Stop getting Bond wrong! (Part 2)

 

© Eon Productions

 

Continuing my ranking of all the James Bond films from worst to best, here are my candidates for the franchise’s top twelve.  Candidates?  No, they are the top twelve.  Don’t even try to argue with me.

 

12: The Living Daylights (1987)

Lately, The Living Daylights, Timothy Dalton’s debut as Bond, has seemingly been reappraised and now figures highly in some rankings of the franchise.  It was even placed at number 4 in a recent feature in the Independent.  Well, hold on.  It’s good, but not that good.  After 14 years of quips, raised eyebrows and safari suits, Dalton’s more serious Bond is a breath of fresh air.  While preparing for the role, he even read Ian Fleming’s original books, which no doubt helped.  He and love interest Maryam d’Abo make a likeable couple and the film begins strongly, its first act following Fleming’s 1962 short story of the same name.  Later, alas, it gets unnecessarily muddled and the two main villains, despite being played by Jeroen Krabbé and Joe Don Baker, are rather blah, although Andreas Wisniewski is memorable as the lethal hitman / henchman Necros.  The scene where Necros engages in vicious hand-to-hand combat in a kitchen, using various kitchen utensils and appliances, was evoked in last year’s Christopher Nolan epic, Tenet.  I hated Aha’s theme song at the time, but since then it’s grown on me.  (The same can’t be said for Duran Duran’s A View to a Kill.)

 

11: Dr No (1962)

I feel guilty ranking Dr No, the first entry in the series and the film that turned former Edinburgh milkman Sean Connery into a superstar, at only number 11 on this list.  However, when I saw it as a kid I was disappointed and that sense of juvenile disappointment has lingered ever since.  This was because I’d read Ian Fleming’s 1958 novel Dr No beforehand and loved the fact that (1) it had a giant squid in it and (2) Bond killed Dr No at the end by burying him alive in bird-guano.  I was looking forward to seeing these things in the film, but neither appeared – the squid presumably because of budgetary restrictions and the guano presumably because it would have grossed out the audience.  So, if Connery had got to have a scrap with a giant squid and got to drown Dr No (Joseph Wiseman) in bird-shit, I’d have enjoyed the film more and placed it higher.

 

10: Thunderball (1965)

The previous movie in the series, Goldfinger (1964), got the emerging Bond formula exactly right.  In comparison, Thunderball seems slightly askew.  It’s overlong and the copious underwater sequences slow the pace somewhat.  Still, it has much to enjoy.  Connery is at the top of his game and the film shows off its set-pieces (for example, Bond being pursued during some Bahamas Junkanoo festivities), its gadgets (for example, the jet-pack in the opening sequence) and its villains (for example, Luciana Paluzzi as Fiona Volpe) with as much brassy aplomb as big-lunged Welshman Tom Jones sings the theme song.

 

© Eon Productions

 

9: You Only Live Twice (1967)

I’ve always had a soft spot for You Only Live Twice, which has Sean Connery battling Ernst Stavro Blofeld and SPECTRE in Japan, although it’s commonly rated as one of the lesser Connery Bonds.  Maybe it’s because I lived in Japan for a good many years myself.  The theme song by Nancy Sinatra is, of course, lovely and there’s a good supporting cast, including Donald Pleasence as Blofeld and Tetsuro Tamba as Tiger Tanaka, head of Japanese intelligence and one of the great ‘Bond allies’ – up there with Pedro Armendariz’s Karim Bey in From Russia with Love (1963).  Apart from the Japanese setting, the film jettisons almost everything in Fleming’s dark, introspective 1964 novel and replaces it with an archetypically ludicrous Bond-movie scenario: Blofeld wanting to trigger World War III by nicking American and Soviet spacecraft and hiding them in his secret hollowed-out Japanese volcano-HQ.  The futuristic volcano set, courtesy of production designer Ken Adam, is amazing.  Alas, its impact is vitiated in the final scenes when we see it as an obvious model, being rocked by explosions, with little dolls (representing the casualties of the film’s climactic battle) bouncing up and down on its floor.

 

8: Casino Royale (2006)

Any half-decent movie was going to look good after the debacle of 2002’s Die Another Day, and I feel Casino Royale, which rebooted the series and introduced current 007 Daniel Craig, is slightly overrated as a result.  But it’s still pretty good.  Craig gives Bond an impressively physical exterior whilst suggesting that not all is as solid internally.  As Vesper Lynd, the sublime Eva Green is easily the best Bond girl since Michelle Yeoh.  And Mads Mikkelsen is great as the evil but harried Le Chiffre.  For once, the violence actually looks like it involves pain, stress and fear, no more so than when Bond gets his nuts whipped on a bottomless chair.  Kudos to the filmmakers for keeping the scene in which Le Chiffre gets his comeuppance as low-key as it was in Fleming’s 1953 novel, although the subsequent stuff set in Venice, where Bond has to rescue Vesper from a building sinking rapidly into the Grand Canal, seems a tad gratuitous.  It’s as if it was decided that a big, dumb action climax was necessary to keep the traditional Bond audience happy.

 

7: Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

Some Roger-Moore-sized eyebrows will be raised at my inclusion of Tomorrow Never Dies in my top dozen Bonds.  But while this film isn’t massively memorable, it doesn’t do anything wrong either.  Michelle Yeoh as Wai Lin is easily the best Bond girl during Pierce Brosnan’s four-movie tenure, Vincent Schiavelli makes a brief but memorable appearance as mordant assassin Dr. Kaufman, and the scene where Q, played by a now-octogenarian Desmond Llewelyn, gives Bond custody of a remote-controlled car is delightful.  And Jonathan Pryce has fun playing villainous media tycoon Elliot Carver, trying to trigger a war between China and Britain – aye, right, the Chinese would really be quaking in their boots at the prospect of a war with Britain.  Pryce is clearly channelling Rupert Murdoch, so what’s not to love?

 

6: The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

Among Roger Moore’s entries (ouch), The Spy Who Loved Me is the one that undeniably belongs in the premier league of Bond movies.  On paper it looks as lazy as all the other ones made in the 1970s and early 1980s – cars that travel underwater, a villain who kills people by dropping them into shark-pools, a giant henchman with steel teeth and a plot that’s been copied from 1967’s You Only Live Twice, though with stolen nuclear submarines instead of stolen spacecraft.  But it’s done with such élan that Moore, director Lewis Gilbert and writer Michael Wood get away with it.  The corking pre-titles sequence here made it a rule for all subsequent Bond movies that they had to begin with a big stunt.  No wonder that in season two of I’m Alan Partridge (2002), Steve Coogan gets upset when he discovers that Michael-the-Geordie has taped over his copy of The Spy Who Loved Me with an episode of America’s Strongest Man.  “Now you’ve got Norfolk’s maddest man!” he rages.  Quite.

 

© Eon Productions

 

5: From Russia with Love (1963)

Although the first Bond movie, Dr No, sets the template for the series – larger-than-life villain hatches grandiose, ludicrous scheme amid gorgeous locations, gorgeous ladies and exciting action sequences – and the third one, Goldfinger (1964), consolidates that template, the intervening movie From Russia with Love does something a little different, with a scaled-down plot-MacGuffin (getting a Soviet defector to the West with a valuable cryptography device) and a storyline that’s unusually gritty and realistic by Bond standards.  Mind you, From Russia with Love still has a great roster of villains – Lotte Lenya’s Rosa Klebb, Vladek Sheybal’s Kronsteen and Robert Shaw’s Red Grant.  Shaw’s vicious battle with Connery late in the film has been emulated in other Bond movies – see Brosnan vs. Sean Bean in Goldeneye (1995) or Craig vs. Dave Bautista in Spectre (2015) – but never bettered.  Also praiseworthy is Mexican actor Pedro Armendariz as Kerim Bey, the wise, wily head of British intelligence in Istanbul who takes Bond under his wing.  Tragically, this was Armendariz’s last movie – during filming, he was dying from cancer, quite possibly caused by his participation in the notorious 1956 John Wayne film The Conqueror, shot just 137 miles from the location of an atomic-bomb test in Nevada.

 

4: Skyfall (2012)

Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace (2008), the latter a direct sequel to the former, and both preoccupied with Vesper Lynd and Jesper Christensen’s villainous Mr White character, can often seem like they’re locked in their own, private, non-Bondian universe.  From the old, pre-Daniel Craig movies, only Judi Dench’s M remains.  What makes Skyfall a pleasure is that it starts to join the dots and make the series feel like the Bonds of old again, adding a new Q (Ben Wishaw) and a new Moneypenny (the divine Naomie Harris).  It also, eventually, brings in a new M to replace Dench, Ralph Fiennes, who in a gratifying bit of character-development is initially presented as an arsehole but gradually wins Bond’s respect and trust.  Javier Bardem makes a good villain and, when Bond and Dench’s M take refuge at Skyfall, the Scottish Highlands estate where Bond spent his childhood, we get a welcome appearance by Albert Finney as the estate’s irascible but handy-with-a-shotgun gamekeeper Kincaid.  It’s been said that director Sam Mendes originally wanted to cast Sean Connery as Kincaid, which would have been weird… but awesome.

 

© Eon Productions

 

3: Licence to Kill (1989)

The dark horse of the series in more ways than one, Licence to Kill got a bad rap because it underperformed at the box office, earned itself a British 15 certificate with its violence, and offended critics who, after condemning the Bond movies for years for being too silly, suddenly started carping about how they missed the loveable silliness of Roger Moore.  However, if you’re a Bond connoisseur who likes to see 007 taken seriously, it’s one of the best.  Timothy Dalton goes after drug baron Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) when Sanchez maims Bond’s best buddy Felix Leiter (David Hedison) and murders Leiter’s wife on their wedding night.  This, of course, echoes what happened to Bond after his wedding back in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), making Licence to Kill a spiritual if not direct sequel to that film.  Much mayhem ensues as Sanchez and his henchmen (Anthony Zerbe, Don Stroud, Everett McGill, Anthony Starke and a young Benicio Del Toro) meet a range of gruesome fates.  The sight of Del Toro’s sneering scumbag Dario getting fed into a grinding machine is particularly delightful.  But there’s light amid the darkness.  Carey Lowell is excellent as Pam Bouvier, a truly capable and no-bullshit Bond girl, and there’s a lovely sub-plot where Desmond Llewelyn’s Q turns up to give Bond some unofficial help, showing that however much they’ve bickered in Q-Branch over the years, the two men are actually friends.  Also, Robert Davi’s Sanchez is more than a simple thug.  Valuing friendship and loyalty, he likes Bond when he first meets him and is aggrieved later when he discovers that Bond has really come to destroy him.

 

© Eon Productions

 

2: Goldfinger (1964)

The film that ticks all the boxes in the list of things you want from a Bond movie.  Action-packed opening sequence where Bond puts a previous adventure to bed?  Tick.  Shirley Bassey booming her way through a classic John Barry composition?  Tick.  Memorable villains?  Tick.  Gadgets, gimmicks, classy cars?  Tick.  A great Bond girl?  With Honor Blackman, definitely a tick.  A great Bond?  Well, it’s Sean Connery, so definitely a tick too.  Basically, the series could have stopped here, because after Goldfinger there was nothing that could be done again any better – The Spy Who Loved Me’s refrain Nobody Does It Better might have been written about this film.  Incidentally, Auric Goldfinger’s scheme in the movie makes more sense than his scheme in Ian Fleming’s 1959 novel.  In the book, Goldfinger just wants to rob Fort Knox, which would be logistically impossible.  In the film, he cannily plans to explode a nuclear device in the fort, making the US’s gold reserves unusable and skyrocketing the value of his own gold.

 

1: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

It’s generally agreed that Australian actor George Lazenby wasn’t much cop as an actor.  Ironically, his single movie as Bond, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, is in my opinion the best one of all.  It helps, of course, that the film follows Ian Fleming’s 1963 novel closely.  The main change is an upgrading of Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s fiendish plan.  In the book, he intends to decimate Britain’s agriculture, whereas in the film it’s the world’s agriculture that he’s gunning for.  (Accordingly, the instruments of Blofeld’s plan, the disease-carrying ‘Angels of Death’, are upgraded from a group of brainwashed English schoolgirl-types in the novel to a bevy of brainwashed international glamour-pusses, including Angela Scoular, Anoushka Hempel, Jenny Hanley, Julie Ege and Joanna Lumley, in the film.)  Director Peter Hunt orchestrates some brilliant action sequences on the icy slopes around Blofeld’s Alpine lair, the theme tune possibly constitutes John Barry’s finest hour, Telly Savalas makes a formidably physical Blofeld, and Diana Rigg is splendid as the confident but simultaneously vulnerable Tracy di Vicenzo, the woman who finally wins Bond’s heart and gets him to the wedding altar – though with events taking a dark turn soon after.  It’s arguable that because it’s so different from the usual entries in the series, wistful in tone and tragic in its ending, the awkward and uncertain Lazenby actually fits in nicely.  Here, Bond appears fragile and wounded, and Lazenby is believable in terms of what the character goes through.  You couldn’t imagine Connery swaggering through the movie with his usual insouciance and having the same impact.

 

© Eon Productions

 

And now we have a new Bond movie in the cinemas.  Where will 2021’s No Time to Die figure in future rankings of the 25 Bond films, from best to worst?  Well, I see that the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw has just given it a five-star review.  So… it’s probably rubbish.

Some thoughts on Columbo – from Colombo

 

© Universal Television

 

When I was a kid during the 1970s, British television was awash with imported American detective and police series.  My schoolmates and I agreed that the genre had a ‘big five’ – maybe because the title characters of these five shows had gimmicks that impressed them deeply on our young consciousnesses.

 

There was Kojak (1973-78), whose detective hero was unashamedly bald, which meant anyone coming to school with a new haircut would be nicknamed ‘Kojak’ for days afterwards; Ironside (1967-75), whose hero was confined to a wheelchair; Cannon (1971-76), whose hero was fat – cue more cruel nicknames at school for kids slightly on the stout side; McCloud (1970-77), whose hero was a cowboy; and Columbo (1971-78), whose hero, essayed by Peter Falk, sported a grubby raincoat, unkempt head of hair and smelly-looking cigar and generally looked a bit manky.  Such was Columbo’s level of scruffiness that, whilst carrying out investigations in a soup kitchen in the 1974 episode Negative Reaction, a nun working there (Joyce Van Patten) mistook him for one of its homeless patrons.

 

In the half-century since, I’ve seen episodes of those shows repeated on TV, often on obscure satellite channels, and I have to say most of them have fallen victim to what is known in contemporary slang as the ‘suck fairy’.  This is neatly defined on fanlore.org as a “mythical creature who comes to old favourite books, art, TV shows or other media that one has not revisited in years, takes away everything in them that one loved, and refills them instead with suck.”

 

The shows seem formulaic, unmemorable, even dreary now, indistinguishable from a million other pieces of conveyor-belt-produced 1970s American TV.  Was this really the stuff that inspired us as ten-year-old kids to strut around the playground speaking in wavery drawls, like Dennis Weaver’s Deputy Marshall Sam McCloud, applying his cowboy law-enforcement techniques to the bad guys of New York (where he was on seemingly never-ending loan to the NYPD from the police department of Taos, New Mexico)?  Or inspired us to puff out our bellies and lurch / amble across the playground in imitation of William Conrad’s Private Detective Frank Cannon chasing the villains?  (Cannon, despite his obvious lack of athleticism, was able to not only run after those villains but also, somehow, catch them.)

 

However, there are two exceptions to the suck fairy rule.  One is the earlier episodes of Kojak, which capture something of 1970s New York’s sleazier side.  The other is Columbo, which although the episodes vary in quality, is frequently brilliant.  Today is September 15th, 2021, exactly 50 years to the day since Columbo debuted on American TV – not as a show with a weekly slot, but as ‘rotating episodes’ in the NDB Mystery Movie series, where it alternated with McCloud and McMillan & Wife (1971-77).  Incidentally, surely even Quentin Tarantino has difficulty remembering McMillan & Wife these days.

 

To mark the occasion, and because I’m currently living in the capital city of Sri Lanka, here are some thoughts on Columbo – from Colombo.

 

© Universal Television

 

Actually, there’s little I can say about Columbo that hasn’t already been said in this feature by Shaun Curran, which recently appeared in the BBC website’s ‘Culture’ section.  I’d take issue with one of the feature’s comments, though, that the ‘concept of class warfare wasn’t central to the creators’ thinking’.

 

Well, class warfare may not have been on the radar of William Link and Richard Levinson, the writing-producing duo who invented the character.  But I’m pretty damn sure it was at the forefront of most viewers’ minds while, episode after episode, they watched Columbo, the most humbly blue-collar of detectives, use his softly-spoken but bloody-minded persistence to wear down a succession of rich, arrogant, entitled sophisticates who, convinced of their own brilliance, believe they’ve just committed the perfect murder.  I’m certain those viewers cheered when, at the end of each episode, Columbo comprehensively outsmarted those bigshots and nabbed them for their misdeeds.

 

The show’s atypical structure saw each episode begin with some stinkingly rich, stinkingly amoral character – an art dealer, a bestselling novelist, a company CEO – commit a murder in some ingenious fashion.  Immediately, we’d be plonked into that person’s affluent world: mansions, penthouses, country retreats, exclusive clubs, golf courses, fancy cars, swimming pools, yes-men, servants, hangers-on.  Columbo wouldn’t appear until after 20 minutes or so, when the police are called.  You can imagine the murderer’s mental cry of delight when they realise that this bumbling, zero-class klutz is handling the investigation.

 

Ah, but the viewers know better.  Columbo is on the case and the disgustingly wealthy git is going to suffer.

 

His apparent obsequiousness (“The wife thinks you’re terrific!”) gives way to a gradual but relentless process of psychological torture as some teensy-weensy inconsistency (“Just one more thing… One thing that’s bothering me…”) arouses the wily detective’s suspicions and he starts tightening the screws on his quarry.  No wonder that when the climax of each episode arrives and Columbo reveals all – usually by setting some final trap in which the culprit irrefutably incriminates him or herself – arrest is usually accepted with a minimum of fuss.  The bigshot murderer has been thoroughly ground down by this disheveled, raincoated dispenser of justice.  Prison will seem a blessed relief after what they’ve just been through.

 

Colombo, with his rubbish clothes, hair and car (an elderly Peugeot 403), his clumsiness, his dozy dog and his bossy wife who, despite never making an appearance, lurks as a formidable presence in the background, might be an everyman figure.  But he also helps rectify the injustices in the American Dream that allow such unprincipled scum to rise to the top while the decent folk get stuck at the bottom.  As Joyce Van Patten’s nun remarks in Negative Reaction, “A man’s worth is not judged by the size of his purse.”  Really, each episode of Colombo ought to be watched with L’Internationale playing softly in the background.

 

© Universal Television

 

So, which are my favourite Columbo episodes?  Well, there’s 1973’s A Stitch in Crime, which is fascinating because Columbo is pitted against Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, who plays an ambitious heart surgeon using his medical know-how to bump off a colleague so he can take control of a research project.  Ironically, this episode has less logic and more emotion on display than usual.  We get a rare glimpse of Columbo losing his cool.  When Nimoy laughs at him condescendingly, he smashes a water pitcher onto the former Vulcan’s desk and spits: “I believe you killed Sharon Martin… and I believe you’re trying to kill Dr Heideman!”

 

Then there’s Double Shock, also from 1973, in which smug – okay, all Columbo villains are smug – identical twins, played by Martin Landau, conspire to kill their wealthy uncle by electrocuting him while he’s having a bath.  What makes this episode a joy is the horror shown by the victim’s prim, cleanliness-obsessed housekeeper (played by Jeanette Nolan) while Columbo trudges about her pristine household with his dirty shoes and crumbling cigar.  You get the impression she’d rather have her employer’s murder go unsolved than have this apparent oaf tramp over her expensive carpets.  “You belong in some pigsty!” she shouts at him, patience finally snapping.

 

The shiny-pated, bug-eyed Donald Pleasence was everywhere in 1970s films and television, so it was inevitable that he’d turn up in Columbo.  In the episode Any Old Port in a Storm, yet another one from 1973, he plays a fanatical wine connoisseur who at one point rages at a waiter: “This wine has been oxidized by overheating…!  An exciting meal has been spoiled by the presence of this liquid filth!”  However, unusually, Pleasence’s character is sympathetic overall.  Indeed, he only murders his dastardly half-brother when that half-brother threatens his beloved winery.  And, unlike most of Columbo’s adversaries, he’s sporting in defeat.  When he realises the game is up, he even shares a final glass of wine with the detective.

 

1974’s Swan Song has Colombo investigating a plane crash that’s resulted in the deaths of two women. One is the wife and the other is the backing singer of country-and-western star Tommy Brown, who was piloting the plane and miraculously got thrown clear during the impact and suffered only minor injuries.  But the truth is less miraculous.  Brown had got himself into a compromising situation with the background singer when she was way too young for such things, and his wife (played by the marvellous Ida Lupino) was blackmailing him into donating large sums to a religious project she championed.  To rid himself of these two sources of torment, he drugged them when they were on the plane, bailed out with a parachute, and turned up at the crash scene to make it look like he was on board when it went down, but survived.  I find this episode’s script far-fetched, but as Brown is played by Johnny Cash, and it’s basically Columbo versus the Man in Black, it makes my pick of favourites.

 

© Universal Television

 

However, my all-time favourite Columbo episode is Troubled Waters, a 1975 episode that has Columbo and the missus taking a break on a 1970s cruise ship, an experience that I have to say looks like hell on earth.  Columbo is asked to help after rich slimeball passenger Robert Vaughn murders the ship’s lounge singer and tries to pin the blame on a pianist (played by Dean Stockwell).  What makes this episode a pleasure is not only that Columbo is up against Vaughn, The Man from UNCLE (1964-68), but also that he’s allied with John Steed from The Avengers (1961-69), for playing the perplexed ship’s captain is none other than the splendid Patrick Macnee.  While Columbo drives Macnee and his crew to distraction by insisting on calling their beloved ship a ‘boat’, we get tantalising suggestions that we’re going to see Mrs. Columbo at last – though inevitably, Columbo, and the viewers, keep ‘just missing’ her.  (When the purser informs Columbo that the captain would like to see him, he asks worriedly, “It’s not about my wife, is it?  I mean… she likes to have a good time, sometimes she gets carried away…”)

 

Columbo was revived in 1989 and carried on with another two dozen episodes and specials until 2003, eight years before Peter Falk’s death.  These later Columbo-es weren’t as good as the ones from the 1970s, although it was always a pleasure to see the character on screen, still socking it to the high and mighty.

 

With Falk gone, there’s been talk of remaking the show, the most promising talk proposing Mark Ruffalo as the actor who’d take over the raincoat.  Now, while Columbo obviously wouldn’t be the same without Falk, I’d still welcome a modern-day version of the show that has the rumpled detective shuffling into luxury 2021 penthouses with his shabby raincoat and malodorous cigar, first inviting derision from, then causing irritation to, and finally striking terror into the likes of the Trumps, the Kardashians, the Kochs, the Murdochs, the Musks and so on.  I’d welcome the sight of him annoying villainous investment bankers, hedge fund managers, real estate tycoons, arms dealers, celebrity reality-TV stars and pampered YouTube influencers into submission, before collaring them and sticking them behind bars.

 

Yes, today, when a quarter of the world’s wealth now resides in the pockets of some 175,000 billionaires and multi-millionaires, and much of it didn’t get into those pockets through honest means, we need Detective Lieutenant Columbo more than ever.

 

© Universal Television

Dave of the dead

 

© The Stone Quarry / Netflix

 

I’ve finally caught up with one of the most hyped films to land on Netflix last month, Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead (2021).  I’m not a massive fan of Snyder’s work, though I can’t say either that his films rouse in me the antipathy that they seem to rouse in thousands of other movie-fans, who regularly spray adjectives like ‘bloated’, ‘dour’, ‘humorless’, ‘prolonged’, ‘hollow’, ‘overbearing’ and ‘overstuffed’ at them, while dissing Snyder himself as some sort of dumb-assed filmmaking dude-bro.

 

Mind you, I’d only seen two of his earlier films.  The first was his 2004 remake of George A. Romero’s masterful 1978 zombie epic Dawn of the Dead.  I have mixed feelings about Snyder’s version of Dawn.  Its first 25 minutes are terrific, but thereafter it becomes a routine, if slick, affair, with no attempt to replicate or develop the satire on mindless consumerism that made Romero’s original so enjoyable.  (Incidentally, I recently discovered that Romero shared my opinion of the remake.)

 

The second was his 2013 Superman movie Man of Steel, which I thought was underrated.  I didn’t mind it being darker in tone than the Superman movies of the late 1970s and 1980s and liked how it showed Superman getting a hard time, initially at least, from a suspicious humanity.  Admittedly, Henry Cavill as Superman and Amy Adams as Lois Lane didn’t engage in the way that Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder did in those roles three decades earlier, but the splendid supporting cast – Michael Shannon, Laurence Fishburne, Russell Crowe, Diane Lane and Kevin Costner – more than compensated.  That said, not being a fan of DC Comics overall, I felt no inclination to watch Snyder’s later ventures into the DC Extended Universe, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Justice League (2017).

 

As its title suggests, Army of the Dead sees Snyder return to zombie territory, although this new movie takes place in a different universe from Dawn of the Dead.  Whereas in Dawn, the zombie outbreak happens everywhere and brings civilization to its knees within days, in Army it’s localized and quickly controlled.  It begins with holidaymakers, gamblers, croupiers, showgirls and Elvis impersonators succumbing to a nasty, bite-y zombie virus in the casinos and hotels of Las Vegas, after a top-secret convoy transporting the bug crashes in the nearby Nevada Desert.  The US military responds and manages to contain the virus, plus all the zombies carrying it, by sealing off Las Vegas behind a towering perimeter wall of metal containers.

 

Although it was obvious from the start that I was going to be watching a big, dumb, action-fantasy-horror movie, even at this early point I found myself shaking my head in disbelief.  From where did the military suddenly rustle up all those giant containers?  And how come the Las Vegas they seal off seems to consist only of the downtown area with the casinos and hotels, but with nothing else attached?  Doesn’t the real city sprawl a bit? Doesn’t it have suburbs?  I’ve never visited it, but I had the impression that Las Vegas was more expansive, thanks to reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (2013) and watching David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return (2017).

 

Oh well. Now under zombie-lockdown, Las Vegas is completely inaccessible.  This is frustrating news for casino tycoon Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), who has 200 million dollars in cash sitting in a vault under a casino in the city and would like to retrieve it. The fact that the US government has just announced that it’s going to erase the zombie plague by nuking Las Vegas in a few days’ time gives extra impetus to his desire to retrieve it.  Thus, Tanaka approaches a tough ex-mercenary called Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) and offers him a generous portion of the 200 million in return for putting together a ‘team’, breaking into Vegas, blasting their way through the zombies and liberating the money before everything goes up in a cloud of mushroom-shaped radioactive smoke.  Ward was involved in the original military operation to evacuate non-infected people from the city and seal it off and so is the best man for the job, but he carries psychological baggage.  His wife perished during the operation, which has so traumatized him that he’s been reduced to flipping burgers in the kitchen of an out-of-the-way diner.

 

Indeed, food seems to have become the Bautista character’s way of dealing with post-zombie stress disorder.  He’s still blathering about lobster rolls near the movie’s close, two-and-a-half hours later.  (Yes, two-and-a-half hours – this is a long film.)

 

© AVCO Embassy Pictures

 

The set up reminded me less of past zombie movies than of John Carpenter’s rugged sci-fi actioner Escape from New York (1981), in which tough guy Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is sent into a future version of Manhattan, sealed off and transformed into a giant, hellhole prison run by its own inmates, to rescue the US president whose plane has just crashed there. The president was played by Donald Pleasence, so the film was eerily prophetic in its vision of a dystopian future America run by a president called Donald.

 

The difference is that Carpenter would have established the premise, introduced the protagonists and got them into the zombie-fied Las Vegas within the first quarter-hour.  Snyder, it’s fair to say, is a less economical filmmaker.  While Bautista was in the middle of assembling his team, and no one had got anywhere near Vegas yet, I checked my watch and realized 45 minutes had already passed.  Herein lies Army’s greatest problem.  It takes its time getting going.  And even after it gets going, there are still periods when everything stops going again so that Snyder can shoehorn in ponderous, talky, supposedly character-building stuff.  I can’t help wondering how much better the film would have been if some studio bigwig had told Snyder that Army wasn’t allowed a 150-minute running time.  No, it’d only have 90 minutes maximum in which to tell its story.  I’m sure the result would have had much less flab and far more momentum.

 

Another issue I have with Army is its derivativeness.  I don’t mind films containing little nods and homages to other films, but Snyder not only pinches a major subplot and supporting character from James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) but also rehashes at least two of that film’s legendary action sequences.  As the film progresses, it also increasingly calls to mind the Will Smith sci-fi / horror movie I Am Legend (2007), with Bautista and his crew discovering that there aren’t just ordinary, common-or-garden zombies shambling mindlessly around downtown Las Vegas.  There’s also a more evolved variety that can sprint, climb, communicate, experience emotions, reproduce, organize themselves and even wear metal headgear, making them impervious to that normal zombie-stopping technique, “shoot ’em in the head.”

 

Frustratingly, like the film I Am Legend (and unlike the marvelous 1954 novel by Richard Matheson on which it’s based), nothing is done with these creatures once they’ve been introduced.  They merely become another threat to be blasted away, like a new foe that’s appeared on a new level of a computer game. Considering how it’s clear at this point that both Bautista’s team and the evolved zombies are being shafted by unseen corporate villains, it would have been interesting if the script had had Bautista try to communicate with the creatures and enlist their aid against the common enemy.

 

One other irritant is Snyder’s use of music, which is meant to be ironic but just seems clunkingly obvious: Elvis Presley’s Viva Las Vegas (1964) and Suspicious Minds (1968) to evoke the setting and the Doors’ This is the End (1967) and Credence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Riding (1969) to evoke the apocalyptic mood.  Most of these appear as cover versions by the likes of Richard Cheese and Allison Crowe, Theo Gilmore and the Raveonettes, which suggests Snyder didn’t trust the young audience the film was targeting to be able to handle hearing the songs in their original forms.  Worst of all, though, is his deployment of the Cranberries’ Zombie (1994).  I’m not a fan of that song but it was written to protest the killing of children by the IRA.  Using it on the soundtrack of a Hollywood blockbuster about zombies doesn’t strike me as funny, but as crass.  (Also, when Zombie plays in the background of a scene, it gives away an important, upcoming plot twist.)  Still, I laughed when Culture Club’s Do You Really Want to Hurt Me (1982) made an unexpected appearance.  Musically, Snyder got one thing right, at least.

 

© Island Records

 

Despite everything – the film’s bloated-ness, overlong-ness, derivativeness and unimaginative use of music – I did quite enjoy Army of the Dead.  Largely this is due to the cast.  Even though he’s the size and shape of a muscular Michelin Man, Bautista comes across as a likeable human being, while the other performers do a good job of creating characters you can relate to and root for.  Well, apart from the character who might as well have ‘I’M A SCUMBAG WHO’S GOING TO BETRAY EVERYONE’ written on a signpost above his head. Particularly good are Ana de la Reguera as Bautista’s capable deputy, who quietly carries a torch for the big fellow; Tig Notaro as the helicopter pilot tasked with flying them out the disaster zone before the bomb drops on it, who displays Dr. ‘Bones’ McCoy levels of loveable crankiness; and Omari Hardwick and Matthias Schweighöfer as, respectively, a macho, chainsaw-wielding mercenary and a nerdy, mild-mannered safecracker, who get involved in an unexpected bromance.

 

And the action and suspense scenes, when they come, are exciting.  It’s just a bit disappointing that, as I’ve said, so many of these scenes evoke similar scenes in earlier movies – Aliens or I Am Legend or, say, 1981’s An American Werewolf in London (two blokes crossing some desolate terrain at the film’s start, trying to escape a slavering monster) or the 2013 Brad Pitt vehicle World War Z (Bautista’s team having to make their way through a building that’s crowded with zombies, who are all in a statue-like state of hibernation but will wake up if there’s any sudden sound).  Definitely worth waiting for is a gory sequence featuring the movie’s best original touch, possibly its only original touch, a zombie tiger that’d originally belonged to Vegas magicians / entertainers Siegfried and Roy.

 

To sum up – plot-wise, Army of the Dead is as ragged and hole-ridden as the undead creatures that inhabit its dystopian setting, but it remains entertaining.  Its main problem is its inordinate running time.  If an hour had been chopped off that, you’d have had a thrilling, engaging action-horror movie as fast-moving as its evolved tier of zombies.  Unfortunately, the two-and-a-half-hour-long Army too often resembles its other tier of zombies, the ones that just shamble.

 

© The Stone Quarry / Netflix

Gun me kangaroo down, sport

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

We’re now in December and, as usual, people are talking about what Christmas movies they’ll be watching on and around December 25th.  So here’s a piece – originally posted on this blog back in 2017 – about my all-time favourite Christmas movie.  It definitely qualifies as a Christmas movie since its events take place during the festive season and against a background of Christmas trees, decorations and carols.  Though if you’re accustomed to the cosy festive cheer of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) or The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), you might not be ready for the squalor, drunkenness, brawling, vandalism, vomit, sweat-stains, flies, kangaroo-slaughter and Donald-Pleasence-going-bananas that constitute the Wake in Fright Christmas experience… 

 

It took a while for the 1971 Australian epic Wake in Fright to win some respect, but it finally got there in the end.  It flopped on its initial release, despite being nominated for the grand prize at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, and for a long time afterwards it only existed in heavily cut and low-quality versions.  However, following restoration and remastering work during the noughties, a new version of Wake in Fright was shown at Cannes in 2009 and now, belatedly, the film is seen as an important precursor to the New Wave of Australian Cinema that produced the likes of The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), Mad Max (1979), My Brilliant Career (1979) and Breaker Morant (1980).

 

Directed by Ted Kotcheff, Wake in Fright tells the story of John Grant (Gary Bond), a young Australian schoolteacher beset by frustration and a sense of injustice.  He dreams of moving to England, something that many young Australians were doing in real life at the time, most famously Barry Humphries, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes.  There, he muses, he’ll become ‘a journalist’.  It has to be said that for someone wanting to write as a career, he spends suspiciously little of the film, none of it in fact, doing any writing.

 

For now, though, John’s stuck in a school in a tiny Outback settlement surrounded by vast expanses of nothingness.  Kotcheff highlights this at the film’s start with a 360-degree panning shot that still looks mightily impressive today.  John’s exile here shows no likelihood of ending soon, because to leave his job he needs to pay off a bond signed with the Australian government to cover the costs of his teacher-training.

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

Wake in Fright begins with John finishing his final lesson before the Christmas vacation and taking a train to a mining town called Bundanyabba, where he plans to catch a plane to Sydney for a few weeks in the company of his glamorous city-based girlfriend.  But his plans go askew when he arrives in Bundanyabba, ‘the Yabba’ as it’s known to its inhabitants, and he spends a night there before the plane flies.  In succession, John enters a drinking establishment that isn’t so much a pub as a pumping station, supplying the Yabba’s thirsty male citizens with industrial volumes of beer; befriends a hulking policeman called Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty), who takes him to a late-night eatery; discovers a gambling den at the back of the eatery where money is bet, won and lost on the tossing of pairs of coins; gets involved in a game; impulsively bets everything he has in the hope of winning enough to pay off his bond; and loses everything.  Thus, the next day, John wakes up penniless, unable to pay for his flight and marooned in the Yabba.

 

By this time, he’s also met local eccentric ‘Doc’ Tydon, who’s played by none other than the great English actor Donald Pleasence.  When you see the crazed, drunken Pleasence tossing the pair of coins on which John’s fortunes depend, you know it’s going to end badly.

 

After losing all his money, John, who was initially disdainful of the macho, swaggering, hard-drinking, hard-gambling mindset that possesses most of the Yabba’s male inhabitants, gradually sinks to the point where the same mindset possesses him.  He’s befriended by a well-to-do man called Tim Hynes (Al Thomas) who brings him home and introduces him to his daughter Janette (Sylvia Kay).  Hynes, obviously seen as a soft touch by his Yabba neighbours, soon has a crowd in his living room drinking his beer and leering after Janette, including the ubiquitous Doc Tydon and a pair of young bogans called Joe (Peter Whittle) and Dick (future Australian movie star Jack Thompson).

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

After a severe all-night drinking session, John, now stained, grubby and worse-for-wear, comes to in Tydon’s shack.  This is a hellhole with kangaroo meat heaped in greasy pans and clusters of dead flies stuck to dangling flypaper strips.  We don’t get to see the outdoor toilet – the Donald Pleasence dunny – but from what we hear it’s even more hideous than the shack.  It transpires that John drunkenly arranged to go on a kangaroo shoot with Joe and Dick, who soon show up at the shack in a vehicle loaded with guns and booze.  All four head into the Outback to hunt ’roo and what follows is Wake in Fright’s most notorious sequence, wherein the quartet blast away a pack of kangaroos and wrestle with and stab to death the wounded ones.  Such is the carnage that even in 2009, during the film’s re-screening in Cannes, a dozen people walked out of it.

 

Now completely deranged, John included, they wreck an Outback pub on their way home.  The next day, after waking up in Tydon’s shack in an even worse condition, John manages to stagger off.  Appalled by his own degradation, he attempts to hitchhike out of the Yabba and the whole way to Sydney, but again things don’t go according to plan.  Finally, despairing and practically psychotic, John hits on another way of escaping from the Yabba, the most drastic way possible…

 

It’s easy to see why, when Wake in Fright was released in 1971, Australian audiences stayed away in droves.  With its scenes of heavy-duty and illicit drinking (“Close the door, mate,” someone shouts when John walks into a pub and finds the entire male population of the Yabba boozing inside, “we’re closed!”) and incessant gambling (men standing robotically at rows of bar ‘pokies’ or acting as a baying mob in a backroom den), and with its depictions of violence, sexism and general macho bullshit, it doesn’t portray Australian culture of the time in a flattering light.

 

One scene sure to bait 1970s Australian viewers takes place in a pub.  The boozers and gamblers suddenly fall silent, stand to attention and face an ANZAC memorial wall-mural while a radio announcer exhorts them to ‘remember the fallen’.  When the silence ends a moment later, they dive back to their beer and slot machines.

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

Then there’s the gruelling kangaroo shoot where bullets tear bloodily through what are clearly real animals.  That must have traumatised international audiences whose images of Australia in 1971 probably mostly came from the popular, cuddly kids’ TV show Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1968-70).   A statement in the film’s end-credits assures us that the kangaroos weren’t slaughtered for the film.  Rather, Kotcheff and his crew shadowed a group of professional ’roo hunters one night and filmed the shootings, which would have taken place whether Wake in Fright was made or not.  Then this documentary footage was spliced into the film.

 

What the filmmakers did isn’t above criticism, though.  It’s been pointed out that the powerful spotlight they used to film the hunt also enabled the hunters to blind and target their prey.  Kotcheff later described the experience as a ‘nightmare’ because, as the night continued, the hunters became drunk, their shooting grew less accurate and kangaroos ended up horribly maimed.  Things got so bad that the film crew pretended there’d been a power cut so that the spotlight no longer worked and the shooting had to stop.  Most of the footage proved to be so upsetting that Kotcheff decided he couldn’t use it, though what is shown is bad enough.

 

The footage was also shown to the Royal Australian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals.  They actually urged the filmmakers to include it in Wake in Fright, hoping it’d spark an outcry and help such madcap hunting to be banned.

 

Wake in Fright is a grim watch, then, but its cast is a pleasure.  Gary Bond, with his finely sculpted features, blond hair and sonorous, cultivated voice, achieves a perfect balance between arrogance and vulnerability.  He’s priggish but we still worry about him as his situation goes from bad to worse.  Also effective are Chips Rafferty as the lugubrious policeman Crawford, who partakes of the roughneck culture around him without overdoing it and views John’s gradual succumbing to it with mixed disdain and concern; Al Thomas as Hynes, good-hearted but, wandering around the Yabba in a costume of fedora, shirt and bowtie, baggy shorts and knee-length white socks, sadly pathetic too; and Sylvia Kay as Hynes’s daughter Janette, whom John discovers is less repressed than she first appears.

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

But the true star of Wake in Fright is Donald Pleasence.  As Doc Tydon, he explains himself thus: “I’m a doctor of medicine and a tramp by temperament.  I’m also an alcoholic.  My disease prevented me from practising in Sydney but out here it’s scarcely noticeable.  Certainly doesn’t stop people from coming to see me.”   I wondered how convincingly the man who played Ernst Stavros Blofeld in You Only Live Twice (1967) would appear in the milieu of Wake in Fright but Pleasence nails it.  He’s perfect whether he’s sober and observing icily how John flinched at the touch of Crawford’s ‘hairy hand’; or drinking beer whilst standing on his head to demonstrate how the oesophagus muscles are stronger than gravity; or slyly taunting John about the ‘open’ relationship he enjoys with Janette; or drunkenly raving on a pub-porch about ‘Socrates, affectability, progress’ being ‘vanities spawned by fear’ while Joe and Dick punch lumps out of each other behind him.

 

Wake in Fright could be dismissed as an expression of middle-class disdain for the lower-brow culture and less-mannered behaviour of the proletariat, but I feel that’s a misinterpretation.  When John complains to Tydon about “the aggressive hospitality” of the Yabba, and “the arrogance of stupid people who insist you should be as stupid as they are,” Tydon retorts: “It’s death to farm out here.  It’s worse than death in the mines.  You want them to sing opera as well?”  And when John slips down the slippery slope, a slope Tydon has already descended, it’s not because he’s had to become a brute to fight off other brutes around him (like in another 1971 movie, Straw Dogs).  In John’s case, he’s entered an environment so harsh and thankless it can turn anyone into a brute.

 

It’s worth noting too that some people whom John encounters on his dark odyssey, like Crawford and Hynes, exhibit more kindness than he does himself.  Even Tydon, who at times seems beyond all help, reveals some decency at the end.

 

Wake in Fright will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, but it’s a film that hasn’t acquired any middle-aged flab or stodginess.  It still seems as lean, mean, raw and unsettling as it did to audiences back in 1971.  And it’s fitting that Nick Cave, the Victoria-born singer-songwriter and God-like genius whose work has frequently shared Wake in Fright’s bleak, brutal worldview, calls it ‘the best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence’.

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists