Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Top 11 Faux-Friendly Bond Villain Encounters

Joseph Wiseman, the actor best known as the first James Bond villain, Dr. No, passed away yesterday at the age of 91. The film Dr. No is in many respects of a rough draft of the twenty-one (and counting) films that would follow, particularly its action scenes, which are very simple and understated compared to the massive, spectacular set pieces the series would rapidly become known for, but certain elements emerge startlingly fully-formed right out of the gate: James Bond 007 as embodied by Sean Connery has his gambling, womanizing, "Bond, James Bond" catchphrase, and supernatural cool established within thirty seconds of appearing onscreen. M and Moneypenny appear exactly as they would for decades to come. The opening gunbarrel and classic James Bond theme song are fully intact. And perhaps almost as important as Agent 007 himself we have the Bond villain, Wiseman's Dr. No — an insidious mastermind, flamboyant yet well-spoken and impeccably dressed, with a bizarre deformity (Dr. No lost his hands to radiation and had them replaced with new steel hands) and a dastardly plot.

All that may sound eye-rollingly cliché circa 2009, but that's only because the James Bond movies created a new villainous archetype powerful enough to become iconic. Bond's first meeting with Dr. No is the ultimate, prototypical "Welcome, Mr. Bond! I've been expecting you. Join me for dinner as I give a villainous monologue about my plans" scene, a scene which no filmmaker would ever, ever attempt to pull off today except in a straight-to-DVD B movie or a spoof. But in 1962? It was brilliant. Like many great films, Dr. No was lightning in a bottle, and one of a hundred things could have gone wrong and halted the best franchise ever right there with movie number one, and a lesser villain is definitely high on that list. But Dr. No was awesome, the movie was awesome, and the series is still alive and kicking a half-century later, so Joseph Wiseman, I salute you.

But the relationship of James Bond and Dr. No is missing one thing that wouldn't become a regular part of the series until the third film, Goldfinger, and that thing is what I like to call the "faux-friendly Bond villain encounter." You see, with a few exceptions (Dr. No being one of them), Bond villains generally aren't full-time evil masterminds or criminal overlords, or at least not openly. No, a Bond villain hides behind his public persona as a captain of industry and humanitarian — he may head a gold empire, a media empire, a microchip empire, a space program empire, or an oil empire, but you know he's the head of an empire that's made him rich beyond measure. And in many films, in order to get close to and learn more about the bad guy, James Bond poses as someone friendly to the antagonist's public face and has a tensely cordial meeting with them at some kind of party or function or casino. Ergo, the faux-friendly Bond villain encounter.

This is one my favorite scenes and one rarely seen outside of Bond movies (it has no real analogue in any Star Wars or Die Hard or Lord of the Rings or Pirates of the Caribbean or Harry Potter or Star Trek or Matrix or Terminator or Indiana Jones or horror or superhero or Disney movie I can think of, anyway), and I always look forward to it and am disappointed if it doesn't happen in a new Bond flick. One of the things that makes it entertaining is that, despite being a perfect shot and impossibly good driver and able to seduce any women within two sentences, James Bond appears to be absolutely terrible at this part of his job. The villain almost always sees through Bond's charade instantaneously and almost without exception orders Bond to be killed immediately after (or even during!) the friendly encounter. It's nice to know that even Agent 007 has a few flaws.

So in honor of Bond villainy, I thought that I would go through the series and list my top eleven faux-friendly Bond villain encounters. Why eleven? Well, because that's how many times it happens in the series, and I would feel like a fucking idiot doing a top ten and leaving off just one. Note that this list only includes instances where Bond is the one impersonating a friendly, not films where the bad guy pretends to be good to get close to Bond (From Russia With Love, For Your Eyes Only, The Living Daylights, The World Is Not Enough), although it is humorous to note that unlike the villains, Bond is without exception fooled when this trick gets pulled on him. Maybe M needs to reconsider who his / her best agent is.

11. Ernst Stavro Blofeld, On Her Majesty's Secret Service

The faux-friendly encounter: Bond's nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, head of SPECTRE, has taken over a clinical research facility atop a snowy mountain the Swiss alps, from which he plans to distribute bacteriological warfare agents across the Western world. That last part is secret, of course. Bond disguises himself as genealogist Sir Hilary Bray, Blofeld's contact at the London College of Arms, to visit Blofeld's clinic and try to uncover his plot.

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? Surprisingly (for reasons we'll get to in just a second), yes, at first. But Blofeld figures out Bond is a fake and orders him killed after Bond makes a slip-up, and I'm just gonna quote this straight from Wikipedia: "Bond had explained to Blofeld that the de Bleuchamp tombs are in the Augsburg Cathedral, which are actually located in the St. Anna Kirsche." Okay, I'm actually gonna let Bond slide on that one, because fuck if I would have picked up on that.

Why 11th? Despite my love for the faux-friendly encounter, I admit that this is the one I don't like, and which always gives me pause when Bond fans declare On Her Majesty's Secret Service to be one of their favorites. For one, the depiction of Bond impersonating Sir Hilary Bray is truly idiotic. He wears a kilt and a frilly shirt (because that's a disguise, apparently), and they dub over George Lazenby with another actor when he's talking as Bray. That's just awful. But worse, while On Her Majesty's Secret Service is indeed the first time Bond and Blofeld meet face-to-face in the novels, in the film series they had met one movie earlier in You Only Live Twice, and now, for some magical fucking reason, Blofeld doesn't recognize his archnemesis standing two feet from him! I guess they were trying to do a soft reboot for the new actor, but it doesn't work.

10. Emilio Largo, Thunderball

The faux-friendly encounter: Emilio Largo has stolen two NATO warheads and is holding the world ransom under threat of nuclear annihilation. Bond, meanwhile, has followed the clues and corpses to the Bahamas, where he flirts with Largo's mistress Domino Derval who in turn introduces him to Largo. The two have a tense conversation by a pool trying to feel each other out and Largo introduces Bond to his crew and his shark pit (which he will soon throw Bond into).

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? Not a chance! While Largo lets Bond walk away from the encounter, he attempts to have him killed via sharks, grenades, and general assassination soon afterwards.

Why 10th? No particular reason, there just isn't a huge amount of color to the scene and Thunderball is in general one of my least favorite Bond movies.

9. Elliot Carver, Tomorrow Never Dies

The faux-friendly encounter: Media baron Elliot Carver has sunk a British frigate and framed the Chinese for it and shot down a Chinese plane and framed the British for it and plans to start World War III for ratings. He's not doing the best job of it though, because he puts out a news release about the attacks hours before any other media network even becomes aware of them with details he shouldn't know, so M sends Bond to a party Carver is holding in Hamburg celebrating the expansion of his television empire. Bond antagonizes Carver by basically saying "we know you did it!" with thinly veiled quips and then fucks his wife.

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? Not so much, thanks to Bond's ludicrously blatant hints. Carver doesn't even wait until the party is over, luring Bond to a side room with a supposed telephone call with instructions for his goons to detain him and rub him out. Bond escapes so Carver sends an assassin to his hotel room. Let that be a lesson to you, kids: if you've figured out an evil mastermind's plot, don't be an asshole about it.

Why 9th? Unlike some Bond fans, I actually love Elliot Carver and Tomorrow Never Dies. He's wildly over-the-top, almost a caricature, but like the movie itself he's pure goofy fun (and this is off topic, but Tomorrow Never Dies also has the best post-80s Bond soundtrack). But despite this, this encounter gets ranked low for two reasons: one, it stretches my liberal suspension of disbelief that a media baron would spend years and billions of dollars planning every minute detail of starting World War III only to rapidly incriminate himself by releasing news of his terrorist attacks hours ahead of schedule. That's just sloppy. And two, Bond's "tee hee! I know it was you, Elliot!" hints during their conversation stretch my belief in the other direction. What the hell kind of spy does that??

8. Karl Stromberg, The Spy Who Loved Me

The faux-friendly encounter: Shipping tycoon and marine biology aficionado Karl Stromberg has secretly captured two nuclear submarines and plans to obliterate New York City and Moscow, triggering a global nuclear apocalypse that will leave him ruling over the undersea empire of what remains of humanity. Bond smells something fishy (pun?) so he and sexy Soviet agent XXX pose as a marine biologist and his wife and visit Stromberg's undersea base of Atlantis to chat about, well, fish, I guess.

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? Stromberg's henchman Jaws has already encountered Bond and XXX in Egypt, so not even a little bit. Upon Bond and XXX leaving his quarters Stromberg instantaneously says into his ambiguous henchman-contacting microphone, "let them get ashore, and then kill them."

Why 8th? The Spy Who Loved Me is one of my very favorite movies of all time and rocks in basically every way a movie can rock. That said, in more viewings than I care to admit I've never quite fully put together what Bond's public excuse for visiting Stromberg is, in his marine biologist guise, I mean. As Agent 007 he's there to get a look at Stromberg's lair and submarines, but when they meet all they do is talk about fish for like three minutes. Not much of a show, Bond, no wonder you got figured out like a little bitch.

7. Gustav Graves, Die Another Day

The faux-friendly encounter: Bond finds some African conflict diamonds bearing the laser signature of British billionaire Gustav Graves, so he goes to visit Graves at his fencing club, where they have a fencing match that explodes into a full-blown sword fight and Graves actually utters the line "since we're upping the wager, let's up the weapons, shall we?!" Graves then invites Bond to the unveiling of his scientific project (a giant mirror satellite that's secretly a superweapon) at his Final Fantasy-style ice palace in Iceland, where they sneer at each other at Graves's party.

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? Gustav Graves is secretly (and unbeknownst to Bond) a North Korean arms dealer named Colonel Moon who James Bond has encountered and tried to kill before and has since undergone gene therapy to turn himself white. So, basically, no! (And we're one for five in even semi-successful deception, for those of you keeping track.)

Why 7th? The existence of Die Another Day is why I can't with any conviction call Tomorrow Never Dies a "guilty pleasure" — Tomorrow Never Dies may not be an objectively great film, but it sure as shit is next to Die Another Day! But I still like Die Another Day in spite of all logic; it's so goddamn hilarious and over-the-top that I can't help but have a good time with it. Bond and Graves's sword fight is as awesome as it is goofy and I enjoy it as a sort of bizarro version of Bond and Goldfinger's golf match in Goldfinger, after all, "it's just a bit of sport!" But don't get me wrong, I freely acknowledge the stupidity of it.

6. Hugo Drax, Moonraker

The faux-friendly encounter: A Drax Industries Moonraker shuttle (shuttles that can take off into space and land again on earth like airplanes, which was science fiction back when this movie came out) has been stolen, so James Bond goes to Drax Industries in California to investigate, where Hugo Drax generously shows him around and provides him fine food and lodging. Unbeknownst to Bond, Drax stole his own company's shuttle since one of his malfunctioned and he needs a complete fleet to take his master race safely into the outer atmosphere while he gasses and eliminates the rest of the humanity.

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? He attempts to have Bond killed within hours of his arrival with a centrifuge chamber "malfunction," and then again the next morning with a good old-fashioned sniper assassin, so I'm gonna go with no. Ironically, if I'm reading the movie correctly, these botched assassination attempts are a big part of why Bond's suspicions shift squarely towards Drax.

Why 6th? Moonraker is, in virtually every way, The Spy Who Loved Me remade two years later with the ocean switched out for space and not even close to as good. Both movies are about one of the richest men in the world with a fixation on the sea / outer space and Jaws as a henchman deciding that they want to eliminate 99% of humanity and rule over a new master race from their throne in their undersea lair / space station. Both films even share a director, Lewis Gilbert. But despite the clear superiority of The Spy Who Loved Me it is Moonraker that has the greater villain in the awesomely smug, snooty, superior Hugo Drax. He's just such a glorious asshole, and fittingly, the time Bond spends with him is actually a lot more entertaining (and a lot lengthier) than the few minutes Bond spends chatting with Stromberg in Spy. They have delightfully barbed yet outwardly cordial conversations and the attempts on Bond's life are both pretty awesome. Big fan of this one.

5. Max Zorin, A View to a Kill

The faux-friendly encounter: James Bond finds a microchip on the corpse of Agent 003 which analysis shows was produced by Zorin Industries ("[Villain's Last Name] Industries" seems to be a hit with Bond villains). Max Zorin is fortuitously holding some sort of horse racing / breeding event at his villa in Chantilly, France, so off Bond goes to join the party under the alias of James St. John Smythe. Of course Zorin plans to create an earthquake that will destroy Silicon Valley, giving him a monopoly on microchips, but 007 doesn't know that and Zorin and Bond have plenty of pleasant chats. Zorin is even kind enough to send his ultra-masculine henchwoman May Day to Bond's room at night, leading to the one scene in any Bond film that most straightforwardly resembles gay sex.

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? This one is just humiliating. Max Zorin takes "Smythe" into his office and, while outwardly chatting about horses, secretly takes Bond's photo, uploads it to his computer, does some sort of 1985 version of an Internet search, and turns up Bond's name and 00 status within about a minute... while Bond is sitting right there in front of him gabbing about horses. I mean... jeez, Bond. Sloppy much? Wow. Zorin then locks Bond in his car and throws the car into a lake.

Why 5th? A View to a Kill is almost universally reviled among both the mainstream and Bond community. Siskel & Ebert put it on their list of the top ten worst films of 1985. It also happens to be my all-time number two guilty pleasure (behind only Dungeons & Dragons). Sure, I'll talk a big game about my critically astute tastes, but if you got me drunk enough I'd probably identify A View to a Kill as one of my ten favorite movies ever made. I love every godforsaken minute of it and I especially love Christopher Walken's Max Zorin. Ergo, I basically love all the scenes where Roger Moore and Chris Walken interact by default. Shit, this movie rules!

4. Franz Sanchez, Licence to Kill

The faux-friendly encounter: Bond is trying to bring down the empire of Latin American drug lord Franz Sanchez, who fed Bond's best friend Felix Leiter to a shark (Felix survived but lost a leg) and had Felix's wife killed. Bond's assassination attempt on Sanchez is halted by Hong Kong narcotics agents who need Sanchez alive and prepare to kill Bond, but just then, Sanchez and his men raid the building, kill the agents, ironically misidentify the narcs as assassins and Bond as being on their side, and Bond becomes part of Sanchez's inner circle, sleeping in his exotic Latin villa, banging his girlfriend, led on tours of his cocaine factory. Bond then tricks Sanchez into killing off his own lieutenants by framing them for theft or for hiring assassins to kill Sanchez.

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? Are you ready for this shocker? YES. James Bond tricks Franz Sanchez into believing he is on his side! I can't goddamn believe it! Too bad Timothy Dalton couldn't have attempted the faux-friendly encounter again, because he seems to be the only James Bond who has the skills to pull it off. Bond is eventually uncovered near the end of the film when Sanchez's knife-wielding henchman Dario recognizes him from an earlier encounter, but for James Bond's standards the deception lasts a long time, well over half an hour of screen time if I remember right. Nice going, 007!

Why 4th? Because it worked!

3. Kamal Khan, Octopussy

The faux-friendly encounter: Exiled Afghan prince Kamal Khan is plotting with a mad Soviet general to smuggle an atomic bomb into an American air force base which will then be detonated. Just another day's villainy, right? Anyway, Bond sits down for a game of backgammon with Khan at a casino in Delhi, India, where they exchange poisoned barbs before the gathered crowd while gambling at high stakes. Khan, however, is cheating with loaded dice that roll a double six upon being squeezed. At the pivotal moment, Khan tells Bond, "You can only win with a double six. The stake is two-hundred thousand rupees. Do you have cash?" Bond tells Khan before the crowd that if Khan doesn't mind he'll use Khan's "lucky" dice, and of course rolls a double six. "Double sixes. Fancy that. Two-hundred thousand rupees... l prefer cash."

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? Ha! Of course not. The encounter is just barely "friendly" anyway. Khan sends a henchman to kill Bond almost immediately afterwards.

Why 3rd? Because it's goddamn hilarious, that's why! Octopussy is probably the most underrated film in the entire Bond canon, and this, along with Dr. No's first scene with Bond, GoldenEye, and another obvious movie that will come up again in just a moment, is one of the best casino scenes in the series. Bond's snooty "I prefer cash" followed by Kamal Khan's glaring daggers of death make me laugh quite hard.

2. Auric Goldfinger, Goldfinger

The faux-friendly encounter: Bond is investigating Auric Goldfinger, both under assignment from MI6 to find out how Goldfinger transports gold internationally and because Goldfinger smelted Bond's girlfriend to death (Goldfinger's actual plan is to nuke Fort Knox, increasing the value of his own gold ten times). So Bond and Goldfinger arrange a friendly game of golf together.

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? It seems like he is, but upon completion of the final hole (Bond wins) and settling of the stakes, Goldfinger calmly tells Bond he knows exactly who he is and he'll have him killed if he continues his investigation. This one is a curious, unique case, because Goldfinger seems to mean it and doesn't send anyone to assassinate Bond or even have him followed; he genuinely leaves and intends never to see or think about Bond again. 007 however can't leave well enough alone and continues the pursuit, so when he's caught this time Goldfinger keeps him captive before chaining him to the ticking atomic bomb in the belly of Fort Knox.

Why 2nd? Despite a lack of any gadgets or assassination attempts, this one is the gold standard (PUN MASTERSTROKE) for faux-friendly Bond villain encounters; it strikes the absolutely perfect balance of outward friendliness with an icy cold, threatening cord running just underneath the surface. It's funny, entertaining, and tense all at once and my favorite golf match in cinema by a hundred million fucking miles; there isn't another in the same remote ballpark. It helps that Goldfinger is arguably the best villain and Goldfinger arguably the best film in the history of the franchise.

1. Le Chiffre, Casino Royale

The faux-friendly encounter: Terrorist banker Le Chiffre blew his client's money trying to play the stock market with it, and if there's any bad idea on earth, it's throwing away a hundred million dollars worth of pissed-off Ugandan terrorist money (in the 1953 novel, it was Soviet Union money and he blew it investing in a brothel). He attempts to recoup it in a high-stakes poker game at Casino Royale in Montenegro, so M sends Bond, the best player in the service, to win the poker tournament so Le Chiffre has no choice but to seek refuge with the British government and tell them everything he knows about the terrorist operation in exchange for immunity. Bond and Le Chiffre proceed to play them lots of poker together.

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? No. I mean, really, who is? Le Chiffre can't well pull out a glock and put one in Bond's head right there at the table, so he poisons Bond's drink instead. In all fairness, Bond isn't really trying to befriend Le Chiffre here, but still, it hurts when your poker buddies try to execute you, you know? So Bond's final tally out of eleven attempted faux-friendly performances is one successful (Licence to Kill), one semi-successful (On Her Majesty's Secret Service), and nine failures. Ouch.

Why 1st? It was a pretty close call between this and Goldfinger, but while Goldfinger probably fits the "faux-friendly" description a lot better (Bond and Le Chiffre, while as outwardly civil as you need to be at a table with ten other players as well as bystanders, are pretty goddamn prickly), the showdown at Casino Royale is lengthier, more tense, and more fun, with plenty of cutting one-liners and Le Chiffre's bad eye bleeding like it's on its period and assassination attempts and the Ugandan terrorists showing up and threatening to hack Le Chiffre with a machete unless he wins. Bond then gets into a fight with and kills two of them on a trip away from the table. Tight! Casino Royale is one of my favorite movies of the decade and in addition to the great action, great performances, great cinematography, and great music, I think the fact that Bond and the Bond villain get an usually large amount of face time together is a big, big part of that.