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New Release DVD/Blu Ray Round Up Monday 18th February 2013

17/02/2013

It’s one of those weeks this week where a mammoth release from a single studio is enough to get everyone else running for the hills. This time the honour goes to one of the biggest films of last year (and one that looks set to be just as gargantuan on its home video release), the 23rd instalment of the official James Bond franchise, Skyfall. As it’s also being released in a box set along side Daniel Craig’s other outings as Bond I thought this would be a great opportunity to talk about the last three Bond films in one fell swoop (for more Bond related shenanigans, check out my Bondageddon podcast).

When Daniel Craig took over the mantle of the world’s most famous secret agent it had been four years since the last Bond film, DIE ANOTHER DAY, which if we’re all honest was a low point of a franchise that had seemed to reach a particularly low point of self parody with its invisible cars, dire Madonna theme and all round vapidity. Sure, Brosnan may have proved himself a half decent Bond but boy was he saddled with a bunch of substandard films that pushed the Moore era formula to breaking point and lacked any real teeth. When Craig was announced as his replacement I wasn’t convinced, at least not until I saw the entertaining LAYER CAKE which showed that maybe he might have what it would take to fill the enormous shoes of the legendary 007.

casino royaleI first saw CASINO ROYALE in the cinema, back in 2006 and with a completely open mind. From the pre-credits sequence alone, a noirish, black and white segment that are, in my opinion, four of the most exciting and impactful minutes of the entire franchise, I knew I was watching something different, that Bond had evolved. The brutality of Bond’s first kill, the icy calm with which he executes his second in order to earn his double-oh status, were unlike anything that had come before. Sure, Dalton touched on the professional murderer side of the character way back in THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS and LICENCE TO KILL but here Craig completely nails the notion of a professional killer unencumbered by petty concerns like conscience or regret.

What follows is two and a half hours of so of a Bond pared down to the bare essentials. Gone are the frivolous gadgets and idiotic attempts at humour (whoever thought John Cleese was a sensible addition to the Bond universe needs their head examined) and instead we have a bold, exciting and – dare I say it – edgy rendition of the character as Bond leaves a trail of bodies in his wake as he pursues international terrorist financier Le Schiffre (played by the superb Mads Mikkelsen on fine villainous form). Clearly taking its cues from the highly successful  THE BOURNE IDENTITY, the action is more brutal, more realistic and more vital than anything seen in a previous Bond. An early chase scene has Bond pursuing a bad guy through a construction site, his quarry effortlessly negotiating obstacles with finely tuned Parkour skills. In a wonderful bit of action choreography, Bond gives chase in his own style, far less graceful but no less inventive as he takes a route that suits his skills. It’s subtle but exciting and it’s the sort of dynamic set piece that characterises the rest of the film.

Bond claims his first kill in the opening sequence of Casino Royale. The brutal, visually stylish sequence represents 4 of the most exciting minutes of cinema from the entire franchise, setting the tone for the rest of the film.

Significantly, although 007 is his usual womanising self, it feels out of place in the twenty first century. In fact, the film seems to take a disapproving stance to some of the more ridiculous elements of the series (see the disdain both Bond and his Treasury babysitter/Bond girl in chief Vesper Lynd have for her cover name “Stephanie Broadchest”). It either plays with or outright ditches many of the Bond clichés in favour of something more modern. Its references to the earlier movies (witness the understated appearance of a 1964 Aston Martin and an arrogant country club member who mistakes Bond for a parking valet and who bears more than a passing resemblance to Auric Goldfinger) are subtle and welcome, clearly affectionate nods by filmmakers who have a love for the films of the past but who clearly were on a mission to bring the franchise kicking and screaming into a modern age.

The only weak points in the film are the “climactic” poker scenes where James faces off against Le Schiffre over a poker table. Poker is hardly cinematic, and the constant, expositional commentary by one of Bond’s allies might be useful for members of the audience who don’t know how to play the game but they are hardly dramatic. It’s a minor quibble (and completely forgivable given the quality of the rest of the film) and as it’s a pivotal part of the story I’ll let them off, but I can’t help but wonder if there might have been another way to  play these scenes out that would have felt less mechanical.

quantum of solaceThe follow up, 2008’s QUANTUM OF SOLACE is a film that didn’t fare quite so well as its predecessor. It’s a film that seems to be slammed almost universally as something of a let down, I would say somewhat unfairly. It does seem a little more lightweight than CASINO, that’s for sure, but I wonder how much of the derision pointed at it is a result of unfairly high expectations in the aftermath of CASINO ROYALE. Personally, I feel there’s a lot to like in the film, which continues in the tradition breaking (which I suspect lies at the heart of most of the criticisms levelled at it) vein of CASINO, not the least by being a direct sequel to the earlier film. It carries on from the moment CASINO leaves off, with an exciting, bullet riddled car chase that is full of promise for what lies ahead. I’m particularly fond of a knife fight between Bond and a bad guy that sees our hero get slashed in as realistic a fight scene as you’re ever likely to see within the franchise and that ends with Bond failing to hide his impatience as he waits for his assailant to die, knife plunged deep into his femoral artery. Could it be this callous indifference from Bond that turned people against the film? I suspect it may be part of the problem.

The continuity between the two films is a first for the franchise, and while there has always been a very loose continuity (maybe consistency is a better word) from film to film over the decades, there hasn’t been such a direct follow up to any of the films. I love this as it gives everyone the opportunity to explore the shadowy Quantum organisation whose existence is briefly revealed at the end of Craig’s first film and then explored more here. Of course, Quantum is the twenty first century equivalent to S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and seem to share similar goals to Bond’s traditional foes (world domination, the pursuit of power and wealth) only without the comic-book style overlord. In fact, the story arc across the two films echoes the involvement of S.P.E.C.T.R.E from the earlier movies, with Bond seeking vengeance for the death of his beloved at the hands of the secret organisation, going “off the reservation” to achieve his ends. This isn’t the only callback to earlier instalments. There’s a death that evokes the woman-painted-gold trick from GOLDFINGER and Bond’s escape from his fellow S.I.S. agents is straight out of LICENCE TO KILL, even down to his semi-sanctioned getaway courtesy of M. These references work for me in much the same way as the ones in CASINO did, recalling memorable characters and incidents from the franchise without ramming them down your throat with big neon signs saying “LOOK AT ME I’M A REFERENCE”.

Olga Kurylenko is very much in the independent and capable camp when it comes to Bond girls. Beautiful, deadly and not in the least bit simpering.

Maybe the stumbling block for QUANTUM is its lacklustre conclusion that comes straight out of the classical Bond movie playbook. There are only so many remote, exotic bad guy’s lairs that Bond can blow up before the novelty wears off and the explody bits at the end of QUANTUM feel a little bit out of place. It’s got one of those twists that isn’t really a twist and I suppose comes as a bit of a comedown after all that has transpired before. This weakness stems from the writing, likely a symptom of a script that was being polished on the fly. That said, I think it’s more or less compensated by the good stuff. I’d take the fiery conclusion of QUANTUM over the painful “Confessions Of A Spy”, Scottish Laird segment of ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE for example, any day of the week.

skyfallWhich brings me onto the latest addition to the James Bond canon, SKYFALL. I desperately tried to manage my expectations for SKYFALL. I carefully avoided too many previews and trailers, I tried not to speculate on what delights it might have in store. The thought of Javier Bardem as a Bond villain was an exciting one, the idea of Sam Mendes directing not so much. On the basis of Daniel Craig’s previous films though, the prospects were good. Then came early plaudits from people who managed to see it before me. “Best Bond Film Ever” they said. The word on the street was Q was back. People were bandying around phrases like “a return to form”. And I got worried.

As it turns out, my misgivings were far from unfounded. A lacklustre theme song follows a by-the-numbers opening and suddenly all the good work, all the progress made over the previous two films is thrown out of the window as Mendes drags the franchise back in time, as far back as the Moore era with its patronising approach to women and overblown ridiculousness. Clearly, as I appear to be very much in the minority here, this would seem to be the Bond film that “the people” actually want (something that would explain the lukewarm at best reception to QUANTUM OF SOLACE), but for me it just took everything that made Daniel Craig’s tenure as Bond great and threw it out the window.

Lessons learned from SKYFALL: Women can’t cut it in the field, they make better secretaries. Computer hackers can (somehow) cause gas explosions. Helicopter gunships can operate in Scottish airspace unmolested. CGI Komodo Dragons look shit.

Compared to CASINO and QUANTUM there is a severe lack of danger during the action sequences. It’s all been done before (even the actually not bad conclusion is lifted from HOME ALONE) and for the most part it’s been done far better. There are occasional moments of interest – Bond’s backlit, neon fistfight in Shanghai at least looks interesting, even if it doesn’t quite pack the same punch as his battles from earlier instalments. The evil henchman being eaten by a computer generated lizard is awful though. They aren’t even well animated. It’s indicative of a general lack of subtlety that has tainted the entire film.

The Shanghai assassination sequence is one of the highlights of Skyfall, aesthetically at least.

The references to earlier films are the worst. There’s the good old Aston Martin DB5. Not just a DB5, but the DB5, revolving number plates and ejector seat et al (the source of some risible repartee between M and Bond). “What did you expect, an exploding pen?” quips Q when he issues Bond with his kit. All very smug, all very knowing, all totally unnecessary. They feel like big placards declaring the mission statement – to purge the modernity from the franchise and rehash the outmoded ideals of the past. Maybe that suits the film’s theme, that of Bond as a relic of a bygone age, a blunt instrument, physical media in a digital age. It’s all done with computers now. Q is a hacker. Silva, the film’s villain, is a hacker. The peril comes in the form of misappropriated information. Very good. Somewhere along the line though (as Bond himself points out) a trigger has to be pulled. Of course the conclusion proves the old ways are the best. That’s at least true in respect of the story, not so much for the film.

And here lies a major issue with SKYFALL. There are no exciting action films about computer hacking. There are decent films about hacking – SNEAKERS and WARGAMES spring to mind, I’d even give you THE SOCIAL NETWORK – but there are no decent action films about computer hacking. If you don’t believe me, try to sit through DIE HARD 4.0. One problem is that cinema is tragically prone to exaggerating the capabilities of hackers, under the same sort of misapprehensions that led people to fear the Millennium Bug that somehow access to a computer allows you to control every aspect of the world. The other is that they tend to overlook the fact that by its very nature, hacking is un-cinematic. Some wee guy, sitting on his own, tapping away on a keyboard does not an exciting plot device make, never mind a convincing one.

The real tragedy of the film is the sense that by the end, Mendes’ work is complete. All the things I loved about CASINO and QUANTUM have been erased, and that there’s been a complete return to the archaic formula that made the Brosnan movies so tiresome and CASINO so fresh and exciting for breaking. It bodes ill for future instalments, especially given the success of SKYFALL, hopes of further innovation dashed under the commercial realisation that multiplex audiences apparently resent change. Most unforgivable of all is its concluding “gag”, a reference back to the classic Bonds that is the final nail in any sense of modernity in the franchise, a definitive indicator that all hope is lost. I won’t spoil it for you, you’ll know it when you see it.

That said, I’ll be buying it tomorrow. I need it to fill the empty space in my Bond box set….

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