By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com November 7, 2012 at 3:05PM
A good couple of decades before the trend for darkness in franchise pictures came about thanks to "Batman Begins" and co., Timothy Dalton's Bond saw an attempt to reinvent the franchises after diminishing returns in the Moore era by returning to relative realism, with a more character-driven approach. Dalton's debut, 1987's "The Living Daylights" isn't a classic, but it's a decent attempt at melding a Bond for the 1980s with the classic template. Unfortunately, things tipped too far the other way with the actor's second and final spin at 007, 1989's "Licence To Kill." The story did at least take the franchise to new places: after an attack on his U.S. liaison friend Felix Leiter and his wife, 007 goes rogue, resigns, has his licence to kill revoked, and sets out on a mission of revenge. Inspired by hardcore R-rated '80s action movies like "Lethal Weapon," this is a dark and violent Bond (it had to be edited down from an R in the U.S. and remains the only 15-rated entry in the series in the U.K.), with exploding heads, bullet impacts, and severed legs. But from the off -- which sees Leiter's wife raped and murdered, and the DEA agent fed to a shark -- it leaves a deeply sour taste in the mouth. Indeed, between the revenge plot and the coke-dealing villains, the film barely feels like a Bond movie at all; you could swap in Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone and the film might as well be a "Commando" or "Rambo" sequel. There's one impressive action sequence near the end (the tanker chase), but ultimately there's very little to like here, beyond an expanded role for Desmond Llewelyn's Q. It's a shame Dalton didn't get a third stab, because he was a fairly decent Bond. But hey, at least he got to be Mr. Pricklepants.
Pierce Brosnan was a well-liked Bond who proved to be an inspired choice for the character, helping revive the franchise and take it to new box-office heights. But it's a shame that his films got gradually worse as time went on, from the excellent "Goldeneye," diminishing returns seemed to hit every time he was at bat. Things reached rock bottom with Brosnan's final entry, "Die Another Day," a CGI-stuffed misjudged mess that, in the same year as upstarts "The Bourne Identity" and to a lesser extent "xXx," tried to get with the times, but ultimately made the franchise look like your dad in a ponytail and a leather jacket. Things start off promisingly. After an impressive hovercraft-based action scene, Bond is actually captured, tortured and left a bearded, bedgraggled burn-out, traded back to the MI6 only reluctantly. From there, however, it goes rapidly downhill: a hammy villain (Toby Stephens) with a ludicrous sci-fi tinged plot, a would-be counterpart to Bond in the shape of Halle Berry that mostly made the audience question why she'd won an Oscar only a few months earlier, pop-culture baiting stunt casting in the form of a shoehorned-in Madonna, and a creaky script that trades in single entendres more than bona-fide innuendo. Worst of all, having kept mostly to practical stunts in the earlier films, the film sees Bond embrace the age of CGI and overblown set pieces, with an invisible car and some dreadful effects that sees a 16-bit Bond surfing a melted ice wave. Director Lee Tamahori went on to make "xXx2: State Of The Union" starring Ice Cube next. That's arguably a better Bond movie than this.
Daniel Craig's first entry, "Casino Royale," suggested a franchise that had been successfully reinvented. At the time, the biggest hit ever in the series, and critically acclaimed, it showed that the filmmakers were learning from the success of rivals like Bourne, without slavishly copying. Were we in for a new golden age of Bond movies? As "Quantum Of Solace" proved two years later, not so much. In advance, it looked promising: an acclaimed filmmaker in the shape of "Finding Neverland" director Marc Forster, a script again polished by Oscar-winner Paul Haggis, 'Bourne' genius Dan Bradley as second-unit director, and the first Bond movie in history to pick up the threads of a storyline from a previous film. Unfortunately, the film was rushed into production because of the impending writer's strike, and the result was an insipid, half-hearted and, frankly, dull entry that dissipated any goodwill from "Casino Royale." Plotwise, the film sees Bond attempting to track down the organization, Quantum, that killed his love Vesper Lynd, but things are swiftly sidetracked by his discovery of a nefarious plan by faux environmentalist Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric). Having apparently learned nothing from the mockery pointed George Lucas' way when he made the plot for "The Phantom Menace" revolve around trade embargos, Greene's scheme involves him trying to win a utillities contract in Central America, which has to be the dullest Bond plot in history. And while Amalric's a great actor, he's given very little to work with, hardly seeming a physical match for Craig in their final square-off. Most crucially of all, Forster has no feeling for how to shoot an actual sequence. Choppy, line-crossing cutting, overuse of CGI doubles and impossible camera shots, plus an inability to handle geography making it the most incoherently shot film in the history of the franchise. Craig is fine, and Olga Kurylenko makes a spirited Bond girl (Gemma Arterton's "Goldfinger"-homaging cameo less so), but one can only be thankful that the makers of "Skyfall" learned from the mistakes here.