“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.
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.
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.
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 SparrowAtomic 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.
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.
I’ve had this song from the Last Shadow Puppets on the Opening-Remix back burner for years. I never quite found the right fit. Seeing as how this week marked the 40th Anniversary of The Spy Who Love Me, I figured I’d give it a shot at the big time. And, well, this is the result — The Last Shadow Puppets official audition tape for the title track on Bond 25. I feel like they’ve said all that’s necessary. Even the Hamlisch intro to the classic Carly Simon song functions admirably with “My Mistakes Were Made For You.” If there’s a non-Bond song that Bondier than this this, I’m not sure I know it. Enjoy. (And please, EON, do better than Sam Smith next time, okay? I think we’ve proven that you could have thrown a dart at the entire music industry and stumbled upon something more interesting.)
For those of you unfamiliar with the Last Shadow Puppets, they fall into the category of “supergroup” featuring Alex Turner (Arctic Monkeys), Miles Kane (The Rascals), James Ford (Simian Mobile Disco) and Zach Dawes (Min Masions). We’ve made the case for Arctic Monkeys as a Bond title-track artist on the #Bond_age_Pod, but in fact this side project of Arctic Monkeys lead-singer Alex Turner that better fits the bill. “My Mistakes Were Made For You” come from the band’s 2008 debut The Age of Understatement. The album was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize in the UK, falling victim to Elbow’s The Seldom Seen Kid.
Without belaboring the point of the band’s qualifications further… here’s The Last Shadow Puppets “My Mistakes Were Made for You” replacing Carly Simon on the title credits for The Spy Who Loved Me.
The Spy Who Loved Me Opening Remixed w/ The Last Shadow Puppets
I’ve always resisted widely publicizing my full James Bond Movie Rankings. I’ve resisted because a simple ranking system of all 24 films seemed to undermine the spirit of James Bond enjoyment. Fans of 007 find entertainment in even the diciest Bonds.
Maybe I’ve had a change of heart. Maybe I wanted to inspire more complaints on Twitter regarding my highly conflicted feelings about Skyfall. I’ve mitigated a down-the-line ranking system by adding some highs and lows from each Bond movie. These notes are not meant to be complete. Everyone could argue the finer points of the lists; I’ve merely spouted some of the aspects that immediately come to mind about each film. Share yours below. Share your rankings. Feel free to disagree. That’s what I’m here for.
If you’d like to read my thoughts about each film in depth, I’ve included links to my full #Bond_age_ essays. You’ll also find links to our Title Credit Remixes. Just because they’re fun. And can provide some list reading music should you be so inclined.
Hot take: Before Halle Berry backdives quite literally into a sea of CGI, Brosnan’s final Bond has the makings of a potentially great Bond film.
Pros: Pierce gives his all. Unique pre-title. Jesus Bond. Cuban cigars and the 1957 Ford Fairlane. Rosamund Pike. Ejector-seat Aston Martin flip.
Cons: XxX-inspired James Bond. Interminable finale. Script. Specifically, the words that come out of Halle Berry’s mouth. Kitesurfing. Excessive CGI. Evoking Bond films of old does not make the Bond film in front of you any better.
Hot take: Despite classic Ken Adam spectacle, You Only Live Twice resides at the intersection of racism, misogyny and storytelling laziness.
Pros: Mie Hama. John Berry score. Comically dated sexism and misrepresentations of Japanese culture.
Cons: Pleasancefeld. Comical dated sexism and misrepresentations of Japanese culture. Sean Connery checks out in act of self-preservation. Japanese Bond (aka Slouchy Bond). Huge swaths of this movie are just forgettable. Emasculation by toy helicopter.
Hot take: The search for a more classically-styled Bond meets that old oppressive foe, narrative stupidity.
Pros: Mexico pre-title. Craig swagger. M from Beyond narrative catalyst. Christoph Waltz, Dave Bautista and Lea Seydoux casting. Most everything pre-“Cuckoo.” Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema is a repeated savior.
Cons: Everything post-“Cuckoo.” Lazy script leaves nothing to imagination and offers no surprises. Multiple anti-climaxes. Wasted Bautista. Undermined Lea Seydoux. Waltz failed to make Blofeld his own. Personal Blofeld vendetta and “everything must be connected” philosophy. Sam Smith.
Hot take: Snarky, ill-tempered Leisure-suit Bond adventure that breeds stupidity with offense and comes out perversely entertaining, for the wrong reasons.
Pros: One-liners. Shirley Bassey’s best theme. Top notch John Barry score. The supreme evil of Wint and Kidd. An offbeat sense of humor that begat scenes like the moonbuggy chase. “BAJA!”
Cons: Even by James Bond standards this narrative makes little sense. Toothless pre-title “revenge.” Intentional disavowal of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Dour, ugly look of the film. It’s a wee bit racist and sexist and probably some other -ist adjectives. “BAJA!”
Hot take: A mix of ironic and sincere 007 as comic book hero entertainment mingle with plenty of groan-worthiness, yet fail to offend or stand out.
Pros: Maud Adams. James Bond clown costume as performance art responding to criticism of the Moore Bond. Moore’s peak confidence in the role. Louis Jourdan’s suave villainy. Q in the wild. Acrostar pre-title.
Cons: Forgettable villain in Steven Berkhoff (Orlov). Racial insensitivities. Tarzan yell. Uneasy mixture of silliness and seriousness.
Hot take: Arthouse James Bond cribbed Bourne films, fell victim to expedited production, lived to tell the tale.
Pros: Bregenz Opera House sequence. Gemma Arterton and Olga Kurylenko. Expanded role for Judi Dench. Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) eats the peppers. David Harbour’s mustache. Daniel Craig establishes his interpretation of Bond.
Cons: Bond has been fully stripped of humor. Dispatching of Mathis. Excessively rapid cutting detracts from impressive action sequences. Pencil-pusher villainy.
Hot take: Dalton delivers in his first outing, but the franchise wasn’t quite calibrated to his strengths.
Pros: Cello-case sledding. Dalton’s smoldering reinterpretation of Movie Bond. Barry’s innovative score, using electronic rhythm tracks overdubbed with orchestra. Return of the Aston Martin. Maybe the best pre-title Bond reveal. John Rhys-Davies.
Cons: Overlong finale. Clumsy rebranding of the Cold War. Joe Don Baker’s villain fails to distinguish himself until final reel. Kara Milovy becomes a helpless dolt.
Hot take: Late 90’s Bond becomes an action hero yet reverts to some overly-familiar series tropes.
Pros: Backseat-driving BMW chase. Platonic eroticism between Brosnan and Yeoh. Helicopter/motorcycle action spectacle. Pre-title sequence. David Arnold revives John Barry. Vincent Schiavelli’s Dr. Kaufman.
Cons: Teri Hatcher was picked to play Paris Carver over Monica Bellucci. Sheryl Crow theme. Slow-motion action effects. Regurgitates The Spy Who Loved Me finale.
Hot take: Visually stunning action-thriller that forgets, at times, to be a James Bond film.
Pros: Best looking Bond film since the 1960’s. Javier Bardem’s vicious villain. Emotional climax of Bond’s relationship with M. Nostalgic tugs. Pre-titles. Train-jump cuff adjustment. Bond on a bender.
Cons: Overlong. Unwelcome deconstruction of Bond’s past. The Batman-ization of James Bond. Newman’s ineffective score. Bond’s suddenly “too old for this spit.”
Hot take: The most polarizing Bond movie trades in half-hearted Kung Fu tropes, mild racism, rampant sexism and more WTF? moments than you can shake a Nick Nack at.
Pros: Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga. The dozens of truly bonkers creative decisions. Fun house maze. Maud Adams Part 1. Stunts. The obscene humor that is J.W. Pepper. Ruthless Bond moments. Sunken ship HQ.
Cons: Slide whistle. Lulu’s theme (albeit fitting). Above-mentioned mild racism and rampant sexism. Series struggling to pinpoint Roger Moore’s Bond character. J.W. Pepper returns.
Hot take: An inspired narrative and impressive action set pieces resurrect James Bond for the 1990’s.
Pros: Brosnan finally gets his shot. Pre-title bungee jump/infiltration. Real espionage! Tank scene. 006 vs. 007 face off. The inexplicable Joe Don Baker. Trio of fantastic villains in Sean Bean, Alan Cumming, and Famke Janssen. The “Goldeneye Overture” from Eric Serra’s score. Introduction of Judi Dench as M.
Cons: Most everything else from Eric Serra’s score, especially “Ladies First.” Anticlimactic offing of Xenia Onatopp. At times the film tries too hard to be accepted by critics who, like Judi Dench, condemn Bond as a “relic.” That I can’t have 6 films in my Top 5.
Hot take: The series’ greatest balance of action, humor, and the Bond formula finally gets Roger Moore right and introduces the series most beloved henchman.
Pros: Iconic Union Jack pre-titles. Roger Moore’s hinged eyebrow comes into its own. Lotus Espirit submarine. Ken Adams’ brilliant set design. Jaws. Globe-trotting. Use of rival and competent female agent. Caroline Munro. Rising series self-awareness.
Cons: Slightly bloated finale. Barry’s score is missed despite Marvin Hamlisch’s competent, but not especially timeless score.
Hot take: Underrated spiritual successor to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service finally gives Bond the opportunity seek bloody revenge.
Pros: Fully-formed T-Dalt Bond gets his day. Bond’s personal vendetta mingles with global concerns. Tanker-truck stuntwork. Shotgun-wielding Carey Lowell. Q in the wild. Robert Davi’s ruthless Sanchez. Striking, graphic violence. Wayne Newton mingles a welcome touch of absurdity. LTK stands as the closest proximation of Ian Fleming’s creation since OHMSS.
Cons: Overemphasis on story minimizes the film’s ability to showcase any real Bond swagger. Grim, very very grim. All the naysayers trying to damper my enthusiasm.
Hot take: Martin Campbell once again resurrects James Bond from the depths and creates a pitch-perfect Bond film that would have made Ian Fleming proud.
Pros: Stylized B&W pre-title. Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd becomes a classic Bond lady. Screenwriting — especially interplay between Vesper and Bond. Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter. Layers of villainy. Mads Mikkelson. Reboot of SPECTRE with Quantum. Focus on card play, drinking. Action set pieces – Madagascar chase, Sinking house finale, Miami. David Arnold’s brilliant score. “Scratching my balls.”
Hot take: The most complete Bond film taps thrills, feels, frills, technical achievement and an attention to textual detail unmatched anywhere else in the Bond series.
Pros: Diana Rigg. Telly Savalas is the best Blofeld. Skiing! Curling! Bobsledding! Bond as unadultered man-whore. Some of Barry’s most iconic Bond music. Lair assault. THE ENDING, YOU GUYS. And goddammit George Lazenby isn’t bad because whatever he did sells the emotion of the final scene. Did I say Diana Rigg yet? Wacky hypnosis Blofeld “Angels of Death” plot. Peter Hunt showcases the series’ best filmmaking. It’s a beautiful looking film.
Cons: Bond in ruffles. Even though I don’t think Lazenby detracts (and occasionally enhances), I do wonder if this film could have been the absolute tops with an engaged Sean Connery.
Hot take: After the many first-draft successes of Dr. No, Terence Young kept what worked and improved upon everything else. FRWL is a sexy, brutal and thrilling adventure.
Pros: Sean Connery. Daniela Bianchi. Blue neglige. Robert Shaw/Red Grant. Train car fisticuffs — one of the best fistfights ever captured on film. Bond doing actual spy work. Gypsies. Pedro Armendariz. Rosa Klebb. Raw, rambling and novel-based narrative allows James Bond time and space to be 007. Filming on location in Turkey.
What do you think, sirs and madams? Where do you think I’ve erred egregiously? Post your lists in the comments. Unless you’re one of those You Only Live Twice apologists. I don’t need to hear any more nonsense from you.
As I corrected a few formatting issues in the #Bond_age_ jump page, I noticed that The World is Not Enough lacked an Opening Titles Remix. That had to be fixed, and it just so happened I’ve had a recent song from the duo Beyond the Wizards Sleeve (Erol Alkin and Richard Norris) bouncing around in my brain as a song begging for a Bond movie. I played “Black Crow” with the titles from The World is Not Enough and knew right away I had a match. It’s not that I don’t like the Garbage song… I actually love the Garbage song, but every so often you need to rearrange the furniture and “Black Crow” boasted the perfect tempo.
Unfortunately for the Beyond the Wizards Sleeve, the song will lack that immediate boost of nostalgia that allows for widespread reception or viewing. I get that. It’s easy to get into Die Another Day Remixed with the Talking Heads. Here’s the thing — by limiting Bond title songs to established artists who’ve sold one beeeeeeeelion records (or even my Opening Title Remixes! For shame!), you’re automatically eliminating 99.9% of artists. I understand the nature of the game — selling records for cash money. But artistic integrity matters too. And if the integrity of the thing mattered more, we wouldn’t have had to suffer through Sam Smith.
By the way, you should definitely give Beyond the Wizard Sleeve’s full record, Soft Bounce, a listen. It’s a brilliant combination of 1960’s psychedelia and what the kids are calling “acid house” these days. Even though I can no longer keep up with sub-sub-genres of electronic music, I still give it a high recommendation.
The World is Not Enough Opening Remixed w/ Beyond the Wizards Sleeve
For this newest Licence to List, #Bond_age_ HQ has compiled and ranked a list of the best Bond directors. As always, we’ve used highly specific and wholly arbitrary methods for ranking. We each have our favorite films and our favorite directors and our favorite films filmed by our favorite directors. What was I saying? Oh yeah, I was saying this is highly scientific.
If you have a suggestion for a future List, send us a suggestion and we’ll tackle it next on Licence to List.
1. Terence Young
Movies: Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Thunderball
Highest Rank: Greg, Jay (1)
Lowest Rank: Krissy (2)
Without Terence Young, James Bond might not have been James Bond. Young groomed Connery and molded the future of the franchise. Lois Maxwell said of Young: “Terence took Sean under his wing. He took him to dinner, showed him how to walk, how to talk, even how to eat.” While Young boasts a prolific directorial resume, only a select few of his films come close to his achievement and success with Bond. He’s the best Bond director. His influence on the entire series cannot be understated.
Most notable non-Bond movie: Wait Until Dark (1967)
2. Martin Campbell
Movies: GoldenEye, Casino Royale
Highest Rank: Jay (2)
Lowest Rank: Greg (4)
The only director to twice resurrect the James Bond franchise from the brink of irrelevance. Campbell ushered in the Brosnan era after six years of Bondless inactivity and the Craig era after Die Another Day tried to destroy us all. Campbell has a firm grasp on the notion that the best 007 movies are the ones that give James Bond time and space to be James Bond. He’s also a meticulous helmsman when it comes to action. Action in a Campbell film is concise, clear and has a real-world weight. Campbell slides seamlessly from genre to genre, never leaving distinct tracks. In Bond, that meant foregrounding the character and stepping back to admire the coolness. Nothing in Bond is ever bigger than the character. And in that way he perfectly understands the requirements of a James Bond director.
Most notable non-Bond movie: Mask of Zorro (1998)
3. Peter Hunt
Movies: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Highest Rank: Krissy (1)
Lowest Rank: Greg (7)
Peter R. Hunt worked as an editor on the first five Bond films and a 2nd unit director on Thunderball and You Only Live Twice until summoned to the helm for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. As an editor, Hunt was a pioneer of action editing. And as an editor, he knew every seam and every crevice in these Bond films. His directorial debut on OHMSS oozes confidence and puts his experience with action editing and photography on display. Peter R. Hunt also got the rawest deal in all of Bond directorial history. Upon release, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was considered a bust. Hunt’s relationship with Cubby and Saltzman had eroded during the filming and Hunt decided to cut ties with Eon. Hunt’s lone effort in the chair, provides the fuel for so many “what ifs.” What if Hunt had stayed on to director Diamonds Are Forever and beyond? What if we’d gotten a series of Peter Hunt Bonds instead of Guy Hamiltons?
Most notable non-Bond movie: Death Hunt (1981)
4. John Glen
Movies: For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, A View to a Kill, The Living Daylights, Licence to Kill
Highest Rank: Greg (3)
Lowest Rank: Krissy (5)
John Glen drops in at #4 for his volume of Bond work and his intermittent highs (despite the lows… the very very lows). Like Hunt, Glen cut his teeth in the editing room and as 2nd unit director on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. With the right material at his disposal Glen proved more than proficient. Operating in the post-Moonraker era of Bond, Glen saw his budgets cut to help pay off that debt. He directed two of the grittiest and underrated Bonds in For Your Eyes Only and Licence to Kill. But within each of his films, Glen knew how have a good time; he fostered a spirit of fun that has been lost in more recent efforts.
Most notable non-Bond film: Uh…. Iron Eagle III?
5. Guy Hamilton
Movies: Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die, The Man with the Golden Gun
Highest Rank: Greg (2)
Lowest Rank: Krissy (7)
Oh Guy Hamilton, you enigmatic buffoon/genius. Trained under Carol Reed on films like The Third Man and Fallen Idol. He went on to direct military pictures and got his first big budget picture in 1959 — the Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas vehicle The Devil’s Disciple. In 1962, Hamilton turned down the opportunity to direct Dr. No, but remained tied to the Bond production in a consulting role. He accepted his first official Bond gig with Goldfinger (1964). He’s credited with perfecting Bond’s action, comedy and innuendo. Considering the Bond efforts that would follow, one can’t help but consider that Goldfinger success to be a bit of an anomaly. (*cough*Diamonds Are Forever*cough*) And though we generally enjoy LaLD and TMwGG, they’re not the most cohesive or structurally sound pictures. Hamilton looms large in the Bond-verse, but he’s a bit of a divisive figure.
Most notable non-Bond film: Funeral in Berlin (1966)
6. Michael Apted
Movies: The World Is Not Enough
Highest Rank: Greg, Jay (5)
Lowest Rank: Krissy (10)
Hey, Michael Apted. If only you’d put the kibosh on that “Christmas only comes once a year line.” If only. The World is Not Enough is stuffed full of good ideas and competent action, but Christmas Jones just drags the whole enterprise down with her. Apted also fostered, arguably, Pierce Brosnan’s best Bond performance. Apted has curated a legendary career in British TV and, unlike many of these directors featured in our countdown, many notable films outside James Bond. The man’s a proven talent in the dramatic arts, he just needed to keep a closer eye on that casting director.
Most notable non-Bond film: Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)? Gorky Park (1983)?
7. Roger Spottiswoode
Movies: Tomorrow Never Dies
Highest Rank: Greg (6)
Lowest Rank: Krissy (9)
Spottiswoode made a name for himself by being Sam Peckinpah’s go-to editor during the early 1970’s. That in itself is a badge of cinema honor. Among other films, he edited Straw Dogs and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. He made his directorial debut with 1980’s Terror Train. His sole contribution to James Bond is the oft-maligned Tomorrow Never Dies. So his villain doesn’t stand out. And there are some comically bad slo-mos… but Spottiswoode shows a deft touch with the action set pieces. It’s unclear how or why Spottiswoode was tabbed to direct this film as his prior commercial success was… uhhh…. Stop or My Mom Will Shoot!
Most notable non-Bond film: Under Fire (1983). It’s either that or Turner & Hooch (1989).
8a. Marc Forster
Movies: Quantum of Solace
Highest Rank: Greg, Jay, Krissy (8)
Lowest Rank: Greg, Jay, Krissy (8)
The #Bond_age_ powers were united in the 8th placeness of Marc Forster. James Bond from the director of a bunch of years of Hollywood Oscar bait! Predictably, perhaps, Marc Forster tried to spin Bond in a direction with a little more artistic merit. The Bregenz Opera sequence stands as a testament to avant Bondness. As a result, the Bond purists hated it and the broader public audience thought they were watching another Bourne movie. I’m convinced time and tide will be kinder to Quantum of Solace, but for the moment Forster remains a punching bag. Forster rightfully defends his work on QoS, but regrets not having more time to work on the third act as the writer’s strike put a damper on his creative process.
Most notable non-Bond film: Monster’s Ball (2001)
8b. Sam Mendes
Movies: Skyfall, Spectre
Highest Rank: Krissy (4)
Lowest Rank: Greg, Jay (10)
The most divisive name on this list. We’re still unclear about Mendes’ lasting legacy as a Bond director. Skyfall thrilled, but detractors would argue that the film lacked necessary Bondness, that the movie had some structural problems that were obscured behind fine cinematic craftsmanship. This then leads to the conversation about whether or not “Bondness” matters. Pub conversation of the first order. After Spectre, Greg and Jay have fallen on the side with the detractors. Krissy offers more Mendes optimism due to her positive takeaway from Spectre.
Most notable non-Bond film: American Beauty (1999)
8c. Lewis Gilbert
Movies: You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker
Highest Rank: Krissy (6)
Lowest Rank: Greg, Jay (9)
Sandwiched between two stinkers lies The Spy Who Loved Me. How does one come to terms with these bipolar tendencies? Lewis Gilbert began his career just after World War II as a documentary filmmaker for Gaumont British. His first feature-length films based on true stories from the war. And then he directed Alfie (1966) starring Michael Caine and was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Director. The film also received five Academy Award nominations. After Alfie, Lewis directed You Only Live Twice. Because that’s what you do after you direct a low budget British comedy based on a stage play.
Most notable non-Bond movie: Alfie (1966)
11. Lee Tamahori
Movies: Die Another Day
Highest Rank: Greg, Jay, Krissy (11)
Lowest Rank: Greg, Jay, Krissy (11)
WE ARE UNITED.
What kills me is that this was the guy that directed Once Were Warriors (1994), which is an amazing goddamn film. And then Hollywood got hold of him and he directed Along Came a Spider and XxX: State of the Union. There’s not much to say about Die Another Day‘s place in the Bond canon. Fever dream of the first worst order.
Most notable non-Bond film: Once Were Warriors (1994).
I hadn’t heard this song in a long time. “Sour Times” hails from album Dummy, released in 1994. I was obsessed with this record. That might be putting it mildly, however. I kept this album in my car until roughly 2002 — when my car, including my Portishead record was stolen. I got the car and my golf clubs back. Not so much the Portishead CD. I happened across “Sour Times” on XMU during my morning drive and I thought, “Holy shit that would be a great Bond song.” I tested it with a few of the slower, more methodical Bond titles but I liked it best with Spectre. I really wanted to finally match up something with For Your Eyes Only, but then I remembered why I’ve never matched anything with For Your Eyes Only — Sheena’s silly head singing along with the lyrics. C’mon Sheena. Down in front. Some of Portishead’s lyrics synced nicely with the Spectre visuals so I let it ride. The oddity here is that the credit sequence has a longer runtime than the song. I manipulated the pacing of specific sequences in the video for better overall timing. The result? Another blissfully Sam Smith-free version of the Spectre titles. It feels like low-hanging fruit to keep replacing Sam Smith, but I think you’ll agree that this specific replacement was well worth the effort.