as an American action film of the 80s, an influence underlined by the hiring of Lethal Weapon and Die Hard composer Michael Kamen. There’s an anonymity to Licence to Kill‘s violent revenge fantasy, as if it could just as well be Dirty Harry, or Death Wish, or any number of similarly mean-spirited, hard-boiled flicks. It’s that approach which earned Licence to Kill a 15 certificate, further hurting its commercial potential though adequately warning kids away from the amped-up violence* of a series already more adult-oriented than its legions of kid fans would lead you to believe. The Sunday Times‘ Ian Johnstone was put off, finding that the film had eradicated “any traces of the gentleman spy” envisaged by Fleming; Bond here is “remarkably close both in deed and action to the eponymous hero of the Batman film”.

He makes an apt comparison. Either Jaws or Star Wars is usually cited as the birth of the Summer blockbuster, but in truth it’s not a phenomenon that arrived fully-formed, as evidenced by the conflicting citations of two different pictures from different Summers. Batman was huge in an unprecedented way, not a word-of-mouth success like Jaws or Star Wars but a marketing juggernaut, impossible to avoid even months in advance of the release date. You can see why Licence to Kill chose to borrow elements of its approach. But going up against it in the box-office is a decision that smacks of hubris. In fact 1989’s whole Summer season was a brutal gauntlet, with action audiences pulled in different directions not just by Batman, but also Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade**, Lethal Weapon 2 and Ghostbusters II, all of them not just better films than Licence to Kill but also healthier representatives of their respective franchise.

All told, you can’t fault audiences in 1989 for not connecting with Licence to Kill. It failed both at bringing Bond convincingly up to date and at paying tribute to the series’ well-loved roots, both tasks managed seemingly effortlessly in GoldenEye . Of course, that film would have its own painful birth, after six years of legal and financial stresses and the loss of Tim Dalton, who would even express an interest in Kevin McClory’s Warhead 2000 A.D.. Still, Bond was saved, and would never find himself in any trouble again…until Quantum of Solace appeared, an underwhelming Bond which fails to connect with the classic formula due to a rushed production schedule, a name that audiences hated, a writers’ strike, and a sad desperation to piggyback on popular action tropes. It even lacked a proper romance for Bond, and its failure meant we wouldn’t see another outing for four whole years, leaving its successor the difficult task of reinvigorating the franchise all over again. If only the producers had had an example to learn from, there…

*Milton Krest’s horrible death scene certainly lingered with me as a child, as did Benicio del Toro’s jeering rapist: “We gave her a niiiiice honeymoon!”

**Complete with meta-Bonding Sir Sean Connery

Quantum of Solace, Licence to Kill, & what’s in a name

WHO’S GOING TO BE the next actor to play James Bond? Well, fingers crossed Daniel Craig will sign on to do one final picture: it would mean that his run matches the original five of Sir Sean Connery, and would allow the producers to finish the arc that has run through his pictures since 2006’s Casino Royale, resolving the cliffhanger ending of Spectre and leaving things open for a relatively fresh start with 007 Number Seven. Sadly, Craig’s unlikely to sign up for another, having claimed he’d rather “slit [his] wrists”. So if not him, then who? The big four names being tossed around are Aidan Turner, Damian Lewis, Tom Hiddleston, and Idris Elba, presented there in descending order of how good a choice I think they are. Incidentally, here’s that popular shot from Poldark of Turner sans shirt, getting some scything in and unknowingly auditioning for the Bond part:aidan-turner

Well, that’s all well and good. But what are they going to call Bond 25, I wonder-? Most likely, they’ll come up with an original title, probably something one-word and mysterious, like Skyfall or Spectre. Hey, how about naming the movie Risico, in that case?

“Risico” was one of the short stories featured in Ian Fleming’s collection For Your Eyes Only. But how can that be? When the 16th Bond film was still in production, the producers made an announcement: they had exhausted the pool of Fleming titles, and the new picture would have an original name, Licence Revoked. The title was a probable reference to John Gardner’s continuation Bond novel Licence Renewed, but it later became Licence to Kill, following its original title’s poor testing with US audiences (the title change came at great cost to the producers, just one of the many factors in the disaster of Licence to Kill‘s production). But the producers were telling blatant fibs! Fleming wrote twelve Bond novels; eleven of those twelve formed the first eleven Eon Productions pictures, though filmed out of order compared with their source material. Even referring to the novels as source material is slightly misleading; as the series continues, the films diverge more and more from the novels whose titles they borrow. Dr. No, From Russia with Love*, Goldfinger, Thunderball and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service provide basically straightforward adaptations of their source novels, while You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun take the basic plots of the novels simply as templates, playing out in a grander, more comedic style with a number of original story additions. The film supposedly based on The Spy Who Loved Me, the one novel Fleming was embarrassed by, instead uses an original story, albeit one that borrows elements of You Only Live Twice, and was sufficiently different from the novel whose title it uses that screenwriter Christopher Wood was allowed to pen a novelisation entitled James Bond, the Spy Who Loved Me. Its follow-up, Moonraker, used the villain name, but little else, from its novel; millionaire British philanthropist and secret Nazi Sir Hugo Drax became American entrepeneur and secret eugenicist Hugo Drax; once again, the original plot was novelised by Christopher Wood, and once again, past Bond films were a partial inspiration, Drax’s scheme and motivation being a space version of the underwater vision of The Spy Who Loved Me‘s Karl Stromberg.

At that point, with no more novel titles to use (Casino Royale was legally unavailable to the producers, thanks to the 1954 television film and 1967 spoof versions), the producers turned to short stories, first fancying “For Your Eyes Only”, then “Octopussy”, “From a View to a Kill”**, and “The Living Daylights”. In fact, the end credits of The Spy Who Loved Me announce the next film as For Your Eyes Only, showing the producers intended to turn to short story titles before even exhausting the novel titles available to them (the success of Star Wars caused them to embrace the science-fiction-sounding Moonraker title, though the novel itself contains no space-travel elements). These short stories predictably proved difficult to stretch to feature length, and the films at this point became cannibalistic hybrids: For Your Eyes Only draws part of its plot from “For Your Eyes Only”, but also looks to “Risico”, From Russia with Love, and one unused sequence from the Live and Let Die novel. An updated version of the short story “Octopussy”‘s events, updating WWII to the Korean War, forms the backstory of Octopussy, being told in brief by the title character, and takes an auction scene from “The Property of a Lady” and its broad plot from Goldfinger. A View to a Kill takes from its short story only the setting of Paris, before moving on to a plot that once again draws on Goldfinger, with some original elements. The Living Daylights similarly adapts its short story for one scene in a mostly original plot.

But the producers still had literary content left to mine, in spite of their public fibbing. Licence to Kill re-uses elements from the Live and Let Die film and novel as well as The Man with the Golden Gun novel alongside elements from the short story “The Hildebrand Rarity”. Licence to Kill thus bears the same degree of similarity to that short story as FYEO, Octopussy, AVtaK and TLD do to their respective short story titles, so why isn’t it entitled The Hildebrand Rarity? The likely answer is that what was meant was that they had run out of story titles that sounded good. “Risico”‘s title comes from a phonetically-rendered pronunciation of “risk”; “The Property of a Lady” would have worked for Sir Roger Moore but not for Timothy Dalton’s harder-edged interpretation of the character; “The Hildebrand Rarity” sounds more like Sherlock Holmes than James Bond; “007 in New York” is deeply underwhelming; and “Quantum of Solace” is basically word salad.

About that. GoldenEye takes its name from Fleming’s Jamaica house and uses an original plot (with some elements of the villain drawing on the Moonraker novel); Tomorrow Never Dies was a garbled version of the in-story newspaper slogan, “Tomorrow never lies”, and used a wholly original plot; The World is Not Enough is Bond’s family motto from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and uses yet another original plot (though aspects of the finale draw on Kingsley Amis’ continuation novel Colonel Sun). Finally, Die Another Day‘s title is a fragment from a Housman poem, and draws mostly from the previously unused plot of the novel Moonraker, plus re-used elements of the Diamonds Are Forever film, and brief references to the novels The Man with the Golden Gun and Colonel Sun.

Then in 2006 came Casino Royale, the first Bond to bear a novel’s title since 1979’s Moonraker (and the first mostly straightforward adaptation of a novel since 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). Having recovered the rights to adapt the famous first Bond novel, the producers opted to reboot the franchise entirely, discovering in the process a reverence for the Fleming source material that had been missing from the series for some time. In trying to craft a followup, the producers opted to continue with the Fleming loyalty, picking as a title Quantum of Solace, taken from an atypical short story which homaged Somserset Maugham and in which Bond was barely a character. Of course, the Quantum of Solace movie opted not to adapt that story, and instead went for something mostly original; though its very last scene does present a sort of adaptation of “007 in New York”, the bulk of its plot grows out of the last act of the Casino Royale movie (and also bears an unfortunate resemblance to Licence to Kill). Daniel Craig, for his part, claimed that the film reflected the same themes as the short story, but to date “Quantum of Solace” remains the only one of Fleming’s novels or stories not to have any part of its plot worked into a film.

The use of Quantum of Solace as a title was well-meant, but as soon as it was announced there came an enormous backlash from casual fans who were unaware that blame for the (admittedly horrendous) title lay with Fleming, not Eon. I believe that, had it not been for that backlash, Bond 23, which became Skyfall, would likely have been entitled Property of a Lady. I also believe, given the increasing concessions to the style of Roger Moore’s era evidenced in Skyfall and Spectre, that it would have been a wholly appropriate title. It’s certainly the most Bond-y feeling title of the remaining unused ones, but my hopes are high for a Bond film entitled Risico, after which, we’ll see about Property of a Lady and The Hildebrand Rarity. We’re unlikely to ever see a Bond picture entitled 007 in New York. But how about a fun little “007 in New York” short? It could be released on YouTube to build hype for the next movie, shown in cinemas before an appropriate feature, released as a DVD extra, or made to tie into a major television event, like the 2012 Olympics’ “Happy and Glorious” Bond short.

So, what’s in a name? Well, nothing really. I understand the producers’ eagerness to use a cool-sounding Bond title, and that that desire trumps a sort of historical completionism. In the meantime, little bits of innuendo towards the stories are creeping in, meaningless throwaway references such as Casino Royale‘s character of Solange, named for one in “007 in New York”, or the presence, in Spectre, of a “Hildebrand Antiques and Rarities” as well as a repurposed Hans Oberhauser (“Octopussy”), all of which are all well and good, but add up to very little.

Still, I’ll be going to see Bond 25 no matter what title it gets saddled with, and I note at this point that I disliked the generic Skyfall title even more than the outlandish Quantum of Solace one. Anyway, nothing will stop me from hoping.

*This was the first Bond to slightly adapt a title, losing the comma from the novel’s title of From Russia, with Love.

**The short story is entitled “From a View to a Kill”; the film simply A View to a Kill. This decision was obviously made after the film was in the planning stage, as the end credits of Octopussy announce the next film’s title as From a View to a Kill, becoming the second instance of the end credits making a mistake regarding the next film’s title. After A View to a Kill announced The Living Daylights, this practice was dropped entirely; otherwise, The Living Daylights would have mistakenly announced Licence Renewed, GoldenEye would have mistakenly announced Tomorrow Never Lies, The World is Not Enough might have mistakenly announced Beyond the Ice and, if I’m correct, Quantum of Solace would have mistakenly announced Property of a Lady.

Skyfall, 007 Legends, & rehabilitating the Bond canon

007 Legends.jpgASIDE FROM THEIR RATHER UNFORTUNATE resemblance to Austin Powers in Goldmember, one thing that’s puzzling about the two most recent Daniel Craig-starring Bonds – Skyfall and Spectre – is the inconsistent way in which they attempt to revive the canon of the old Bonds.

From 1962’s Dr. No to 2002’s Die Another Day, the twenty James Bond films existed in the same loose, yet mostly consistent, continuity; the understanding was that GoldenEye‘s opening scene took place during Timothy Dalton’s tenure in 1986, and this didn’t cause any conflict since both actors were still portraying the same character. Similarly, each of George Lazenby’s successors had scenes alluding, explicitly or implicitly, to Tracy Bond, the wife he loses at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: Sean Connery in Diamonds Are Forever, Roger Moore in For Your Eyes Only, Timothy Dalton in Licence to Kill, and Pierce Brosnan in The World is Not Enough (potentially in GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies also). However, in 2006, someone at Eon decided to take a cue from Batman Begins and give the series a gritty reboot, modernising certain elements and retelling the character’s origin to keep him in line with the times*; thus, the four-film arc that Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall & Spectre together constitute is to be understood as a standalone timeline, that has no direct story connection with the 1962-2002 series of films.

Or not. While Casino Royale & Quantum have a hard-boiled, mostly humourless approach informed by the Bourne series, Skyfall and especially Spectre evidence a yearning for the grandiosity of the 60s Bond, even suggesting confusingly that the old continuity isn’t completely uncanonical, referencing Goldfinger‘s DB5 and GoldenEye‘s exploding pen. Possibly the world depicted in the old films is canonical to the new ones, i.e. spycraft really was sillier back in the day, but their specific stories clearly are not, since we know that neither Bond, nor Moneypenny, nor Felix Leiter nor Blofeld were around back then. A main thematic strand of Skyfall/Spectre, similarly to GoldenEye, has to do with whether Bond, an old agent with old ideals, is still relevant in the modern world. This is hard to take when Casino & Quantum‘s main thematic strand is that Bond is a hotheaded rookie, not yet made cynical by years of experience. Following The Dark Knight Trilogy (&, coincidentally, the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy, in which all but the first & final battles of the Clone Wars take place offscreen between the 2nd & 3rd entries), we seem to have missed out on seeing our hero in his Golden Age of heroism, when he was hampered by neither inexperience nor age.

Those who are dissatisfied with The Dark Knight or Star Wars can rectify the problem with some quite excellent animations (For The Dark Knight, Batman: Gotham Knight; for Star Wars, Star Wars: Clone Wars and the similarly-named Star Wars: The Clone Wars), and Bond fans, if they please, can treat the videogames as canon. Four games have been made during the Daniel Craig era: 007: Quantum of Solace is a mostly straightforward adaptation of that film which also includes flashback levels covering the plot of Casino Royale; James Bond 007: Blood Stone has an original story by Bruce Feirstein, who wrote Tomorrow Never Dies and co-wrote GoldenEye and The World is Not Enough; GoldenEye 007: Reloaded is a remake of the Nintendo 64 classic GoldenEye 007, with its story updated to Craig’s reboot era; finally, 007 Legends presents one adventure each from Craig’s five predecessors, remade to star Daniel Craig and told in the style of his films: Goldfinger, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Licence to Kill, Die Another Day, and Moonraker**.

The gameplay of these four, unlike past classics such as GoldenEye 007 or 007: Everything or Nothing ranges from average (007: Quantum of Solace) to terrible (007 Legends), but they are recommended to truly hardcore fans on the sole basis that they fix the apparent gap between Quantum of Solace and Skyfall. James Bond 007: Blood Stone, the best-written one, features a James Bond who is transitioning from the angry young man of Craig’s first two films to a character with more of the smoothness associated with the classical Connery/Moore/Brosnan depictions. After that, with GoldenEye 007: Reloaded, we get to see the modern James Bond living out a properly classic adventure and then, in 007 Legends, five more!

If James Bond lived out seven full-scale adventures between Quantum of Solace and Skyfall, then it easily accounts for him being presented as a haggard old warhorse in the latter. Remember, other action heroes have been presented as past-it old men when they’ve had only three on-screen adventures to their name (John McClane in Live Free or Die Hard; John Rambo in Rambo; Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), or in poor old Batman’s case, only two in The Dark Knight Rises. Aside from patching plot holes, treating these games as canon also makes Skyfall ring much truer in a thematic sense. If GoldenEye, Goldfinger and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, especially, “happened” to Craig’s Bond then the bombastic feel that Skyfall tries to recapture already has some historical presence in this new universe; it contains, or used to contain, more than just the drab cynicism of Casino/Quantum.

However, while James Bond 007: Blood Stone & GoldenEye 007: Reloaded present no conflict with what’s shown in the actual films, 007 Legends is a little trickier. While it correctly uses the likeness of Daniel Craig’s Bond, Judi Dench’s M, Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny and Rory Kinnear’s Tanner in those rôles, someone seems to have forgotten that Jeffrey Wright appeared in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace as Felix Leiter, as the Goldfinger missions use a character model based on Cec Linder – this is typical of the laziness with which 007 Legends is put together. Even taking into account that videogame models don’t always capture perfectly the features of the people they’re based on – try to work out who’s meant to be Connery, Moore, Dalton or Brosnan in this screenshot from GoldenEye 007! – and that the Bond series is renowned for changing the actors of almost all its recurring rôles, it’s still hard to square Linder’s whiteness with Wright’s blackness, and clearly the films take precedence here in determining what Felix truly looks like.

There are also other problems: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service features an encounter with Ernst Stavro Blofeld, which was absolutely fine and actually quite cool until Spectre came out, confirming that such a meeting was impossible. Until the Blofeld rights mess was disentangled in 2013, this would have been the only way such a meeting could have been possible. In any case the character model used here, a rather pleasing compromise between the Donald Pleasance and Telly Savalas portrayals, nicely closes the plot hole of his missing facial scar from You Only Live Twice, while opening a plot hole regarding whether he looks like Telly Pleasance, or Christoph Waltz, and whether or not he’s bald). Also, if Bond lost his wife in the events of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, you’d think that tragedy would be greater than, or at least equal to, his losing Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, yet it is never mentioned in Spectre. One suspects, in any case, that Madeleine Swann is being set up as a new version of Tracy Bond; her only decent chance of surviving Bond 25 will be if the producers completely ignore the previous story.

Well, it’d be nice to think that 007 Legends added something decent to the Bond canon. Its version of Licence to Kill skips the part where Bond punches M and continues his adventure as a rogue agent; in real life this behaviour would likely have seen Bond spend the rest of his life in Guantanamo Bay, and he certainly wouldn’t have been reinstated as a 00. So in some ways it actually improves on the films on which it’s based. Perhaps there is a place for it in canon; its set-up, borrowed from Hitman: Contracts, sees Bond flashing back to previous adventures while he lingers in the grey area between life and death, at the start of Skyfall when he’s shot and in the water. So maybe his delirious mind for some reason misremembered the real face of Felix, but Blofeld still presents a probably intractable problem. This is a shame as, before the release of Spectre, it really did enrich Skyfall as a viewing experience.

I’m sure many would say that we oughtn’t to be taking something as ephemeral as continuity in Bond, of all places, so seriously. But where’s the fun in that?

*Uncoincidentally, both Batman Begins and Casino Royale follow a film so hideously camp that a complete reboot of the franchise was deemed to be necessary damage control: Batman & Robin and Die Another Day, respectively.

**Skyfall was made available as DLC after its release; Spectre still lacks a videogame adaptation. Unless this situation is rectified ten years down the line, as 007 Legends did for Die Another Day, it will be the first Bond film since 1983’s Octopussy to lack a videogame adaptation.

Goldmember, Spectre, & the occasional redundancy of parody

SPOILER ALERT: if you still haven’t seen Spectre, then get on with it before this article ruins its one, tawdry, little twist. And if you somehow watch the Austin Powers films for plot, then beware of an Austin Powers in Goldmember spoiler, too.goldmember

Austin Powers 4 is forthcoming; what hasn’t exactly been forthcoming is details. Last time around, with 2002’s Austin Powers in Goldmember, the Bond parodying got to be a little tired once we actually saw that year’s official 007 adventure, Die Another Day; in some ways, it was less absurd*. But given that, since then, we’ve seen a whole new Bond universe, occasioned by a gritty reboot, couldn’t the Austin Powers series get some comedy mileage out of doing its own burlesquing of reboots, touching not just on Bond but also Batman BeginsStar Trek, X-Men: First ClassRise of the Planet of the Apes, Man of Steel, Godzilla, and so on. It’s either that or do the inevitable, which is rehashing the same old jokes, but in the 1980s this time.

That’s all well and good. But last time I watched it I made the troubling discovery that Goldmember is already a forward-looking parody of the new Bond continuity. First of all, as many fans have already pointed out, Spectre‘s little stroke of idiocy – making the reason for Bond & Blofeld’s animosity a brotherly conflict that’s gotten far out of hand – was presaged by Goldmember, which plays a similar twist with its Bond/Blofeld counterparts, Austin & Dr. Evil. In fact, the details stand in exact opposition – Blofeld hates Bond due to being an older adoptive brother who saw Bond as a cuckoo’s egg, whereas Dr. Evil, an orphan, is unaware that he & Austin share biological parentage, and he ceases his combat with him upon the discovery – but it’s still a remarkable thing. In Goldmember, the joke seems mainly to be on how silly including such absurd soap-opera elements in a spy story – even a larger-than-life one – would be. Joke’s on you, Spectre.

Secondly, Goldmember makes no attempt to hide its crass Heineken product placement, which is as expected given how much product placement has been a part of Bond since the start, but the brands are supposed to be aspirational: Aston Martin, Bollinger, British Airways, Walther. If you want to be like Bond then you know the best brands to wear, to drive, to drink, and to shoot. Heineken, about as perfectly middle-of-the-road a lager as you could hope for, isn’t something you’d expect to see passing the lips of the world’s most famous cocktail drinker, but Skyfall upset those expectations with a prominent early scene that looked more like a beer ad than a Bond movie. Admittedly, Bond was only seen swigging the stuff when he was at his lowest point in Skyfall, which is a nice touch, but then Spectre, which is meant to finally represent Bond back at his 1960s best, keeps the endorsement going.

Finally, an early scene in Goldmember shows Dr. Evil in one of those high-tech containment facilities popularised by The Silence of the Lambs. The prophetic production design doesn’t bear a terribly close resemblance to Dr. Lector’s holding cell, but it looks a lot like scenes from two future films: Magneto’s cell in 2003’s X2: X-Men United, & Silva’s cell in Skyfall. Theoretically, it’s no big coincidence that three films all happened to copy an iconic moment from an iconic film, but what’s a Silence of the Lambs reference doing in what is ostensibly a spy-movie parody anyway? You might say it’s a sign that Austin Powers was running out of ideas, like the many non-scary movies parodied in the later Scary Movies. Or maybe they weren’t running out of ideas, it’s just that those they had were ahead of their time. Either way, Goldmember‘s parodies of Bonds yet to come are actually funnier than its parodies of Bonds past.

*Incidentally – Goldmember‘s predecessor, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, stole a march on Die Another Day, snagging Madonna three years earlier, not to mention getting a much better song out of her (the Galvanic psychedelic-soul of “Beautiful Stranger” vs. the robotic disco-rap of “Die Another Day”).