(Dr.) No Time To Die Another Day With a View to a Licence to Kill

(Dr.) No Time To Die Another Day With a View to a Licence to Kill

The James Bond Twitter account officially (and finally) threw us a bone(r). The title for the next James Bond movie will be…. [drum roll] …NO TIME TO DIE.

Oh, I’m sorry. I noticed you nodded off during my title recitation. I’ll try that one more time.

NO TIME–

You did it again. You fell asleep. One more time. Real quick.

NOTIMETODIE.

Indeed. The Bond producers summoned the powers of the Bond name generator and came up with a title so prosaic that nobody could possibly argue. I’ve come to the conclusion that the #Bond25 codename “Shatterhand” announcement was just an informal crowdsourcing. Based on the Internet’s violent reaction, they popped their heads back in their hole like Punxsutawny Phil and regrouped until the end of Winter. I’ll say it again — “Shatterhand” is no more bizarre than Goldfinger — but because the hive mind doesn’t recognize it as something with origins in an actual Fleming text they went to grab their pitchforks at first sight.

My first reaction to NO TIME TO DIE was complacency. There’s no real room to argue because it’s just not worth the effort. It’s a name designed to sound exactly like six other James Bond movies and instill confidence through familiarity. So familiar in fact that I felt I’d been there before. It wasn’t until author Mark O’Connell Tweeted this nugget that I understood why.

While Mark lauds the Bond-extended source of the title, I’m not convinced that it makes it sound any more compelling. NO TIME TO DIE hangs there limply, referential or not.

I’ve already read a dozen thinkpieces about what the title might mean. All I can say about that is stop. There’s nothing here to analyze. There’s no overt connections to Spectre. Take a breath and count to ten. Shatterhand had all the connotations. If you want to analyze something start there. Unless you’re feeling like the “NO” in NO TIME TO DIE has to do with a certain Dr. and then I’d say you might probably be on to something… it is set in Jamaica after all. That places us in the realm of titles featuring puns and, well… I don’t feel like commenting on that potentiality.

james bond in no time to die

I’m not passing judgment on the film based on a title. I’m not delusional. As we dissect the trickle of information coming out of the EON camp as we await the 2020 release of the 25th Bond film, however, every small piece of news contributes to a bigger picture. It’s still hazy, but I’m not overly optimistic that EON has committed to creating rather merely responding to what they think the broadest marketplace wants. That doesn’t guarantee box office dollars. It almost certainly guarantees a lack of creativity.

Every long-tenured Bond (Dalton and Lazenby excluded) has started by daring to reinvigorate the formula before devolving into paint-by-numbers and/or self-parody. Looking at the Craig era from the inside out, I’m getting the sense that we’re re-living the end of the Brosnan years in all the worst ways. After a strong sequence of films, each faced a final film to define the generation.

Consider how differently we’d feel about Brosnan’s Bond if Die Another Day had been a successful film. After we learned about the creative upheavals and cavalcade of writers on Bond 25, how confident were you? Now that we’ve got the title — NO TIME TO DIE — a phlegmatic title that emanates with the banal stink of Die Another Day, how are you feeling?

no time to die cary fukunaga

Daniel Craig and Cary Fukunaga on the set of NO TIME TO DIE.

It all depends on how much faith you put in Cary Fukunaga. That’s the one concrete plus. But then again — Lee Tamahori once carried that same type of outsider cache. No one could have anticipated that the filmmaker responsible for Once Were Warriors (1994) would produce the fever dream that is Die Another Day.

#Bond25 Update: Codenamed “Shatterhand”

#Bond25 Update: Codenamed “Shatterhand”

We learned an interesting tidbit about the soon-to-be-in-production Bond 25 this morning. Shooting begins on April 6th at Pinewood Studios under the working title “Shatterhand.”

shatterhand bond 25

Seeing as how “Shatterhand” serves as Ernst Stavro Blofeld alias in Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice novel, we can derive a few choice tidbits from this small piece of information. But first let’s rewind to talk about the goings on since my last dispatch about the long overdue Bond 25 production.

scott z burns 007

Bourne Ultimatum screenwriter Scott Z Burns has been added to the team of wordsmiths with their hand in the Bond 25 pot. Burns has been brought on, reportedly, for a rewrite on the drafts by Purvis and Wade and Haggis and maybe even Mr. Magoo, who, though uncredited, must have had a hand in crafting the perfectly sensible Spectre plot. Burns has garnered a reputation as being one of the go-to screenwriting doctors in Hollywood.

A number of sources have suggested that Burns’ involvement involves more than a polish, and we shouldn’t be surprised if he receives top billing when all is said and done. He’s done uncredited emergency surgery on films such as The Bourne Supremacy, Widows and Star Wars: Rogue One. I love the fact that EON has brought in fresh blood to “overhaul” the Bond 25 script.

shatterhand bond 25

And now what “Shatterhand” tells us about the potential direction of Bond 25.

BLOFELD IS BACK. Seeing as how the term comes from the Blofeld alias, we’re all but assured of a re-emergence of the Blofeld character. As of today, however, Christoph Waltz was still out — so the production will be returning to the amorphous Blofeld appearance which Fleming made a prominent component in his novels. The Bond films primarily made use of this element because of casting convenience. EON will once again return to the rotating Blofeld theory as a means to start fresh after Spectre, but only a little fresh.

shatterhand bond 25 (waltz not included)

GARDEN OF DEATH? In the novel You Only Live Twice, James Bond mourns the death of Tracy by retreating into an alcoholic stupor, in order to revive the slagging career of the agent, M sends him to Japan on a cupcake diplomatic mission. While in Japan, the head of the Japanese Secret Service (Tiger Tanaka) challenges Bond to assassinate a Swiss botanist by the name of Dr. Guntram Shatterhand who has been employing a garden of death to facilitate a rash of suicides by Japanese citizens. Shatterhand is, of course, the refashioned Blofeld, having undergone another physical transformation. I’ve said from the first moment EON announced the return of Blofeld that the only reason to see this character in a Bond movie again would be to film the unused portions of You Only Live Twice, i.e. the Garden of Death.

shatterhand bond 25 - garden of death

AVENGING THE DEATH OF TRACY MADELEINE. Tracy can’t be Tracy, but Tracy could be Madeleine and the last thing that Bond needs is another dead woman to avenge. Listen — we’ve seen this before. And better. Madeleine Swann pales in comparison to Vesper. Does anyone believe that Bond fell madly, deeply, truly in love with Madeleine in Spectre? Purely a contrivance to service a poorly constructed narrative. Spectre didn’t earn yet another revenge plot a la Vesper or Tracy.

I’m skeptical, too, Madeleine.

007hertzrumble’s “Shatterhand” Commentary

The Internet is already on fire because “Shatterhand” is “ridiculous” (the Daily Mail) and a “face-palm” (The Guardian). First point, before we go any further down this road. IT’S A WORKING TITLE BECAUSE IT’S NOT OFFICIAL. The working title for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 was “How the Solar System Was Won” for goodness sakes. It might be “Shatterhand;” it might not be “Shatterhand.” I for one hope “Shatterhand” turns out to be legitimate, because LIGHTEN UP, EVERYONE.

Since when did James Bond fans turn into such dour goddamn stick-in-the-muds? Line up “Shatterhand” with Goldfinger and Thunderball and it doesn’t seem out of place at all. Daniel Craig’s been a game player in this saga, but the series has lost one of its earliest and most vital components — a sense of humor. Calling your movie “Shatterhand” suggests some of that devil-may-care whimsy we’ve been missing in the Craig era — and you’d need it if you’re going to dare showcase a Garden of Death. Just because Cragiers fell on a couch in the opening sequence of Spectre doesn’t mean it actually attempted a sustained undercurrent of humor. It wasn’t there — and it hasn’t been there since Vesper died. If EON dropped the name GOLDFINGER on you tomorrow for the first time, it would be tarred, feathered, roasted and thrown in the garbage heap of Internet memes by lunchtime. “Fans” don’t know what they want, but at least they’re predictable in that they’ll hate everything.

Regarding the suggestiveness of “Shatterhand,” I’m conflicted. In order to finally witness the Death Garden on screen, the filmmakers likely will continue threads initiated in Spectre. We risk Madeleine being an ersatz Tracy Bond and dying so that we might experience yet another bit of Craig-brand “revenge.” Craig would be best served by progressing in a fashion reminiscent of the old days. When something didn’t fly with fans, EON moved on without looking back — for better or worse. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service didn’t play well with 1969 audiences, so when EON followed that up with Diamonds Are Forever in 1971 it proceeded as if it never happened at all. Proceed as if Spectre didn’t happen. Liberate your creative forces to do what they do best. Create, without being tethered to the past. And call it “Shatterhand” — because WHY NOT? I’m looking forward to a bit of color back in my Bond.

Also, has there ever been a title song more perfect for Arctic Monkeys’ self-aware lounge swagger?

Sepia, anyone?

Previous Bond 25 updates: Danny Boyle, Cary-less Whispers

 

 

#Bond_age_ Tee: DR. NO – Quarrel and Son Charter Co.

#Bond_age_ Tee: DR. NO – Quarrel and Son Charter Co.

#1. Quarrel and Son Charter Co.

Just because you own the tee, doesn’t mean you’ll be afraid of dragons. In fact, I’ve heard the opposite to be true.

This is the first in a series of 25 designs inspired by the Bond movies. I’ll go in order from Dr. No through (if it ever comes out) #Bond25. (I’m skeptical.) I’ll put all of the designs up in the #Bond_age_ Threadless and Redbubble pages for you to purchase on your favorite clothing and paraphernalia. Mouse pads, backpacks, bedding, phone cases. So much stuff you don’t need! T-shirts, however… t-shirts are essential to being.

The Quarrel and Son Charter Co. was inspired by Bond’s shepherd into Crab Key, his loyal friend Quarrel — a character who would have already been established before Dr. No if the films had gone by the book chronology. But as you well know, Quarrel met his demise on Crab Key, which meant that when Bond met with Quarrel in a later James Bond adventure (Live and Let Die), Quarrel was no longer Quarrel but Quarrel, Jr. Logically this meant that Quarrel, Jr. was around at the time of Dr. No and *clearly* an inspiration for the name of Quarrel’s Jamaican Charter and Tourism company. On a related note, Quarrel, Jr. would have been a much better cartoon than James Bond, Jr.

Look forward to my From Russia With Love-inspired design coming soon to a t-shirt near you. Hopefully I can stay on track and keep pumping out the hits, but not every single design is going to be a winner and I’m prepared for my inevitable Die Another Day of #Bond_age_ t-shirt design.

If you have any ideas for James Bond t-shirts you’d like to wear, let me know and we’ll foist them up on Threadless and Redbubble. All t-shirt ideas are good t-shirt ideas.

Bond 25 Updates and Careless Whispers

Bond 25 Updates and Careless Whispers

I’m bored, Bond fans. I’m also tired of being disappointed. I owe that feeling to the lingering stale acidity left in my mouth after Spectre — it’s like I sucked on a lemon three years ago and haven’t brushed my teeth. And you’re yelling back at me things about oral hygiene, but it’s a metaphor and dental health doesn’t matter in metaphors.

By now the #Bond_age_ team should have worked up at least three new podcasts dissecting teaser trailers and posters and casting decisions. Instead we’re on total radio silence because other than some names and scattered casting notions, we’ve got as much information as Blofeld has scruples.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, let’s rundown what we know, what we’re guessing, and what I hope for Bond 25.

james bond 25 daniel craig

What We Know About Bond 25

Before we talk about anything, I’d like to make it clear that Daniel Craig is back. As I said he would be. (Not to brag, but…) So please stop recasting him. For now. Bond 25 comes out February 14th, 2020. After that, we’ll talk.

We know that Danny Boyle was directing a script written by Danny Boyle and Trainspotting screenwriter John Hodge and now he’s not. The EON team cited “creative differences” as the reason for his departure. That means that Boyle wanted to do something different (as he’s want to do) and the Bond institution (the Bondstitution?) said no. This leaves me desperately wanting to know what the hell Danny Boyle had in mind — and how the hell we can see his vision become a reality? An easter egg on the Bond 25 Blu-ray? Lego movie version? Dinner theater?

FIRED. DO NOT PASS GO—LDFINGER. DO NOT COLLECT $200.

We also know that some of the ideas from Boyle’s and Hodge’s script made their way into the current iteration that’s being rewritten by — you guessed it — Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, the scribes who’ve tackled every Bond movie since The World is Not Enough. And while they were been behind the typewriters for Casino Royale, they’ve also been responsible for Die Another Day and Spectre. We can’t read too much into their return other than the fact that EON wants to maintain the status quo — a fact we already knew before they ousted Danny Boyle because the only thing more frightening than “change” in the Bond universe is that Jinx spinoff that never materialized.

But now about the directors — which represents the most definitive fact of all the new facts other than “James Bond will return…” Cary Joji Fukunaga has replaced Danny Boyle. Cary Fukunaga might not be a cinephile’s first choice as his most notable work has been done in the realm of TV — most notably True Detective Season 1 and Maniac. He also directed the film Beasts of No Nation about a child fighting in a fictional civil war-torn African country. (No. I haven’t seen it.) The buzz on the Interwebs loves this choice because of Fukunaga’s status as an important up-and-coming cinematic voice. Many have called it a bold direction for the 57-year-old franchise.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock (9881578ak). Britain Maniac World Premiere, London, United Kingdom – 13 Sep 2018

#Bond_age_ Hot Take: Eh. Based on the limited amount of theatrical work we’ve seen from Cary Fukunaga, I can only generalize. I’m excited because he’s shown a broad range of tonal styles from Jane Eyre to Maniac, but I’m not at all confident he’s going to be given the opportunity to break from the Mendes cycle that dinged Skyfall and castrated Spectre. Once upon a time I felt similar enthusiasm for a director named Lee Tamahori. We won’t get Die Another Day out of Fukunaga, but honestly I wouldn’t be opposed to something in that general direction because it would at least mean that someone’s trying to have fun with this series again.

What We’re Guessing

The reported casting calls for Bond 25 has also shed some light (a nightlight at best) on EON’s aspirations. A call for a charismatic/vindictive Russian/Balkan leading man and leading lady with “strong physical combat skills” (also Balkan). I also read at some point that they were seeking a Maori actor with “combat skills.” It sounds like Babs (aka Barbara Broccoli) has been reading current events and watching Moana and in between bites of Fritos synthesized the two.

Maui’s open to new opportunities.

Back in June, a rumor surfaced that Bond producers wanted Helena Bonham Carter to play the lead baddie. I haven’t heard anything since then to deny or corroborate that bit of news. True or false, that sounds delicious to me and would be the first female lead villain since Sophie Marceau in The World is Not Enough (1999).

Helena Bonham Carter isn't just a rumor. She's the best rumor because we have so little.

We expect the tonal consistency of the Craig era to continue to its logical terminus. Fukunaga has shown a light touch within darker material, however. He’s also said that his first Bond was Roger Moore in A View to a Kill — and he refused to pick a favorite Bond actor because “every single one of them has brought their thing to it and its nice to have that difference…” Keep saying the right things, CJF.

I’m also assuming David Arnold comes back to write the score now that Mendes and his boy wonder Newman have left Gotham — I mean Bondtown — for good.

What else can we assume? Well, we can assume that eventually we’ll get a name, a trailer and a teaser poster. We can assume that people will play roles and that drinks will be had and cars will be driven.

WHO STOLE THE COLOR?

What I Want in Bond 25 (Run-On Edition)

I want every trace of Spectre gone and I never want to see Blofeld again. He can be a villain but I want an arm or maybe a leg. A hairy cat, but I want his visage off my screen. I want Arctic Monkeys to do the theme song because that might actually be fun. Have you listened to their new record? It oozes smug like the coldest of martinis and “Four Out of Five” is basically already a Bond song. I want Bond to make bad puns and gamble and match wits with bad guys. Another female villain would be great. I still say that Monica Bellucci should have been the real Blofeld and that would have made all the difference. I would like a Bond movie with some color. Do you remember how vibrant Goldfinger and Thunderball were? You could feel the blue of Bond’s poolside romper. Raise your hand if you remember any color in Spectre? Even Madeleine’s dress looked overexposed. I want Bond to be a cocky bastard and stop with the tired middie-aged introspection that started in Skyfall (because if Bond can’t survive his midlife crisis what hope is there for the rest of us?!?) and go on an actual goddamn MI6 mission handed to him by an M who sits at his desk and makes snide remarks about Bond’s carelessness. HE WILL NOT GO ROGUE. HE WILL BE IN CONSTANT CONTACT WITH HIS SUPERIORS. HE WILL ENJOY BEING HIMSELF. WE WILL ENJOY BOND. BOND NEEDS TO BE BOND AGAIN.

Thank you. Now let’s have the Arctic Monkeys play us out.

Bond 25 News: Danny Boyle tabbed to direct?

Bond 25 News: Danny Boyle tabbed to direct?

In what must certainly be considered the best news to come out of the Bond camp since the Daniel Craig sported a black tactleneck a Spectre teaser, Danny Boyle has confessed to signing on as director for the next James Bond film. Since this is a page about James Bond, we here at #Bond_age_ feel obligated to share our enthusiasm.

We try not to get too worked up about these early nuggets of news, but since we’ve been sweating out the Christopher Nolan rumors, Danny Boyle’s confirmation turned the #Bond_age_ HQ into a Bacchanalian scene of euphoria last night. This is why you, too, should be excited.

danny boyle bond 25

Danny Boyle on the Trainspotting 2 press tour.

Danny Boyle’s a chameleon. The best Bond directors do not insert themselves or their agenda into James Bond. I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone that could pinpoint Boyle’s directorial aesthetic. While that sounds like a backhanded compliment, it’s far from it. Some of the same things could have been said about Stanley Kubrick and he turned out alright. To distill this into neat #Bond_age_  reductionism, Boyle is a more talented Martin Campbell. He’s also rather eccentric in his film choices. He’s directed existential sci-fi (Sunshine), horror (28 Days Later), black-as-night humor (Shallow Grave), and some Bollywood (Slumdog Millionaire). Some have called him erratic, but I’d prefer to call him whimsical. Bond’s a different story. The genre’s already in place. He just has to do what he does best.

Boyle’s way with actors and characters in his films most excites me about his Bond potential. I’ve been beating this dead horse for years, but the best James Bond movies give 007 time and space to be James Bond — to drink, to gamble, to woo, to adjust his tie without anywhere particular to be. If it’s also true that Boyle is working on a script with his Trainspotting co-screenwriter John Hodge, this could be the best of all worlds. A character-fueled director working with the writer responsible for arguably his best film.

Also, allow me to remind you (in case it’d slipped your mind) that this wouldn’t be Danny Boyle’s first Bond adventure.

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One more tidbit that should be of foremost concern for any James Bond fan heading into Bond 25 — what of David Arnold? Arnold scored every Bond film from Tomorrow Never Dies through Quantum of Solace when Sam Mendes discharged him in favor of his own personal composer, [Jerry Seinfeld]NEWMAN![/Jerry Seinfeld] — thus representing Sam Mendes’ greatest crime against humanity. So. Do you know who wrote the score for that little Danny Boyle helmed Bond short film? That’s goddamn right. David Arnold.

If David Arnold’s back (and I think we can fully expect it), that’s already the best gift Danny Boyle could have given us 20 months before the curtain drops on Bond 25.

Since this all came from the mouth of Boyle, we’ll have to wait for EON’s official confirmation. In the meantime, I’m more than happy to take Danny Boyle at his word. Because it’s the only news upon which we can hang our hats.

Red Sparrow, aka Female Prisoner Tatiana Romanova – a review

Red Sparrow, aka Female Prisoner Tatiana Romanova – a review

My elevator pitch for Red Sparrow:

“It’s a Kubrickian-ish Tinker Tailor told from the perspective of From Russia With Love’s Tatiana Romanova by way of Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion.”

Red Sparrow has created a rift. One faction stands opposed shaking its fist angrily at mainstream misogyny. The other faction wilts a little, quietly asserting that Francis Lawrence’s film is an uneven, but generally competent thriller that may actually have something unique to offer.

The general public, however, has been misled about the nature of the film. Expectations can be damning. Luring an audience that feels betrayed by the content creates negative word of mouth. An advertising campaign that sells a movie like Red Sparrow as another Hollywood thriller (it’s like Atomic Blonde because it’s girl spies and stuff!) creates immediate indifference in the moviegoers who might be more willing to meet it on its own terms.

A disclaimer

I should also make it clear, right from the get go, that I do not believe battle lines have to be drawn between gender perspectives. I believe that the effective employment of the aesthetic in question remains a universal concern for discerning fans of both mainstream cinema, genre cinema and beyond. This is not an easy film to defend, but I will try to piece together appropriate and clear-minded words of some kind.

People are violently, viscerally offended by the content of Red Sparrow. I believe they’re viewing the film with miscalibrated expectations. Maybe that’s wrong. Maybe the most violent detractors have the film assessed more clearly, but Red Sparrow doesn’t – or shouldn’t – fall into mainstream genre convention. The minute I made the connection to Shunya Itō’s Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion (1972) I had to question its existence as a big budget Hollywood thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence.

Meiko Kaji in Shunya Ito’s Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion

Let’s talk exploitation and frame of reference

For those that haven’t seen the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, they’re stylized revenge films (and part of the Japanese women-in-prison genre made by Toei Company) concerning a woman named Matsu coerced into undercover work by her boyfriend (a crooked police detective) to win the trust of the Yakuza. After she is gang raped, the police detective barges in, busts the Yakuza and discards the battered Matsu, nothing more than a pawn in his political aspirations. After a failed attempt to stab her former lover, she’s sentenced to hard time in a women’s prison and subjected to torture at the hands of her sadistic male prison guards. She ultimately escapes, as if emerging from a chrysalis. The virgin reborn as an assassin, whereby she extracts bloody revenge, including literal emasculation. Itō’s sympathy clearly resides with his strong female character.

In Sight & Sound, Matthew Leyland notes that the feminist reading of the film as a criticism of the oppressive Japanese patriarchal society becomes “hard to reconcile with the sustained, glib emphasis on female torment” – something that has been said about Red Sparrow, just without the benefit of 40-plus years of critical analysis. Though “hard to reconcile” Ito has made a strong case for his film. Going as far as calling it a feminist manifesto, as some have done, stretches credibility however. Creating the ultimate rebel within such a deeply misogynistic society required a figure of female opposition.

The inciting scene of sexual violence, stylized and shot from beneath, reduces viewer proximity to the on-screen action by calling attention to the film as artifice.

Female Prisoner 701 portrays men as filthy, leering animals, and the two rape scenes place very little flesh on display. There’s no shortage of frivolous nudity, but the film also deflects base criticism by using a highly stylized color palette and innovative camera work, transcending its graphic nature and rising above reductive terms such as “Grindhouse” or “exploitation.” The male gaze (and thereby the male viewer) is complicit, and make no mistake it is not celebrated. Recognizing this is an important step in processing the film’s impact as both a piece of exploitation and as a feminist-leaning film.

With regard to Red Sparrow, it’s also important to attempt to define the term “exploitation” – not because I assume you’re unfamiliar, on the contrary, but because it encompasses so many broad and independent factors like budget, theme, graphic content, and intended audience that the determination ultimately lacks idiosyncratic specificity. Exploitation cinema implies many different things depending upon your own cinematic point of reference.

Pam Cook, in her article “The Pleasures and Perils of Exploitation Films,” suggests that exploitation films can be seen “as offering alternatives to the dominant representational system, opening up the possibility of saying something different.” In other words, they’re not beholden to traditional commercial expectations because they do not aspire to attract mainstream sensibilities.

After the inciting rape scene, Ito plays with color and cinematic conventions to denote the emotional transformation of Matsu.

She continues to say that “much of the appeal of exploitation films to the drive-in cinema and student audiences for whom they were primarily intended derived from the knowing way in which they played on audience expectations of narrative and genre, parodying mainstream conventions.” This is an important distinction as it places exploitation in direct conflict with the multiplex. She goes on: “Low budget exploitation scandalises some of the most hallowed canons of film criticism – the assumption that the critic or academic knows better than ‘unsophisticated’ audiences how to judge a good or bad film…” An exploitation film attempts to shock your sensibilities (and undermine critical superiority) by way of uncommon or sensationalized sexual or violent imagery – and as Cook suggests, they also often do so referentially, with a nod toward films of the past or an eye towards undermining genres or conventions of the present.

Despite being released to mainstream cinemas and marketed as a conventional spy thriller, Red Sparrow falls neatly into that definition of exploitation cinema. It does not dare go as far as a film like Female Prisoner 701 because there are dozens of systemic checks and balances in place to make sure that nothing as challenging as Shunya Itō’s landmark film could ever accidentally play at your local multiplex.

And this is how that relates to the Red Sparrow

From this point on, I cannot guarantee a totally spoiler-free conversation due to the required specificity. Proceed at your own peril. I promise not to give away the final act, however.

Red Sparrow attempts to reset our expectations early in the film. Bolshoi ballerina Dominika Egorova suffers a gruesome injury during a performance. Her male counterpart lands on her leg, crushing her tibia. The camera pulls upward revealing the grotesque configuration of her once pristine, virgin body. Virgin as in untarnished by the cold, sterile, and uncivil world outside her isolated Bolshoi bubble.

The opening ballet scene, pre-injury, that also showcases some of the standout costume design found throughout the film.

The film cuts to the hospital. The film’s warm color palette disappears, replaced by sterility. Dominika rushed into surgery. The standard Hollywood film concerned with broad decorum would have skipped directly to a shot of her walking with a cane, a close-up of the 12” scar on her shin. Red Sparrow does not offer anesthesia in the form of semiotics – injury to visual post-surgical evidence. Lawrence allows his camera to linger over the horror in the space between the cuts. The lifeless pronate ballerina, the open gaping wound. Surgeons drill her shattered bones back together. An unsettling brand of body horror brought to you by the coalescence of mangled flesh and the aural tremors of power tools.

Exploitation films do not avoid conflict with expectation – they thrive on it. For revenge films especially, the audience must experience these horrors so that they may morally justify the ultimately extreme actions taken by the protagonist. Without proper justification, the film ebbs closer towards repellent nihilism (see something like I Spit on Your Grave, which Roger Ebert called a “a vile bag of garbage”) or the Death Wish sequels (“morally repugnant”). The torment of the protagonist feeds our sympathies.

But the balance

A director must frame or balance any exploitative sexual violence or exhibition with an equal or opposite force. This is where I’ve noticed the violent criticisms made against Red Sparrow take exception to Francis Lawrence’s leering camera and the use of rape as a frivolous inciting action. I see reason for objection and wholeheartedly respect the criticism. Rape has become a lazy narrative device for both film and television written or produced by any gender. While I do not entirely disagree with this criticism of Red Sparrow, I also believe that this reaction speaks to the provocative and calculated ways Lawrence and screenwriter Justin Haythe approached – albeit imperfectly – a narrative development that they saw as essential to Dominika’s character.

But we’ll return to that in a minute. I want to first put Dominika Egorova’s character into some kind of cinematic and perhaps historical perspective.

All roads lead to James Bond

Daniela Bianchi as Tatiana Romanova in From Russia With Love

Daniela Bianchi as Tatiana Romanova in From Russia With Love.

In Ian Fleming’s novel From Russia with Love, the Soviet counter-intelligence organization known as SMERSH recruits a young cipher clerk, Corporal Tatiana Romanova, to defect from her post and seduce James Bond in order to set him up for assassination and humiliate Britain with reports of 007’s affair with a Russian agent. The cipher clerk’s official conscription occurs when Rosa Klebb (“The Head of Otydel II, the department of SMERSH in charge of Operations and Executions”) orders Tatiana to her apartment. Once there she interrogates the clerk with intrusive, sexually-explicit questions before excusing herself only to reappear moments later in a “semi-transparent nightgown in orange crepe de chine.”

Though Fleming reserved plenty of disgust for his grotesque creation of Rosa Klebb and the recruitment of the gentle flower Tatiana Romanova, he stopped far short of implying anything as dehumanizing Dominika’s training. Fleming wasn’t pulling strictly from his own wellspring of lecherous imagination; (his lesbian derision notwithstanding) the fictional SMERSH organization embellished characteristics from the real-life Russian Red Army counter-intelligence department. He fictionalized well-known stories of female spies sent to seduce and cohabitate under orders of their government. Their bodies belonged to the state, a method of operation that Red Sparrow hammers home relentlessly.

Sparrow inverts our perspective in From Russia With Love (1963). Instead of the dashing Western, morally superior James Bond, we identify with the film’s Tatiana Romanova. A female agent forced against her will to degrade herself in the name of her country. James Bond, of course, woos and turns Romanova’s loyalties as a result of his cro-magnon sex appeal. There’s no great impetus for Grand Guignol revenge because she’s only been made extremely uncomfortable by unwanted sapphic advances and forced to have sex with James Bond – which according to our coached Western perspective turned out to be pretty okay. The reality, of course, is far from Fleming’s fairy tale.

Corruption and rebirth

Dominika Egorova, Matsu, and Tatiana Romanova have all been exploited. These stories detail degradation of the human spirit and the prioritization of the expendable flesh. The truth of this exploitation, i.e. the events contributing to the dehumanization, should repel viewers vis-à-vis the humiliation suffered at the hands of her instructors/captors.

Red Sparrow indoctrination

Sparrow indoctrination

Dominika, like Matsu, must first survive the transformative horrors that corrupt her virginity (symbolic and/or literal) and re-render her a cold-blooded killer that uses her sexuality for power and leverage against her enemies. Her training is meant to disconnect the human from their body, to seduce and destroy without reservation, to interpret the desires of the target and offer them as means to emotional and physical domination.

This is where I feel that Red Sparrow becomes potentially more than its critics suggest. Not easily stomachned, the training scenes in Red Sparrow do not reach the levels achieved in Female Prisoner 701. Lawrence has made them cold and clinical and negated the titillation factor associated with on-screen Hollywood nudity. To its credit, the film provides some gender counterbalance. Male students are also humiliated, forced to strip and display their bodies for the class and thereby the viewers.

These scenes make up the film’s statement regarding the sexual power struggle. After a fellow student attempts to rape an unsuspecting Dominika from behind in the shower, she rips the handle from the shower and beats him, leaving gashes across his face. In class, that battered student is presented to the class, and the instructor (played Charlotte Rampling, in a tactical and knowing bit of casting) tells Dominika to “give him what he wants.”

The exercise intends to further break Dominika’s rebellious spirit, to humiliate and degrade. Instead, she undermines the exercise by undressing completely and presenting herself on the table in front of him. The would-be rapist suddenly falls victim to impotence. When Dominika removes his leverage, she castrates his power over her. Her instructors, of course, find fault in her manipulation, yet she is mysteriously given a a field assignment: to seduce an American agent (Joel Edgerton) working in Istanbul who could reveal the name of name of his Russian contact. We will not know how or why she “passed” her training until much later.

Dominika begins her seduction of the American agent (right), played by Joel Edgerton.

I’d like to direct you to a recent article by Elena Lazic in the Guardian that does a better job of putting this scene into contemporary context by way of discussing rape as a narrative device. She discusses how Red Sparrow both succeeds and fails at adequately portraying the trauma of the rape victim. Still, it spurred the conversation — and within the conversation itself lies value.

The Red Sparrow Atomic Blonde problem

Red Sparrow should be seen – love it or hate it – because it’s an albatross, a Hollywood film that cast major stars (Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Jeremy Irons), found major studio backing, and breached the exploitation genre at your local multiplex. I’m quite sure the film will continue to inspire both awe and ire among critics and viewers. That Red Sparrow draws from so many different sources of inspiration should eventually lead to at least a re-evaluation of the film among genre fans.

This is not the world Atomic Blonde, the film I believe most viewers anticipated when buying a ticket for Red Sparrow. Lacking a 1980’s gloss, familiar chart-toppers or a cathartic release in the trappings of action cinema, Lawrence’s film relies on low-lying suspense (and a subtle but effective score from James Newton Howard) – how is Dominika manipulating these men to extricate herself from this unwanted life? Likewise, the ending relies on a slight bit of misdirection, but one I found quite satisfying in light of the torture and degradation she suffers along the way. Where Atomic Blonde is a mildly amusing pop-culture pastiche, Red Sparrow digs deeper into genre and unsettling imagery that plays like a minor-key Female Prisoner 701 and forces us to consider the more unsavory baggage that goes along with the male gaze in cinema.

And what of Francis Lawrence’s ultimate success in handling the material? The opening ballet sequence teased hints of Kubrick – prolonged dolly shots, slow camera movement, long takes. Having just recently watched A Clockwork Orange again for the Cinema Shame podcast, I couldn’t help but note similarities between the way the films were shot, but also the handling of rape, sexual perversion and violence against women.

Critically wayward

It’s no profundity to suggest that Kubrick handled it with far more nuance, but Lawrence offers a measure of competency. Though not a full recommendation, I’ll call them accolades with reservation. Despite the graphic nature of the film, it still relies on an espionage framework most associated with a John le Carré spy film – plodding realism, miles of subtext, and conversational narrative advancement – and this is where Lawrence succeeds. This pacing will automatically turn away a broader audience. The director succeeds at building tension while withholding precise character motivations. We can never truly believe Dominika’s commitment to an individual state because her only true allegiance lies with her ailing mother.

Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) with her ill and dependent mother Nina (Joely Richardson).

So who’s left that’s willing to meet this movie on its own terms? It’s no surprise to me that Red Sparrow’s well on its way to becoming a box office dud. Critics, social media, expectations of another Atomic Blonde, Jennifer Lawrence (who’s quite good, by the way) all discouraged the film’s potential audience. The controversial and cold nature of the sexuality on display. Gaping wounds? Bone screws? Jennifer Lawrence spewing nonsense in the press about her boobs, pouring lighter fuel over the incendiary reviews and undermining the strongest elements of the film? More dissuaded viewers.

This is a patient and occasionally plodding espionage film with controversial exploitation elements that, while imperfect, do add something to the cinematic conversation of violence against women. But this is not mainstream cinema, no matter the flash or pedigree. This is a movie that presents itself as an outsider commenting on and referencing the genre from within. Red Sparrow does not court complacency; it wants to rattle cages. The violent reactions for and against the film show that it was at least successful in that regard. It deserves an audience because it is worth the conversation, no matter your ultimate perspective. Without this conversation, the next generation of Shunya Itōs may never find that balance of exploitation, artistry and nuance. Red Sparrow didn’t quite get there – but in the meantime I’ll celebrate its efforts and try to help it find the receptive, but critical audience it deserves.

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