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Posts Tagged ‘Sean Bean’

In recent times we’ve had to become accustomed to the Bond franchise taking mini-breaks on a fairly regular basis (mainly due to the travails of movie studios and the occasional row about creative direction) but for nearly thirty years it was one of the most reliable series out there, with never a break of more than three years between films. So the non-appearance of any new Bond for half a decade in the early 90s was a bit of a shock. Coupled to the relative underperformance of the ill-liked Timothy Dalton films, and some fairly major geopolitical upheavals occurring in the same period, and some observers were even heard to suggest that time had finally run out and the fabled licence to kill had expired.

So when the production of Martin Campbell’s GoldenEye was finally announced in 1994, I was a little relieved, even if the casting of Pierce Brosnan as Bond wasn’t something I was over the moon about. This was a movie which would inevitably have big expectations upon it, and for me Brosnan was really more of a light comedian or romantic lead, just a bit too smooth and lightweight for the role. (I always say that everyone has the right to be wrong sometimes, and as you can see that’s an informed opinion.)

As it turned out, of course, GoldenEye emerged as a new kind of Bond film and the most entertaining in a very long time. To begin with, it’s not afraid to be resolutely traditional, with a lengthy teaser depicting Bond and fellow agent Trevelyan (Sean Bean) infiltrating a Soviet weapons facility. The mission goes bad and only Bond escapes.

Nine years and the collapse of the Soviet Union later, Bond happens to be in the area when an experimental helicopter is stolen by the beautiful but rather psychopathic Xenia Onatopp (gotta love these Bond movie names), a breakthrough role for Famke Janssen. However, Bond’s boss (Her Majesty Judi Dench) doesn’t consider this very significant, which turns out to be a mistake as said chopper is used almost at once to steal the control elements of a Russian satellite weapon codenamed GoldenEye.

(Bond swot points will, of course, be awarded for knowing that the title GoldenEye is ultimately derived from the name of Ian Fleming’s holiday home. Really ridiculous swot points will be further be awarded for knowing that the holiday home in question appears to have been christened in turn after a breed of duck.)

Apparently out of a general disapproval of this sort of thing rather than any particular British strategic interest, Bond is sent to Saint Petersburg to find the stolen weapon and sort out the criminals involved. Along the way there are, inevitably, a couple of dodgy helpers (Robbie Coltrane and Joe Don Baker), a devotchka in distress (Izabella Scorupco), an exploding pen and a watch which shoots laser beams.

One doesn’t often get the chance to say this about a Bond film but GoldenEye is a very intelligent movie, mainly in the way it’s aware of the audience’s expectations and is extremely diligent about meeting them. It works very hard to establish Brosnan as Bond from the start, sticking him first in the Aston Martin from Goldfinger and then in a succession of stock Bond situations – the car chase, the incidental shag, the casino sequence, sparring with the bad guy. The end result is that you don’t have much choice but to accept Brosnan as the character – who else could he be? It helps a lot that both actor and script willingly embrace the essential absurdity of Bond and don’t try to make him all edgy and realistic.

That said, one of the things that makes Pierce Brosnan such a great Bond is the way he manages to strike a balance between so many different elements and synthesize them into a single characterisation. In the past I’ve said that Brosnan is well aware he’s playing an icon and treats the part as such – he has some of Connery’s swagger and some of Moore’s unflappability, and even occasionally some of Dalton’s intensity. He is the composite Bond par excellence, even if in this film he hasn’t quite got the look of the character right (hair too long and some dodgy wardrobe choices near the start).

One of GoldenEye‘s concessions to modern sensibilities is in its attempt to at least make a token exploration of Bond’s character from a vaguely realistic point of view. ‘You’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur,’ M tells Bond quite early on, which is quite a brave move given this is the kind of criticism the character’s always drawn. No attempt is made to rebut these charges, of course, as there is obviously some truth to them! And later on there’s a scene in which we see Bond deep in thought as he ponders the fact he’ll soon have to kill a former friend, which leads to a moderately earnest discussion of his reluctance to really get emotionally close to people. This scene does hit a bit of a bum note – on first viewing, the friend I was with leaned over and whispered ‘Here we go, New Man Bond time’ before it had even got started – and this may be why this sort of thing didn’t reappear in the other Brosnan films.

The first half of GoldenEye may be extremely deftly made, with enormous skill and wit, but it is still really just karaoke Bond for the most part, and knowingly so. It doesn’t take the character or the series anywhere genuinely new. All this changes when James Bond climbs into a T-54 tank and, in pursuit of the bad guys, proceeds to demolish large areas of Saint Petersburg. This whole sequence is bursting with a sort of boisterous delight in its own destructiveness and takes place on a scale not seen in a Bond film for many, many years. Political relevance and character insights are nice things to have around, but these movies are really about action, wit, and guilty pleasure and the tank chase delivers them in spades, demonstrating exactly why there was still a place for Bond at the heart of popular culture.

It’s such a great sequence that the rest of the film seems slightly disappointing as a result, something of a return to the Bond formula. But this is only relatively speaking, of course. The film continues as solidly as it started, eventually arriving at an appropriately pyrotechnic conclusion. If the mention of Guantanamo Bay in the closing seconds seems a little jarring, well, that just shows that the world keeps changing even if Bond himself stays largely immutable.

There are so many other good things about this film, from Martin Campbell’s direction – it’s easy to see why they brought him back to introduce Daniel Craig’s Bond – to the supporting performances. Robbie Coltrane is obviously enjoying himself a lot, while Joe Don Baker appears to simply be reprising his performance as CIA loose cannon Darius Jedburgh from Campbell’s Edge of Darkness. The only element of the film which seems questionable is Eric Serra’s soundtrack – clearly Serra’s been employed on the strength of his work on Leon, and the music here bears a resemblance to that score. He treats the Bond theme as something to be tinkered with and deployed in different forms, almost like a motif, which brings variable results, and sticks a fairly objectionable soft-rock ballad over the closing credits on which he himself provides the vocals. It’s not entirely surprising David Arnold was brought on board for the next film.

As I’ve mentioned before, GoldenEye is probably my favourite of the Brosnan Bonds, which as time goes by seem more and more to occupy their own niche in the history of the franchise. In the earlier films there’s a continuity of style, up to a point, even when the lead actor changes, with the films evolving without a great deal of self-consciousness. But with GoldenEye the series suddenly seems to become aware of its own traditions and staples and even cliches, and also its reputation and iconic status. The defining characteristic of the Brosnan films, for me, is the way that they’re so knowing about these things in the way that they meet them, play with them, and occasionally subvert them. Coupled to Brosnan’s constantly entertaining lead performance, the result is a set of films of a consistently high quality, and at least as rewarding to watch as any in the history of the franchise.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 20th 2003:

[Following a review of Far From Heaven.]

Well, after all that rich cinematic fare I was in the mood for something a bit less demanding. So what should fit the bill better than a sci-fi action thriller starring someone like Wales’ own Christian Bale? Pleasingly, just such a movie happened along in the shape of Kurt Wimmer’s Equilibrium.

In the future, society has been reshaped to include the maximum possible number of cliches from old SF movies. All emotion has been outlawed and the population exists in a permanent drugged stupor, rather like Vulcans on valium. Enforcing this new regime are the implausibly named Grammaton Clerics, foremost amongst whose number is the fanatically calm John Preston (Christian Bale, king of the dodgy accent). Preston is shocked (or would be, were it not illegal) to learn that his partner Errol Partridge (Sean Bean, slumming it) is secretly breaking the law and getting all teary and emotional over poems by Yeats (his transgressions no doubt caused by the stress of having such a stupid name), but being a dedicated servant of the state does his duty, letting Sean Bean get an early bath and have a long talk with his agent about the quality of the scripts he gets sent. Bean’s replacement is the ambitious Brandt, played by Taye Diggs from Chicago. But Preston inevitably finds himself questioning the values of the state, particularly after meeting hardened offender Mary (Emily Watson, really slumming it). Can he meet the challenge of bringing about a change in the system? And can Christian Bale meet the challenge of portraying more than one emotion in the same film?

Let’s talk about the good things in Equilibrium first. It’s rather well directed, for one thing, with a good deal of style. The production designs have a sort of brutalist grandeur even if they don’t quite manage to avoid cliche. Some of the action sequences are rather well put together, too. And, fair’s fair, Bale does a pretty reasonable job of portraying a man experiencing an emotional awakening (even if he is, inevitably, more convincing before than after).

But that really is all the film has going for it. Apart from this, what’s not cliched is silly, and what’s not silly is cliched. The list of films Equilibrium rips off seems to roll on forever: Logan’s Run. THX-1138. Fahrenheit 451. Metropolis. 1984. Demolition Man. The Matrix (there’s the most blatant knock-off in history of the lobby sequence from The Matrix, which is saying something). Being derivative isn’t necessarily a crime, but Equilibrium fails to fuse all its influences together in such a way as to establish an identity of its own.

The only even slightly original element to the script is the new martial art of ‘Gun-kata’, which supposedly involves using statistical analysis to predict where the bullets are going to be in a gunfight so the exponent can arrange to be elsewhere at the time. This idea strikes me as a bit bobbins, and the fact that on-screen the practitioners just seem to be vogueing with a gun in each hand does not help its credibility.

Credibility is one of Equilibrium‘s problems throughout, to be honest. Apart from characters with silly names, the script’s attempts to be moving and make serious points are torpedoed by a lack of subtlety (Preston finally turns against the system when it orders him to shoot a cute little puppy!) and some very dubious casting (at one point Bale beats up TV comedian Brian Conley – not that this is a bad thing, of course). The cast, which includes David Hemmings and (all too briefly) Lassie award laureate Sean Pertwee, do their best, but some things can’t be polished. And quite why the supposedly unemotional character played by Taye Diggs spent most of the movie grinning like a loon I could not tell you.

I didn’t really have great hopes for this film going in, but I would have settled for a cheerfully dumb, well-put-together, mid-budget actioneer (something like Bale’s last film, Reign of Fire). But Equilibrium‘s pretensions to worthiness, and its meandering, poorly-paced script, stop it from being even this. It aspires to have a message about the importance of emotions and compassion – but, ironically, I suspect the audience will find it very difficult to care either way.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 20th 2004. 

One of the benefits of going to a school with a slightly unorthodox curriculum was that in addition to all the usual stuff, like Maths, English, Chemistry and History, for an hour a week we took a class called Classical Studies, in which we learned about things like Greek theatre, the archaeological excavations at Mycenae, the Roman occupation of Britain, and – crucially for this week’s spouting of bias – the particulars of the Trojan Wars. I say ‘benefit’, because I found it all rather fascinating (and it got me a reasonable GCSE), but either the subject matter or the way in which it was taught was enough to give many of my classmates a severe case of Homer phobia. Hopefully this will not deter them from popping along to see Wolfgang Peterson’s epic blockbuster on this subject, Troy.

Based rather loosely on the old legends (Homer himself gets credited as an ‘inspiration’), this is primarily the story of lethal but capricious warrior Achilles (Bradley Pitt), who spends his time variously fighting for or arguing with the ruthless and power-hungry High King of Greece, Agamemnon (Brian Cox). Agamemnon has conquered all of Greece, and now his ambition turns in the direction of the great city of Troy in Asia Minor. He gets his chance when Helen (Diane Kruger), the wife of his brother Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson) runs off with visiting Trojan prince Paris (Orlando Bloom), much to the horror of Paris’ brother Hector (Eric Bana). This, Agamemnon thinks, would make a smashing pretext for going to Troy and replacing the existing management. With the aid of the trickster king of Ithaca, Odysseus (Sean Bean), he persuades Achilles to join his cause, and a thousand ships set sail for death and glory…

Now obviously there was always going to be a good deal of snipping and tightening of the story in order for this film not to be even longer than The Lord of the Rings – and so it proves. The siege of Troy, rather than ten years, lasts about a fortnight (and even this time includes a lengthy lay-off for both sides), and the plot and cast list are correspondingly cut down. So, for anyone else who knows the story, there’s no Hecuba, no Cassandra, no Philoctetes, Troilus or Cressida. (But, rather unexpectedly and charmingly, Aeneas does get a single scene.) The overtly mythological elements of the story are almost wholly removed, too, with the exception of a single scene with Achilles’ mother Thetis (whose divinity is not elaborated upon). A shame, but I can understand why – it’s not as if epic fantasy films about huge sieges have set the box office on fire lately, is it?

More importantly, Achilles himself is retooled as a slightly more conventionally heroic figure. He still sulks and thinks of nothing but his own reputation, but instead of the, ahem, traditional Greek practices usually ascribed to him, he gets a girl as a love interest – Trojan priestess Briseis (Rose Byrne – sigh). Pitt certainly looks the part, but never quite brings the character to life – Eric Bana is really much better as his Trojan counterpart. But about half of you will probably be pleased to know Bradley gets his bum out a few times, and the script rewrites the story to a considerable degree to give him the maximum screen time possible.

Of course, the danger with this sort of film is that it will degenerate into a bunch of men in skirts and questionable hairstyles declaiming on battlements to no great effect. The spectre of absurdity swoops over Troy a couple of times, but the film manages to hang in there as a serious drama by, well, taking itself very seriously. The action scenes are top-notch, gritty and bloody, with the CGI (I assume there must have been some) virtually unnoticeable for the most part. Somehow Petersen even manages to get through the scene where Paris picks up a bow and arrow for the first time without a knowing snigger running through the audience.

But more important is the film’s insistence that this was a political war, fought on a pretext by an ambitious and ruthless ruler. The Trojans are (mostly) flawed, but decent and good people – the Greeks are depicted much less flatteringly, Agamemnon and Menelaus in particular. The film isn’t especially subtle about this (or indeed anything else), but it’s enormously refreshing to see a major release drawn in such all-pervading shades of grey. (On the other hand, the film’s total lack of humour or irony might not appeal to many people today – but I hope this isn’t the case.)

To be fair, Troy never quite catches fire and really thrills or moves, but it’s a solid story, well-told for the most part. Some of the exposition is rather clunky – but then again there’s so much back-story that’s probably inevitable – and the climax seems a little bit rushed and perfunctory, but this is a commendable and impressive adaptation of the story. An unusually thoughtful and classy blockbuster – recommended.

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