Tag Archives: espionage

BlogalongaBond: You Only Live Twice – A review from memory


After getting the ball rolling last month with the underwater mad, but still in my view underrated Thunderball, I was looking forward to sitting down to the even grander and more SPECTRE dominated You Only Live Twice. Here was a Bond film not only hell bent on exotic thrills but a whistle-stop tour of Japanese culture for a Western audience. With such a diverse location to work with, a script adapted by Roald Dahl from one of Fleming’s best novels and the fresh direction of Lewis Gilbert, this would surely be bigger and better Bond. I licked my lips at the prospect of rediscovery.

Unfortunately I came across a substantial stumbling block perusing the beloved and holy row of Bond DVDS. I do not own a copy of You Only Live Twice. I am anxious to keep this knowledge from my friends. Among them my, perhaps unhealthy, obsession with all things 007 is the stuff of notorious legend. I am counting on the fact that they are not good enough friends to read my blog.

You might ask why I haven’t simply gone out to buy a copy. I am not marooned on a desert island with no access to British high streets and if HMV should prove woefully stocked the internet is of course at my disposal. If it were a missing fragment of any other film series I wouldn’t hesitate. But my James Bond collection is comprised of two disc Ultimate Editions with beautiful matching packaging. To my horror, around the release of either Casino Royale or Quantum of Solace on DVD, the Ultimate Editions were re-released with all new (and vastly inferior) packaging. Reluctant to tarnish the perfection of my sacred DVD area, I have refrained from buying a newer copy of You Only Live Twice and have been unable to find a copy to match my collection.

Oh I know you feel my pain reader. Life is a cruel and unpredictable mistress. I felt resigned to my fate and the torturous wait till June where the snowy delights of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service lurked in the Alpine trees. I was on the verge of giving up and leaving a gaping hole in my own personal BlogalongaBond journey. But then I got to thinking: why didn’t I own You Only Live Twice? Why hadn’t I made it a priority when assembling my shrine to the world’s most recognisable spy?

For Sean Connery of course it was the film that took the character too far and into the realm of the ridiculous. He resented the space age driven plot and the increasing repetitiveness of the one liners. In particular he must have felt like a first class prat being initiated as an honorary citizen of Japan, with a haircut that made him look like a monk (perhaps M really did want him to be “half monk/half hitman”). For fans looking back on the whole series of 22 films, Connery’s concerns might seem rather unfounded compared to the silliness to come with the Moore era. But clearly the Scot didn’t agree with the direction of travel away from intimate plots like those in From Russia With Love. The scale of this, the franchise’s fifth film, couldn’t be beaten without being dreadful.

I think some of Connery’s conservatism must have rubbed off on me. As a child YOLT was one of my favourite Bond entries. In particular I thought the climactic battle at the volcano base was one of the most exciting things in the universe, a totally awesome shootout with the baddies. I would have called it “an engrossing and epic finale on an impressive scale. One of the classic scenes in film history” had I had the required vocabulary. I also loved all the scenes featuring Little Nelly, as my Dad would chirp on and on about it, building the anticipation until the treasured scene would grip the household with awe and laughter.

But then as a teenager I obviously sought to reject the things my parents thought of as “good”. Little Nelly became silly. It was the sort of bland nonsense my Dad would always blabber on about. Later on I would find my love for Bond rekindled by the approach in Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale, so that I rapidly acquired and devoured the books (none of Fleming’s are missing from that collection). So enthralled was I by the dark and bleak novel that pushed Bond’s character to the limit, that my attitude to the film as a whole became lukewarm at best.

Most of all it was my view of Blofeld that changed so dramatically after reading YOLT the novel. I was struck by the complete contrast between the cinematic and literary characters, even in terms of physique. In the books he was tall, in the films a short, bald, fat and often wheelchair bound man with a fluffy white pussy. I don’t mean that he was a woman; the contrast wasn’t quite that shocking.

Anyway I might be being unfair because it’s Austin Powers’ Doctor Evil that creates such a daft cultural vision of Ernst Stavro, rather than the portrayals from the Eon films (aside from perhaps the PTS of For Your Eyes Only). But after reading the book I was no longer captivated by Donald Pleasence’s iconic performance. He was THE Blofeld to me and countless others, but after my personal enlightenment he became a wasted opportunity, a stupid cardboard cut out villain and an imitation.  

I’ve already mentioned that unintentionally hilarious assimilation of Bond into the ninja community, which ruined the pace of the film and its focus upon Japanese culture. Another definite reason I came to find YOLT a turnoff was that it tried too hard to do its location justice at times, almost showing too much respect. That is not to say there wasn’t beautiful cinematography of the landscape and cities, just that too much was made of the whole “culture clash” angle. Having said this there were some wonderfully contrasted Ken Adam interior sets, which simultaneously showcased the equally beguiling faces of modern and traditional Japan.

In the aftermath of the recent earthquake and tsunami it is fitting and poignant to watch YOLT this month. Sadly, as I’ve explained, I am not. Everything I have said so far I have said from memory. Some of these files have been saved since childhood, others downloaded from more recent viewings. The trend seems to be that boy me loved it, more recent me had reservations. There are things about the film that the younger me hated that I now love however. Nancy Sinatra’s title song was whiny and not very Bondian back in the 90s, but now I find it a refreshing and beautiful track. Likewise John Barry’s score, which picked up substantially on the Japanese themes at times if memory serves me right, now strikes me as majestic when once it was irritating and plodding (not that I’d have used those words).

I genuinely wish I owned YOLT on DVD, despite what might be a tone of negativity coming across because of my love for the pages of the book dripping in revenge and sensual doubt. I know that the last time I saw the film on TV I found it to be a wonderful snapshot of both 1960s and Japanese culture, with fun as well as thrilling moments and the fresh angle of the space race. In many ways it is the classic film of the entire franchise, adhering more to the globally recognised Bond formula than Goldfinger and coming complete with spiky dialogue with Blofeld; the ultimate confrontation.

 But perhaps this is also why I can’t quite bring myself to love YOLT. Like Connery, and with the added benefit of hindsight, I see YOLT’s sensational and epic tone as the start of a trend away from the style of the early films. I adored these grander and dafter cinematic Bond adventures for different reasons, but in the early films I could indulge my love for the books and the movies at the same time. Whilst good, perhaps YOLT symbolises the end of my own personal Bondian bliss and this is why my memories of it are so mixed.

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Kick Ass Assassins: Salt on Blu-Ray and The American on DVD


The world lacks a female super spy. Angelina Jolie has perhaps come closer than most to filling the void with her all action portrayal of sexy video game Tomb Raider Lara Croft, but this was ultimately more Indiana Jones than James Bond. Last year Phillip Noyce’s Cold War conspiracy thriller Salt, originally earmarked for Tom Cruise, morphed into a very different project altogether with the casting of Jolie as CIA agent Evelyn.

I may be veering into sexism here, but because of Jolie’s casting my expectations were drastically lowered. However I’ll defend myself with two qualifications; firstly I think of Jolie as more than merely an internationally coveted sexual icon, but as a fine and capable actress, particularly after her powerhouse performance in Clint Eastwood’s excellent Changeling. Secondly I believe I expected disappointment because of the film industry’s own sexist view of women playing action leads, rather than my own narrow and intolerant perspective on the “fairer sex”.

What I mean by this is that women rarely seem to be cast in serious mainstream action films. They’re a common feature in action comedies, such as the dire Knight and Day and Jolie’s own light-hearted romp with her equally famous and sexy spouse in Mr and Mrs Smith. But there’s no realistic and gripping female equivalent to the Bourne series, for example. Filmmakers are reluctant to showcase women, even today, as ruthless and professional killers without elements of fantasy. Watch a film about what is essentially a paid, female murderer (a “hitwoman”) and expect lots of ninja style, silly high kicking and unbelievable martial arts, alongside tight costumes, to offset such a horrific notion.

Sadly this is a formula that Salt eventually and perhaps inevitably, conforms to. The opening of the film is promising. Once we get some god awful dialogue out the way, probably ripped straight from the “how to script a film in the espionage genre” handbook, along with some forced flashbacks, we get Salt interrogating an apparent Russian defector. He drops the bombshell that there’s a sleeper agent in the CIA, and that agent is called Evelyn Salt.

Salt is dismissive at first, but all the high tech brain scans and probably some ingenious pad questioning his balls from his seat, says that he’s telling the truth. After a bit of dithering Salt decides to run, apparently out of concern for her husband, but it still seems rather daft if she really is innocent. Once she does run however, it looks as if Salt is going to be a decent film.

With the shadowy, backstabbing premise of the plot and some tense evasion of security cameras by a grey suited Jolie, Salt seems very Bourne-esque at first. And a female Bourne film would not have been such a bad thing. Boxed into an interrogation room, Salt constructs a makeshift weapon from chemicals and chairs and table legs to allow her to escape. She then flees for home to look for her husband and just avoids capture by climbing around the outside of her building. Finally she escapes the city after a standoff by jumping from truck to truck on the freeway.

During all of this action it’s easy to get swept up and the character remains believable. You sympathise with her apparent innocence and will her to succeed. But once Salt heads to New York based on information that someone will attempt to kill the Russian President at the Vice President’s funeral, the plot completely loses its way. It utterly surprised me on several occasions but purely because it becomes so absolutely ludicrous. You can no longer relate to Salt as a character and the action degenerates into ninja Jolie implausibly kicking the asses of trained security personnel in seconds.

At first I thought it was refreshing that Salt was a spy thriller based on the old Cold War rivalries and tensions. Cinemagoers could do with a little more entertainment courtesy of grand, evil schemes, rather than grim and realistic takes on Al-Qaeda. There’s nothing wrong with fantastical plots based on extravagant conspiracies and the destruction of the world, providing they’re executed plausibly. But Salt is just too farfetched and has too many holes, mainly surrounding the believability of its characters. It also strays into the absurd and hilarious; supposedly a “master of disguise” Salt looks fairly obviously like Angelina Jolie dressed as an effeminate man infiltrating the White House.

As usual with Blu-Rays, there’s a whole host of meaty special features to devour about the making of Salt. There’s a baffling section on Salt’s supposed genius as a “master of disguise” and a separate “in screen” interview with the costume designer explaining the selection process behind Jolie’s grey suit earlier in the film. Apparently it was really beneficial to visit the CIA and presumably discover they wear boring and generic corporate power suits like everyone else. The most revealing sections are interviews with Noyce and Jolie about the fact Salt was originally written for a man, which might account for some of the script’s rough and unfinished feel.

There are some pleasing references to classics of the genre in the film, for example when “defector” Orlov escapes using a blade concealed in his shoe, like Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love. But in the end Salt resembles a mishmash parody of everything it has taken influence from. It lacks originality, quality and entertainment for most of its thankfully brief 100 minute runtime.

THE AMERICAN is the sort of serious and sombre story that sadly wouldn’t get made with a woman in the title role. It’s a slow-burning meditation on the nature of being an assassin and on loneliness itself. It’s an exercise in minimalist storytelling from writer Rowan Joffe, adapting Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman, and particularly, director Anton Corbijn. With the lightest of brush strokes he paints what was, for me, an incredibly evocative and captivating picture. 

I had meant to see The American on the big screen but sadly its lack of success at the box office resulted in a short stay at my local multiplex. For critics the problem with The American is that it never truly ignites following such a tantalisingly drawn out simmering of tension. Many find it boring to sit through. But for anyone that loves the genre, the intoxicating idea of the lone assassin, or anyone that likes understated and subtle films, The American is wonderfully watchable.

In many ways George Clooney shouldn’t work in the title role. He is such a recognisable face across the globe, a brand rather than a name, that he shouldn’t convince as an unknown and elusive assassin. But Corbijn needed someone who could act without words and Clooney delivers a master class. When there is dialogue Clooney enthuses it with charisma; it oozes enigmatic intrigue. When the camera is entirely reliant on Clooney’s movements a pained expression, a cold glance or a precise gesture speaks more than a page of script ever could.  This has been hailed by some as the best performance of Clooney’s career for a reason. We’ve never seen him laid bare like this; robbed of the charm and the cheeky grin.

More than anything else The American is beautiful. Its soundtrack is haunting, atmospheric and touching. Every other shot would make an arty still in a gallery; in Corbijn’s second picture after the acclaimed biopic Control, his background as a photographer is constantly evident. Clooney’s character chooses photography as his cover and there’s something about the parallels of precise skill and solitude between pictures and killing that’s endlessly fascinating. Indeed the subtlety of the storytelling really lets you think about its themes whilst enjoying the gorgeous visuals and the sexy girls.

The loneliness of existence is there in every furrow of Clooney’s focused face; the life of the assassin is the perfect lens for examining anyone’s existential angst. His character makes meagre relationships that wouldn’t satisfy many human beings, and yet they prove too much and too risky for his secretive profession. Despite the reports of boredom and never-ending build-up, I thought that the restrained action punctuated the plot well and the climax of the simple story was suitably engrossing.

In many ways Salt and The American both take “old school” approaches to a familiar genre; Salt with its outlandish Cold War plot and The American with its focus on an age old character, complete with soul searching scenes with a priest. The undoubted difference between the films though is a sumptuous and sexy style and quality that makes The American infinitely more interesting than Jolie’s briefly entertaining foray into the world of espionage.