Saturday, June 16, 2012

Who are you? Tomorrow Never Dies and Austin Powers

It's 1997. It's 35 years since Dr No. It's time for another Bond.

Unfortunately, that Bond is Michael Myers' lamentable Austin Powers.

How naïve we were in 1997. That was the year people voted for Tony Blair as Prime Minister. The Cold War was over, the future was always going to be better than the past, and Austin Powers was funny.

Looking back now, bruised and battered from sixteen consecutive Bond films, Mike Myers doesn't seem so funny. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it was the goodwill that he ruined with the two sequels. Perhaps it's Liz Hurley, who, with the passing years, looks stranger and stranger. I didn't realise that she had the same nose as Jodie Marsh (then again, Jodie Marsh didn't exist in 1997). I remembered her quality "acting"; that wasn't nostalgia.

Maybe it's the way you can't figure out what Austin Powers is a pastiche of. "Groovy, baby"? Racist, sexist, imperialist, chair-smashing oaf he might be, but anyone paying the least attention to Bond over the previous three-and-a-half decades would never accuse Commander "I never listen to the Beatles without earmuffs" Bond as being groovy. OK, you might say, Powers isn't groovy, he's an anachronism deceiving himself into thinking he's with-it. Well, maybe so, but Bond, the old fogey par excellence, doesn't care about grooviness. Having a go at a Bond-a-like for trying and failing to be groovy is like making a fish ride a bicycle and then complaining that the seat is wet. We're hardly talking the dizzying heights of satire here.

It's not an unmitigated disaster; when Myers moves away from being too broad there are some interesting asides - Dr Evil's mention of a childhood, when "we made meat helmets" - but too often the structure is wasted on crap jokes. Does Dr Evil want to hug his son or kill him, or hug him and kill him? At least the Swedish penis pump is more than just a throwaway gag.

It's akin to crushing a butterfly on the wheel of a steamroller to complain that Austin Powers doesn't make sense, but you'd like even comedy to conform to some internal logic. By the time we reach a spy from the 60s dancing in front of fembots (isn't that from Barbarella, which was a joke to begin with) while the Divynls provide the (five year old) soundtrack, you get the feeling that Mike Myers was either high or drugs or couldn't tell when something was meant to be funny. Which is what you'd expect from the creator of Wayne's World, I suppose.

So what it comes down to is that Austin Powers is a wilful misremembering of Bond films from the 1960s and 70s. Perhaps it's a prediction of the future too: is it any coincidence that the 100 billion dollars that Dr Evil demands was the valuation of Facebook for one fleeting moment in 2012? I'm not saying that Mark Zuckerburg is an evil, Nehru-jacket wearing genius. I just want you to infer that.

But enough of Austin Powers, the main event is Brosnan's second Bond outing, which once again disappoints from a fifteen year distance, but for none of the reasons we thought of in 1997.

It starts ok - we get to see Henry Gupta, who "practically invented techno terrorism". I take this to mean he was in 2 Unlimited, or had a gang of 500 gabba-loving skinheads locked in a Rotterdam warehouse, ready to do his every bidding. He's a Bad Man and scruffy too - in fact, all the people in the military jumble sale are a bit scruffy - I thought that at least the pilots would have to have a shave so their respirators would work. Being properly attired is no guarantee of competence, of course - Admiral Roebuck is a bit of a dick (although we do discover that Royal Navy ships have a switch to go between Peace and War, which is good to know).

Bond punches and shoots his way through the lot of them and then has a fairly good aerial battle, although I'm confused why he doesn't get his head torn off when he ejects the man who's strangling him with a cable. Some mysteries will never be resolved. Before we know it, we're in the South China Sea. Gupta's evil plan isn't to relaunch Vanilla Ice's career with some dirty junglist breakbeats - no, it's to confuse Royal Navy ships into thinking they're not in Chinese territorial waters.

(Again, an observer from 2012 might note the irony, since China is currently behaving as though it really does own all of the South China Sea, but this isn't the time for us to go into complicated geopolitics.)

As well as Gupta, there's a nerdy bloke who's the captain, and a big lug who's a fairly transparent retread of Necros from The Living Daylights - but with no Walkman. This is good - we shouldn't have to worry about homicidal milkmen this time around - but bad, because it suggests the evil masterminds aren't paying enough attention to diversity in recruitment. Of course, these are all just underlings - the main man behind all of this is Carver, who wants to see the rates for cable TV reduced.

Clearly this was a big deal in 1997; if you pay attention in Austin Powers (not really to be recommended, but there you go) you'll notice that one of the side business's of Dr Evil's Virtucon was cable TV. I suppose in 2012 they'd be more worried about reducing the cost of hacking people's mobile phones. Still, that evil, evil Rupert Murdoch Eliot Carver has his fingers in lots of pies, including the pies of the Prime Minister, so Bond can't go after him directly.

Bond starts the film proper in Oxford - which is a bit disloyal. You Only Live Twice had him getting a degreee in Oriental Studies from Cambridge, so for him to be at The Other Place is a bit of a worry. Can't they distinguish their august institutions? He's got some kind of time machine installed in the Aston Martin though, because it takes half an hour to get to the Oxford Park and Ride, let alone get down the M40 to London.

Here I am, complaining about the lack of realism in a Bond film. What has come over me?

We made a lot of fuss about Judi Dench being M, but in retrospect, it took her a while to perfect the role. During the briefing, her eyes flicker around like a startled vole, rather than a diamond-hard bureaucrat. Still, we've got Q to dodder around for light relief. If light relief is some sub-Benny Hill brass parping away while he goes through the insurance form with Bond. Still, this allows us to put Bond into the beemer, a big thugmobile that's devoid of charm, but does have a missile-enhanced sunroof.

This is one of those Bond films where not much happens for a while. And then after something happens, not much happens again for a while more. I think this is because everyone making it was confused. The Chinese secret agent is played by a Malaysian, the British super spy is played by an Irishman, and he used to shag a Desperate Housewife until he popped out from some cigs and a sixpack of beer and never came back. It's tiring to keep track of all this, not least for Bond, who sits in his hotel room looking knackered when Paris Hilton Carver turns up to see him, making for one of the more depressing Smirnoff product placements you'll ever see.

At the time, I remember Teri Hatcher feeling like a bad example of stunt casting. Now, with her only hanging around long enough to get killed by a terrible assassin while Bond is dicking around at the world's most egomaniacal print works (do many companies have buildings where there's a fifty foot banner of the boss everywhere?). Murdoch/Carver is actually worse at hiring goons than Dr Evil - there's the doctor who gets killed remarkably easily, and a bunch of bumbling oafs who can't even break into a car efficiently. Dr Evil's embarassing son is not half the problem that these guys are. The bad doctor does point out he's "just a professional doink a job", which is Pierce's cue to say "me too", as if moral relativism was a brand new concept rather than something that's underpinned the series from the get-go. Oh well.

What is good is the escape from the car park. It turns out that even with Bond giggling like a schoolboy as his tyres reinflate, the chase is much funnier than one remembered, especially with Bond managing to shoot his BMW straight through the window of the Avis office. Anyone who has had to pay an extortionate fee to hire a car will sympathise.

And then back to Carver again, who (though we only notice it now, not in 1997) has a prototype ipad, the bastard. Black clothes, short hair, glasses - he's Jobs, not Murdoch. All along we have been confused about who Tomorrow Never Dies was satirising! I did say this was going to be confusing.

It's very, very confusing, and possibly culturally insensitive - at least there's some continuity with previous Bond films. We go to Vietnam, or maybe China (nobody is really paying attention by now) but if it is Saigon, isn't it a tad rude to have Americans flying around in a helicopter strafing the streets? Isn't it also terrible to have Bond act an utter curmudgeon, yelling at Wei Ling to "stop fiddling back there!" as they motorbike around. Pierce, channelling Roger Moore? Oh dear.

Luckily, Wei Ling grew up in a rough area (which presumably means that prepubescents in China/Vietnam/Malaysia/wherever get their exercise by being chased by men in helicopters, but let's not think too hard about that) so she can deal with helicopters and then chain Bond up, but can't deal with four overweight Chinese blokes. "Somewhere in Asia" should be an exotic and exciting location, but by this far down the road I was stifling a yawn as they slide down the outside of a building. Pierce screaming like a girl didn't really help. It's much better once they head out to Halong Bay, which is a nice way to recycle Dr No's Scary Island The Locals Avoid, with some Golden Gun flava layered on top. Cor, we love our tropical islands, right?

There's not much time to admire the scenery, because there's the end of the world approaching, so Bond and Ms Bond head out to Thunderbird Evil and try to blow it up. It's not a happy time on the boat; like in any media start-up enterprise, things are very tiring, and that means that when the captain (that nerdy chap we saw a long while ago) is trying to relax by playing Angry Birds on the computer, Carver blows his top at him. There's enough time for a quick stand-off (like the start of Goldeneye, but not quite as good, because there are less men in enormous Russian hats) and then Bond despatches Carver with the worse one liner I've heard yet - if "You forgot the first rule of mass media - give the public what they want" even constitutes a one-liner. Necros 2.0 comes to a fairly sticky end, but only after he's man-hugged Bond halfway to death; this isn't a film that casts Bond in a particularly good light as the uber-competent murderer of choice for the British regime.

And then, as we float to the very end of this film, just to really confuse and amaze, M tells the men who do things to report that Carver has fallen off his yacht and drowned, which means that once again, the film flips on its head - the media mogul isn't the scary Rupert Murdoch or Steve Jobs, it's actually Robert Maxwell.

I told you it would be confusing. Hopefully The World Is Not Enough has aged better for next month...


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