JBR SPECTRE Review

WARNING:  This review does contain major SPOILERS

My initial reaction leaving the movie theater after having watched SPECTRE was just, “Wow! That was brilliant,” and I pretty much wrote a Facebook post to that effect.   Now, that I’ve had some time to process the film, I still believe it to be an exciting thrill ride of a movie with some reservations.  The set pieces and action scenes were delightfully executed; the interplay between Bond and the MI6 cast gelled with some smart dialogue and onscreen chemistry; the numerous callbacks and the humor that came into play set a lighthearted tone that had been mostly missing from the Craig era Bond films; and the film generally seemed to fulfill the checklist of all the things I’ve wanted to see in a Bond movie.  It was a fun movie-going experience that  kept me entertained from beginning to end, however, as with any film you might enjoy, the more you over-analyze it, the more that analysis detracts from the actual enjoyment of it.

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There’s something to be said for the phrase “movie magic.” The phrase has been around for as long as I can remember, and while it’s a phrase that suits most Bond films, it’s most applicable to SPECTRE.  Just like a magic trick, SPECTRE is a film that works tremendously well from the perspective of an average spectator in the audience, one who isn’t at all concerned about how the trick is accomplished.  It’s when you start to look at the same trick from different angles attempting to deconstruct it, that the “magic” disintegrates.  When it comes to magic, there are two types of people. There are those people who just want to enjoy themselves and take in the spectacle and there are those people who just want to figure out how the trick is done, who ultimately relinquish whatever enjoyment might be gained from the brief suspension of disbelief in order to satisfy their own need to explain what their seeing .  Neither way of viewing the spectacle of entertainment is necessarily wrong, but one way is perhaps more forgiving than the other.  I propose that SPECTRE is a film that will find these two types of people divided and at odds.

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SPECTRE is a film that if you don’t think about it much, is absolutely stunning.   It’s a visual feast from start to finish.  The Mexico City pre-titles sequence alone is well worth the price of admission.  I can’t recall a better opening sequence to any film within the Bond franchise or even outside of it.  It’s absolutely fun to watch Daniel Craig weave in and out of the crowd with style and walking along the edges of rooftops with all the cool and composure we’ve come to expect from him.  Once the helicopter comes into play and the fight onboard it goes into full swing, it’s just a pure adrenaline rush of excitement to behold.

The rest of the film doesn’t quite live up to the fluid tone established by the Mexico Cityspectre-image-mexico-city-2-300x200 sequence, but the action sequences in Austria and Rome deliver in their own unique ways.  I think Monica Bellucci’s performance was definitely compelling, but they should have tried to find at least one additional scene for her character.  The Rome car chase was fun to watch and the interjections of the phone call to Moneypenny and the old man in the Fiat didn’t distract too much

I think the main criticism so far tends to be that the humor and call backs to previous Bond films were just a bit too much, perhaps too self-referential.  I can understand where this is coming from to some degree.  Craig’s Bond has thus far been a departure from the traditional cinematic Bond relying more on a grittier more down to earth portrayal that recalls the literary origins of the character.  Casino Royale in particular greatly departed from the formula that had been established by all the Bond films that had preceded it and firmly established Craig as not just a “new” Bond but a rebooted Bond, an antihero apropos to the 21st century and influenced heavily by the darker more brooding direction that Christopher Nolan had explored in his Batman films.  From Casino Royale through Skyfall, we get the sense that this “rough around the edges” Bond was different from all the prior Bonds because this was a Bond that hadn’t been fully formed.   This allowed us to explore the emotional side of Bond as well as establish a traumatic past to tie to the character, a past rooted in the Fleming books but never fully explored to any degree in the films.

In SPECTRE, for the first time since Craig took over the role we have him playing the character of Bond as a fully formed archetype from beginning to end.  This has its advantages as well as its disadvantages.  On the positive side, we don’t have any of that slip in confidence that we see in the other films. Bond is as sure of himself as he’s ever been, and there’s never any sense of doubt that he’s going to execute just about every movement he makes precisely the way he wants and he comes across as smooth and suave as we’ve come to expect Bond to be. On the negative side, the sense of doubt about his abilities in Skyfall enabled the audience to identify with him more and root for him to become the Bond we all know and love by the end of the film. In Casino Royale we see Bond become vulnerable when he falls in love with Vesper and this gave the character of Bond more depth than we had been accustomed to seeing at that point.  In SPECTRE, Bond isn’t vulnerable and he isn’t self-doubting so there’s no hook for the audience to identify with him.  Craig is simply playing a character archetype who has already been fully formed and has already gone on an emotional journey in the three previous films. SPECTRE depends upon the audience to simply enjoy Craig playing Bond without any emotional stakes.  I believe this to be the reason why the film has had many of the lukewarm reviews particularly in the United States.  As a fan of Bond and someone who is very adamant about Craig’s portrayal of the character, I’ve always wondered what a “fully formed” Craig Bond film would look like, and that’s what this film delivers, however, there is a part of me that misses the Bond of the early Craig films who didn’t have it all figured out and who was prone to the occasional emotional meltdown especially when someone close to him died.

The other part of this film that has been heavily scrutinized is the reveal of Waltz’s Oberhauser as Blofeld along with the sloppily written explanation of his origins.  I will admit that it’s probably the weakest part of the film. Generally, the strength of any Bondspectre_waltz film relies heavily on the villain, and in the Bond franchise Blofeld is the ultimate nemesis for Bond.  The legal battles surrounding the use of Blofeld and SPECTRE are all out there for fans to talk about and discuss, but putting all that aside, the way we finally get the reveal of Blofeld is admittedly a bit anticlimactic in SPECTRE.  Waltz still gives a stellar chilling performance, but the exposition that they chose for him is rather clumsy and unbelievable even if it conveniently ties the Craig era films all together rather neatly. It’s just a little hard to swallow the concept that Bond and Blofeld were foster brothers, and that Waltz’s character became enraged at his own father’s attachment to Bond following the death of Bond’s parents.  I almost wish they had come up with any other explanation for Blofeld’s connection to Bond, but I don’t think this misstep should taint the entire movie.  The torture sequence inspired by the Kingsley Amis novel Col. Sun alone is enough justification to see past the mishandling of Blofeld’s origins.  That torture sequence was genuinely scary and it had me on the edge of my seat the entire time.  It’s the only time in the entire movie where we feel Bond is actually in danger.  It may seem cruel of me to say this, but I actually wish they had extended the torture sequence.  Seeing Bond in distress for a bit longer would have added to the tension of that scene a bit more.  We all know Bond was going to get out of it somehow, but it’s a scene that could have had the same effect as the chair and rope scene in Casino Royale. In that instance, Bond didn’t actually get out of it on his own, but here he does with help from Madeleine Swann.

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Speaking of Madeleine Swann, I think Lea Seydoux gave us a pretty good performance, but the chemistry was far from the intensity of that between Craig and Eva Green in Casino Royale. Though it seemed to fall a bit short of the mark, I do believe that both Bond and Madeleine fall in love even if I’m not totally convinced that Bond would leave the Secret Service to start a new life with her as he was prepared to do with Vesper.

Of course, this leaves open the possibility of Seydoux’s return, which I’m actually very excited about.  Is it possible that Madeleine will be a Tracy-like figure for Craig’s Bond? One direction I can see this going in if Craig returns for Bond 25 is that Blofeld escapes and kills Madeleine leading to the ultimate Bond revenge film that we’ve been waiting for since the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  Given EON’s recent penchant for cashing in on the missed opportunities of Bond, I can easily see Bond 25 turning into the equivalent of what Diamonds are Forever could have been had George Lazenby remained in the role as Bond.  Perhaps, they might even go back to the Fleming roots and craft a story more similar to the Fleming You Only Live Twice novel.  Those two you-only-live-twice-finalpossibilities excite me very much because I think it’s the kind of story Bond fans have wanted for a long time.  I could even imagine the pre-titles sequence of Bond 25 being the wedding of Bond and Madeleine juxtaposed with Blofeld’s escape and her eventual death as they embark on their honeymoon.  Just thinking of that gives me chills.

Overall, I have to say I still love SPECTRE.  It’s a brilliant, fun, and engaging Bond film, but it’s a Bond film that you have to sort of surrender yourself to.   You have to be the type of person who enjoys a good magic trick without fussing over the details over how the magician achieves his sleight of hand. The minute you look where you’re not supposed to look, you’ll risk being disappointed.  I, for one, plan to keep my gaze firmly at the center of screen.  It’s a Bond movie and I had fun watching it.  That’s all that matters.

Author’s note: I originally wrote this piece for the James Bond Radio podcast site.  I’ve recreated the post here for your review.

James Bond Comic Review: VARGR #1

Last year, Dynamite Entertainment acquired the rights to produce a James Bond comic

John McClusky's rendition of Bond for the Daily express, 1957

John McClusky’s rendition of Bond for the Daily express, 1957

from Ian Fleming Publications.  They hired Eagle Award winning author Warren Ellis to write the story and Jason Masters to produce the artwork, and the result is the highly anticipated first new James Bond comic since an incompleted Goldeneye adaptation by Topps Comics in 1996.  Prior to that James Bond had a long history in the comics medium that still remains mostly unknown to casual fans.  In actuality, James Bond had existed as a comic strip character nearly 4 years before Sean Connery immortalized the role in the first James Bond film Dr. No.   From 1958 to 1983, the Daily Express and the Daily Star carried the James Bond comic strip initially adapting the classic Ian Fleming canon and then publishing original Bond adventures once the Fleming material had been exhausted.  While I haven’t had the opportunity to examine these original comic strip adaptations of the Fleming stories, they have managed to receive high praise, and there are many who admire the effort that when into adapting Fleming stories that have otherwise been vastly altered in their cinematic presentations by EON.

Although the timing of this new endeavor to return Bond to the comic medium is meant to coincide with the release of SPECTRE, Ellis has wisely created a new and independent Bond universe with the release of VARGR.  Although I have an idea of where they might be going with the title, I’m still not absolutely sure of the title’s significance other than the fact that it sounds almost nothing like a Bond title.  Despite lacking a proper Bondian title, all the other elements we could expect to look for in a Bond comic are present in this 1st of 6 issues.  The events take place in the present day, but there is definitely a very cool retro vibe that works very well for the comic, and so far there’s a good balance between classic light hearted Bond elements that we’ve come to enjoy from the films and a bit of noir influenced dark grittiness fans of Dalton and Craig will appreciate.

Dynamite James Bond 007 logo and key art

VARGR 1

Issue #1 is meant to be a bit of a table setter.  It starts off with what can only be regarded as the comic book equivalent of a pre-credits sequence.  We are introduced to a nefarious man running away presumably from Bond.  When Bond appears, they struggle and fight. Bond kills him in cold blood leaving him dead in the snow.  We learn that this man had killed 008 and Bond had been tasked with a revenge mission to take him out.

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Soon after, we get to MI6 headquarters with a brief flirting with Miss Moneypenny and a mission briefing in M’s office.  As we know, the cinematic franchise has cast black British actress Naomi Harris in the role of Miss Moneypenny beginning with Skyfall (2012).  In VARGR, not only is Miss Moneypenny portrayed as a British black woman, M is also portrayed as a British black man for the very first time. It’s a development that I believe works very well, and I should hope that more opportunities for racial diversity in the franchise continue. The M scene plays out very much like it has many times already in the classic Bond cannon.  The dialogue is smart and tightly wound. We get the sense that M is slightly overworked and eager to send Bond along on his mission, which involves him taking over a case 008 had originally been assigned.  Bond is to undermine the efforts of a drug dealer and prevent him from importing a new dangerous drug to the UK.

M. sends Bond off in typical M. fashion

M. sends Bond off in typical M. fashion

The mission sends him to Berlin with the caveat that he must adhere to a new piece of legislation forbidding MI6 agents from carrying weapons within their home country.  Arrangements must be made for Bond to acquire his gun once he reaches Berlin, but this issue doesn’t get quite that far.  Before Bond heads off, he must see his quartermaster of course! This time Ellis has chosen to go with the older gentleman in a laboratory rather than with the Mendes incarnation young wiz-kid type.  I suppose it’s meant as a bit of a throwback to the Q we had grown used to for decades although this incarnation of Q is more physically reminiscent of John Cleese than Desmond Llewellyn.  The Q scene is quite fun and Ellis seems to instinctively know how to get the right chemistry going between these two characters.

Q as he appears in VARGR

Q as he appears in VARGR

We are also treated to Bond having lunch with Bill Tanner before going on the mission, which is something I think many hardcore Bond fans will enjoy as we are reminded of the friendship that Bond has with Tanner that up to Skyfall hasn’t made it into the films.  Kingsley Amis’ Bond continuation novel, Col. Sun, probably has given us the best portrayal of this friendship within the Bond literary cannon.

Bond and Bill Tanner have lunch

Bond and Bill Tanner have lunch

I apologize if I’ve given away too many details, but as I’ve said before this issue is all about setting up a larger plot and reintroducing us to this new conception of the Bond universe.  Much of the actual plot and intrigue hasn’t even started yet.  The issue is very brief but it does what it needs to do and it’s very easy for a reader to get immersed in this new incarnation of Bond, an incarnation that many would argue is long overdue.  VARGR is a promising start to what looks to be a thrilling entry in Bond’s return to the comic medium.  Ellis and Masters have created a comic that is quintessentially Bond. I look forward to the next 5 issues with keen interest.

I recommend pre-ordering the comic through Dynamite’s  Dynamic Forces website.  The comic should be available at most newsstand retail outlets.

Author’s note: I originally wrote this piece for the James Bond Radio podcast site.  I’ve recreated the post here for your review.

Bond to the Future

Author’s note: Just thought I’d whip this up for a little fun. I wrote it very quickly, so please don’t be too hard on me.  I decided to do a throwback to the novel for You Only Live Twice for a certain plot point. I just though it would be fun to imagine 1985 James Bond as portrayed by Roger Moore engaged in time travel plot as tribute to Back the Future.  It’s just a bit of frivolous fun.

It’s a little known fact that after the events of 1985’s A View to a Kill, James Bond (Roger Moore) travelled forward in time to the year 2015. Much of the screenplay has been lost, but this brief snippet is the only surviving portion. Upon returning from San Francisco after defeating Max Zorin, Bond reported to MI6 Headquarters for debriefing when he stumbled upon Q (Desmond Llewelyn) just outside the Q Branch Laboratory.  What follows are the scenes with M., Q, and Miss Moneypenny.  The rest of the screenplay has vanished from existence . . . perhaps thankfully if you’re feeling unkind.

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Bond: What the devil is this, Q?

Q: Glad you asked 007.  It’s a time machine, and as it happens I’ve been instructed by M. to send you to the year 2015.

Bond: You must be joking.

Q: How many times do I have to tell you!  I never joke about my work, 007! Step inside and I’ll show you how it works.

Bond steps inside the vehicle

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Bond: Are you telling me you made a time machine out of a DeLorean?

Q: I figured that if I was going to make a time machine out of a car, why not do it with style?

Bond: I’d much prefer a Lotus Esprit rather than this tin container, thank you very much.

Q: Let’s get one thing straight, 007. I design things and you wreck them.  For God’s sake, I let you do your job, now let me do mine. Now, here’s how it works. Turn the time circuits on like this. This one tells you where you are, this one tells you where you’re going. This one tells you where you were.  Input your destination into this key pad and drive the vehicle. Once you achieve the speed of 88 miles per hour, you will notice a reaction and the vehicle will travel to this precise destination in time.

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Bond: Sounds simple enough. Let’s get started.

M: You’ll find M’s mission briefing inside. Good luck 007.

Bond drives the vehicle outside the lab reaching the speed of 88MPH soon afterwards.  The vehicle vanishes from 1985 and enters the year 2015 . . . Q (Ben Whishaw) and Eve Moneypenny (Naomi Harris)greet him outside MI6 Headquarters.

Miss Moneypenny: James, thank goodness you’ve come.

Bond: Do I know you?

Miss Moneypenny: Why yes, I believe you worked with my great aunt during your time with the Double O section. My name is Eve . . . Eve Moneypenny.

Q: And I’m your new quartermaster.

Bond: You’ve still got spots

Q: You were expecting an old man in a lab coat? I could do more damage in my pajamas in the morning before my first cup of earl grey than you can in 30 years in the field.

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Bond: Then what do you need me for?

Q: It’s your kids.  Something’s gotta be done about your kids.

Bond: I’ve got kids?

Miss Moneypenny:  You didn’t think you could fornicate with just about every skirt you encountered around the world and not have children. Did you even bother using protection?

Bond: You wouldn’t know, Miss Moneypenny, but I always know when to pull out.

Enter M. (Ralph Fiennes)

M.: Not when it came to a certain Kissy Suzuki if you recall that Japanese mission.

Bond: Ah yes . . . well it was the least I could do for her after curing my impotence I suppose.

M.: Yes, well the toad oil she served with your food worked only too well and you are now the father of one James Suzuki.

Bond: Why can’t you just get the present day me to help you out?

Q: Hello, Bond. Anybody home? Think, Bond think.  You’re 88 years old now; hardly in any shape to take on the world.

Bond: You must realize that your predecessor was never this snarky.

Q: In 2015, everyone makes a habit of being jaded and sarcastic. Don’t take it personally. I’d stay away from the internet if I were you.

M.: Enough, Q. Now, listen Bond. I believe that your son has been kidnapped by one Franz Oberhauser.  You always meant a lot to my predecessor’s predecessor and he suspected that one day you may need the kind of help that only you could provide.   You’ll find all the details you need in the mission briefing from the M. from the past who you already know. Good luck, 007. Don’t cock it up.

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Bond then speeds off in the DeLorean to meet his fate.. . . The rest of the screenplay has been lost forever. . . Perhaps it’s for the best . .

P.S. This was just a quick thing I wrote for the James Bond Radio podcast website. I just recreated the piece here for your amusement.

Book Review: Trigger Mortis by Anthony Horowitz

I spent a good part of last year reading all the Fleming Bond novels, and  I could honestly say that Anthony Horowitz has given us something quite special with Trigger Mortis. Not only has Horowitz written a thrilling original entry as a new Bond continuation novel, he’s also provided the readers with the closest experience I believe we will ever have to reading an actual new Bond novel by Ian Fleming.  In every sense, Trigger Mortis feels like a quintessential Bond story staying true to the original conception of the literary character created by Fleming in the early 1950s. The novel pays homage to Fleming’s literary style, which effectively captured the imagination of his readers with rich descriptions, sensuous details, concise narration, and thrilling sequences involving insurmountable challenges for 007 to navigate and overcome.

For this latest Bond novel commissioned by Ian Fleming Publications, Horowitz was given unprecedented access to unpublished story treatments by Ian Fleming. Before the success of the film franchise, Fleming had dabbled with the potential of letting Bond exist as a television series. Indeed, Casino Royale had been adapted in 1954 for the dramatic anthology series called Climax!, which aired on CBS who had paid him merely $1,000. This first incarnation of James Bond is hardly recognizable since the character was altered to be an American agent, “Jimmy Bond,” while it also discarded much of the source material that had resonated with readers of the novel.  In 1958, Fleming began writing treatments for a new NBC television pilot to be dubbed “Commander Jamaica” or “James Gunn: Secret Agent.” This had all occurred prior to EON buying the rights in 1962 to the James Bond books, and at the time the prospect of Bond transitioning from the page to the screen (large or small) had been plagued with a number of obstacles.  When the pilot for “Commander Jamaica” fell through, Fleming took his 28 page screen treatment for the project and converted it into the novel, Dr. No, released in 1958. Afterwards, Fleming wrote 6 more screen treatments or outlines for a potential television deal with CBS who had previously done Casino Royale. When this prospect also fell through, he used 3 of the treatments he’d written for his Bond short story collection, For Your Eyes Only, published in 1960. Among the treatments that Fleming left unused was one called “Murder on Wheels” about Bond entering the Grand Prix racing circuit to protect a well-known British racecar driver, Stirling Moss.  Horowitz decided to use this idea as the launching pad for his own original story and so we have Trigger Mortis inspired by original Fleming material written over 50 years ago.

Ian Fleming holds a copy of his short story collection, For Your Eyes Only

Ian Fleming holds a copy of his short story collection, For Your Eyes Only

Trigger Mortis takes place 2 weeks after the events of Fleming’s Goldfinger novel and finds Bond dealing with the aftermath of that adventure and specifically dealing with the prospect of a long term relationship with that novel’s Bond Girl, Pussy Galore. This wouldn’t be the first time that Bond had extended his relationship with a woman beyond their shared adventure. Bond had fallen in love with Tiffany Case in Diamonds Are Forever where she had even moved into Bond’s flat by the end of the novel. That relationship had ended prior to the events of the subsequent novel From Russia With Love. This is the first time, however, that we get to see how a woman’s relationship with Bond might disintegrate after the thrill of their adventure together has concluded.  The novel begins with Pussy now installed in Bond’s apartment in London. Horowitz’s narration explains:

“He was already regretting it. Pussy needed him. But there was something in his make-up that didn’t want to be needed, that resented the very idea.  And the fact was that she was a fish out of water away from the streets of Harlem. Already the relationship was beginning to lose its appeal, like a favourite suit that has been worn one too many times.”

Fleming had typically avoided showing this side of Bond’s relationships with women but it’s something that readers had nonetheless surmised.  The way Bond may have dealt with relationships with women after the thrill had gone is given its due in this novel.  Here, Horowitz takes the opportunity to explore the psyche of Bond and delve into the elements of relationships that might make him increasingly inclined to shrug them off.  The appeal of his duty, which frequently brings him face to face with the prospect of death in every mission, allows Bond to operate in a field in which he is infinitely more comfortable despite the danger.  This is a theme that is on full display even after Bond meets his new companion, Jeopardy Lane.

Bond is initially assigned on a mission to protect race car driver Lancy Smith from a fatal SMERSH sabotage operation (Horowitz decided to change the name of the driver for logistical reasons). SMERSH, the Soviet counter-intelligence agency, ever eager to prove their superiority to the western powers had recruited a race car driver for the explicit purpose of causing an accident during the challenging Nürburgring Grand Prix motor cross race. Bond must assume the cover of a wealthy playboy race driver to engage in this race in order to protect Smith.  It is while on this mission that Bond uncovers a larger Soviet conspiracy involving the sabotaging of an American rocket launch along with the possible involvement of a wealthy Korean entrepreneur.

Stirling Moss, the popular British race driver Fleming had initially intended to included in “Murder on Wheels”

Stirling Moss, the popular British race driver Fleming had initially intended to included in “Murder on Wheels”

Horowitz does a fantastic job bringing the characters and setting to life. His literary style is quite reminiscent of Fleming, the dialogue appears to be spot on, and the narration that Fleming had often relied upon to get readers inside of Bond’s psyche is also quite faithfully recreated here. In every practical sense, this novel feels like you’re reading a Fleming Bond novel.  I don’t want to give too many details away, but I particularly like the background story Horowitz created for the main villain along with the unique and impersonal methods he chooses to inflict pain and death upon his enemies. There’s something weirdly sadistic about every Bond villain and I think Horowitz successfully captures that.  He understands that the villains quite often come from damaged personal histories and that there are many parallels to be drawn between heroes and villains.  Horowitz’s novel explores this quite a bit while also letting the reader know that Bond himself is aware of the thin line that separates his own humanity from that of a monster.  It’s a theme that has been explored a great deal in our contemporary popular culture, but I think many times it comes across very heavy handed.  In this case, I think Horowitz imbued Bond with enough self-awareness to provoke the reader without necessarily preaching very much or interfering with the fun and excitement inherent to the story.

The final act of the novel takes place in New York City subway system, and while I don’t want to give away the plot details involved in getting there, I found it fun to see Bond passing the same subway stations that I used to pass when I worked in Brooklyn.  Of course, I wasn’t desperately trying to save thousands of lives when I rode past those stations, but in my own way I was doing my part in a very different field of battle and confrontation called “Retail.” Much like Bond, I had a few trusted, loyal coworkers and friends to help me along on my mission, which may have involved encountering the occasional sadistic individual determined to inflict torment and pain whenever they didn’t get their way.  Such are the perils of working a 2nd job in a book store, which actually wasn’t all that bad.

I believe anyone who has enjoyed reading the Fleming novels will instantly take a liking to Horowitz’s book, and I highly recommend it.  More than anything though, I think Trigger Mortis reminded me of all the things that made me enjoy the Fleming Bond books.  Here you have a character with a license to kill, a hardened “blunt instrument” wielded by his government, and yet despite everything Bond never loses his humanity.  He’s the quintessential anti-hero who clings to a dangerous job in order to avoid facing real life. As readers, we read a Bond story to escape the rigmarole of our daily routines whereas Bond himself uses his job to escape the dreariness of normal life. When you look at it that way, it’s impossible to say whether or not the fictional character is indeed more blessed than those of us who live vicariously through him.

Watch Anthony Horowitz talk about Ian Fleming and Trigger Mortis here:

Writer’s note: I initially wrote this review for the James Bond Radio podcast website, but instead of just providing a link I thought it would be best to recreate my review for my blog since book reviews and Bond book reviews in particular are part of what I’ve done for some time now on this site.  If you want to visit the post at the JBR site, here’s the link:

http://jamesbondradio.com/book-review-trigger-mortis/

JBR Profile: Warren Ringham – The Man Behind Q The Music Show

I’ve written a new piece for the James Bond Radio podcast.  This time it’s an interview conducted by yours truly with the Trumpeter / Band Manager for one of the most sought after James Bond Tribute bands.  I got to have a very fascinating discussion with him about the music of the James Bond series.  While interviews are somewhat new to me, I wanted to try it out and I think I’m quite happy with the result!

Go to this link to check it out:

http://jamesbondradio.com/jbr-profile-warren-ringham-the-man-behind-q-the-music-show/

You can subscribe to the James Bond Radio podcast over on iTunes by following this link for anyone who enjoys hearing news, reviews, discussion, and analysis of every aspect of the franchise.

https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/james-bond-radio/id816222534?mt=2

Is it Time to Consider Expanding the James Bond Universe?

I’ve written a new guest blog post for the James Bond Radio podcast about the potential for the Bond franchise to possibly pursue an expanded universe approach just as other major brands have now gone about doing.  I don’t necessarily advocate that they take this approach.  This is just speculation on my part.  Anyway, If you’d like to check it out, just click on the link below:

http://jamesbondradio.com/is-it-time-to-consider-expanding-the-james-bond-universe/?utm_content=bufferc793d&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer

You can subscribe to James Bond Radio over on iTunes by following this link for anyone who enjoys hearing news, reviews, discussion, and analysis of every aspect of the franchise.

https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/james-bond-radio/id816222534?mt=2

Book Review: The Boy Who Knew Too Much by Jeffrey Westhoff

With its Hitchcockian title and bountiful references to James Bond, Jeffrey Westhoff has written a fantastic YA spy thriller.  Having recently read all the books in the Young Bond series, I found all the references Westhoff makes to Bond quite fun as it feels like a book written with the Bond fan community in mind.  While anyone who enjoys the spy thriller genre will be pleased to read this book, the novel also stands on its own with its memorable characters, its present day European setting, and exciting chase and action sequences.

Westhoff’s protagonist, 15 year old Brian Parker from Wisconsin, seems like a kid I would have liked to have been friends with in High School.  While on a European tour school trip with his school, Brian finds himself embroiled in a real life espionage plot involving a corrupt CIA official, a physicist’s daughter, and a number of dangerous criminals hell bent on preventing Brian from sharing what he finds out about their scheme.   The story starts off innocently enough with Brian and his schoolmate chatting about their favorite fictional hero, Foster Blake, and playing a game of “Spot the Spy” in Lucerne, Switzerland.  Brian’s idolization of “Foster Blake” is easily identifiable as Westhoff’s thinly-veiled appreciation of the James Bond franchise. Most Bond fans will appreciate the comparisons Brian makes between the “Foster Blake” novels and the movies, which serves to highlight Westhoff’s appreciation of both the literary and cinematic incarnations of the Bond franchise.

Brian encounters the “grey” man he had earlier spotted as a potential spy while off to find a German edition of a Foster Blake novel to complete his collection. This time, however, the man is stooped over after having been stabbed by a suspicious man Brian had just passed emerging from the dying man’s direction.  The dying man’s cryptic final words serve as the impetus for Brian to summon all the knowledge and skill he’d gleamed from his love of Foster Blake and put it to use to evade capture on an adventure that takes him to so many different European locations it’s amazing Brian is even able to keep track of where he is. He also finds himself in more trouble than he bargained for at times because he’s such a spy buff. At one point Brian is told,

 “You see, that’s why you’re in this mess, Brian . . . Because you use words like rendezvous and case officer. If you were another kid who spent all his time playing with his Xbox, I could have handed you off to the State Department and let them baby-sit you . . . But you had to have read these spy thrillers written years before you were born . . . You had to know too much about the spy game.”

Soon, Brian learns that even after escaping that he can’t exactly go to the authorities for help because his kidnappers happen to also be watching his family home in Wisconsin.   With the very real threat to his family, he finds that the only thing to do is try everything he can to foil the villains. He finds himself getting chased by henchmen in Nice, Cannes, Toulose, the Pyrenees Mountains, Barcelona, and a military base in San Gregorio.  Along the way he meets up with Larissa, the French teenage daughter of the scientist whose coveted prototype weapon prompted the conspiracy Brian finds himself involved in.

A lover of early punk rock bands like the Ramones, it’s easy to see why Brian takes an instant liking to Larissa as she becomes a willing partner in his perilous endeavors.  The book becomes a lot more fun as it slows down to take advantage of its European setting with Larissa using the crypt at the Basilica of St. Sernin in Toulose as a temporary hideout.  We also learn a little bit about the Comet Line, a trail in the Pyrenees Mountains where French Resistance fighters used to sneak Allied soldiers from France into Spain during WWII.  Larissa even bears a similar surname to the female organizer of the Comet Line, Andree de Jongh.

While it seems at times like Brian and Larissa are constantly running, hiding, escaping, or plotting to evade henchmen, I actually appreciate the few quiet times where the action slowed down and Larissa talked about her background and her interests.  If there’s any critique I have of the book is that I wish there was more time for these characters to just be safe long enough for them have more moments like they had in the Pyrenees before the villains caught up with them.  Too often the characters find that just as they thought they could rest easy for a time, the villains seem to miraculously spring out from nowhere once again re-igniting the tension and adrenaline rush for the characters.  I find that even with a story that hinges so much on chasing and action that the moments I often enjoy the most are when the characters have a chance to breathe a bit and talk freely without an immediate threat just around the bend.

I really enjoyed The Boy Who Knew Too Much and believe it to be a very impressive debut novel for Jeffrey Westhoff.  His love of spy thrillers shines brightly throughout this book.  I think young readers will like it, but I also believe that adult fans of spy thrillers will find that they share a certain kinship with Brian Parker.  It’s not clear whether or not this is a one-off story or if Westoff plans to continue it as a series.  I can certainly imagine how Brian Parker may find himself in a new set of dangerous circumstances where he might need to rely on his experience as a young spy again only next time he won’t need to recall the fictional adventures of “Foster Blake.”  He’ll have his own previous experience to draw upon.  Anyone who enjoyed the adventures of Young Bond as written by Charlie Higson should take note.  Brian Parker of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin is a modern day Young Bond in training.

To purchase The Boy Who Knew Too Much:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

The nook and kindle version are currently $2.99 while the paperback is currently $14.95.

Source:

Westhoff, Jeffrey The Boy Who Knew Too Much. Intrigue Publishhing LLC, 2015.

A Brief Look at Colonel Sun by Kingsley Amis

In 1968, Glidrose Publications (Fleming’s publisher) commissioned Kingsley Amis to write the first Bond continuation novel after Ian Fleming’s death. At the time, Glidrose could not obtain the copyright to the Bond character and it was determined that a new novel would help them obtain that copyright. Kingsley Amis used the pseudonym “Robert Markham” to publish his Bond novel and came up with an intriguing tale of espionage taking Bond to Greece and the Aegean Islands.

The plot of the story itself is excellent. M. is kidnapped by Colonel Sun’s henchmen in a Chinese scheme to implicate Britain in the bombing of a Communist secret conference on one of the Aegean islets. Bond goes on a rescue mission to find M. and receives help from the beautiful Ariadne, a Greek communist sympathizer and agent for the GRU as well as Litsas, a Greek WWII Resistance fighter who is convinced to help the mission by the promise of capturing and executing Col. Sun’s collaborator Von Richter, an ex Nazi known as “The Butcher of Kapoudzona.”

The novel certainly has enough elements in it to entice any Bond fan, but it still pales in comparison to the Fleming books in terms of execution. I found Amis’s style a bit wordy and laborious especially in the early chapters. There’s a lot of unnecessary expositional dialogue that could have been made a bit tighter or at least would have been made tighter by Fleming if he wrote it. Fleming’s prose reads a lot more smoothly than Amis and when there isn’t any action going on the book gets a bit bogged down. When the action does come, however, Amis’ language awakens and all his stylistic flourishes make those segments quite exciting to read.

Colonel Sun himself may be perhaps the most sadistic literary Bond villain yet. The 3rd act torture scene of Bond is one of the most thrilling of the series and that’s saying a lot considering how much Fleming subjected Bond to torture and near death.

I didn’t enjoy Colonel Sun as much as the Fleming books, but there’s a lot that Amis does get right and the climatic 3rd act of the book is reason enough for any Bond fan to read it. I just wish the earlier chapters between the kidnapping of M. and Bond’s confrontation with the enemies weren’t so arduous to get through.

My apologies for the brief nature of this review.  I may revisit this review and make it a bit more thorough in the future but for now I just wanted to put my initial thoughts out there on the book.

If you want a more detailed review of this book, I recommend you check out my favorite James Bond podcast, James Bond Radio.  A while back ago they did a thorough review of this book.  You can check it out here:

A Look at Shoot to Kill by Steve Cole

In 2013 Ian Fleming Publications decided to continue its Young Bond series, which had been dormant since Charlie Higson’s By Royal Command published in 2008. Higson had moved on with his own new YA series called The Enemy and a new author was needed to continue the series, which had yielded 5 novels under Charlie Higson.   Steve Cole, who had established a children’s series named Astrosaurs, was selected to take the helm, and in 2014 Random House released his first Young Bond book, Shoot to Kill.

Taking place shortly after the events of Higson’s By Royal Command, Shoot to Kill finds a 14 year old James Bond ensnared in a treacherous blackmail plot after he and his friends discover a film reel they weren’t supposed to see.  This latest adventure weaves a tale of Hollywood moguls, Chicago gangsters, and the Los Angeles underworld of the 1930s.

After being removed from Eton, it’s decided that James would go to Fettes College in the fall, but since Aunt Charmian had business in Mexico, however, James would stay at Dartington Hall for the summer, a progressive co-ed school where students do not wear uniforms and none of the rigid rules and tradition James had detested at Eton are observed.  James soon gets wind of an extraordinary trip to Los Angeles arranged for him as well as a few select students.  Film Mogul Anton Koestler apparently wishes to establish several educational academies throughout the world and had arranged for several students from Dartington Hall to visit his Los Angeles Allworld Academy for testing, research, and comparative educational purposes.  In this once in a lifetime experience, the students would travel by zeppelin to Los Angeles and have exclusive access to Koestler’s Allworld Studios in exchange for participating in the educational research.  Gillian de Vries, the Director of Education at Dartington Hall, informs James that he was selected for the trip to see how his Eton education would measure up against a more progressive schooling method.  The trip seems to be the opportunity of a lifetime, but danger is insidiously lurking and James soon learns that nothing about this trip is what it appears to be.

James befriends his fellow student-passengers before the trip.  Hugo is a brash 16 year old student afflicted with dwarfism; Dan is the nephew of Koestler’s new screenwriter whose father owns a chain of cinemas, and Boudicca Pryce is a bright outgoing 16 year old girl who has an interest in mechanics and prefers to be called “Boody.”  The tight knit group belongs to a film club at the school where Dan is able to borrow or in this case steal film reels from his father’s theaters obtaining access to the projectionist booth.  Oftentimes Dan gets hold of uncensored discarded film reels and screens them for his club.  On the night before they were scheduled to leave, a very disturbing film reel depicting real life violence gets screened and the group looks to James for guidance.  James then finds himself precariously chased and threatened over this film reel and hopes that the trip to Los Angeles would provide some sort of respite from the chaos, but needless to say that’s just the beginning.

promotional images for Shoot to Kill

promotional images for Shoot to Kill

I very much enjoyed Shoot to Kill, and while Steve Cole’s writing style is very different from Charlie Higson’s, it does actually suit this story given its setting.  I think some of the negative criticism of this book is based on comparisons to the Higson books. Higson’s writing style is a lot closer to Fleming’s than Steve Cole’s and that becomes apparent from the very beginning.  Cole’s writing in this book is more reminiscent of the noir or hard-boiled crime writers.  At times his sentences are rather lean and stark yet crisp and direct whereas Higson’s writing paid more homage to Fleming’s use of language and sensuous detail.   I happen to enjoy noir fiction a great deal so Steve Cole’s stylistic approach is one that I have always thought would be interesting for someone writing a Bond story.  Fleming was an admirer of Raymond Chandler and other writers who were his contemporaries within the noir / hard-boiled / pulp genre.  He regarded these stories as literary art in a time when many of the writers in that genre were not well-respected in literary circles.  The Bond novels themselves were not very well-liked by the high-brow literary elite so I imagine Fleming felt a sense of comradery with these authors.   For an author to take this kind of approach to Young Bond instead of trying to emulate Charlie Higson’s approach was quite a bold and inspired move although the last third of the book appears to be written in a more traditional style.

There were a couple of moments when I’m not sure if Steve Cole went too far with his stylistic approach. For instance, I can’t imagine young James Bond using the term “coppers” to refer to the police.  I think it’s certainly a term you would hear for that time period especially spoken by period gangsters and their ilk, but it might be stretch to have Bond himself say it as a normal pattern of his speech.

There’s plenty of action and suspense throughout the book.  Bond goes from one dangerous chase to another quite often, but my favorite moments are somethings that happen in between chases.  There’s an instance where Bond crashes a lavish A-List Hollywood party that I think was superbly written and I actually wish had lasted a bit longer.   Cole does a good job depicting the chases and the conflicts James encounters all while leaving just enough intrigue so that you don’t get the full scope of the plot until you’re close to the end.  There are a number of sequences in this book that could very well be cinematic given its setting.  The sequences on the zeppelin were a lot of fun to read, and I think that overall Steve Cole did a fantastic job even if there were times when I missed Charlie Higson.

One of the reasons I miss Charlie Higson is because Higson does a better job at incorporating intriguing historical facts into each of his books regarding the setting and the time period.  In Silver Fin you learn a lot of the little things about what life must have been like for Eton students in the 1930s.  In Blood Fever, you learn about Sardinia and the Nuraghe de San Antine.  Double or Die provides a substantial introduction to ciphers and decryption of codes. Hurricane Gold is set against the backdrop of Mexico and contains references to ancient Mayan culture. By Royal Command places James in a spy thriller prior to the breakout of World War II and does a good job showing the status of the countries involved.  In Shoot to Kill, Cole puts James in Hollywood in the 1930s but other than the party he crashes, I felt like there could have been more historical references to the actual time and setting. I was waiting for a reference to the Hayes Code and the restrictions that censorship started to impose on the studios at the time. It would have been interesting for James to explore the differences in the films that were made pre-Code as opposed to the films that came out after and how some filmmakers found ways to subvert the Hayes code. While the chase scenes were well written and very exciting, I would have liked some of those educational moments that Higson provided so well in his books and it could have perhaps provided a little balance to some of the more fantastical elements that emerge from the blackmail plot.

As far as I can tell, the plan is for Cole to remain on board with Young Bond for a new series of books likely covering the time Bond spends at Fettes College, which would be interesting to see if Cole adjusts his stylistic approach once Bond is back in Scotland.  I look forward to what Steve Cole has in store for Young Bond and I definitely would recommend Shoot to Kill to anyone interested in the series provided that they’ve read the Higson books first.  I enjoyed Cole’s take on Young Bond.  It may be different from Higson, but it was still very thrilling and engaging to read.

As of now, the book is only available as an ebook in the US, but I managed to get a hold of an import copy from the UK.

IMG_20150619_171935761   IMG_20150619_171908911

Sources:

1. Cole, Steve Shoot to Kill. Random House, 2014

2. http://www.youngbond.com/

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young_Bond

4. Interview with Steve Cole: http://jamesbondradio.com/podcast-31-young-bond-shoot-kill-steve-cole-interview/

A Look at By Royal Command by Charlie Higson

Charlie Higson’s final Young Bond book, By Royal Command, is a masterpiece worthy of Ian Fleming himself.  I say this with no hint of hyperbole or exaggeration.  While the Young Bond series has impressed me overall, this final installment from Higson is most reminiscent of the best of the Fleming books as it contains several passages that reminded me of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and From Russia with Love.  Higson has done a brilliant job throughout most of the books, which serve as prequels to Fleming’s literary James Bond character.  The events of the series take place from 1933-1934 and chronicle the period of Bond’s life that had only been given a brief mention in the cannon of Ian Fleming.  In Fleming’s You Only Live Twice, M. wrote an obituary for The Times believing Bond to be dead. Here he writes:

“ …at the age of twelve or thereabouts, he [James Bond] passed satisfactorily into Eton, for which College he had been entered at his birth by his father. It must be admitted that his career at Eton was brief and undistinguished and, after only two halves, as a result, it pains me to record, of some alleged trouble with one of the boys’ maids, his aunt was requested to remove him. She managed to obtain his transfer to Fettes, his father’s old school.”

By Royal Command weaves the tale of what really happened to conclude young James’ time at Eton and suffice it to say Higson gives us a spy thriller that not only elaborates on Fleming’s passage but also shows us James’ induction into the secret world of spies in the years leading up to World War II, a world that is described to him as a “shadow war.”

The story begins in early 1934 just after James returns from his Caribbean adventure in Hurricane Gold and the short story “A Hard Man to Kill.” James is now 14 and is eager to return to his normal life as a school boy but first he joins some of his classmates on a field trip to Kitzbuhel in Austria where he learns how to ski.  His roommate for the trip, Miles, is a talkative pretentious type who thinks he knows everything.  When Miles puts himself in danger by drinking on the slopes and getting lost on the mountain, James risks his own life to save him.  The ordeal ends with James being praised as a hero but all is not right afterwards.  There is a man who persists on following him, a suspicious encounter with a German dignitary in the hospital who fears that someone is trying to kill his “cousin Jurgen,” and a dangerous conspiracy brewing back at his school at Eton.

Thickening the plot is the aforementioned boys’ maid, Roan Power, only a few years older than the boys who James takes an instant liking to as well as the new school bully Theo Bentinck, who learns quickly that while he can’t intimidate James he could still make him suffer by taking his anger out on James’ friends making school life nearly impossible.  The book changes gears for each of its three acts.  There are layers of mystery that I don’t want to spoil here for anyone who wants to read the book.  James gets his first full taste of what his future life as a spy will be like including all the players involved in this “shadow war.”  He encounters Hitler Youth, Soviet spies, a communist conspiracy to kill the King, and has his own induction into the British Secret Service and what they do to stem these various plots.  Higson weaves an intricately complicated yet fascinating world for young Bond to navigate and all of it is very well- researched and very relevant to the history of the time period of this story.

Roan Power

Roan Power

Roan Power is probably the most fascinating female character within Higson’s Young Bond series.  She’s very reminiscent of the femme fatale, very dangerous, and yet very sympathetic.  James is blinded by his love for her, and even though she presents a danger to him it’s also evident that she feels something for James.   It’s this kind of paradox of women both luring James towards danger while also genuinely caring about him that gets explored in the Fleming books as well as in the Bond movies.  She tells Bond at one point,

“You’re a blunt object, aren’t you, darling? Oh, I’m not saying you haven’t any hidden depth.  Because I know there’s a lot going on beyond that cool surface of yours.  You’re a lot more grown-up and interesting than most boys your age.  But you’d still rather take on the world with your fists than with your brain, or with your heart.  You’ve got to learn to use your heart, because, if you don’t, it’ll become weak.  And a weak heart is easily broken.  If someone wants to hurt you badly they’ll aim their arrows at that heart of yours.”

In interviews, Ian Fleming would often refer to Bond as a “blunt instrument.” Interestingly enough Fleming himself was removed from Eton at age 17 by his mother who chose to send young Ian to a “crammer” (a specialized school) to prepare him for a Military College, where he failed to gain a commission after less than a year.  It’s fascinating that when choosing a background for Bond’s youth that Fleming should choose Eton as well as a premature removal from the school as part of Bond’s makeup.  It further cements the prevailing notion that Fleming looked to his own life for the inspiration behind James Bond.  What Charlie Higson has done with his Young Bond series is to not only fill in the boyhood details of Fleming’s fictional creation but also tie in some of the cultural and historical events and themes that one imagines would have had an impact on Fleming himself as a young man.

The title of By Royal Command is derived from a brief encounter Young James had outside of Windsor Great Park after hiding in a tree from a perceived threat from the man who was following him.  He sees two little girls playing badminton “on a large well-kept lawn.”  The older of the two girls who was about 8 years old asked young James to retrieve the shuttlecock which had gotten stuck in the branches.  James happily obliges and politely leaves.  He later learns that the two girls were the royal princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret.   He later also meets their uncle, Edward who was the Prince of Wales at the time along with his girlfriend Wallis Simpson, who would later prove to be the reason for Edward VIII abdicating the throne allowing for Elizabeth’s father George VI to succeed him as the King.  The young princess Elizabeth that Bond meets outside the park would become Elizabeth II, who would of course become the reigning Queen during Bond’s tenure as a double-o agent.

At one point when James is introduced to the British Secret Service, he is told

“When you are young . . .  the world seems so simple and straightforward.  There is right and there is wrong.  In the cowboy films the goodies wear the white hats and the baddies wear black.  As you get older you realise the world is not so simple.  There are men in grey hats.”

James then replies, “And what colour hat do you want me to wear, sir?”

That exchange exemplifies some of what Charlie Higson has achieved in this Young Bond series and particularly in his final Young Bond novel.  He shows us James’ transition from seeing the world as a young boy to seeing the world as a man.  The saga of James Bond’s time as an Eton school boy and how it all comes to an end informs us about the experiences that shaped Bond into the fictional man that Fleming created after the war. It’s also a well-crafted look into some of the larger and important historical events that shaped the world in the years leading up to World War II.  Higson does an extraordinary job weaving the history of the time organically into the story and none of it feels forced.  I highly recommend the series not just for anyone interested in James Bond but for anyone who loves history and enjoys a good historically based adventure story.

Though this is Charlie Higson’s final Young Bond book, Ian Fleming Publications recently partnered with author Steve Cole to continue the Young Bond saga.  Cole’s book Shoot to Kill takes place after the events of By Royal Command and was released in the UK in 2014 and is available only as an ebook in the US as of this writing.

Sources

  1. Higson, Charlie By Royal Command. Puffin Books, 2008.
  2. http://www.spectator.co.uk/spectator-life/spectator-life-culture/9472462/from-fettes-with-love/
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ian_Fleming
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/By_Royal_Command
  5. http://www.youngbond.com/