James Bond is, of course, a stupendously successful and enduring force in cinema, and it’s hard to avoid them entirely, even if you wanted to. That’s why we devoted an entire show to the series a few years back, but there’s always someone wanting a slice of that sweet Bond pie. Today we take a look at some films that have drawn inspiration from Bond, either as imitators, parodies, oddities, and even one that Bond itself liberally borrowed from.
Our star here is Dean Martin, who was even older in this role than Roger Moore was when he began playing Bond, and not only does he have more miles on him than Moore, they’re city miles. Now I don’t want to be accused of ageism, I’d just like to point out that it’s even more incredulous that the audience is expected to instantly buy young women swooning over Martin, and to share his outrage that a young man calls him “dad”, than it would have been with Moore. This, however, is a spoof so there’s not much value in comparing the actors any further, except to say that Martin’s light blue leisure suit here is even worse than Moore’s in Live and Let Die since this example looks largely indistinguishable from pyjamas. But it may be possible that I am digressing here.
So, to get back to the point, Martin plays Matt Helm, a US government counter-agent who is targeted for assassination by the S.P.E.C.T.R.E.-analogue BIG O (Bureau of International Government and Order), but manages to successfully fake his death. This frees him up to travel to Monte Carlo as postcard salesman Jimmy Peters in an attempt to infiltrate Julian Wall’s (Karl Malden) organisation and find the missing scientist Norman Solaris, whom Wall has kidnapped in order to coerce him into perfecting his heliobeam weapon.
During his intelligence-gathering attempts he meets Ann-Margret’s Suzie, who’s also looking for information on the missing scientist, though her interest is considerably more personal than Helm’s. They work together (and more, naturally) to defeat Wall and save the scientist and the world. Any more time spent detailing the plot would be time wasted, so I’ll stop there.
This is the second of four Matt Helm films that were produced between 1966 and 1969, all starring Martin and based, loosely, on novels by Donald Hamilton, and is inspired by, and also seems to have inspired, various Bond films and Bond parodies; indeed the whole Bond and Bond-parody world seems extremely incestuous. I’ll offer a few examples to give you a flavour of what I mean: the heliobeam space weapon has been seen in not only Diamonds Are Forever but also Die Another Day, a strong henchman character with metal implants called Ironhead comes a cropper with a magnet, more than a little reminiscent of Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me; Helm drives a hovercraft through a city, though incredibly it’s Moonraker, the “serious” film, and not this comedy, that contains the pigeon doing a double-take at a hover-gondola; and secret agent Helm being a fashion photographer must surely be the inspiration for Austin Powers having this same interest.
Murderers’ Row is very chauvinistic, partly as a product of its time, but also because it’s playing into that trope, and because it’s a comedy, it largely gets a pass on that front. I’m less willing to forgive it for its codenames, which are “Philippe” for the French agent, “Ames” for the British agent, and “Tempura” for the Japanese, but it’s a passing thing so not worth bothering much about.
Its Bond-style intro sequence really does look cheap, and the hovercraft sequences, shot in the Isle of Wight, are most assuredly not convincing as Monaco, and similarly to many Bond films the extended action sequence of the finale outstays its welcome and saw my attention diminish considerably (it’s also, surprisingly, unscored, meaning that the sole soundtrack is the horrendous droning of hovercraft engines). Fortunately the rest is pretty much all good.
Martin is a bit old to be playing this role, but he wasn’t called “The King of Cool” for nothing, and he has an easy going charm and swagger that fit the character perfectly (while not as good an actor, there’s a definite Cary Grant vibe to Martin in this film). Opposite him the incredibly vivacious Ann-Margret is delightful, though, unsurprisingly, not given a huge amount of substance to do, unless you count dancing like she’s taken all of the ecstasy while wearing a baby’s bonnet made out of daisies.
Lalo Schifrin’s Bond-inspired theme tune hits the mark, and is a riff rather than the nigh-on straight-up copying of Operation Kid Brother, and most importantly Murderers’ Row is really quite funny. Matt Helm also has a government-issued spy harmonica. Need I say more?
Billion Dollar Brain
I’ll have mentioned this in passing when we covered the other Harry Palmer films in our criminally underappreciated episode on Spycraft in February 2016, but mainly in the negative sense. This was based on a much younger, and therefore stupider, me of twenty plus years go. Now, to be clear from the off, this is the worst of the series proper (assuming you rightly ignore the two mediocre made for TV efforts), but it’s an awful lot better than I remembered it to be.
Michael Caine returns, naturally as Harry Palmer, now running a failing private detective agency, but still charmingly contemptuously rebuffing his old boss Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman)’s job offer. Happily for us, a plot phones him up – a computer generated voice offering him a seemingly simple courier job to Helsinki.
Off Palmer pops, finding on the other end his old friend Leo Newbigen (Karl Malden) working alongside Anya (Françoise Dorléac), taking orders from a familiarly voiced computer, apparently based in Texas, belonging to billionaire oil tycoon and die-hard patriot General Midwinter (Ed Begley).
Without going too deep into his plans, he’s very much against communism and is doing his darndest to bring about it’s downfall, up to and including mobilising, somehow, his own army, and using the unparalleled predictive power of his computer brain. By which he means simply a computer. He’s not a cyborg. That would have been awesome. However, Leo’s not been entirely truthful with his inputs on the results of his actions and network of entirely fictional agents across Latvia, whose paychecks he’s been pocketing, and garbage in equals garbage out. So, Midwinter stands ready to kick off World War 3, with Harry Palmer caught in the middle between Colonel Ross and similarly returning KGB acquaintance Colonel Stok (Oskar Homolka).
I think the excesses of Billion Dollar Brain stick out a bit more in the mind, certainly compared to the more grounded Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin. Ed Begley’s purposefully grandstanding, scenery chewing turn, and the character’s plans stick out like a sore thumb amidst the rest of the series, and even the first half of this film, which is as broadly as low-key as the other films. That, it turns out is the point – he is a ridiculous character, and so he is ridiculed, explicitly, even. I know writers who use subtext, and they are cowards.
And if you’re going excess, I suppose Ken Russell is the man to call. I’m not as familiar with his work as perhaps I ought to be, but he’s certainly making his stylistic preference felt here, particularly when Midwinter is going ham. I’m not 100% sure it works, but I’m much more open to it this time around, with a somewhat broader film palette to draw from this time around. It’s like getting David Lynch in to do the next Bond film. It was perhaps a touch too different for my younger self to begin to appreciate, but hey, it’s different. You’ve got to give it that, and in other company it’s more outre nature might had had me giving it the oddball recommendation award. However, we have some right doozies for you coming up today that make this seem pedestrian.
So, better than I remembered, and there’s a lot in here I like. It looks distinctive, Caine remains excellent, and there’s some sharp dialogue in here. And almost uniquely in today’s selection, characters with understandable motives that are related to you in ways that make a degree of logical sense. Yes, it covers the basic requirements for storytelling, and I’ll take what I can get in this episode, but it’s still a step down from Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin. Just not as big a one as I remember.
Operation Kid Brother
This daring enterprise casts Sean Connery’s real life brother Neil Connery as a plastic surgeon cum master hypnotist who is drafted into MI5 in a film where he’s the brother of a famous secret agent, at which point my brain shuts down and cannot parse any more of this film. With a plethora of ex-Bond supporting actors returning, including Adolfo Celi’s I Can’t Believe It’s Not Largo, this is quite the most blatant and strangest cash-in we’ve seen. It’s fascinatingly nonsensical and well worth excavating if you’re a fan of bafflingly dreadful cinema.
Never Too Young To Die
In this unexpected critique of poor city planning and incompetent civil engineers, Kiss frontman Gene Simmons plays Velvet Von Ragna, the hermaphrodite terrorist leader of a Mad Max-like post-apocalyptic biker gang, whom we first see murdering a woman who has refused to give up the location of the computer disk he/she requires in order to contaminate a city’s water supply with radioactive waste (let’s get this out of the way now: no, why water and radioactive waste are on connected circuits is never addressed; suffice to say the engineers and planners are the true villains here. Well, if you don’t count the scriptwriters, director and producers.)
Meanwhile, IN A DIFFERENT FILM ENTIRELY, 23 year old high school student and gymnastic champion Lance Stargrove (John Stamos) lives in 1980s California with his 34 year old roommate Cliff (Peter Kwong), an inventor of gadgets. Lance is in a bad mood because his father hasn’t turned up for parents’ day, despite having invented the fact that he would be attending. Not that attending would have been an option, as his father, Drew Stargrove (George Lazenby) is infiltrating Von Ragna’s base. (As an aside, my first name is rare enough in movies, but when it finally turns up as the name of a secret agent it’s this walking tree that gets it? Sake!)
Stargrove, Sr. is betrayed by a member of his team, Carruthers (Gene Simmons in a terrible ginger wig and unconvincing ginger beard), before being killed by Ragna in his goth/glam singer persona. (Another aside: there’s a good chance Carruthers is an Ian Fleming/Bond reference, and another name ruined by its association with this turd of a movie.) After the funeral Lance discovers he has inherited a hitherto unknown to him farm, so he sets off to check it out. There he finds Vanity’s Danja (possibly another Bond reference, possibly a name meant to sound like “danger” if you pronounced it as a French person, possibly, nay almost certainly, something I thought too much about but, honestly, this film invites thinking about pretty much anything else), an associate of his father. Lance encounters Danja, at his house, in the middle of a fight with members of the Mad Max gang, with automatic weapons and boxes of grenades, some of which explode and destroy his barn, and seems almost comically unfazed and incurious, proving that no-one involved thought much about this film, so neither should you. (Disregard me doing so, for I am a lost cause and quite, quite incapable of not thinking about these things).
Lance follows Danja (in glaringly inappropriate dress for the destination) into a bar in the post-apocalyptic parallel universe, where he encounters Velvet and gets embroiled in the action, and becomes the hero who must stop Velvet and his scientist, Riley (Robert Englund, here seen playing Kenny Everett, as Scott observed), from enacting their plan of embarrassing the engineers and their terrible designs.
Sadly amongst this selection this film is the only one with no redeeming features. I was hoping very much for a “so bad it’s good” experience from this, alas it’s very much “so bad I could barely concentrate on it”, and while the truly awful actor that is Gene Simmons is at least having a tremendous amount of fun here, he’s the only one doing so. It doesn’t help that he’s sort of doing a version of Tim Curry’s Frank-N-Furter, sans all ability and charisma.
John Stamos (I’m under the impression that he is, or was, quite famous in the USA, but I am only aware of him in his run in ER in the 2000s) is fine, I guess: certainly I’ve seen worse performances, though he seems oddly unaffected by having gone from high school student to mass killer in a handful of days. Vanity is given more agency and ability in her role than is typical of a 1980s B-movie that requires an attractive, scantily clad woman, so probably comes out best here, though she is still likely better known, if she is known at all, for being the lead of group Vanity 6, whose song Nasty Girl was prominent in another, and considerably better, 1980s film: Beverly Hills Cop. Everybody else is either boring and perfunctory, or over the top and cartoonish (Velvet’s minions), and, really, the entire thing is a waste of everyone’s time, especially mine. Pish and an incoherent mess.
The turn of the Willennium wasn’t the brightest hours for the Bond franchise, with the likeable Pierce Brosnan staring down the barrel of increasingly unlikable films. There were some questioning if it wasn’t time for Bond to hang up the Walther and retire to the Bahamas, and no shortage of wannabes looking to take over for a new generation.
Hence this big dumb wet fart of a film, again teaming up director Rob Cohen and Vin Diesel off the back of The Fast and the Furious, for which _xXx_essentially retrospectively act as a preview as to where that franchise would eventually end up. Diesel plays xXxander Cage, initially seemingly doing some sort of very early pre-YouTube social experiment, car thievery cum bridge driving with some video equipment that immediately makes this film seem like a million years old.
Meanwhile, the sharp suited, suave traditional secret agents of the NSA aren’t able to infiltrate the murky, tattooed, extreme subculture of Anarchy 99, a Russian terrorist cum paramilitary collective that wants Anarchy. I’m presuming they were aiming to have achieved Anarchy in 1999, but this film came out in 2002. Still, I applaud their commitment to brand recognition. 2000AD did the same. Seems to be working for them.
Anyway, NSA bigwig Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) strongarms Cage into working for him to infiltrate and bring down these ne’erdowells. Incidentally, I will always remember the character of Augustus Gibbons, mainly because of his ridiculous name, and Jackson’s simple and bold introductory line of “I’m Augustus Gibbons” being the exact point on first viewing where my patience for this film’s nonsense was exhausted. No mate, you’re not Augustus Gibbons. You’re Sam Jackson, and you deserve better, and I’m very sorry.
So off Cage goes, worming his way into Yorgi’s (Marton Csokas) gang, under the cover of representing wealthy Americans looking for cars stolen to order, meeting Asia Argento’s Yelena, seemingly Yorgi’s girlfriend before revealing herself to be an undercover Russian operative, and the two team up to stop Yorgi and co’s plan to start World War 3, that old chestnut, by firing off stolen, secret biochemical weapons.
I had little affection for it back in the day, because it is was then, and is now, so brazen in what it was built from. It’s the exact same barrel scrapings of a Bond script that Bond films of the time themselves were using, but this one has tattoos. Every other beat is exactly the same, so any marketing puff of this being “Bond for the young’uns” was just the most obviously superficial gloss that no-one particularly bought then, and less so now.
The next film we’ll talk of came out the same year as xXx, but feels achingly contemporary. xXx feels palaeolithic. Curiously, it’s so blatantly of its era that I can’t bring myself to have anything like the contempt I had for it back in the day. It so typifies the stagnation of Hollywood action films of the era, before they were forced into stealing a few archetypes from other genres and cultures, that it’s like a little time capsule of how things used to be.
It’s sort of nostalgic, in a way. It’s such a good example of a bad example that it deserves some sort of recognition, as a cautionary tale, if nothing else. But, no, the action scenes are, at their very best, passable, the plot, characters and motivations are mainly absent, the CG has aged like the inverse of a fine wine, and while by most accounts Vin Diesel is a nice guy, the only character he can play with any fire is Riddick, and he seems as bored with his turn here as I was. Asia Argento remains Asia Argento.
This really is a Bond knock-off in all of the worst ways. Entirely charmless, and in no way deserving of two sequels. It is not, I suppose, the world’s worst film, but nonetheless I am glad I will never have to think of this film again.
The Bourne Identity
Quite the change of gears, this. The Bourne Identity tells us of Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne, pulled out of the ocean by a passing trawler with no memory of how two bullets got into him, or indeed anything else about himself. Or why the only identifying item he carries was a now removed surgically implanted laser projector that shows a Swiss bank account number.
Heading to Switzerland, the safety deposit box he’s pointed to reveals his identity on a passport. Jason Bourne. That’s it. Film’s over. Well, no, of course not, there’s also a stash of other passports of varying nationality and name, and stacks of cash, and a handgun. Which ties in nicely with his unexpectedly elite hand to hand combat skills. I’m starting to think there’s something unusual about this Bourne character.
However, appearing at the bank kicks of a tumult of activity in the CIA’s black ops division, as they try to work out how to bring Bourne back in, dead or alive. Dead seems to be the preferred option, as they activate a number of similarly deadly agents to hunt Bourne down, including Clive Owen, again showing why he’s the best Bond we never got even on the other side of the equation.
Bourne goes on the lam with Franka Potente’s Marie Kreutz, initially just opportunistically hired to drive him to Paris to follow the breadcrumbs of his past life, but their relationship soon grows stronger, in the way that only car chases, shootouts and bone-crunching combat scenes can engender.
Plotwise, there’s not a lot more to it, really, although there’s a very strong smoke and mirrors routine going on that will stop you realising that. Information is doled out with ruthless efficiency, keeping you invested in the story of Bourne’s past deeds and how they come back to haunt him, aided greatly by an excellent turn from Matt Damon, who I don’t think we’d necessarily have expected to be this good at the action side of things.
Now, it’s not a pioneer in anything that it’s doing, but it’s doing an excellent job of synthesising the best parts of action cinema from across the globe and mashing it together to create a exceptionally pleasing blend that became quite the template for Western action cinema going, and indeed Bond itself, who followed this formula to the letter in the Casino Royale reboot, even the parkour segments.
It’s legacy, pardon the pun, is tempered only by the sequels which told more or less the same story another three times with, to be fair, reasonable success, albeit pointlessly. There’s an awful lot to like here, and from people you’d not necessarily have expected, not just Damon, but director Doug Liman, previously of Swingers fame. Quite the shift in genres, and I expect second unit under director Alexander Witt deserves a lot more of the credit for a lot of the success, alongside Saar Klein’s kinetic editing.
A very good thriller indeed, and up there with The Matrix in terms of shaping how Western action cinema is today. Unlike xXx, if you’d told me this film came out last week I wouldn’t have questioned it. Apart maybe from the Moby track. Don’t get a lot of him to the pound these days. Anyway, great stuff, go watch.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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