“Once more unto the breach, dear friends.”
Well, this is my first review in this blog’s series of James Bond reviews and what a great, if somewhat underrated film to start on. From Russia With Love is loved by James Bond fans; it’s a true cold war spy thriller, but among casual viewers it might get lost between the explosive series opener Dr No and the classic template Bond film Goldfinger. I admit, it wasn’t one of my favourites when I was watching the films back on VHS. It just didn’t grip me as a child, nowhere near as much as the awesome Goldfinger did. This was a mistake on my part, as FRWL is a great, hugely entertaining, but also beautifully shot spy adventure.
The hallmarks of Bond are really put together in FRWL, (later perfected in Goldfinger). Q appears, played by the late, great Desmond Llewelyn, who supplies Bond with classic gadgets such as his exploding talcum powder/tear gas. FRWL is also John Barry’s first Bond film and he brings perhaps the greatest Bond theme with him. The film also contains one of my favourite villains; Red Grant, played by the brilliant Robert Shaw. While Shaw was amazing in one of my other favourite films; Jaws, I think this is my favourite role of his. He fills the part with such menace and evil that you can help but be intimidated along with Bond. Grant works for SPECTRE and FRWL carries along the plot line from Dr No concerning the evil group SPECTRE, and part of their motivation for going after Bond is because of him killing Dr Julius No. I like this connecting of the films and I wish it was in more of them. It helps build this awesome world that I believe could have been even more fleshed out.
Again, like Dr No, the plot hasn’t aged particularly well. FRWL was made just before the height of the cold war and the ‘allies vs the Reds’ theme can be seen throughout. But for me this adds to the appeal; a film made at the height of the cold war has a much more interesting atmosphere than a film made now, set in the cold war does (X-Men First Class for example). The film is also a bit sexist but I think the Bond girl, Tatiana Romanova (played by Daniela Bianchi) is one of the stronger early Bond girls. Yes, she gets used by people left, right and centre, by her Russian bosses, MI6, Bond himself, and she is also in the dark about most plot points, but she come across a lot better than other Bond girls such as Goodnight or Tiffany Case. A special mention has go out to the superb Pedro Armendáriz as Bond’s ally Kerim Bey. The man was suffering from cancer, caused on the radioactive set of the terrible John Wayne movie The Conqueror, throughout the shooting (and later killed himself) and he still manages to turn in a brilliant, funny, memorable performance.
If the film is lacking something, it would be the more suave, cool Bond moments. He doesn’t have that many one-liners (but when he does they’re good ones) and he doesn’t have the classic ‘Bond, James Bond’ introduction. None of this really matters though, and the film compensates with some outstanding action sequences, such as the kick ass Bond vs Red Grant train fight, one of my favourite moments in any Bond film. Or the great helicopter and boat scenes toward the end.
The Bottom Line: This is classic Bond, but in a different way to Dr No. It is more gritty and a product of it’s unique time. It’s not just focused on great set-pieces and action sequences, it’s also focuses on weaving a truly great spy tale. This is not only a brilliant Bond film, it’s also an example of when a Bond film is just a brilliant film.
Up next – Goldfinger