Saturday, June 8, 2013

Finally, a New Bond

Finally, after the over-the-top, hard-to-swallow plot twists of You Only Live Twice, we have On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which while having its own moments of incredulity, also humanizes James Bond in unexpected ways.  Both movies prove my idea that action happening on solid ground--hand-to-hand combat, chases on skis or in cars, explosions--are all more exciting than anything underwater, but I’m becoming convinced that Bond movies are just not my cup of tea.  I feel like, after Thunderball especially, as long as there are a few really cool fight scenes, fast chase scenes, and at least one big explosion the Bond film has met my expectations. 

I read somewhere that Roald Dahl abandoned most of the original novel’s plot in writing the screenplay for You Only Live Twice.  If that be the case, combining the Cold War with the Space Race in developing the evil plan may have been his downfall.  The premise often seemed more like science fiction than any kind of reality.  That couldn’t possibly be what people actually thought of the space race and what it might achieve; or is it?  And that problematic premise doesn’t even get at Bond rising from the dead without any real explanation as to how he/they pulled off his faked death ruse or why he needed to “become Japanese” in order to stop Blofeld and SPECTRE’s plan from happening.  (FYI, a shaved chest, different hairstyle and kimono do not “make” one Japanese.  I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to believe he was trying to pass as Japanese physically or just culturally. Why couldn’t he just “become a ninja”--a British Ninja Warrior?)  Overall, You Only Live Twice was not the best Bond movie ever made. 

That being said, there were some interesting developments.  We finally got to see SPECTRE agent No. 1, aka Blofeld, but Telly Savalas played the character much better in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  But why did they get rid of the scar on the side of Blofeld’s face in the latter?  I’m assuming that because they made a point to show how he wasn’t actually dead at the end of OHMSS, that we will be seeing this villain again.  Although, honestly, I would be perfectly happy to only ever see Blofeld represented through his cute white cat, which we got to see quite a lot of in YOLT

The gadgets in YOLT were also pretty cool--that mini helicopter, especially, even if it did bother me how they not only referred to it with a girl’s name (standard, no trouble there), but talked about “Little Nellie” having fought off “improper advances” and “defended her honor,” placing me back in the misogyny of the era.  It also bothered me that some of Bond’s gadgets, like his mini-rocket cigarettes, were developed by someone other than Q.  I was actually offended.  I think because I’ve come to really like Q.  He always calls Bond out on his sh*t, and his gadgets are pretty much the only reason Bond is ever able to get out of these messes.  I think Q is my favorite recurring character. 

There was also some really fabulous fashion in YOLT--Bond’s black and white wingtips (I only caught a glimpse while he was running away from someone.  It would have been easy to miss them, but they were so cool and somewhat unexpected from the dapper yet classically sophisticated Bond), Aki’s bluedress, and this amazing sequined number on Helga Brandt, aka SPECTRE agent No. 11.  I think my most vocal reaction during the entire movie was when Bond actually cuts that beautiful dress with a knife (to more easily undress her, of course. Ugh!)--what a crime to fashion.

But enough about YOLT, let’s talk about On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and George Lazenby, who will probably forever be remembered as the guy who only played Bond once.  I was quite surprised by how much I liked Lazenby in the role, and it was more than just a welcome relief from Connery.  Lazenby, for someone who apparently had done little to no acting before being cast, gave a solid performance and was much more relatable than Connery.  He came off as less suave and sophisticated, more rugged and attractive, casual.  Maybe that is an indication that we are moving into the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when a general informality took over culturally, but until I see Connery’s return in the next movie, I will attribute it to Lazenby’s skills on screen.  And while I don’t completely understand why he and Tracy fall in love, once it’s established that they are in love, I actually believe it to be true (that being only slightly marred by the whole sleeping with Blofeld’s “angels of death” - I guess we’re supposed to believe “out of sight, out of mind” or something like that when it comes to his love for Tracy; or that he’s doing it for Queen and Country maybe).  The last scene is a heartbreaking close to a movie, but surprisingly believable given Bond’s reputation.  I might go so far as to say that Lazenby is a better actor than Connery, who mostly seems to get by on his looks, but Connery is so clearly better at the one-liners and had a much more prolific career, so I think I would be stretching it if I actually endorsed that comment.  But the special features show every exec who worked with Lazenby saying that he could have been the best Bond, so there must be something there.  So far, I agree with them. 

I think, for me, part of the appeal of Lazenby as Bond is that his Bond was somewhat less offensively sexist.  Don’t get me wrong, he’s still a pig, and the violence against women--in this case, Tracy--was quite appalling.  Don’t even get me started on the reason Draco gives for why he wants Bond to marry his daughter.  But there are small redeeming moments in this movie.  When Tracy offers to pay off her debt from the gambling table but hesitates, Bond clearly says she owes him nothing and means it.  He doesn’t just make a joke about it and continue as if nothing is bothering her, as I could see Connery’s Bond doing.  And when Bond does go to seduce Blofeld’s "angels," it seems to be largely because the women were throwing themselves at him rather than the other way around.  I’m not so sure it excuses his behavior completely, but it’s something different from the approach of Connery as Bond (and yes, I know Bond’s approach has everything to do with the writing and not necessarily the actors, but you can’t completely discount the tenor and tone each actor brings to the character).

Beyond Lazenby’s distinct interpretation of Bond, here are some thoughts on the movie more generally:

These movies are entirely too long, and OHMSS seemed especially disjointed as a story.  It took an hour and half to reveal Blofeld’s evil scheme, and then there was never any real threat that he might pull it off.  Besides the fact that he is SPECTRE’s No. 1 agent, I felt no real threat to mankind in this one like there was in all previous films.  That said, I was beginning to wonder if we would ever move away from the very-Cold-War-esque atomic plot lines to something more innovative and modern, and the germ warfare idea, even if not fully played out, was a welcome step in that direction. 

OHMSS had some very memorable high points and humor, which I appreciated and felt had gotten stale with Connery.  And some of those deaths are seriously grotesque - super high falls, red snow as a guy is chopped to pieces by a snowblower (But that joke, “he had a lot of guts,” seriously had me cracking up.  I still crack up every time I think of it.  Does that make me a horrible person?).  There were many quite violent fight scenes in the beginning and of course a big, extended chase at the end - it was in the middle where it dragged. 

As in YOLT, the fight scenes have gotten quite good, much better choreographed and executed.  Although, in OHMSS I felt like the editing of the fights had a 1960s-TV-Batman feel to them.  Kind of like stop motion but without the interjection of the “Wham!” or “Pow!”  I’m not saying this is a bad thing, just something I noticed. 

Interesting that the only black actor isn’t allowed to speak, only grunt.

I was beginning to think being filmed in a bikini (and almost always a white bikini) was a requirement to be an official Bond girl, but things being set mostly in the cold, snowy Alps, Tracy doesn’t wear one--a welcome relief. 

I sometimes get confused as to why Bond is in a certain place at a certain time, but one thing I do appreciate about the international nature of Bond is the films’ attempts to bring in the culture of the different countries in which he’s working: Nassau’s Junkanoo in Thunderball, Japanese Sumo wrestling in YOLT, bull fighting when OHMSS is in Portugal and winter sports when it heads to Switzerland. 

Finally, what exactly is Bond’s relationship with Monneypenny?  Does she love him?  She seemed seriously sad to see Bond get married, but yet it always seems tongue-in-cheek when she banters with him in the office.  He certainly doesn’t love her. . .

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