Monday, October 01, 2012

The Top Five; James Bond Fight Sequences


The Bond films are known for spectacular stunts, gorgeous women, ingenious gadgets, memorable bad guys and inventive (if mad) plans to take over the world.   But they are also known for their dazzling, brutal fight sequences.

At some point in every Bond film, the story comes down to Bond against one opponent, with only fists, feet -- and whatever targets of opportunity are available -- making the difference between life and death.

By my reckoning a great fight scene is one with inventive targets of opportunity (Bond using what’s on hand to defeat the bad guy), a great setting, a sense of suspense, and a feeling of exhilaration.  That last bit -- the exhilaration – is meted largely by how the fight is filmed and edited.

My top five selections are.

5.  On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Beach Fight, Pre-Title Sequence.

Here the new Bond (George Lazenby) attempts to rescue a beautiful damsel in distress, Tracy (Diana Rigg) but is intercepted by Draco’s hulking goons.  Bond is held at gunpoint when he seizes a target of opportunity (an oar on a beached row boat), and leaps into action.  Bond and a goon then duke it out in the roaring surf, with crashing waves all around.  The tide serves to accelerate the pace of the fight.

This beach battles boasts the distinction of not only being suspenseful, but beautifully rendered in terms of imagery.  Silver moonlight makes the ocean shine brightly in this scene, while Bond and his nemesis appear as circling black silhouettes.  The editing is fast-paced, but the camera occasionally steps back far enough to establish a sense of geography, and in these infrequent establishing shots, a large, very-sharp hook is visible in the foreground, a visual indicator of the life and death nature of the battle.

This fight is essentially George Lazenby and director Peter Hunt’s audition film, and they both pass it with flying colors.

4. Diamonds are Forever (1971), Elevator Fight.

This Bond entry is at the low-end of the totem pole, in terms of my affection.  It’s a sort of fat, bloated, listless film. 

But early in Diamonds are Forever, Bond goes up against Peter Franks (Joe Robinson), a jewel smuggler.  The two men fight in an extremely tight setting: a cramped elevator.  The setting is so tight, in fact, that almost each time a character pulls back to deliver a punch, an elbow shatters glass on the elevator windows. 

Because this fight arena is so small, in fact, the two men are constantly being thrown into the elevator control switch, making the car stop and start its ascent towards Tiffany Case’s (Jill St. John) apartment, another wild card in the fight. 

The fight features broken light bulbs, shattered panes, and more.  At one point, Franks picks up a shard of jagged glass and attempts to stab Bond with it, one of those all-important “targets of opportunity” I mentioned above.

This fight is very different from the one I describe above in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  There isn’t a lot of quick cutting, and not a lot of camera position shifts either.  Instead, it’s just Sean Connery and Joe Robinson (and their stuntmen, no doubt), pounding brutally on one another, sometimes for long stretches.  

This is one of the meanest grudge matches in the long-lived series, an absolutely life-or-death struggle.

3. Thunderball (1965). Pre-Title Sequence: Bond vs. Count Bouvar.

Setting and context play a crucial part in making this Thunderball fight scene so memorable.  Bond attends a funeral, but then rather suddenly breaks movie decorum when he meets the grieving widow in a large, royal-seeming sitting room.  What does he do??  He punches her in the face.

The moment is quite shocking, but we soon realize Bond has tagged his opponent (really legendary Bond stuntman Bob Simmons) as Colonel Jacques Bouvar of SPECTRE.

The two men then fight in a contest that -- visually speaking -- is edited to within an inch of its life.  The cuts are sharp, the movements sudden, and targets of opportunity are everywhere.  Before the fight is done, a table, a grandfather clock, a chair, a large bureau, hanging tapestries and other pieces of furniture all thrown into the mix, and in rapid-fire succession. 

The fight’s final punctuation is great too: Bond’s nemesis ends face first in a fireplace, and then Bond chokes him to death with a poker that Bouvar had previously yielded as a weapon. Yikes!

Later Bond films often imitated this particular fighting style (I’m thinking of the glass factory fight in Moonraker [1979], in particular) because it is not just a man-against-man contest, but a two-person demolition derby or wrecking crew.

2. Goldfinger (1964): Fort Knox Fight: 007 vs. Odd Job.

It’s probably fair to term Goldfinger the “gold standard” in terms of Bond films, if you’ll pardon the pun.   It very much sets the tone of the film series in a variety of ways, from the tongue-in-cheek pre-title sequence, to the pop title tune.  The final confrontation between Goldfinger and Bond in Fort Knox is no exception.  

Here we have a fantastical or out-of-this-world type setting (with gold bricks stacked on all sides), the colorful and physically powerful soldier villain, Odd Job, and a bomb ticking down to destruction to generate suspense.

That bomb plays a critical role in the action too. Unlike in the other fight scenes tagged in this list, no music accompanies the grudge match between Bond and Oddjob.  Instead, we hear only the persistent hum of that atomic bomb.  It reminds us constantly of the stakes, which is a good thing.  We know that the game isn’t simply stopping Odd Job, but defusing the bomb before it explodes.

Finally, this fight culminates with a great target of opportunity.  Outmatched and outfought by Oddjob, Bond targets a loose electrical cable, and electrifies a wall where Odd Job’s metal-rim has lodged, thus killing his opponent.  If you can’t out-fight your enemy, out-think him…

1. From Russia with Love (1963): Train Fight: Bond vs. Red Grant.

From the opening moments of From Russia with Love, the film establishes Red Grant (Robert Shaw) as the man who has been trained to kill James Bond.  This is his reason for being. 

When Bond and Grant thus meet for their vicious fight in a train car, it is the battle between two men whose capacities for lethality the audience knows quite well.  We’ve seen Bond in action several times by now, and know he can handle himself in a fight.  But we’ve seen Grant in action too, with his watch-garrot…killing a Bond double and others.   This fight is as much about characters as it is about thrills. 

Who has the edge?  The killer instinct? Grant has prepared for this fight for some time.  Bond, on the other hand, must rely on his wits and instincts.  He doesn’t know his enemy the way Grant knows him.

The actual fight is not only fast-paced, and brilliantly-edited, but buttressed by the fact that there appear to be no stunt doubles.  It really looks like Connery and Shaw are slugging it out, and vying for superiority, and the sense of authenticity is incredibly powerful. 

This fight feels frighteningly and painfully real, and though we are conditioned to expect that the hero always wins, there’s still a sense of uncertainty too; a sense that Bond has met his match.   It’s the greatest Bond fight ever, in one of the best films in the series.

4 comments:

  1. I agree wholeheartedly, John. Especially the order, and our top pick :-).

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous7:16 PM

    Bond fight scenes are the best and never boring.

    SGB

    ReplyDelete
  3. Anonymous10:40 AM

    How many fights does Bond have on train?

    ReplyDelete

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