Tag: Joe Don Baker

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

Pierce Brosnan and Michelle Yeoh take on big media in the fun Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies

Director: Roger Spottiswoode

Cast: Pierce Brosnan (James Bond), Jonathan Pryce (Elliot Carver), Michelle Yeoh (Wai Lin), Teri Hatcher (Paris Carver), Joe Don Baker (Jack Wade), Ricky Jay (Henry Gupta), Gotz Otto (Richard Stamper), Vincent Schiavelli (Dr Kaufman), Judi Dench (M), Samantha Bond (Miss Moneypenny), Colin Salmon (Charles Robinson), Geoffrey Palmer (Admiral Roebuck), Julian Fellowes (Minister)

For Pierce Brosnan’s second Bond film, they knew there was life in the old dog yet. GoldenEye’s success meant Tomorrow Never Dies could be all about bangs and fun, a Moore-esque caper with a modern touch. And fun it certainly is – exciting, amusing and with some top gadgets. This doesn’t re-invent the gun barrel, but it gives us a hell of a ride.

A British Navy ship is sunk in Chinese waters (the navy is always so luckless in Bond films!) and a Chinese MiG is shot down. Each side blames the other: but MI6 believe they are both being played against each other by a third party – media mogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce). There’s 48 hours to find the truth and stop a war. Best send Bond (Pierce Brosnan) to Carver’s HQ to shake things up, not least because he has a past relationship with Carver’s wife Paris (Teri Hatcher). Soon partnering with Chinese Intelligence agent Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), the two work to expose Carver’s dastardly schemes to start a war to increase his ratings and secure those lucrative Chinese broadcast rights.

Tomorrow Never Dies sometimes has a by-the-numbers feel to it – probably because the script was written on the go, with only locations and set-pieces decided in advance. Usually that’s a recipe for disaster, but with TND it works. Probably because everyone looks like they are having a whale of a time making it and the tongue is wedged so firmly in the cheek it’s practically touching the ear. And its concept of a mogul using fake news to manipulate the world seems alarmingly prescient today – think how powerful Elliot Carver would be if he ran Twitter (as he surely would today).

You can forgive Tomorrow Never Dies almost anything because it has so many stand-out sequences. The film has a (literally) explosive start, with Bond racing against time to fly some nuclear missiles out of a terrorist trading camp, before a British cruise missile blows the base sky high (and “make Chenoboyl look like a picnic”). Naturally the destruction as Bond lays waste to the camp makes you wonder why they wasted the money on a cruise missile when Bond can destroy the place for free.

Front-and-centre though is the “Bond drives a car through a shoot-out on the back-seat with a remote control” sequence. Which when written down, captures only about 5% of the sequence’s delight. Narrated by an over-cautious sat nav (constantly warning about hazards ahead, while the car is pummelled by bullets), we get all the gadgets we expect (bullet-proof glass, rockets, caltrops, a buzz saw that conveniently rises to the exact height required to cut through a steel wire obstacle) while also watching Bond masterfully steer a car around a multi-storey car-park on his phone from the back seat. Of course, Brosnan knows it’s silly and telegraphs his enjoyment, letting out a chuckle when he reinflates his tyres after driving over his own caltrops (I love this moment).

Tell me he’s not having fun.

There is a cursory sense of mystery, but TND wisely doesn’t have much patience with that. Bond is nominally under-cover at Carver’s HQ as a banker (inevitably using his own name) but, just like his Moore-heyday, Bond’s undercover skills are hilariously bad and his hints clankingly blunt. Fortunately Carver follows Bond villain form, confirming any suspicions by ordering his goons to beat Bond black-and-blue (more fool them, as Bond uses every instrument in a sound proof recording studio to best the baddies).

This was Brosnan in absolutely top form. He’s extremely charming, handles the action very well and gets more than a few grins. He looks like a guy just delighted to be there, living the dream of playing Bond. He’s both self-deprecating and cocksure and manages to be both a believable ruthless killer and a sort of charming little-boy-lost when needed. He loves a pun in a way no other Bond apart from Moore has done (“brushing up on a little Danish” indeed…) and his chemistry with Michelle Yeoh is superb, the two playing off each other like a sort of all-action Morecambe and Wise.

It’s a Bond where comedy is to the fore. An expensive satellite at Carver’s HQ is introduced (“It’s worth $300 million. You break it, you bought it”) solely so Bond can trash it without a second glance. A hitman (hilariously played in a cameo by Vincent Schiavelli) assures Bond he could “shoot him from Stuttgart” and still make it look like a suicide then apologises with embarrassment when he has to delay the hit to ask Bond how to unlock his car (“I don’t know what to say. I feel like an idiot.”). Moneypenny even calls Bond a “cunning linguist” after she interrupts by phone Bond’s tryst with a Danish professor (a joke which I certainly didn’t get when I first watched the film at a young age).

The lighter side of the script works more successfully than some of the attempts at emotion. The script bluntly states Bond had deep feelings for Paris Carver, but this never comes across at all in the performances. Probably because the emotions were torpedoed by the blatantly obvious lack of chemistry between Brosnan and Hatcher (allegedly they couldn’t stand each other). This is made all the more obvious by contrasting it to the delightful chemistry between Brosnan and Yeoh (watch the motorcycle chase with them handcuffed together – brilliant stuff, and Yeoh is excellent in this). When Paris is dispatched early in the film, Bond is cut up about it for literally 10 seconds before he’s having a whale of a time in that car park chase.

“There’s no news…like BAD news!”

Like many Bond films you can see how the franchise had become besotted with the latest “cool thing” in cinema. In this case, the film seems deeply in love with John-Woo-Hong-Kong-action gunplay. Bond probably fires more automatic machine guns in this film than he does in all the rest of the franchise put together, and the film’s finale (the dullest set-piece) is a run-of-the-mill shoot-out on a stealth boat, that feels pretty familiar from the series’ countless “face off in a sub” endings.

Spottiswoode directs with a straightforward lack of flair. Pryce has fun going OTT (and channelling Gus Hedges from Drop the Dead Donkey) as Carver even if the part is a bit under-written. But the main joy is in watching Brosnan have a huge amount of fun running around, blowing things up and shamelessly smirking through some dodgy puns. His Bond may never have been the most complex interpretation, but at his best I’m not sure anyone else was as purely enjoyable. Much like the film.

Cape Fear (1991)

Robert De Niro terrorises his lawyer’s family in Cape Fear

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Robert De Niro (Max Cady), Nick Nolte (Sam Bowden), Jessica Lange (Leigh Bowden), Juliette Lewis (Danielle Bowden), Joe Don Baker (Claude Kersek), Robert Mitchum (Lt Elgart), Gregory Peck (Lee Heller), Illeana Douglas (Lori Davis), Fred Dalton Thompson (Tom Broadbent), Martin Balsam (Judge)

Max Cady (Robert De Niro) is out of prison after 14 years. He went in as an ill-educated psychotic bum, sent down for the rape and assault of a young woman after his appalled lawyer Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) buried evidence on her sexual history that might have lightened his sentence. He comes out as a self-educated, articulate and psychotic force of nature, not sorry for one minute and intent on making Sam and his wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) and daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis) pay. 

Scorsese’s remake of J. Lee-Thompson’s deliberately Hitchcock-esque thriller sees the great director go one better by trying to channel Hitchcock’s style as closely as possible. Framing and editing decisions echo Hitchcock, its design apes as much as possible cinematographer Robert Burk’s lensing, Elmer Bernstein remixes the original film’s Bernard Herrmann score into something even more Hitchcockesque than the original. Scorsese throws in several of the master’s favourite themes, with sexual obsession and frustrated, working men forced to defend themselves in extreme situations. Combined with the sort of lavish violence and extreme imagery Hitchcock couldn’t use, we end up with something like an odd film-school experiment, by film students who have watched too many slashers. It’s grim, tasteless, overlong and troubling – and not in a good way.

The film adjusts Nolte’s character from a lawyer and witness against Cady into his corrupt lawyer (no matter that his corruption in this case was well intentioned). The film has a slightly unpleasant concern with modern worries about masculinity, with Bowden now concerned he is not “man enough” to defend his home – the film constantly passes subtle judgement against Bowden’s lack of physical prowess. It also readjusts Bowden into a weasel, corrupt at work and having an affair with a young attorney (whom Cady then beats and rapes later in the film, with a slightly queasy air that she is at least partly culpable by allowing Cady to pick her up in a bar beforehand). To be honest Bowden is hard to sympathise with, and his quest to assert his masculinity rather than rely on the law or hiring others to do his dirty work not really that pleasant. Frankly Nolte was never the actor to engage sympathies in the way original choice Harrison Ford (he wanted to play Cady) would do.

Cady himself is played by Robert De Niro, channelling heavily the original’s star Robert Mitchum (with lashings of The Night of the Hunter) as the sort of articulate psychopath so beloved by film. It’s fun to watch De Niro grandstanding as this sort of violent Tyrannosaur, weaving both psychological and shockingly violent games to unnerve and panic Bowden and his family. The film doesn’t give much scope to make Cady much more than a sort of comic-book monster, but De Niro does at least have moments of reflection in amongst his insanity. And there is a sort of admirable emotional intelligence in Cady’s knack of detecting the underlying tensions in the Bowden’s marriage and family life and exploiting these to torment the family.

The film’s most effective moments are the quieter ones, none more so than Cady’s quiet befriending/seduction of Bowden’s daughter Danielle behind her parents’ back. This culminates in a deeply unsettlingly seduction scene in Danielle’s school hall, where Juliette Lewis (extremely good) fascinatingly and bashfully becomes entranced with Cady’s interest in her teenage reading list and problems with her parents. The sexuality of the scene is possibly even more unnerving today and a highlight of the film – not least, ending as it does, with Danielle sucking Cady’s thumb before kissing him and leaving with the giddy, confused excitement of someone both scared and fascinated. Few other things in the film match this moment for psychological complexity – or the unsettling exploration of teenage sexuality overlapping with rebellion against domineering parents. 

Least of all the film’s overblown and final confrontation between the Bowden family and Cady, in which Cady rises from death no  less than three times and which stretches on forever, jettisoning all the small stock of goodwill the film had built up in its quieter moments. But then this is just part of a film that chooses the graphic and the overblown over calculated and chilling, every chance it gets. It’s a shame as there is a more chilling, psychological terror film – with Cady as a demonically clever opponent – struggling to come out here, but which keeps tripping into slasher territory with Cady as an invulnerable Michael Myers.

Perhaps Scorsese just thought of the whole thing as a sort of cineaste’s private joke? All the Hitchcock references, the careful apeing of styles, even the casting of the original’s leads in small roles (a joke further amplified by casting Mitchum as the police officer, while ultimate straight arrow Gregory Peck plays a lawyer even more corrupt than Bowden). But jokes like this don’t really make for long-term entertaining films, and Cape Fear is so full of basically horrible people doing horrible things to each other (in an increasingly Grand Guignol fashion) that after a while you more than cease caring about it. You start getting actively annoyed by it.

Charley Varrick (1973)

Walter Matthau schemes a caper in crime thriller Charley Varrick

Director: Don Siegel

Cast: Walter Matthau (Charley Varrick), Joe Don Baker (Molly), Andy Robinson (Harman Sullivan), John Vernon (Maynard Boyle), Sheree North (Jewell Everettt), Felicia Farr (Sybil Fort), Norman Fell (Garfinkle), Woodrow Parfrey (Harold Young), William Schallert (Sheriff Horton), Jacqueline Scott (Nadine), Tom Tully (Tom), Benson Fong (Honest John)

Don Siegel was perhaps the ultimate professional director, who took on any scripts that came his way, producing polished, professional films. In the later part of his career, he finally received some of the freedom to start shooting his quality B-movies on A-movie style budgets. Charley Varrick was the first film he made after his box-office smash Dirty Harry, and Siegel received more time and space to deliver a film that mixed action and drama with an elaborate, almost meditative, mystery.

Charley Varrick (Walter Matthau) is a former stunt pilot, whose small crop-dusting business is a front for carrying out small-scale robberies. A bank robbery in Tres Cruces, New Mexico goes horribly wrong – Varrick’s wife Nadine (Jacqueline Scott) is killed and he and his partner Harman Sullivan (Andy Robinson) find the small job they had anticipated is actually holding a huge amount of mafia money. Varrick knows the mafia won’t rest until they get the money back – and he is right, as bank president Maynard Boyle (John Vernon) has no choice but to call in ruthless hitman Molly (Joe Don Baker) to get the money back and kill those who stole it.

Charley Varrickwas also known by Don Siegel as The Last of the Independents – and that kinda fits its tone. Varrick is a small-scale operator who has chosen crime because he’s been squeezed out of the crop-dusting business by the corporations. He’s operating a crime gang that follows a series of carefully planned robberies, aimed at stealing humble amounts: enough to be a nuisance rather than cause a genuine scandal. He’s a small-time operator, proud of who is, who doesn’t want to hit the big time but to excel as the big fish in the small pond.

The whole film reflects this personality: the film is deliberately set in a quiet American town in the mid-West – the opening credits are played over everyday scenes of small-town life. Every location is slightly run-down and unimpressive. Those wrapped up in the crime are regular Joes – on both sides of the law – and the values and principles are those of mid-west America. Even Molly the hitman – while clearly ruthless and capable of extreme violence and full of disdain of those he meets – has a drawling, cowboy quality to him. 

Part of Siegel’s point is that into all this explodes a story of crime, murder and violence that all spins out of money (doesn’t it always?). The mystery element is the audience wondering how Varrick is going to get out of this with both cash and life intact. What Siegel does really well is effectively make Varrick an unreliable narrator. Despite the fact we follow him around in the film, we are never really told what he is thinking or why he does things. Only at the end of the film are all the threads of the actions he has carried out pulled together – a real lightbulb “ah ha!” moment – and the real purpose of what he has been doing is revealed.

To make a character who plays their cards so close to their chest work, you need an actor who is effortlessly charming. The film gets this in Walter Matthau. Matthau, with his hang-dog Droopy-face is hardly anyone’s first idea of a ruthless bank robber (surely part of the film’s point!) but his winning charm and kindly-Uncle quality, as well as the eye of assured cool that Matthau gives him, really make you root for him. In fact it works so well that you actually forget how ruthless Varrick in this film: from moving on swiftly from his wife’s death, to ruthlessly sacrificing several people in his quest for self-preservation. In other hands, Varrick wouldn’t half come across as a copper-bottomed shit. 

Instead, his plan of misdirection, clues pointing towards the wrong thing, and carefully juggled parallel attempts to escape (his unrevealed real plan, and the clumsy surface plan that the audience knows must be a bluff) really works to keep you engaged and entertained. Siegel is purposefully pulling the wool over your eyes in virtually every scene – and he has Varrick basically tell us he’s doing this – but there are few things that audiences like more than a magic trick. We want Varrick to pull a rabbit out of the hat at the end – to surprise us all with how clever he’s been (and to reward those who have worked out part of what he is doing).

Siegel mixes this with a surprising number of quiet, even soulful moments that mix the thoughtful with some black comedy. From Varrick’s tender kissing of his dead wife – right before he professionally carries on with their plan to burn the get-away car they escaped in (this time with his wife’s body inside it) – to a secret meeting/interrogation/intimidation of timid bank manager Harold Young (a twitchy Woodrow Parfey) by smooth big-city bank manager Boyle (a superbly cold John Vernon, nowhere near as assured and secure as he thinks he is) in a cow-filled field, these scenes are about character as much as they are about plot.

Siegel mixes this with moments of pure action and drama. The opening bank robbery is surprisingly violent, considering the gentle introduction to the film – and our “heroes” are amazingly ruthless towards those that stand in their way. Joe Don Baker’s chillingly amoral Molly hands out beatings as easily as he does slightly goofy Western smirks (a beat down of Harman is particularly brutal). Varrick is quietly ruthless and the film ends with a dynamic chase scene in a scrapyard, quite unlike anything you have ever seen.

Charley Varrick epitomises the sort of 1970s film that studios and Hollywood looked down on at the time, but inspired the filmmakers today far more than some of the Oscar winning gumph that got praised. Parts of it are dated – women in the film are either love interests or whores, and both Molly and Charley (Walter Matthau is no one’s idea of a lothario) bed compliant, impressed women in the film with an off-hand carelessness. But the core and heart of the film is in its cool, calculated confidence mixed with a sense of Western soul. With a terrific performance by Matthau, this is a fine example of independent film-making.

The Living Daylights (1987)

Timothy Dalton’s meaner Bond takes aim in top Bond Film The Living Daylights

Director: John Glen

Cast: Timothy Dalton (James Bond), Maryam D’Abo (Kara Milovy), Jeroen Krabbé (General Georgi Koskov), Joe Don Baker (Brad Whitaker), John Rhys-Davies (General Leonid Pushkin), Art Malik (Kamran Shah), Andreas Wisniewski (Necros), Thomas Wheatley (Saunders), Robert Brown (M), Demons Llewellyn (Q), Geoffrey Keen (Minister of Defence), Caroline Bliss (Miss Moneypenny), John Terry (Felix Leiter), Walter Gotell (General Gogol)

After A View to a Kill,even the Bond producers realised something had to change. Roger Moore at 60, was definitely too long in the tooth to still be the debonair super spy. The producers were quick to land their first choice – TV’s Remington Steele star, Pierce Brosnan. But a last-minute renewal of the cancelled show meant Brosnan was out – and the producers turned to one of the first choices when Connery left: Timothy Dalton. Dalton had considered himself too young in 1969, but the stars aligned now. So we had a new Bond – a younger, sleeker, meaner model. To quote that other franchise with a revolving lead: Change my dear, and it seems not a moment too soon…

James Bond (Timothy Dalton) is tasked to protect a defecting Russian general, Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé), but during the mission he refuses to take the life of Kara Milovy (Maryam D’Abo), a cello player from the Viennese orchestra turned sniper, whom he believes to be nothing but an amateur. When Koskov is snatched by mysterious forces, Bond must trace his only link to Koskov: Kara Milovy, who he quickly discovers is Koskov’s lover. Soon he questions the legitimacy of the defection – and the links to sinister American arms dealer Brad Whittaker (Joe Don Baker).

First and foremost, this is Timothy Dalton’s film. His Bond was something so radically different from Moore that, to a certain extent, the public wasn’t ready for it. Dalton went right back to Fleming’s books, and brought to the screen for the first time a Bond who actually feels like the character of the novel: world-weary, cynical, reluctant (even bitter), a man on the edge of anger with a darkness behind the charm. When Bond is threatened by being reported to M by his colleague Saunders (an excellent Thomas Wheatley), he snaps in response: “If he fires me, I’ll thank him for it”. Can anyone imagine Moore or Connery saying that?

He’s also a man capable of genuine emotion and loyalty, who forms friendships and relationships throughout the film that we haven’t really seen before. Sure some of the comic elements feel shaped more for Moore’s lips than Dalton’s, but Dalton’s Bond made everything feel more grounded than the overblown later Moore movies. To put it bluntly, Dalton makes Bond feel like a human being, not just a super-hero. There’s a reason he’s been called the best actor to take on the role. He treats it like an acting job. He might be the best Bond.

This works particularly interestingly as this film is a sort of half-way-house between a Moore film and an early Connery film. The tone of the film is kept relatively light (a key chain that works via a wolf whistle! Skiing down a slope on a cello case!), but the villains of the piece are relatively low key (they want to make a killing on drug deals) and there is a nice mix between some exciting (but not over the top) stunts and an almost Hitchcockian feel.

This Hitchcock feel is not least in the (rather sweet) romance between Bond and Kara, with its Notorious feel of a man manipulating a woman while genuinely growing to care for her. Setting most of these scenes in a romantically shot Vienna also helps enormously, with its noirish Third Man feel. Unlike many other Bonds, the relationship here between Bond and the girl feels like a genuine romance. Kara may be a bit of a damsel in distress, but she feels like a warm-hearted, decent person wrapped up in events beyond her experience. And although audiences at the time, accustomed to Moore and Connery’s unending conquests, were critical of the reduction in Bond’s sexual adventures, making him less promiscuous results in Bond feeling like much more of a jaded romantic than a casual philanderer, and makes his relationship with Kara much more resonant.

The whole film feels much more grounded in reality, without losing a sense of fun. The film does its action sequences extraordinarily well. The car chase through snowy Austria is brilliantly done (the car gets a series of stand out gadgets), with Dalton delivering each new revelation of the car with a winning dryness. This sequence develops into the brilliantly funny cello-case skiing sequence (“We’ve nothing to declare!”/”Except a cello!”). Again, the sequence works so well because it is skilfully counterbalanced with the almost Le Carre-ish piece of spycraft Bond uses first to get Kara out from the under noses of her KGB watchers.

Interestingly, one of its most striking sequences doesn’t even involve Bond: that plaudit has to go to the thrilling one-man assault by unstoppable ubermensch Necros on the MI6 house where Koskov is being held. A particular showcase here is the brutal kitchen fight between Necros and an MI6 officer, surely the greatest fight in the series not to feature Bond (and all the more exciting as you don’t know what could happen to these characters), plus it’s great to see someone in MI6 other than Bond being able to handle themselves.

The final major sequence of the film, with Necros and Bond fighting while clinging for their lives to a net, dangling out the back of a plane, is a truly striking action set-piece, a real vertigo inducing stand-out. If you can put to one side in your head the fact that Bond’s key allies during the whole Afghanistan sequence of this film are basically Al-Qaida in an earlier form (with Art Malik’s charming Kamran Shah basically exactly the sort of man who went on to become Osama Bin-Laden), and you can enjoy the sequence for its terrific excitement.

The weaknesses of the film are in its structure. Both villains (and their plot) are underwhelming. Koskov is something very different – charming, feckless, manipulative (he’s quite well played by Krabbé) – but hardly much of a threat, and he drops out of the film for a chunk in the middle. Joe Don Baker’s Whittaker is too distant from the central plot for him to earn his role as Bond’s final antagonist. It feels like the writers have split one character into two – a Koskov who hid Whittaker’s ruthlessness and bullying under a charming, foolish veneer might have really worked. Their plan is grounded in a reassuring reality, but it never feels like that big a deal. Its complexity is also probably a little too great for the narrow focus the film gives it. The final Whittaker-Bond confrontation is underwhelming considering what we’ve seen before.

But that is because this is Dalton’s film – or, if you like, a Bond film focused on Bond. From the stirring introduction on a training mission parachuting into Gibraltar, Dalton seizes the film by the scruff of the neck. Unlike nearly any other Bond film before now, this feels like one about the type of man Bond is – the killer with a well-hidden heart, the cynic who believes in his cause. He has great chemistry with his fellow actors – not least John Rhys-Davies, excellent as General Pushkin – and above all romantic chemistry with Maryam d’Abo.

The humour allows us to warm to Bond, while the darkness Dalton brings to the role helps us invest emotionally in his more tortured interpretation. All else aside, TLD is damn good fun with some excellent action sequences and a terrific score. It’s very much in the upper echelon of Bond films.