Sunday, November 16, 2014

From Russia with Love

  James Bond's return to the big screen was a fantastic success. All the rough edges that were present in Dr.No were sanded down, delivering a much smoother film. From Russia With Love is a movie I like more each time I see it. It's faster, bigger, and more intense than it's predecessor. And while Dr.No introduced a few iconic mainstay elements, this one completed the package. From top to bottom, From Russia With Love gives us the rest of what makes the classic 007 films so much fun. The dry wit, the gadgets, Q, and the faceless cat-stroking villain, pulling the strings behind the scene. It's hard not to enjoy this movie. Pound for pound it's one of the best of the franchise.

  In this sequel, we have Bond being sent to Istanbul on assignment to steal a top secret decoding device from the Russians. The device is called a 'Lektor', and is actually of little importance to the story, besides the fact that everyone wants it. The whole scenario in reality is a trap set up by SPECTRE to obtain the Lektor, and kill James Bond, exacting revenge for the demise of their operative Dr.No. Of course 007 is wise to the face not everything is as it seems. He partners up with his ally in Istanbul, and with the help of a young and beautiful Russian intelligence clerk begins to work out the details of acquiring the Lektor. A simple task made excruciatingly difficult by assassins, explosions, and endless shootouts.

  The movie doesn't skimp in the action department. From a guns-blazing enemy raid on a gypsy camp where Bond is hiding, to a high-speed climactic (and explosive) boat chase, the movie delivers thrill after thrill. It also takes us to fantastic locations as well, including secret underground canals, a great set piece on the Orient Express, the vibrant and colorful Gypsy camp, and the wonderfully eye-catching streets of Istanbul itself. Which were shot on location I believe. And of course, Sean Connery's Bond glides through the movie with confidence and swagger, dispensing punches and bullets as he sees fit. The guy is a balls-to-bone brawler. He doesn't fight with the calculated precision and learned skill of some of the later Bonds. He fights like he learned on the streets. I think it adds something to the character. Whether or not it was a conscious thing they did, or just something Connery brought to the role, it's a fantastic little touch.

  I don't want to say these movies invented the spy genre, but it sure sensationalized it. James Bond became not only the archetype for secret agents, but the standard... and it was movies like this that helped him get there. The worst thing From Russia With Love could've done is tried to replicate the precise formula of Dr.No. Another tropical setting, another ominous villain in an underground lair, et cetera et cetera... Instead, they stuck reasonably close to the source material, and produced another great adventure that takes us to a very different corner of the world, forsaking palm trees and bikinis for cobblestone streets and cold war espionage. As much as the blue skies and sandy beaches suit the aesthetic of an ideal James Bond movie, so does a setting like this. Though that's not to say it's without it's own host of wonderful characters.

  Not the least of which is Bond's charismatic ally, Karim Bey. As resourceful as he is hospitable, the movie wouldn't be as much fun to watch without him. He certainly makes an impression and ends up being a real memorable character. To be a memorable secondary character in a franchise that has 24 installments is no small feat. Karim Bey, and his many sons are great. Loyal allies to Bond, and interesting to watch, From Russia With Love is all the richer for it. It also wouldn't be as classic if it wasn't for the trademark henchman, Red Grant. Lackey to the sinister Rosa Klebb, Grant follows Bond around the entire movie, watching and stalking him from the shadows. His presence is felt throughout, even when we don't see him. By the time Bond and him meet face to face, the tension is beyond palpable. Grant sets the bar high for any possible successors in the villainous henchman department. He's smart, strong, and ruthless, but he too feels like a well rounded character. Which is fantastic because his is the sort of character that could've easily wound up with a personality not unlike a brick wall.

  The weak link for me is the 'Bond girl', Tatiana Romanova, played by Daniela Bianchi. I understand how some might like her, but she's a drag.  A doe eyed damsel in distress who falls madly in love with James Bond. She doesn't seem like the type that would take it very well when she finds out that he doesn't really care about her, and he'll move on to another three women before the week is up. I understand the need for a female counterpoint to Bond in these movies. Whether it be a damsel in distress or a more capable woman, more his equal. But Tatiana is a stock character. There's nothing exactly groundbreaking or even interesting about her. She fawns over Bond the entire movie, and does little else. The only moment in which she's really required to do anything comes at the very end. Which is a shame because the role her character filled could've been brilliantly tweaked to straddle the line between femme fatale and damsel in distress. As it is, all we have is a damsel in distress, and not a very interesting one at that. She's about as engaging as a fangirl or a groupie, following their idol around for a week.

  On the flip side, she's not bad enough to bring the movie down either. She's just a fixture, little else. Which is fine because there's so much else going on regardless, there's no time to really stop and think about her. The movie clicks along at an even faster pace than Dr.No which is actually very welcome, but somehow it never feels quite as alive. There was an energy to Dr.No which to this day allows it to edge out as my favorite Bond movie ever. Maybe it was the newness of it, maybe it was the setting, or the villain. I don't know. It could be any one of a hundred things that From Russia With Love doesn't have, but that's not to say From Russia With Love doesn't have it's own incorrigible likability. It's a great action movie, and a great James Bond movie. A solid entry in the franchise which is as memorable as it is exciting. It's set pieces are immediately recognizable, and it's characters unforgettable. I have a feeling I'm going to run out of adjectives before I reach the end of the Connery era. Yet as the credits roll, they tell us that James Bond will return in "Goldfinger", and I too will return, with my review of "Goldfinger".

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