Captain, there be spoilers here!

Where to begin? I always had a slight ambivalence to the idea of rebooting James Bond. Yes, the films had a screwy continuity, it was difficult to accept that Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton and Brosnan were playing the same person, and the films veered around in tone over the years. But the iconography continued, and some elements built up to create a history to the character that informed later films (most especially the death of Tracey in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). Rebooting wiped that all away. But then I watched Casino Royale and thought, hang on – there’s something in this. It was brilliantly exciting, well-acted and pushed the boundaries of a Bond film while staying true to the character. But from there I’m not sure anyone knew what to do. Quantum of Solace has its moments but struggles from a weak script and poorly defined villain. Skyfall made a ton of money but has a really sloppy plot and is a catalogue of Bond’s failures (it does look nice though). Spectre is dull and has an outrageously stupid twist, making Blofeld Bond’s half-brother. In an echo of Pierce Brosnan’s era, there seemed to be a clear decline from an excellent beginning, as if the filmmakers, having worked out how to relaunch Bond and make him relevant for a new time, then got lost (I’m starting to think only Martin Campbell should direct these things). Daniel Craig’s movies have tried to create a clear through-line, to make his films connect and relate, to cure the continuity issues. No Time to Die hermetically seals his tenure and attempts to draw all the threads together, but in doing so we’ve lost sight of what Bond films are for.

Of all the reviews I’ve seen of No Time to Die one on Twitter struck me the most. In it a father describes taking his son to the film – the first Bond film he’s seen in the cinema. A lot of us remember that moment of seeing our first Bond film on the big screen, mine was GoldenEye – I walked out of the cinema feeling 10 feet tall, replaying events in my mind and determined to see it again soon. The Twitter user’s son came out of his first cinematic Bond film experience in tears. And he was supposed to. Somewhere the producers have convinced themselves that Bond films must have ‘meaning’ – it was creeping in during Brosnan’s tenure (all that stuff about dead women), attempts to peel back the layers of Bond – but in doing so they’ve abandoned the very escapist nature of the films that made them popular in the first place. For many years the only point of a Bond film was to entertain, No Time to Die wants to move you. And there’s nothing more moving than killing your hero. Just like in Avengers: Endgame or, perhaps, The Dark Knight Rises (the debate continues on that one). But that death has to be earned, and there has to be some sense of hope afterwards. For me killing Bond seems a sad, desperate attempt to surprise the audience and shows a disappointing lack of faith in the character. It comes in an overlong film hampered by left over plot threads from Spectre, and an uncertain tone. And in case you’re not sure what I just said, yes, they killed James Bond, your childhood hero, and not in a You Only Live Twice kind of a way, in an obliterated by missiles kind of a way. The film, however, lost me long before then.

It opens quite well, a flashback to Madeline’s childhood that introduces the villain, Safin (who disappears for most of the rest of the movie and lacks clear definition or motivation) then moves to Italy as Bond visit’s Vesper’s grave to finally close the door on his first love (it’s not a comparison that they should make, it only highlights the lack of chemistry between Bond and Madeline). Some solid action takes place, Bond dumps Madeline on a train, convinced she’s betrayed him (why is she holding her stomach like that?) before buggering off to Jamaica to fish and drink. So far, so ok. A trip to Cuba, at the behest of Felix Leiter, introduces CIA agent Paloma and the MacGuffin  – a nasty bio-weapon that targets specific DNA strands. As Bond’s retires there’s a new 007, Nomi, and there’s some fun one-upmanship between her and Bond (although something similar worked better in Tomorrow Never Dies). Then Felix gets killed and the film lost me. Why kill Felix? Meaning. It’s a pointless death, only designed to make Bond’s life, and ours, miserable. From there the film meanders and, perhaps, becomes a reflection of Craig’s view of the role – I don’t think Craig approves of James Bond, so he plays him as a haunted misery and then kills him off. There are more incidents of course, and it’s all nicely shot and there’s some reasonable action beats but Blofeld returns (wheeled out on a silly sort of conveyor, chained up in a box) to remind us of the stupid twist from Spectre, M’s character seems to have completely changed (from a defender of democracy and human agency, to a man who develops DNA targeting bio-weapons that can silently kill anyone in the world) and, ta-da!, Bond has a daughter (who to be fair was very cute). By the end Bond is addressing Madeline (while staring down the camera) as the missiles approach, declaring his love… I imagine I was supposed to cry. It did make me miserable, but not in the way they meant, I think.  

Bond films get people into the cinema who don’t usually go. In the row behind me was an older couple who discussed how they hadn’t been to a big screen in five years. It will no doubt be a hit, and I will be shown (once again) to be out of step with most of the film-going public. But it was an odd, muted reaction at the end, the audience drifting silently out – no-one seemed to be walking tall.

So, we reboot again, I guess. Who knows what comes next – hopefully a set of films that aren’t afraid to be fun, to entertain, to take us away for two hours, to show us a hero who beats the bad guys and gets the girl. Simple enough pleasures. In a sense killing Craig’s Bond closes his loop, kills his continuity, and I’m grateful he’s not the James Bond I grew up with. Maybe I’m too old, they’re making movies for a different audience now, with different expectations. But I suspect I’m not the only one who would like some escapist entertainment, with great stunts and a hero who smiles once in a while. By the way, when is the next Mission Impossible out?

As part of On Her Majesty’s Secret Podcast’s excellent series on James Bond video games I was interviewed about 007 Legends (in which I appear)! Jarrod Alberich, aka The Yard Sale Artist, takes you through an audio documentary deep dive dive into the world of James Bond in video games – find the episode here. For more of this series, and their other terrific podcasts about the world of James Bond, look here.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of speaking at the American New Wave: A Retrospective conference at Bangor University organised by Greg Frame and Nathan Abrams. After the conference finished a call went up for contributions developed from the papers and lo and behold the time is coming when this work will be released. Due to be published on 21st October 2021 by Bloomsbury Academic, New Wave, New Hollywood: Reassessment, Recovery and Legacy collects a series of essays that hope to re-evaluate some of the key ideas and theories that dominate our views on the period and includes my thoughts in Chapter 3 ‘Formal Radicalism vs. Radical Representation: Reassessing The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971) and Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971)’. It’s a bit intimidating to be in such esteemed company, and not to mention rather exciting, but I’m sure I’ll keep my feet on the ground – as Harry Callahan reminds us, ‘A man’s got to know his limitations’.

My friends at Plastic Brain Press have published a new edition of their zine, Lincolnshire Strange Delights, available to pre-order here. I’ve managed to smuggle a piece in about the Boston born poet Elizabeth Jennings, who was an amazing writer who needs more celebrating, and there’s lots more stuff in there – here’s what they say, ‘Behold, Lincolnshire Strange Delights, a zine exploring and celebrating the eccentric, the esoteric and unbelievable in the peculiar county of Lincolnshire! From the Wolds to The Stump, from the ghastly to the ghostly, LSD is here for your yellow-bellied entertainment!’ Check it out.

Beware – there be spoilers here!

D-Tox, also known as Eye See You or The Outpost, is one of those movies that’s nearly there. Watching it one can’t help but feel for the wasted potential – a great cast, a fun if hokey premise, a solid director (of I Know What You Did Last Summer fame) – that it never quite makes it is perhaps reflective of a disordered production, rather than the talents involved. Certainly the film feels like the swingeing cuts of a studio editor have been applied throughout, alongside re-shoots and soundtrack tinkering (the studio delayed release from 1999 for such things after early tests played poorly). Given a limited release it passed mostly unnoticed onto VHS/DVD, and now finds a new home on Netflix perhaps to finally find an audience. Sylvester Stallone plays FBI agent Jake Malloy, opening the film in pursuit of a cop-killer, who turns to alcohol in the wake of a personal trauma. After a suicide attempt he’s taken by his partner (Charles S. Dutton) to an isolated rehab center for cops, just as the snow storms start creeping in, and bodies start piling up.

Perhaps the film’s biggest crime was to come during Stallone’s wilderness years. From James Mangold’s excellent Copland in 1997 to enjoyably nostalgic slugfest Rocky Balboa in 2006 Stallone couldn’t buy a hit (excluding a voice-role in Antz) with mediocre fillers like Driven and the Get Carter remake failing to capitalize on the excellent performance he gave in Mangold’s stripped down cop thriller. Copland felt like a new start for Stallone, or perhaps a return to earlier days when he was compared to Brando (really). But it proved a dead-end, with Stallone unable to cast-off the action hero mantle, or forge into new areas. D-Tox suffers from this – at first Stallone is game at pushing into new territories, as a traumatized alcoholic cop (wife fridged earlier by the cop targeting serial killer), and when he arrives as Kris Kristofferson’s isolated rehab centre, he plays the suicidal Malloy well. But by the end (spoilers!) we’re back to good-old muscle man Sly, finding closure by impaling the killer on a set of spikes in an OTT display of his superior macho-ness.

In between we get to meet an excellent, although mostly wasted, supporting cast. Alongside the aforementioned Kristofferson and Dutton, are Polly Walker, Jeffrey Wright, Tom Beringer, Robert Patrick and Sean Patrick Flanery. Apparently Stephen Lang is also in it, but he was so covered by thick specs and a beanie, plus the low-light levels, that I didn’t notice. This cast should be the film’s strength, but we barely get to know any of them before they start getting bumped off. Poor Flanery barely has a line before he’s found, the victim of ‘suicide’. Of course the killer of Stallone’s wife has followed him to rehab, but it’s difficult to care for most of the victims as we’ve barely met them.

Stuck somewhere between Se7en, The Thing, with a dusting of The Shining, and something more in the vein of a traditional Stallone cop thriller, D-Tox never really takes off. It’s a film of wasted potential, not terrible per se, just not as good as it could have been. The direction and performances are fine, there’s some enjoyably gruesome stuff early on, and the premise is fun (if a little illogical at times). That the film never quite coheres may reflect it’s problematic production, and a studio’s lack of faith in Stallone – the curse of the star image is the box it puts them in. Audiences demand something new from their stars, as long as it doesn’t upset the apple cart too much. Stallone, on his uppers by the late 1990s was clearly trying, but audiences weren’t buying. By 2006 Stallone had worked out that nostalgia was in, so he got back in the gym and gave audiences what they wanted, and by 2015 had an Oscar nom for Creed. With the announcement of Demolition Man 2 he’s dipping back into the well again, despite being 73. Much as I love the potential to discover the secret of the three sea shells, I’m a little saddened that he’s reliving past glories again. There’s a very good actor in Sly, when he lets him out.

How do you follow up The Wicker Man (1973)? It’s a problem that runs through the length of writer/director Robin Hardy’s belated follow-up – a film that only exists because of it’s beloved predecessor, and which is also haunted by it in such a way that the latter film fails to find a personality of it’s own. It is not a bad film per se, rather one that struggles to find it’s own identity, standing in the shadow of a horror great as it does.

The set-up is quite neat, a born-again Christian couple leave the revivalist meetings of Texas to bring the gospel to the lapsed in Scotland only to discover that some are a little more lapsed than others. The central couple of Beth and Steve, played by Brittania Niccol and Henry Garret, are likeable enough in an “awe-shucks” sort of away – just naive and sweet enough for us to buy into their proselyting journey and silver-ring chastity, and Graham McTavish gives a good performance as Sir Lachlan Morrison (who may, or may not, be a descendant of Lord Summerisle), but the film lacks the overt weirdness of the original film – both in the flow of events and the film making style. Hardy directs in a rather restrained manner, a much smoother and more conservative style than in 1973 and the film suffers for it. For the most part The Wicker Man is not so much scary, as odd – creeping into your mind with its mish-mash of pagan beliefs and ideas, until it’s horrifying end. The follow-up however is rather banal, tossing in the odd reference to ancient water goddess Sulis (from Bath) and naming a power station after Irish deity Nuada (like the first film, there’s little discipline in which traditions are drawn from), but other than a local psychic and his pet raven the film is rather tame, until the final third at least. But even this is undermined by the inevitability of the finale which, modeled on the first film, surprises only in method if not in result. A burning wicker sculpture is even thrown in for no reason I could discern, other than as a reminder of the first film.

It’s greatest issue overall is a lack of narrative drive, given in the first film by Sargeant Howie’s desperate search for Rowan Morrison (another relation?), meaning it all rather meanders towards the denouement, and of course it lacks the shear shock of the original’s ending. There’s also a tonal insecurity, with the film shifting into comedy at times, particularly around Clive Russel’s butler, and some undeveloped ideas and characters that could perhaps have gone somewhere, such as the pollution subplot, or Honeysuckle Week’s rather underused character of Lolly. Christopher Lee appears, briefly, as a further tie to the first film but I can’t help thinking that it really lacks the influence of Anthony Shaffer who co-wrote the original and was a dab-hand at mystery. All in all, not an unpleasant 90 odd minutes, but one that will, unlike the original, pass fairly quickly from memory.

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