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Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Craig’

I almost get the sense that 2020 is a moment the world got stuck in and can’t get out of: in some respects, at least. The much-feted reopening of cinemas doesn’t seem to amounted to very much at all, with Tenet only having made about $36 million at the US box office after several weeks of release, cinemas are still closed in some major cities. (Yes, a paltry sum indeed – I should like to say, for the benefit of any moguls reading this, that if they would like to give me a lump sum, a mere 10% of Tenet‘s American take, I will happily never say a bad word about a James Corden-starring movie ever again. Everyone has their price, even if it’s a mere three and a half million dollars.)

As you’ve probably read, the studios have taken fright at this and suspended the release of any other substantial movies – the kind that the average cinema relies upon to earn its crust. People aren’t going to the cinema, so new films aren’t being released, so people aren’t going to the cinema even more. It’s hard to see where this will stop. The art house in Oxford closes again as of Friday, while the big commercial cinema is down to a three-day-week from the same point.

The bellwether in all of this certainly looks like the decision to postpone the release of No Time to Die from November this year until early spring of next. (I don’t believe in this notion of ‘cursed films’, but given all the travails this one has suffered, from losing Danny Boyle onwards, I’m almost inclined to declare an open mind where Bond 25 is concerned.) Eon have taken some stick for what unsympathetic commentators have decried as an act of cowardice, but I’m not sure I can bring myself to be quite so critical: the Bond movies are their main source of income, after all, and it’s in their interest to try to ensure both the films themselves and the manner in which they are released are as good as they can manage.

I’ve been musing on all things Bond-related recently, for a number of unconnected reasons, and this led me to (finally) watch Matthew Vaughn’s 2004 film Layer Cake, a film which has certainly ended up in the orbit of the Bond franchise, even if this wasn’t the intention at the time: back when it was new, everyone’s point of reference was Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and the plethora of mostly underwhelming knock-off lairy gangster movies it went on to spawn.

The title of the film, lest you be wondering, is a metaphor for the hierarchy of the criminal underworld, which is the milieu in which almost all of it takes place. Daniel Craig plays an ambitious young professional – his name is never revealed – whose industry of choice is the drugs trade. He is. very pointedly, not a gangster – he is a goal-oriented businessman, with a plan to make his money and then retire. It seems like he knows all the angles and has the firmest of grips on what’s happening around him.

(Not entirely surprisingly, the film seems to have no moral qualms about depicting drug dealers, and indeed narcotics themselves, in a moderately sympathetic light – one of the few times Craig sounds morally outraged is when musing on the fact that, if convicted, he’d do more time inside than a rapist, the implication being that drug pushing is a trivial offence compared to sexual assault. Hmmm, well. It certainly seems of a piece with the non-judgemental view of drug users from the second Kingsman film, also directed by Vaughn.)

All this changes for the Craig character, however, when senior gangster Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham) puts the brakes on his plans to retire – at least until he’s done a couple of jobs for him. One of them is finding the errant young daughter of Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon), another businessman with a portfolio which is not 100% legal, the other is handling the disposition of a huge quantity of Ecstasy which a gang of small time criminals – these guys are basically idiots – have nicked from a gang of Serbians.

Craig protests it’s not really in his line, but Price is insistent: but things proceed to get worse and worse. It turns out there is more to the missing young woman than initially meets the eye: murky gangland politics are involved. It turns out that the Serbians, meanwhile, think Craig is responsible for the theft of their drugs – due to one of the gang of idiots shooting his mouth off – and have dispatched an assassin noted for the savagery of his methods to retrieve them. It’s almost enough to make a serious-minded professional contemplate violence…

I must confess to a bit of a dislike of the laddish gangster movie as inaugurated by Guy Ritchie, even though I’ve only seen one of Ritchie’s movies which qualifies as such – 2005’s baffling Revolver. It’s probably because of my exposure to all those knock-offs, some of which I have had the misfortune to see: 51st State, Love, Honour and Obey, and Rancid Aluminium (supposedly the worst film ever made in the UK: given this list necessarily includes titles like Sex Lives of the Potato Men and Peter Rabbit, the mind boggles as it has seldom done before).

I suppose my dislike really stems from that very laddishness of the films – a sort of crass hetero-normativity, coupled to amorality and the idea that violence and criminality is inherently funny. One point in Layer Cake‘s favour is that much of this is dialled down to the extent that it is simply background noise – although it almost goes without saying that this is still a very blokey film: Sienna Miller plays Craig’s love interest, and is almost wholly decorative, while Sally Hawkins plays ‘Slasher’, one of the gang of idiots. Nevertheless, the film does handle its subject matter and the consequences (mostly) thoughtfully – the nature of the drugs trade isn’t dwelt upon, but at one point Craig realises that the only way to avoid a lengthy prison term and the loss of all he’s acquired is to kill a man in cold blood, and the corrosive effect of this, and its aftermath, are considered and depicted at some length.

There’s something very familiar about this bit, in particular, especially nowadays: the dead, icy look appearing in Craig’s eyes as he accepts he has crossed a line and can never go back. If Layer Cake is remembered for one thing, it’s as the film that swung Craig the role of Bond, and you can see why – he looks good, handles the violence and the womanising equally well, and also can clearly bring the extra level of humanity to the part that Eon were looking for at the time. Yet it is a different character, less of a rogue than Bond, more cerebral – to begin with at least. (Interest for Bond-followers in the film may be added by the presence of Michael Gambon, who turned down the role in 1971, not to mention Craig’s several scenes with Ben Whishaw, while we can only hope that the presence of a young Tom Hardy in a small role is a portent of future pub-quiz questions to come.)

Craig is very good as a man who’s forced to get his hands dirty and come to terms with the fact that, when it comes to criminal politics, being the smartest man in the room isn’t always enough to get results. This is the script’s main thesis, which it puts across well enough – though a lot of it is the usual gangster nonsense, presented fairly stylishly. The rest of the performances are also rather good – Colm Meaney is also in the gang, as is George Harris, while Gambon is genuinely frightening as the senior man on the scene.

In the end I would say this was a good film rather than a truly great one – good performances and ideas are not quite elaborated upon enough in the script, and it does still fall into a few of the typical post-Ritchie potholes. Nevertheless, this is a superior, tough thriller, which deserves to be remembered on its own merits rather than as an extended audition piece for its star’s most famous job.

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I don’t want things to get too confessional around here, especially so soon after I owned up (again) to not being that big a fan of Blade Runner (probably best not to mention I’ve always been fairly lukewarm about Goodfellas, too), but: I’ve never entirely seen what all the fuss is about when it comes to Agatha Christie, either. I know, I know: two billion sales, translated into over a hundred languages, author of the best crime novel ever, apparently – words like massive and enduring don’t begin to do justice to her appeal. She is the kind of writer, it seems, that other people don’t just read and enjoy, they read and enjoy and want to have a go themselves – a friend of mine writes Christie pastiches as a hobby. (This isn’t just limited to her particular brand of suspense, of course; another friend has half a dozen Scandi noir mysteries for sale on Amazon.)

Oh well, I suppose I will just have to get used to being in the minority about this, along with everything else. Someone else in the Christie fan club is the writer-director Rian Johnson, whose new movie Knives Out is the purest example of knocked-off Agatha I can remember seeing on the big screen in a very long time. Johnson is best known for work in a different genre – he made the superior SF movie Looper a few years back, and was then responsible for the last main-sequence stellar conflict movie (apparently the worst movie ever to make $1.3 billion, if you believe the voices of the internet) – but if you dig down into his career he clearly has a fondness for the mystery genre. One of the good things about your last film making $1.3 billion, is that – regardless of how derided it is – you can basically write your own ticket for a while, and Johnson has made wise use of this.

The plot of Knives Out is, not surprisingly, twisty-turny stuff, but the basic set-up goes a little something like this. Famous and successful mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead, the morning after his eighty-fifth birthday party, apparently by his own hand. The police make the necessary enquiries, interviewing his various children and their partners (Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson and Toni Collette amongst them); it soon becomes apparent that nearly everyone in the family had a reason for wanting the old man dead – but they also all have alibis for the time of his demise, and there is no forensic evidence of any foul play. The cops are inclined to list the whole thing as a suicide and go about their business, but also on the scene is renowned private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, deploying an accent as outrageously thick as his pay packet for the next Bond movie), who is convinced there is more going on (not least because some unknown individual has retained him to consult on the case). He confides all this to Harlan’s former nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), who has her own insights into the family’s somewhat unusual internal dynamics – and, from Blanc’s point of view, the useful psychological quirk that she is incapable of telling a lie without experiencing an alarming degree of projectile emesis. Can Blanc and Marta crack the case? Is there even a case to be cracked?

As you can perhaps discern, all the essential elements of the classic country house murder mystery are present, making this a recreation of a form which was probably creaking a bit even before the Second World War. In those terms it probably sounds like a bemusing folly, the continuing popularity of the genre notwithstanding, but Johnson is smart enough to be aware of this and deftly update the form for a modern audience. Part of his response is to ground the film firmly in the present day: there are jokes about the alt-right and snowflakes, and references to the modern political situation in the US; if you look hard enough, there is a sardonic subtext about the tension between established, entitled American citizens and the immigrant workers they are so reliant on. Of course, this may mean the film is liable to date rather quickly, but I suspect this is incidental enough to the plot for it not to be a major problem.

The other notable thing about Knives Out is how knowing it is: the film isn’t desperately ironic, but it is fully aware of how camply absurd Christie-style plotting is, and makes it work by embedding it in a film with its film firmly in its cheek. This borders on being a full-blown comedy thriller, with a lot of very funny moments mixed in with the detective work and exposition. The family are a collection of comic grotesques, while Craig turns in one of the biggest performances of his career so far. Just how much fun he is having playing Blanc is palpably clear, and one could easily imagine a post-Bond career where he swaggers his way through another film like this every few years; rumour has it that talks regarding a follow-up are already taking place. Craig pitches it just a bit too big to be credible, but big enough to be so entertaining you don’t really care; Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael J Shannon, Toni Collette, Don Johnson and Chris Evans follow his lead. That some of the other participants turn in much more naturalistic performances without the film collapsing into a mess of jarring styles is also to Johnson’s credit.

It seems that you can still make this kind of story work for a modern audience: the trick is not to try and make it terribly relevent to contemporary concerns, but to embrace the confected nature of the form and run with it, concentrating above all else on simple entertainment value. It sounds simple, but this is a ferociously clever, witty film, both in its mechanics and in terms of the sly games it plays with the audience. Fingers crossed that it connects with cinema-goers to the extent that it deserves to; the early signs are good. As noted, I am agnostic about Agatha Christie and that whole subgenre of mystery fiction, but I still had a whale of a time watching Knives Out; I imagine most people will have a similar experience.

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Even in the rapid-turnaround world of mainstream Hollywood film-making, this is some going: having been miraculously revived by a four-leafed clover he picked up off-screen towards the end of the previous movie, everyone’s favourite mutant vigilante claws his way out of a shallow grave and shreds his way to vengeance, aided by a string of unlikely and serendipitous happenings…

This is not the premise of Logan Lucky, of course. (But if Hugh Jackman’s interested, I’m sure we can work something out.) The actual premise of the film is actually rather secondary to the fact that it marks the reconstitution of the remarkable filmmaking collective which likes to operate under the name of Steven Soderbergh (look, have you seen the Soderbergh filmography? It can’t be just one guy). The Soderbergh announced a temporary dissolution – or ‘retirement’ – a few years ago, but now they have reconjugated themselves and, to judge from Logan Lucky, and it’s like they’ve never been away.

Soderbergh favourite Channing Tatum plays Jimmy Logan, who is experiencing some financial trouble after losing his job as a construction worker. Jimmy’s brother Clyde (the bane of galactic furniture Adam Driver), who himself lost a hand in Iraq, thinks this is because the family is cursed. Jimmy is not convinced of this, despite his various misfortunes. Nevertheless, Jimmy and Clyde embark on a rather ambitious scheme to rob a motor racing track on a race day, by breaking into the system the track uses to physically transfer cash to its vault.

The problem is that to do this they need the assistance of an actual bank robber and explosives expert, who goes by the name of Joe Bang (he is portrayed by that most uncomplaining and under-recompensed of movie stars, Daniel Craig), and Joe is currently in prison, where he is likely to remain throughout the window of opportunity for their big heist. And so an already convoluted scheme becomes practically baroque, as a means of springing Joe from the slammer in order to help with the robbery, and then reinserting him without anyone noticing his absence, has to be added to the plan. What could possibly go wrong? Well, given the supposed family curse, just about anything. But, when the dust settles, will Jimmy be able to get to his daughter’s junior beauty pageant like he promised?

Seasoned Soderbergh-watchers – or perhaps that should be sniffers – have apparently smelled a rat with regard to Logan Lucky‘s script, which is credited to one Rebecca Blunt. No-one knows who Rebecca Blunt is, as she is a non-person as far her film-making history is concerned, and the only person who seems to have had any contact with her is Soderbergh himself. Soderbergh has form for doing multiple jobs on the same film under a variety of pseudonyms, and so some people are leaping to the conclusion that Blunt is actually the director or someone close to him, working under a false name. It’s such a polished and casually effective piece of work that this is very easy to believe, if such things matter to you.

One of the hallmarks of the first phase of Soderbergh’s career was the deft way in which he moved between smart, broadly commercial projects, and equally smart niche and experimental ones – thus, a moneymaking hit like Ocean’s Eleven would be followed by an audience-confounding bomb like his version of Solaris. Logan Lucky is definitely one of his commercial movies, being something of a variation on the theme of the Ocean films. It’s essentially another caper movie, albeit a caper executed by hillbillies and rednecks, and with the comic potential of that idea by no means under-exploited: most of the characters, one way or another, are comic caricatures or grotesques, and the actors attack these roles with considerable gusto.

It’s an ensemble piece, obviously, and Soderbergh has assembled an impressive cast for it – people like Hilary Swank, Katie Holmes and Katherine Waterston turn out for what are basically quite small roles. And, to be fair, top-billed Channing Tatum recedes into the background for much of the film. Dominating the centre of the film, and delivering as big a performance as I can remember him giving, is Daniel Craig. Is he wildly over the top? It’s possible some people might think so. This is certainly big acting, one way or the other.

And on the whole it’s a rewarding piece of entertainment, although one which works much better as a straight-down-the-line don’t-take-this-too-seriously comedy than an actual comedy thriller. Quite apart from the general absurdity of the plot, there are some pleasingly unexpected jokes – there’s an involved Game of Thrones-related gag which I found particularly droll, though I’m not sure what future generations will make of it – and it is never dull or slow, even if at one point the final act of the movie shows signs of losing focus. On the other hand, there are a few dead wood characters – I’m not really sure what the characters played by Seth MacFarlane and Sebastian Stan actually contribute – and you really have to cut the film some slack in fairly essentially areas – given that Jimmy Logan can’t remember what day he’s supposed to be picking up his daughter, it seems pushing it a little to suggest he is the brains behind a ferociously involved and tricksy prison-break-stroke-robbery-stroke-spoiler-redacted. But this is the kind of thing you either go with or you don’t, and I expect most people will choose to go with it, as that option is much more fun.

There’s also something very slightly Coen brothers-ish about the film’s sardonic view of the details of lower-income mid-west life: it never seems to be outright mocking its cast of rednecks and hillbillies, but at the same time this is a comedy film, and many of its jokes come out of the presentation of this section of society. Mostly it seems entirely good-natured, but at the same time it’s very clear that this is, on some level, a group of well-educated and prosperous artists, some of them not even from the USA, who are choosing to tell a story about a gang of crooks and dimwits from the lower echelons of society, which is absolutely played for laughs. It’s not outright offensive in the way it’s handled, for the film is generally good-natured, but I was aware of it.

In the end, of course, Logan Lucky is simply one of Soderbergh’s more mainstream confections, and was it not for his recent lay-off it would probably be subjected to less critical scrutiny. And as such, there is not much wrong with it – it is consistently entertaining, and beyond that it is frequently interesting (which is not always necessarily the same thing), not afraid to surprise the audience or provide unexpected moments of ambiguity. Nice to have him back.

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One piece of news which got relatively little attention in the days just after Casino Royale was released, back in 2006, was of the passing of veteran film-maker Kevin McClory. McClory’s name was not widely known but he was in many ways a key figure in the history of the Bond films, for all that his name only appears in the credits of a couple of them: McClory and his supporters, if no-one else, were in no doubt that the massive, decades-long success of the Bond franchise was in no small part due to the work McClory put into reconceiving Ian Fleming’s literary creation as a big-screen hero with global appeal (the most immediate product of that work being the novel Thunderball, based on a film script co-written by McClory and Fleming – McClory’s involvement being the reason why he retained the rights to make his own non-Eon version of the script, Never Say Never Again).

One consequence of the seemingly-endless tussle over rights between McClory and Eon was a decision for the official movies not to use certain characters and concepts to which McClory had been assigned ownership. With all this now resolved, one way or the other, the way has been cleared for something which I and many other veteran Bond-followers would never have anticipated coming to pass.

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Or, to put it another way, Sam Mendes’ SPECTRE. Following up the huge critical and popular success of Skyfall might have been an intimidating prospect, but the new film is loaded with enough tantalising concepts to make one forget about all of that. Things get underway with a bit of incidental mayhem in Mexico City, where the Day of the Dead is lavishly staged (and Mendes shows he means business by opening with a hugely extended Touch of Evil-style opening shot, which so far as I could see only has one obvious cheat in it).

It transpires that Bond (Daniel Craig) is following his own private agenda, rather to the annoyance of M (Ralph Fiennes). 007 has been put on the trail of an international criminal organisation known as SPECTRE and is intent on following it, orders or not. This leads him to Rome and a very well-scrubbed-up widow (Monica Belucci), then into the heart of his enemies’ schemes, before travelling on to Austria and north Africa, accompanied much of the time by a beautiful young doctor (Lea Seydoux), whose father Bond has occasionally made the acquaintance of in the past.

While all this is going on, M and the rest of the Secret Service team back in London find themselves under a bureaucratic assault by a new intelligence agency headed by the mysterious C (Andrew Scott). C believes Bond’s section is obselete and is determined to see him replaced both by drones and near-unlimited surveillance. But could there possibly be a connection between this and the case Bond is working…?

I know the question you are wanting to ask (always assuming you haven’t seen the film yet, or read its Wikipedia entry, or looked at a review with spoilers in it) – is there a cat in this movie? Well, on the tiny off-chance you don’t know yet, I feel obliged to keep quiet. What I will say is that the film-makers seem very well-aware that the return of SPECTRE and its leader (maybe) is a huge deal for dedicated Bond-watchers – the organisation was the main opposition in most of the Connery films, and involved with some of the most iconic Bond moments and characters. In a similar vein, the new film retcons like mad to establish that virtually all of Daniel Craig’s previous opponents have been SPECTRE operatives of various stripes, whether this really makes sense or not (it seems logical that Quantum was SPECTRE operating under another name, but not really that Silva from Skyfall was on the payroll).

Keeping at least the pretence of mystery over the SPECTRE top man’s return (or not) is presumably the reason why the film works terribly hard to wrong-foot the viewer, throwing all kinds of misdirections and double-bluffs into the pot. Is it effective or not? I really can’t say, but I do wonder whether it’s worth the effort.

Similarly questionable is the decision to establish that (and this barely constitutes a spoiler) there is a long-standing personal connection between Bond and senior SPECTRE figure Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). What this brings to the story is really unclear, to say nothing of the monumental coincidence involved – it’s not even as if the script and performances suggest these two men have any kind of shared history together. There seems to have been a belief that the story is improved by giving Bond a personal stake in it.

I’m not sure that’s the case, and SPECTRE‘s attempts (as a continuation of Skyfall) to make a Bond movie into something of a sophisticated psychological drama arguably get in the way of it doing all the slightly outrageous, larger-than-life things a lot of people want from Bond. The dear personal friend and valued colleague occupying the workspace contiguous with mine gloomily observed that he felt he didn’t need to see another Bond film ever again, so dragged down to earth has the series become. (Another friend thought it was basically ‘a kid’s film’, although I must say it contains more eye-gouging and skull-drilling than the usual Pixar production.)

Despite all this, I must say I enjoyed most of SPECTRE hugely, as its attempts to reconcile many of the classic Bond staples with a non-ridiculous sensibility are fairly successful. Craig is by now thoroughly comfortable and convincing as Bond, Waltz is very good as the villain (or not), the stuntwork is imaginative and impressive, and there are some very decent jokes. (Although as top SPECTRE heavy Mr Hinx, Dave Bautista is used in an ever-so-slightly perfunctory fashion.) Ever since Eon first cast Judi Dench, these films have had to come up with things for the distinguished actors playing the regulars to do, and this continues here, with bumped-up parts for M, Q, and Moneypenny, but the performers are good enough for this not to be a problem.

The real problem for me comes at the end of the film. One of the things brought to light by the Sony hacking scandal was the existence of a pile of studio notes worried about the fact that SPECTRE‘s climax was both undercooked and underwhelming – and based on the finished movie, I have to say the studio definitely had a point. What’s more, the end of the film is almost the cinematic equivalent of a suspended chord – you’re not so much invited to expect something, you’re almost compelled to, and yet the film doesn’t deliver what seemed to have been promising. I was almost tempted to sit through the entirety of the credits to see if the pay-off arrived in a post-credits scene, but this doesn’t appear to be the case.

Oh well. I suppose it must be a sign of Eon’s confidence that a further movie is bound to happen (and after 53 years, who’s going to argue with them?). I’m still not completely convinced that the Craig formula, such as it is, is quite guaranteed to meet audience expectations, but it would take a bolder writer than I to say that SPECTRE is anything other than very impressive , even if only as a piece of spectacle.

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…I saw Idris Elba’s name coming up a lot earlier this week in connection with more information released back into the wild as a result of Sony’s current embarrassment. (Sorry palindrome fans, I just couldn’t make it sing somehow.) Apparently, apart from thinking that Angelina Jolie can’t act and possibly thinking about leasing Spider-Man back to Marvel Studios, one of the things that Sony executives like to spend their time doing is thinking about who should be the next James Bond, and – not for the first time – Elba’s name has come up in connection with this.

First and foremost, the thing to remember is that Daniel Craig is still in-post and will be for at least another twelve months: he’s already started shooting Spectre, after all. He’s contracted for the film after that, as well, though Eon do have form when it comes to unexpectedly dumping successful Bonds – just ask Pierce Brosnan. Whether Craig is retained for the c.2018 Bond movie will probably depend on how well Spectre does with the critics, but I’d be surprised if he went. So I doubt the job will be up for grabs much before 2020, by which time Elba will be 47 or so, which would make him the oldest person to take on the role.

But putting this to one side, is colourblind casting an option when it comes to a character like James Bond? There’s no question that Elba is an accomplished and charismatic performer – I thought that this was someone with a lot of potential the first time I saw him, which was in 1998’s Ultraviolet – but, inevitably, issues of ethnicity and diversity raise their heads when this kind of question is asked. The New Yorker, for instance, ran the following impressively subtle and ambiguous cartoon on the topic.

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I wouldn’t have said I was a particularly heavyweight Bond fan, but as this is just about the only major franchise from my childhood I still feel a genuine sense of investment with, maybe I should reassess my position. Certainly, on the ‘could a black actor be plausibly cast as Bond?’ question, a couple of things leap to mind – both regarding exactly who the main character is in the series of Eon films.

The notable thing about Casino Royale is that it is a hard reboot of the Bond series: this isn’t just a new leading man, but a new version of the character, and this is made clear in the movie. This naturally gave Craig and the film-makers a lot of latitude which was, perhaps, denied to Pierce Brosnan. The logical question for those of us who worry too much about trivial stuff is, therefore, one of whether we’re supposed to regard all the preceding films as happening to the same person.

The Bond films are so connected to real-world geopolitics and technology that it’s very difficult to argue that they don’t all happen in or around the year they were released, and this instantly makes it massively implausible that the man who visits Jamaica in 1962 is the same one dropping into South Korea in 2002. Clearly there have been most likely a number of soft reboots along the way, but the question is when this happened.

There is a school of Bond thought that, actually, in the context of the films themselves James Bond is only a codename assigned to a succession of individual agents (in same way Matt Damon’s character is renamed Jason Bourne in that other franchise). It’s an idea, I suppose, but one with virtually zero evidence to support it on-screen beyond George Lazenby’s jokey cry of ‘This never happened to the other feller!’ at the start of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Set against this must be the same film’s painstaking efforts to make the audience believe that Lazenby-Bond is the same guy as Connery-Bond (Bond clears his desk and encounters props from previous films), not to mention various references to Roger Moore’s Bond having been married to the Diana Rigg character from OHMSS.

There are usually so few continuity references between Bond films, so few recurring villains, and such an absence of ongoing plotlines, that you can insert the reboots and rewritings of the character’s history pretty much anywhere you like, although the first seven films all seem to be in continuity with other, while some version of the same events seems to have happened off-screen to Roger Moore’s Bond – hence the marriage references and the brief appearance by supposed-to-be-Blofeld in For Your Eyes Only. (In the same way, the appearance of the tricked-out DB-5 in Skyfall is presumably meant to suggest that Craig’s Bond has been through some version of Goldfinger – rather a shame we didn’t get that film instead of Quantum of Solace, but never mind.)

Anyway, it will be interesting to see if the next change of Bonds triggers another hard reboot. Normally I would doubt it, but casting a non-Caucasian actor would really demand it, I suspect: colourblind casting is one thing, but colourblind recasting another.

This still begs the question of whether casting a non-Caucasian Bond is viable, even following a hard reboot. I suspect it depends on how you view Bond himself – if he’s just a generic tough, wise-cracking, ladykilling, male-power-fantasy-fulfilling cartoon, character then there’s nothing that ties the character to any particular ethnic group. If, on the other hand, you’d prefer to see him as a coherent, aspiring-to-be three-dimensional character – specifically, the one created by Ian Fleming – then it may be a bit more problematic.

Fleming himself obviously never conceived of Bond as anything but white – he admittedly describes him as ‘dark’ at one point, but also likens him to Hoagy Carmichael. There’s also the fact that Fleming writes Bond as – by modern standards – an appalling racist. ‘Koreans were lower than apes,’ is a representative insight into Bond’s thought processes in the original novel of Goldfinger. On the other hand, this aspect of the character has understandably been dropped from the movie version.

One bit of Fleming which has been retained is Bond’s heritage as a Scots-Swiss orphan. The question, if Fleming’s conception is to be retained, is really one of whether a Scots-Swiss Bond can also plausibly be a non-Caucasian Bond. I wouldn’t rule it out, but I must confess to feeling dubious about the prospects of this idea.

But, if we’re going to think about this in terms of Fleming’s conception of the character, then we’re talking about a white Bond, a very traditionally British Bond, a son of privilege, an elitist, a snob, an imperialist. The question is not just one of whether an acceptable version of all these characteristics can be brought to the screen by a non-white performer, but whether any non-white performers of note would be interested in doing so.

In short, then, I would say that a non-Caucasian Bond is possible, but it would be a departure, and a version of the character more widely removed from the source material than any other up to this point. You might say that Bond has already evolved a long way away from Ian Fleming by this point, and I would agree, but only up to a point. Much of the success of the Craig version of Bond is, I think, down to the way in which the films have authentically returned to the roots of the character. Stepping too far away would undeniably be a risk.

 

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It occurs to me that, perhaps, there’s rather more riding on the success of Sam Mendes’ Skyfall than is really ideal for what should be a wholly celebratory golden anniversary outing for the modern world’s greatest hetero-normative fantasy icon. The fact remains that the last Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, is not well regarded, and I’ll admit to wondering whether the much-lauded rethink of the series under Daniel Craig was actually such a wise idea after all – perhaps Casino Royale just had novelty value to commend it after all.

Nevertheless, for the time being at least, a new Bond movie remains a big event and Skyfall has arrived, preceded by an enormous bow-wave of bespoke advertising and tie-in products. This is undoubtedly the biggest movie of the Autumn, possibly one of the four or five biggest movies of the year in terms of profile. It all adds up to a very high set of expectations.

So how does Skyfall measure up to them? I’ll happily confess to being such a big fan of the series that any Bond movie looks good to me the first time round, but – despite a few misgivings which we’ll come to presently – I’m pretty sure this is an outing which will find a place in the upper echelon of the franchise.  The script, from regular Bond screenwriters Purvis and Wade, with John Logan, is so packed with twists and turns and surprises that it would be a shame to describe it in any real detail. Suffice to say that it features an embattled Bond (Craig) in pursuit of a brilliant cyber-terrorist (Javier Bardem) – a man with, it would appear, a suspicious familiarity with both MI6 and its long-time director, M (Judi Dench)…

The first thing to be said in Skyfall‘s favour is that it’s such a relief to see a Bond film which obviously isn’t afraid to be a Bond film. For me Quantum of Solace came across as much too earnest and even a bit timid – Skyfall kicks off with a terrific, full-scale chase through Istanbul, which showcases immaculate action choreography while still managing to set up the themes of the film to follow. ‘Relax,’ the film seems to be saying to the audience, ‘you’re in the hands of professionals: we know exactly what you’ve come here for.’

What follows doesn’t quite count as Bond at its most outrageous, but I certainly wasn’t disappointed by the action quotient. Any shortfall in Skyfall on this front is more than made up for by a (relatively) thoughtful and subtle script. In some ways it revisits territory from several of the Brosnan Bonds – at one point Bond is accused of being a superannuated relic of bygone days, and he’s depicted as a much more vulnerable, self-doubting, battle-scarred (in every sense) figure than usual.

It’s a bit of a wrench to go from the relatively inexperienced Bond of Craig’s first two movies to the veteran he’s portrayed as here (the plotline left hanging concerning the Quantum syndicate is never mentioned), but this allows the film to develop a rich seam of ideas all related to the theme of age and regret and mortality. There’s an almost valedictory atmosphere to a lot of Skyfall – one senses the Bond legend being dissected, obliquely, before one’s eyes – which is finely sustained, even when such a tone is clearly not in earnest: Bond is ultimately infallible and indestructible.

This is by no means a heavy film, however, possessing a very dry sense of humour that suits Craig and Dench well, and issued with some very good jokes indeed. Albert Finney pops up as a crowd-pleasing comic relief character, while the revamp of Q is also winning: Ben Whishaw makes the boffin a mixture of spod and steeliness and his relationship with Craig also promises much for future installments. (This is a fairly gadget-light Bond film, with the major exception of a classic Bond item which gets a major role in the third act.)

While Skyfall gets the tone of a Bond movie pretty much bang on, I’m not sure about some of the substance: there isn’t exactly a proper Bond girl in it, for one thing, but funnily you don’t notice that much. More of an issue is the nature of the plot, which is uncharacteristically introspective – this is very much a personal drama, with little reference to the world beyond Bond and his colleagues.  On a related point, Javier Bardem’s performance as a particularly psycho Bond villain has a peculiarly reptilian campness to it – it’s by no means unnuanced, but at the same time it’s much bigger than anything else on display in the movie and occasionally seems to be going for laughs when they’re not completely appropriate.

Nevertheless, this is winning, blockbuster entertainment. And, strangely, my overriding impression of Skyfall is of a movie completing the process of reinventing Bond which began in Casino Royale. Every Bond film of the last two decades has had to try to find a way of living up to the legend established in the previous three, and while I’m not sure Skyfall is obviously more successful than any of the others, by its conclusion all the pieces – the tone, the wit, the regular characters – all of these are in place, as fresh and exciting as one could hope for. This looks like a series near the top of its game, getting ready to conquer the world (as if that would be enough).

(Now, if they’d only move the gun-barrel sequence back to the start of the film where it belongs…)

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If you were to saunter into the offices of any major movie studio and request $80 million to engage the cream of international talent so that they might make a lavish two-and-a-half-hour-plus movie about sexual violence against women, featuring all manner of graphic content and centring on a protagonist who is a) bisexual and b) possibly insane, you would most probably find yourself rapidly expelled from the same offices very shortly afterwards, possibly not even via the door. Unless, of course, said movie had a built-in audience, due to it being an adaptation of a massively popular novel by one of the most bankable names in modern literature. Some say he was a journalist who investigated and campaigned against the extreme right. Others say that he spent time in his youth training African women to use grenade launchers. All we know is, he’s called the Stieg (Larsson).

Yes, it’s David Fincher’s value-for-money adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – one of those books which everyone seemed to be reading just a couple of years ago. I, whether fortunately or not, am one of the eight people in western Europe not to have done so, nor have I seen the Swedish movie version of this story. So at least this review will be unpolluted by outside influences, for a change.

Set in Hollywood Sweden (i.e. everyone speaks English – this produces some very strange and intrusive effects, such as when the print on a cheque is in Swedish but the script in English), Daniel Craig plays Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading investigative journalist who’s facing a career crisis after a lawsuit goes against him. He is thrown a lifeline when elderly tycoon Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) retains his services, ostensibly to write his biography but really to investigate the vanishing of his niece decades earlier. The Vanger clan are a prickly and deeply dysfunctional group, with more than one former Nazi sympathiser amongst them, but – rather to his surprise – Blomkvist makes progress. Wanting to corroborate his findings, he retains the services of a superbly efficient investigator the Vangers have previously used to run a background check on him.

She is Lisbeth Salander (Mara Rooney), a striking and uncompromising figure: androgynous, fiercely self-contained, heavily tattooed and pierced (she is the title character). The events of a traumatic childhood have left her emotionally aloof, and also the ward of the state. Nevertheless she leaps at the chance to assisting in hunting down a serial killer who preys on women, not realising the danger that she and Blomkvist may be placing themselves in.

First things first – judged by any reasonable standard, this is an excellent thriller. The distinctly Bond-esque title sequence with accompanying rock song may create entirely the wrong set of associations for the audience, but it soon becomes clear that this is a more thoughtful and measured kind of film. Indeed, there’s almost something of Agatha Christie in the set-up of the central mystery plot. Said plot is satisfyingly convoluted and clever, and the movie never insulted my intelligence – if anything, it insulted my stupidity in that a few small points whizzed past a little too swiftly for me to keep track of them! This did not spoil the overall experience, though.

Beyond this, though, the film has a peculiarly sprawling structure. It’s quite a long way into what’s a long movie before Craig and Rooney team up (the chemistry between them is excellent and both give terrific performances), and prior to this it’s a little unclear what the significance of the Salander character is.

This is particularly the case given that the thread about Blomkvist and the Vangers is, initially at least, rather genteel. The scenes with Salander, on the other hand, frequently plunge into graphic unpleasantness with virtually no warning. This is why this movie has been slapped with a box-office-unfriendly 18 rating in the UK, and deservedly so. They are not pleasant to watch: there is considerable sexual violence and other explicit abuse. I could feel the atmosphere in the auditorium change the first time one began, and shift again whenever one seemed to be in the offing.

Then again, if people find scenes of rape and abuse shocking, that’s surely only for the best? A friend who saw the film said he could have done without them – but interestingly, he didn’t come out and say they were gratuitous. They absolutely aren’t – to me they’re central to the theme of this film, which is the effects of sexual violence on both the perpetrators and the victims. Given the devaluation of violent crime in so many movies and TV shows (victims blown away by the score in CSI, hunting killers treated as a jolly, jokey game in Midsummer Murders), the extreme nature of some sequences in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo serves to make clear exactly the character of the offences the film is dealing with. I found parts of this film difficult to watch, it’s true – but that’s as it should be, in a civilised society. I thought this was a brave and commendable choice on the part of the film-makers.

David Fincher’s direction is fluent, Steven Zaillian’s screenplay is deft (and even shot through with dark humour in places), and all the performances are accomplished: Rooney and Craig particularly so, while a rather good Stellan Skarsgard pops up to fly the thesping flag for the home team. (Nearly everyone else is British or American – accents are rather variable.)

What really surprised me was how much of a European sensibility this film managed to retain – in its careful pace, its refusal to provide the obvious set-pieces one would expect in a Hollywood thriller, and most of all in its closing stages. With what’s been presented as its central plotline apparently resolved, the film nevertheless proceeds for quite a long time, dealing with various other subplots. Salander, who has grown in significance throughout the story, is suddenly unequivocally the main character and the film is now about her on a more personal level. It’s a little jarring, especially when the story then suddenly concludes, without presenting any easy answers and in a dismayingly downbeat fashion given what’s preceded it.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to imagine another conclusion to a very solidly-made film with a distinct flavour and toughness of its own. Lots of little bits of it resemble other things to some degree or other – but taken as a whole, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a unique experience, and a high quality movie. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it’s only that fact that stops me from giving it a very strong and unreserved recommendation.

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…which is to say that the Wild one meets its Final cousin in Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens – a self-consciously silly title which the film, for some reason, does its best to belie.  Nevertheless, this is what it sounds like: a mash-up of the venerable old Western genre with its upstart (and some would say illegitimate) offspring, the sci-fi action movie. (More on this later.)

Clearly working hard to establish the right tone of quintessentially American ruggedness, Favreau has cast a British actor best known for playing someone posh in the lead role. Daniel Craig plays a tough, rootin’-tootin’ kinda guy who wakes up in the desert, bereft of his memory but possessing a jazzy wristband, a photo of a woman and a funny-looking wound. Making his way to the nearest town he learns he is in fact feared outlaw Lonergan.

Lonergan is on the hit list of ruthless cattle baron Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), who pretty much owns the town, and whose son is a public nuisance there. The sheriff slings Lonergan in the town jail, ready to be shipped off to the federal marshal with Dolarhyde’s son.

A showdown threatens when Dolarhyde and his men ride in, demanding both prisoners be handed over to them, but things are disrupted by the arrival of – and it’s not quite as abrupt and bizarre as it sounds on paper – alien ships, also intent on making a nuisance of themselves. The mash-up threatens to become a literal one as the aliens start behaving like cowboys and the cowboys start acting like aliens. The aliens start physically lassoing the townsfolk and dragging them off while Lonergan discovers a death ray about his person and rapidly learns how to use it.

When the dust settles the aliens have been driven off, but not without having taking numerous local worthies with them. Quite properly, Dolarhyde decides to raise a posse and go in pursuit (his son being amongst the abductees), recruiting Lonergan to his cause, along with the local preacher (Clancy Brown), the barkeep (Sam Rockwell), and various others – including one of those tediously enigmatic young women (on this occasion, Olivia Wilde) who you just know will be reporting for exposition duty somewhere in the second act.

Well, to some extent this is a combination of excerpts from the Big Book of Sci-Fi Cliches with a selection from its little-read Western counterpart, but as genre fusions go it’s a curiously unsuccessful affair. This seems odd, as there is a long and fairly distinguished history of splicing Western DNA into SF stories: Westworld itself, the Tatooine section of the first Star Wars, Outland, Battle Beyond the Stars, and more recently Firefly have all partaken of Western themes and imagery (let’s not mention Wild Wild West). Having said that, none of these films have what you’d honestly describe as an American west setting, which to me suggests that what true Westerns are really about is nothing to do with deserts and six-shooters and hats, but personal freedom and morality, and the clash of different values.

Cowboys & Aliens isn’t about anything like that, really. It works hard to establish an authentically nasty and grimy Western atmosphere – the films it reminded me of most were Unforgiven and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, both great movies even if the latter isn’t a very typical Western – but the characters are all very thin and anonymous, the cast resembling people on a Wild West dress-up holiday. The only person who effortlessly convinces is Harrison Ford, who’s an impressively nasty piece of work to begin with, that familiar old growly whisper modulated into a vicious rasp. But as soon as the aliens show up he turns into a bit of a cut-out and really doesn’t get the material that such an icon really deserves.

For this kind of film to work, both the donor genres really need to have a strong identity of their own. You would think this wouldn’t be a problem with the case of the Western and the SF film, but as I’ve already mentioned the Cowboy element is wholly superficial, and the Alien element… well, it’s not really a proper SF movie, but an effects-driven summer blockbuster, a style of film which is fundamentally superficial anyway.

(The Aliens here, by the way, are an anonymous bunch, their glistening appendages and deceptively-weathered technology marking them out as close cousins of the ones in Independence Day and Spielberg’s version of War of the Worlds. Why have they come to Earth and started behaving so badly? I will refrain from giving away too much of the plot, but suffice to say that when the expositing eventually occurs, Ford’s character responds by snarling ‘That’s just ridiculous!’ and I was with him all the way.)

So what we end up with is a fairly empty-headed FX blockbuster with some strange tonal and pacing problems: the film-makers seem desperately keen to show this is a Proper Western on some level, resulting in long sequences where everyone’s a bit dour and homespun and not much happens, involving aliens or not. It’s not visually very surprising, nor is the plot particularly involving. It’s all a bit dull, if I’m honest, without much humour or indeed a sense of fun about itself. Occasionally there’s a briefly arresting moment (the one inevitably springing to mind is when Olivia Wilde walks naked out of a bonfire, but that may just be me) but on the whole there’s nothing here you won’t have seen before.

And I suppose on some level you could argue that all this really is, is an attempt to mash a genre up with itself: many people having argued that – in cinematic terms – the rise of the sci-fi blockbuster in the late seventies coincided rather neatly with the demise of the western as a going concern, with the resulting conclusion being that one simply transformed into the other. I’m not completely sold on that, to be perfectly honest, but beyond it simply being a coincidence I’m not quite sure how to explain it.

Anyway. Cowboys & Aliens probably sounded like a great idea for a movie, and there may indeed be a good film to made around the theme of extraterrestrials in the old west. But this isn’t it: the story and characters are too thin for it to engage as a drama, and it just isn’t fun enough to work solely as a blockbuster (needless to say, Favreau’s Iron Man did both). Given the talent involved this is really a disappointment, and one of the weaker movies of the summer.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 8th 2009:

Hello, everyone, and welcome to yet another unlikely reappearance by the film review column that just won’t take a hint. Ye Constant Editor can breathe easy, however, as I’m only back in the realm of English-language cinemas for a couple of weeks—being away from the big screen is just about the only part of my current lifestyle I don’t enjoy, but it’s a real pain. Apart from a couple of months in the summer when I was back in the UK, I’ve only been to the pictures three times all year, and even then I had to limit myself to films which looked like having fairly straightforward plots. So, in Italian I watched Alien Vs Predator 2, which while being on its own merits acceptable, still marks the debasement of two quality franchises to something like the level of Planet Terror, and Iron Man, which seemed pretty spiffy even if I lost all the sparkling dialogue and the dubbing was lousy. More recently we trundled off to the kino in Bishkek to see Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace, which I’m certain at some point involved a DVD player being hooked up to a video projector. Suffice to say my (beginner level, according to my teacher) Russian was not quite up to the task of following the story and I came out completely baffled, though I was relieved to hear friends and family in the UK had similar experiences.

Having watched the film again in English I have to say I don’t quite think it deserves the bad press it’s been getting from some quarters. It is, as if you need telling, the 22nd film in the mighty James Bond franchise and the second since the Daniel Craig-fronted reboot of the series. Fleming fans may be disappointed to hear that this doesn’t follow the plot of the original story very faithfully (Bond goes to cocktail party and hears about someone’s unhappy marriage). For the first time since the very early seventies, Quantum of Solace follows on from the previous instalment as lovable sociopath Bond commences his campaign against the shadowy organisation who killed his lover and, more importantly, gave his knackers a right good whacking in 2006’s Casino Royale. After a couple of frenetic chases around Italy he winds up in the Caribbean on the trail of dodgy entrepreneur Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric, who seems to be some sort of French Steve Buscemi clone). Greene is up to no good in South America, and Bond’s operations are inevitably hampered by both the connivance of his American associates and the all-pervading nature of the network Greene himself represents…

On one level it’s easy to see why this film’s got a bit of a lukewarm response from some sections of the audience. Most people, myself included, enjoy the slightly larger than life elements of most of the Bond films, and so for this film to feature not a single goon in an orange boiler-suit, hollowed-out volcano base, or satellite death ray, and in fact revolve around an attempt to take over a country most people can’t find on the map is arguably a bit of a risk. Well, you could argue the same was true of Casino Royale, and I take the point; but that had the advantage of novelty value and generated considerable excitement simply because this was James Bond done in a totally new way. This isn’t an origin story and I think people were expecting more of a traditional Bond movie, which this seems very uncomfortable being. For example, Bond is given a female sidekick with an utterly ridiculous name, but it’s never actually said in full on screen, and Bond’s incidental rumpo feels a bit crowbarred in (so to speak) as well.

As it is, the Bond this really resembles is 1989’s License to Kill, hardly the most glittering of antecedents (and I’m saying that as a fan of Timothy Dalton’s take on the character), but in its fascination with high tech telecommunications, brutal fights in seedy hotel rooms, and depiction of governments and intelligence agencies being fundamentally compromised, it really much more closely resembles the last couple of Bourne movies. Now, once again, I’m a massive admirer of that particular franchise (and that guy who, er, wrote a rather lukewarm review of The Bourne Identity back in 2002 wasn’t me, okay, it was an impostor), but a Bond movie is a different kind of animal: as long as Bond is a government agent it’s impossible for this series to be as critical of modern western policies and methods without fatally undermining their hero. I’m not sure people go to these movies looking for the same thing, anyway— Bond movies should be a bit more fun, you should want to be James Bond in a way you’d never want to be Jason Bourne.

Daniel Craig gives another good performance as Bond, given the material he has to work with, although his ultra-deadpan delivery of most of his one-liners means they tend to fall a bit flat. This may be partly due to Forster’s direction, which really isn’t anything particularly special. The plot is okay and does actually make sense, as long as you pay it due attention. Olga Kurylenko is rather good as Bond’s sidekick (hardly a Bond girl as such, given that they don’t, y’know, thingy) and giving an especially charismatic turn some way down the cast list is Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter. Wright manages to make Leiter more than simply just Bond’s American gofer, and it’s a shame he doesn’t get more to do. Hopefully he won’t get fed to sharks again for a good long while.

In my review of Casino Royale I talked about how it had dynamited away all the baggage and formulae which had encrusted the Bond character over the years to reveal something fresh and interesting. I still stand by that, but to me this film, with the Bond theme reduced to an occasional motif, iconic gun-barrel sequence bumped to the closing credits, no gadgets, no Q, no Moneypenny, seemed very uncertain of what to replace all these things with. As a thriller, Quantum of Solace is okay, although a bit low-key and occasionally unsure of itself. As a Bond movie, it’s sorely lacking in the magic and swagger of the franchise at its best. Thinking caps on at Eon, perhaps.

Well, anyway, only being back in the UK for less than a fortnight it was obvious I would have to be highly selective in my choice of viewing matter. Clearly, only the most sophisticated and enriching films could be considered as worthy of my time. But then I forgot about all of that and went to see Transporter 3, directed by Olivier Megaton (which is surely a made-up name, but still quite cool). Anyone remembering the glory days of this column will recall that I enjoyed the original Transporter much too much on its release nearly six years ago. Original sort-of director Louis Leterrier has gone to (fairly) greater things ( well, he directed the last Hulk movie, anyway), while ludicrous star Jason Statham (and I say that with all affection) has really let it define his career. Is the magic still there the third time around?

Mmm. Baldy motorised mercenary Frank Martin (my man J, like you need telling) appears to be trying to ease himself out of his chosen career, seemingly so he can spend more time fishing with his best mate, dodgy cop Tarconi (Francois Berleand). However, trouble strikes when his chosen protégé louses up on a job, and the dischuffed client (Robert Knepper) insists on Frank taking over the assignment. This involves driving a couple of big bags from Marseilles to Odessa in the company of extraordinarily freckly babe Valentina (Natalya Rudakova), both of them having been fitted with exploding jewellery. In the meantime other stuff is going on involving a cargo ship filled with cartoon toxic waste and a Ukrainian government minister (Jeroen Krabbe) getting blackmailed by nasty Big Business. I would say not to worry and that it all makes sense in the end, but it’s really so obvious from that start what’s happening that I won’t bother.

People don’t go to a Transporter movie for the plot, anyway (at least I don’t); they go for ridiculous stunts and chases, Jason Statham administering a good kicking to identikit goons, and more likely than not the leading lady administering a good kicking to the English language. Happily, all these things are fully in place for the new instalment. I’ve written in the past about how the trajectory of a successful franchise tends to go from originality to tradition, and then from tradition to formula (and normally to box office extinction). There was nothing terribly original about the first movie which may be why this series seems to be fending off creative hardening of the arteries passably well. Frank is still particular about his wardrobe, possibly because he often ends up taking his clothes off in the middle of a fight, and is permanently grumpy, but this is the essence of the character. The gay subtext to Transporter 2 (which I personally missed, probably because of what Jason got up to off-screen with Qi Shu in the first one) is gone this time around, but there’s the usual range of vehicular-based mayhem and the set-piece fight where Frank takes on about six people simultaneously.

I was personally sort of pleased that Megaton hasn’t broken the conventions of the franchise (or indeed the recent films of the Luc Besson canon, which of course this belongs to) by encouraging the actors to, er, act. The developing romance between Frank and Valentina is performed with all the passion and allure of a liaison between Stephen Hawking and an I-speak-your-weight machine. There’s a mind-boggling scene where they get to know each other by Frank asking her what her favourite meal is, in quite astounding detail. She seems happy to oblige (it’s actually a wonder she stays so thin as most of her dialogue revolves around food) and the effect is not so much romantic as reminiscent of an episode of Masterchef with a particularly surly host.

But these are the special pleasures of the Transporter franchise, which you’ll either appreciate or you won’t. It’s not quite as breezily mad or as beautiful to look at as the first two movies, but it does the business where it counts. I’m well aware that some people will complain about the many enormous holes in the plot or the utter silliness of much of the climax, or indeed the dreadful acting of virtually the entire cast. I don’t care. I really enjoyed it.

If you’d told me a few years ago that I would be reviewing a remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still, starring Keanu Reeves and John Cleese, then probably your next utterance would have been ‘Please stop screaming’. However, so it has come to pass, with Scott Derrickson’s new version currently showing at a cinema near you. (Unless you live in Kyrgyzstan, of course.) I approached this one with the gravest misgivings, as is inevitable when it’s one of your favourite films they’re updating. I reviewed the original movie back when the A-numbers only had six digits, at the dawn of time (or at least the dawn of 24LAS), something I’d completely forgotten about until I sat down to write this!

However, let’s concern ourselves with the new version, which initially sticks reasonably close to the original movie’s plot. An extraterrestrial object is heading for Earth at immense speed, but rather than being the planet-busting meteor everyone is anticipating, it turns out to be a sort of giant luminous marble (cos if you put flying saucers in movies these days you get laughed at) which touches down in Central Park. Before the waiting scientists and military, the marble disgorges a small slimy alien and a giant shiny robot. This being America (I’m sorry, it’s such a lazy joke) the small slimy alien is promptly shot. The boffins are somewhat surprised to discover that under the slime is actually Keanu Reeves (starting to show his age a bit). Reeves plays Klaatu, an emissary from a federation of local alien civilisations who are a bit concerned with the situation on planet Earth. Naturally the Americans want to know exactly what their plans are and turn Klaatu over to the CIA for proper interrogation. However, he is sprung with the help of principled astrobiologist Helen (Jennifer Connolly) and sets out to determine the fate of mankind…

You will note I said ‘initially’ at the start of the synopsis, and sure enough after a bit the plot deviates enormously from that of the original movie. It’s not exactly faithful to begin with, but the early additions and changes (sticking in a prologue set in 1928, making Helen a scientist rather than a secretary, giving Klaatu psychic powers), are all understandable in that they attempt to explain things that a modern audience might find a little bit difficult to credit (although a sequence where Klaatu contacts a fellow alien who’s been living incognito on Earth for decades seems a little irrelevant). Later on the creators just seem to be following the internal logic and demands of their own story, which is entirely reasonable, and they still manage to fit in a couple of iconic moments from the original: Klaatu’s meeting with Professor Barnhart (John Cleese playing it straight) and a visit to Arlington with Helen’s son (Jaden Smith, who’s not too bad in a fairly tricky part). However, the actual bit with The Earth Standing Still is entirely reconceived, as is Gort’s role in the proceedings, and for some reason they decided not to include ‘Klaatu barada nikto!’ this time.

As you might expect, this means the alien-as-Christ subtext which was at the heart of the original film has been completely removed and there isn’t really much to replace it beyond some fairly indistinctive waffling about saving the environment and how people are really horrible but also rather lovely too. However, it doesn’t take itself completely seriously, and rather surprisingly this is mostly due to a light-footed performance by Keanu Reeves, who’s able to put his usual— er— semi-detached style of acting to good effect here. He’s startlingly good and has clearly let Michael Rennie’s original performance as Klaatu inform his own. Even more surprising is the way that, whenever he’s off-screen, the IQ of the movie seems to drop about 30 points, with much more feted performers like Connolly and Kathy Bates all at sea with some painfully obvious expository dialogue.

So while this new version isn’t perfect, it’s not far from being as good as I could realistically have hoped for, and it certainly isn’t the travesty I was almost expecting. The special effects are perfectly competent, low-key enough not to jar, though I would’ve liked to see more of Gort in his original incarnation, and this is a polished and professional movie. I’m not entirely sure what you’ll make of it if you haven’t seen the original, but I suspect it’ll pass the time engagingly enough. Not a classic, but not a disaster either.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published December 7th 2006:

Ah, Mr Bond, I’ve been expecting you. For quite a while, actually, you’ve certainly taken your own sweet time turning up. Have you by any chance had a bit of work done here and there? I love what you’ve done with your hair…

Whether the Bond franchise was in dire need of a radical makeover following 2002’s Die Another Day is questionable, given the deserved popularity of Pierce Brosnan in the role (not to mention a global box office take of over $430 million). It’s a bit of a moot point now as Eon, Bond’s big-screen custodians, clearly thought so, even if the studio didn’t. Well, they’ve opted for grit over glamour and the results, as displayed in Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale, are startling.

The news that Brosnan would be replaced for this final Fleming adaptation by the surprising choice of Daniel Craig attracted only slightly more attention from the lunatic fringes of Bond fandom than the revelation that the new movie would ditch over forty years of admittedly rather duff continuity and be a very definite re-start for the franchise, but Eon have stuck by both decisions.

So the movie opens with Bond receiving his 00 rank and rapidly discovering the talents for monumental carnage and indiscriminate fornication and adultery that have made him such a family favourite for many decades. Surveillance on a Madagascar-based mercenary leads to Bond putting a serious spanner in the works of terrorist financier Le Chiffre (nicely played by Mads Mikkelsen), and, more importantly, probably the best action sequence of the year, as Bond relentlessly pursues the astonishingly agile free-runner Sebastian Foucan all over a building site. Seriously short of funds and pursued by some very nasty creditors, Le Chiffre is forced to organise a high-stakes card game to recoup his losses, and Bond’s prodigious gambling talents make him the obvious man to take him on…

Expectations for this movie were high, but it delivers in spades. Most importantly it does the business as a tough, realistic thriller. The opening act, with Bond basically wandering around the Bahamas and Miami for an hour, destroying everything in his path, is perhaps a little overlong, but from here the movie goes into a fairly close (by Eon’s standards) adaptation of the original novel. The character of Mathis, here played by Giancarlo Gianinni, finally makes it into a Bond movie, and Felix Leiter very briefly pops up (it seems that these days he is once again an African-American). The book’s most notorious sequence also appears, although Le Chiffre’s carpet-beater is replaced by a length of rope. Eva Green gets a chance to do a bit more acting than the average Bond girl, even if her relationship with Craig is a bit too underwritten to really convince. Martin Campbell’s taut direction is better suited to the various gunfights and chases anyway.

But the really startling thing about this movie is the way it handles the central character. It essentially ignores the characterisation that has developed (or rather hasn’t developed) over the previous twenty films, and goes back to source. Daniel Craig’s performance as Bond is closer to Ian Fleming than I would ever have imagined. He enjoys the good things in life and is extremely good at his job, but his job is applied brutality – he’s cold and hard and ruthless, and when things don’t go his way he’s prone to acts of almost irrational violence. That said, the movie makes it clear he’s not just a blunt instrument – this is a cunning and almost scarily perceptive man. You don’t want him as an enemy – but then, neither do you really want him as a friend…

Daniel Craig brings him to life tremendously. It would be unfair to the other Bonds to say he’s the first not trying to copy Connery, but he seems to be the first whose performance isn’t in some way a reaction to the great man’s interpretation. He’s playing a human being whereas Brosnan in particular was inhabiting an icon. (The Brosnan pictures, slick and accomplished though they all were, are now looking to me at least like karaoke Bonds – the greatest hits of the 60s and 70s remixed and repackaged with a knowing wink.)

There’s a lengthy coda to one action sequence where we see Bond back in his room drinking whiskey as he washes off the blood, something previously unimaginable. The relaunch allows the writers to have a lot of fun with the various elements of the Bond legend – the clothes, the Aston Martin, the drink, the catchphrase. But it’s telling that they miss a lot of the staples out completely. There’s no sign of Q, in particular, or his invisible car. (Though that’s probably the idea of an invisible car, come to think of it.) Essentially the reboot has given the scriptwriters the opportunity to dynamite away most of the dead weight of formula and tradition that have accumulated around James Bond over the decades. Rather surprisingly, the character revealed – and maybe released – by this is as compelling and guiltily entertaining as he must have been fifty years ago. Where they’re going to go from here I haven’t the faintest idea – but I can’t wait to see. This is very probably the best Bond movie since the 1960s, and one of the best action movies of 2006. Highly recommended.

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