I’m not sure if I’ve ever discussed this on this page, but for the last 15 years, I have been a big fan of the James Bond series. I started watching them as a nine year old and even though some aren’t so great, they are usually at least pretty entertaining. I remember how proud I was of myself when I memorized each of the movies in chronological order… again, I’m a dork. So with the arrival of Bond’s next outing, No Time to Die, finally hitting theatres next month (as a Bond-aholic, November is a more fitting month, but it’s whatever), it seemed like an ample time to stroll down memory lane.
The second time was the charm.
Like yesterday’s trip back to Dr. No, it had been quite a few years since I’d last seen James Bond’s second outing, From Russia with Love. As a kid, I played the hell out of the video game (which features voice work from Sean Connery himself), which was a lot of fun but also totally blows the story of the movie out of proportion. As for the movie, I remembered it being one of the best ones, but I couldn’t remember what was so good about it. Well, here I am to report that, believe it or not, my memory doesn’t always fail me: From Russia with Love is a smash.
This is one of those Bond films (or really, you could just say films in general) where everything works. In my review of Dr. No, I mentioned that that film felt as if the filmmakers were still working out the kinks. With From Russia with Love, the kinks have been worked out, and the series found its footing. The heroic characters, from main characters to sidekicks, are likable and hold our interest. The villains are intimidating and menacing. It’s fun, it’s sexy. It all clicks. This is very much a spy movie, not just in terms of action sequences but in terms of the spy game itself, with corporations, both good and evil, and intrigue and yada yada. And you know, there’s barely a second in this film that misses its mark.
In a way, this film is a continuation of Dr. No, if simply through the fact that both films are connected through SPECTRE. Though there wouldn’t be a true direct sequel to a Bond film until Quantum of Solace, which, well, everyone has an opinion on that one. From Russia with Love finds Bond (Connery, at his most charming) in search of a Russian decoding machine known as the Lektor. SPECTRE is in search of it, and Bond must get to it before they do.
One of SPECTRE’s leading madmen… or women, is one Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), a former K.G.B. agent who gets the Russians involved through a potential agent named Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), who Bond is assigned to find while in Istanbul in search of the Lektor. She catches Bond’s eye, and all the while, Russia and England are sort of turned against each other, while SPECTRE agents are constantly trying to stop Bond in his tracks. With the exception of one Donald “Red” Grant (Robert Shaw), who obviously wants Bond dead but will kill his own men just to ensure that he gets Bond to himself. And when Red gets his moment… well, more on that later.
So yes, there’s a lot going on here, but it all sticks. Dr. No was a good movie, and an iconic one, in terms of its images and its characters (or, their appearances, at least). Yet From Russia with Love takes these aspects and improves them in just about every way. In the previous film, while Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress) is unforgettable, she wasn’t much of a character, because she didn’t arrive until an hour in. Bianchi’s Romanova, on the other hand, is more of a character, and the chemistry between her and Connery sizzles. Which is interesting, because apparently Bianchi barely knew a word of English and they had to dub over her when they finished filming. Which means you have two actors who can barely understand each other on screen, and they STILL manage to make it believable and sexy? No small feat.
The villains also burn in the memory. This film technically serves as the introduction to Blofeld, but his name was to be revealed. As for that Rosa Klebb… what a horrible woman. From the second this woman enters the movie though, you know that she means serious business. She’s a scary one, to be sure, and she even has one of those shoe knives that the Joker unexpectedly kicked out in The Dark Knight. Even more menacing though is Shaw’s Red Grant. See, Joseph Wiseman’s Dr. No was barely in the movie, so when the big brawl came in the climax, it didn’t have too much of an impact. The beauty of Shaw’s character in this film though is that from the opening scene, we know that this guy wants Bond’s blood, and it’s a blood lust that lasts the entire movie until their climactic one-on-one aboard a train. This entire train sequence is an amazing piece of filmmaking. We get Grant following Bond, and because Grant is a muscular man of few terrifying words, we fear for everyone who is Team Bond, because this guy will certainly kill them. Then, once the two meet, it’s pretty admirable that for an action movie, the most memorable aspect of the climax is a conversation between Bond and Grant. The whole film builds up to this moment, and not only are Connery and Shaw brilliant, but it’s very well earned.
Truth is, I totally forgot of what happens after this scene, with the exception of the aforementioned shoe knife. Well, we get two action sequences, one by land and one by sea, that are totally gangbusters. The same can be said for the film. This is exactly what you want from a sequel- it’s bigger (I also forgot to mention that gadgets are included this time), smarter, and more thrilling. The sets are lavish, the sound design spectacular, the cinematography and the women (Connery too) are a beaut. It’s honestly also what you want from a Bond movie, let alone any movie. In terms of Connery’s Bond outings (which, dammit, I forgot to write thish review in his voish. Next time, I shuppose), everyone pretty much has a clear favorite, and it’s probably the same favorite. But I don’t know… this one is pretty great too.
James Bond, and I, will return in Goldfinger.