Friday, 26 August 2016

007 Lazenby & Dalton: Licence to Bond

When one thinks of James Bond, they think of Sean Connery or Roger Moore, the men who played him the longest. If they are of a certain age, they might think of Pierce Brosnan. Of course, Daniel Craig may also come to mind as the most recent Bond.

Very few think of George Lazenby or Timothy Dalton.

Both took over Bond from actors who had extensive runs on the character and had defined him for a generation. Both were criticised in comparison to the actor who came before, their films were forgotten or considered missteps without the 'proper' James Bond, namely Connery or Moore.

It's a little telling that this is the third image when I did a Google search for "james bond actors".

My point is that Lazenby and Dalton are often forgotten where James Bond is concerned. To be fair, there are only three films between them, perhaps not enough to leave an impression. I know I had never seen any of Datlon's films before, although I had seen snippets of Lazenby as Bond on television. So, are their films deserving of their maligned status?

Let's begin with George Lazenby. Charged with the near insurmountable task of following Sean Connery, Lazenby is... fine. There's nothing exactly wrong with him but he's not particularly good. I heard that he was predominantly a model at the time, which makes sense since the man looks like Bond. Too bad his acting doesn't match his looks but maybe we should discuss his sole outing as 007.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service is an amazing Bond film. Or rather there is an amazing Bond film within On Her Majesty's Secret Service because it is a film that is begging for a re-edit. The pacing is a bit mixed and needs some trimming in places. There are some great scenes but they don't quite come together as well as they could have with more time in the editing room.

For example, the masturbation scene was great but it really did slow down the plot.

The movie is long. At an hour and 22 minutes, it's one of the longest Bond films. While it doesn't drag exactly, there are at least 20 minutes that could have been cut to tighten it up. On Her Majesy's Secret Service has some highly watchable scenes which are quite engrossing but the transition between those scenes is a bit off and not as smooth as it should be.

Similarly, on a narrative level, the focus is split unevenly between the romantic plot and the villain plot, causing both to suffer and feel a little half-baked. We start with the romantic plot which then just stops for a good forty minutes or so while Bond is investigating the big bad, Blofeld in Switzerland before it's picked up again.

Because why would we want more of this?

Which is a shame since Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo, a.k.a Tracy, is wonderfully brought to life by Dianna Rigg. She does suffer from Rich White Problems, namely boredom and a desire to act out against the patriarchal paternal control of her father, but she's a capable woman and shown to be Bond's equal as a romantic partner. However, just read how Wikipedia sums up the plot,
In the film Bond faces Blofeld, who is planning to sterilise the world's food supply through a group of brainwashed "angels of death", unless his demands are met for an international amnesty for his previous crimes, recognition of his title as the Count De Bleuchamp (the French form of Blofeld), and to be allowed to retire into private life. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and eventually marries Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo.
He falls in love and eventually marries her "Along the way"? Like an afterthought? Believe me, Tracy Bond is no afterthought. This is the woman who ensnares James Bond's heart. James Bond, the man who sleeps with every woman he meets, is captivated by Tracy. And watching her poise and assertive confidence, it's not hard to see why.

"I'm so captivated by your her poise and assertive confidence." - Bond, probably

It's clear that with On Her Majesty's Secret Service that they were trying to go for something a little different than the established Bond formula with Connery, although at times it feels as though they decided to rein it in instead of fully embracing the changes.

For example, the theme song is an instrumental. An amazing instrumental using Moog synthesiser bassline and a flourish of staccato strings, it is everything a great Bond theme should be. But opening with an instrumental was a break from the previous three films' opening songs and it was a different take on what a Bond theme could be.

But this originality or desire to break with Bond tradition is undercut by the opening credits sequence itself which shows clips of previous James Bond films in the background. It's almost like they were saying, "here is something new but don't be afraid, it's just the same as always". Despite that hesitation to complete embrace change, the credit sequence is one of the best.

Which could be said for the film as a whole. There are some truly great moments in On Her Majesty's Secret Service that rank with the best that Bond has to offer. While there is nothing truly bad in a cinematic sense, there are plot issues in terms of pacing and Bond's trademark sexism and racism is on display, although only really during the scenes in Blofeld's allergy-research institute.

Blofeld has gathered a number of allergy-riddled women to be his "angels of death", brainwashed sleeper agents who will unleash his deadly virus or whatever on the world's food supply. So, naturally Bond has to sleep with them for information, although his cover is supposed to be gay.

He first sleeps with one girl, after saying he isn't usually attracted to girls but she's different, gets the info he needs and then leaves to find another girl waiting in his room. Of course, he proceeds to sleep with her, after saying he isn't usually attracted to girls but she's different!

Goddammit, James! Have some class, don't repeat what you said to one girl to another. That's not only gross in a dishonest way but just lazy. You should be better than that. You're the best spy in the world, surely you could think of something else flirtatious and seductive to say.

Moving on, there is, of course, the racism.

In case you didn't watch the video, that is a dinner scene where the women suffering from food allergies are eating the food that they were allergic to. I started the video at the point where the Asian lady is eating rice, which isn't so bad on it's own since that isn't a completely terrible assumption, if a somewhat lazy stereotype. But then it is followed by the African woman eating a banana.

A banana. And that's her entire meal, a banana. I'm sorry but even including all the blaxploitation that run rampant in Live and Let Die, this might be the most blatant example of racism in a Bond film.

The sad history of people of African descent being described as ape or monkey-like in a derogatory way is too well-known for this not to be anything more than institutionalised racism. At least the moment was blink and you miss it but still, come on.

But what did I think about George Lazenby as James Bond? Like I said he was fine. An average Bond in a great Bond film. There are scenes in here that are begging for an actor with serious chops like Daniel Craig to breathe them into life. Lazenby does his best but somebody does it better.

But he did inspire Austin Power's wardrobe which was a gift few greater than we could have ever known.
Never forget.

And so we come to Timothy Dalton.

Unlike Lazenby, I had never seen anything of Dalton's James Bond, not even passing glimpses on the TV so I didn't really know what to expect. I did hear that his Bond was supposed to be quite dark but I hadn't seen him in action.

Well, I loved The Living Daylights. Seriously. I thought it was great. And coming off the heals of the glorious mess of a film that was A View to a Kill, it must have felt like a breath of fresh air. This was a Bond who was serious. Just was as dangerous as he was dashingly good looking.

I had heard criticisms that Dalton's Bond is considered a bit too dry and boring but I don't see it. Maybe it was a hangover from Moore's light-hearted take on the character at the time, which became just what everyone had come to expect from James Bond? I dunno.

However, I really liked Dalton's more downplayed, and yes dryer, take on Bond. To be fair, he still drops some great lines, but with a deadpan sigh instead of a raised eyebrow. For example, I love the deadpan reply to Kara's declaration they're free after he knocks out the guards,

Kara: "You were fantastic – we're free!"
Bond: "Kara, we're inside a Russian air base in the middle of Afghanistan."

One highly pleasing change was that Dalton's Bond was respectful to women, or at least not anywhere as sexist as his predecessors. Perhaps it was because his two late 1980s films were set in a post-AIDS crisis world but this was a monogamous James Bond.

Over the course of both The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill, he sleeps with just four women. In contrast, in his first two films, Moore's Bond slept with six women. Also, the context is different. In The Living Daylights, he sleeps with a woman pre-credits but spends the rest of the film courting and wooing Kara.

Let's discuss Kara, played by the delightful Maryam d'Abo. I have a real soft spot for her, not least because she shares her name with the lead female protagonist in my online science fiction comedy serial novel. A Russian cellist who is unwittingly caught in political espionage, she's used as a pawn by both sides.

First, she is asked to pretend to be a sniper to sell the fake defection of the KGB officer General Georgi Koskov, then later by Bond himself, who pretends to be Koskov's friend to gain her trust, as a lead to find Koskov.

However over the course of the film, Bond starts to feel for her, perhaps drawn to her wholesome sweetness and buoyant optimism. She is really sweet, like a true cinnamon roll. While it's a bit condescending how she is treated as a dupe for a large chunk of the film by the final act, she's more than shown her worth.

Just look how sweet she is!

Unlike more badass Bond girls, she is not James Bond's equal. She's not a fellow spy or double agent, she's an innocent cellist wrapped up things she can't truly comprehend. She's not as smart as him and unable to spar wits like Vesper Lynd or even Tracy did. She's also too naive and trusting, not really what most people think of when they think of a 'strong' woman.

However, this is what endures her to me. Despite not being that 'strong' in the sense of being a dangerous physical fighter or tactical/intellectual genius, she is far braver than she has any right to be as a simple cellist and helps Bond as best she can. Furthermore, although she was betrayed by Koskov, she never loses that spark of sweetness which is her real strength.

When Bond is trapped on the truck with the cocaine and the bomb that is going to use to blow up the shipment, it is Kara who leads the charge on the Soviet camp, not the leader of the Afghan rebels. Grabbing a gun (which she has probably never held before) and galloping on her horse after him causing the Afghan rebel fighters to follow because "Women," amiright?

I really believe her relationship with Bond too despite the short amount of time. Even she herself comments that it's only been two days and she is starting to develop feelings for him, yet is feels believable. And he in turn seems to develop a real fondness for her that extends beyond just wanting to sleep with her and be on his merry way.

All of which was a nice change from Connery and Moore womanizing and was something hinted at previously with Lazenby, and then later picked up with with Craig's Bond and Vesper.

What can I say? This Bond was a music lover.

And what about the villains? Well, Koskov is played to comic perfection by Jeroen KrabbĂ© who just toes the line that prevents him from going over-the-top. At first I didn't know what to make of his performance but once you realised what he was trying to do, it makes sense. Especially when you find out his character is himself putting on a performance during his fake defection.

The less said about Brad Whitaker though, the better. An arms dealer with delusions of military grandeur, he's a bit of an annoying blowhard. He's also on the periphery for much of the film and the climax suffers from the confrontation scene between Bond and Whitaker since it feels superfluous.

Also, Necros is a great henchman in the grand tradition of blonde blue-eyed Aryan musclemen who pose a menacing threat, both physically and as a spy, a trend which started with From Russia With Love's Red Grant.

The plot starts off promisingly and straight-forward but gets unnecessarily convoluted, particularly in the final act where who is doing what for whom and why becomes increasingly difficult to parse out. And while Dalton's Bond was supposed to be more realistic than Moore's, this is a film where Bond's car has a laser which cuts another car in half so there's that.

However, despite those quibbles The Living Daylights is an highly enjoyable Bond film and Dalton is great in the role. But then we come to Licence to Kill.

"Did I do something wrong?"

Licence to Kill is not a good film, especially following The Living Daylights. Most of it feels like action B-movie and the plot is a complete mess. It's also really dark and almost gratuitously so for a Bond film. Before the opening credits the villain gets his henchmen to rip out the heart of man who cheats with his girlfriend and he beats her with this heavy whip rope thing. It's kinda uncomfortable.

There is also some terrible acting. I don't often comment on the acting in Bond films aside from the villains, female leads and whoever is playing Bond himself but the extras in Licence to Kill are something else. They are all sound like they're in different movies and I have no idea what they are trying to emote.

For example, Della is Felix Leiter's bride. Felix has always been James Bond's CIA counterpart and a good friend. But Della looks at Bond like she's in love with him and their interaction seems more than a dude and his friend's wife or even just friends. And I'm not sure if that was intentional or not.

Felix may have his arm around her but she only has eyes for Bond.

However, despite that the film has a lot of things going for it. This is the Bond film with the pre-credits scene which inspired the awesome plan stealing another plan in mid-air scene in The Dark Knight Rises after all.

For one thing it has Franz Sanchez, the most powerful drug lord in Latin America and one of the great Bond villains, played to menacing perfection by Robert Davi. Specialising in playing bad guys for most of his career, Davi gives Sanchez a real presence and weight. He feels ruthless. As Max Williams notes,
Yet no villain matches Sanchez for menace. If he uncovered Bond, he would kill Bond. Simple as that. Not quite ‘why don’t you just shoot him’ because Sanchez wouldn’t just shoot him. He’d exact a far nastier retribution. But exact it he would. No locking Bond in a windowed room, no escorting Bond round the pad and feeding him dinner, no leaving Bond in a perilous situation and then departing for tea. If Sanchez wanted Bond dead, Bond would be killed. Thoroughly. Such ruthlessness is refreshing and admirable on the writers’ behalf.
On an unrelated note, Davi is a classically trained opera singer with a gorgeous baritone voice and now spends his time performing versions of Frank Sinatra songs like "Summer Wind".

And while the plot is all over the place, I like that the scope is smaller, focusing on a simple revenge plot and drug trafficking rather than world domination. Oh, yeah I forgot to mention that Bond goes rogue to take Sanchez down since he fed Felix to a shark. Felix was okay though, just lost a leg and an arm. Sanchez also killed Della which might had something to do with it.

It's just too bad that the film comes across more like a B-movie than a first rate action flick since all the right elements are there and the best parts of this film can rival the best parts of any James Bond film. Oh well. I would say better luck next time but this was Dalton's last outing as Bond.

So what do I have to say about Dalton's Bond having seen his two films? I really liked him. Far more than I expected to since I heard how dour and dark his Bond was supposed to be. I suppose his Bond's reputation preceeded him but I honestly think he is a far greater Bond than he gets credit for.

And that's that. Mission over. Thanks for joining me for the second installment of James Bond month. I had a lot of fun watching these movies for the first time and seeing what Moore, Lazenby, and Dalton each brought to the character.

Time now for an hiatus to recharge but Musings From Another Star will return.


On Her Majesty's Secret Service (film) Wikipedia page

James Bonding #0012: On Her Majesty's Secret Service with Paul Scheer

The Living Daylights Wikipedia page

James Bonding #0023: The Living Daylights with Cole Stratton

My favourite Bond film: The Living Daylights - The Guardian

Licence to Kill Wikipedia page

James Bonding #0019: Licence to Kill with Amanda Lund and Maria Blasucci

James Bond 007: Revisiting Licence to Kill - Den of Geek

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