James Bond on Blu-ray disc
By Jim Bray
Ready for some moments of real Bonding in the home theater?
With the release of the first six Bond titles (not the first six Bond movies, however) MGM and 20th Century Fox have shaken and stirred the Bond franchise in a most delightful way. The movies that have made their studios billions over the years, at least some of them, were looking more than a tad long in the tooth on DVD, crying out for a good restoration that would (if possible) restore their luster.
And if these initial offerings are any indication, Bond fans who embrace the Blu-ray versions are in for an absolute treat.
Released just in time to cash in on – and tie in with – the new Daniel Craig outing Quantum of Solace, the titles have been restored and re-mastered via "the state-of-the-art Lowry process digital frame-by-frame restoration" and also feature an abundance of special features.
You also get an annoying opening menu, in the tradition of the earlier special edition DVD releases, though at least this one doesn't require you to click a "launch" button to get things going. But why can't they just head straight into the movie, letting you access the menus either via BD's pop-up menu feature or by visiting the main menu when you choose to.
Anyway, the six titles released this time around are (in "chronological" order): DR. NO, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, THUNDERBALL, LIVE AND LET DIE, FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, DIE ANOTHER DAY – three Connerys, two Moores and a Brosnan. We used the occasion to have a Bond marathon in our home theater, firing up the Epson/Rotel system and showing the new Bonds on our brand new, tensioned 106 inch Da-lite screen. The results were spectacular.
Before I talk about the BD presentation itself, a note: watching the movies this way, moving in short order from Connery to Moore, to Brosnan, was an excellent way of comparing the three Bond actors. And it confirmed that neither Moore nor Brosnan (but most especially Moore!) were capable of shining Connery's shoes as 007. We put in Casino Royale later and deemed Daniel Craig as suitable to carry on the franchise (we believed this before, but this was the first time we actually A/B/C/D'd him with Connery, Moore and Brosnan), but this was after we cleansed our Bond palate by going back and watching Dr. No again, to get the Moore/Brosnan taste out of our mouths.
We started our viewing marathon with Thunderball and For Your Eyes Only, both of which I've seen on DVD within the past few months and both of which were looking extremely long in the tooth, with a dirty and grainy image that really showed their ages. Could Lowry's process bring new life to old Bond?
You Betcha! The digital restoration is nothing short of spectacular; Bond has never looked this good! The images are bright, ultra sharp, with excellent color and depth – it looks almost as if it were shot yesterday, except for obvious facts such as a much younger Connery, etc. It was a beautiful breath of fresh air!
They've done a nice job with the audio, too, which is presented in dts HD 5.1 Master Lossless. The results aren't as uniformly great as with the video quality, but overall I'm very pleased. They haven't merely ported the original soundtrack over, they've actually remixed the films into 5.1 (with varying but mostly satisfying results), spreading music across the front channels and bringing sound effects to the rears nearly as if the movies had been mixed originally for surround sound (and only a few of this collection were).
Surprisingly, I was most pleased with Live and Let Die's soundtrack, which was loud and up front and in your face (and behind your head). It was even better than the most recent film's soundtrack (Die Another Day), which needed to be cranked a bit to fill my home theater in the manner to which I've become accustomed. But even Dr. No sounded better than I've ever heard it before,
As must have been said in the past to hype new entries into the franshise: Bond is back, and he's better than ever. This is definitely and easily the best collection of Bond titles to have appeared in a home theater to date, and it makes me salivate in anticipation of the rebirth of my favorite Bond titles such as Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice and The Living Daylights (and I'll be holding Dalton to the same standards!). It appears the Bond franchise is in good hands – at least so far as the treatment of the existing library is concerned.
Here's my take on each of these titles:
Possibly the most faithful to the book of any Bond film, this movie created the James Bond mold and most of the formula that’s been used so successfully (financially, if not artistically) ever since. Connery’s Bond is a tough and charming cold war spy who can be witty and urbane, but who has steely sudden death just below the surface.
The first Bond girl was Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder, and she also sets the tone for the ones who follow - though it takes Bond longer to get her into bed than many of the later BG’s. Bond’s nemesis is renegade supervillain Dr. No, who’s trying to destroy the fledgling American space program.
Who'd have known that all he'd have to do is wait and the Americans would emasculate it on their own...
Besides the movie, presented at an aspect ratio of 1.66:1, you get an abundance of special features:
Die Another Day
This is the best of the Brosnan Bond adventures, and a real change of pace from later Bonds.
The changes start right at the beginning where, instead of escaping in a most dramatic and perhaps outrageous manner, Bond is captured and thrown into a North Korean prison. Then, over the opening credits (which, other than Madonna’s theme song, are as terrific as usual), we see him tortured unmercifully by that country’s communist thugs and when we rejoin the movie many months have passed and a bruised and battered Bond (bearded and dirty) is released as part of a prisoner exchange. But when he gets back to civilization, he discovers that he’s assumed to have betrayed his cause under torture and is therefore no longer of any use to Mi6. He’s tossed aside like a dirty dishrag.
But that would make a rather short and depressing Bond movie, and we know Bond has been underestimated. Besides, he has some personal business to finish and takes off after the guys who done him wrong, who betrayed him and turned his world upside down.
The supporting cast includes Halle Berry as, well, a kind of Felix Leiter character – though it takes a while for us to discover that – Rick Yune and Toby Stephens as the Big Bad Guys, and Rosamund Pike as, well, you’ll discover who she works for. And of course we have Judi Dench as M and John Cleese in his first solo outing as Q (and he fits Desmond Llewellyn’s shoes perfectly).
The aspect ratio is 2.35:1 and the Blu-ray disc also includes:
Live and Let Die
Live and Let Die was Roger Moore's first kick and the can and it's not too bad, if you ignore the scenes involving J. W. Coop, the "ugly Amercan" sheriff.
This time there's no Blofeld to kick around; instead, it's a story about a drug lord (Yaphet Kotto) with delusions of world conquest. Jane Seymour is the Bond girl here, a Tarot card-reading person of hench to the bad guy. The story takes a back seat to the action, alas, and we found the ultimate demise of the bad guy a tad contrived.
The aspect ratio here is 1.85:1 and the movie looks and sounds great. I missed John Barry here, too; the score is by George Martin, most famous for being the Beatles' producer, and it seems mostly adaptations of snippets from Paul McCartney and Wings' title song. Then there's:
For Your Eyes Only
After the excesses of Moonraker, the series took a welcome "back to basics" tack with For Your Eyes Only. Moore is back as Bond, unfortunately, but this time he's part of a much more believeable (and "down to earth") plot in which Bond races against the bad guys to recover a nuclear arms control device from a sunken ship.
There's a neat homage to Bond's wife, and to Blofeld, at the film's opening, and this time instead of beating us over the head with the opening "big stunt" they've given us one that's more believable.
For Your Eyes Only is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. I missed the great John Barry doing the score; Bill Conti's is okay, but to us Barry is as synonymous with Bond movies as was Connery - or Maurice Binder title sequences.
You also get:
From Russia With Love
From Russia With Love, the second Bond movie and the one many (though not me) think is the best. Connery is at his best, though, and his main nemesis is Robert Shaw as a Russian agent who's also a one man killing machine.
Bond is sent to recover a coding machine from a Russian agent who's supposedly defecting because she fell in love with a picture of 007. Everyone smells a rat, but the chance to get the device is too good to pass up. Besides the pristine transfer, at the aspect ratio of 1.66:1, you get:
Thunderball, the watery followup to Goldfinger, is a classic Connery outing - remade with him much later as "Never Say Never Again", in which SPECTRE is going after NATO countries to extort a huge ransom for a couple of nuclear bombs stolen from a hijacked Vulcan bomber.
This is the last "pure" Bond, one could say, because after that the stories started getting increasingly unbelievable (as in You Only Live Twice and its spaceship hijackings) or silly (a trend begun somewhat with Diamonds are Forever and never really done away with completely). In Thunderball we get to see the classic Aston Martin from Goldfinger briefly, and there are plenty more gadgets on hand, particularly a kind of underwater spy kit that takes the place of the Aston. And the BD disc, presented at 2.35:1, includes:
When is a Bond movie not a Bond movie?
We have no idea, but Never Say Never Again is probably as close as you can come, if you ignore the original Casino Royale travesty from the 1960's.
Never Say Never Again was a non-Bond movie in that it wasn't made by Albert R. Broccoli's Eon Productions and release by United Artists back in the days when there was such a thing. Instead, it was a more independent production that came from a legal kerfuffle Ian Fleming had when he wrote Thunderball without apparently giving credit to a couple of guys with whom he'd tried to get some of its story elements made into a TV series years before.
Convoluted legal stuff aside, it's in effect a remake of Thunderball, and a pretty good one if you can overlook its obviously low budget compared with the "real" Bond movies.
The best thing about the film is Sean Connery, who came out of self-imposed Bondage, er Bond retirement, to make the movie. He's older and wiser and the movie is written to reflect that. Another highlight is director Irvin Kershner, fresh off his success helming "The Empire Strikes Back" for George Lucas.
The story is very similar to Thunderball – without being so similar that they lost the lawsuits they underwent. Spectre, led by Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Mas Von Sydow), steals a couple of cruise missiles and their nuclear warheads (instead of Thunderball's Vulcan bomber and its two atomic bombs) and demands a tribute lest he unleash nuclear horror on targets of his choice.
Fortunately, James Bond is back. Sent by the bureaucratic new M (Edward Fox) to a British spa to get rid of his free radicals, he just happens to be there when SPECTRE's tool, heroine-addicted by the organization and trained to allow for the theft of the bombs, is getting ready to launch the plan.
Good old, Bond, always in the right place at the right time!
The adventure takes us from Jolly Olde to the Bahamas, to the French Riviera and North Africa (though if you pay attention to the supplements you'll know it ain't all done where it pretends to be, which is standard movie making magic).
Connery, not surprisingly, is great in his return as 007 and Klaus Maria Brandauer is a pretty good Largo, better – we think – than Adolfo Celi's Largo from the original film. And "newcomer" Kim Basinger does a good job as Largo and Bond's love interest, Domino.
The highlight performance is, of course, Connery's – but Barbara Carrera is outstanding as Fatima Blush, SPECTRE agent and assassin. She's one of the best Bond villains ever!
The movie is very good. It doesn't contain as much action as your "conventional" Bond flick, but that's okay. There are fewer mindless chases, but that leaves more time for plot and character development – and Connery's middle-aged Bond couldn't run as fast as he could in, well, Thunderball, anyway.
The film does look a bit low rent compared to the sprawling Bond epics of that era, though that doesn't necessarily work against it. In fact, the feel is more like one of the early Bond films like Dr. No, and that's just fine with us.
The Blu-ray is very good. The dual layer disc is presented in 1080p high definition and the widescreen image (2.35:1) looks very good. It isn't quite as riveting as some of the "real" Bond Blu-rays unleashed so far, but it's fine. There's a bit of grain in places, but overall the picture is bright, clean and colorful.
Audio is dts-HD Master Audio and it's also very good. It doesn't have the punch of many newer films, but considering the age it's not bad at all. We'd have loved more low end punch, but what can you do?
Fox Home Entertainment throws in plenty of good stuff as extras, and most of it is in ether HD or at least widescreen. One that isn't widescreen, not surprisingly, is the audio-only commentary track. It's very interesting, though, and features director Irvin Kershner and "Bond historian" (how do you get a gig like that?) Steven Jay Rubin in a kind of Q&A session that gives plenty of insight into the film's uneasy birth, including parts Kersher would like to do differently if he were to do it over again.
There's also a feature on "The Big Gamble," which deals at the huge bite the filmmakers chewed off when they decided to do the movie in the first place. "Sean is Back" is self-explanatory, as is "The Girls of Never Say Never Again," which features most of the girls from the film except for Basinger.
There's also a photo gallery and trailer.
In all, a worthwhile Blu-ray for Bond fans.
Never Say Never Again, from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.