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"EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY, YOUR LICENCE TO KILL IS REVOKED..."

From Kklak! issue 007, October 2001

So, this James Bond... Heís an upper-middle class snob, obsessed with brand names, a humourless government agent fighting cold war adversaries in the fifties and sixties. At least according to some books by a bloke called Fleming. Or heís an ultra-cool movie superhero who stops criminal masterminds from destroying the entire world, never getting a hair out of place or a crumple in his suit, and always ready with the right one-liner for every occasion. You ask ninety per cent of the worldís population which of those descriptions sums up James Bond, and the chances are theyíll plump for the latter. Because to most of the world, the film Bond is the only one they know, and millions more will have seen the films than read Ian Fleming.

Now Iím not denigrating Fleming. Without him, weíd never have had Bond. His books are fine works of espionage fiction - more fantastical than Le Carré or Deighton, maybe, but they exist within their own unique fictional world. Iím just arguing that the films ought to be viewed as entirely separate entities from the books. The early films may have been book adaptations, but that soon got left behind as the Bond formula was established, and the series became a celebration of its own success. Nevertheless, in Bond fandom, there are still a great many people who believe that Fleming is the pinnacle, and that the best films are those which adhere closely to the books. Thereís some truth in this: From Russia with Love and On Her Majestyís Secret Service are the two closest adaptations of Fleming, and may very well be the two very best pieces of cinema in the entire series. But that doesnít necessarily make them good Bond films.

As a little exercise, I decided to rank the Bond films according to how well they exemplified the various elements of the Bond formula (inspired by the rating system used by Messers Barnes and Hearn in their excellent book Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). So for each film, I was considering how funny it was, how truly diabolical the villain was, whether he had a great henchman, whether his scheme for world domination was truly insane; and how exotic the film looks - from the terrific sets of Ken Adam, to the good use of foreign locations. (By way of example: From Russia With Love uses Istanbul in a colourful and interesting way; The World Is Not Enough makes nothing of the setting - it could be any European city threatened with destruction.) Under this system incidentally, The Spy Who Loved Me comes out as my best Bond film - which is fine by me, as itís always been my favourite.

Now, itís interesting to get other Bond fans to try out this test, especially those with pre-conceived ideas about which are the best films. The results can be a surprise to them. The Spy Who Loved Me always places highly. Most people can live with that, since itís generally considered the one Roger Moore film itís OK to like. But Moonraker oftens score really well too - which can be a shock to the Fleming purists, for whom itís probably the most despised film in the entire series. You Only Live Twice, another film derided for the way it completely dispenses with the original Fleming text, is also a high scorer; whereas fairly faithful adaptations like Thunderball and Dr. No are right down at the bottom of the scale. But what about those two cinematic masterpieces? Well, From Russia with Love only scores middling marks - great movie it may be, but itís completely untypical of the Bond series. On Her Majestyís Secret Service fares much better though - because itís a completely silly, over-the-top sci-fi plot like all the best Bond films. (The Fleming fans donít like to admit this, though - if anyone else had written OHMSS, theyíd be the first to slag it off.)

Having worked all this out, it became apparent that some of the series barely qualified as Bond films at all - so it doesnít seem right that they should be so labelled. Iím of the opinion that those films displaying, ooh... letís say less than 50 per cent of formulaic Bond content, should immediately be stripped of their status and have the words James Bond excised from their opening titles. Then we wouldnít have to rack them on the same shelf as proper Bond films. (Although such action would make a mess of the 007 logo formed by the DVD spines - but great change sometimes requires sacrifice.)

Under this new regime, Dr. No could be regarded as a modest little sixties espionage thriller, rather than as the origin of a series which it only resembles for about its last fifteen minutes. And the worst Bond film ever, the execrable Licence to Kill, can be got rid of entirely. Or just possibly it could be sent to a better home. Those of you with clear memories may recall that last month I was protesting about the Mission: Impossible films. Now, the irony is that whereas Licence to Kill is a dreadful Bond film, it happens to be a pretty good Mission: Impossible movie, far more deserving of that title than the two Tom Cruise vehicles.

Letís consider the facts: Bond poses as a millionaire international hitman, throwing his money around in order to bring himself to the attention of Sanchez. Heís playing the Martin Landau role here, eventually being invited into Sanchezís organization where he begins to poison the villainís mind regarding the loyalty of his minion Krest. The big setpiece in this section of the film, the planting of the missing money on Krestís yacht just in time for Sanchez to find it, is pure Mission. (The only difference is that Bond is doing this with only Pam and Q to assist him, so weíre treated to the slightly silly notion of Bond breaking out of Sanchezís palace, planting the evidence, then breaking back in without anyone realizing heís gone. The IMF would have had Barney and Willy to engineer these behind-the-scenes arrangements.) When Sanchez discovers the money, it confirms the suspicions that Bond has planted in his mind, and he eliminates Krest. Itís the kind of set-up that Mission: Impossible was made of. And just in case we canít make the connection, the actor playing Krest is Anthony Zerbe, who had played the role of villain in five separate Mission episodes.

Coincidence? Or a conscious acknowledgement of the scriptís origins? All I know is that Licence to Kill proves that with a bit of thought it is possible to do a passable Mission: Impossible film. So why do they lumber us with the Tom Cruise efforts? Likewise, when GoldenEye shows you can still make a great Bond film in the modern age, why do they follow it up with such lame exercises as Tomorrow Never Dies and The World Is Not Good Enough...?
 

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