I have heard a few extensive reviews of Star Trek VI in recent times, all of which praising it glowingly with nary a blemish. This is definitely one of the better films of the franchise, and the first Star Trek movie I ever saw, on cable no less. It used to be my favorite, but over time I’ve come to feel as if this film lacks a certain something to get it all the way to greatness. I certainly know what that is, but let’s give you a plot first before I share that with you.
On their way home from their first assignment, the U.S.S. Excelsior, now at the command of Captain Hikaru Sulu (George Takei), monitors a massive explosion on the Klingon moon Praxis, the Empire’s key energy production facility. This incident signals an eventual crippling of the Klingon Empire within fifty years, and thus, motivates a push towards peace between the Federation and the Klingons, championed by Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner). Starfleet orders the U.S.S. Enterprise to escort the Klingon Chancellor to a peace conference on Earth. This does not sit well for Captain Kirk (William Shatner) who is vocally opposed to the idea of peace for many personal reasons, not the least of which being the murder of his son by the Klingons. However, despite his efforts to support the peace initiative, the hope for it is soon crushed when the Chancellor’s ship is fired upon and Gorkon himself is assassinated. A malicious conspiracy becomes evident as all evidence supports that the photon torpedoes and assassins originated from the Enterprise. Meanwhile, Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy are arrested and convicted for the crime, and banished to the frozen penal asteroid of Rura Penthe. Now, the crew of the Enterprise must expose this plot, and rescue their comrades before all hope for peace in the galaxy is destroyed.
Before I actually point out the shortcomings of the film, I think it’s fair to detail a few behind-the-scenes points first. Mainly, this film was rushed, to an extent. Paramount Pictures wanted this out to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Star Trek, and it just made it with a late December, 1991 release. So, the filmmakers didn’t have an abundant freedom of time to really develop this film fully, but this is not some train wreck where you can tell things were slap dashed together. This is quite a well-made and conceived movie. I merely say that if they had the luxury of no forced deadline, perhaps a few of my concerns with the script could have been resolved. They are not glaring issues, but ones that I feel take away from the potential of the movie which require some in-depth analysis.
Let me also say that there is plenty of greatness in this film. The ideas of prejudice and the struggles of overcoming those feelings for the cause of peace are very relevant. This film was made at the time of the fall of Soviet Russia and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. So, our world was going through a change of perspective and socio-political ideals. The Klingons here were essentially Soviet Russia, and Praxis was an obvious allegory for Chernobyl. This was a necessary story to be told considering that the Federation and the Klingon Empire became allies by the time of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I feel this story was handled very well, in general. For both sides, who had gotten used to hating one another, to finally have to reach an accord of peace and allegiance would not be easy at all. Kirk is portrayed excellently in this story with him having to overcome his prejudice from the murder of his son David by Klingon hands and a life full of distrust towards them. He truly goes through an arc that re-instills the outlook of hope and humanity that Star Trek has always strived for.
This film also rebounds amazingly well from the poorly executed and conceived Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The serious tone is brought back with very solid and respectable performances by the entire cast. Every regular cast member is given some forefront time, and I love the exchanges between Spock and McCoy in the climax. Spock asks if McCoy would assist him with surgery on a torpedo, and McCoy responds with, “Fascinating.” It’s a nice sly piece of dialogue that shows the respect and camaraderie between two characters that have not always seen eye-to-eye. It’s also a treat to have seen Sulu be promoted to Captain, and given command of the U.S.S. Excelsior. I like that Scotty gives praise to the ship now because of its captain when he was ragging on it back in The Search For Spock. It’s another subtle show of growth for these characters, and the cast embodies those moments beautifully.
Now, there have been extended cuts of the film released on home video, and each cut of the film has their advantages. The original theatrical version is quickly paced punctuating some dramatic beats a little better, but the extended versions make the film feel a little fuller. The extra scenes don’t amount to too much with characters or plot, but sometimes, it helps to draw sections of a film out for more prolonged build up, such as going into Kirk & McCoy’s trial. The pacing of the film in any incarnation is quite consistent, even if it is rather gradual. What the film really lacks is a sustained sense of urgency. I believe this stems from the fact that no one knows who the villains are until the final thirty minutes or so of the movie. If the villains either don’t have a sustained presence in the film to maintain a threat level, or you don’t have them actually doing anything in opposition to the protagonists, you lose urgency in the plot. The mystery plot isn’t enough without the dramatic pressure of active villainy going on around it.
Since Nicholas Meyer also directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, I feel it’s appropriate to draw a comparison to that film. In Star Trek II, the film was able to establish its villain in Khan and build him up as a substantial threat, and continually cut back to him to keep tension and suspense present throughout most of the movie. As long as Khan was out there plotting his next move, there was a near constant sense of unease and immediacy throughout the film. In Star Trek VI, the villains are completely hidden from us during the vast majority of the runtime. There is surely an adversarial quality to General Chang, but all the way up to and through the trial, he’s never seen acting outside the bounds and expectations of his military position. He’s not an overt villain until he’s revealed to be one until the end of the second act. And while this film has the same general runtime as Wrath of Khan, it feels much slower and thinner. There’s not all that much developing in the plot to build up momentum or create dramatic tension.
Since there is no urgency, there’s also an extreme lack of action and excitement in the film. It would’ve helped to put more dramatic pressure on the crew of the Enterprise to uncover the evidence in their investigation either by way of a time constraint or consequence. While Starfleet keeps demanding they return to Space Dock, it’s really a hollow plot device since there are no consequences or conflict involved with them constantly making up excuses to not return home. It would’ve added a sense of urgency if there was more risk put upon them for disobeying orders, such as in The Search For Spock. Even when the Enterprise infiltrates Klingon space to rescue Kirk and McCoy, there’s no real threat to contend with. Throughout Star Trek, we’ve always seen Klingon ships patrolling the Neutral Zone border, protecting their Empire, but the Enterprise whisks in and only needs to fool some lowly Klingon at a patrol station with clearly the most primitive sensors around since they cannot even identify what ship it is detecting. It doesn’t help that the entire scene is done humorously. If it was handled as a tense and serious situation where they had to evade and strategically slip passed Klingon ships during their rescue mission, it would have, again, created urgency.
Tying into this is the lack of impact with the conspiracy and mystery. Aside from one character who was briefly featured in The Voyage Home, none of the conspirators are anyone of note or poignancy to an audience. They are just one-off characters that either don’t matter or are of no surprise that they are villainous. The mystery of discovering who the assassins are has a strong setup, but eventually falls flat due a lack of tension. The crew knows that treasonous murderers are on board, but no one ever feels a sense of unease aboard the Enterprise. No one worries that two assassins are lurking on their ship capable of further ill-doings. The assassins themselves are also throwaway, nobody characters. Aside from Chang, there’s no real time spent with most of these characters to build them up one way or another to give their role in this conspiracy any weight. In most part, they could have been just about anyone and it wouldn’t have made any difference. It’s surely an aspect of this script that could’ve used a lot more work to integrate some character development and substance into this revelation. I could’ve seen a plot like this working nicely during a season long arc on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine where the writers could take their time to build up numerous characters in twisting arcs, and have a startling reveal later on. In a 110 minute movie where relatively very little time is spent with anyone but the regular cast, it’s not likely to work out very well.
My other main bother with the film is the portrayal of the Klingons. While the very honorable Next Generation Klingons could get tiresome and stereotypical after several years of overly treaded concepts, this film was made right at the strong suit of that portrayal. While it had room for flexibility and expansion, these Klingons, in general, appear to have little substance or texture to invest any interest in. Firstly, their uniforms had long been set in place as very hard and metallic, but here, most of the Klingons are wearing very soft, padded outfits which take away a lot of their visual edge. It’s the only appearance of these outfits that I know of, and it doesn’t suit this aggressive alien race that has always been very vocally opposed to softness and comfort. They are a harsh race never indulging in luxuries, but that ideal is not supported by this costume design. Their attitudes are also watered down somewhat. We already had the cunning and verbose Commander Kruge, the outspoken and aggressive Klingon Ambassador from The Voyage Home, and the rather brash and hard-headed Captain Klaa generally establishing the attitude and personalities of Klingons in this time period. However, The Undiscovered Country simply tones them down far too much for my taste. The bold and intimidating qualities which have made them such a great fan favorite are generally evaporated. The fierce, proud warrior isn’t there. While they are mostly political officers, I would expect more conviction and assertiveness in these portrayals. Furthermore, the Klingon make-up is scaled back severely. At this time, the great Michael Westmore was heading up all of the special make-up effects work and designs on The Next Generation, and the special make-up results here would’ve been far better if the filmmakers had employed his talents. The vast majority of the alien prosthetics lack a sense of fine detail or organic feel to give them a sense of life and texture. The Klingon forehead ridges are all too smooth and toned down. They mostly appear rather obviously fake and rubbery. It further adds to the out of place feel of these Klingons. They simply do not fit into what had come before or after in the chronology of the franchise. At times, they seem like a cheap imitation of a Klingon. Gene Roddenberry himself was displeased that the Klingons came off as generic villains with no exploration of their society or cultural viewpoints, and Leonard Nimoy later agreed with him after the film’s release. I agree with him as well. Time has shown the vast potential of exploration for the Klingon culture, and I think not caring to acknowledge that here results in a very flat and uninteresting presentation of the Klingons, in general.
Now, I do very much like what Christopher Plummer did as General Chang, who is a distinct exception to my Klingon gripes in this film. Right from his first moments, you can tell that he is someone to contend with. He’s a definite skilled warrior with an intimidating quality. He doesn’t give into hostility, instead he projects a patient and cunning demeanor. Plummer works excellently in the trial sequence prosecuting Kirk and McCoy with great zeal. He brings a fine theatrical sensibility to the character which allows him to command many scenes, and truly is the one that makes that trial compelling. However, at no fault of his, but of the screenwriters, is Chang’s painfully excessive quoting of Shakespeare. The bit was good for a little while, but it wears thin very quickly. Eventually, the vast majority of his dialogue is directly quoting lines from Shakespeare plays. I agree with Ira Steven Behr, who recorded a commentary track for the theatrical cut, that it’s simply lazy screenwriting. The screenwriters couldn’t come up with anything original or freshly poignant for the character to say, and so, they just flippantly copy lines verbatim from another literary work. When Khan was quoting literary works in Star Trek II, it did have a thematic purpose. His obsession for vengeance or pain of exile were parallels to Ahab in Moby Dick or Lucifer in Paradise Lost, respectively, and these quotes were used at generally the most purposeful moments. They had weight and meaning behind them for Khan. With Chang, he just spouts these lines out randomly. They hold no thematic weight or meaning at all because he has no thematic purpose in the film. He might as well be quoting anything, or saying nothing at all, because it really makes no difference what he’s saying. This lazy screenwriting becomes very irritating during the film’s climax. Even Dr. McCoy says, “I’d give real money if he’d shut up.”
The film also makes blatant references to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Sherlock Holmes, and the only one I really thought was worthwhile, Peter Pan. It eventually feels like too much referencing of other material instead of the screenwriters strengthening their own original material. Whether they are appropriate references or not, it just feels as if almost every poignant piece of dialogue is lifted from another source, and that reflects a major weakness in the dialogue of the script. Nicholas Meyer can be a great screenwriter and filmmaker, but at times, I feel he doesn’t view Star Trek to be good enough to stand on its own. He has to prop it up by injecting ideas from other sources to make it great. It worked brilliantly in The Wrath of Khan, but it simply does feel like lazy, uninspired writing in The Undiscovered Country.
The great and always respectable David Warner does a fine job as Chancellor Gorkon. Nick Meyer envisioned the character as a meshing of Abraham Lincoln and Mikhail Gorbachev. The Lincoln aspects definitely show through with both the make-up design, and Warner’s regal, wise performance. However, I do believe Gorkon was grossly underused in the film. His goal of peace is the crux of this story, and we are barely given any substantive time with him to grasp his ideals and values. Essentially, all we know is that he wants peace, period. This feels like another mark of an underdeveloped script. Surely, the script had a good, solid foundation, but given some more time to refine and flesh it out, it could’ve had so much more dramatic impact, exciting tension, and a far wider scope. This film feels like it needed a tighter pace and an extra half hour of runtime to fully flesh out and setup all of its ideas, characters, and conflicts for maximum effectiveness.
I certainly don’t want to be misunderstood with my critiques. This is a mostly well-conceived and nicely executed film. Production values are great as is the cinematography. This truly looks and feels like a high grade film with a very polished cinematic style. The acting overall is exceptionally good across the board with the entire regular cast giving it their all. Even Kim Cattrall is very impressive as Valeris utilizing subtly in her performance, and striking a fine chemistry with Nimoy especially. Not to mention, there’s plenty of fun dialogue and moments throughout. The film lightly pokes fun at Kirk with the scenes opposite the shape-shifting Martia on Rura Penthe who continually seduces Kirk’s trust, and the brute of an alien that Kirk fights in the prison. Even Kirk fighting Martia after she takes Kirk’s form harkens back to the original series episode The Enemy Within. There, Kirk was split in two by a transporter accident, and he does battle with himself. These bits pay tribute to classic Trek moments and Kirk traits for this, the twenty-fifth anniversary, without betraying the film’s tone in anyway. Star Trek VI has plenty of character building moments for James T. Kirk as he comes to terms with his prejudice and resistance to peace. Spock gets a few moments of depth and growth, primarily with Valeris and Kirk. The Undiscovered Country has a wealth of great qualities which both vastly succeeded in their potential, but also some that didn’t quite get developed as deeply as they could have been.
The visual effects from Industrial Light & Magic are some of the best of the film franchise. Granted, the floating CGI blood in the zero gravity sequence leaves a little to be desired, but it’s certainly up to the standards of 1991’s other big special effects in Terminator 2. Of course, I believe phaser fire should cauterize a wound, and not allow blood to go gushing out like this is a slasher film. All other effects are superb. The model work on all the ships is amazingly detailed holding up to great scrutiny, and being photographed beautifully. The Praxis shockwave is a stunning feast for the eyes that starts the film off on a powerful note. All the way through, you can see the remarkable quality that ILM was worth, and what Star Trek V was lacking without their talents.
With previous franchise composers James Horner and Jerry Goldsmith both turning down this project for their own vehement reasons, Meyer had to seek out someone new to provide a musical landscape for this darker toned film. Cliff Eidelman delivered something right on the money. It’s certainly not the rousing fanfares of old, but surely appropriate for the heavier subject matter and dangerous implications of the story. He nicely throws in the right lighter cues at the perfect moments. When Kirk and Spock have a discussion just before the third act, Eidelman brings out a poignant, warm feeling in his score. His work complements the film’s various dramatic facets beautifully, and the film concludes with a gorgeous composition that sends the original crew out with class and style.
I find it difficult to express a counter-balance to my criticisms to support my opinion in that this is still a good movie. I will never deny that is, but I think it succeeds only well enough instead of exceeding where it could have. Simply put, what I’m saying about Star Trek VI is that it is a good film that still had plenty of room for improvement. It’s themes are smart and topical for the time, and still have some resonance today. Peace is a difficult thing to strive for, and some people are more comfortable with continuing to be at war with a lifelong enemy than try to learn to co-exist with them in peace. These are ideals that primarily Kirk has to deal with and overcome, and that is the best handled thing about this entire movie. While there has been a lot of criticism in this review, it’s simply to point out that many of the good aspects of this movie could have been great, if given more time to fully develop them at the script level. As I said, I have felt as if there was something lacking in this movie, and in short, that something was a lack of tension and urgency in the plot as well as a need for more substance added into many of the newly introduced characters. It has great, strong subject matter which felt like a necessary story to be told in the annals of Star Trek, but for as much as you can read into them, there’s just as much that didn’t end up on the page or the screen to flesh out those details. This is a movie I still like very much, and I think it is a respectable send-off for the original cast of Star Trek. I give it a very strong recommendation. Again, being that it was the first Trek film I ever saw, I think this is one that could draw you into the franchise, and show you it does have substance and relevance to offer.
First off, I do not hate this movie. There are things I like about it, I find some parts funny, but there are obviously bad aspects to it. However, I’ve always found something enjoyable about it even if it is a mess of a movie. As anyone who has regularly read my reviews knows very well about the summer of 1989, where movies were concerned. It was massively huge with numerous blockbuster contenders hitting almost every week, but Star Trek V, despite being projected to do very well, really took a nose dive at the box office. It was one of the bigger disappointments of that summer in relation to its projected success. The main reason for its failure? The ego of William Shatner, who was the film’s star, writer, and director, who took on a project he didn’t have the skill to deliver based on the studio’s restrictions and his own misconceived vision. Even Gene Roddenberry went on record calling the film “apocryphal,” and most simply regard it as if it never happened. There are undeniable reasons for that, but I seem to be one of the very few that gains some entertainment value from this movie.
On Nimbus III, the Planet of Galactic Peace, a renegade Vulcan named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) has taken three ambassadors hostage with a radical plan. Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and the crew of the newly christened U.S.S. Enterprise-A, which has ship-wide malfunctions, are recalled from shore leave for a rescue mission to the planet, but the distress call attracts the attention of a Klingon Captain intent on making a name for himself by engaging a Starfleet vessel in combat. The rescue mission goes awry when it is revealed that Sybok has used a unique telepathic ability to draw the hostages under his sway. Matters are further complicated when Spock (Leonard Nimoy) reveals that Sybok is his half-brother, also a son of Sarek. Sybok and his followers thus seize control of the Enterprise to fulfill his lifelong search for the fabled planet of Sha-Ka-Ree where he believes all life began, and that God himself waits for them. Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy struggle to regain command of the Enterprise from this apparent madman before they reach the supposedly impenetrable Great Barrier at the center of the galaxy. However, what awaits them on the other side is not what any of them expected.
This definitely had a peculiar behind the scenes scenario for such a problematic film. Star Trek V had the second largest budget of the franchise up to that point, and so, it wasn’t a matter of a lack of money for director William Shatner to achieve his vision. Instead, it seems to come down to both a mishandling of the budget as well as terrible timing all around. Industrial Light & Magic was responsible for the visual effects work on the films since The Wrath of Khan, but when this film went into production, ILM was hard at work on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Constraints of time and money meant the filmmakers of Star Trek V couldn’t wait for them to be available, nor could they contend with what Spielberg and Lucasfilm were paying ILM to secure their expert services. It’s also slightly ironic since both films were distributed by Paramount Pictures, and released within about two weeks of one another. So, Shatner and Paramount had to go with a lesser effects company, and the lower grade results are obvious. They simply do not measure up to the dynamic and gloriously cinematic quality of ILM, and this further impacts the overall level of quality of the movie. Shatner had wild ideas for this film that were axed either in scripting by the studio, or simply because they could not be achieved with the resources he had. Apparently, none of these ideas were anything better than what did make it into the film, and in most cases, were far, far worse. The biggest of which was instead of encountering an evil entity claiming to be God, they would literally meet God himself, and do battle with the real Devil. As bad as you thought it was, it was intended to be terribly worse.
This film is indeed bad with foolish concepts that shouldn’t exist in a Star Trek story, and has some terrible comedy. It also portrays much of the regular cast in a very uncharacteristic fashion. With the loyalty they’ve shown, especially in The Search For Spock, it is difficult to accept that they would so easily turn against Kirk in favor of Sybok’s telepathic therapy. So, why do I enjoy this film at all? Camp value. I do find some of the comedy funny in a very ridiculous and cheap way. Yes, it is badly written low brow, broad comedy, and it is surely not the context I would want the crew ever depicted in again. Yet, when I take the film as a lower grade feature, I can just indulge in the camp value of it all. I find myself quoting lines from this probably more than any other Trek film. Where the humor of The Voyage Home was very situational stemming from the “fish out of water” context of the film, here, it is just out of place, awkward, and silly. While I do enjoy it, I can still look at it objectively and critically. Simply put, William Shatner did not demonstrate good screenwriting abilities on this film. I will grant that it is very incompatible to have comedy of this sort in a film about finding God. Shatner tries to balance broad comedy and serious drama, but that is just not a combination that mixes.
However, while the film is wrought with out of place humor and silliness, there are some excellent dramatic and character moments found throughout. I like Kirk, Bones, and Spock sitting around the campfire talking about how Kirk knows that as long as he has his friends around, he knows he won’t die. They have saved each other’s lives so many times that this does resonate for me, and is quite a good moment of depth and insight into James Kirk. He says he’ll die alone, and that was something that always stuck with me. Thus, making his ultimate demise in Star Trek: Generations even more of an insult. The scenes between Spock and Sybok have some fine dramatic substance as their shared history is played out. And undeniably, the scene where Sybok has McCoy relive the death of his father is the most powerful scene of the film, and possibly DeForest Kelley’s most profound acting in all his tenure as Leonard McCoy. In these moments, Shatner, as director, does get the dramatic side of the film down nicely, and is definitely helped by very strong acting talents. Still, they are not enough to raise the film up to respectable standards since there is so much low grade junk weighing it down. They are mere glimpses of a stronger and more tonally consistent film that could have been, if handled by better talented filmmakers. I may enjoy the film, but certainly, I will never deny that it is filled with a lot of crap.
Case in point is that what thin semblance of a plot there is doesn’t make much sense. It’s hard to fathom why Sybok would choose such a worthless rock of a planet like Nimbus III, a failed public relations stunt of peace, to launch his quest from. Obviously, he had a starship transport him to the planet in the first place, and so, he had the means to secure interplanetary travel at some point. There was no express need for him to travel to Nimbus III just to hijack a ship. I mean, there are far easier ways of obtaining a starship than taking ambassadorial hostages on a desolate planet no one gives a crap about. Thus, all Sybok really needs from this planet are followers to bear witness to his quest, and he chooses the dregs of the galaxy. This doesn’t seem like the most efficient or credible plan to me. Beyond that, the most that is going on is Kirk, Spock, and McCoy trying to take back control of the ship, but by the time they have the chance, Sybok’s already arrived at his destination. From there, it’s just a matter of exploration and survival. The entire subplot of the Klingon Bird of Prey hunting the Enterprise is more of a minor action plot device, and doesn’t feed into anything substantive. The themes of religion and finding God also aren’t really explored by any of the characters, except for Sybok, and he does tend to come off like a fanatic or cult leader. That is entirely intentional, but it also diffuses the poignancy of the topic. No one takes the issue seriously because he is viewed as a delusional person who is risking lives for his own fanatical validation. More time is spent on discussing who Sybok is, and the power that he possesses than his belief in finding God at the center of the galaxy.
I also have to criticize the idea that the Great Barrier has been perceived as impenetrable. The key idea is perception. I can’t wrap my head around how everyone is dead-on certain that no ship can survive entering the Barrier when no ship has ever tried, nor have they acquired any data on it to support such a claim. All they know is that no probe has ever returned, which hasn’t stopped starship captains from entering into the unknown before or since. Everyone considers it dangerous, tantamount to madness and suicide to try, yet the Enterprise and the Klingon Bird of Prey traverse it without even the slightest problem. Even taking the film by its own warped logic, if passage through the Barrier is merely a matter of belief that it is an illusion, that still doesn’t explain how the Bird of Prey was able to make it through. If the ships had to survive some danger to pass through that ominous barrier, then I could say that these fears were justified. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The idea simply doesn’t hold any credibility.
Furthermore, the physics of space travel are completely screwed over as it would take decades for the Enterprise to reach the center of the galaxy even at top warp speeds. Of course, the most lauded criticism of the film is why would Starfleet send Captain Kirk out on an important hostage rescue mission in a ship that is falling apart. Starfleet does say there are other ships in range of Nimbus III, but no experienced commanders. So, it wouldn’t be difficult to put Kirk and his crew on one of those vessels for a temporary assignment. It also doesn’t make sense that the fleet would build a brand new Constitution class starship when two films ago, which in the chronology of Star Trek was maybe a couple months ago, the original Enterprise was essentially called old and obsolete with no plans to refit it for continued service. The original intention was that the Enterprise-A was rechristened as such from the U.S.S. Yorktown, but this film screws that idea over completely. The idea of the Enterprise-A being a shambles is simply to remove the convenience of using the transporter to rescue the hostages, or allow for an easy escape for our heroes when the evil entity turns on them. Still, you can have the transporters be inoperable without the entire ship being a disaster. Of course, it’s also there for more moments of humor when turbolift doors won’t open, or the Captain’s electronic log book, which is independent of the ship’s systems, goes kaput. The U.S.S. Enterprise presented here is as much of a mess as the film itself.
Now, there is foolishness and stupidity abound in this film that really cannot be taken seriously because it hardly takes itself seriously. I’ve barely gotten started on the criticisms this film deserves. I could go on and on about the inanities and stuff that doesn’t make sense, and normally, I would keep going for quite a while to really scrutinize it all. However, this has already been detailed by SFDebris in his Opinionated Trek Movie Guide videos. I almost didn’t go forward with this review for fear that most of what I would say would just be a retread of his review. He essentially covered it all in excellent fashion. However, what pushed me forward with this was sharing what I do enjoy about the film, despite its flaws. I can enjoy the badly conceived and poorly executed aspects of the film while still finding genuine merit in a few areas. What originally motivated me towards doing a review at all was giving credit to one aspect of the movie that I have never heard anyone offer before. That is the performance of Laurence Luckinbill as Sybok.
The filmmakers originally wanted Sean Connery for this role, but again, due to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, they had to look elsewhere. However, unlike the visual effects, they did not end up with a low grade result. Luckinbill instills great passion and theatrical zeal into the role. He is very charismatic, making Sybok a personality to contend with. He’s not out to destroy or seek vengeance upon anyone. Instead, his threat is based in his radical ideology, and that required someone not intimidating but vibrant and intelligent. He didn’t need to be cunning and lethal like Khan, but a man who views himself as enlightened but is perceived as a con man, similar to the televangelists that inspired the character. Yet, Luckinbill makes the character interesting and compelling as well as sympathetic by the end. When Sybok realizes the error of his ways, he takes responsibility for his arrogance and ego, which creates a great character arc. I think Sybok has a good ending which redeems his character, but unfortunately, its poignancy is overshadowed by the remainder of the climax with Kirk seeking to escape the evil entity. Luckinbill created a fascinating character through his performance that I actually would’ve loved to have seen more of. I think exploring Sybok in more depth would be a great thing in this actor’s talented hands. If placed in a better film, I think both Laurence Luckinbill’s performance and Sybok himself would have gained more praise, but far too often, a marvelous performance is overlooked due to the quality of the film it appears in. Luckinbill carried a lot of weight on his shoulders with this movie, and I think he carried it with more ease, grace, and integrity than anyone else in the film. While the script written around Sybok is certainly not the smartest or most logical, the character himself is given a credible life by this actor, and I think he deserves a lot of overdue praise for what he did.
The other performances are especially mixed. Even with much of the humorous content, I do feel that Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelly do a very solid job, maintaining far more integrity than the script would suggest they could. Much of why the humor amongst them and Shatner works any bit as good as it does is because of their long standing chemistry. They’ve always worked beautifully together, and that goes a long way in this turbulent film. James Doohan is certainly entertaining handling the cheap humor pretty decently, and just being his charming Montgomery Scott self. I do genuinely laugh at his comedy moments. However, the rest of the main cast doesn’t have as much to work with, either good or bad, and thus, doesn’t offer much for me to comment on. Cynthia Gouw, however, puts in an entirely disingenuine performance as the Romulan Ambassador. Her line deliveries lack any substance, and she comes off like a hollow shell of a person with her light airy voice and naïve smile. There is no acting ability in what she does. She just smiles and looks pretty for the camera, which makes it no wonder that she was a model before attempting to be an actress. The usually great David Warner is criminally wasted in the role of St. John Talbot, the Federation Ambassador on Nimbus III. There is nothing in the role for him that is worthwhile. The only fortunate result from this is that this introduction into Star Trek allowed for him to take on two far more impressive roles in Star Trek VI and an excellent and powerful two-part episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Beyond this point in this cast, it just becomes far too one dimensional to even bother mentioning. Captain Klaa fits solidly into a Klingon stereotype, but he is nothing more than that. He’s just on a shallow quest for glory.
Now, yes, I must address William Shatner as an actor here. There is an obvious ego trip going on in front of and behind the camera. This doesn’t necessarily lead to a bad performance from him, but you can definitely see how the film is designed to raise James T. Kirk up while pushing everyone else down. Shatner is entirely capable of delivering great performances, but it does take the right director to know how to wear Shatner down to get it out of him. Nicholas Meyer, director the second and sixth Star Trek movies, says on one of his commentary tracks that he had to run many takes with Shatner to get the right one. This was, as he said, because Shatner would start out trying to act like a big star in the spotlight, but as the takes went on, he’d get more worn down by the process and then give the more natural and real performance. That’s where Meyer would find the gold, and I imagine Leonard Nimoy had a similar process on the previous two Trek movies. When Shatner is directing himself, it’s inevitable that more of that big star ego will show through, but there are several moments of solid dramatic acting from him. It’s not a terrible performance at all, but it could’ve used more wrangling in, more molding to shape it properly. Regardless of the acting, there is just no denying how overly focused this film is on Kirk. Shatner takes every opportunity that he was allowed to separate Kirk in any way from the rest of his crew. Either by them betraying him, or simply being at odds with Spock or McCoy, Shatner wanted Kirk to fight this all on his own, but that simply is uncharacteristic of especially those two to abandon Kirk at all. Whatever logic he had to break, or characterizations he had to betray, Shatner was going to focus that spotlight on himself as much as possible. Thus, that is the film’s crucial failing.
Now, I never realized this myself, but a friend of mine pointed out that Star Trek V is actually the film that’s actually the most like the television series. The lower grade effects, the slight corniness, and the use of the rocky California desert as some generic alien planet are purely straight from the original television series. The storyline has the feel of something from the original series as well, in concept, anyway. Encountering strange larger than life entities like in The Squire of Gothos or The Doomsday Machine, passing through cosmic barriers like Where No Man Has Gone Before, and the Kirk action sequence along a rocky landscape like in Arena all tie the movie strongly to the roots of the television series. Granted, the writing of this film is a long way off from the best standards of the series.
The last thing to really give note of is composer Jerry Goldsmith’s return to the franchise here, and he brings all his original themes back with him. The great opening fanfare, which had become the theme for The Next Generation by now, and the excellent Klingon theme return in great fashion. It’s a very good score that is quite to my general liking, but Goldsmith just had terrible luck by being saddled with the two most critically bashed films of the series so far (the other being Star Trek: The Motion Picture). He wouldn’t return to Trek again until First Contact due to the critical and commercial failure of this movie.
Despite my own personal enjoyment of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, I cannot defend it as a whole. There are admirable parts to it, but they are grossly overwhelmed by all the negative qualities present. I happen to enjoy this on a campy, bad movie level, but there is hardly anyway I forge a set of conditions under which I could generally recommend it. You’re either going to like the movie for the low grade work that it is, or you’re going to hate it, passionately. There were plenty of problems surrounding the development and execution of this film, but they do not excuse much at all of the end result. William Shatner believed he could make this movie work with his objectionable story, and the studio mandates of making another “fun” movie like The Voyage Home. He failed miserably, and this nearly killed the film franchise entirely. A better director never would’ve touched this film with Shatner’s script, and a better screenwriter would’ve scoffed at the film’s concept. I can certainly see why people revile this movie so much, but for me, there are far worse Star Trek films in existence than this one. However, others have thoroughly scrutinized those movies in far more depth than I can get to, and I have nothing new to say about any of them. That doesn’t mean I don’t have some critical statements to make about one of the more highly regarded films in the franchise, though.
Coming three years after the disaster that was Highlander 2: The Quickening, this sequel absolutely plays it safe. It also demonstrates a lack of ambition or originality in how much it directly borrows from the first movie without even disguising it. The highly successful television series starring Adrian Paul as Duncan MacLeod was already on the air, but the producers of the franchise decided to give Connor MacLeod another theatrical outing. It surely doesn’t measure up to the first film, as it is a formulaic sequel, but it is an enjoyable film that did have some good potential.
In 16th century Japan, immortal Scotsman Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) is mentored by the sorcerer and master of illusion Nakano (Mako). However, when an evil, ravaging immortal named Kane (Mario Van Peebles) raids a nearby village, and comes looking for the sorcerer, the ensuing quickening from Nakano’s death seals Kane and his minions in the mountain cave for the next four centuries. In present day, an excavation is underway to determine the truth of the legend of Nakano, headed up by archaeologist Alexandra Johnson (Deborah Unger). However, this excavation aids Kane in his escape from the cave, and immediately begins his search for MacLeod. Since his defeat of the Kurgan, Connor has adopted a son, but also, lost his wife Brenda to a car accident which he survived without a scratch. He’s known he was not the last immortal, and now, he knows that it is Kane who still lives. Both Connor MacLeod and Kane travel to New York, the site of the Gathering, to do battle and claim The Prize once and for all.
This story is fairly good, but would even be rather average for the television series. It’s nothing exceptional or stunning. It’s not trying to do anything original or break new ground for the franchise, and it knows it. It’s more playing around in the world of Highlander, having a little bit of fun, but not trying to build upon anything. As with the previous sequel, gone is the sense of magic and mystery. Connor MacLeod is still portrayed well by Christopher Lambert, still injecting some charm and confidence into the role. However, it really is that sense of world weariness that made him captivating to begin with. You could feel the weight and aura of centuries lived in Lambert’s performance. It gave the character depth and texture. Here, all that is absent, and instead, we get a much more standard protagonist who is enjoyable, yet lacks gravitas to really draw in an audience. The thing is with this movie is that it feels like a second rate version of Highlander, but in the least, it never takes itself too seriously for too long. This is mainly by way of the character of Kane.
Mario Van Peebles is an excellent talent in front of and behind the camera, and I know this is not representative of his highest acting qualities. There are both positives and negatives to say about his performance as Kane. How you take his performance is based on how you want to perceive the movie. In general, he’s basically a carbon copy of the Kurgan only not written as well, and portrayed with an especially over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek mentality. Van Peebles even puts on a very gravely Kurgan-esque voice as Kane, which bares next to no resemblance to his natural voice. As Kane, he certainly has formidable moments where we see how lethal and vile Kane truly is, solidifying his weight and threat as a villain. However, Van Peebles is entirely indulging himself in this role, and if you choose to view the film as a fun, lightweight flick, you can certainly find enjoyment from this performance. Mario Van Peebles is clearly enjoying living in the skin of this villain with his performance bordering on campy. He’s certainly a long way off from chewing as much scenery as Bruce Payne did in Highlander: Endgame, though. Still, Kane is written with some rather unrealistic dialogue. For a guy that’s been buried in a cave for the last four hundred years, he certainly has picked up late twentieth century slang quite swiftly in addition to learning how to drive a car. Throughout the film, even in the sixteenth century scenes, he entirely comes off like a modern villain instead of one displaced in time and culture.
Also, while the design of Kane is pretty awesome with the long hair, goatee, and tattoos, I think the nipple rings are just a tad too much. They are on both his armor and himself, and just make Kane more modern looking than he should be. Thankfully, we’re not exposed to them long as Kane adopts some very good looking Asian style threads. It again comes off as an attempt to emulate the style of the Kurgan, but with a 90s flavor. I really do believe Kane could’ve been taken in a much more credible direction, and made for a slightly more original and straightly serious villain. Instead, the filmmakers chose the route of levity. Still, there are other issues which hold the film down from being as good as it could have been.
Regardless, whether you call this The Final Dimension or The Sorcerer, this does feel more like the kind of sequel one would expect. It follows up on the police investigation threads from the first movie, and uses footage and dialogue from the original to further the story and character points forward. It might seem a little frivolous at times, but I don’t have much of a gripe with it. I like how this was done in Endgame as well. However, there is flashing back to the first movie for context, and then, there’s badly copying scenes from that same movie.
Such is the case when Kane goes on a psychotic joy ride with Connor’s adopted son. It’s a real poor excuse considering none of the danger is actually real, just an illusion generated by Kane. It’s a pathetic and blatant attempt to recapture something awesome from the first film while doing it with only a fraction of the talent. Even if done nearly as well, it would still be lame because it’s a retread instead of trying to do something original. Even kidnapping a loved one of Connor’s to force a final confrontation also emulates what the Kurgan did in the first movie. It is stuff like this which make this movie a pale imitation of the original Highlander.
I will give credit to the aspect of the police investigation. Lieutenant John Stenn remembers the original string of beheadings, and who the sole suspect was at the time. With MacLeod back in town with a new beheading, he immediately puts it all back together. It is a part of this story that makes the film feel like a continuation of the first, and I do feel it was well done. Stenn has an understandable contempt for MacLeod, and is quite dogged about his investigation. It is a pretty good performance by actor Martin Neufeld.
Deborah Unger is very good in her dual roles. However, I do find the entire aspect of Alex bearing a dead-on resemblance to a centuries past lost love of Connor’s to be unnecessary and a little forced. The romantic relationship between Alex and Connor could’ve easily worked without that odd connection, and possibly could’ve had more time to develop without those flashbacks. I think this idea was only there so that the filmmakers could have occasional flashback sequences to better resemble the style of the original movie. It’s not badly handled, but it does feel like a diversion from the actual relevant aspects of the plot.
Regardless, Unger does a very fine job as the film’s female lead. Her performance is very grounded showing a fine range of levity, passion, and dramatic weight. She carries herself very solidly, and works very well opposite Lambert. Also, Deborah Unger is probably the sexiest, most sultry looking woman of the Highlander films. She even insisted on not using a body double for the fully nude and steamy sex scene late in the film. While the romantic storyline between Connor and Alex doesn’t develop as strongly as other Highlander loves have, it is serviceable, and nicely played by both actors.
I will also hand it to this film’s cinematographer. This is a very well shot and well lit movie. The bowels of the hospital where Connor encounters Kane’s henchman has some gorgeous blues and oranges creating a beautiful atmosphere. Overall, we get some very cinematic camera angles and movement with stellar work when it comes to the action sequences and sword fights. While the film lacks the epic grandeur and sweeping visual quality that was a given with Russell Mulcahy, I will give it credit for looking quite a bit better than your usual 1990s fare from Dimension Films. This can possibly be credited to director Andy Morahan being primarily a music video director, same as where Mulcahy started out. He knows how to capture great visuals, and that is in no dispute here. Although, it seems Morahan never broke out from music videos. This was his first feature film, and he’s not done much of anything else outside of music videos ever since. He directs this film pretty well, handling the action, drama, and levity of it very evenly. It certainly isn’t an example of a breakout directorial debut, but there have been far worse action filmmakers out there who have had bigger careers making lower quality films. So, I will say that this is a decent first outing for Morahan.
As far as action goes, I actually think the film’s best sword fight is not the climax, but when Connor and Kane fight inside the former Buddhist temple. It’s a very dynamic fight with some great physical and dialogue exchanges. With the duel being on Holy Ground, it ends in a very startling way as the blades of Connor and Kane’s swords shatter. It shows one ominous way such betrayals of the rules are dealt with. The final climactic duel is a well executed sequence with great cinematography and good effects. It is very physically intense. However, it has one stinging point I will get to momentarily.
The orchestral score by J. Peter Robinson is very good. I particularly enjoyed the Japanese and Middle Eastern flourishes at the appropriate moments creating a unique musical atmosphere. The score is very thrilling and vibrant with a plenty of character. What I have a problem with is the clunky use of second rate hard rock songs in this film. With the original movie, Queen naturally brought an epic and emotionally rich depth to the film with their songs alongside Michael Kamen’s gorgeous score. Highlander 2 essentially focused only on Stewart Copeland’s grand, operatic score. With this film, these rock songs are just bad and obnoxious, and don’t complement Robinson’s score at all. The worst part comes in the climactic battle between Kane and MacLeod. Someone recorded a blatant knock-off of Mötley Crüe’s “Dr. Feelgood,” and it terribly degrades the entire climax. I’m sure Robinson could’ve composed something beautifully dramatic and triumphant instead of that schlock. Where the filmmakers get it right with the licensed music is with Loreena McKennitt’s version of “Bonny Portmore.” This is a gorgeous and deeply emotional song which would become a staple of the franchise from here on out. I really adore its beauty.
On the up side, the visual effects are very good. During the 90s, movie goers were treated to a lot of primitive CGI, but this movie really gives us some good quality effects. The illusions of Nakano and Kane are given a great, magical look that flow very smoothly with the on-screen action. There’s nary a bad effect anywhere in the film, save for the quickening flashing across the Moroccan desert sky. Otherwise, this really is some beautiful work.
Although, I think the filmmakers kind of took a wide liberty with the term “illusion.” An illusion shouldn’t allow Kane to transform into a bird and fly away. Even the ability to create solid objects from either Kane or Nakano is arguable as an illusion. They should’ve just came out and said it was straight up magic. Although, I know even that gets into a muddled area in that, if it is full-on magic, why would it be that either man can do only so little with the power. Nether of them is exactly Merlin casting spells and unleashing epic, fantastical wizardry. So, it’s a real strange line to walk, and is probably best not to scrutinize it. Still, this is a review, and that’s what I’m meant to do.
I think what this film lacks the most is depth. Emotions don’t run very deep, and we don’t really get much under the skin of these characters. Again, Connor doesn’t feel like the same textured and fascinating character we had from the first Highlander. I hate to continually make comparisons back to the first movie, but this film begs so much comparison that it is impossible to avoid it. Nakano is a decent character, but has really no depth of any kind to offer. The late Mako was very beloved in certain fandoms, but I don’t find his performance here very inspiring. Whether or not you compared him to Sean Connery’s Ramirez, he is quite forgettable. The film does have its moments of touching beauty and decent depth, but it does entirely feel like the filmmakers playing it safe. They are not trying to dig into the soul of their characters, and that’s really a major mistake. Case in point would be the French Revolution flashbacks would have worked so much better if there was more substance to grasp onto. We get only glimpses of Connor and Sarah being in love. It’s very weakly presented, and since it bares no relevance or impact upon the main plot with Connor and Kane, the filmmakers don’t spend great amounts of time on it. I’m certainly not saying this is a terrible script, just a mediocre one that could’ve had better potential in more talented and motivated hands. It worked for a fun action adventure film, but against the brilliant standards set with the original movie, it’s undoubtedly mediocre.
I had intended to offer some comparison between the director’s cut and the European cut of the film, but any differences are very minor. The director’s cut adds in some more effects shots to enhance Kane’s sorcery, most notably with his arrival in New York being via a portal instead of just walking out on the docks as if he traveled by ship. At the end, the European version excises the reuse of effects shots from Connor winning The Prize in the first Highlander that were present in both the theatrical and director’s cuts. Sadly, the only change in the soundtrack comes at the end credits where the director’s cut has another bad hard rock track while the European cut features “Bonny Portmore” once again. Both cuts are available on Region 1 DVD. The original 1998 DVD has the true director’s cut, but the 2005 and 2011 DVDs, which claim to also be the “Special Director’s Cut,” are actually the European version only with the opening title card changed from Highlander III: The Sorcerer to Highlander: The Final Dimension. I would lean towards buying the newer DVD since the film is given the anamorphic widescreen treatment resulting in vastly superior picture quality. The image is clearer and colors are much more vibrant. So, I am glad to have purchased it, regardless of there being no dramatic differences in the content of the film.
Ultimately, Highlander III is that sequel in the franchise that doesn’t get much attention. The others have very notable issues that are hotly contested amongst fans, but this one keeps a low profile despite also having its fair share of mild problems. While it surely doesn’t re-ignite the magic that the original movie captured, it’s a fun, disposable film that has its merits, but ultimately, can be forgotten about without a problem. As is the difficulty in making a sequel to the original, where it ended definitively, the filmmakers had to indulge in a cheap end-runaround to make a sequel where there are still immortals out there. Again, if you’re looking just for a fun movie that’s not going to take itself too seriously, then you can enjoy this movie. I do find it entertaining but lacking in substance. In my opinion, it’s a step in a better direction than Highlander 2: The Quickening, but not as good as what was being done on the television series at the time.
Now that all the horror and James Bond movies are behind me, I will be returning to a much more leisurely schedule for reviews. Forever Horror Month was a very rigorous output of content that I will not be repeating with posting one review per day. There will be another Forever Horror Month next October, but it will be a much smaller undertaking. It was fun sharing all of these horror films with everyone, but I did fall behind schedule due to several factors resulting in a difficult final week. Yet, I was determined to make good on my word in completing the month. So, I am proud to have pushed forward all the way through to the end with a total of 41 reviews published in 31 days.
I do have a few reviews planned for the next month or so. There has been a very analytical review of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country in progress since mid-September, and I intend to have that completed by month’s end. I might do another Star Trek movie review depending on time and sustained interest in writing it. If it happens, it will be posted ahead of The Undiscovered Country review. I also have the urge to watch and write reviews of some more Highlander movies. I have just ordered an alternate cut of Highlander: The Final Dimension on DVD for an impending review. I have the original 1998 U.S. DVD featuring the actual director’s cut, but the 2005 and 2011 DVD releases have the European cut of the film. So, I want to include some comparison in the review since I believe there are good and bad differences in both from what I have read.
Beyond all of that, I do still want to have reviews of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi up before the year is out. If they do come within that time, they are certainly going to be happening in December. And yes, I am very aware of the entire Disney purchase of Lucasfilm Limited, but until I know how Disney will handle the property of Star Wars, I have no opinion to pass upon it or the impending new trilogy of Episodes VII, VIII, & IX. I’ll just wait and see. It should be an interesting ride as they develop, regardless.
Lastly, you may have noticed some changes since November 1st. This is because I decided to make Forever Cinematic an official product of RavensFilm Productions. Since I put so much time and passion into this blog, I felt it was a logical choice to meld them together. Nothing has changed beyond the slight cosmetics, but you can now see the Twitter feed for RavensFilm to the right under the Forever Cinematic Facebook feed. I also expanded the social media sharing options for the blog posts. I will be refining other minor aspects of Forever Cinematic over the coming weeks.
Usually, these introductions are the first thing I write in these reviews, but this time, I had to write the whole thing before collecting my thoughts for this. I will say that Casino Royale is my favorite James Bond movie to date, and this film did not change that. The previous Bond film, Quantum of Solace, has been admitted by the handlers of the franchise to be a real misstep that they intended to rectify with this film. Unfortunately, I do have some points of criticism to levy against Skyfall from a first act that did not grab me to some tonal issues to a prominent character plot point that oddly disappears. However, overall, the film is masterfully executed with a very strong and deeply personal story with one of the best Bond villains I’ve ever seen. So, get ready for one of my infamously long in-depth reviews. There’s a lot to talk about on both the positive and critical side of things.
007 (Daniel Craig) becomes M’s only ally as MI6 comes under attack, and a mysterious new villain emerges with a diabolical plan. James Bond’s latest mission has gone horribly awry, resulting in the exposure of several undercover agents, and an all-out attack on M16. Meanwhile, as M (Judi Dench) plans to relocate the agency, emerging Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) raises concerns about her competence while attempting to usurp her position, and Q (Ben Whishaw) becomes a crucial ally. Now, the only person who can restore M’s reputation is 007. Operating in the dark with only field agent Eve (Naomie Harris) to guide him, the world’s top secret agent works to root out an enigmatic criminal mastermind and cyber-terrorist named Silva (Javier Bardem) as a major storm brews on the horizon.
Okay, I do have to start out with how the film had me doubting it first before I get into how it grabbed me. While the pre-credits sequence has some nice bits, it ultimately left me unsatisfied as it featured next to nothing innovative or rousing that wasn’t spoiled in the trailers. It has plenty of action, but it just didn’t have a high level of tension or dire circumstances for it to really do much for me. Of course, things could have turned around if the film had a very inspiring theme song or amazing title sequence. I have to admit that I just cannot stand the music of Adele. It bores me and grates on my nerves. The only reason I’ve heard her music is because it’s part of the mind searing music that plays incessantly at my place of employment. Her title song for Skyfall could’ve put me to sleep. It’s a dull thud of a song that offers no vibrancy, beauty, or diversity. To my ears, it was monotone droning like she didn’t care, and neither did I. The title sequence itself did nothing for me. It seemed like an over thought menagerie of random images that had little to no coherence or context. The digital animation wasn’t very good either. After you’ve seen the whole film, some of the visuals make sense, but I think the visual tone was drastically off with no clear, direct focus. I’d sooner take a generic or bland opening title sequence like The Living Daylights or Licence to Kill than one that just gets it all wrong.
From there, the film took a while to energize its plot. MI6 gets blown up, M is facing bureaucratic pressure from her failures, and Bond comes back worse for wear. These are surely steps the film needed to take, but it didn’t build momentum. What finally jump started the film for me was the Shanghai sequence. Personally, this is the most gorgeous part of the whole film. Bond stalks Patrice, the man he was chasing at the start of the film, and it is inside a skyscraper which is all lit, at night, by brilliant neon glows reflected in an environment of pure glass. It’s the most neo noir sequence I’ve seen since Blade Runner, and that is exactly the sort of visual style that excites me. These visuals set a very captivating, dark, and subversive atmosphere. The ensuing fight between Bond and the assassin Patrice is excellent. Glass cracking and shattering all around them created a fantastic visual feast that ends on a very precarious, intriguing, and deadly note. This beautiful cinematography carries over when Bond travels to Macau to further his investigation with a more Asian aesthetic and golden light saturating every frame.
This beauty and so much more is due to the work of acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins. Alongside director Sam Mendes, he creates a picture with amazing visuals and a very strong, personal scope. The film does look absolutely stunning with beautiful and powerful compositions, highlighting the dramatic weight and action perfectly. This is a strong turnaround from the bad shaky cam and quick editing incompetence of Quantum of Solace. Here, the action is handled with more than competence. It is handled intelligently never resorting to cheap tricks to make them intense or dangerous. While some of the desaturated visuals aren’t really stimulating for me, they are dead-on reflections of the bleak and dire tone for this story. Shots displaying the wide open, cold terrain of Scotland are gorgeous and display plenty of depth. For me, the visuals really do excel in the darker settings where light and shadow are used to gloriously beautiful effect. Overall, Deakins continues to solidify his artistic reputation with the immaculate quality of this picture. What’s most startling is that not one frame of film was used to shoot this movie. Deakins shot is all digitally, and I challenge anyone to tell the difference between this and a high quality film presentation. Not once did this strike me as a digitally shot movie, but in retrospect, the bold clarity, especially in those dark environments, could only be produced via a digital format.
Skyfall does go darker and more grim with its story and tone. While the previous two Daniel Craig outings were gritty, visceral, and personal in nature, this digs so much deeper. While there is definitely a deeply penetrating personal quality for Bond here, this film takes great advantage of Judi Dench’s M. Silva is a villain directed at her, specifically. He challenges everything that she is, decisions she has made which parallel those she has made with Bond, and forces her to confront the consequences of her actions. However, these are not decisions she regrets or ever thought twice about, but are ones that Silva holds against her for turning him into what he is now. He feels there’s some penance to be done for them both, but she concretely does not share that sentiment. Adding in a personal vendetta for the villain makes him immensely more dangerous as he will stop at nothing, will short no extent to see her dead and disgraced.
Javier Bardem creates for us one of the most fascinating and brilliantly conceived villains of the franchise. The first thing I have to note is Silva’s very obvious homoeroticism. This is blatantly on display in his first meeting with Bond, and it’s almost like, “I can’t believe they went there.” It’s just the fact that the filmmakers allowed him to go so far as to where innuendo would not be an appropriate term for his behavior. Even then, Bond plays along with him for a moment. It’s a very surprising interaction between them. Yet, this aspect seems to work for the character giving him a very effeminate and uncomfortable manner reflecting that he is an enemy who knows our heroes intimately. He knows their secrets, and knows how to exploit every bit of knowledge he has on them. He wants to get in under their skin and twist them around as badly as he has been. The sort of A View To A Kill Max Zorin blonde hair on the Spanish Bardem also creates a unique, off-beat style for him. It further pushes his enigmatic, unpredictable personality which is based in how thoroughly he has planned things out ahead of anyone’s anticipation. It strikes me now what other people have been talking about with this film’s parallels to The Dark Knight. That’s exactly the sort of villain the Joker was – unpredictable, intelligent, and a man who thoroughly planned out a complex series of events to get himself exactly where he wanted to be, unexpectedly turning the heroes’ victories into grave failures. Director Sam Mendes did state that Christopher Nolan’s film did have definite influence on Skyfall, and however you want to take it, I think it was an effective and beneficial influence. It certainly had impact on the tone and visual quality of the film.
Once again, Daniel Craig gives us a Bond that has depth, and is once again a wounded man. He portrays these detailed, emotional qualities very well while mixing in some traditional Bond wit and suaveness. He seems to be very comfortable with this more fleshed out and developed Bond. Craig excellently balances the fun and charismatic aspects of the character with the more grounded, hardened qualities. He still projects confidence for the future of the franchise under his tenure.
Although, the wounded man aspect of Bond having clearly lost a step is completely abandoned as soon as Silva is captured less than halfway through the film. He’s apparently worked through it without showing us, and is more of an aspect by the filmmakers used to subvert Silva once Bond is in his lair. This is surely not a fault of Craig’s performance, but the fact that the film can only focus on so much for so long. During the time it is part of the plot, it is very good, and explored with plenty of nuance and emotional depth by Craig. It’s only a shame that it wasn’t a constant element of the story to give Bond something more to deal with and overcome while battling an enemy that is several steps ahead of everyone while Bond has actually lost a few. It’s certainly teased with, but it evaporates a few minutes later when Bond single handedly guns down about a half dozen henchman in a matter of seconds. He’s suddenly back to one hundred percent, and I think that was a missed opportunity that is never properly resolved, just glossed over.
I do like that the filmmakers have increasingly given Judi Dench more to do as M, and made her a more integral part of Bond’s development. They have a very real and honest relationship that has built up a strong foundation for 007. Judi Dench is unsurprisingly excellent here. Skyfall gives her more than ever to work with, for very good reasons, and she handles everything perfectly. Her scenes opposite Bardem as intriguing and compelling. It’s great seeing the reverse side of her M who is usually a very confident and tough woman be faced with real fear. It’s a situation that she’s not capable of dealing with hands-on, but it’s surely not for a lack of trying. Dench gives a memorable performance that leaves an indelible impact on the franchise.
While Skyfall does have Bond girls, they don’t play a prominent role in the film for very long. The most forefront of the two is Naomie Harris as Eve. She develops a seductive relationship with Bond that results in a few very sensual moments. Harris and Craig have good chemistry, and that is quite important when you reach the film’s ending. She will be a recurring character, and Harris is quite capable of the role she was given, maybe even overqualified depending on what they do with her. She does a fine job, but there’s not much for me to comment on without revealing major spoilers.
On the more dangerous side, I really liked what Bérénice Lim Marlohe did with Sévérine, the provocative lady Bond meets in Shanghai and Macau. Firstly, she is very seductive, a true femme fatale with a wonderful edge and elegance. That accent is so enrapturing as well, and she really slinks her way through that casino and into Bond’s attention. Then, Bond digs deeper into her to reveal how truly terrified she is of Silva. Marlohe sells this petrifying fear so concretely and realistically. While her role is ultimately rather small in the overall movie, she does an exceptionally stunning job. And yes, this film has its marvelously sexy moments that are pure Bond bravado and sensuality. The only thing that wasn’t well put across with this character, which is a definite spoiler, is the certainty of whether or not Silva actually did kill her. It was far too implied as the moment is handled too artistically, and that we never see her up-close after the gunshot. I kept thinking she was a loose thread in the film that I was waiting to see tied up at some point. It’s not like Bond to just stand there to watch someone innocent get murdered when he demonstrates a minute later how entirely capable he is of gunning down and disarming everyone there. He could’ve save her life and captured Silva at the same time. Of course, earlier on, Bond stands by as he watches Patrice use a sniper rifle to kill a random somebody. So, that confused me too. Thankfully, the internet cleared this issue up for me, and confirmed that Silva did shoot and skill Sévérine.
Moving on, I have zero problems with the casting of Ralph Fiennes. While my only exposure to his work is Strange Days, that’s more than enough to get me excited for his inclusion here. His character of Gareth Mallory might seem like a hard ass, a potential bureaucratic adversary, but through the film, he gradually shows that he is more ally than adversary. He really takes a massive leap forward in the likability factor while protecting M in a firefight. As always, Fiennes does a remarkable job, and I think the franchise would be well off to keep him around.
Skyfall finally revives the role of Q with a much younger and more soft spoken portrayal by Ben Whishaw. He feels very authentic showcasing someone that is very highly proficient with modern computers and technology. He only gives Bond two gadgets – a radio transmitter homing beacon, and a Walther PPK with a sensor that is fitted to 007’s handprint so that only he can use it. Yet, Q becomes more vital later on when tracking the escaped Silva via security cameras, and then, laying an electronic trail for Silva to follow out to Scotland for the final confrontation. Whishaw gives us a character that is very modern and highly relatable as a technologically savvy hipster. While he is more low key than Desmond Llewellyn or John Cleese, he still has plenty of witty exchanges with Bond that are quite enjoyable. I won’t spoil anything. However, Skyfall does gives us back all of those Bond regulars at MI6 that have been absent in the Daniel Craig films, and it does it in a very clever and refreshed way.
Now, aside from that pre-credits sequence, which left me a little flat, the action scenes of Skyfall are ultimately very impressive. Director Sam Mendes had not done anything action oriented before, but he shows a great skill for it here. Tension and suspense surround them due to the plot driven implications, and that enhances the danger immensely. Bond gets into plenty of tight situations, but is able to use his confident ingenuity to slip out of them. Surely, the Shanghai sequence is my favorite of the movie because of its visual style. However, there is not a sequence with Silva that is not exciting and riveting. Because he has planned things out so thoroughly and so far in advance, there is an unpredictability to everything he does. He’s never truly cornered until the very end of the film, and that sells his intelligence and threat level enormously. There is one massively tense sequence after Silva has escaped that is masterfully done. Silva springs a surprise on Bond, and gets a long head start towards his goal of killing M. The tension and emotional peril is at a sharp peak. What we get is an amazing firefight that manages to a solidly further develop a few characters, and throw all things out of whack for Silva. This is a brilliantly executed section of the film where anything could happen, and you know it.
The climax is very unconventional for a Bond film where our heroes are holed up in the old Bond family estate named Skyfall. Setting up traps and secret explosives does both have a classic Bond idea behind it, but with a more gritty, low tech approach. This is a very long and full sequence that continually ups the scale with larger explosions, more dire situations, and higher tension as Silva closes in on his target. It really is one of the best action scenes I’ve witnessed this year, and really holds to the visceral style of Daniel Craig’s James Bond. I found the ending to be very original and effective on many levels. I didn’t expect this ending, but it was indeed great, regardless. It has emotional power and resonance for the character of James Bond. It also sets up new possibilities for Daniel Craig’s run with the character, and does so with a very sly, signature Bond style.
Skyfall is eventually an expertly crafted film that goes deep beneath the surface of its main characters, and takes us to some especially personal places, literally, than I ever expected from a Bond film. Rarely has much been delved into about James Bond’s family and heritage, but this takes us to where James grew up and tells us many insights into the young man he was before and after his parents tragically died. It’s great to see the relationship between Bond and M become more personally intertwined, and pay off a lot of what Craig and Dench have done over these three films.
Thus, we have a Bond film that is very different from all others with its more grim, dark tone that focuses on the personal, character driven drama primarily. All the talent on display is superb in the acting, artistic, and technical departments. Aside from those first twenty to thirty minutes where the film is unable to gain traction with its plot, it’s a solid piece of filmmaking that will undoubtedly be heralded as a success by most.
Perhaps you can anticipate that there is a catch I’m getting to here, and here it is. For as exquisitely executed as this film is, the element of fun entertainment is not very high. While I left the theatre very satisfied with what I just saw, on a dramatic and action level, I don’t see myself gravitating towards watching it over and over again like Casino Royale. Again, while the film has some amazing action, there’s not that thrilling adrenalin rush high that I got with The Living Daylights, Licence to Kill, GoldenEye, or Casino Royale. What allowed for that in those movies, at least, was levity and charm. It’s all about tone allowing an audience to be invested in the suspense, but being able to rejoice in the elation of triumph. While Skyfall certainly has its good, fun moments, they are just a few moments. Because of the grim tone, it’s hard for the film to break free into something that feels enjoyably exciting instead of urgently dire. It can’t have much fun with itself, and when it tries, it feels distinctly out of place. Case in point is that whenever the film delves into a moment of quirkiness to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the franchise, it really disrupts the film’s generally serious tone. It takes a self-indulgent step outside of itself to poke fun at the conventions of the franchise. Some moments are more smoothly handled than others, and it is done immensely better than the fortieth anniversary campiness of Die Another Day. Yet, while on the run from Silva, Bond takes his vintage Connery era Aston Martin out of storage, and comically threatens to use the ejector seat button on M if she insists on complaining throughout the ride. It is an entirely extraneous silly bit that would’ve been more in place in Die Another Day, and this film would’ve been just that much more consistently credible without it. Also, when Bond fights off a trio of bodyguards in the Macau casino, he falls into a pit featuring a CGI komodo dragon. While it plays only a small part in the scene, a film of its grim, dark tone didn’t need a computer generated lizard in a cheeky humorous bit of dragging a bodyguard off to his death. This is more self-indulgent behavior to poke fun at the franchise when a real tribute would be the make the best, most consistent film you could. Don’t dilute the tonal integrity of the film by throwing in these nostalgic gags, please. It would be like The Dark Knight taking inappropriate moments to pay tribute to the Adam West 1960s Batman television series. They don’t mesh at all. Skyfall does slightly self-sabotage itself with its heavy tone in making it very difficult to get enjoyable fun of it. It is highly thrilling and dramatically powerful, but it cannot ease up on the tone to make things fun without making those moments seem out of place.
For as much as I went on about those last bits, they are not a large part of the film, but they were sore thumbs to me. Most any Bond film I’ve seen, good or bad, has usually been a fun ride, but as I said, this is a very different style of film for the franchise. I believe Skyfall is a really damn good movie, but I won’t be saying it’s the best Bond of them all. Casino Royale still ranks as my favorite for many reasons, which I hope to get to in its own review. That film meshed the fun and gritty aspects perfectly with enough charisma to make it a rousing adventure with personal and emotional depth to spare. Skyfall goes fully for the darker tone, and director Sam Mendes executes that tone amazingly well. The villain we are given is greatly memorable who is fantastically written and brilliantly realized by Javier Bardem. He’s a far more fascinating enemy than most because of his eccentricities coupled with his very personal and deadly nature. It’s a villain that makes the film exciting and spontaneous. You cannot predict what the next turn in the story will be because of him. There is ultimately even more that could be said and discussed about Skyfall. However, to boil it down simply, it might not be entirely perfect due to that “worse for wear” Bond storyline vanishing part way through, and the lack of ability to be genuinely fun, but it is a vastly successful film in delivering a bold new direction and tone for the franchise. While Casino Royale brought James Bond back to a more grounded sensibility, Skyfall simply strips more away for a grittier and bleaker storyline. It is a vast improvement from Quantum of Solace, but I would hope that the next Bond film eases up on the tone a little to allow for more rousing action and more appropriately fun character dynamics. I do give Skyfall a very strong endorsement, but I don’t think it is the best of the 007 franchise.
GoldenEye is the first Bond film I ever saw. My sister has been a big Pierce Brosnan fan since Remington Steele. So, us and some friends saw this on opening weekend, and even if there wasn’t that sentimental value, I would still call this one of the finest James Bond films I’ve ever seen. While it’s not perfect, it excels far beyond so many others that I’ve already reviewed here, and even Brosnan’s follow-ups.
Nine years ago, British Secret Agent James Bond 007 (Pierce Brosnan) infiltrated a chemical weapons facility in Russia with friend and fellow MI-6 Agent Alec Trevelyan 006 (Sean Bean), but the mission went awry when corrupt Russian military officer General Ourumov (Gottfried John) murdered 006. Today, Bond is assigned by his new boss, a female ‘M’ (Judi Dench) to recover GoldenEye, an orbiting Russian radiation pulse weapon that can destroy any electronic device within its blast radius. The GoldenEye has been stolen from the Severnya research station by General Ourumov and the lethal and deadly Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), where they also slaughtered the entire staff. However, there was a lone survivor in computer programmer Natalya Siminova (Izabella Scorupco) who Bonds seeks out in addition to the criminal figure named Janus who Ourumov and Xenia are working for. Yet, after navigating through the Russian criminal underworld, 007 soon comes face-to-face with the man himself, revealed to be a scarred but living Alec Trevelyan who now seeks to wipe out London with GoldenEye. With Natalya’s help, Bond races to save London from destruction as well as combat a man that knows him better than he knows himself.
GoldenEye features a great pre-credits sequence that is smart, suspenseful, and lays a strong emotional groundwork for the film, introducing two of its lead villains and our new Bond in Pierce Brosnan. It also gives the sense of unfinished business amongst these characters which is greatly punctuated by the mysterious title song sung by Tina Turner and written by Bono and The Edge of U2. The song feels like classic Bond with a gorgeous sound which fits Ms. Turner beautifully. The title sequence is equally breathtaking with its fall of communism theme. Making great use of digital effects, this is a title sequence that is able to be very ambitious with its ideas and make them pure reality. It makes a fantastic splash to an audience that had been without new Bond for six years.
Pierce Brosnan’s Bond both embodies a serious sense of action and dramatic weight as well as a sly, suave, and fun mentality. He’s a man that enjoys indulging himself in the finer things, and sharing some witty repartee with his friends or adversaries. Brosnan gracefully balances the slightly immature or playful aspects of the character with the straight seriousness Bond must demonstrate as an agent of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. He’s sophisticated, charming, classy, and elegant. Brosnan certainly had the charisma and sex appeal to make his portrayal exciting and fresh. Beyond all else, Brosnan is clearly taking a lot of pleasure in his performance.
The screenwriters and especially director Martin Campbell do an excellent job of building up suspense in this story. Plot elements are strategically and methodically laid out setting the stage for a very strong story and masterfully executed film. It has plenty of atmosphere and dramatic tension as 007 weaves his way through the Russian criminal underworld. What starts out seeming like a subversive plot by a man Bond harbors feelings of revenge against develops into something far more startling for 007. Revenge is abandoned for betrayal, and the plot becomes a more dimensionally personal one for James Bond. We get many strong moments of emotional depth from various characters. Natalya especially shows sorrow, grief, and anger, but is able to connect with James on a very honest and passionate level. She is able to give him perspective on his feelings of betrayal, and he is able to focus them into a very sharp and clear intent. The script gives every featured character dimension and purpose with their own relationships. Natalya has some payback to deliver to Boris, the Severnaya computer programmer who also works for Alec and Ourumov, and James has plenty of sordid business with Ourumov, Xenia, and certainly Alec. It’s all woven together into a very smartly structured and interconnected plot. No issues are left unresolved, and everyone has their moments of prominence and purpose. Simply said, this is a great work of screenwriting with a fresh approach that brought Bond strongly and smartly into a post-Cold War world.
The filmmakers use a combination of digital, practical, and miniature effects work to create some absolutely stunning sequences. The destruction of the Severnaya facility alone is spectacular. While the mixture of effects are noticeable to my well trained eyes, they are still damn great. They create a high quality look for Bond’s first foray into the 90s, and deliver on the standards that you’ve come to except from this series.
The cinematography is also excellent creating some strong atmosphere that gives the film some edge, but never gets especially heavy. It greatly holds the dramatic weight and urgency of the story with gorgeous lighting and an expert use of angles and composition. All of the action is shot superbly giving us a great sense of fast paced movement while never sacrificing a clear sense of geography. This is a golden example of how to competently and thrillingly shoot an action movie. Enhancing that is some tight, solid editing. Further credit goes to director Martin Campbell for knowing how to assemble all of these stunning elements into an amazing, rock solid, and exciting film.
My favorite action sequence is indeed the tank chase through St. Petersburg in Russia. Bond commandeering a Russian tank to chase after Ourumov, who has captured Natalya, is just pure Bond excess and indulgence which has its equal shares of thrills and humor. It comes off as light-hearted and fun, but never truly silly. Other sequences are immensely excellent defining the tone of Brosnan’s Bond, and building up a very rousing action film with plenty of consequences. The climax is absolutely awesome with plenty of big action and fiery thrills to result in an excellent pay-off. James and Alec battle on the satellite dish in Cuba at a very precarious height. Both Brosnan and Bean show their immense physical condition and ability to create a very intense and dynamic fight.
GoldenEye features three very good and enjoyable villains. I think my personal favorite is General Ourumov. He’s perfectly underhanded and slimy. Actor Gottfried John put a little bit of wit and humorous charisma into the role making him a lot of fun to watch. He’s very entertaining during the tank chase where he’s drinking from a flask, obviously a little stressed out, but John maintains him as a cunning and threatening villain. It’s only a little too bad he doesn’t make it through to the final act of the film, and gets a rather unceremonious departure.
Of course, there’s the incredible Famke Janssen as the very lustful Xenia Onatopp. She is a very wild woman who gains sensual ecstasy, not from sexual pleasure, but from violence and murder. Janssen puts so much vile, dangerous passion into this role that she is instantly memorable. The fact that Xenia likes to kill men by squeezing the life out of them with her legs wrapped around them is only found in a Bond film, and enhances the sexual drive of the character. This is the role that easily broke her career wide open, and she has enjoyed the subsequent success ever since.
This film also introduced me to Sean Bean and his fine acting talents. I think it was a great idea to have a villain with a personal connection to James Bond, someone that was once his friend, and could be viewed as his equal in many ways. Instead of it being a revenge motivation like in Licence to Kill, we get a story of betrayal. Bean’s performance is almost a dark reflection of Bond, but with a more malicious, malevolent vibe instead of a sly arrogance. The best part of Alec and James’ exchanges are how deep their words penetrate past their facades or personas. Still, it seems Alec has the upper hand in bruising James’ soul, probably because he still has one to bruise. Sean Bean gives us a solid Bond villain who doesn’t fall into the clichéd tropes of old. He’s more modern and personal of a character that was a fresh, solid fit for this film.
Alan Cumming also chimes in as the very funny and charismatic Boris Grishenko. Cumming is a marvelously diverse actor who can do practically anything, and he does it amazingly well. As Boris, he delivers a particularly salacious character who is so entertaining that it’s hard to entirely hate him. While he is a traitor that left Natalya to die, Cumming’s too much of a vibrant source of laughs to condemn Boris fully, but you still enjoy it when he gets his comeuppance.
On the heroic Bond girl side, Izabella Scorupco proves to be a remarkable talent who shows a wide range of emotion as Natalya. She can be fun and endearing as well as dig down deep with the pain and grief, such as in the ruins of the Severnaya facility. What Scorupco puts forth in those scenes is very powerful and a bit heartbreaking. The emotion really penetrates through the screen as it flows out of every fiber of her being. She also has plenty of strength and fire as well as compassion and vulnerability to make Natalya a very well rounded and realistic person to invest our sympathies with. Unlike some other Bond girls, she’s not just along for the ride. She has a strong, personal stake in everything, and is willing to fight right alongside James at every step. Her and Brosnan have great chemistry and rhythm between them sharing in the funny, dramatic, and heartfelt moments. They were a beautiful fit that really gives this film even more strength and weight.
Also, we get a far more satisfying performance from Joe Don Baker here as CIA contact Jack Wade than with his Bond villain turn in The Living Daylights. He uses his charisma and comic timing to great effect making Wade a genuinely funny personality that became a welcomed returning character in Tomorrow Never Dies. Considering Felix Leiter got his leg chomped off by a shark in the previous Bond film, the filmmakers decided to change things up with a new CIA contact for Bond, and I think they created a very fresh and entertaining character that contrasted Bond while still complementing him.
Last, but not least, Judi Dench was a brilliant choice for this role, and the idea behind the character was brilliant as well. Making the head of MI-6 now a woman made the old Bond concepts fresh with new perspectives applied to them. Her “M” only has two scenes early on, but she really sets a tone that challenges James Bond’s misogynistic and cavalier attitudes. Yet, for as much as she creates friction with Bond, she also shows her compassion by wishing Bond to come back in one piece. Dench’s character is appropriately hard when she needs to be, but soft when it counts. Through both Brosnan and Daniel Craig, she has really developed an excellent character who has become a welcomed highlight of every Bond film for the last seventeen years.
If there’s one thing to levy against GoldenEye is the lack of the classic Bond style scope. The bulk of the film takes place inside Russia with the final half hour in Cuba. There are not many exotic locales, or a wide spread canvas for Bond to traverse. Because of this, the film feels a little narrow in scope. This was definitely rectified in Pierce Brosnan’s subsequent Bond films, but I feel those films lost the edge this film had. While Brosnan’s performances never went down in quality, the scripts or filmmakers could never quite hit the personal or passionate nerve that GoldenEye hit for the character. While not all Bond films need to have plots of a strongly personal nature, I think that element helps to keep the films grounded. Die Another Day certainly tried to walk the line of personal revenge and over the top indulgence, but the latter tended to dilute the former. So, while the scopes of the following three films were certainly broadened, the stories didn’t quite have the personal drive of GoldenEye. While it’s not the perfect or quintessential Bond film that Brosnan could’ve made, I do feel it’s his strongest, most consistent outing. Although, this is just my personal taste.
After such a long absence from cinemas, many questioned whether or not James Bond was still relevant after the end of the Cold War. GoldenEye dealt with that blatantly, and answered it with a resounding “yes.” Director Martin Campbell brought together just the right elements to make this a refreshing, revitalizing success. It’s no wonder that he was brought back about a decade later to reboot the franchise with yet another fresh approach and tone. With this film, Pierce Brosnan made a big impact with a James Bond that instantly won over audiences. It returned us to the suave and sophisticated sensibilities of the character while losing none of the intense action oriented excitement that we all desire from 007. With a great cast inhabiting some solid and entertaining characters, and a solid foundation of talent behind the camera in all departments, GoldenEye still proves to be an excellent and highly satisfying entry in this franchise. And yes, James Bond will return, again.
Bond gets revenge. Licence to Kill is likely the darkest, most gritty Bond film to date. This stems from the fact that this is a revenge film, and that requires some nasty stuff to happen to James’ friends and his sworn enemies. This is the film that earned Timothy Dalton his maligned criticism. Many felt it deviated too far from the familiar Bond style and formula, but the truth is, this was likely the most true to Ian Fleming’s character, as he was originally written. However, I have always liked this film.
CIA turned DEA Agent Felix Leiter (David Hedison) is aided by friend and British spy James Bond (Timothy Dalton) in apprehending sadistic drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) on Felix’s wedding day. However, when Sanchez is broken out of custody, he murders Felix’s new bride, and leaves him for dead after being mauled by a shark. This drives Commander Bond to seek revenge, but M (Robert Brown), his superior in the British Secret Service, denies him this and revokes his licence to kill. This forces Bond to go rogue to exact his revenge on this merciless criminal. He is aided by one of Leiter’s contacts in the capable Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) as they attempt to crush Sanchez’s entire drug empire.
This film is definitely more violent than The Living Daylights, border lining on graphic. Bond holds nothing back, subjecting his enemies to gruesome fates. One man gets exactly what Leiter got as Bond maliciously throws him into the shark tank, but doesn’t survive. Others get quite severe deaths demonstrating that you don’t want to be on the bad side of Timothy Dalton’s 007. Bond goes after everyone hard and fast, but never sacrifices intelligence or savvy. He remains cunning but also deadly. Timothy Dalton slips into this harder edged 007 very comfortably and easily. He takes what he did in The Living Daylights, and just darkens it a few shades. He’s a little more intimidating and dramatically intense showing Bond’s passionate motivations in this personal story. Dalton might not have the opportunity to be very witty or suave, but he delivers on the dramatic weight and conviction that the story demanded. He also has small moments of pain and grief that do penetrate through the screen as he reflects on his maimed friend. The physical demands on Dalton are greater this time out, and he was more than up for the task. You can clearly see his face as he is lowered in a harness from a helicopter early on, or doing any number of daring stunts or fights. I can certainly understand why many never took well to this portrayal of the character. Definitely in this film, he is a fierce animal on a dead-set mission who doesn’t delve into light-hearted indulgences. He stays sharply focused on the matter at hand, and doesn’t allow anything to diverge him from that mission. In both of Dalton’s films, I find what he did with the character of James Bond to be very compelling and exceptionally intelligent.
Now, I am dead serious when I say that Franz Sanchez is one of the best Bond villains I’ve ever seen. Robert Davi is cutthroat and ruthless in this role, taking it also into a very dark and violent place. He’s a very realistic and threatening villain who is a fresh departure for the franchise being that he is a South American drug lord. That is a very identifiable villain for the 1980s in the era of Miami Vice. Davi makes a powerful impression right from his first scene proving Sanchez to be a very formidable villain. That solidifies him as a seriously dangerous adversary for James Bond. The fact that he’s not hesitant over getting his hands dirty makes him even more of an unnerving threat. Of course, having a young and sleazy Benicio del Toro as his main henchman Dario, and nicely villainous Anthony Zerbe as cohort Milton Keyes doesn’t hurt matters, either. Of course, I don’t know what the idea was behind his pet iguana, but chalk it up to Bond villain eccentricities.
The Bond girls of this film are fairly decent. Most would know Carey Lowell as Assistant D.A. Jamie Ross from Law & Order in the 90s. Here, she’s a nicely assertive and sexy female lead pulling enough of her own weight, but her performance doesn’t have that harder edge or strong spirit to measure up to Dalton’s Bond. It’s a good performance, but not a standout one. Talisa Soto is about the same, but with considerably less to do as Sanchez’s reluctant and intimidated woman Lupé Lamora.
It’s interesting to note that the character of Felix Leiter appeared in The Living Daylights portrayed by 36 year old actor John Terry. In this film, he is portrayed by 61 year old David Hedison. He had previously played the role in Live and Let Die, and considering the need for an audience to care strongly about Leiter, the filmmakers decided to bring back a better established, more memorable actor in the role. It goes to show the loose continuity the franchise once had where the same character can be played by two different actors with a quarter century difference in age in back-to-back films. I always found that rather amusing, if not confusing. Regardless of that, Hedison does a fine, admirable job in this outing definitely making Leiter an enjoyable and sympathetic character.
Unfortunately, there’s not much to say about the opening credits sequence of Licence to Kill. It’s even more generic than that of The Living Daylights with various female figures dancing around, and the image of a roulette wheel spinning behind them. The title song by Gladys Knight is fairly good. It has a bit of a sweeping romantic quality with a lot of soul in her vocals. It’s a nice change of pace from the previous two films, but probably not quite as memorable.
On the far better side of things, I really have to hand it to the action scenes of this film. The filmmakers really pushed them to a whole new level with amazing mid-air stunts, exhilarating water skiing getaways, and the spectacular finale with the Kensington trucks. The pre-credits sequence is excellent with Bond being lowered down from a Coast Guard helicopter to tether in Sanchez’s plane, and then, James and Felix parachute down to the front of the chapel for the wedding. Bond is put into plenty of lethal peril in some nicely imaginative ways. He even gets to tangle with some ninjas. The climax is full of fire and explosions during a tanker truck chase down a desert highway. It’s an awesome sequence giving us plenty of original and memorable moments. Bond and Sanchez fight on the moving tanker truck until there is one final dramatic moment which has a beautiful and brilliant personal touch of revenge.
There is a James Bond style maintained in this action-revenge storyline. He uses his skills of espionage to infiltrate Sanchez’s organization, getting in close to him to both discover in the inner workings of it, and to destroy it from the inside out. He turns Sanchez against his own men by laying the seeds of distrust and betrayal in him. It’s quite a skillful revenge with Bond using his intellect instead of pure brutality, but always knowing he’s at the edge of danger at every turn. James is well aware of this being a personal vendetta, and he consciously tries to keep his friends and allies out of the crossfire. Regardless, they choose to help him anyway because the danger is so high that he needs all the help he can get, and it’s great seeing that loyalty, especially from Q. Miss Moneypenny is even so worried about James that she cannot even do her job properly. All of these character elements and emotional attachments are nicely woven into the story, and gives the audience a chance to see James’ concern for them and vice versa. Despite his unwavering determination for revenge, Bond keeps enough of his senses about him to not seek it at the expense of others. This is his own mission, and no else need risk their lives for his own gratification. So, despite how dark this Bond appears to be, he hasn’t lost sight of his humanity.
Scoring duties for Licence to Kill were taken over by Michael Kamen, who was a brilliant composer through to his passing in 2003. I immensely enjoyed what he did on this film. His score has its own distinct style and sound while still adhering to the classic Bond themes and feel. He brought something more rousing and dangerous, matching the film’s tone exquisitely. I love his arrangement of the James Bond theme as it is used quite a bit in various action scenes. Again, it has a unique flavor without making a drastic change. The sprinkles of Latin musical flair for some of Sanchez’s best moments was a fine touch. Overall, it’s an excellent score.
Topped off with some excellent and solid cinematography by Alec Mills, who also shot The Living Daylights, this really is a solid, hard edged Bond action picture. Surely, it might not be palatable to all fans of 007, but I think it definitely has its audience. In light of the success of Daniel Craig’s run with the character, going back to a more grounded and realistic style and tone, I think many should give Licence to Kill a fair watch. Timothy Dalton really delivers a very dangerous and action-packed performance that impresses me. It’s only unfortunate that the franchise got stalled out after this due to legal and financial issues, and by the time they were resolved, Dalton chose to bow out of reprising the role. While both of his outings are particularly good, I don’t think he got the chance to do his quintessential Bond film. Licence to Kill was not well received, and in the hotly competitive summer of 1989 with Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, Back to the Future, Part II, and Ghostbusters II, it was difficult to be financially successful as well. Still, I continue to give Timothy Dalton credit for taking the franchise in a more serious and respectable direction which did set a good stage for Pierce Brosnan’s run. Thus, James Bond will return in GoldenEye.
The Living Daylights was the debut of Timothy Dalton as James Bond on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the franchise. It also marked a distinct shift in tone from Roger Moore’s more light-hearted approach, and brought Bond back closer to the core of Ian Fleming’s character. With Dalton came a more dangerous Bond who carried more weight and urgency with him, and it is a portrayal that I very much enjoy. While this first outing was generally well received, I believe Dalton’s two film run with the character was unjustly maligned, and I hope this review and that of the following film will detail why.
After James Bond (Timothy Dalton) helps Russian officer Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé) make a daring defection to the West, the intelligence community is shocked when Koskov is abducted from his remote hiding place. Bond leaps into action, following a trail that leads to the gorgeous Kara (Maryam d’Abo), who plays Bond as easily as she plays her Stradivari cello. As they unravel a complex weapons scheme with global implications, linking up with arms dealer Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker) and Russian General Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies), James and Kara escape first to Vienna, then to Morocco, finally ending up in a prison in Soviet occupied Afghanistan as they track down the elements in this mystery.
The opening action sequence is very smart and exciting. M sends three Agents to test the security of a military installation on Gibraltar, but are ambushed by an assassin. I’ve always liked the touch by the filmmakers to cast two other actors who resemble previous Bond actors George Lazenby and Roger Moore before revealing Dalton himself. Obviously, with marketing of the film and all, the trick loses its intended impact, but it’s a clever idea to keep an uninitiated audience guessing as these other agents fall by the wayside. Regardless, this sequence sets the tone for this more action packed and daring approach of this new Bond. It’s really a perfect start to a very promising film that does deliver in many satisfying ways.
The opening credits sequence for The Living Daylights is nothing special or distinct. Watery images and silhouettes really don’t have much to do with the title song from Norwegian pop group A-ha. It’s not particularly bad, just very uninspired. While this musical track doesn’t have as much punch as Duran Duran’s had for the previous film, the high pitched vocals and melodic quality are still catchy and appropriately Bond-esque. I like it quite a lot.
Timothy Dalton injects a seriousness into the role of Bond that I find very compelling. He carries himself with sophistication and integrity creating a strong screen presence. He firmly grounds Bond while still giving him charisma, wit, and a subtle depth of emotion. He can be humorous and charming while never betraying the dramatic intent of the portrayal. Dalton’s Bond is one that grasps the seriousness of situations, and acts with due intelligence and action. There’s definitely a gritty vigor he brings into Bond that makes the film instantly more energetic and exciting. It’s a dimensional performance that is thoroughly enjoyable, and creates a James Bond that can smartly weave in and out of the world espionage. Beyond everything else, Dalton makes 007 a character that can be taken seriously, and allow for serious stakes to be highlighted in his films. While there is room for fun, it is ultimately a better film when there’s real tension and risk at hand. I think Dalton did an excellent job stepping into this role bringing realism back into the fold. Timothy Dalton likely did many of his own stunts, and it really shows through, benefitting the quality of the action immensely.
The action of the film is excellent. The chase sequence through the snowy landscape with the Aston Martin showing many of its “optional extras” is very thrilling and fun. Plenty of explosive moments and clever twists and turns make it a memorable highlight of the film. The foot chase across the rooftops of Tangier was very well done, also. All of the action sequences are very fun and inventive using the unique locations, from the snow to the desert, to great effect. The climactic action scene where Bond hangs off the back of a cargo plane, set to explode in a matter of minutes, while battling the Russian mercenary Necros is very tense and exhilarating. Yet, it doesn’t end there as we get further explosions and a dangerous mid-air escape. Then, Bond still has to finish off Whitaker in a great firefight. It’s an immensely satisfying conclusion that does not hold back on the thrills.
Maryam d’Abo is probably not as alluring or sexy as most other Bond girls, but she is definitely a good actress that had a lot to bring to Kara Milovy. She’s very likable and relatable as an innocent and talented young woman deceived by her deceitful boyfriend Koskov. Maryam brings a strong will to the role, but also finds the vulnerability in Kara. Kara and James share some moments of strong emotion that d’Abo conveys remarkably well. She was a very good fit for this initial outing for Dalton as she satisfies on stronger levels than mere sex appeal.
I feel the only downside to the film are the villains. Joe Don Baker is decently charismatic, but never really develops into a serious threat. Opposite a more formidable acting talent in John Rhys-Davies, whose character is implicated as the true villain by Whitaker and Koskov, it’s even harder to perceive Whitaker as someone to contend with. He’s portrayed as a man who doesn’t take anything too seriously, but any hint of arrogance or ego that could have been there, simply is traded off for a character that’s lacking in formidable competence. Thankfully, he’s not a forefront villain. Jeroen Krabbé’s General Koskov does definitely go down the path of arrogance, but it takes quite a while before he becomes intimidating at all. He’s certainly the better quality villain of the two, ultimately, and at least has more of a detestable element to him due to how he eventually treats Kara. Yet, he still could’ve used a lot more work. I feel it’s more the near insurmountable odds that Bond faces which make the film tense and exciting than the villains he faces. They are nothing major to contend with. It’s just the forces they command are what create the danger the film needs.
I really like that the plot features a tangled web of deceit for Bond to unravel. He has to tread cautiously amongst those he encounters before he can determine who he can trust, if anyone at all. He works his way through a deceptive abduction, a faked assassination, opium trade, arms deals, and rebel fighters in the Middle Eastern desert to uncover the depth of this plot, and to stop it dead in its tracks. It’s an excellently crafted story that never falls into a lull. There’s a consistent development and progression of plot while never leaving our main characters of James and Kara in the dust. Their motivations remain clear, and their relationship develops very solidly. Despite James having to lie to her while attempting to determine her role in Koskov’s plan, Kara is able to eventually trust him, and they forge a convincing romantic relationship. Everything is smartly wrapped together in a very satisfying package making for an entertaining ride.
I was very pleased by John Barry’s score for this franchise entry. He gave a little more edge to the traditional Bond theme in a few of the action scenes, and nicely incorporated the melody of the opening title track into the score during the third act. It’s a very tight, very good piece of orchestration that complemented the film’s tone and pace strongly. It was a very fine and respectable final bow for Barry as this was the last James Bond film he worked on.
Ultimately, The Living Daylights is a very good film in this franchise. There is more than enough action to spare while still delivering a very smart and well plotted story. It brings espionage more skillfully back into Bond’s world, and the film is better off for it. The real cog of success was Timothy Dalton who made the character honest and real, again. Between his presence and beautifully deeper voice, you get that sense of dramatic tone from him throughout the film. He simply made the film more exciting and interesting. While there is a more gritty, dark style to this film, it still has plenty of fun moments to smile at that do not betray the tone veteran Bond director John Glen was going for. If the film had strong villains, or simply stronger performances from the villains, I could really give this a very strong endorsement. They just lack that edge of intimidating and formidability to push them over as a major threat on their own. The excitement and engaging narrative is due to the twisting and turning mystery Bond has to weave through, and it’s all done with expert quality and precision. The Living Daylights is definitely a big step up from A View To A Kill, and for those desiring a more traditional Bond film from Dalton, this is definitely the one to check out. I do very highly recommend the film despite any shortcomings it has with the villains. It’s a fun, thrilling ride that will entertain you. Next up, James Bond will return in Licence to Kill.
Up until about a month ago, I had only seen the James Bond films from The Living Daylights onward. So, this became my first exposure to Roger Moore as Agent 007. I was mainly attracted to the film because I got hooked on the title song by Duran Duran. While A View To A Kill received a very negative criticism in its day, and even Moore himself holds it as his least favorite that he did, I found the movie to be quite enjoyable. It’s clear that Moore likely did have far stronger outings, but other Bond actors would have far more ill entries in the franchise.
British spy Agent 007, James Bond (Roger Moore), retrieves a high-tech silicon chip from the U.S.S.R., a chip that is identical to a prototype British design capable of withstanding a nuclear electromagnetic pulse. The British suspect industrialist Max Zorin (Christopher Walken) of leaking details of the design to the Russians. When Bond is sent to investigate he finds that Zorin is stockpiling silicon microchips, and is secretly planning to corner the world microchip market by literally wiping out Silicon Valley. In addition to Zorin himself, 007 must contend with the madman’s beautiful and deadly companion May Day (Grace Jones), but is aided by the lovely geologist Stacey Sutton (Tanya Roberts). Bond’s mission will take him from the heights of the Eiffel Tower to the towering danger of the Golden Gate Bridge to stop Zorin’s maniacal scheme.
What always turned me away from checking out Roger Moore’s Bond films was the stated campy nature of them. I didn’t want to see a silly James Bond. However, if this film is any evidence as to Moore’s overall best quality approach to the character, I find it quite entertaining without betraying the integrity of the character’s legacy. I certainly do prefer Bond actors who put more dramatic weight into their performances, but Roger Moore is far from giving a bad performance in this film. While his 57 year old age was clearly evident in this film, which was partly to blame for the film’s negative criticisms, Moore still brings a charming, suave sensibility mixed with a fine wit and levity. The only real downside to his age is the fact that he couldn’t be highly involved with the action scenes. Right from the pre-credits sequence, you can tell it is a stunt double doing the rigorous work while the filmmakers edit in close-up shots of Moore done on a soundstage. It gets more seamless in later action sequences with much better close-ups, but it varies, especially with the rear screen projection shots in the San Francisco chase sequence. Regardless of this, I think Roger Moore is quite enjoyable in this portrayal of Agent 007.
Now, I really like the opening title sequence. Obviously, Duran Duran’s title track ensnared me into watching the film, and it is a great collaboration with composer John Barry which became a classic for the band. I really like a couple of Duran Duran songs, but this one really hits up another level with a mysterious and seductive quality with an exciting sonic punch. It definitely has the feel of a Bond title track, but with a sound distinctive of its times. The credits sequence goes along well with the lyrics with the use of fire and ice, and using some very 1980s black light effects to create a series of vibrant, stylized images against black backgrounds. As the best of these sequences do, it sets up a very exciting and intriguing tone for the movie as a whole.
Overall, the action scenes are pretty good. They are thrilling and imaginative as well as well plotted, shot, and executed. While they often have a little dash of humor from Bond ultimately driving a car that’s been sliced in half to comically hanging off the back end of a fire engine in San Francisco, I don’t mind them. They are well done, and just added to the entertainment value of the film. These moments never become ridiculous, thankfully. The closest we get is during the pre-credits sequences where Bond begins snowboarding down a mountain, and the Beach Boys’ “California Girls” begins to play. It certainly could rub you the wrong way, but I was able to roll with it. Once you grasp the tone of the film, and come to accept it, you shouldn’t have a problem with these quirks.
That tone is mostly focused on the dramatic aspects and implications of the plot, but it’s a film that is able to have some fun with itself, when appropriate. It maintains a serious threat level with Zorin’s plans, and the film flows very nicely. Like most Bond films, it makes the most of its runtime keeping everything focused on the plot, and moving it forward in very efficient and smart ways. It doesn’t have as much dramatic weight as some of my favorite Bond films do. Instead, it does try to maintain some levity throughout, but balances everything very well. It never goes too far in one direction or another, but never really excels in either direction.
The plot is pretty standard with some megalomaniac wanting to destroy in order to benefit his own greed. It is nice that it’s actually a corporate mogul at the head of this scheme, wanting to dominate industry instead of dominating the world. So, it has a somewhat more believable approach, but still has its unique Bond quirks which make the characters entertaining and the film nicely exciting. I wouldn’t classify A View To A Kill as any adrenalin rush, but again, it has its fair share of danger and action which properly support the story. The climax on the Golden Gate bridge has some fantastic visuals which I’m sure there must have been some optical effects work done, but the shots were entirely seamless to my eyes. The action is definitely suspenseful as Bond hangs perilously from high atop the bridge, fending off Zorin’s attacks. Ultimately, it’s an explosive finale that is quite satisfying, and tops the film off spectacularly.
Christopher Walken’s Max Zorin is an all right villain. He’s certainly better than some of the misconceived ones I experienced in the Pierce Brosnan era, but Walken’s performance is pretty lightweight when compared to many of his later, more prominent roles. Being familiar with Walken’s string of heavies from King of New York, Batman Returns, True Romance, The Prophecy, and Suicide Kings, I anticipated something much more impressive here. I had wanted to see A View To A Kill since the VHS rental era because Walken was the villain, and so, there was some anticipation to see him really deliver something meaty as Zorin. His performance is certainly not substandard, but it’s not as fascinating or intimidating as I had hoped. In the least, it’s obvious that Walken was having a lot of fun on this movie resulting in a villain who is entertaining to watch. There is plenty of charisma flowing out of Christopher Walken here. I do think the blonde hair was a nice touch which gave Walken’s appearance a little more distinctiveness.
Tanya Roberts is a fairly decent Bond girl as Stacey Sutton. There’s not much substance for her to dig into, and thus, her performance is also a little lightweight. She plays well off of Roger Moore, but I’m sure the obvious twenty-eight year age difference between them might not work so well for some viewers. Despite that, Roberts and Moore have fine chemistry that I feel is effective, and helps enhance the peril they fall into together. I could honestly feel the genuine feelings between the characters in those moments. Tanya Roberts is also quite gorgeous and charming, making her welcoming to look at.
Quite interesting is Grace Jones as the henchwoman May Day. I think she complements Walken very well. They seem like a peculiar couple with a shared mind for villainy. They definitely have a solid, natural chemistry that puts them on an equal footing. May Day rarely feels like a subordinate, but someone Zorin respects quite a bit, to a point. Jones showcases some very good physicality, likely doing most if not all of her own stunts. She proves to be a unique villain with an original fashion sense, but the film has her take a turn when Zorin leaves her to die in a mine explosion. It does rob the audience of an appropriate comeuppance, but it can be nice to see a villain change sides. She at least has a solid farewell scene.
Overall, I find A View To A Kill to be a generally enjoyable Bond film. As I said, I’m sure Roger Moore had far stronger outings, in both performance and story, but this really doesn’t deserve the scorn it was originally met with. It’s a fun adventure with plenty of wit and charm, but not much else to speak of. Yes, it was time for Moore to bow out for a younger actor to revitalize the franchise, and maybe it’s not the swan song Sir Roger Moore would have preferred. Despite that, A View To A Kill is a very competently made film that is very expertly shot with a fine score and entertaining action. It maintains enough integrity for the series and the characters to be respectable. It wasn’t an ambitious entry in the franchise, but there’s nothing at all wrong with that. For me, it was an enjoyable ride that opened the door to possibly check out earlier James Bond films starring Roger Moore, but as 007 Week moves forward, so do the reviews. With that said, James Bond will return in The Living Daylights.