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GoldenEye (1995)

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.

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The Expendables 2 (2012)

It has been not the best summer of movies for me.  Aside from two nice surprises, most of what I’ve seen has ranged from average popcorn fare to crap I want to avoid like the plague.  So, after the last few films I saw being well within that low end of the spectrum,  I am so glad that many of the world’s greatest action heroes have come along to salvage the end of my summer movie season!  While The Expendables 2 has some factors that keep it from matching the original, overall this is just a big, fun action flick that is what summer movies are supposed to be about.

After taking a seemingly simple job for Mr. Church (Bruce Willis), the Expendables find their plans going awry after encountering sadistic rival mercenary Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme).  The Expendables set out – with help from Maggie (Yu Nan) – to seek revenge in hostile territory, where the odds are stacked against them.  Hell-bent on payback, the crew cuts a swath of destruction through opposing forces, wreaking havoc in an attempt to shut down an unexpected threat – five tons of weapons-grade plutonium which is more than enough to change the balance of power in the world.  However, that’s nothing compared to the justice they intend to serve against the villainous adversary they seek revenge from.

Now, the only thing I felt held this film back was just it’s 102 minute run time.  If this had been a solid two hour film, I think it would’ve had the time to beef up a few aspects.  Jean-Claude Van Damme makes for one massively awesome villain.  He easily and deeply sinks his teeth into the role, and his vicious physicality sells so much of the character’s vile ferocity.  Van Damme plays the material with a lot of zeal and charisma.  You can clearly see there’s a lot of potential substance to Vilain, but the film doesn’t give the character much screentime or material to develop the richness Van Damme puts into the role.  We get just enough to sell his status as a villain, but not enough to really build up his threat level.  Partly because of this, the climax seems to come a little too quickly.  I had hoped for some more momentum to build up in the film before the full-on firestorm rained down.  In the first film, the villains were given ample screentime to develop fully, and they were tied deeper into the plot.  Both films have generally the same runtime, but the first film just seemed to make more of the time it had.

On the upswing, the entire cast seems like they were having a wonderful time shooting this movie.  Stallone has plenty of great chemistry with everyone, but I think the best material is between him and Statham.  Barney Ross and Lee Christmas just feel like such good, long time friends who can constantly take light-hearted jabs at one another, and are totally in sync when it’s time to throw down.  It’s a great, inspired pairing that brings so much levity to the film.  It really makes it a fun ride.  Action-wise, Jason Statham continues to shine with several knife fight scenes which are brilliantly executed and choreographed.  Nice touches are maintained with his character as they keep alive the relationship between Lee and Lacy, portrayed by the lively Charisma Carpenter.  Unfortunately, Jet Li departs the film after the opening action sequence, but he’s still given his moment to shine.  Chuck Norris’ role of Booker is full of fun humor that plays up the exaggerated internet humor of Norris’ superhuman feats.  It’s very well done.  The only negative mark with Norris is that he only ever fires a gun.  There is no martial arts action from his limited appearance in the film.  He doesn’t have anything more than an ancillary action role.  He shows up in two action sequences, and has a nice departure at the film’s end.  Sure, the script didn’t require his character to be there, but he does add to the fun of the movie.

While Stallone stepped down from the director’s seat, he remained as co-screenwriter, and you can still see his talent there.  The first film had its fine touches of emotional depth, and we are treated to some of the same here.  We get a fine amount of substance from Billy that Liam Hemsworth does a perfect job with, and really makes an impact upon the film.  He seemed like a very solid addition to the team, and proves his worth opposite some heavyweight talents here.  Barney Ross has more forefront time in this movie as he develops a solid relationship with Yu Nan’s Maggie Chen.  He has his soul bearing moments with Maggie that bring a lot of dramatic and emotional strength to this very testosterone pumping movie.  Yu Nan does an excellent, charming job showing both a compassionate, insightful side and being a more than capable fighter.  She has plenty of physicality to offer in the action sequences beyond just gunplay that is very impressive.  I think it was a very excellent idea introducing her character into the mix.  Surely, it offers up something a little more for the women in the audience to connect with, but in general, it’s good storytelling and screenwriting.  Barney is able to open up about certain things that can only be inquired of by an outsider, a character that is learning more about him along with us.  I liked Maggie right from the start.  She’s smart, cunning, humorous, and clearly doesn’t shy away from danger.  She’s exactly on the same level as the rest of the team, and more than proves her worth to them time and again.  I would love seeing more of her in The Expendables 3.

Lundgren, Crews, and Couture continue to be entertaining and ass kicking.  Dolph definitely has been given a great, amusing character that everyone plays well off of.  Bruce Willis is absolutely great as Mr. Church.  He’s another actor who could play one hell of a magnificent villain when given the chance, but he eventually fights side-by-side with the good guys giving him the opportunity for some funny quips.  Him and Schwarzenegger exchange their signature catch phrases late in the film, and it’s a total riot hearing them throw each other’s own lines back at one another.  Arnold has never had a problem embracing the self-referential humor of his iconic characters, as evident by Last Action Hero.  He’s having the time of his life here playing off of Bruce, Sly, and even Dolph.  It’s pure fun watching Arnold in this movie.  He kicks a lot of major ass, and gives us plenty of that classic charming Arnold humor we’ve all loved for decades now.  It really comes down to the fact that these are all guys who love action cinema, and are making these movies as a real, honest love letter to the genre’s fans.  The Expendables showed us exactly what we had been missing in the action genre for so long, and this sequel continues on that great, vibrant, explosive trend of entertainment!  Everybody gives it their all in these movies!

And OH YEAH!  You will get your fill of amazing action here!  Director Simon West shows he’s still got the chops he put on display back with Con Air.  However, this cranks up the volume and brutality further than he’s ever done before, and you’re damn right there’s blood!  This is a hard R rated action movie that doesn’t hold back.  Right from the start, we get slam bang, smart, innovative action that delivers on every level.  It’s fiery, loud, adrenalin fueled, and just flat out fun!  You see these guys at the start charging in to storm of the stronghold, and you know you’re in for a bad ass thrill ride!  They pull out the big guns, the large caliber ammunition here all the way through!  Stallone, Statham, Li, and Van Damme show off their physical abilities greatly in various action sequences.  However, nothing beats out the climax of Stallone and Van Damme throwing down.  You’ve got the brute force of Barney Ross combating the vicious martial arts expertise of Vilain, and they are true hardcore heavyweights.  Stuff that would take down the average person in an action movie doesn’t even take these guys off their feet.  Getting busted up with a chain, hurled across the room into a metal gate, and just plain visceral brutality is something both men are able to take and more.  This is one of hell of an awesome climax that is worth the price of admission alone.  The build up to it by Van Damme is wicked.  He thrives so much in this role in this scene that it punctuates wanting to have seen a lot more of Vilain throughout the movie.  Jean-Claude is clearly loving this character so much, and he puts every charismatic ounce of enthusiasm on display.  I think it’s a brilliant and amazing villainous performance.

The cinematography of Shelly Johnson is rock solid.  He also lensed Captain America: The First Avenger, and shows just as sharp of an eye for action here.  Every shot maintains a sense of action geography to know who is doing what, where they’re doing, and who they’re doing it to.  It fully puts the fiery, explosive, bloody action on excellent display for an audience to indulge in completely.  The editing of Todd E. Miller never embraces rapid fire cutting.  He lets the action play out competently and smartly.  There’s great action choreography to behold throughout the film, and both Miller and Johnson want you to see all of it.  These are some smart and highly capable filmmaking talents here that know the mechanics of a great action film.

The story is your straight forward revenge plot, but it is handled well.  Again, it would’ve been nice to have more develop between the heroes and villains.  Maybe have Vilain just slip through their fingers at some point, and thus, further fueling their hunger for revenge.  They get so close, but he gains the upper hand, almost laughing at them as he escapes.  I think something like that could’ve increased the film’s momentum towards the climax.  Between the time they first encounter Vilain and corner him at the airport for the film’s climax, they don’t come close to encountering one another, and that’s roughly an hour apart.  So, we never really get much of that adversarial conflict boiling up between Barney and Vilain, but Stallone and Van Damme surely hold none of that back when they do finally clash.  The film might indulge itself too much with its start studded cast at the expense of a meatier plot, but it never sacrifices entertainment value at any point whatsoever.

Ultimately, what you expect is exactly what you get with The Expendables 2.  There is no film this summer that has had action anywhere near as huge as what this film offers.  Plain and simple, this is pure bonafide FUN!  With a collection of some of the greatest action heroes alive today, you really cannot go wrong here.  With the names that are being thrown around for a third film, I’m very intrigued at what more these filmmakers are looking to pull off.  A return of Mickey Rourke would be awesome as well.  This franchise is all about rekindling the best aspects of the classic big summer action movie, and as long as Stallone is creatively involved I think we’ll continue to get our money’s worth.  I don’t think this film lost anything with Simon West in the director’s chair, and I would easily welcome him back if he’s invited.  If your summer movie experience has let you down at all, do yourself a real favor, and indulge in the action-packed fun of this movie.  While I don’t think it’s quite as good as the first film, it’s exponentially better than the vast majority of action films released today.