Friday, October 2, 2020

Green Phoenix - From Russia with Love Review


Released one year after Dr. No, 1963's From Russia with Love drops many of the more science fiction and exploitative elements from Dr. No in favor of a more grounded and realistic James Bond outing, at least for the time. 
 
Back again with yet another look at the James Bond franchise. This time, we turn our attention to the second entry in the series. Where Dr. No was a prototype for the James Bond formula, it is really From Russia with Love that would become the benchmark for future entries in the series. It showed the series creators what worked from Dr. No and what truly needed to be workshopped.
 
With that in mind, let's take a look at From Russia with Love and see if its better or worse than its prototypical predecessor.
 
***
  • Directed by Terrance Howard
  • Produced by Eon Productions
  • MPAA Rating: PG
  • Running Time: 115 Minutes
***

SUMMARY

Following the death of Dr. No from the titular Dr. No, the evil terrorist organization SPECTRE seeks revenge upon British secret agent 007, also known as James Bond, played by Sean Connery. To that end, SPECTRE leaders hatch a plot to kill Bond by setting a dangerous trap.
 
To this end, they hire a Soviet cipher clerk named Tatiana Romanova to pose as a Russian agent thats transferring a vital piece of cryptographic technology that the British secret service has been looking for for decades. Unable to resist, MI6 sends Bond straight into the trap. Now Bond will have to team up with Romanova to bring the device to MI6 while avoiding assassins sent by SPECTRE.
 
***

REVIEW

While I would be hard pressed to declare any of the Sean Connery-era James Bond films as terrible, there are certainly some films that are better than others. Much like Dr. No, I believe the greatest problem that From Russia with Love suffers from is that it is followed up by much better movies.

The film possesses many of the same features as Dr. No, but is coupled with a story that is far more grounded in traditional Cold War-era espionage narratives and is largely devoid of the more science fiction elements that future installments will have. The result is a film that is largely above average and slow compared to its superior sequels.

VISUALS - 7/10

I won't go into too much detail in terms of the visual elements for From Russia with Love as they are, for the most part, shared with Dr. No. Many of the same points and criticisms that I levied on that film are present here as well. This is largely why I will be giving it the same overall visual score.

One part that I do think helps to distinguish From Russia with Love from its prequel is a general lack of science fiction elements. From Russia with Love is grounded largely in reality, dealing with more realistic elements of geopolitics and traditional espionage narratives. It is certainly an interesting distinction, especially when paired with the elements of exploitation that pervade all Bond movies. The gypsy sequence is particularly memorable, if a little reductive. Though this being a James Bond movie, reductive gender and ethnographic politics is usually a given, at least in the Connery era.

While a little strange, it certainly helps this otherwise generic spy thriller have a unique identity when compared to its more well-regarded sequels.

SOUNDTRACK - 9/10


As stated in my From Russia with Love review, the intro sequence is the cornerstone of any good Bond film and it was From Russia with Love that began that tradition in earnest. The theme for From Russia with Love was composed by Lionel Bart and performed by Matt Munro and is largely a remix of the original Bond theme. It wouldn't be until Goldfinger that unique movie-specific musical intros would be fully utilized, so From Russia with Love in some ways represents a middle ground between Dr. No and the fully realized Bond identity.

Though the utilization of dancing into girls began with From Russia with Love and has stayed largely consistent throughout. Not that I'm complaining, just an observation.

The rest of the soundtrack, much like previous entries is jazzy in its composition and used to excellent effect. The heavy use of brass and strings really emphasizes a sense of sophistication mixed with danger, which every good spy film ought to have. In fact, I hear a lot of sounds and cues that would be later used in films like The Incredibles, which is set in a similar 60s era. Researching the film, I learned that Lionel Bart had originally intended on utilizing a more Turkish sound but was unable to find anything that really stuck out to him.

Really makes me wonder what the soundtrack might've been. But as it stands From Russia with Love moves the Bond franchise a little closer towards its iconic musical identity. Not quite reaching it, but giving us amazing work all the same.

CHARACTERS - 7/10

Once again, in an effort to avoid treading old ground, this section will largely be a general summary of the new characters or the characters that are introduced to the franchise in this film.

The first of the characters we must discuss are the Bond girls. The major Bond girl this time around is Tatiana Romanova, the Soviet agent who is assigned to accompany Bond on his mission and is caught up in SPECTRE's plot to kill Bond and discredit the Western intelligence community. Played by Daniela Bianchi, Romanova's entire narrative purpose is to act as bait to lure in James Bond and lower his defenses so he can be killed by the primary antagonist. In this task, Bianchi plays a character who is out of her depth but well-intentioned. She comes to genuinely care for Bond and aids him in stopping the SPECTRE agents, with as much power as the misogynistic 60s era Bond will allow her.

On the side of the villains, we have three predominant ones and a fourth secret villain. The secret villain is Ernest Blofeld, the leader of SPECTRE, has remained a mainstay of the James Bond franchise for decades and been the inspiration for countless other movie supervillains, and for very good reason. On the other side we have the two tactical villains and the muscle, as it were. Rosa Klebb, played by Lotte Lenya, is a SMERSH (Soviet secret intelligence operations) officer who secretly works for SPECTRE and hires Romanova to aid Bond and the sics Red Grant on the two in order to discredit and kill Bond. She is a very good female villain, though she does unfortunately fall into the "gay badguy" trope.

Kronsteen, played by Vladek Sheybal, is a much more subtle element of the movie, playing a minor role largely as the architect of the entire Lektor scheme. He is not nearly as important to the overall plot and his death is an excellent example of the "punished lackey" trope that will become a mainstay of the franchise.

Where Rosa and Kronsteen are largely off-screen villains for Bond, Red Grant represents a more physical villain. Robert Shaw plays Grant to stellar effect, giving off a subtle yet dominating presence in every scene he is in. He seems to work rather well off of Connery but doesn't give off much of an impression in my mind, which is a problem that most of the villains seem to suffer from.
 
From Russia with Love unfortunately lacks the sort of high personality villains that characterize later films, so he seemed to go more for quantity rather than overall quality. There not terrible or distract from the movie, they actually perform their roles beautifully. They just are not terribly interesting to me, which is a damn shame.

STORY - 7/10

In most James Bond films, the overarching narrative involves some grand plot of world domination or some other spectacular scheme to upend the world order and it falls to the titular James Bond to defeat the ecletic supervillain, save the world, and get the girl. This is the formula for many of the most popular and well-regarded films in the franchise, almost to the point of parody.

It then says a lot that From Russia with Love has almost none of this. From Russia with Love's story is surprisingly low stakes in terms of James Bond's investment in it. The villains motivation is largely a combination of revenge for the death of Dr. No from the first film and a chance to discredit the British Secret Service, troublesome but not world-ending. This makes the overall scope of the story surprisingly small and much more personal.

It also makes the story grounded in a degree of reality. There are no spaceships and laser beams in this movie, choosing instead to present a much quieter and more traditional Cold War espionage film, albeit with the 60s exploitative qualities that are so quintessential to the Bond formula. It really makes From Russia with Love stand out, but not exactly in a way that I think works for the Bond franchise.

James Bond as a series is one of high personalities, where high-energy and charismatic villains plot eccentric schemes for immense power or some other such goal. Where Bond can be smooth and disengaged and still manage to save the day and get the girl. It's so synonymous with the brand that nearly every other spy franchise has copied it. Which only makes it stranger that the second outing of the series is so unlike anything else.

It has many of the hallmarks and represents an important building block for the remainder of the franchise, especially in terms of fleshing out SPECTRE as an evil organization. It just doesn't seem to factor too much more into the series and is unfortunately in my mind overshadowed by its more ecletic successors. It is a fine story to be sure, filled with intrigue and classic spy elements, I'm just not certain if I fully enjoy them in my James Bond movies.

But maybe that's just my opinion of how it was handled here.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The overarching feeling I get from watching From Russia with Love is largely forgetfulness. Not because the film is in anyway terribly forgettable on its own. Rather because when compared to the films that came before and after, it just doesn't draw as much attention to itself. A lot slower and quieter than other Bond films, I cannot help but feel like this was an experiment with the James Bond series as much as Dr. No was. A chance to see if Bond films had to be over the top or if they could handle more cerebral and personal stories.
 
In my opinion, they absolutely can. I just don't think that this story fulfilled that idea as well as it could've. Perhaps with more memorable villains, a little bit better pacing or a more consequential outcome for the story, From Russia with Love could stand with the best of the James Bond franchise. But as it is, it is only a good film in an amazing franchise, and that to me speaks volumes.

VISUALS
  • 7/10
SOUNDTRACK
  • 9/10
CHARACTERS
  • 7/10
STORY
  • 7/10

 FINAL SCORE - 7.5/10

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