Hildebrandt Rarity?

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Man With the Golden Gun

#9There's a good reason I'm re-watching all of the Bonds before issuing my latest rounds of ratings.

Because if I had been forced to do this without a refresher, I would have sworn on my mother's grave (as yet unused) that there was no way that I could ever say that The Man with The Golden Gun was better the Live And Let Die. No way.

And yet here we are. Maybe my memory was faulty. Maybe LALD has aged so poorly it sunk below MWGG. Or maybe my tastes have just changed.

That's not to say, of course, that MWGG is actually one of the better Bond movies. It's not. But in re-watching it in such close proximity to the others, well, it was a lot better than I remembered it being. Which isn't necessarily saying too much, but still.

Ian Fleming didn't do them any favors with the novel. It was the last Bond novel he wrote, and was a very odd duck. It took place after the You Only Live Twice novel, which ended with Bond amnesiac and wandering around western Asia. As MWGG opens, Bond has suddenly returned after a year of being missing and presumed dead. It turns out the KGB found him, brainwashed him, and sent him back home to assassinate M (he tries, but fortunately he fails).

After MI-6 "unbrainwashes" him, M decides there's only one thing to do...send him on an impossible suicide mission, whether either he succeeds and proves himself all healed, or dies a hero's death. That mission: to kill Francisco "Pistols" Scaramanga, a hitman who works for the Soviets (as well as independent jobs) who has become quite the thorn in the CIA & MI-6's sides. Bond heads to Jamaica under the cover name of Mark Hazard (really!!), pals it up with Scaramanga, and spends the next 120 pages in an unnecessary cat and mouse game before getting around to killing "Pistols." Bond is restored to the good graces of MI-6, the Queen offers him a knighthood (which he refuses), and he spends 3 weeks shacking up with Mary Goodknight "convalescing."

Obviously, the basic premise of the book was a non-starter, so the writers pretty much jettisoned everything except Scaramanga and Goodknight. The good news is, Richard Maibaum came back on board to do the final draft of the screenplay from Tom Mankiewicz's earlier version. That means that stuff actually happened in the movie between the set pieces, unlike LALD. The bad news is, it was a mostly silly nothing.

We start, once again, with a teaser without James Bond in it, just a wax dummy (much as From Russia With Love had a S.P.E.C.T.R.E. goomba in a Bond mask). This is a distinctly better teaser than LALD. Instead of a bunch of random, unrelated events, we spend some quality time getting to know our villain and his henchman. It's far from perfect...it goes on too long; it's a little too impressed with itself for the "funhouse" death match as if other movies hadn't been doing it better and scarier for years; and the series' continuing fascination with 1950's cartoon versions of gangsters produces a most uninspiring foe for Scaramanga. And of course, you can't replace Roger Moore with a wax dummy (no jokes, please). But it is an improvement.

Then comes Lulu. Now, I don't hate this song as much as some others do. But it really is substandard. It's a vapid attempt to mimic Shirley Bassey's "Goldfinger" with a more uptempo beat, sort of "Goldfinger" meets the bouncy half of "Live And Let Die." Sadly, it falls well short of both of those, musically and lyrically. John Barry does do a better job of integrating it into the score than George Martin did in LALD, though. Historical sidenote: they really should have used the version Alice Cooper made for the movie...

Once the movie proper starts, we learn that Scaramanga has apparently decided to kill 007, and sent a trademark golden bullet ahead as a warning. This leads M to take the surprising step of relieving Bond and suggesting that he resign!! But M is really manipulating Bond to go hunt down Scaramanga first--look at the smile on M's face when Bond suggests that course of action. A well-played scene with M, once again demonstrating that beneath the cranky facade is a leader who respects Bond's abilities. Then again, by movie's end he's crankier than hell again, repeatedly telling Q to shut up and blaming things on Bond that couldn't possibly be his fault.

We then get the quest for Scaramanga, which takes Bond to Beirut, Macau, and Hong Kong. All colorful stuff, involving belly dancers, specialty gun makers, and a mysterious, beautiful woman. One of the interesting things is to watch 007's behavior. Roger Moore's Bond, it is often said, didn't play Bond as ruthlessly as Connery. That may have been true later in his career, but in this movie he's a real son of a bitch. Seriously. Watch how he threatens the gun maker Lazar. Yes, it's a humorous predicament, but Moore plays it as deadpan, not tongue-in-cheek, and as threateningly as Connery could have...he's a man to be taken seriously, not a quip-master. When he follows Andrea Anders to her hotel room, he is cruel and vicious, almost breaking her arm, slapping her around, and threatening to have Scaramanga kill her. Sure, he's motivated by a death threat, but this is not the James Bond who yells "Sit!" when confronted by a tiger--this is a Flemingesque no-nonsense agent.

When Bond shows up to the spot where Scaramanga is supposed to be, surprise, someone else is shot!! Apparently, Bond was not his target!!

Now, up to this point, I have to say that this has actually been a pretty good Bond film, teaser aside. We've got an interesting situation, with Bond's livelihood threatened (in more ways than one), lots of interesting locations, and beautiful women. It's been briskly paced, and the performances have been pretty good.

But this is the point where the film ever so slightly starts to go off the rails. The Hong Kong street where the assassination takes place is virtually empty, which drains it of any sense of an exotic location, making it look like a set where they couldn't afford extras (plus, a bustling street would have made Scaramanga's shot more impressive). The way it's staged, there's also no way Knick Knack could have gotten the solex agitator off of Gibson's corpse in the 3 seconds Lt. Hip was distracted--and if Bond hadn't been there, Hip never would have been distratcted, and there would have been zero chance to recover the solex. So some of the directing/editing/screenwriting cracks are starting to show, damn it!!

It's only wafer thinSolex agitator? Ah, yes, our MacGuffin for the movie. You see, being a creature of 1974, the "energy crisis" was on everybody's mind, so once again the franchise tried to get topical. The solex agitator was the invention of a British scientist who had defected, and the mission Bond was on when he was relieved was to find Gibson and get the solex back. The solex was "the essential component" in a solar energy system that was "95% efficient" and would "solve the energy crisis" (SPOILER ALERT--apparently, it didn't solve our energy problems). Now, that's a radically absurd coincidence, that Bond's hunt for Scaramanga leads him right to Gibson as Gibson is killed by Scaramanga--another sign of lazy screenwriting...

The writers apparently thought that pitting Bond against the world's top assassin wasn't enough to fill a movie, so they made the solex agitator the prize that everyone was seeking. The problem was, there were no real stakes involved. Since Scaramanga was going to auction off the solex, there's no reason Britain (or America) couldn't just buy the thing. And there was no real consequence to NOT getting it--no threat to world or English security, no war or global domination, and nobody England was competing against to get it. Compare with the McGuffin in For Your Eyes Only--two known Cold War adversaries each trying to get a vital military secret that could give launch orders to any of England's nuclear subs. It's got 2 known enemies jousting, there are real consequences, nobody can just buy the damned thing at an auction, and it's the actually point of the movie, rather than a sideshow distracting us from Bond vs. Scaramanga.

So with Scaramanga no longer an actual threat, the movie really derails. We get a lot of pointless fights and chases, and no real plot development. Bond tries to pose as Scaramanga via a fake third nipple, but since Hi Fat already had hired Scaramanga, he knew it was a ruse...so we waste a lot of screen time on Q's oddest gadget ever. Then we get a fight with sumo (in Thailand?) which ends when James Bond is conked from behind by a midget with a trident. How embarrassing. Then Bond is dumped off at a kung fu school to be killed...

Missed it by THAT muchWait a minute, this bears more examination--it's a good example of how the movie changed from a decent spy picture to just having things happen because they amused someone. In no particular order:
A) Why, if you want to kill Bond, dump him unconscious at a kung fu school you own, let him wake up, and proceed to have your pupils spar with him? Never has "just shoot him!!" been more obvious.
B) Like last movie, we have to try to copy other popular cultural phenomenon, so this time we're trying to mimic Enter the Dragon. Sadly, it's a poor imitation, as nothing that we see there is as remotely well-filmed or as engaging.
C) What happened to all of Bond's ninja training? Or his judo? You'd think a serious secret agent in the 70's would know a least a little rudimentary martial arts...but Bond wins by deceit and punching...
D) Fair is fair: the bit where Bond knocks out his opponent while bowing is pretty funny. And check out how closely his next opponent watches during the bow.
E) When Bond tries to escape, Hip and hips 2 teenage nieces outfight 20 evil martial artists, without ever needing more than one blow to fell an opponent. Bond doesn't even throw a punch. All with silly music in the background, telling you that even John Barry isn't taking it seriously by this point.
F) Hip and nieces drive away, accidentally leaving Bond behind...even though the girls tell him, he never notices that the man they've come to rescue isn't even in the damn car. And it's never followed up on. Seriously, they're not even trying any more. Sigh....we're now in the land of farce.

And it wouldn't be a Guy Hamilton movie without a long and non-thrilling chase sequence. Hey, how about a boat chase!! Sure, we did one that lasted 2 1/2 hours last movie, so why not do another one?!? This one is mercifully briefer, but contains the most terrifying thing ever:


The return of Sheriff J.W. Pepper pushes the movie past the breaking point. How they thought this character was worthy of a return appearance is a mystery that I shall never be able to fathom. And while I know this is hard to believe, they manage to make him even worse than he was in LALD. Louder and more obnoxious? Yup. More racist? Yup--count the number of times he refers to Thais as "little brown pointy heads." He's the vilest personification of the ugly American. But at least he has just this one scene and we're done with him, right?

After Scaramanga kills his partner Hi Fat (rendering the entire 2nd half hour of the movie pointless, with no plot advancement whatsoever), Bond is left with no leads, and prepares for a night of unbridled lust with Goodknight. Until the deus ex machina, Andrea Anders returns. She reveals that she was the one who sent the death threat to Bond. The only way she can escape Scaramanga is to get someone to kill him, and only Bond is capable. And check out Bond still being something of the cad--despite the fact that Anders is throwing herself at him, he refuses to help her (or be seduced by her) until she promises to get him the solex. And he refuses to kill Scaramanga unless he gets the solex first.

We then get a scene that is simultaneously great--Bond's first meeting with Scaramanga, the death of Andrea, kickboxing!!--and silly--Goodknight getting locked in the trunk by Scaramanaga. This leads to--surprise--another long, boringly filmed car chase. This chase is different for two reasons. First, it brings back J.W. Pepper on more time---OH GOD IT BURNS AAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHH!!! Secondly, there is The Jump.

This is a crazy good stunt, and they really do it--no trick photography or fakery. Stunt driver Bumps Willard had been doing this on the car show circuit for a couple of years, so the producers brought him in to set it up for Bond. They had to rebalance the car (the driver was in the center), and used computers to make all the calculations...but it was done for real, without special effects, and they nailed it on the first take!! Sadly, this scene is marred by two things--the decision to show it in slow motion, and the uproariously funny use of a slide whistle as a sound effect, both of which make the stunt feel cartoony and faked, inviting laughter instead of awe. And to complete the over-the-top ridiculousness, we get Scaramanga's flying car.

Which leads to our final showdown at Scaramanga's secret HQ in Chinese territory (actually the gorgeous Phucket, Thailand). Well, eventually leads to our final showdown. Scaramanga insists on giving Bond a tour of his solar plant, which gives Bond a chance to show off obscure physics knowledge while making Scaramanga look stupid. Seriously, if you want a good compare/contrast between Connery's Bond and Moore's, it's right here: Connery was knowledgeable about liquor and not much else (e.g., he doesn't know much about diamonds in Diamonds Are Forever) while Moore excelled at showing off by giving pompous, boring know-it-all lectures on the temperature of liquid helium or the exact processes of a solar energy converter.

The final showdown between Bond and Scaramanga is partially a let down due to the fact that it's just a repeat of the teaser--we've already seen all the funhouse tricks. Also, the denouement seems physically impossible, or at the very least bad directing and editing. We start with this shot:

Watch the fingers!!Scaramanga doesn't look too far away, but then suddenly we see this:

Ta-dah!!Which means that in 32 seconds of screen time, Bond A) removed the dummy B) took off the dummy's coat and tie C) put on the dummy's coat and tie immaculately D) somehow retrieved his lost gun, or grabbed the dummy's gun--what, it was loaded? E) put the dummy out of sight and F) got into the pose--all while within Scaramanga's line of sight. Nice trick.

But despite Scaramanga being dead, we still have 14 minutes to kill, so we first have to retrieve the solex, which leads to the MOST EMBARRASSING MOMENT IN BOND HISTORY:

This one shot set back the women's movement 50 yearsThat's right, Goodknight activates the solar collector with her butt. This is the second out of three movies that's had had the villain capture the Bond girl and dress her in a bikini at the end, and in both those movies the girl's butt played a prominent role in the outcome. Something you want to tell us, Guy Hamilton??

And then there's the last bit with Bond vs. Knick Knack, the less said about the better. This was a case of the producers going for an unusual henchman, and coming up with someone so tremendously unthreatening that it damages the credibility of the whole situation. When Bond can dispatch him by locking him in a suitcase, well, we're not exactly in Red Grant or Oddjob territory, are we? If you're going to have the henchman survive to take revenge after the boss dies (3rd movie in a row), you really should have that henchman be someone Bond and the audience might actually worry about.

My spellchecker said Christopher Lee is great as Scaramanga, but the script keeps undercutting him by making him out to be a total dufus. He's played as sort of an idiot savant at murder, but clueless at everything else. He's not as adept at wine as Bond, behaving like a fanboy taking notes on his hero's favorite things. He kills Andrea to get the solex back, but unlike Bond, doesn't even bother to look on the floor where it may have fallen out of her purse. He doesn't understand anything about the solar energy MacGuffin of the plot, which makes the solex agitator even more painfully obvious as a needless time-filler. When the villain doesn't understand or care about the goal of the movie, that devalues both the goal and the villain.

Standard MI-6 uniform?Britt Ekland is a lovely lady, albeit not a great actress. Yet, to be honest, she's not as bad as everyone seems to remember (myself included). Yes, she has her moments of incompetence, ESPECIALLY the butt scene, but surprisingly they're usually mixed with moments of surprising effectiveness. Example: yes, she cuts off James taxi when he arrives in Hong Kong, so he can't follow Anders; but it's her knowledge that only the Peninsula Hotel used green Rolls Royces that leads him to her without another boring chase scene. Yes, she should have got the hell out of the way once she was handed the solex; but she was trying to do the right thing by planting a tracer on Scaramanga's car. If she doesn't do that, they never find him again. She's wise enough to call Bond on his preference for one-night stands, even if she does give in. And she's a great sport about getting stuck in the closet while Bond and Anders are making the beast with two backs (second movie in a row Bond hides a girl in a closet!!). Yes, she becomes a complete dithering idiot at the end...but on the whole she's more helpful than people usually notice. I don't know that I would put her in the top half of Bond girls, but I do think she's better than given credit for.

So what we have here is a frustrating movie that starts out so very well, but then quickly disintegrates into a hodgepodge of re-used cliches and joke characters from the prior two Bond movies, an emphasis on the silly that kills most of the sense of danger and adventure, and a notable sense of tiredness that resulted from having the same director and writer on for 3 times in a row. Whether the producers would acknowledge it or not, the franchise was in serious trouble. Could it be saved? Tune in next week to find out...


**Ladies and Gentleman, the first high five in James Bond history:

I actually included this picture just to increase my hits from fetish seekers**We get the first mention of another Double-O agent since Thunderball, and for the first time one is actually named--Bill Fairbanks was 002!!

And can I just say, that Saida was one cold-hearted bitch of a belly dancer?? Her lover is shot through the head while laying in her arms, and before doing anything else she pries the bullet out of the wall to use as a lucky charm?!? That's lucky?!?

** One of the more famous glitches in the franchise's history: the makeup table gets shoved askew during the fight, so you can see the crew in the mirror at one point.

Peek-a-booBy the way, why, exactly, are these guys attacking Bond???

**I didn't really talk about Maud Adams above, did I? She's probably the best thing about the movie. She brings a real sense of class and desperation to her role, and she's sexier than hell to boot. And she actually makes you believe the silly plan that she came up with. It's no surprise they tapped her to be the Bond girl a decade later.

Too gorgeous to live**In many ways this is the kinkiest Bond movie. Bond describes his idea for a fake superfluous nipple "kinky," and the way Scaramanga caresses Anders with his gun after a kill is pretty icky. Ian Fleming would be proud.

Ewwww**It's the sport of the future.

Lloyd, Lloyd, null and void**Anybody writing about this movie has to include this shot...it's obligatory.

Don't say this word in front of your mother**So billionaire capitalist industrialist Hi Fat, who's expecting to make kajillions with the solex agitator, set up his energy station in Communist China?? And he seriously believed that they weren't just going to seize it from him, if for no other reason than to cause economic chaos in the West (see Goldfinger or You only Live Twice)?

**Product placement is part of the game, and I'm usually not one to whine about it, but whatever thrills there might have been in the car chase in Bangkok are drained away by the sight of an AMC Hornet chasing an AMC Matador. Oh, how exotic and thrilling. They could have made something of that by emphasizing the oddness (see the Citroen in For Your Eyes Only, for example), but the whole thing is done without irony of any kind. So two cars that would be rejected as too lame for a Starsky and Hutch chase are the centerpiece for a James Bond film. (Before you comment, yes, I know that the twisty car jump was designed for AMC's, so it was sorta required, but still...)

**I've been remiss...I haven't mentioned Chu Mi yet.

Don't mind if I do?**From the dialogue in the teaser, Knick Knack and Scaramanga have invited many a villain to the island, to give Scaramanga some competition to keep him happy. Here's the question: do these guys know they're going after the world's greatest hitman? What, exactly, does Knick Knack tell or promise them? Either the hitmen are arrogant idiots to believe they can take Scaramanga, or Knick Knack is a dickweed, setting them up on false pretenses...sure they're bad guys, they deserve to die, but still...

**If your vats of liquid helium are going to cause the entire island to explode if anything room temperature gets dropped in them, shouldn't you have better lids on them? And not have walkways with breakaway railings right above them?

Really, would OSHA have approved?!?**Prior to the butt scene, before Bond climbs in into the pit to get the solex, he takes time to move the control console closer to the pit. Why? There's no reason to, except to have it close enough for Goodknight's butt to hit it!! What a clumsy piece of staging...

**Bond Score: 2. Anders and Goodknight. Cumulative Bond Score: 26

And as always:

Really...I'm promising actual boobies next timeCan Ringo Starr's wife save the franchise? Be here to find out!! BONUS: The first and only topless scene in Bond history!!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Live And Let Die

#8I haven't been looking forward to writing this review, because I have to tackle a topic that I'm neither comfortable nor qualified to do. Because there is absolutely no way you can talk about Live And Let Die without talking about race.

Now, I've always been a firm believer that you have to judge art and culture on something of a "curve," and that you solely can't judge everything by solely 21st century American standards. You have to take the context of the times in which it was created into account.

But even by those standards, LALD is cringe-inducing.

The Fleming novel is by no means a perfect treatise on racial relations. But it was written in 1954. And even though it too has cringe-worthy moments, it doesn't provide such a disturbingly (forgive me) black and white picture of race the 1973 film gives us.

In the movie, every single villain, henchman and stooge is black. Every one. The only African-American characters in the movie who are not gangsters or enthralled by a voodoo cult are Quarrel Jr. and Strutter, the CIA agent who is killed in New Orleans. Minor characters with little dialogue. Otherwise, literally EVERY SINGLE minority character Bond encounters is a bad guy, and every white a good guy.

How pervasive is this? In the teaser, we see three white men, all murdered by black culprits. In the two fake funeral killings, all 40-50 people in the procession had to be in on it. In the two Fillet of Soul restaurants, ever single patron sees Bond taken each time, but none react, and all help cover the snatching.

When Felix yells out that he needs a make on a "white pimp mobile," when Strutter informs Bond that a white person shouldn't go into Harlem, when our comedy relief is a redneck sheriff & crew who repeatedly refer to every African-American as "boy,"what the hell are we supposed to think? How are we supposed to react? With the white woman being held in virtual slavery by the black villain, until he decides to deflower her? Seriously, how are we supposed to deal with this in 2008?

I'm not accusing everybody involved with LALD with being racist. Here, for example, is a great anecdote about Cubby Broccoli standing up to some racism in Louisiana while LALD was being filmed. (Hat tip to Deborah's great blog!) I am saying, however, that someone involved with the production should have been able to take a step back and look at what they were presenting, and how it came across. It's all well and good to want to hop on the blaxploitation bandwagon, but somehow they forgot that in those movie, there were black heroes and protagonists, not just black villains and antagonists. The entire film is, intentionally or not, presented as "us" versus "them," with race being the dividing line.

But even if you cut them some slack as just being clueless, it's an undeniable fact that this movie hasn't aged terribly well (assuming that it was even acceptable at it's time of release). So be aware that in all of my assessments, there's an "ewww" factor in the back of my mind that can't help but influence my opinion on various aspects of this film.

Now, back to the movie.

We open with what has to be the worst teaser in Bond history. It's bad enough that Roger Moore doesn't even appear in it, although there was precedent for that, as Connery-as-Bond didn't appear in a teaser until Goldfinger (remember, he was just someone posing as Bond in From Russia With Love). Given that this was the 3rd Bond in as many movies, you would think that they would want to introduce and identify Moore as Bond as soon as possible. But this is the only teaser that is completely non-Bond related...neither Bond nor a double appears.

But even beyond that, the classic teaser form is a mini-movie, with a beginning, middle and end. Even if the teaser ties into the later movie, and so the teaser's plot isn't 100% resolved, at least the vignette itself comes to a conclusion. But not here. No attempt at a story or narrative. We just get three isolated murders. We have no idea who the victims are, or why we should care about them. We have no idea of how their stories relate. We have no idea of what we're being shown, and no explanation or narrative is given. There's no action, no stunts, no gadgets, no MI-6 (at least, not identified at this point). If you were take this teaser and show it to someone who had never seen LALD, they would have no idea that this was the intro to a James Bond movie. And that, you would think, would be the most basic minimum requirement of a Bond teaser.

Then comes the theme song. I know I'm opening myself up here, but I've never been too fond of this song, especially as a Bond tune. Sorry. It's too schizophrenic for my tastes, less than the sum of its discordant parts...it can't decide whether it wants to be slow, medium or fast tempo, a crooner or a rocker; it feels like somebody jammed "Man With the Golden Gun" and "Nobody Does It Better" together, but didn't bother to thoroughly blend them. Individually the parts work...together, not so much. Plus, it also works fairly poorly in the score, providing ridiculously punchy upbeat keyboards during what are supposed to be quiet, tense scenes (although that's just as likely George Martin's fault for how he used it in the score...John Barry, where are you??).

We next see Bond in bed with an Italian agent. This is the first time since Dr. No that we've seen Bond's living quarters, and it is the last time, so far. We proceed to get something of a bedroom farce, as for some reason Bond is desperate to hide from M the fact that he's been sleeping with her. What, like M doesn't know?? He would care?!? Why are we getting this Three's Company episode in our Bond movie? M as Mr. Roper?!?

He dresses better than youI'll post later this weekend some of my thoughts on Moore vs. Connery, but I will say this now: it was stunning how young Moore looked here. Yeah, part of it is the advanced DVD technology, and part of it is the memories of "old" Moore from the later movies burned into my head. But even though he was 45 during the filming of LALD, he looks far younger than I remembered, more virile virile and agile in a way that makes him (at least for now) every bit as good a Bond physically as Connery. We'll see how long that lasts.
Unfortunately, though with the change in actors comes a change in dialogue styles. Rather than just the death quips and an occasional pun, it was now all pun, all the time. It was fairly rare to get through an entire scene of Moore's without some ghastly pun or double entendre, and it begins here.

So Bond heads off to New York City, to find out who's killing British agents. And this is where the weakness in Tom Mankiewicz's screenplay start to pile-up. This was his one and only solo Bond screenplay, and as you can no doubt tell, I'm not a big fan of the man's work. Let's look at how he adapted Fleming's novel--what he took, and what he left on the table.

In the novel, Mr. Big (which is actually an acronym for Buonapart Ignace Gallia--seriously!!) was half-French, born in Haiti. His syndicate was really a front for Soviet spy operations in the United States. MI-6 becomes involved because Big has discovered a huge cache of pirate treasure in Jamaica (seriously) and is smuggling the gold into the U.S. to fund SMERSH operations. There is no Kananga, no San Monique, no drugs.

Now, there are two great set pieces in the novel that Mankiewicz completely bypasses, for unknown reasons. The first is when Felix Leiter has his leg and part of an arm devoured by a shark at an aquarium, and the bad guys leave a note "He disagreed with something that ate him." You'll recognize that from Licence To Kill, where they did use the bit (And, since David Hedison also played Leiter in that one, he didn't miss out on the biggest part ever for Felix!).
The second is where Bond and Solitaire are bound together and dragged by a boat over coral as bait for sharks (and barracuda!). Again, we all know this sequence from For Your Eyes Only.

Frankly, I'm at a loss as to why Mankiewicz bypassed those bits, because they're pretty exciting in the book, and they worked pretty well in the movies they were later used in. And frankly, they work a lot better than much of what Mankiewicz creates out of whole cloth.

So what does he give us? A tepid plot, which is never fleshed out beyond it's one sentence premise: Kananga wants to flood the U.S. with free drugs, driving the mob out of business, and then raise the price when the number of addicts doubles and the competition is gone.

That's it. The entire premise of the movie is based on 3 AM dorm room conversations ("Man, what if they gave drugs away for free?"), and with about as much depth. There's absolutely no motivation given as to why Kananga would want to do this. Is he after money? Does he hate the U.S.? Is he striking out at white governments? Is he just a deluded megalomaniac? Could he be working for the Soviets to destabilize America (that actually would have been a great idea)? We have no idea. And there's just as little thought to the ramifications: would organized crime really just fold up and die, without a lengthy and bloody fight? I think not. And once the drugs were traced to San Monique, how long would it be before the U.S. military moved in?

Names is for tombstones, baby!The movie's plot throws in one more loop: Kananga secretly is Mr. Big, so he can play both supplier and distributor. This results in, unfortunately, the worst make-up job in the history of cinema (OK, I'm exaggerating...that's what I do). They don't show Mr. Big very much on screen, because it looks so ridiculously awful. I mean look at it!! The worst part it is, it seems so unnecessary. Why the Kananga go through such extensive make-up, which had to take hours to apply? Why not just go with your own face, pretending to be Mr. Big without the mask? It's not like any of the hoodlums you deal with are going to recognize the Prime Minister of San Monique, is it? Or if you really can't risk being recognized, why not have one of your flunkies pose as Doctor Detroit--oops I man Mr. Big?

Really, Kananga, was the make-up necessary??None of this is meant to reflect badly on Yaphet Kotto, as he does the best that anyone could do with this muddled mess. Aside from the "honkies" he's forced to bark out as Mr. Big, he plays Kananga as the default Bond bad guy: charming and erudite exterior masking the vicious megalomaniac beneath. He's not given any memorable lines, and after the revelation that he and Mr. Big are one and the same, he disappears from the movie for over half an hour, returning only for the finale. He is, however, given one of the more memorable (albeit undignified and ridiculous) deaths in the series' history.

The henchmen fair somewhat better. Whisper is memorable, if only because of his gimmick--he doesn't seem to be that efficient of a henchman. Tee Hee is properly menacing, almost always flashing that evil smile. His artificial arm could have been used more effectively, but you can't have everything. Tee Hee also continues a new Bond tradition--henchmen outliving their master, and trying for one last gasp of revenge at the film's end. We'll be seeing this one much more in the future.

Plotwise, instead of Felix getting eaten by a shark or Bond and Solitaire getting dragged as bait, what do we get to replace it? An alligator farm, a double decker bus chase, an airplane chase, and a loooooooooooooong motorboat chase. Now, the alligator farm bit is pretty nice. It's unique, it's scary, it's done with style. And it's done for REAL--those are actual alligators the stunt man is jumping on, not dummies. Check out these takes, where alligator handler Ross Kananga (yes, Kananga--that's where Mankiewicz got the character name from) almost loses a foot or leg while doing the stunt:

Scary stuff, eh?

But as for the chase scenes, well, one thing we've learned about Guy Hamilton is: he could not make chase scenes interesting or exciting to save his life. At all. Ever. The gadgets in Goldfinger distracted us from this fact, but I challenge you to watch the chase scenes in Diamonds Are Forever or LALD and try not to be lulled into dreamland.

The first problem is, they're ALL terribly choreographed. If you watch with attention, you will see that Bond almost never does anything spectacular in terms of driving, but all of the cars chasing him crash and wipe out for no reason whatsoever. Watch the moon buggy chase in DAF, where, where Bond pretty much drives in a straight line, and all of these hulking 1970 cars just flip and spin out and drive off of perfectly visible ledges. And the Mustang chase up and down Fremont, how many cop cars crash simply because they cannot navigate a parking lot??

The same thing happens in this film. Bond hijacks the training airplane, and Big's men chase in cars. 6 times cars wipe out or crash, and NONE of them because Bond did any particularly clever evasive maneuver...they just crashed because Hamilton wanted to show a lot of cars crashing, and couldn't be bothered to go much further than that. (Question: if Bond wanted to escape, why didn't he, you know, just TAKE OFF and fly away, instead of taxiing all over the airport? Answer: It's 70's Bond, son. Don't ask intelligent questions about set pieces, because there are no answers) . This is post-Bullitt and post-French Connection, but Hamilton's car chases are as devoid of tension as any pre-1970 programmer, which is a shame given the money and stunt people available to Eon.

The motorboat chase fairs a bit better, if for no other reason than it's more unique. But it's filled with the same flaw (bad guys crashing...well, just because they're bad guys, apparently), and it takes roughly FOREVER. Seriously, it does take over 15 minutes. 15 MINUTES!! And with much of the action being captured in aerial long shots, which robs the chase of much of its sense of speed, well, the 15 minutes seems like 25.

The worst thing by far ever to be put into a Bond movieOf course, the worst thing about about the chase scene is Sheriff J. W. Pepper (Clifton James). If I had godlike time travel powers and could remove 1 element from any James Bond movie, Pepper would be gone. An embarrassingly cartoonish performance of a racist, redneck, good ol' boy southern lawman, every single line uttered by Pepper is like a million nails on a blackboard to me. He's unfunny, demeaning, and disruptive to the flow of the action. Fortunately, no one else found him amusing, and we'd never see his like again in a Bond movie...what? Next movie? NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The real problem with all these poorly filmed chase scenes was that, without all the chases, there really wasn't much movie. When Strutter is killed in New Orleans, it's an exact re-enactment of the scene from the teaser. Were they out of ideas?? When Solitaire is held in San Monique, she's menaced by the snake man, again in exactly the same way as the teaser...right down to the same rubber snake. Bond is kidnapped TWICE in Fillet of Soul restaurants, in exactly the same way. The dearth of imagination is amazing. This is a movie that has lapped itself, that is circling the track again and again, vamping to reach the 2 hour mark.

The only game in townSolitaire. Ah, Solitaire. Young Dr. Quinn in her first film role. Aside from being as gorgeous as hell, Jane Seymour brings a grace and regal presence that one would expect from a woman who's been told she's essentially a goddess her entire life. No, she's not a fighter or street savvy, but we don't need that from every single Bond Girl. Yet after she "loses her powers," you see her willing to bluff her way out of situations, and willing to stand up to Kananga. There's a steely determination there. And after Bond (ahem) stacks her deck, we see and believe her transiton from priestess to woman (who wants more lessons!!). She has a good character arc, and Seymour has good chemistry with Moore. She's a keeper.

So begins the Moore Dynasty. Moore makes a fine Bond, albeit not one of Sean Connery caliber. But whether because they're writing to his strengths, or because that's just the direction of the movies, he's jokier, less serious, possibly less deadly. And the movies follow suit, becoming less real and more fantastic.

But this movie is a poor start. We have perhaps the most thinly plotted Bond ever, padded out with (mostly) unenthusiastic chases and repetitious set pieces. And given the unfortunate racial tone of the film, by 2008 standards it becomes uncomfortable as well as tedious. The notion to turn James Bond into blaxploitation is neither a good idea nor well executed, and has made the film age particularly poorly. And I still don't like the song.


**At their second meeting, Kananga tells Bond, "First you go up to Harlem and killed one of the brothers..." Which is odd, because Bond didn't kill anyone in Harlem. He knocked out two thugs who were taking him to be executed, but he didn't kill them (unless Felix or one of his lads had them killed later...hmmm).

In fact, Bond doesn't kill very much at all. Assuming that no one dies in the many car crashes we see, he doesn't kill anybody until the very end of the motorboat chase, an hour and forty minutes into the film. Does this mean Moore will be much more discriminating in using his licence to kill than Connery?

**Where the hell is Q? One would think they'd bring him in when trying to establish a new Bond (at least back in those days). In OHMSS they trotted him out even though he had no gadgets for Bond. Here, even though Bond's life completely depends on his watch, we don't see Q at all (although he is name dropped).

**This is the only instance where the movie's theme song is performed as an actual song within the movie. I pity the poor lounge singer who tried to make it work...

**Even though Solitaire is supposedly always right until she loses her virginity, in her first meeting with Bond she is unquestionably wrong. The first thing she tells him is, "You will not succeed." So much for infallibility.

**Speaking of which, it's perhaps not too surprising that the Tarot shop on San Monique would stock the exact same style of Tarot card that Solitaire uses, as she is revered there. But did Bond really buy 78 separate decks of cards, pulling the "Lovers" out of each one, to make his stacked deck? Or did the shop sell individual cards (which would be weird, but possible), and Bond bought 78 single cards, all the Lovers?

**San Monique is the first fictional nation in the James Bond films. Since this was the first time an actual head of state was the villain, I guess they thought they had best not use a real country. We'll revisit this in Licence To Kill.

**Another first--profanity. It's usually cut or bleeped on broadcast, but Mrs. Bell says "Oh shit!" when Bond is trying to fit the plane through the hanger doors. Hey, that was ridiculously edgy in those days!!

**A big difference between Connery and Moore--the big-ass cigar. Bond wouldn't even put it down while hang-gliding. Sigh...

Why interrupt a good smoke for a vital mission??**Size matters: good gosh, check out the size of Bond's holster and cannon--no Walther PPK with silencer here...

Size does matter
Do you feel lucky, punk?I guess Dirty Harry was extremely influential.

**Poor, poor Rosie Carver. Incompetent, and an idiot. Score a couple of more Cletus' for the Americans. But at least she gave us an opportunity to show that Moore could be a hard-nosed bastard when needed, as his interrogation of her after their picnic lovemaking was as cold as Connery.

She can't even get her wig on straight**More confused Kananga. He's already ordered Bond dead at least twice. So when Bond is getting close to finding the poppy fields, he orders, "If he finds it, kill him." Why the conditional? Didn't you already order him dead?!? If he didn't find it, you'd change your mind and let him live??

**So Quarrel Jr. just wanders around unseen, unmolested while planting all of the explosive charges in the poppy fields. They're not even guarded? Even though you know Bond knows about them, and that he escaped alive? Not a single guard? There megalomaniacal, and then there's incompetent.

**Geoffrey Holder is great, but largely wasted as Baron Samedi. You expect their fight to be one of the movie's climaxes, but it's basically one swing of the machete and then he's thrown into the casket of snakes. He had such charisma on the screen, he should have been used more (and more effectively).

There's an uncola nut??**This is one of my favorite scenes in the whole movie. After the speedboats drive by, smashing the wedding, the bride starts sobbing. But watch the groom...in the very last frame before the cutaway, he starts to give this unmistakable little smile. No doubt he's thinking, "This is the COOLEST wedding EVER!!"

Man, I got James Bond to show up at my wedding!!**Talk about wusses. In Kananga's heroine processing plant, cleverly concealed inside an alligator farm, the lab is inside a sealed room. But look how panicky all of those lab techs get when one alligator shows up in lobby. Dudes, do you think he can open sealed doors? Calm down...

**Bond Score: 3. Miss Caruso, Rosie Carver, and Solitaire. Cumulative Bond Score: 24.

And, as always:

Be here next week, as Lulu shrieks, Bond gets a Tattoo, and extra nipples for everybody!!!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

America Sucks...

...at espionage and national security. At least according to the early James Bond films.

Which always had me wondering a bit, as Broccoli and Saltzman reportedly aimed the series at what would be popular in America. And Americans ate it up.

But the unquestionable message of the first few films is: Americans are dumber than a bag or rocks.

Hey, Brandine, they're bloggin' about me agin!Let's look at the record, shall we?

Dr. No: Dr. No is using his secret base on Crab Key in Jamaica to test out S.P.E.C.T.R.E.'s new "toppling" system, a way of using radio beams to upset the gyroscopic control of missiles. He's toppling American space rockets, causing much embarrassment for NASA.

Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) can't find a single clue as to what might be going on, even though every single person on the island practically ducks and covers at the mention of Crab Key or Dr. No. But British agent Strangways had figured it out before he was killed. And of 007 did, too, in about 5 minutes. And even though an American missile launch is about to be attacked, Leiter stays behind and lets Bond sort it all out (perhaps he was scared of the dragon!). And, in what will become American style for the whole series, he shows up with the U.S. Navy...after Bond has killed the bad guy and defeated his plan.

Rating: 2 Cletus' (out of a possible 5). I'll give the U.S. a little break here, because the action was in British territory.

No American involvement in From Russia With Love, so let's jump to:

Goldfinger. The first Bond movie set in the U.S.A. Things have got to look better for we Americans, right?!?!?

Wrong. It would be impossible to make Americans look more inept than they did in this movie. The Keystone Cops were more effective.

First off, we have Cec Linder as the least effective Felix Leiter ever. Seriously, all he's good for is carrying messages. "Bond, M says this." "M, Bond's in America." And he just stands around, grinning and shaking his head at good ol' 007's antics. He's clueless and useless.

But wait, it gets worse. Goldfinger is a foreign national doing substantial business on U.S. soil, and we're supposed to believe that neither the FBI nor CIA had any files on him? Hell, Hoover had files on everybody!! Then were supposed to believe that Goldfinger had a dozen of the top mobsters in the country, all at the same time, out to his stud farm. And no one in the U.S. government noticed. No surveillance, no memo, no nothing.

But wait--it gets worse. Chinese troops AND nerve gas AND a nuclear bomb were smuggled into the U.S. And no red flags went up anywhere. China is about to set off a nuclear explosion destroying America's gold stores, destabilizing the world economy, and no one in America notices. China is about to kill 15,000 American troops, and no one has the least inkling. The ONLY way this crisis is averted is because a British agent seduces a lesbian.

Given this level of incompetence, it's pretty hard to believe America even survived the Cold War, let alone won it.

Rating: 5 Cletus'.

Thunderball: Two NATO nuclear bombs are stolen, and S.P.E.C.T.R.E. threatens to blow up a major British or American city. Well, Felix Leiter (Rick Van Nutter) isn't much help. Despite the fact that Largo and his peeps are walking around wearing HUGE-ASS S.P.E.C.T.R.E. rings, and that he's hanging around with the sister of someone from the missing flight, Leiter has no clue. Bond figures it out in a nano-second.

Worse, despite supposedly having already searched everywhere for the stolen plane, the U.S. military can't find it. James Bond in a lone helicopter is able to find it.

Finally, the U.S. Navy gets fooled by the "shell" of the Disco Volante, blowing that up while allowing the hovercraft part to escape.

In their favor, again, it wasn't U.S. territory, and the U.S. did provide the dozens of underwater soldiers necessary to recapture the bombs.

Rating: 3 Cletus'.

You Only Live Twice: Well, it had the first theme song performed by an American, so that counts for something, right?

Otherwise, it's all bad. S.P.E.C.T.R.E. is stealing American space flights (and Russian) as part of a China-backed plot to start WWIII. And America falls for it hook, line, and sinker.

The Americans decide, without any evidence, that Russia must be responsible. They pompously reject Britain's evidence that it's not Russia. And they pledge to be the first to press the button should anything else happen to their space flights.

This is especially damning, because the scenario as portrayed in the movie means that America cannot track ships once they leave orbit. Great tech there, guys. This means that, even though Japan is their sphere of influence, major space launches and landings can take place from there, without their having a frakking clue.

Nope, the Americans can't even watch their own back yard, arrogantly assuming that their first instinct must be right. It's up to modest, intelligent Britain (with the help of a herd of ninjas) to keep America from blowing up the world.

Rating: 4 Cletus'.

No American involvement in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (except, they apparently agreed to pay Blofeld's ransom along with everybody else). So that take us to:

Diamonds Are Forever: Once again, America's intelligence (and political) community are dimwits. A major smuggling ring has been bringing HUGE amounts of diamonds into the U.S. for some time. No one even had any idea, apparently.

Also, it seems, any private citizen can send the government a killer satellite to launch, and they'll be glad to put it into orbit for you. No inspections, no questions asked,apparently. Could have been a payload of nuclear bombs, as fare as Vandenberg is concerned.

It really must be embarrassing to have so many threats to American security originating undetected on American soil. And Willard Whyte is politically connected, so the government won't let the CIA get involved.

I won't fault the U.S. for not having any space defenses prepared, as it was only 1971...but you'd think after the experience of YOLT, they'd have some response prepared (editor's note--just wait until Moonraker).

And when it comes to crunch time, do they send in American agents to confront Blofeld? Nope, just a British agent, even though, as Blofeld points out, Britain hasn't even been threatened!! Then again, Bond does have a good record against Blofeldian schemes, so maybe that made sense. And when attack time comes, they do effectively blow up the platform, which is good because Bond did fail to stop the satellite, and needed the American cover to smash the control room.

Tiffany Case is the first American Bond Girl, and James must have been impressed, because he didn't bed any other ladies the whole movie. But we do show an incompetent American sheriff with a southern accent--sadly, not the last time.

Rating: 3 Cletus'.

I've always found it interesting that American audiences would so fall in love with a movie series that took every opportunity to portray Americans as arrogant, foolish, incompetent and generally inferior to England in every way. Perhaps it was the cultural tenor of the times--America was the strongest economically and militarily, but we had a pretty huge inferiority complex culturally, assuming that almost anything British must be superior to American crassness.

We'll revisit this later, and see how other eras' Bond movie treated we poor, hapless Americans, in different times.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Diamonds Are Forever

#7It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

OK, OK, it's a cliche, but I'm otherwise at a loss of how to open this review. As James Bond entered the 1970's, the franchise was very much in transition. Decisions were being made, styles were being set, and much of what we would see on screen for the next two decades was being set in front of our eyes.

After On Her Majesty's Secret Service was viewed as a relative box office disappointment, Broccoli and Saltzman drew two lessons. First, they decided that the franchise needed a real lead actor--no more inexperienced models (yay!). They had actually signed American actor John Gavin to take the role, when United Artists president David Picker stepped in and offered Sean Connery the then-record sum of $1.4 million plus perks to take on the role one more time. We would never see an amateur take the lead again.

The second lesson they deduced was, "serious" Bond movies don't do as well (boo!). Less straight spy film, more adventurous romp, was to be the order of the day from here on out. Less From Russia With Love, more Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice. For people like me, who are huge fans of the straight spy films, this was a sad day. I can't say they were 100% wrong--every time they tried to downplay the gadgets and the camp (OHMSS, For Your Eyes Only, Licence to Kill), the box office would take a dip--although Casino Royale (2006) would seem to disprove the theory. Regardless, we were about to undergo a long series of less serious films.

This one's for the ladiesThe best of times was personified by having Sean Connery return to the fold one last time (for now) to play 007. Watching the films week by week as I have been, it is a little shocking how much he seems to have aged since YOLT. Not that he looks old...just not as much the lean, hungry presence he used to bring to the role.

Not that he doesn't excel in the role, even at this late date. As the film begins the turn towards jokiness and smirk, Connery keeps his performance rock solid, not playing to the comedy. No double takes, no camp--he lets the humor of the situation speak for itself. He (and director Guy Hamilton) realized that it was the contrast between the serious super agent and the ridiculous situations (riding atop the elevator, climbing out of the desert pipeline) that made the humor work.

We start with a fairly disappointing teaser, as Bond treks the world to hunt down Blofeld. Now, I know the series has never been about continuity, and probably shouldn't be. But would it have killed him to make even the tiniest reference to Tracy, that he was getting revenge for the murder of his wife? If you're a hardcore Bond fan, you knew what was up. But if you're a casual fan who hadn't seen OHMSS, well, all you see is an obsessed Bond. No name check for Tracy, no phone call to Draco saying, "I got him." Sigh...

Anyway, the teaser is mostly just the fists of Bond beating the crap out of people. Connery makes his million-dollar reappearance, strangling an ingenue with her own bikini top (which Sean does masterfully...as always, you believe this man can be the vicious killer Fleming envisioned). He tracks Blofeld to a facility where plastic surgery is being used to produce doubles of Blofeld (and where, apparently, immersion in mud is an important part of plastic surgery--who knew?). Bond buries a Blofeld in mud, discovers it's a double, is confronted by the "real" Blofeld, drowns him in hot mud. Not a lot of great action, pretty "meh" as teasers go. Not a good sign.

The Fleming novel Diamonds Are Forever was solely concerned with shutting down a smuggling ring, which mainly involved Bond killing an awful lot of 1950's American gangsters. No threats to world order, just at threat to the security of one of the Empire's biggest financial pies. But, with the new Bond paradigm in force, we can't stop at something real world: the movie makes the diamond smuggling really a plot to put together a devastating laser satellite to blackmail the world's governments. So, goodbye to the Blofeld of OHMSS who was looking to retire with amnesty and a small title of nobility. Nope, we're 100% back into Dr. Evil territory here.

The screenplay, by Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz, is also the best of times/worst of times. Generally speaking, the dialogue is sharp, and the characterizations well-drawn. But the plot, well, the plot is far more confusing than it needs to be, and the final act of the film just crashes and burns in terms of making sense.

The couple that slays together...The...colorful hitmen, Mr. Wint and Mr. Kid, are shutting down the diamond smuggling pipeline, and killing everybody who was involved. Why, I'm not sure...it was the murders that prompted the government to get MI-6 involved, so if they don't kill everyone, it's unlikely anyone could trace the network to Blofeld in time to prevent the satellite. Even with Bond on the case, Blofeld only had to advance the launch 24 hours. If you just take the diamonds from the dentist, and take them straight to Vegas without the rigmarole, your plan is underway much sooner, you don't attract the attention, and you can go back and kill people at your leisure after you rule the world.

Plus, the killers are pretty poor at their job. Twice, they kill people (or attempt to kill them) before the diamonds are actually passed along. Oops!! And then they kill the wrong person, thinking she was Tiffany. Oops again! And then they try to kill Bond in the most patently ridiculously way possible (so no one on the construction crew sees Bond, or checks the pipe before they bury it? Is this the fastest constructed pipeline in history? A death trap with an exit hatch, that workers have to check "twice a day?" This was supposed to kill Bond how?). Sigh...like a said above, it's not a serious spy series anymore, so I shouldn't expect too much.

So the lack of clarity over who is being killed and why, coupled with the interminable "where are the real diamonds" back and forth, make for a more muddled plot then was necessary. A lot of stuff is happening, but it's not really advancing the story...it's just marking time. There's often no sense of why one scene is following another. Combine that with some very odd plot construction, and you have a lot of fun, but no real direction. As Churchill said, the pudding has no theme.

Odd plot construction? How about how we have the long, boring moon buggy chase followed immediately by the long up and down Fremont Street chase sequence? That's a huge chunk of the middle of your movie tied up on pointless car chases. How about having the interesting henchmen Wint and Kid vanish from the movie for almost 45 minutes? After they attempt to bury Bond in the dessert, they aren't seen again until the finale. How about having Tiffany Case vanish from your movie for almost as long (and having Bond not even notice that she's missing)? After Bond heads up to Whyte's penthouse, except for the brief scene with Q, we don't see her again until Bond reaches the oil platform.

And the whole general plot speaks to a particular lack of imagination. I understand that you want to expand it beyond diamond smuggling...but again with the Blofeld?!? When Maibaum made S.P.E.C.T.R.E. the secret bad guy in From Russia With Love instead of SMERSH, it was inspired. This time, it's just laziness. It's glaringly obvious in the light of watching these movies back to back, but even to contemporary observers with 2 years between the films it must have been annoying--3 straight movies with Blofeld as the main bad guy?? The 4th in a row where Blofeld or S.P.E.C.T.R.E. is threatening the world with WMDs?? Second of the last 3 with a space-based weapon? Was there a compelling reason to make this Blofeld again? Especially since you were going to have a different actor playing Blofeld for the 3rd straight movie!! Why not use to opportunity to at least come up with a new villain, if not a new plot?!?!

He's a man, man...or should I have said 'Pussy Galore?'That being said, I like Charles Gray just fine as Blofeld. People like to throw about the terms "effete" and "effeminate" in criticizing his performance (hell, I've done it, too). But he's hardly effeminate--he does dress in drag, but only to avoid detection (just like S.P.E.C.T.R.E. #6 in Thunderball), and besides--he's British, they just do that sort of thing. Yes, he's snotty, arrogant, patrician--but he's a criminal mastermind, not the henchman. No, he probably couldn't win a hand-to-hand combat with 007, but neither could Max Von Sydow or Donald Pleasence. Yes, he's camping it up, but in case you haven't noticed, the whole movie is camp. What's key is that he and Connery play well off another, and that Gray is able to project the menace that Blofeld should have.

Plus, his basic scheme is fairly clever--take the place of the reclusive billionaire, and use his assets to implement your evil scheme. Bravo!! And I give Blofeld some extra credit points for FINALLY learning not to give too long a deadline. He give the U.S. and Russia until "tomorrow at noon" to pay off--probably about 18 hours.

Unfortunately, there are no good supporting characters for Bond to play off of (aside from Tiffany). No Kerim Bay, no Tanaka, no Draco...just a boring humorless bunch. Norman Burton is the latest in a line of boring and not particularly useful Felix Leiters (more on that this weekend). The gangsters who figure so prominently in the novel are around for a few minutes, but never as more than cardboard cut-outs. Bond doesn't meet Wint and Kid until the final 2 minutes of the movie. Jimmy Dean brings some spark, but it's too little, too late.

Henry Kissinger, you lucky bastardJill St. John as Tiffany Case is...well, she's freaking stunning. Aside from her obvious physical attributes, her emotional (and physical) chemistry with Sean Connery is palpable. Her ability to slide back and forth between ordering Peter Franks around and seducing him (whichever to better get her way) makes her quite the memorable femme fatale. You believe she's a tough and effective smuggler, used to getting her way, able to get out of most situations.

What to wear to a stylish armageddonBut...things start to go south in the last half of the movie. Yes, when people start trying to kill her and she's facing prison, she shifts to more vulnerable and demure. That's in character. But they take it waaaay too far. After a lengthy absence, I think the character completely falls apart (like pretty much everything else does in the horrific final act). She's worse than useless against Blofeld, both switching out the wrong tape and then failing to re-switch it. Even Bond calls her a "stupid twit". Then, of course, there's the unforgivable bit with the machine gun.

You'd think that Case, as a career criminal, would know at least some minimal amount about how to handle a weapon. But far from covering Bond, she manages to shoot herself off the oil platform in a way that would embarrass Abbot & Costello.

Then comes the finale, aboard the cruise ship. She and Bond are being menaced by two assassins. Bond is being strangled by one. Does Tiffany case grab a knife from dinner service? Does she grab a bottle to conk Mr. Wint with? No, and no. What does she do?

So we were thissss close to a Bond pie fight??Oh, yes, she throws a cake at him. And misses. Well done, Team Bond...you turned Tiffany Case from a capable and self--assured woman into a useless git. Congratulations!!

What else is wrong with the final act? Oy, let's see: The good guys have a tight deadline to respond to Blofeld's blackmail. Apparently, they spent that 18 hours doing essentially nothing (except perhaps hopping down to K-Mart to buy a cassette tape). Seriously, what is Bond's bold stratagem for getting into Blofeld's fortress? How about, just walk up to it. In plain sight. No subterfuge, no guile. With 15 minutes to go. In a big inflatable ball (Ladies and gentleman, we are now firmly in the camp zone...please leave any expectations of the slightest bit of realism checked at the front desk for the next decade. Thank you). And hope they don't search you. Or that if they search you, and do find the fake tape, that Blofeld will just leave it laying atop his desk, and you can somehow snatch it back. Or hope that Tiffany (whom Bond doesn't even know has been captured) will still be on your side and manage to get the tape back to you, even though she can't possibly know about the tape (she didn't enter the room until after the tape was discussed) and even though the guards are looking right out you. Absolutely foolproof. And it only took them 17 hours to come up with that plan...

And then, don't even have a specific signal planned ahead of time with Leiter to launch the attack...Bond releases a weather balloon, and Leiter says, "That must be the signal!" So what, exactly, would James have done if no weather balloon were handy? Whistled?? (And consider Leiter, who knows for a fact that "there isn't a low pressure area within 200 miles of here!" So Felix is a waaay too dedicated amateur meteorologist? Or are all CIA agents so perfectly briefed on the exact locations of all weather systems??)

Oh, but we're not done yet. Consider, if you will, the end of Blofeld. He tries to flee in his "bathosub", but Bond commandeers the crane, and proceeds to pommel the control room with the bathosub. Yes, this is the final link in Bond's brilliant plan--stop the destruction of Washington D.C. by hoping there's some large object hanging from a crane that he can use to batter the control room with. That Blofeld was in it was a huge bonus, of course. But why doesn't he finish off Blofeld?!? The very last shot we see, the bathosub is 100% intact. Some people have written that it blows up, but it very clearly does not, unless it's off screen somewhere. Nope, despite all Bond's earlier sturm und drang about killing Blofeld, he just leaves him hanging there, almost certain to escape. If we're meant to think Blofeld is killed, the director sure does a craptacular job of portraying it.

Seriously, the movie is an enjoyable, if imperfect, lark up until this point. But it's as if Maibaum and Mankeiwiecz forget to finish the script, and couldn't be found, so the producers rushed in some old writers from the Matt Helm movies, got 'em liquored up, and chained them to typewriters and said, "Go." The final 20 minutes becomes an amateur backyard panto (editor's note: snell is over-reacting. Please forgive him).

Unless it tastes like CoxBack to the good things. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the fun turn by Jimmy Dean as Willard Whyte. Good energy, fun performance, great sausage, and I ALWAYS crack up like an idiot when he yells, "Baja?!?!". I do have one real problem with his performance, though. For someone who was supposedly such a recluse that he hadn't been seen in public for 5 years, Whyte displays no signs of neuroses, paranoia, lack of social ability, nothing. No indication of why he let himself vanish for so long. It's as if, once the real Whyte show up, the writers kind of forgot that he was based on Howard Hughes.

I freely confess that all my whining above makes me sound much more negative about Diamonds Are Forever than I really am. It's never boring, like YOLT. Things keep moving, and are always interesting, even when non-sensical. I actually like the damned movie. But I just get very frustrated by the fact that, given the chaos of the end of the movie, the team for the first time seemed more concerned with getting done than getting it done right. The earlier Bond movies had set a much higher standard.

So, the best of times, the worst of times. A fun movie, mostly enjoyable. A fitting last hurrah for Sean. But it firmly points the franchise in a direction I'm not fond of, and that future creative teams will not execute nearly so well. Welcome to the 1970's, 007.


**Shirley Bassey is the first return artist, the first to get another theme song. And while this one isn't nearly so good as "Goldfinger," it is a much underrated tune. Sliding and sinuous, you're never certain where it's going, and Bassey's vocals turn what could have been a dull, droning chorus into a sleek and sexy title song.

**If you LOOOOVE Las Vegas as much as I do, it's fun to see what the town looked liked back in ye olde days. Fremont Street unblocked and uncovered, no theme resorts...take a look at this shot of the Dunes, and how empty the surrounding area is.

Viva Las...uh, where is it??This is where the Bellagio is today, and every square inch is now crammed with resorts, retail, condos, and more construction projects every day. And check out the list of hotels thanked in the credits:

They forgot to thank the brothels!!Half of those are no longer with us...And isn't about time Bond return to Vegas??

**Speaking of 70's Vegas, ladies and gentleman: Shady Tree!! The worst act ever, or THE WORST ACT EVER?? Saxby is upset when Wint and Kid kill him prematurely--"We need Tree-alive!!" Uhh, you do? Why, exactly? The diamonds got passed along just fine without him...

**A LOT of things that don't make sense in this movie, due to poor editing, poor filming, or just general screw-ups. Everyone knows about the famous "car balanced on the wrong side" fiasco. But how about this scene, where Bond is on the phone with Q.

Bond on phone...Bond then takes off in a hurry, but you can still hear Q's voice talking to him.

Uhhh...invisible speaker phone??Except, of course, the phone is hung up. Sloppy, sloppy.

**I dissed the fight scenes in Guy Hamilton's last Bond film, Goldfinger. So I'd better praise this one, specifically the elevator fight scene with Peter Franks. It's not quite the train car fight from From Russia With Love, but it makes a nice substitute. Intense and well filmed.

**After Bond kills Franks in that fight, he switches wallets with him, so Case will believe that it's James Bond who is dead. WAIT A MINUTE!! While on an undercover mission, 007 still carries his own wallet, with cards (including a Playboy Club membership!) identifying him as Bond?!? No wonder M's always pissed at him...

**The fact that Tiffany Case recognizes the name James Bond, and regards him with awe, is of course terrible. Bond is supposed to be a super secret spy, but common jewel smugglers know who he is? Again, we're camping it up here. This coy, fourth-wall breaking self-referentialism will keep on going during the Moore era, until the whole series nearly collapses under its own smug weight (I'm looking at you, View To a Kill).

**But we're not fully given in to terrible sight gags and self reference yet. Maibaum's dialogue still truly sparkles in places, particularly the double entendres as Bond undresses for Tiffany, and also this exchange, representing the best lines of dialogue in the history of motion pictures:

Why can I never meet anyone like her when I play craps??Plenty: Hi, I'm Plenty!
Bond (glancing at her...ahem...dress): But of course you are.
Plenty: Plenty O'Toole.
Bond (smirking): Named after your father, perhaps?

They don't write 'em like that anymore. Poor, poor Plenty.

**OK, so "Peter Franks" had to come up with an original way to get the diamonds into the country, and uses the convenient corpse. But...Mr. Slumber's funeral outfit was all set up for diamond smuggling already!?! Was the whole set-up built just in case somebody smuggled jewels in a corpse someday?!? What if Bond had smuggled the diamonds some other way?

**More inconsistencies: The first time we see Blofeld talk to Saxby and Metz on the phone, he's using the voice changer to pretend that he's Willard Whyte. The next time for both, he doesn't use it. But why stop pretending to be White with them, unless they already knew?? So who knew he was Blofeld all along, and who didn't? Or did they just get bored and sloppy?

**Saxby shows up at Whyte's summer place to shoot him. But wait a minute--Blofeld never gave that order to Saxby--he gave it to Bond pretending to be Saxby!! So was Saxby acting on his own? Did he call Blofeld, and they found out that Bond had fooled them? No explanation...just more sloppy stuff, things happening for no particular reason.

**Oh, and then there's the cassette tape. First it's at the aerospace lab, just laying around so Bond could notice it. Then, apparently just because, it's in Blofeld's office, again just laying around so Bond could notice it. A MacGuffin is one thing...a MacGuffin that just appears in random places where it shouldn't be solely to give the hero a clue is lazy writing.

**So Tiffany sees Blofled, in drag, leaving the casino, and realizes it's him. Uh, how? Not only had she never met Blofeld before, Bond hadn't even so much as spoken to her since he discovered that Blofeld was the villain. He leaves to visit Willard Whyte's penthouse, not knowing Blofeld is alive, and they don't even see each other until he gets to the oil platform at the end. There must have been an off screen scene where he fills her in or something, or else she recognizes a man she's never even heard of when he's in disguise. Again, sloppy editing, or sloppy storytelling, or both.

**Bond's victory over Bambi and Thumper is completely unbelievable (and unearned). They're kicking his butt all over the place, he barely gets a blow in, but when they get to the pool, all of a sudden he just reaches out and dunks them, fight over. What, is he Aquaman??

Or perhaps the Sub-Mariner**Ladies and gentlemen: a Las Vegas suite as designed by Ken Adam:

Not the Motel 6**Bond Score: 1. That's right. Just one. Although he had a close call with Plenty, the only intimacy Bond enjoys in this film is with Tiffany Case. Cumulative Bond Score: 24.

And, as always,

But which Bond shall it be?!?Get ready to enter a brave new world, people.