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I’m chicken art

Author’s note: I’d been meaning to write about Die Another Day for years. It was like some kind of suppressed bad memory that I couldn’t escape. Every time, it was too raw to go back and visit. But now, maybe now is the time. It’s late, it’s on ITV2 and there’s no escape. 

There’s a problem I have with modern tv and films that I can trace back to Die Another Day. There are many faults with DAD – its lack of directional quality; the poor performances; the unconvincing villains; the presence of Madonna; the tsunami kitesurfing in front of the least convincing background in film history, CGI or no CGI; THE FUCKING INVISIBLE CAR, FOR CHRIST’S SAKE – but at its core there’s a kind of rotten, knowing wink. Not the raised eyebrow of Saint Roger – you knew and he knew he was camping it right up – or even George Lazenby, breaking the fourth wall, but something more tedious, more irritating, more anti-fun, anti-creativity than that. 

This was a Bond coincided to hit the box office at the same time as Bond’s 50th anniversary, so there was a lot of goodwill around. Goodwill that was sucked dry by the time you make it through the awfulness to the end credits. Since it was an anniversary, why not refer to a few previous Bonds – after all, each and every Bond refers to the others in a variety of ways? But DAD does this in a way that’s so clunky, so cynical, so vile, you’re yearning for a bit of good honest product placement to take your mind off it. There’s a space station covered in diamonds, for heaven’s sake, basically the whole point of Diamonds Are Forever. There’s self-referential and then there’s just copying. 

Somewhere along the line, someone forgot that films and TV and books and whatnot are meant to entertain you first. That’s the primary purpose of any piece of art. Make you enjoy it, in and of itself. With DAD, like the modern Sherlock or Batman, it seems to be written for ultra fans rather than the general public. It doesn’t seem to have been made to be a good film, but rather to fulfil a set of criteria and to be like other Bonds. It’s got all the ingredients of a Bond, just nowhere near in the right order or at the right pitch. 

Die Another Day is the worst film ever. No, not worst Bond film. Worst film. Actually, it’s probably the worst thing ever, if we imagine – and I do – that Country House by Blur never happened. Die Another Day is shit, but, more than that, it’s hurtfully shit. It’s the sort of thing that insults you for watching it. It’s hateful, hateful slurry. It’s not designed to be any good. It’s designed to make you nod and think, oh, clever. Bugger off! Entertain me. 

This isn’t entertaining, though. This is empty. All the wit and danger that ever made Bond any good is absent. It’s just a series of setpieces – not cracking ones, at that – glued together. 

Don’t get me wrong, I like Bond, even the crap ones. And I like Brosnan as Bond. Goldeneye is terrific. But this. This one. This. This heap of shit. 

Madonna’s miserable title track notwithstanding, things begin promisingly enough. There’s a daft hovercraft chase and Bond gets captured and tortured. Brosnan attempts an approximation of acting. It goes bad, quickly. Brosnanbond stops his heart – that’s right, stops his heart, by thinking of bad things – in order to lure doctors into his hospital room, beat them up and effect an escape. Mumbling the reasonable tagline “I’m checking out” in an accent so obscure it manages to miss every single country on earth, Brosnan gargles “I’m chicken art”. And chicks art. That’s the first warning, and we’re about twenty minutes in. But it gets deeper. Worse. 

Brosnanbond glides over to Cuba, via Hong Kong. He totally unnecessarily gawps over Halle Berry, who is delighted to be gawped upon and ends up fucking him in a scene of such mediocre intimacy that you’d be less squirmy sitting through hardcore fistfucking with your mum and dad over Christmas dinner. 

Via a pisspoor promotional video for British Airways, we’re transported to London, where villain Gustav Graves drops in via union jack parachute – as annoying a nod as possible Alan Partridge’s favourite bit in The Spy Who Loved Me – and proceeds to hold the worst press conference in film history. 

“SO, MR GRAVES, ER, BACKSTORY AND PLOTPOINT?”

“Yes, I intend to be QUITE EVIL HAHAHA oh er I mean yes.”

Madonna arrives, as if she’s been wheeled into place. Bond and Graves have a snarling and grunting competition in the form of a dismally unhomoerotic swordfight, in which a sword is thrown into a wall and actually makes – actually makes – that boingy twanging noise you get when you hold down a plastic ruler and wallop the end. 

No, we cannot avoid it any longer. We must talk about the fucking invisible car. 

CGI was in its prodigal stages back then. We’d seen the delights of greenscreeen brought to the fore in the beloved Star Wars prequels, so the Bond people must have thought: that’ll do for us. How can we use this technology in a way that can only enhance the franchise? Ah yes, a fucking invisible car. 

Don’t do it. You’re saying to yourself. Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Do anything but that. Don’t do the fucking invisible car. 

But they do. They do it. From the moment the Aston Martin flickers into life, you know this Bond has gone way beyond acceptable silliness, into the realms of “what the actual fuck am I watching? And why?”

An invisible car. They made an invisible car. They did a film with an invisible car. You can’t get around it. I mean, there’s a certain sackload of salt you have to take on board with every bit of Bond, and you know you’re a willing participant in the suspension of your disbelief, but how far are you meant to be able to suspend it? As far as a fucking invisible car? I can’t even. How can anyone? Brosnanbond had managed to (just about) get away with a big remote controlled car in Tomorrow Never Dies, and we winced along but carried ourselves through it as best we could, but a fucking invisible car. A. Fucking. Invisible. Car. How? Why? Who? I want names. Give me names. I want to go around to their houses – nice houses, I bet – and ask each and every single one of them just what they thought they might have been playing at when they agreed to this travesty. 

Bond has his own holodeck – of course he does – and walks through a series of clunkily-placed props from previous films on his way to getting the invisible car. In fairness, the appallingness of what’s about to happen is foreshadowed a tad. But nothing can prepare you. Nothing can make you steel yourself enough for the invisible ruddy shitting fucking Jesus Christ Mary Mother Of God car. 

Bond drives it to Iceland. There’s an ice palace. An ice palace! In most films (yes yes, except Superman), the presence of an ice palace might be the very worst thing, the thing to end all things, the thing that makes you think this film is beyond salvation. In Die Another Day? Not even in the top three. Invisible car > tsunami kitesurfing > iceboatplane > villain parachuting into press conference outside Buckingham Palace > ice palace.

We must move on again, now to the kitesurfing tsunami CGI debacle. I mean, you always knew it wasn’t Roger Moore skiing down a mountain, and the back projection was pretty rudimentary, but somehow it didn’t seem as bad. While attempting to escape the villains’ space station laser weapon in an iceboatplane, Bond falls a million miles down off a glacier – but luckily eludes the ensuing tsunami by MacGuyvering a parachute into a piece of kitesurfing equipment. This isn’t a couple of seconds quickly forgotten about: the sequence goes on for ages. As if they’re proud of it, or something. Everything about this sequence is so bad-its-good-it’s-bad, I remember howls of laughter in the cinema. 

Howls that quickly turned to groans when the Invisible Fucking Car rolled into view a couple of minutes later. This was it. We couldn’t take it. We had been saturated with the terribleness of it all, and now we could withstand no more. I think a couple of people walked out of the cinema at that point. Whether they were bored or disgusted is something that history doesn’t recall, but either way, I knew how they felt. How could it have come to this? Where did it go so wrong? 

There’s an ending to the film, of course, but it’s hardly worth describing. It’s all over by then. Your loyalty to Brand Bond is undermined, quite fatally. Daniel Craig would come pouting out of the sea in a pair of Speedos to try and resurrect it, but by then I think the damage was done, and I didn’t like his tedious solemnity. No, DAD is what killed off Bond. Killed him forever, as far as I’m concerned. 

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Posted by on August 8, 2014 in Bond, films, Uncategorized

 

You’ve just killed James Bond

I’ve been meaning to write about Diamonds are Forever for ages but I wanted to save it until I had enough time. There’s so much to say, so little space, and there’s always the chance that I’d end up writing about eleventy billion words about the desert chase sequence in the moon buggy – and that just won’t do, will it? I’ve had to try and restrain myself.

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Here’s a behind-the-scenes photo which I think sums up DAF. It’s the lead-up to the crematorium sequence, a brilliant piece of claustrophobic action in which Bond is stuffed into a coffin by the gay hitmen Mr Wint and Mr Kidd and placed into an incinerator – a scene that goes on just that little bit too long to be comfortable. You know that Bond is going to survive – he always survives – but there comes a moment when Connery banging around in the coffin creates a kind of suffocating tension.

Another thing about that photo: Sean’s wearing a trucker cap that is anything but stylish. It’s clearly to contain the sight of his un-rugged pate, which had been covered in varying degrees of thatch ever since he took over the role for Dr No. By the time he made his comeback for DAF, though, it was a serious weave that sat uneasily on his mighty bonce, distracting attention from the rest of him – which is a shame. Why couldn’t Bond just go bald? No, Bond must not age. Connery was getting visibly older, but Bond would not be allowed to age, or show weakness by showing a bit of exposed scalp. He was fighting a losing battle.

The Bond of Diamonds Are Forever, then, was someone who was fighting his own mortality in several ways. He was placed in a coffin, he was buried again by the inept Wint and Kidd… perhaps there was some significance in these brushes with death, beyond the usual Bond defying the grim reaper. This was Connery’s last ever proper appearance as Bond (before the execrable non-canon Never Say Never Again, in 1983-4) and the signs were there that it would be his last. His heart just wasn’t in it. The films were moving on, too, and weren’t right for him anymore.

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Let’s talk about Lazenby, then.

George wasn’t as wooden as the unkindest critics said he was. I rather like his performance – he handles the weakness of Bond extremely well. The film Bond of the 1960s had never suffered the heartbreaking betrayal of Casino Royale that would befall Daniel Craig’s incarnation – Dr No was preferred as the ideal first adaptation, moving on the timeline a little confusingly and eliminating a lot of the darkness in the Bond story that came from his doomed love affair in the first novel. So here was a character who was virtually indestructible, never vulnerable.

Until OHMSS. Lazenby’s Bond was the Bond who couldn’t save the girl, who lost in the end, who was defeated and crushed. He was the Bond who cried. (He was also the Bond who broke the fourth wall, chortling “This never happened to the other fella” when he ended up not getting the girl in the pre-credits sequence, a foreshadowing of what was to come).

Unfairly maligned at the time for Not Being Connery, time has been kinder to Lazenby’s one outing as Bond – and rightly so. Audiences, though, weren’t ready for a non-Connery Bond – Diamonds Are Forever would kill off Connery’s Bond in more ways than one, paving the way for Roger Moore to enter the role and make it his own in Live and Let Die. Moore was the man who saved Bond as a franchise – people accepted his camper, more postmodern, more “Look, I know this is ludicrous and so do you, but let’s bloody well go for it, shall we?” interpretation, since it fitted with the times, fitted with the actor perfectly and fitted with the way the character had been going.

DAF is essentially a Moore film with Connery in the role. Bond had always been about slightly camp old nonsense, from Goldfinger (which coincided with the death of Ian Fleming) onwards: watch the fight between Pussy Galore and Bond in the hay barn and tell me that wasn’t excruciating. Bond has cured a lesbian by having a fight with her! Terrible sound effects! Awful speeded up action! Bad, bad, bad. DAF took it to another level.

Why? Why couldn’t Bond stay steely cold and gritty? Well, it was a victim of its own success. Right from the original Casino Royale – a rather gloriously kitsch piece of psychedelia (in which ‘lysergide’ is a key plot point) involving an atomic-bomb-hiccuping Woody Allen and a nod to the chair-torture sequence that Craig would attempt at face value some years later – Bond was a thing to be parodied as well as enjoyed. Perhaps this is what I find most difficult to enjoy about the modern reboot: the books might have been steely-cold spy stories involving a rather unlikeable psychopathic protagonist, but the films always had a little bit of tongue in cheek (with the possible exception of From Russia With Love).

When DAF came out, Bond had a number of rivals – not least his own production team including Harry Salzman, who had successfully and comprehensively taken the piss in the anti-Bond Harry Palmer films. Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain in particular is a terrific romp and Michael Caine enjoys chewing up the scenery, barking cockney left right and centre as he is left helpless at the mercy of the idiots around him blowing each other up. Audiences would turn to Matt Helm and Jason King as the 1970s began, more silly and more knowing characters who were half-spoof, half-serious – the time was right for Moore’s Bond. Connery’s Bond, particularly in DAF, found it more of a struggle to walk the tightrope between action and camp.

I want to do the moon buggy. Can we do the moon buggy yet?

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No, you must wait for the moon buggy. We’ll do the moon buggy in a bit. How about Mr Kidd and Mr Wint?

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Oh, yes. There’s something brilliant about Mr Kidd and Mr Wint (something ‘problematic’, if I may use that word, as well, but we’ll come to that). Crispin Glover’s dad Bruce was Mr Wint (left), while jazz musician Putter Smith played Mr Kidd. What an odd couple they made, but somehow it worked. They were evil henchmen, they were just two very ordinary hitmen who happened to go around murdering people.

For me, Mr Kidd and Mr Wint were the first gay couple I ever saw on television or anywhere. You saw gay individuals (Mr Humphries on Are you Being Served, for example) but never gay pairs. Here they were, just taking part in a film, going around and murdering people, chuckling while putting on some nice music to burn James Bond to death to. There was something wonderfully banal and normal and warm about them, far from the icy pair portrayed in Fleming’s Diamonds are Forever book.

Perhaps their most brilliantly nasty moment is when they watch their victim Mrs Whistler, a primary school teacher, being dragged out of a canal in Amsterdam, and Kidd enthusiastically takes holiday snaps. “Mrs Whistler did say she wanted some photographs of the canal for the children,” he says breezily. They also bump off a dentist with a scorpion, an old-school Las Vegas comedian (“We need him alive” – “Oh, that’s most unfortunate”) with a trick gun (wisely edited out of the final cut) and Bond’s dalliance Plenty O’Toole, as well as trying to off Bond in increasingly ludicrous and silly ways. And that’s where the problem lies for some: Wint and Kidd are a little too camp in parts, a little too cartoony. Wint even seems to enjoy being killed by Bond in the climactic sequence because he gets his bollocks felt. Daft.

But would you get two such ordinary gay murderers in a film nowadays, despite all the problems? That’s what I wonder.

No, we can’t do the moon buggy yet. We’re going to do the more differently bad bits of the film.

dafblofeld

OK, so Blofeld has murdered Bond’s wife Tracy at the end of OHMSS. Bond is pretty pissed, as you can imagine, and spends the opening few moments hunting him down. Eventually, he finds him, having plastic surgery done to hide his identity – and kills him. Well… well of course not. Of course Blofeld will have already had the plastic surgery done, and will pop up again later.

Which is fine, if Bond gets to get his revenge. But he doesn’t. There’s no climactic fight sequence. (There were a couple scripted, in which Bond and Blofeld fought to the death on salt flats, or alternatively battled in Vegas, but both were binned as Connery’s gigantic salary had eaten up all of the budget). The last we see of Blofeld is getting into his batho submarine just before the oil rig blows up (which we only see from one camera angle, as the explosives went off by accident during filming)… and that’s that. How can Bond feel his revenge has been sated when he hasn’t killed his nemesis? Why is he so happy at the end, having only dumped Wint and Kidd off the side of a boat rather than THE MAN WHO MURDERED HIS WIFE? It makes no sense whatsoever.

It would be left to Moore to metaphorically and literally dump Blofeld, when he coldly dropped an unnamed ‘wheelchair bound villain’ (who was obviously Blofeld) into a chimney at the start of his most faithful outing as 007, For Your Eyes Only. Which leaves the ending of Diamonds Are Forever as a bit of an anticlimax. Blofeld dies, then reappears, then… we don’t know if he lives or dies. Rubbish.

With Wint and Kidd on screen, you might have thought there was quite a lot of camp already in DAF, but Charles Gray provided that little bit extra as Blofeld, even turning up in drag at one point to capture Jill St John’s weedy nonsense of a heroine Tiffany Case at a casino. Again, with the two men face to face, there was plenty for them to discuss (notably “Why did you kill my fucking wife, you bastard?”) but Blofeld brushes it off with “It’s late and I’m tired (and I’m about to get Wint and Kidd to try and kill you in the most ridiculous way ever by leaving you in a concrete pipe from which you can easily escape). Gray, who had already appeared as another character (“It’s stirred, not shaken, I did get that right, didn’t I?”) in You Only Live Twice, adds a kind of dreary, wet evil to Blofeld that I like – but again, it’s not to everyone’s taste.

There are other plot holes in DAF that don’t make any sense – partly due to the budget problems I’ve already mentioned, partly because of simple bad thinking. Most notable, though, is the murder of Plenty O’Toole.

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It’s a great idea – Bond’s casino girlfriend finds Tiffany’s identity in her bag, goes to her house, wears her wig and gets murdered by Wint and Kidd – except the vital elements are deleted, meaning there’s no sense whatsoever in how she gets there. It’s a giant plot hole for such a big film. Partly it happened because Lana Wood’s scenes were chopped (as well as a cameo from Sammy Davis Junior) to save time, but it still makes no sense.

I’m making it sound like this is a really bad film, which I don’t mean to. I think it’s got moments of absolute class, a corking soundtrack, some great action sequences and an important transition of Bond between movie eras… but there’s so much wrong with it, it’s incredible. Shall we do Tiffany Case now, before we get to the moon buggy? I’m building up the moon buggy a bit too much, but still. Tiffany Case.

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Yes, that just about sums her up. Here’s a woman who starts off as a diamond smuggler, unfazed by “Peter Franks” knocking seven shades of shit out of “James Bond” in a terrific elevator fight sequence (except to say “You’ve just killed James Bond!”) and motivated entirely by greed… and yet she turns into a feeble, useless load of crap by the end of the film, falling over when trying to shoot a machine gun and squeaking ineptly while Bond struggles with Wint and Kidd’s attentions, deciding that throwing a fucking cake at them will somehow be a good idea.

What a waste. With Plenty O’Toole’s role chopped to bits, Jill St John is the only woman of note in the film, and she seems to have been told to be as passive and weak as possible.

Moon buggy? Moon buggy.

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Moon buggy! James Bond interrupts a faked moon landing which is being created on a film set in the middle of a desert, and drives off in a moon buggy! Come on, though, this bit’s tremendous fun. Not only does it mock the moon-conspiracy-nuts, but it’s Bond driving around in a bloody moon buggy! What more do you bloody well want?

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I know, I know. For some of you, this is the apotheosis of awful in DAF; for me it’s a moment of genius. And I guess that’s where a lot of Bond fans part company. I love the bit in The Spy Who Loved Me where Moore deadpanly drops a fish out of his submersible car’s window – other people hate it.

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So where, at the end of all this, does Diamonds Are Forever rank? I think it’s an important film to see from the point of view of how it provides a transition from one place to another – from the failed attempt at Lazenby to the Moore era, from the Connery era to the Moore era, from the 1960s to the 1970s. It is faintly ludicrous at many points, but at others it has moments of real joy, most notably:

  • The fact that the whole first act of the film is a total red herring. The goddamn diamonds are phonies!
  • Bond saying “That’s a nice little nothing you’re almost wearing” to Tiffany when he first meets her
  • The moon buggy. The moon buggy!
  • The elevator fight with Peter Franks and Bond
  • Bond’s fake fingerprints
  • Blofeld in drag
  • Q winning at the slot machines in Vegas
  • The soundtrack. The soundtrack!

Ah yes, the soundtrack. A lovely bass break, plus the knowledge that Shirley Bassey was told to imagine the word “diamonds” meant “cocks” makes it something special.

In many ways, Diamonds Are Forever did kill James Bond. Put him out of his misery and meant the stage was set for a new Bond, a reboot of its time that would see Moore more easily leading the character into comedy. I like this because the world of Bond is patently ludicrous – that’s half the appeal. DAF was the way of making sure the franchise could survive, by killing off the Connery era. It’s not a great film, but it’s one I really enjoy still nowadays.

 
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Posted by on October 30, 2013 in Bond, films, Uncategorized