You Only Live Twice (James Bond #5)

YOLTYou Only Live Twice
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

After four consecutive films in as many years, there was a two year wait before You Only Live Twice arrived in theaters. While sharing the title with the eleventh novel written by Ian Fleming, this film was the first to diverge completely from the written material mainly because one of the main storylines of the book could not be covered because it had not occurred in any previous film.

An American spacecraft is hijacked from orbit by a SPECTRE spacecraft resulting in the United States accusing the Soviets, who deny it. The British suspect Japanese involvement since the unidentified craft landed in the Sea of Japan. Upon faking his death, James arrives in Japan to investigate meeting with Aki, the MI6 station chief, and then Aki’s boss Japanese secret service chief Tiger Tanaka. Bond identifies Osato Chemicals as being a part of the plot, meeting with Mr. Osato and his security Helga Brandt, and identifying a suspicious cargo ship owned by Osato. After a failed investigation of the cargo ship, Bond almost killed by Brandt but is able to escapes death but results in Brandt being killed by the head of SPECTRE who orders Osato to kill Bond. Then SPECTRE hijacks a Soviet spacecraft resulting in the Soviet Union to blame the Americans as tensions rise. While investigating an island the cargo ship had passed, Bond battles helicopters confirming the island’s importance. Tanaka develops a plan to crash train Bond as a ninja, disguise him as a Japanese fisherman to be married to a local woman, and search for the base so Tanaka can attack with a force of 100 ninjas. During the process, an Osato henchman kills Aki making things personal for Bond. Bond proceeds with Tanaka’s plan and with his “wife” Kissy discover the SPECTRE base, Kissy goes to inform Tanaka while Bond infiltrates the base. Discovering the missing Astronaut and Cosmonauts, Bond attempts to get on board the SPECTRE spacecraft but is spotted by SPECTRE’s mastermind Ernst Stavro Blofeld. While meeting Blofeld, Tanaka’s forces attack the base and a timely intervention by Bond allows some into the base. Blofeld retreats killing Osato and orders a henchman to kill Bond. Bond defeats the henchman and is able to destroy the SPECTRE spacecraft before it can hijack another American spacecraft. Blofeld’s sets off the base’s self-destruct forcing Bond and Tanaka’s forces to escape through a former lava tunnel to be rescued by Japanese and British maritime units.

Unlike the previous installment, You Only Live Twice set a narrative pace that was steady throughout the film keeping the viewer engaged in the film. Setting the film nearly all the scenes in and around Japan was a departure from previous Bond films, however it helped keep the film focused while still giving spectacular background visuals throughout the film. Roald Dahl wrote the screenplay with collaboration from director Lewis Gilbert, resulting in a singular vision of the film that helped the overall product. Yet the film isn’t without some flaws, some unfortunate and others detrimental. The most unfortunate is the running time, which could have been cut in several places including some action sequences that ran just a tad too long. The other was the reliance an formulas, some of which Dahl commented on in later interviews that he was told to include while being given free rein over the rest of the story, that over the course of five films were getting stale. But the biggest flaw was Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who made his debut as a little, scarred, bald man played by Donald Pleasence. With three of the previous four Bond films having involved SPECTRE, the reveal of Blofeld is somewhat of a letdown considering that both Dr. No and Emilio Largo were both more intimidating and overall more impressive antagonists for Bond to faceoff with. What does not help is that Pleasence’s Blofeld is the go to megalomaniacal villain that parodies of all Bond and spy genre films go for.

You Only Live Twice is a fun, good paced film but when compared to the previous four films of the Connery era there are problems that an observant viewer can pick out. Although this was meant to be Connery’s swansong as the titular character, he didn’t call-in his performance but there are issues that hurt the overall product that were out of his control. Overall it’s a nice film, nothing better or worse.

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Thunderball (James Bond #4)

ThunderballThunderball
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Coming off the huge success of Goldfinger, the fourth Bond film had the unenviable task of following it a year later with high expectations.  Based upon the eighth Bond novel by Ian Fleming which was itself a novelization of a unfilmed screenplay, Thunderball was a mixture quality action sequences and slow pacing that created just a bit of a letdown from the franchise’s previous installment.

After killing a high ranking SPECTRE operative, James Bond is recuperating at sanitarium where he unknowingly interactions with SPECTRE agents that are beginning the organization’s latest project of stealing two atomic bombs and ransoming NATO.  After the successful theft of the bombs, Bond is called to London for an emergency 00 conference and after looking at the dossier, convinces M to send him to Nassau.  Soon after his arrival, Bond meets SPECTRE’s Number Two Emilio Largo who masterminded the operation and arouses Bond’s suspicions.  Bond joined by Felix Leiter and MI6 agents in the Bahamas begins searching for the missing NATO plane while also playing a cat-and-mouse game with Largo and various SPECTRE agents.  Upon finding the missing plane and confirming Largo has them, Bond along with U.S. Coast Guard divers battle SPECTRE off the shore of Miami to secure one bomb.  Then infiltrating Largo’s ship, Bond is able to stop the man’s attempt to get away with the last bomb.

While Thunderball was the most financially successful Bond film until Live and Let Die, comparing it to earlier films and looking at it critically there were significant issues that affected the overall presentation.  The first and most importantly was the pacing at the beginning of the film, especially when Bond was in the sanitarium.  The slow beginning could have been tightened in numerous ways while not losing important plot developments.  The second were the numerous underwater sequences, save the battle off Miami, which simply took too much time each without equal story development.  Connery’s performances was once again top notch, Adolfo Celi’s Emilio Largo was an impressive villain, and Luciana Paluzzi’s femme fatale Fiona Volpe were stand out performances throughout the film.  But the highlight and most memorable part of the film was the climatic underwater battle, which was skillfully choreographed.

Thunderball, while not close to mediocre, doesn’t not compare to its predecessor.  While unfortunately dragged down by a slow beginning, the great acting and a fantastic climactic battle makes this a solidly good film.

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Goldfinger (James Bond #3)

GoldfingerGoldfinger
My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Goldfinger, the third film of the Sean Connery era truly changed the James Bond franchise.  Based on the seventh novel by Ian Fleming of the same name, this film built up on the momentum of the previous two and added the final motifs related to the franchise in becoming the quintessential James Bond film.

James Bond begins an investigation of bullion dealer Auric Goldfinger in Miami, at first observing and then upsetting his cheating scheme at a game of gin rummy which has deadly consequences for a recently met love interest.  Back in London, Bond learns that Goldfinger is suspected of smuggling gold internationally and is task to figure out how he does it.  After playing (and defeating) Goldfinger in a game of golf, Bond follows Goldfinger and his henchman Oddjob to Switzerland where he discovers how Goldfinger smuggles his gold as well as a meeting with a Chinese agent.  However, Bond is captured and set up to be cut in half by a industrial laser but saves himself by lying about MI6 knowing about his plan with the Chinese agent.  Goldfinger brings Bond to Kentucky, where on the surface he is setting up an operation to steal all the gold in Fort Knox but in fact it is to make it radioactive by setting off a dirty bomb.  Bond “persuades” Goldfinger’s personal pilot, Pussy Galore, to notify the FBI and Army about the attack and interrupt it through Bond is locked in the vault with the bomb and Oddjob.  Bond is able to electrocute Oddjob then struggled to disarm the bomb only for a nuclear specialist to arrive and turn it off.  The film ends with Bond on a flight to Washington when Goldfinger comes out of the cockpit, but the resulting gun battle sees Goldfinger sucked out of plane due to explosive decompression while Bond and Pussy parachute safety to some secluded woods.

Though my synopsis of the plot is pretty basic, Goldfinger’s was clearly the best of these early Bond films.  With a mix of action, espionage, and various locations, the plot was tight allowing both Connery and Gert Frobe (playing the titular Goldfinger) to deliver great performances with the latter’s becoming the standard future Bond villains would be measured.  This film completed the motifs that would define the franchise: the Bond theme songs introduced over the title sequence began with the classic “Goldfinger” sung by Shirley Bassey, the Bond quote “Shaken, not stirred” was first spoken in this film, and Bond’s heavy reliance on technology.

Goldfinger is considered the classic installment of the franchise, in fact because of its huge success in 1964 that its script would be the template for films to come as well the reliance on technology that would be overused in installments to come.  However, neither of those factors takes away the luster of his film which is always in discussion for the best in the entire franchise even 50+ years later.

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From Russia with Love (James Bond #2)

RussiaFrom Russia with Love
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The tremendous success of Dr. No instantly demanded a follow-up leading to Sean Connery returning as James Bond in From Russia with Love a year later. The film, based on another Ian Fleming novel of the same name, continued to create elements that would define Bond film franchise for the next 50 years.

The criminal organization SPECTRE begins the film looking to get its hand on a Soviet cryptographic device, the Lektor, as well as get revenge on James Bond for his actions in Dr. No. Using the plan created by “Number Five” with personnel selected by “Number Three”, Bond is lured to Istanbul with full knowledge that he’s being set up. Followed by both Bulgarian and SPECTRE agents, Bond meets station chief Ali Kerim Bey before heading to his hotel. Afterwards, the SPECTRE agent Donald Grant kills one of the Bulgarians beginning a blood feud between the British and Soviet agents that Bond and Bey have to deal with before meeting with Tatiana Romanova. With Grant providing unknown aid, Bond and Romanova are able to plan and steal the Lektor then aided by Bey they board the Orient Express in an escape planned by Bey. Grant though kills Bey and a Soviet agent then a British agent in Belgrade taking his identity so as to kill Bond and take the Lektor. However, Bond is able to kill Grant then use the SPECTRE agent’s own escape plan to get Romanova and the Lektor to Venice only to face “Number Three” in one last fight to secure both the Lektor and the girl.

Though quickly written and filmed, the plot of From Russia with Love is actually better than its precursor. Though filled with more action than Dr. No, the story is tight and avoids any serious plot holes allowing Connery to expand his characterization of Bond. The film also showcases one of Bond’s most dangerous antagonists in Donald Grant that is played by the excellently cast Robert Shaw, who is probably best known as Quint in Jaws. As stated above, the film added more motifs to the franchise: a pre-title sequence, the Blofeld character (referred to as “Number One”, a secret-weapon gadget for Bond, a postscript action scene after the main climax, and a theme song with lyrics (though this film’s is at the end instead of the beginning like those going forward).

Given the quick time turnaround from the success of Dr. No to when From Russia with Love was released, it is surprising about how good the film is. Though it’s not perfect, it’s a tighter yet action-packed film that continued the slow build-up of the emerging James Bond film franchise. Whether or not you enjoyed Dr. No, From Russia with Love is a better all-around film.

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Dr. No (James Bond #1)

Dr. NoDr. No
My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

The film that launched the James Bond franchise, Dr. No, not only introduced the world to James Bond but also was the breakout role Sean Connery. Based on the sixth novel by Ian Fleming of the same name, this film created the motifs that would last throughout the franchise.

In brief, the plot of the film follows James Bond as he looks into the disappearance of the MI6 resident in Jamaica and his secretary, who were seen getting murdered at the beginning of the film. Upon his arrival on the island, Bond is followed by several agents of the titular Dr. No and Felix Leiter, a CIA agent working with the missing MI6 agent to investigate mysterious radio interference with NASA rockets. Through various clues, Bond realizes one of the last men to see his missing colleague in the employ of Dr. No and hid the fact that samples the MI6 agent asked for analysis were radioactive. Bond slips onto the Dr. No’s private island and finding Honey Ryder collecting seashells. Captured by the island’s security, Bond and No verbally square off before the Doctor has enough and has Bond put in a cell. Escaping the cell, Bond infiltrates No’s control center that contained a nuclear reactor that he overloads then throws No into the reactor pool. Finding Ryder, Bond escapes the island and is found by Leiter onboard a Royal Navy ship.

The film’s plot is serviceable though nothing spectacular. Yet, what makes the film click and smooth over the rough edges of the plot is Connery. Although today it’s cliché that Connery and Bond are synonymous, but honestly if any other actor were to have been on screen or delivered lines than it just feels that the faults of the plot would have become more glaring. The action sequences and some very good shots, especially in the relation to No’s ‘Three Blind Mice’ assassins in background shots following Bond in several scenes helped give the film some added tension. As I stated several motifs associated with the Bond franchise first appeared, namely the gun barrel opening, the stylized main title sequence, and the Bond’s signature introduction; but luckily the gadget motif that became fantastically elaborate as the franchise progressed was nowhere to be seen.

Honestly, I had a hard time on how to rate this Dr. No. It isn’t perfect and has some plot holes, most importantly how does a nuclear reactor play into radio jamming of rockets, so it would not be a 5-star film but because of its success it spawned a franchise that has spanned 24 films over 55 years it had to be better than 2 ½. And unlike Gojira, there was no nuance that could make up for the film’s faults. So I feel that 3 ½ is a good rating for the first Bond film given it’s imperfects and its influential significance.

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Op-Center (Op-Center #1)

OpCenter1Op-Center by Jeff Rovin
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

A terrorist attack in Seoul raises tensions on Korean peninsula with war looking likely, but a new federal crisis management team is task to figure out who and why before things escalate too far. Op-Center through bearing the name of Tom Clancy, who along with Steve Pieczenik created the story, was ghostwritten by Jeff Rovin about a government agency tasked with handling both domestic and international crisis.

Renegade South Korean soldiers attack an official celebration of the founding of the country implicating the North Koreans. Op-Center director Paul Hood suddenly finds himself appointed head of Task Force by a President looking for a big foreign affairs accomplishment; however evidence and a cyberattack complicate Hood giving the President a clear go ahead to launch a war. On the peninsula, a former Ambassador to the country and his friend in the KCIA take their own individual routes to lessen the growing tensions between the two sides. But the renegade squad is racing towards their next attacks—the North Korean barracks at the DMZ and Tokyo—and the only thing that can stop them is Op-Center’s paramilitary response team, Striker with Hood’s deputy General Mike Rodger along for the action.

Set roughly around the time of book’s publication a little over 20 years ago, the plot reads almost like alternate history today but still holds up fairly well. While the primary plot is very good, the subplots connected with different characters were more of a problem. Hood is torn between crisis in Korea and with this son’s health that makes him look sympathetic while his wife appears too needy given that she knew something like this could happen, Rodgers appears to be in a mid-life crisis wanting to get back to his glory days instead of being at his post, and many of the female Op-Center personal are painted broadly with a brush in various stereotypes that back when I first read the book as a teenager didn’t pop out at me but certainly did now.

While the characterization of many of the principal characters is bland, the plot and the action are very well written making this a quick and fun read for the most part. While at the time Rovin wasn’t given his due as the book’s author, he did a good job in setting up a series that would eventually reach 12. While Op-Center is not the greatest book within the action and thriller genres but those that like those genres will find it a good read.

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