Skyfall – 50 years of Bond

My favorite Bond used to be Roger Moore, but I got better.

See, he was all I knew growing up in the ’80s. The first James Bond movie I remember seeing was For Your Eyes Only, which gave me an instant crush on Sheena Easton and a love of espionage thrillers, with a little goof thrown in. Not as ridiculous as Moonraker, but hardly the strongest of the Bond franchise. I have a bit of a soft spot for Live and Let Die, but most of the Moore films are pretty forgettable, except for the villains- Yaphet Kotto, Christopher Walken. Richard Kiel.

I read all the Ian Fleming novels and ran to Curry’s Home Video, our big video store, to rent all the Bond films. Love Connery, even Never Say Never Again, which showed he kicked Moore’s ass even when he was joking about his age by going to a spa retreat. I still think Goldfinger is the best of the Bond franchise, Craig included. And I like the Craig films a lot. From Russia with Love is probably second, I appreciate the roughness of Dr. No, Thunderball upped the game and You Only Live Twice gave us the hollowed out volcano lair full of ninja warriors that defines the supervillain archetype. Diamonds Are Forever was a good time to check out. I like some of it, but by that point we sat around waiting for the snappy one-liners, and that’s never a good thing.

Bond with a Holland & Holland style .500 Nitro Express Double Rifle – old school English cannon!

I liked Dalton and Brosnan, though both their runs ended silly, with Licence to Kill and Die Another Day crapping on the good they did with The Living Daylights and Goldeneye, respectively. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has found new love, and it is good compared to the silly Moore films, but it’s not very memorable to me.  Casino Royale was the best reboot of modern times- better than Batman Begins, in my book- and Quantum of Solace may not have been a great follow-up, but I enjoyed it.

Skyfall is a fitting denouement to Craig’s Bond. That’s assuming that Idris Elba is truly taking over the double-0 moniker, something I welcome fully. It was hilarious when fans choked with rage over a blond blue-eyed Bond, I can’t wait for the response to a black one. I mean, he’s not an American, so get over it. Bond is a British operative, and by this point we have to accept that he is not the same man in all the films, despite Skyfall’s one misstep- making James Bond the character’s real name, and not one he uses for missions.

She’s gorgeous, sharp, and dangerous.

Other than that- and a little flirtation with the excellent high tech espionage from The Bourne Ultimatum- they stay very true to what makes Bond Bond- a gritty, fatalistic sense of expendability, as a spy and operative who is supposed to be beyond top secret. He is a throwaway weapon, and they make that clear in the excellent opening scene where he is partnered with sexy sniper Eve (Naomie Harris).  The heart of the film is an attack on MI6 from multiple fronts, politics and terrorism. I liked grounding it in reality, especially after the recent scandals and dust-ups the superpowers have had with their intelligence divisions. Director Sam Mendes keeps the tension high, and the action scenes are easy to follow and still quite thrilling, whether it is hand to hand combat, gun battles, ambushes and car chases, military helicopters, trains and bulldozers and yes, komodo dragons. The exotic locales are Shanghai, the Middle East, Macau and the gorgeously bleak Scottish north.

Bond has become less a Lothario, and some have made complaint. There is the lethal Severine, played by French actress Berenice Marlohe, and a nameless beauty in Bond’s Mediterranean hideaway, but for me the sexual tension between him and Eve during one scene was enough to fuel the whole film. The film teases that we will be seeing more of her, and I hope we will. The Bond fan in me loved the final battle. We get a throwback that fits perfectly. Javier Bardem plays a Bond villain some will mock, but no one will forget. He is incredible, fierce and disturbing, as cunning as Heath Ledger’s Joker and just as memorable. I’ve heard nervous laughter about his homoerotic scene with Bond as his captive, and I had to laugh. Anyone forget Auric Goldfinger aiming a laser at Sean Connery’s lap-haggis?

No, Mr. Bond! I expect you to die. Le petit mort, you know. wink wink.

 I don’t think Skyfall needs defending. I admire that the target is Britain, and not “the world.” He’s a spy, not Superman. I liked seeing the internals of MI6, I loved Eve, and that everyone who works for the agency is effective… if not as effective as 007. Bond does not meet his female match, but Eve is not a damsel. M (Judi Dench) is a desk jockey. Bond is a killing machine, and they make it clear that he has the psychological problems that any trained killer experiences. It’s still a movie, but I like that our image of a hero now allows for a wounded warrior concept, that killing, even for good, takes a toll. And it’s not a job you want to sign up for. It’s one that finds you, because it’s something you can do and not lose it.

But enough heavy talk. This isn’t a silly Bond movie. It has some laughs and winks, but it is as gritty as the other Craig films and perhaps ends the trilogy, right where it should. This is a must-see for Bond fans of any era, and an excellent 50 year anniversary topper for the franchise. Some of my Twitter friends were disappointed, but I’m not sure what they were expecting. I was thrilled, I cheered several times, to my wife’s chagrin, and seeing it in IMAX was worth every penny, and every minute of waiting in line.

The film is confident enough to serve Bond a martini and have him say “perfect,” when it is shaken and not stirred. Have you ever seen a martini stirred? Having him say “shaken not stirred” is irrelevant, but the movie is not. Perhaps it has learned a bit from The Dark Knight and the Bourne films, but I think that makes it stronger. It didn’t top either of those films, but they’ve proven that the Bond films can remain relevant and true to their heart.

Quantum of Solace: Bond ReBourne

Bond has come a long way from the days of invisible cars. With the latest “reboot” of the franchise, Casino Royale, they went back to basics and remade Agent 007 more to the mold of the original Ian Fleming novels- a cold, damaged assassin who isn’t made of stone. The latest movie, 22 in a series of blockbusters, keeps that spirit and brings Bond into the true modern age- a world of shadowy quasi-government organizations with immense power, looking to control the world’s most precious resource. And while the latest incarnation definitely studied its competition- namely the refreshing Bourne movies– it makes several nods to its rich past, and Bond is still his own man. Daniel Craig makes him the most exciting version in decades.
Quantum of Solace is named after a Fleming short story and has little to do with it- the story thrusts us immediately into a car chase through the Italian mountainsides, with two Alfa Romeos gunning after Bond in his trademark Aston Martin. As in its predecessor, the action scenes are short, brutal, choppy, but I never had any trouble figuring what was going on. I found the car chase especially good, for how chaotic it was. Sometimes drivers- even Bourne- seem too in control, and even a super-agent can’t predict how other drivers will react, or the pinball physics of crashes. Here it works well, and Bond is always operating by the skin of his teeth.
When the chase is over, we find out that the movie is practically a continuation of Casino Royale– Bond is delivering the ringleader of the previous film’s evil plot to M, where we learn he is just a cog in the machine of a much larger and secretive organization known as Quantum. So once again the title is a play on words- not only is Bond seeking a “quantum,” or smallest possible amount, of solace after Vesper’s betrayal and death, but he’s also after a SPECTRE-like organization with that name (and snazzy “Q” lapel pins). We quickly learn that Quantum has people everywhere, and Bond has to operate mostly on his own to subvert them. They’re so powerful and unknown that they operate in plain sight, discussing their machinations during an opera. At least they use bluetooth headsets and sublingual mikes. Anything else would be gauche.

A secretive group bent on world domination is nothing new to the Bond films, but the secrecy and realism is. We never see “Quantum agents” and they can operate through other governments instead. The man doing their deeds doesn’t wear a grey Nehru jacket and carry a Persian pussycat- he’s just an oily-looking fellow running an eco-friendly corporation, so it seems. And his nefarious plot is much crueler than a laser on the moon or anything like that. For when we realize what the “most precious resource” is, it’s nothing shocking or new. And it makes perfect sense.
The trailers make much of Bond’s vendetta against Quantum for Vesper’s death in the first film, and as he tracks down the leaders, she is always in the back of his mind. When M doesn’t trust him to put personal issues aside, he has to work with old friends from his previous adventure, including the forcibly retired Mathis (Giancarlo Gianinni, Hannibal, Swept Away (1974)) and CIA Agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright, Basquiat, Syriana). Keeping these links gives the film the same foundation that M, Q and Moneypenny gave the older films. There are some new contacts as well, namely Camille (Olga Kurylenko, Hitman) who has vengeance issues of her own to deal with. She’s been cozying up to the villain Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) who manages the role perfectly without outlandish theatrics. There’s not a third nipple or disturbing facial scar necessary to make us fear and despise him.
There’s no Bond movie without an amusingly named cupcake, and the girl this time is “Strawberry” Fields (Gemma Atherton, RocknRolla), but I only caught her first name in the credits. Here she’s a paper-pusher sent to rein in Bond, but of course his charm is just too much for her. She’s at least instrumental to the story and not just a bit of crumpet. The film is an excellent techno-thriller without depending on the tech to be the story and excitement. Seeing Bond take cell phone photos of people and get back identification hits has been done on “24” and The Bourne Ultimatum, but they manage to make it plausible, and we see that someone like Bond can only work his magic with an enormous support system behind him. No invisible cars here.
There are some throwbacks to the classic films- they brought back the “gun barrel” opening shot and sexy credits sequence, this time put to Jack White and Alicia Keys. The new song “Another Way to Die” is pretty good and quite different for a Bond film. You’ll also see references to Goldfinger and one of the Moore movies, where a villain is dispatched from a rooftop. Director Marc Forster, probably most famous for Monster’s Ball, manages a fine transition to the paragon of action thrillers, the Bond film, practically a genre of its own. His films Stay, a creepy and surreal mystery, the touching and heart-wrenching drama The Kite Runner, and the offbeat comedy Stranger Than Fiction show that he can’t be nailed down. After this, he’s tackling Max Brooks’ zombie apocalypse novel World War Z, so let’s hope he fixes the one flaw this movie has- it’s too short.
At 106 minutes, it’s the shortest Bond film. We get plenty of action and a great finale, but it does seem like it’s over too soon. Perhaps a little more chicanery in Bolivia with Mathis and Fields would have made this a 4-star Bond film like Casino. The one thing the latest reboot has dropped is the Indestructible Henchman, and that’s fine; a hulking man with iron teeth or a razor-brimmed bowler aren’t what we want to see anymore. But maybe someone who’s a better match for Bond in a street fight is in order. Goldeneye, the best of the Brosnan era, had a great fight between two double O’s, and the Bourne films always have him facing off against another superman. Daniel Craig has shown that he can handle the stunts, but let’s see him meet his match.

3 ½ Vesper cocktails out of 4

For Your Height Only! Filipino Dwarf Spy Thriller

Weng Weng was a big action star in the 80’s in the Philippines. Well, not physically of course. He was 2’9″ but he had a lot of charm, style and some kick-ass kung fu moves. He starred in a number of James Bond spoofs, but For Y’ur Height Only was the first. The movies are delightfully tongue in cheek and all over the internet at this point, in fact I’m pretty sure most of the movie is on youtube, if you want to check it out yourself. It is also available on DVD and on Netflix. Or you can just watch this great fan trailer with many of the best scenes:

I’ll come straight out and admit it- I’ve always been enthralled by Little People. It probably began with seeing Under the Rainbow and Billy Barty in Foul Play a thousand times on HBO as a kid. I even watched some of that reality show, “Little People, Big World” a few times. And I’m sort of a Peter Dinklage fanboy, but that’s besides the point- this movie is hilarious.

It is considered bad form to make demands in a Klan hood.

The evil Mr. Giant has kidnapped Dr. Kohler and is holding the world hostage with his N-bomb. Mr. Giant is a shadowy unknown figure in the underworld with a huge army of bad guys in tropical shirts and mustaches. Thankfully the government provides Agent 00 with cool gadgets to defeat this menace. These include:
A Ring that Can Detect Poison! “This ring can detect all poisons. It’s made out of gold. platinum was too expensive. Our budget is a problem”
A Tiny Jet Pack! This looks like two fire extinguishers and some hose, but it works surprisingly well.
A Remote Control Hat! Stolen directly from Oddjob and improved 100%.
A Tiny Break-Down Machinegun! Perfectly sized for Agent 00, this never runs out of ammo.

No nutsack is safe when Agent 00 is on the case!

He hunts down Mr. Giant’s men at a dojo and even has a battle with samurai swords. His diminutive size makes it easy for him to sneak up on you and punch you in the nuts, though he is also capable of swinging up Yoda-style and choking you out with his legs, or sliding across the floor to trip you over and step on your neck.

Henchmen mystified by a hat on a string

When there are too many henchmen for Weng Weng to handle, he relies on the many gadgets they gave him. My personal fave was the remote-control Oddjob hat, which can be used to cloud men’s minds. When things really get nasty it can also be used as a deadly weapon:

Agent 00 is just too much for them. The henchmen are assured that he’s in league with Satan. “He’s big pals with Lucifer!” They also compare him to an eel. “How the hell do you hold onto an eel?”
“Beaten by a lousy eel! We gonna hafta git outta town!” It’s about as campy as What’s Up Tiger Lily? and just as much fun.
Weng Weng isn’t just a kung fu superstar, he’s also a ladies’ man. As any Bond clone must be, he is a killer with the ladies and rescues the “inside girl” they have in Mr. Giant’s gang when she is exposed. And he is well rewarded.

When it’s time for the final showdown, Agent 00 uses the last of his gadgets. I think he actually uses them in the sequence he is given them, which is either terribly clever or an amusing insight into how quickly the script was written. He jetpacks in to Mr. Giant’s lair for the ultimate confrontation:
How can you not love a movie that makes a jet pack out of fire extinguishers? Besides, Weng Weng is so fetching in his white suit, and such a natural physical actor that the movie would be better without the campy dubbed dialogue. There are a lot of good sight gags, but the attempts at jokes added later by the dubbing team are pretty lame, like “Oh, I’ve got to run with these little feet!”
The best gag is that Mr. Giant is also a dwarf, albeit taller than Agent 00. They have their kung fu fight and of course our guy is victorious. Because height doesn’t matter, when you’re as smooth as Weng Weng!

There are a lot of “foreign oddity” movies, but the Weng Weng comedy/action spoofs are pretty entertaining in their own right, with that sort of quaint old-time charm of Hollywood silent films and stuff like Laurel & Hardy or the Three Stooges. There is a sequel called The Impossible Kid, which is pretty much the same movie with new gadgets and a lot more kung fu fights. He’s got a little motorcycle, and fights a female karate master in her dojo. That will get its own review someday. It’s actually better in some ways because the dubbing isn’t insulting to Weng Weng. I also found another film called Wild Wild Weng, which despite sounding like a porno is another fun action flick that I need to watch sometime soon. when I do, you know you’ll hear about it here.
Sadly, the big little star died in 1992. He’d been in movies since the 60’s and is still listed as the shortest person in a leading role. It looks like fellow blogger Andrew Leavold is working on a documentary called The Search for Weng Weng that is coming out this year, and his blog has more information on the action star than I could ever hope to find. I’ll be keeping an eye on his blog and hopefully will be able to see the movie.

RIP Weng Weng, you will live long in our memories.