Tag: Action Films

The Matrix (1999)

Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving defy gravity in ground-breaking sci-fi The Matrix

Director: The Wachowskis

Cast: Keanu Reeves (Neo), Laurence Fishbourne (Morpheus), Carrie-Anne Moss (Trinity), Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith), Joe Pantoliano (Cypher), Marcus Chong (Tank), Anthony Ray Parker (Dozer), Julian Arahanga (Apoc), Matt Doran (Mouse), Gloria Foster (The Oracle), Belinda McClory (Switch)

In 1999 we all waited for the release of a science-fiction film that would change the genre forever. Problem is we all thought it would be Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, when in fact the entire world went crazy for The Matrix. It helped that The Matrix was everything The Phantom Menace wasn’t: tight, exciting, brilliantly made and above-all endlessly, effortlessly and completely cool. And it still is: not even its dreadful, dreadful sequels could dent its genius or legacy. The Matrixis a flash of counter-culture: anarchic, teenage fantasy taking over the main-stream. It’s still brilliant.

Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is an office-working drone by day, hacker Neo by night, who wishes there was more to life than this. He’s going to get more than he wished for when he’s offered a choice between the “Red Pill and the Blue Pill” (truth or fantasy) by Morpheus (Laurence Fishbourne), leader of a mysterious hacker group with super-human athleticism and strength. Choosing the Red Pill, Neo wakes up to find himself plugged into a massive machine – and that the world he knows is nothing more than a post-apocalyptic cage, a computer simulation known as The Matrix, used by the all-conquering machines to keep humanity docile while they use their bodies as batteries for their empire. Even more than that, Morpheus is convinced Neo is “The One”, a prophesied saviour who will bring an end to the Matrix. Can Neo accept his destiny?

The Matrix is a superb fusion of a whole host of questions that clearly fascinate the Wachowski siblings. Questions of identity come flying to the fore, as well as the battle for individualism in a conformist society. The Matrix has very earnest points to make about learning to embrace the people we really are, which it delivers with a host of references to philosophy and psychology. It could have become indulgent and self-important (a trap the sequels would fall into), but it delivers the story with a crowd-pleasing burst of energy, mixing in film noir, kung-fu and some rather endearing characters that we end up really caring about.

It’s also of course super, super cool. Everything about it passes the test: from the leather trench coats and shades to the high-octane action and the sense that the film is speaking directly to the alienated, authority-nose-thumbing teenager in all of us. This is a film for the people, the under-dog, with something for anyone who has ever felt trapped, bored or oppressed by their fate (i.e. nearly everyone) and reassures them that their dreams of having a special destiny might actually come true. It tapped into people’s joy and fantasy in a way The Phantom Menace totally failed to do.

This is a classic slice of mysticism. It’s not a film as clever as it thinks it is – it’s main calling card is still Alice in Wonderland the go-to for all films musing on dreamlike fantasy worlds – but it still throws a host of fun little questions and thinking points at the audience. Today, its also easier to see how the film is a celebration of counter-culture and sexual fluidity in a way that had to be snuck under the wire in the 90s. It asks (in a simple) way questions about who we are and what is it all about, in a way that really appeals to rebels. It’s the sort of film a Camus-loving teenager who is fed up with their parents, dreams they had the skill to make.

Skill is the key here. This is a superb achievement by the Wachowskis. It’s brilliantly directed, fast-paced and electric. The camera-work frequently makes use of a flurry of flashy tricks (reflections are a common theme), but which never over-whelm the narrative. It’s revolutionary use of freeze-frame camera work – an ingenious invention created “bullet time” where a series of cameras each taking one shot seem to allow us to rotate at normal speed around actors caught mid jump – introduced something we’d never seen before (and was much imitated and parodied later). The action sequences are stunning – a series of high-stakes, super-cool kung-fu-laced punches and kicks that are shot with a fluid camera that manages to seem both classic and deeply immersive.

It also works because our heroes are really underdogs. We are told again and again that they are vulnerable in the Matrix – that for all their gravity defying feats of strengths, when they come up against the “Agent” sentient programmes, they stand little or no chance of surviving. The goodies die with astonishing regularity in the film, and even the leads are shown to be extremely vulnerable in combat. Our empathy for them is so well crafted, that we even forgive the fact that they gun down countless numbers of their fellow humans during the film (it’s handwaved that anyone can become an agent at any time, so the slaughter of dozens of regular Joes is pretty much essential to prevent this).

A lot of that is also down to the excellence of the main performers. The film channels Keanu Reeves instinctive sweetness and gentleness in a way few other films managed to do as successfully before – he’s brilliantly convincing as both the kick-ass hero, but also the endearing fish-out-of-water who says “woah” as Morpheus jumps over a building. Carrie-Anne Moss is determined, assertive and very humane as Trinity while Laurence Fishbourne’s natural poise and authority are perfectly utilised as Morpheus. Opposite them we have a performance of such dastardly, lip-smacking, Rickmanesque consonant precision from Hugo Weaving, that Agent Smith becomes an iconic villain.

It all comes together into a film that delicately weaves a plucky under-dog story of a hero trying to find his purpose around a few perfectly staged, edge-of-the-seat action set-pieces, that hits a perfect balance between a wider-audience and a cool and pulpy indie vibe. It’s the sort of film that will please the masses, but many people will still feel is speaking very personally to them. Hugely influential, it remains a masterpiece of action and science fiction cinema which, while never as clever as it thinks it is, is hugely vibrant in its filming and endlessly, repeatedly exciting when watching.

Face/Off (1997)

Nicolas Cage and John Travolta swop faces (yes really) in Face/Off

Director: John Woo

Cast: John Travolta (FBI Agent Sean Archer), Nicolas Cage (Castor Troy), Joan Allen (Eve Archer), Alessandro Nivola (Pollux Troy), Gina Gershon (Sasha Hassler), Dominique Swain (Jamie Archer), Nick Cassavetes (Dietrich Hassler), Harve Presnell (FBI Director Victor Lazarro), Colm Feore (Dr Malcolm Walsh), John Carroll Lynch (Guard Walton), CCH Pounder (Hollis Miller)

After five years, Sean Archer (John Travolta) has finally caught his nemesis, terrorist-for-hire Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage). But, with Castor in a coma, only his brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola) – yup really – knows the location of the deadly bomb they planted in Los Angeles. With Pollux now in prison how can they get him to talk? Well obviously the easiest way is for Archer to undergo extensive, experimental surgery to alter his build, voice and (piece de resistance) have his face removed and replaced with Castor Troy’s. And of course, this should be top secret so no-one knows it happened. Because there is absolutely no chance Castor will wake up from his coma and have Archer’s face placed on his own head is there? But of course. Let the violent mayhem ensue, as Troy/Archer (Travolta) manipulates the FBI for his own ends and Archer/Troy (Cage) battles to reclaim his life and face.

Reading that, it won’t surprise you to hear that Face/Off is a hyper-reality film. Hailing from the 90s, when Hong Kong gun-fu director John Woo was seen as the auteur of action, every single thing is dialled up to eleven. Early in the film Archer is told that the voice-alterer attached to his vocal codes could be dislodged ‘by a violent cough’. Needless to say, it doesn’t shift once during the orgy of intense, balletic violence that follows, no matter how many times Archer/Troy flings himself through the air, guns blazing, or flips backwards to avoid bullets.

Face/Off it’s clear is a very silly film. It works, because it knows it is a very silly film. It dabbles only lightly in the psychological trauma of finding yourself in another body – and in Archer’s case not just any body, but the body of his son’s killer. But it’s less interested in that than in seeing the two actors have immense fun apeing each other’s intonations and mannerisms. Travolta in particular has a whale of a time as the id-like Troy/Archer, campily springing about the stage and good-naturedly mocking his own physique (“This ridiculous chin”), while prancing about with all the wide-eyed, giggling mania Cage has made his own.

In case you hadn’t worked it out in a film where faces can be swopped, nothing feels like it’s happening in the real world. Gun battles defy logic and physics. Archer’s obsessive pursuit of Troy in the film’s opening battle causes a jaw-dropping level of destruction, mayhem and death (in a real world, with his obvious psychological problems, he would have been off the case years ago). But then, he’s so reckless perhaps that’s why people don’t really notice when he’s replaced by Troy.

There are some interesting beats, many of them centred around Troy/Archer’s arrival in the Archer family home where he forms a superficial bond with Archer’s daughter (including saving her from assault from a creepy boyfriend) that, aside from his obvious insanity, perhaps things could be different (and there is a suggestion Troy/Archer plays with the idea of going straight – or at least a corrupt version of it). Joan Allen comes on board to add acting lustre as Archer’s doctor wife, so distant from her husband for years that she needs time to work out he’s been replaced.

But the film’s heart is in the violence. There are five or six action set-pieces that use every weapon in the Woo arsenal. Slow-mo? Check. Operatic grandness? Check. Walking with intent? Check. Diving forward while firing two guns? You betcha. Doves? But of course. Any real sense of logic is thrown out of the window, and really the film at heart is a comedy of two famous actors pretending to be each other, in between jumping at each other, screaming their heads off, practically making gun noises while they point their weapons, like maniac kids.

And, you know what? It works. Sure the entire enterprise feels very much of its time: and Face/Off captures Woo’s style so perfectly (with its huge body-count and reckless disregard for life and property) that he never topped it again. A director who basically could do one thing really well (future films would merely demonstrate his limitations), throwing himself into a film of intense silliness, with big-name stars having a whale of time and action set-pieces that make no real sense but are impressive to watch, he aces it here. Face/Off is an odd classic of its time, ludicrously silly but always choosing to double-down on its intense silliness – to gloriously entertaining effect.

Armageddon (1998)

Bruce Willis leads a group of Big Damn Heroes in Michael Bay’s abysmal Armageddon

Director: Michael Bay

Cast: Bruce Willis (Harry Stamper), Billy Bob Thornton (Dan Truman), Ben Affleck (AJ Frost), Liv Tyler (Grace Stamper), Will Patton (Chick Chapple), Steve Buscemi (Rockhound), William Fichtner (Colonel Sharp), Owen Wilson (Oscar Choice), Michael Clarke Duncan (Bear), Peter Stormare (Lev Andropov)

In Michael Bay’s space, no-one can hear you scream. But that’s only because it’s so damn loud up there. It’s 1998’s other “asteroid is going to wipe out humanity” film, the one that came out after Deep Impact but grossed more. NASA recruits ace driller Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) and his team (including Will Patton, Steve Buscemi, Michael Clarke Duncan and Owen Wilson) to fly up to an asteroid the size of Texas, drill a hole in it, drop a massive nuke in and blow it into two bits that will bypass the Earth. Will humanity be saved? And will the tensions ever be resolved between Harry, his protégé AJ (Ben Affleck), and Harry’s daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) who, much against her dad’s will, wants to marry AJ? Houston, we have a problem.

Armageddon is the ultimate expression of Michael Bay’s style. With the camera swooping and rotating wildly around characters on the move, the fast-editing, the assault on the ears, the green-yellow-blue hue, every shot and line of dialogue in Armageddon feels like it was made to be inserted into a trailer. It’s an overlong onslaught (nearly two and a half hours) which rarely goes ten minutes without a sequence that features explosions, furious shouting and frantic camera movements. Most of the action in Armageddon is incoherent and the film rather neatly replicates the experience of being actually hit by a meteor.

For many people this is a guilty pleasure. But there is very little pleasure to be had here. By trying so hard to top Deep Impact – a film he hadn’t even seen at this point – Bay dials everything beyond 11. So much so it becomes exhausting. Half the action sequences (of which there are many) are impossible to understand, such is the fast editing and the way all the dialogue is screamed by the actors at each other, all at once, drowned out by bangs and crashes. The only dialogue you can actually make out in the film is of the “The United States government asked us to save the world. Anybody wanna say no?” variety, built for slotting into a trailer before some more bangs.

In fact the whole film is basically a massive trailer for itself. It’s unrelenting and after a while not a lot of fun. I guess if you catch it in the right mood it might just work. Bay gives it everything he has in his arsenal. But even he can’t overcome performances from his actors that range from bored and unengaged (Willis and Buscemi both fall into this category) to over-played grasping at epic-status (Affleck and Tyler fall into this one). Billy Bob Thornton comes out best with a wry shrug, knowing the whole film is bonkers but going with the ride.

Anyway, it all charges about a great deal, even while it never knows when to stop. In every situation one crisis is never enough – it’s best to have three at once. Not only does someone need to stay behind, but the asteroid is breaking up and the shuttle won’t take off! What a to-do! The film is desperate to excite you, like a 7 year old who wants to share the BEST-THING-EVER with you and doesn’t draw breath while telling you every single detail.

Of course, scientifically the film is nonsense, but that hardly matters. How NASA can know the comet being blown in two will create two bits that will miss the Earth (rather than two impacts or a whole load of debris) is unclear. Timeline wise – particularly early on – the film makes no sense. But then who goes to Bay looking for a science lecture? It even opens with a ponderous Charlton Heston voiceover, all part of the straining for grandeur.

It’s not even the best Bay film (that would surely be the far more enjoyable but equally overblown The Rock closely followed by the first Transformers film, the only one that doesn’t make you feel soiled after watching it). Armageddon could be a guilty pleasure. But really it’s terrible. You should just feel guilty.

Deep Blue Sea (1999)

Deep Blue Sea header
Just when you thought is was safe to go back into the Deep Blue Sea

Director: Renny Harlin

Cast: Saffron Burrows (Dr Susan McCallister), Thomas Jane (Carter Blake), Samuel L. Jackson (Russell Franklin), LL Cool J (Sherman “Preacher” Dudley), Jacqueline McKenzie (Janice Higgins), Michael Rapaport (Tom Scoggins), Stellan Skarsgård (Dr Jim Whitlock), Aida Turturro (Brenda Kerns)

What would be your first idea for curing Alzheimers? Yup that’s right, you’d experiment on sharks brains: and to make those experiments even more effective you’d want the sharks to have really big brains. So, if you’re going to make them super-intelligent, you might as well make them super big, super ruthless with massive teeth. It’s just common sense. After all, they can never escape from your isolated sea laboratory could they? And even if they did, how much of a threat could they be?

Harlin’s film embraces its ludicrous set-up and B-movie nonsense from the start. Dedicated (and more than a little ruthless herself) scientist Dr Susan McCallister (Saffron Burrows) has bred these sharks to help with her obsessive dreams of curing Alzheimers. With millionaire funder Russell Franklin (Samuel L Jackson) flying into spend the weekend at the lab – with a skeleton crew on board – of course its time to run the final test. Can shark wrangler Carter Blake (Thomas Jane) help lead everyone to safety? Well no not everyone… it’s a monster flick after all.

There isn’t anything particularly surprising in Deep Blue Sea – other than one genuinely well-done shock death, which defies your expectations of which characters are the most important – but there are some decent jumps. Some nice little moments of action. A few good gags as sharks prowl through the base picking off the expected victims, while other characters use their wits and a bit of luck to take out the toothy opponents (even an oven gets employed as a weapon). But it’s quite predictable. And I predict that, if you are in the right mood, you might enjoy it.

The dialogue is unimaginative. Most of the acting is pretty wooden (Skarsgård in particular looks like a man yawning his way to a pay cheque) and the characters have clearly been scribbled on post-it notes. Harlin’s direction has a few playful moments, but there’s nothing special about it. You could pretty much predict where the film is going to go – and have a bit of fun spotting its various influences. But I think the film knows you are going to laugh at it. After all, mega sharks? Come on!

At the centre of this is the chemistry free line-up of Burrows and Jane. I feel a bit sorry for Burrows here. Her character is written as an all-consuming obsessive – she also is responsible for everything that happens – and, partly thanks to Burrows barely-concealed disdain for the whole thing, she never comes across as sufficiently guilty or apologetic. Test audiences watching the film reacted so negatively to the character – and you can’t blame them – that Harlin recut the film to make her more of the villain (not quite as much as the sharks, but up there).

A ‘romance’ with Jane hit the cutting room floor – although there are still several scenes where its DNA is readily apparent – just as well really as the actors are chemistry free. Jane in fact has more chemistry with LL Cool J (easily the films MVP as a charmingly offbeat, born-again cook) and the film works best when this bromance is at the fore.

Oh that, and when the sharks at the heart of it. The characters are so non-descript their fates will largely provoke laughter, but as a piece of popcorn rubbish Deep Blue Sea could be a lot worse. Sure it’s got no originality or real expertise about it all, with everyone chucking one in for the money, but its good fun. After all, who doesn’t love a vengeful super-smart shark eh?

King Kong (1933)

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The end of an unsuccessful New York vacation in King Kong

Director: Melville C Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack

Cast: Fay Wray (Ann Darrow), Robert Armstrong (Carl Denham), Bruce Cabot (Jack Driscoll), Frank Reicher (Captain Englehorn), Sam Hardy (Charles Weston), Noble Johnson (Native Chief), Steve Clemente (Witch king), Victor Wong (Charlie)

Of course, Citizen Kane is possibly the greatest and most influential film ever made. But, let’s be honest the paw prints of Kong is what we see most often in the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Kong may have met his end atop the Statue of Liberty (a death the poster spoiled), but his children are everywhere, from Alien to Jurassic Park to Avengers: Endgame. King Kong basically sets the template for special effects movies and Hollywood has almost been remaking it, in some way shape or form, for almost ninety years. But few films can match its momentum, action – or above all the heart it gives to its beast.

Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is a Hollywood director who has a plan to make his next film a huge success. He’s got a map to Skull Island (no need to worry with that name) where he’s heard rumour that a mighty creature is just waiting to star in his next film. Denham needs a female lead – so plucks Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) off the streets promising her the adventure of a lifetime. During the voyage to the island, she falls in love with first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). On arrival at the island they find a tribe of ferocious narratives, who kidnap Ann intending to sacrifice her to their god Kong – a massive gorilla. Instead Kong falls for Ann and carries her into the jungle. When Driscoll and Denham go to save her they find Skull Island is a dangerous place (who knew!), stuffed with brutal dinosaurs and scary beasts – and that Kong himself has no plans to give Ann back.

King Kong’s final hour is essentially little more than a stream of action scenes. However, few action films since have paced its action as well as this film does. With special effects by Willis O’Brien, one of the earliest masters of stop-motion, Kong in turn takes on a T-Rex, a pterodactyl, a village of natives and then most of New York in a series of escalating and dramatic sequences which use all the tricks Hollywood had, from animation to models and back projection. Each of these sequences are perfectly done and carry the sort of awe that stop-motion animation can project – all those hours of work! – helped by the successful (and brilliantly clever) use of back-projection to have these battling beasts seeming to tower over the human cast. You can imagine how thrilling it must have been – I’m not sure anything like this had been seen before.

But the film has really lasted because Willis O’Brien’s skill is to add humanity and sensitivity to Kong himself. There is a reason why Peter Jackson (director of the sensitive but overextended remake) talked of weeping when he saw Kong meet his end. From almost the very first shot, Cooper and O’Brien cut to Kong’s eyes, which have a surprising soulfulness to them. And after all what does Kong really do wrong in this film? He is perfectly happy on Skull Island – he even only attacks other creatures when they make the move on him – he has no desire to go to New York and spends half the film trying to protect Ann from danger (not that she thanks him for it). The animation takes several moments to create the soul in Kong – from the ripples of his fur to his curious inclines of the head. After defeating creatures, he curiously picks up their crushed bodies, as if surprised to find them unresponsive. He gently moves Ann. There is a sort of innocence to him. After all what is he but a small-town guy who heads to the big city and falls for the wrong gal?

As such it’s rather hard not to root for him – or feel his pain (and shock) when attacked by planes at the top of the Empire State Building. You can see in Kong’s eyes the lack of understanding about what these metal objects are that are punching through his skin. The shooting gallery is tinged with tragedy – and it’s hard not to cheer when Kong manages to take one of these planes down. For all his fierceness, Kong seems like a real person, a vulnerable guy taken out of his depth against his will. The cruelty of exploiting Kong for Broadway ticket sales, as Denham plans to do, seems particularly un-just. It brilliantly allows us to get the best of both worlds: we can enjoy the spectacle of the wild animal Kong snapping the jaws of T-Rexs but we also feel for him as a confused and frightened animal put to death in a world he doesn’t understand.

Perhaps its easier to sympathise with Kong because so many of the human characters in it barely register. The first forty minutes is low-key – and often frankly rather flat – competently filmed but fairly-stiff build-up, carefully (and at times rather pointedly) establishing the situation and themes. None of the actors make much an impression (not helped that the second half of the film is so Kong focused that they hardly have a line to share). Robert Armstrong is effectively arrogant and ambitious as Denham. Bruce Cabot is pretty wooden as Driscoll (his first film after being recruited from the studio doorman staff, he has said he essentially stood where he was told and that was it). Fay Wray has a certain sweetness and charm as Ann, but barely opens her mouth other than to scream after the first forty minutes (in a neat bit of wit, her rehearsal on ship is standing still and practising screaming silently at an object she can’t see). With its blundering Hollywood director at the heart of all the chaos, King Kong could also be one of the first Hollywood satires.

Intentionally or not the film has an imperialism to it. Denham is an arrogant man out of his depth – although I am not sure how far the film is aware of this – and the crew come across as arrogant and clueless, blundering into a wild environment with an armed over-confidence (that quickly gets them all killed – most of them tumbling to their doom with an almost sickening rag doll snap after a meeting with Kong). You can sense that as well in the awkward lack of PC in framing the (black) residents of Skull Island as blood-thirsty savages with a lust for human sacrifice. However, with its eventual sympathy for Kong, there is enough here to allow the viewer to read into it a certain amount of post-colonial criticism of this sort of H Rider Haggard meets Arthur Conan Doyle world.

The film is very proud of its “Twas beauty that killed the beast” concept (it’s repeated numerous times in the film – not least most famously at the end) – but it’s an idea that is already framing Kong as the victim. So, for all the triumph of the design – the production design is stunning, rarely have Hollywood back lots looked as good – and the awe of Kong, the idea of him as a victim is there from the start.

A lot of that awe though comes from possibly the film’s MVP: Max Steiner. King Kong is one of the first films to use a full orchestral score and the music is vital to adding heft, drama and danger to this stop-motion beast. Steiner’s score superbly uses motifs to build Kong’s presence and operatic crescendos that brilliantly heighten the drama. It’s certainly one of the most influential scores ever written – and it’s impact on film history is so lasting, that watching the film today you take it’s revolutionary nature for granted, so often has the way of using music become part of our accepted cinematic language.

King Kong lasts because of the awe it builds for the monster, but also the way we start to feel for him. Complimented by the professional skill of Cooper and Schoedsack’s direction, King Kong still grips today, for all that you need to read into it more depth than is (perhaps) there. But depth isn’t what made Kong great. It was the excitement and drama of the spectacle – and its so exciting you barely notice that Kong dramatically increases in scale as the film continues. And while special effects have moved on, the power of what’s presented here hasn’t. Deserves to be listed as one of the most influential films ever made.

Crimson Tide (1995)

Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman face off under the water in Crimson Tide

Director: Tony Scott

Cast: Denzel Washington (Lt Commander Ron Hunter), Gene Hackman (Captain Frank Ramsey), George Dzundza (COB Walters), Matt Craven (Lt Roy Zimmer), Viggo Mortensen (Lt Peter Ince), James Gandolfini (Lt Bobby Dougherty), Rocky Carroll (Lt Darik Westerguard), Danny Nucci (PO Danny Rivetti), Lillo Brancato Jnr (PO Russell Vossler)

“The three most powerful people in the world: the President of the United States, the President of the Russian Republic and…the captain of a US ballistic missile submarine”. So boasts the film’s opening caption. This submarine drama explores the truth of that, during a clash of wills (and more) between Captain Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman) and his XO Lt Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington) over the launch of the sub’s nuclear missiles at a rogue Russian general. Ramsey has orders in hand. Hunter has a later, partial, order that may or may not be recalling the strike. Should the sub launch, or should they work to repair their radio and check the second message – possibly losing the narrow window of time they have to take out a rogue general’s missiles before he can launch them at America? Glad I don’t have that job.

Tony Scott’s submarine thriller is one of the best of the genre. It throws in all the clichés you would expect (the claustrophobia, the long dive, the game of cat and mouse with an enemy sub, the blips on the radar, the need to sacrifice someone to save the ship etc.) but presents them with a dynamic freshness (helped by Hans Zimmer’s exciting, award winning score). And at its heart it is a character study of two very different men, with very different styles of thinking and leading. Both rules are juicy, so it’s not surprising that two of the best actors in the game fill them out.

Denzel Washington is just about perfect as a Harvard-educated, committed soldier-thinker who believes in relating to the men as much as he does in firm order. Washington is careful not push Hunter towards being too cautious – under his command the Alabama bests a Russian sub in combat – and he may be alarmed by the impact of nuclear war but will reluctantly pull the trigger, but only once he is certain he has received the correct orders. A lot of the film depends on Washington’s natural moral authority, as well as his mix of forceful reserve and relatability. 

You need a big actor to not get steamrollered by Washington in those argument scenes – and few have the authority of Gene Hackman. Hackman is way too smart an actor to make the captain what he could have been in lesser hands – a trigger happy autocrat. Ramsey may be an old hand who believes in telling men what he wants and expecting delivery or a boot in their ass. But he’s not uncaring, he’s well-read, thoughtful, articulate and capable of acts of kindness and generosity. But he’s also a man rigid in his intent when he believes he is doing the right thing – and Hackman is always careful to establish that his intent on launching missiles is because he believes he is protecting innocent civilians back home.

The film becomes a compelling clash of tempers between two men who firmly believe they are both doing the right thing. The film is careful to throw up the fundamental lack of compatibility between the two from the start, even if it is tinged with respect. Their backgrounds, methods of discipline even ways of thinking about their role are different. There is an unspoken racial tension under the film, not because anyone in it is racist, but rather as Washington’s Hunter represents all round a newer America (an educated Black-American officer) that makes Hackman’s naval old hand feel like a relic of Cold War thinking.

But the film is, at heart, sympathetic towards both men, and probably places more blame on the system (an Admiral later reassures us both men were both right and wrong). Scott’s film with its expected flashy style (Scott loves the stark red lighting of the sub at alarm, mixed with the blaring greens of radar screens and the cool blues of sub interiors) gets a wonderful sense of the claustrophobia affecting decisions. Every character is a sweaty mess, while the sub seems to spend half the movie at an angle, forcing the crew to virtually pull themselves through it. 

The final hour takes place almost in real time, and covers the pressure cooker of men forced to make world-destroying decisions, cut-off under the ocean from any idea of what’s going on in the world, in extreme temperatures on little sleep. It’s a world of butch extreme masculinity – another way that makes Washington’s more cultured Hunter seem strangely other. Sweat pours off the men (the camera frequently focuses in on sweat-dripping faces). The officers of the ship generally come out badly, with Viggo Mortensen in particular a weak-willed man flip-flopping from side-to-side during the various changes of command on the sub. Many of the rest think little about what they are doing, and it’s telling Washington is largely supported by non-commissioned officers and regular sailors. Perhaps that’s where the true heart of America lies.

The film was written by a smorgasbord of writers (Robert Towne wrote much of the Hackman/Washington arguments at short notice, while Quentin Tarantino polished up much of the rest of the dialogue – no wonder it’s sprinkled with pop culture references). Initial support from the navy was cut off after Bruckheimer confessed the film was not about a HAL style computer trying to launch missiles, but a potential mutiny on a submarine and a feud between its two senior officers. Scott’s front-and-centring of the human drama between two great actors is what makes the film work – and take its place as one of the classic submarine movies.

The Wild Bunch (1969)

William Holden and Ernest Borgnine lead The Wild Bunch into one last adventure

Director: Sam Peckinpah

Cast: William Holden (Pike Bishop), Ernest Borgnine (Dutch Engstrom), Robert Ryan (Deke Thornton), Edmond O’Brien (Freddie Sykes), Warren Oates (Lyle Gorch), Ben Johnson (Tector Gorch), Jamie Sánchez (Angel), Emilio Fernandez (General Mapache), Strother Marin (Coffer), LQ Jones (T.C.)

SPOILERS: Discussion of The Wild Bunch is pretty much impossible without discussing its ending – but then it does have a pretty famous ending. Well you’re warned…

It’s easy to look back the Wild West with rose-tinted glasses. To remember it as being when the American spirit was at its best and a romance ruled. To basically take the “Wild” out of the picture. Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is all about putting that “Wild” front and centre, a stunning exploration of the closing days of the Wild West that replaces sentiment and nostalgia with violence and a group of men who know nostalgia is just the vanity of hardened, brutal killers.

In 1916 Pike Bishop (William Holden) is the leader of a notorious gang of criminals, ruthless killers all, wanted by the law – and the rail company they have been robbing for years – at any price. Pike’s latest bank job winds up being a trap, with a deadly shoot-out taking place in the middle of a town (with the population lethally caught in the crossfire) as the rail company tries to kill Pike’s crew, their efforts led by Pike’s former partner Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), forced to work against Pike or return to the hellish jail at Yuma. The massacre sees only a few members of the gang survive – Pike, his best friend Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), the Gorch brothers Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector (Ben Johnson), Mexican gun-slinger Angel (Jamie Sánchez) and old-timer Freddie Sykes (Edmond O’Brien). The gang flees to Mexico, with Deke and his posse dispatched on their heels by the furious railway company. In a Mexico ripped apart by civil war, the gang are hired by would-be warlord General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) to hijack guns from the American army – but there are other dangers when Angel has friendly contacts with the Mexican revolutionaries.

Peckinpah’s film is a stunning exploration not only of the dying dreams and way of life of old men in the West – Pike, Deke, Dutch and Freddie are all old men while the Gorch brothers are hardly in the first flush of youth – but also the endemic nature of violence. Peckinpah’s film is unfailingly brutal in its depiction of violence, an infection that runs through every level of society. Everyone from the children – the film opens with a gang of children laughingly feeding two scorpions to a mass colony of ants, before setting all the animals on fire (look in vain for the “no animals were harmed in the making of this picture” message) – to the men themselves. The film’s opening shoot-out – a technical marvel and also a masterpiece of slow tension building by Peckinpah – is shocking in its brutality.

Unlike Leone, to whom violence is shocking in its suddenness, Peckinpah slows down the action so that we can see (and feel) the horror of each bullet. The Wild Bunch set some sort of record – in its final shoot-out sequence – for blood squibs used. It’s not a surprise after watching the opening shoot-out between the Bunch and the railway forces. With the Bunch using a passing Temperance march to cover their retreat, bullets are fired indiscriminately, killing passers-by and men from both sides alike. No one, aside from a furious and appalled Deke (the only character who has suffered himself from violence in prison) expresses a moment’s guilt for this massacre.

But then Pike and the bunch are hardened killers to a man. Pike cares nothing for the members of the gang lost – even forgetting until late on that he left a man guarding the bank staff while the gang rode out of town – and when a wounded survivor can’t ride and agrees that Pike should finish it, he doesn’t pause for a second. Any ideas of these men as being rogues or there being any charm to living a life on the margins of the law are rapidly dispelled. 

And this violence isn’t just an American thing – it dominates life in Mexico as well, where the drunken, bullying General Mapache is a brutal would-be dictator, whose soldiers frequently terrorise, steal from and murder the villagers around them. In Mexico, the gun is law even more than the US, and these guys have even closer to being criminals in uniform, just as Deke’s posse could just as easily be working with the Bunch as against them.

So what motivates these men? What is brilliant about Peckinpah’s film is acknowledging that these violent killers may feud and fight, but they are still stretching for some sort of meaning in their life. These are world-weary old men with little to live for, who are trying to work out what – if anything – is left in their lives. And that life has to have some sort of code, some sort of grounding basis, even if everything else is up for grabs. Pike says when you “side with a man, you stay with him and if you can’t do that you’re finished”. It’s a flexible rule for these guys – and they frequently shirk it in the film when events are dangerous – but it’s a code they need to believe they would keep.

It’s that code that comes into play late in the film as Angel falls increasingly foul of Mapache’s anger and whims. It takes the gang a while to stand by it, but when they do it’s also partnered by a sad realisation that for these old men what else is there? Their lives have been ruled by the gun and shoot-out after shoot-out. Peckinpah views the West with no nostalgia, but he understands that men need to view their own lives with nostalgia at times, to understand that they may yearn to point at something and say that was what their lives were for.

And what else is there? Everyone in the film knows it’s over. They’re old men, and the world is moving on and leaving them behind. At one point the gang look on at wonder at a car owned by Mapache, and the Gorch brothers flat out can’t believe in the existence of an aeroplane. The modern world is ending the world of these guys, and Pike knows it: “We need to start thinking beyond our guns” he says at one point, but offers no solutions at all about what that might be. The modern world is the real deadly bullet that’s taking out the gang: in the final shoot-out, the key weapon even turns out to be a modern machine gun, spraying death at a level ordinary shooters can’t even begin to match.

That final shoot-out sees all these themes come together brilliantly. It could almost be a rebuttal of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (released the same year) that sees our heroes captured in romantic sepia freeze frame, charging into certain death against the Bolivian army. Here we effectively see the battle, with additional machine guns and thousands of blood squibs as the Bunch take on Mapache’s army in fury at Mapache’s murder of Sanchez. In a furious shoot-out lasting almost ten minutes, it’s a blood bath as the Bunch mow down dozens and dozens of Mapache’s army while themselves being repeatedly shredded by bullets, adrenalin alone keeping them going. Peckinpah even has the final fatal bullet that takes out Pike coming from a child soldier.

But the Bunch are taking this suicidal last stand because it’s their last –  their only – chance to have stood for something, to have a code they stuck by. To stand by their partner and if that means going down in a hail of bullets, at least there is some sort of glory to it. And besides – what else have they got? The modern world has drained all purpose from their life, so why not at the end wordlessly agree to leave behind the greed that has dominated their lives and die for something?

Peckinpah’s film is simply brilliant, fabulously made and brilliantly shot and edited. The cast of pros is simply excellent. Holden’s world-weary faded glamour now leaving only a cold ruthlessness and a wish that he had more to show for it is perfectly partnered with Borgnine’s easy-going sidekick who wants to do the right thing but needs to find the reasons. Ryan is excellent as a guilt-ridden Deke, who finally has begun to understand the impact of violence. The rest of the cast also excel. The Wild Bunch may be the least nostalgia infected Western ever made, a grim reminder that the West really was Wild. But it’s also a stunningly well-made and challenging picture.

North by Northwest (1959)

Cary Grant is on the run in the sublime North By Northwest

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Cary Grant (Roger Thornhill), Eva Marie Saint (Eve Kendall), James Mason (Phillip Vandamm), Jessie Royce Landis (Clara Thornhill), Leo G. Carroll (The Professor), Martin Landau (Leonard), Josephine Hutchinson (“Mrs Townsend”), Philip Ober (Lester Townsend)

What is it about? Ernest Lehman went in wanting to write the “ultimate Hitchcock film”. And I think you can say he pulled it off. North by Northwest is the perhaps the most electric, fun, dynamic and nonsensical of all Hitchcock’s action-adventures, a neat bookend with The 39 Steps for Hitchcock’s career. It’s such good fun you scarcely notice the plot makes very little sense and the film is barely about anything at all other than a man getting chased. It has the most Macguffiniest MacGuffin in the whole Hitchcock career, an item of such little interest to the viewer that it never appears on screen and is only cursorily discussed. 

Cary Grant is Roger Thornhill, nifty Mad Man-esque ad executive (you can imagine that Don Draper dreamed of being Roger Thornhill) who accidentally gets mistaken by shady goons for the mysterious “Mr Kaplan”, actually a non-person used as a distraction by the FBI. Cue Thornhill’s kidnapping, interrogation by the goon’s suave leader (James Mason, never more James Mason than here), escaping a murder attempt, getting embroiled in the murder of a UN official and fleeing New York in the train compartment of smart and sexy Eve Kendall (Eva Maria Saint). And that’s before we even mention killer crop dusting planes, faked shootings, auction house shenanigans and a vertigo inducing game of cat-and-mouse on Mount Rushmore. Is there a more fun film in the world?

North by Northwest gained its Hamlet inspired title (“I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a hawksaw”) and it’s pretty meaningless – Lehman basically liked it and throws in a fictional “Northwest airline” so Thornhill can fly ‘North’ at one point (geddit?!) – but it also captures a sense of manic powerlessness in the film. Thornhill spends a good slice of the film telling anyone who will listen he is notKaplan, while every action he carries out seems to serve only to convince his pursuers he definitely is. The film’s echo of madness in its title carries across to the frantic energy of the film, and Thornhill’s belief that he must surely be the only sane man in a world of lunatic chaos. 

And it’s prime Hitchcock chaos here in his most engaging, fast-paced and funny action adventure. The sort of prime piece of entertainment assembled with such skill, energy and excellence it looks really easy (but of course isn’t). Hitchcock keeps the momentum of this crazed chase perfectly pitched, and stages each of the set pieces so well that all of them have become icons of adventure cinema. Who can look at a crop dusting plane without thinking of Thornhill running in desperation, in the middle of nowhere, from a lethal plan swooping down on him from above? Who can look at Mount Rushmore without imagining Grant and Saint climbing all over it with Landau in pursuit?

It’s Grant as well that really makes the film work. He’s such an accomplished screen presence, so smooth and practised, it’s very easy to see this as a film where he is barely acting. But that would be to do him a major disservice. Not only is such a balance of light comedy and action so hard to pull off (so much so that Harrison Ford as Indy is possibly the only one who can get close – and that character is chalk and cheese with Thornhill) – but Grant builds a character who develops perceptively and clearly over the course of the film. 

Initially the typical Grantish stereotype – so suave, confident and shallow that even his middle initial “O” literally stands, Harry Truman like, for nothing – Thornhill begins as a man who blithely assumes he can drift through his life and getting anything without question. Events – and his embroilment in them – however see him develop from a deeply selfish and lazy man into one who carries moral force, loyalty, determination and dedication to duty and an increasing sense of confidence and derring-do. From the man who is the victim of circumstance at the start of the film, failing to get anyone to believe him, he becomes a man who saves himself and everyone else with his pluck, daring and resourcefulness. And he does it all while never losing his light, almost put-upon, wit and playfulness. It’s a truly great personality performance with real depth and development: a hollow man who becomes a real man of standing and purpose.

He’s backed superbly by the cast who seize their roles with gusto. James Mason drips British superiority and suaveness (has there ever been two such cool actors facing off?) as VanDamme, Eva Marie Saint is every ounce the brave, resourceful, daring and clever lady that prompts Thornhill to man-up. Jessie Royce Landis gets some lovely comic mileage from Thornhill’s pecking-hen mother (hilariously she’s only 8 years older than Cary Grant). Martin Landau simpers rather effectively as VanDamme’s fey sidekick.

The script is crammed with great lines from Lehman, all of which delivered superbly by the cast. But it’s a director’s treat, and Hitchcock delivers it brilliantly. I’ve mentioned that MacGuffin – it’s some microfilm or something in a statue that’s the root of the all the problems – but it hardly matters. The film powers forward with the dynamic energy of a comic farce crossed with action adventure. Thornhill’s initials spell out “ROT” and in an affectionate thing that’s what the film is – something that doesn’t take it self seriously but sets out to entertain at all costs. 

So we get Hitchcock splicing in rom-com flirtations between Grant and Saint (and no less than two shots of trains speeding down lines and into tunnels, just to hammer home exactly what they are doing to kill time on the ‘sleeper’ train) with edge-of-the-seat sequences (the slow tension build at an abandoned bus station while Grant waits for “Kaplan” only to fall victim to assault from crop duster) then segues back into comedy (the hilarious “pretend to be drunk” to escape assassination at an auction) it’s perfectly assembled. And that end sequence at Mount Rushmore – a near perfect mix of comedy, action, adventure, suspense, thriller and romance. It’s flawless.

William Goldman famously stated North by Northwest had the finest, most economical ending of all time – and it ties up perfectly and beautifully about six plot threads and cliffhangers in less than 70 seconds – but the entire film is a perfect package. Hitchcock’s glossiest chase adventure is wonderfully directed and in Cary Grant it perfectly married up possibly the only actor in the history of film with both the charisma and the acting chops to play the part with one of the greatest entertainments in the history of film. It’s mad, meaningless nonsesense – but who cares, it’s a great, great, great film.

Bumblebee (2018)

A heart warming double bill in surprising “genuinely good Transformers film” Bumblebee

Director: Travis Knight

Cast: Hailee Steinfeld (Charlie Watson), John Cena (Colonel Jack Burns), Jorge Lendeborg Jnr (“Memo” Gutierrez), John Ortiz (Dr Powell), Jason Drucker (Otis Watson), Pamela Adlon (Sally Watson), Stephen Schneider (Ron), Glynn Turman (General Whalen), Len Cariou (Hank), Dylan O’Brien (Bumblebee), Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime), Angela Bassett (Shatter), Justin Theroux (Dropkick)

Michael Bay started making Transformers films in 2007. These massive, action-packed, technological marvels are testament to the skill of special effects gurus to create live-action versions of these transforming robots – and a testament to the lack of soul in Michael Bay as the films became increasingly empty, sprawling, noisy, pornographic (not in that sense!), tasteless, sexist efforts that leave a bad taste in the mouth. Bumblebee is a soft-reboot of the franchise – and the very first time it feels like this is a Transformers film that those growing up with the cartoons could recognise, and that you would be happy to show to kids.

In 1987, Cybertron has fallen and the Autobots have scattered across the galaxy. Young Bumblebee (voiced by Dylan O’Brien) is sent to Earth, where he loses his voice, his memory and nearly his life combating a Decepticon. Taking refuge as a beat up Volkswagen Beetle, Bumblebee is found by Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) a young car mechanic enthusiast mourning the sudden death of his father and struggling with her mother (Sally Watson) starting to move on with a new boyfriend Ron (Stephen Schneider). While Charlie and Bumblebee bond, more Decepticons – on the hunt for Bumblebee who they hope can lead them to Optimus Prime – arrive on Earth and join forces with anti-Transformer agency Sector 7, represented by Colonel Jack Burns (John Cena), to track Bumblebee down.

Travis Knight came to the film from directing several successful animation films – and his understanding of the nuances of inflection and character that you need in order to bond with animated characters. He also brings back an innocence, a dignity and a sense of honour to the franchise. Where the Autobots in past films had increasingly become brash blowhards or brutal warriors (not least Optimus Prime who seemed to become more psychotic as the series went on) this film made them again the noble defenders of the weak that they were in the comics and cartoons. It’s not an exaggeration to say if the fans were waiting for a film that got closer to the spirit of the original, they had been waiting for this one.

Knight’s mastery of animation makes Bumblebee a true character, an endearing, bumbling (sorry), accident-prone, scared little kid who is also a tender, caring and understanding friend. With Bumblebee mute for most of the film, the character communicates solely through his body language – and his hugely expressive eyes – and Knight has redesigned the character to have a larger, more open face that immediately makes him a warmer character. Knight also has a brilliant line in visual comedy, with Bumblebee hilariously trashing a house at one point in a stumbling display of silent comedy that works extremely well. 

It also helps that Knight has such a strong, marvellous performance from Hailee Steinfeld as Bumblebee’s carer and protector. Seeing Steinfeld in this film is a real reminder of what brash, very male, figures Shia LaBeouf and Mark Wahlberg cut in the past few films, where women were even objects of tasteless ogling or rebellious kids to be protected by men. All that is thrown out of the window here (thank goodness), with this being the first film in the series written by a woman, Christina Hodson. Steinfeld is allowed to develop a character who is not a Tomboy, a hot scientist or a teenage girl stereotype, but someone who feels very real and hugely charming. Steinfeld brilliantly creates a bond with Bumblebee – no mean feat for a creature that is not there – and the film hinges perfectly on her growing emergence from the shell of trauma and loss at the death of her father, through finding a new purpose with Bumblebee. It’s a great performance anchoring a film full of special effects.

Knight’s film can still handle all the action you want – but unlike with Bay, where spectacle and violence is always considered way more important than story and character, his action scenes are shot with a simpleness and clarity that put character at the forefront. In fact character is what every scene is about, not the shattering punching and tastelessly sadistic, pornographic violence of robotic dismemberment that Bay’s film’s degenerated into. This is a film which feels inspired by the vibe of ET, about two damaged souls who come together to protect each other and find themselves. It’s a film that is about friendship and affection, and Knight’s action scenes carry a sense of these qualities, this desire to protect people, into them.

With the film’s light comic touch – not least from John Cena who is on good form as a Colonel with a grudge against all Transformers (“They literally call themselves Decepticons. That doesn’t set off any red flags?”) and Jorge Lendeborg Jnr, very endearing as Charlie’s would-be love interest – it feels like a film genuinely made by people who loved the original and loved it’s innocent, good-vs-bad themes. Knight also returns the design of the characters back far closer to the look of the 1980s – the opening on Cybertron, with all the characters appearing as souped up versions of their 1980s cartoon form is virtually a love letter to anyone who grew up watching these characters. Knight not only gets the visuals right, with a warmth and depth of character none of the rest of the films have had, he also understands the bravery and heroism of the Autobots in a way Bay never did – Knight’s Optimus Prime is a million miles from the prisoner-executing loonie Bay created.

Bumblebee for sure is no Citizen Kane (although it has lashings of Spielberg in it, not least ET). But it’s on a different planet to the rest of the series, and a film with tonnes in it to enjoy. With its careful balancing of themes from loss to survivor guilt it also has more to it than meets the eye.

For Your Eyes Only (1981)

Roger Moore takes aim in this most low-key of his adventures – and one of his best

Director: John Glen

Cast: Roger Moore (James Bond), Carole Bouquet (Melina Havelock), Topol (Milos Columbo), Julian Glover (Aristotle Kristatos), Lynn-Holly Johnson (Bibi Dahl), Michael Gothard (Emile Leopold Locque), Cassandra Harris (Lisl van Schlaf), John Wyman (Erich Kriegler), Desmond Llewelyn (Q), Jill Bennett (Jacoba Brink), James Villiers (Bill Tanner), Geoffrey Keen (Minister of Defence), Walter Gotell (General Gogol), Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny), Jack Hedley (Sir Timothy Havelock)

Where could Bond go after he went to space in Moonraker? Another planet? The future? The producers of Bond decided they couldn’t top that – probably wisely – so for Bond’s next outing they went back to low-key basics. For Your Eyes Only Bond would find himself in an old-school Cold-war game of cross and counter-cross, scrambling for the Russians for ownership of what looks like a cross between a typewriter and child’s cash till toy. 

That toy is the ATAC (though it might as well be called MCGUFFIN) a ministry of defence system used to co-ordinate nuclear subs or some such. When the ship it’s on sinks somewhere off the coast of Greece, MI6 and the KGB swing into gear to be the first claim it from the Ocean depths. So Bond is off to Greece to investigate, not knowing who to trust: should it be MI6 contact and shipping magnet Kristatos (Julian Glover) or playboy smuggler and former resistance man Columbo (Topol)? And how will he deal with Melina Havelock (Carole Bouquet), the long-haired, half-Greek archer intent on revenge on whoever ordered her parents killed while they (without her knowledge) searched for the ATAC? Either way it will involve chases, deadly winter sports, flirtatious teenage ice skaters and a death defying climb up to a monastery at the top of a mountain.

For Your Eyes Only is one of those quiet gems of Bond movies that, because it is about something quite small scale and quiet compared to the films it precedes often gets overlooked. It’s certainly the point where Moore should have stopped making the films – when your turning down the advances of someone because she’s too young (as he does ice skater Bibi) you know it’s time to go – and to be honest Moore was flagging already here, clearly too old for the action and certainly far too old for Carole Bouquet, who looks like she could have him for breakfast (she struggles to muster much sexual interest in him). But it doesn’t really matter because this is an old-school bit of spy cool, mixed with some decent but grounded fights and chases and shot with a loving eye for Switzerland and Greece (with plenty of clichéd visuals and sound cues thrown in from both as you would expect).

The producers wanted to shy away from the gadget filled antics of the previous films. As if to make the point, Bond’s car is destroyed almost immediately, forcing him to make a getaway at one point in a bashed up Citroen 2CV. The long sequence in the film where Bond is chased around a ski resort – which takes in cross-country skiing, a ski jump, a toboggan and several other winter sports is remarkable for nary a gadget in sight, with Bond relying on his wits and native skill with skis. Even when ascending the mountain at the film’s end, he uses nothing more than standard climbing equipment, putting his trust in ropes and hooks. It’s possibly the least tech heavy Bond film since Doctor No. There isn’t even a novelty watch and no humorous Q briefing on the gadgets. The only visit to Q’s lab is to use a cumbersome facial recognition system, that hilariously uses computer disks the size of stone slabs loaded into something that today resembles a dishwasher.

Other than that Bond is on his own, and it’s fairly neat to see him go about an investigation and follow a trail – even if Bond is, as usual, a hopeless undercover agent who largely relies on waiting to see who tries to kill him first. The villains, as always oblige, spending most of the film attempting to off Bond for all sorts of confused ill-defined reasons. Perhaps it has something to do with our main villain – the rather low-key Julian Glover, playing possibly the least colourful Bond villain ever, a guy who just wants to sell the ATAC for some cold hard cash – using so many cut outs for his operations, speechless goons (including an early appearance from Charles Dance) and East German skiing champions who seem motivated to kill Bond purely for larks and the evilz.

The first half of the film though is huge fun, watching Bond blunder around the ski resort dodging hits, fighting people, punching out butch hockey players and the like that it hardly matters that most of the plot is pretty inconsequential. When Bond finally stops mucking around in Switzerland and heads to Greece the ATAC is found in about 5 minutes flat (Havelock helpfully left a map with the downed boat coloured in on it, making his daughter’s ability to translate his cryptic notes pretty much useless), while the villain immediately takes this chance to comprehensively unmask himself.

After a further elaborately sadistic attempt to off Bond involving dragging him across coral in shark infested waters (sharks are always such deadly threats in Bond films), Bond unites with Topol to storm the castle in an actually pretty gripping and vertigo inducing climb sequence, another triumph of John Glen’s mastery of the action sequence. It’s a nice touch as well to introduce the “guest star” of the film not as the antagonist but as a protagonist ally, a neat twist that must have come as quite a shock back in the day. Topol plays his role with realish, cracking nuts, gags and heads with equal glee.

The film also heads into some dark places. For all his charm, gallantry and debonair wit, Moore does his meanest thing in years here when he kicks a heavy’s teetering car off a cliff. But that’s a fair repayment for the brutal running over of his mid-film squeeze (played by Pierce Brosnan’s real life late wife Cassandra Harris) earlier on by the same heavy. The early murder of the Havelock’s is surprisingly graphic (and also gives a great reaction shot for Carole Bouquet as she turns and looks back as the plane carrying her parent’s murderers jets away, her eyes screaming “I shall have my revenge!”) and Carole Bouquet’s Melina is determined figure, who does more than her fair share of the action.

Of course the film can’t endorse too much her need for revenge. “That’s not the way” Bond, like a disapproval uncle, rather prissily tells her several times. Which is a bit rich coming from a man who opens the film by dropping his wife’s murderer down a factory chimney shaft. That opening sequence by the way is a joy, a neat call back to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (whenever Bond went serious, it referenced Bond’s status as a widower) as well as a the dispatching of a it-could-be-anyone bald, scared, cackling villain with a white cat who makes an ill-advised attempt to kill Bond with a remote controlled helicopter (the film is so anti-Gadgets, only the baddies seem to use them and they don’t even work for them). It’s a neat “fuck you” to Kevin McCloy, at that time in a feud with the producers over the rights to Bond who had refused to allow them to use Blofield or Spectre again in the films. Keen to show they didn’t need Blofield, the producers introduced him in all but name to ignominiously kill him off, his final pathetic words a hilariously meaningless offer to buy Bond a “delicatessen in stainless steel” if only Bond would let him go.

FYEO is a crackingly old-fashioned Bond film that, despite being more grounded, has some great action sequences and a host of actors having a good time. Carole Bouquet is one of Moore’s best Bond girls and Moore himself certainly should have stopped here, this film throwing together one of his best mixes of light comedy, moral uprightedness, playfulness mixed with a dash of cruelty. John Glen did such a good job assembling this one he directed the next four films. It’s not got the smash-and-grab of The Spy Who Loved Me, but it’s an excellent action adventure.