Forty Years of Bondage, Part II

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Never Say Never Again (1982) – Sean Connery returns as James Bond in an ill-advised remake of ‘Thunderball’. How did this happen? Well, Thunderball was co-written by Ian Flemming and some other guy, who then got screwed out of his share of the profits. The courts decided the rights to any movies based on that movie, or characters from that movie, would go to the estate of the other guy, and not the Flemming estate. MGM offered to put up the money, and thus acquired the movie rights to the novel “Thunderball.” Getting Connery to reprise his role as Bond went something like this:
“Mr. Connery, We’d like you to play Bond.”
“Get out.”
“No, seriously, we’re very mindfull of your concerns with the character, and we’ve re-written the character to comply with what you said you wanted to do back in the early ‘70s.”
“Ok, you’ve got two minutes. Tell me about it.”
“For starters, we’re going to stop pretending Bond is eternally 35. It’s been 20 years since Dr. No, so Bond would be about 55 now. Bond is slower, older, more mature. He’s in his mid-50s.”
“Ok, you’ve got my interest. Forget about the two minutes. Tell me more.”
“Ok, well, the current British regime is fairly conservative and impersonal, and doesn’t really believe in using double-0 agents anymore. Bond hasn’t been on an assignment in three or four years, and he’s aware he’s aging. He knows he doesn’t have many years left in him, and he’s frustrated at having to spend his last good years ‘on the bench.’ He’s settled down with a woman – Domino Pitachi from ‘Thunderball’ – and is unsure where that relationship is going. Suddenly, Spectre returns, and Bond is the only agent with any firsthand knowledge of them. He’s called out of semi-retirement to go and save the world one more time. Tonally, it’ll be similar to your portrayal of Robin Hood in ‘Robin and Marrian’…”
“I’ll do it.”
Now, gentle reader, if what I’ve described above sounds not at all similar to the actual movie ‘Never Say Never Again,’ that’s because it isn’t. Let this serve to remind you to always get promises in writing!
Once Connery signed on, they dispensed with these promises one after another, until what emerged was the ‘perpetually 35’ James Bond, only this time with a graying toupee. They’d intended to do the things they promised him, but they got cold feet. In the end, the movie was an 80s-ized remake of “Thunderball,” complete with video games and Apple II+ computers. It was no worse than any of the Roger Moore films, but it’s true failure came in the fact that it was no different from any of them. The only aspect of the formula it lacked was the familiar theme music, oh, yeah, and Felix Leiter is inexplicably black this time out.
Octopussy (1983) – This was an enjoyable movie, much better than the previous two. It was a nice blend of the comic book bond, and the early 70s attempt to revitalize him. The plot involves someone’s attempt to blow something up with an atomic bomb for some reason, I think it had to do with a Russian attempt to take over western Europe or something, I don’t remember, but it was fun. And it was successful. Hence, Roger Moore announced that he wouldn’t retiring as he’s previously announced. He should have.
A View to a Kill (1985) – This is a movie of ‘lasts.’ It’s Roger Moore’s 7th and last time as Bond. It’s the last time a Bond Theme Song went to # 1 on the charts, as well as the last time all the original members of Duran Duran recorded together. (Roger Taylor had a nervous breakdown immediately after and quit the band, Andy Taylor quit shortly afterwards.) It’s the last of the completely ‘cartoon’ Bond Movies, which had been the preferred format since the mid 70s. Afterwards, the series would attempt to take itself more seriously (And generally fail.) It’s also the last time, for a long time, that UA would have complete confidence in it’s franchise. The plot is an attempt at a ‘caper’ film, but it just fails. Essentially, Christopher Walken (Who we know is Russian because he says he’s Russian, not because he has an accent, or ever attempts to do anything even remotely Russian in the film) attempts to sink California into the sea so he can gain dominance over the international Silicon Chip market. Really!
The Living Daylights (1987) – Timothy Dalton becomes the 4th Bond (or 6th, depending on who’s counting). This was yet another attempt to re-envision an ‘80s’ sort of Bond. Why the decided to re-envision him as boring and monogamous is anyone’s guess, but, frankly, by the late Reagan era, Bond’s Kennedy-era lecherousness was looking a tad dated and sexist. So Bond became less of a sexoholic, but beyond that, they didn’t really know what else to do with him. Part of the problem is that they saddle him with an amazingly boring girl – a cellist – with whom he has no apparent chemistry. Between this, and our own lack of chemistry with the new Bond, we sort of loose interest. The opening title sequence – which coyly kills off a bunch of people who look like previous Bonds, while delaying identifying Dalton – is very good, but the rest of the movie is simply a place holder. The plot involves drugs and the muhajadeen freedom fighters in Afghanistan (Back in those days, Afghanistan was at least theoretically our ally, and at war with Russia, which was, at least theoretically, our enemy.), Joe Don Baker, and something to do with new high-tech superweapons. In fact, it’s all rather nonsensical. Pierce Brosnan had been signed to do this film, but NBC screwed him out of it. That might be for the best, in retrospect, because he’s a good Bond, but this is a bad film. If he’d made the film then, he might not still be around today. This film featured what everyone thought would be the worst-eve Bond Theme song possible, by the now-forgotten 80s prettyboy band ‘A-Ha.’ Everyone was wrong. There were far worse songs ahead. The boxoffice response to this movie was meager, and UA started sweating bullets.
License to Kill (1989) – Inexplicably, David Heddison makes his second appearance as CIA agent Felix Leiter, sixteen years after his previous one. This makes him the only person to play Leiter twice. He looks not a day older than he did alongside Roger Moore in 1973, nor, for that matter, does he look any older than he did on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in 1964. He moves like a semi-geriatric beast, however. Why they brought Felix back, and then dispensed with him entirely is a mystery to me. His character was in a bit under half the films previous to this point, but has never been used since. The plot involves the War on Drugs, and dishonest Televangelists, both topics that were trendy in the reign of Bush the First. Again, we attempt to redefine Bond, and again we fail. The movie is grittier than any in recent memory, and more realistic than any film since “From Russia With Love” and Bond is almost gleefully polygamous again in this movie. Q (Desmond Lewellyn) has a larger part in this movie than in any previous one. Yet, in the end, it just doesn’t work, and I can’t tell you quite why. I would blame it on Timoty Dalton’s wooden-faced performance (The man is not a face actor!) but, frankly, in my mind, it’s just as bad if Brosnan were doing the film. This movie was something of a dud at the boxoffice, and lacking any clear direction, Dalton was bought out of his 3-movie contract, and the entire franchise was put on hiatus for the next six years.
Goldeneye (1995) – Nine years after he was first offered the role in 1986, Pierce Brosnan finally becomes Bond. After a six-year hiatus – the longest in the entire franchise –MGM started talking about making three ‘new’ Bond movies, based on the characters from “Thunderball” and “Casino Royale.” Rather than risk loosing control of their biggest ticket item, UA decided to put the franchise back into production. This was a make-or-break situation, with a huge budget, and an insane level of pre-promotion, very much like the current Star Trek re-launch. They decided to aggressively market the movie not to the established Bondophiles, (Who they knew would come to see it regardless), but rather to highschool aged kids who may never have seen one.
Surprisingly, this worked out pretty well. Not great, but pretty well. For instance, the familiar theme music only shows up in the soundtrack in one place! (During the tank chase – actually, it wasn’t originally there either. At the last minute, the theme was copied off the soundtrack of ‘License to Kill’ and inserted into the soundtrack of this movie.) Bond is a bit more down and dirty, jaded, and (perhaps) even guilt-ridden. M is dead or retired, and replaced by Dame Judy Dench, who just doesn’t like Bond one bit, and lets him know it. Joe Don Baker plays an ersatz Felix Leiter wannabe, and Robbie Coltrane is introduced as a recurring ally for Bond – an ex-KGB agent, reduced in the post-soviet era to working in the Russian mafia. The love interest is not only pretty, but she’s smart, and she isn’t a shrinking violet.
This is not a great movie, it’s about two rewrites away from being a really great one (For instance, in one scene, we’re told the villain’s plot is revenge for what the British did to his daddy in 1944. A few scenes later, we’re told it’s simply a plot to steal billions of dollars. So which is it?), but it’s much better than we had any right to expect, and it did boffo, and revitalized the franchise. Brosnan was signed to a three-movie deal (Including the first one, apparently), and the writer was signed to one as well. The writer was released from his contract shortly before the next movie came out, letting us know something was wrong…
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) – Sophomore Slump. This one is a contrived, and tedious tale of a William Randolph Hurst wannabe (Played by Johnathan Pryce, the ‘Infinity’ car shill.) who wants to start world war III so as to get better ratings on his international news network. As dumb as this is, it’s unbelievable that it takes Bond a full two hours to thwart this. En rout, we’re distracted by martial arts ubermaiden Michelle Yeoh, who plays a Chinese agent. She is both amazing to watch in her action scenes, and also obviously holding back so as not to make Brosnan look bad. This is embarrassing. There’s also some time-consuming hoohah about a previous girlfriend that Bond had a bad breakup with. She’s since hooked up with Johnathan Pryce. Excuse me? Emotional baggage? Well, ok, fine, we’ve got a lot of girls to choose from. Probably the best choice would be the chick that Bond was inexplicably faithful to in ‘The Living Daylights.’ Instead, we introduce a new Ex girlfriend that we’ve never heard of before. She’s astoundingly dull. The scenes try hard, but don’t work. This entire film is very ill conceived, and Sheryl Crow is embarrassing singing the crappy theme song. The cameos by Joe Don Baker and Robbie Coletrain are just intrusive. Just bad, bad, bad.
To his credit, Pierce Brosnan also feels this movie was a disappointment.
The World is Not Enough (1999) – And suddenly, it’s all better! A fantastic movie that sounds like a mess, but isn’t. This movie enjoys misdirecting it’s audience at every turn. We’re introduced to the arch nemesis early on in the film, only later to find out that he’s not the arch nemesis at all, he’s merely the henchman. And who’s the real arch nemesis? It’s someone much closer to Bond than any villain has ever gotten before! This movie is sort of the end of a conceptual mini-trilogy, which brings the arch of Robbie Coletrain’s character to an end. The main ‘bond girl’ in this movie is the best one since Diana Rigg’s “Tracy” in 1969, and, hell, even the theme song is pretty good! Sure, I’ve got qualms – Denise Richards, the ‘spare’ Bond Girl is probably the worst, or second worst of the entire series. The scene on the docks goes on way too long, but still it’s a damn fine movie, with it Brosnan became officially the second-best Bond. It made me look forward to the next installment….
Die Another Day (2002) – …and then this happened, and the entire franchise collapsed in on itself. Intended as an epic-length bout of fanwankery celebrating the 40th anniversary of the series, it damn near destroyed it. The plot - such as there is - is a pastiche of most of the previous films: Ya got your lair - two of ‘em, actually - you got your orbiting killer weapon, you got your scheme involving diamonds, you’ve got Bond with a US sidekick, you’ve got the Caribbean, you’ve got a crazy plot to destroy the world…or something, I dunno, I was never quite sure. None of it made any sense, the cinematography was all over-and-under cranked cameras, cheezy CGI, and smirking. After spending five previous films trying to distance themselves from their cartoonish past, the abruptly, unexpectedly do an about face, drop to their knees, and stick their tongues directly down the back of their cartoonish pasts’ trousers. It’s like Joel Schumacher did it or something. Terrible. This installment also began the curious counter-trend of making the theme song not just bad, but completely freakin’ unlistenable. The franchise went on yet another lengthy hiatus while they decided what to do.

And here’s what happened: UA decided that Brosnan was the problem. They fired him. Meanwhile, Quentin Tarantino was casting about for a new movie to make, and in an interview he said he’d like to do a Bond movie. By this time, Sony owned the rights to “Casino Royale,” so he said he was going to do that. His plan was for it to be a period piece, set in the 50s, and ultra-violent. He was toying with the idea of having Brosnan play Bond. UA freaked out and paid an undisclosed, but un-freakin-believably enormous amount of money in exchange to get the rights to the story, and rushed in in to production, thereby cutting Tarantino off at the ankles.

And that, my friends, is where I bow out. I couldn’t abide that kind of back door shenanigans, and refused to watch the new movie. I do have moral qualms with that, but if I’m honest, my love of the series had definitely waned. Most of them weren’t all that good, some were terrible, and “Die Another Day” is on my short list of movies so very damn bad they pretty much destroy vast tracts of my childhood. (“Star Trek: Generations” is another one of these) They leave a festering pile of offal where my brain used to be, and when they come up, I can’t summon up interest anymore, only bloodlust and rage.

And that is where the story ends. For me, anyway.

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