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Breaking Down, Joon-ho Bong’s ‘Snowpiercer’

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How Snowpiercer Builds a New Kind of Prison

South Korean filmmaker, Joon-ho Bong, has never been afraid of mixing genres.  In Snowpiercer, Bong mixes action, sci-fi and satire to create a delightfully twisted prison break story.  Snowpiercer owes much of its effectiveness to an ingenious script that uses 3 discrete acts to effortlessly shift its tone and genre.  The first act establishes the prison; delineating the rules, hierarchy, and surreal conditions.  The second act takes us through the prison; peeling away each layer of corruption with frenzied action and violence.  Finally, the third act deconstructs the prison; exposing the true face of tyranny and the rationale behind it.  It’s an audacious script that warrants deeper consideration.

The key to any good prison break movie is establishing the prison as its own character.  Whether it’s the evil warden’s twisted idea of justice or the intricate kingdoms built by the inmates, the prison must exert both a physical and a psychological hold on the prisoners.  The true genius of Snowpiercer’s script (co-written by Kelly Masterson and based on the French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige) is that it creates a prison from which no one—neither prisoner nor jailor—can escape.  The only way to “break out” is to seize control; to replace one tyrannical warden with another.  Indeed, Bong is challenging his characters (and the audience) to understand that the problem is not with the leader, but with the system itself.

Bong establishes Snowpiercer’s premise using a cleverly-edited montage of newsreel clips.  In the year 2014, an experimental compound is released into the atmosphere in a desperate attempt to reverse the effects of global warming.  The experiment is a catastrophic failure, plunging the earth into a deep Ice Age that kills every living thing.  The only human survivors reside in a colossal train that circles the planet in a continuous circuit.  A tightly-regulated social structure is instituted, with the elite class living in luxury at the front of the train, while the poor live in abject squalor in the train’s tail section.  It’s a flawless structural choice that guarantees conflict will permeate every scene.

Snowpiercer begins laying its thematic groundwork almost immediately by meshing the setting with the character motivations.  As the story opens, 17 years have passed on humanity’s makeshift ark, with brutal guards and authoritarian flunkies quelling periodic revolts from the tail section.  Now, the downtrodden have a new hope; his name is Curtis (Chris Evans) and he has an audacious plan to seize control of the train’s “Sacred Engine;” a perpetual-motion engine that keeps the train a’rollin.  “Whoever controls the engine controls the world,” Curtis explains to his second in command, Edgar (Jamie Bell).  The realization that he must become a tyrant to defeat a tyrant provides a compelling character arc for Curtis and drives home Bong’s themes regarding systemic tyranny.

These early scenes in the train’s tail section employ a decidedly surrealistic tone.  One is reminded of a Terry Gilliam creation as people scurry in and out of cubbyholes.  In fact, one of the secondary characters is even named ‘Gilliam’ (John Hurt).  Camera angles are exaggerated, as are the prisoners, some of whom are missing arms or legs and have a tenuous grasp on reality.  Elite jailors wearing garish attire appear randomly and make bizarre demands of the prisoners.  “Does anyone play the violin?” one inquires, while another carefully measures the arms and legs of children for no apparent reason.  After a prisoner foolishly attacks a guard, his arm is frozen and then smashed to pieces with a comically-large hammer.  Here, not only is Bong establishing life in the prison, he’s also dispelling the foolish notion of peaceful subjugation in the most ridiculous ways possible.

To further establish the prison, Bong sprinkles twisted versions of some prison escape tropes into the first act.  For instance, instead of tunneling their way out of the prison, Curtis and his crew tunnel their way through the prison; assembling empty oil drums into a long tunnel that wedges open the doors between train compartments.  Instead of eating prison rations tainted by bugs and grime, the prisoners dine on a ‘protein block’ made exclusively of roaches and insects.  In fact, these protein blocks are an important motif throughout the film.  Messages are covertly smuggled in the blocks, they are traded for drugs, and even used to represent train cars as Curtis’ crew plans their attack strategy.  Later, after Curtis captures the warden’s primary adjunct, Mason (an almost unrecognizable Tilda Swinton), he forces her to eat a protein block while his crew feasts on sushi delicacies.  In each instance, Bong subverts prison break conventions while still using them to build anticipation for the upcoming revolt.

With the prison now firmly established, Bong finally unleashes Curtis and his gang on the rest of the train.  The tone shifts from the surreal to the chaotically violent.  In fact, the second act begins with propulsive bloodshed.  Slow-motion combatants engage in a vulgar ballet of dismembered limbs and blood-spattered windows.   In the beginning stages of the revolt, Curtis encounters resistance from a faceless horde; hulking guards outfitted in grotesque masks and leather aprons.  Indeed, these are the train’s butchers, their battle axes dripping with the blood of a ritualistically-gutted fish… a symbol of the blood bath to follow.

And my, how the blood does flow.  The battles are intensely personal.  There is no gun play here; just hand-to-hand combat, with the grunts of society battling middle management for the right to ascend.  Yet, even in the heat of such animalistic carnage, there is an understanding that everyone in this prison is united by the common goal of survival.

Nowhere is this unification more evident than in the Yekatarina Bridge sequence.  Not only is it the film’s most sublime scene, it also cements Snowpiercer’s overarching theme.  Deep into the bloody battle between Curtis’ crew and the hulking butchers, an announcement rings out to brace for impact as the train steams toward the perilous Yekatarina Bridge.   It’s there that we see the incredible power of the Snowpiercer as it blasts through huge chunks of ice strewn across the track.  Everyone hunkers down and awaits the fate of the train.  Even more surreal is that crossing the Yekatarina Bridge marks a meaningful anniversary… that of another full year spent aboard the train.  The brutish guards joyfully proclaim, “Happy New Year!”  Even Edgar admits that, “I hate getting old!”  It’s a powerful thematic statement Bong is making; even as the inmates and guards play their little survival games, the prison is all that matters.  The players may change, but the game stays the same.

As Curtis’ rebellion progresses deeper into the heart of the train, the battles diminish.  The surrealism of the tail section and the chaos in the middle of the train now yield to a more satirical tone.  There is peace and order in this place.  None of the inmates have ever ventured this far into the prison, and it’s a new world to them… alien and strange.  The jailors are withdrawn from reality; consumed by the opulence that has so inured them to the suffering of their lesser prison mates.  Diners in a fancy restaurant car barely notice Curtis’ dirty crew as they shamble past.  Tailors painstakingly measure their clients without a care in the world.  Obese patrons luxuriate in the comfort of their personal spa.  To be elite in this part of the prison affords not only luxury, but blissful ignorance to the blood-covered fists pounding on your door.

As they near the train’s engine, only one seemingly-indestructible henchman remains to oppose Curtis’ rebellion, which now consists of but a handful of battered survivors.  The harrowing journey has exposed Curtis to the corrupting nature of the prison and he has acclimated well.  When faced with the choice of saving Edgar or moving onward to victory, Curtis doesn’t hesitate to sacrifice his star pupil.  When a gunman surprises him in a compartment full of schoolchildren, Curtis ruthlessly dispatches not only the teacher, but Minister Mason, who had granted safe passage through much of the train.  In his quest to overthrow a tyrant, Curtis has become a tyrant.  A damaged and conflicted tyrant, perhaps, but a tyrant who is now capable of seizing the Sacred Engine and using it for his own devices.  Indeed, it seems almost pre-ordained that Curtis should assume control of this prison… but by whom?

That is the question that Bong endeavors to answer in the third act.  Of course, he’s not interested specifically in Snowpiercer’s warden – we know from the beginning that the train’s creator, Wilford (Ed Harris), lives and rules from the front compartment.  Rather, Bong’s script wants to know the nature of Wilford.  More specifically, does the same fate await Curtis or can he still save his soul and liberate the prison.

It is here that Snowpiercer bears an uncanny resemblance to another ‘epic quest’ film, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.  Willard’s journey up the river, much like Curtis’ journey through the train, is galvanized by an unseen bogeyman; a figurehead worthy of both contempt and adoration.  Once confronted, this figurehead—this God incarnate—attempts to justify the tyrannical kingdom he has created.  Similar to the scenes between Willard and Col. Kurtz, the final scenes between Wilford and Curtis are dialogue heavy and, ultimately, somewhat anti-climactic.  There is simply no confrontation capable of resolving such a riveting expedition.

Bong understands this conundrum, so he wisely keeps the narrative focus on Curtis rather than adding undue emphasis to Wilford’s character.  Yes, he allows Wilford to deconstruct Snowpiercer’s traveling prison, but only to emphasize Curtis’ indecision about becoming the new warden.  As Wilford spews his self-aggrandizing theory for preserving ecological balance on the train, Curtis comes to see the futility of his own quest.  There, at last, he accepts the sad truth confronting him from the very start; the only way to escape this prison is to destroy it.  He understands that tyranny will only breed more tyrants.

It’s possible that many viewers will dislike at least some portion of Snowpiercer.  Some may lament Joon-ho Bong’s genre mixing or tonal shifts.  Indeed, a movie this diverse almost demands a divided response.  And yet, as uncompromising as the script may be, its delicate structure perfectly achieves Bong’s thematic goals.  Political implications aside, Bong makes an important statement about the nature of tyranny while still delivering a visual and visceral masterwork.  It’s exhilarating to see a filmmaker take such huge chances with his script.  In that regard, Snowpiercer provides not only a satisfying experience, but a tantalizing glimpse of what might be yet to come from Joon-ho Bong.

J.R. Kinnard

J.R. Kinnard is a film critic and aspiring screenwriter living in Seattle, Washington. He's also a chemist by trade who works in an environmental laboratory. You can find his film reviews at PopOptiqSound and Motion Magazine, and CutPrintFilm. His personal blog, Apropos of Nothing, features his thoughts on film and music. You can find him on Facebook at jrkinnard, and on Twitter @jrkinnard.

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The Living Daylights Has a lot of fun within the Bond formula

James Bond is sent to investigate a KGB policy to kill all enemy spies and uncovers an arms deal that potentially has major global ramifications.

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The Living Daylights film review

James Bond Spotlight

It wasn’t guaranteed that the Daniel Craig films would successfully reboot James Bond, in part because such a restart had already been tried before. After 1985’s A View To a Kill, in which age had begun to show on both Roger Moore as Bond and Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny, the first real reboot was attempted. Timothy Dalton – who had turned down On Her Majesty’s Secret Service because he felt that at 24 he was too young to replace Sean Connery – was brought on and a script was commissioned to return Bond to his Cold War roots. The result was The Living Daylights, which doesn’t quite work as a reboot but makes for deeply enjoyable viewing.

Too many of the old Bond conventions remained for The Living Daylights to be a true departure; the roles of M and Q were not re-cast and the same notes are hit with both of them. In the same pattern that goes as far back as Goldfinger, an action-packed cold open leads into sexytime for Bond, followed by the elaborate credits sequence. But the overall story, in which a defecting Russian general (the great Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbe) plays the British for fools and Bond must track him down through his mistress (Olivia d’Abo), is a welcome departure from Roger Moore’s cartoonish adventures in America.

The antagonistic presence of the Soviet Union gave From Russia With Love its classic urgency and it made The Spy Who Loved Me the best of the Moore films, thus it does wonders for Dalton. Although the “car into ski-car into using a cello case as snowmobile” chase scene is as silly as anything Moore did, the stakes in the Dalton film are more honest. It still does not make sense why the MI-6 would care about a drug dealer in New Orleans (as in Live and Let Die), but helping a beautiful Czech cellist defect from behind the Iron Curtain is exactly what James Bond should be doing, no matter how cartoonish his methods might be. Having reasonable goals for Bond allows audiences to tolerate much more silliness.

The Living Daylights James Bond 007 Review
Images via United Artists

But even most of the “silliness” in this film is deadly serious. The film’s best fight scene is one that could have been a throw-away, between a secondary Russian villain and a supporting British agent who’s never named, yet it carries all of the intensity of the famous fight in From Russia With Love. The big action set-piece takes place in Afghanistan, where Bond allies with the mujahideen not because he thinks theirs is a comically righteous crusade against evil (as would happen a year later in Rambo III) but because it’s the most practical way for the bad guys to get got. This is the perfect setting for Bond: one where the action sequences may occasionally get ridiculous, but the characters at least intend to live in a complicated world.

It’s interesting that, unlike almost every other Bond film before or since, there’s only one “Bond girl” in The Living Daylights. Despite the apparent monogamy, Bond’s attitude toward women did not reboot with the switch to Dalton; d’Abo is essentially a prop and proves especially useless during the Afghanistan sequence. Still, her character is not saddled with an embarrassing name and seems to have her own motivations independent of Bond’s, which is more than can be said for Tanya Roberts, Jane Seymour, or Denise Richards.

In some scenes, Dalton’s frustration with d’Abo seems to border on anger, but that’s not so bad because Dalton found the perfect note for Bond. Bond ought not to hate the audience or the female lead, but neither should he particularly care what they think of him. For Bond, there should be only allies, enemies, and the light glaze of contempt that he spreads over the remainder of the world. Connery had it and Craig has it, but George Lazenby seemed a little too happy just to be there while Moore and Pierce Brosnan had their tongues too firmly in cheek. Dalton found that perfect sweet spot of light contempt, and it’s no wonder that after The Living Daylights’ strong financial performance, Connery had a number of positive things to say about him.

Sadly, Dalton would lose the thread with the very next film, License to Kill, in which his contempt seemed to drench every line of the screenplay as well as a number of talented actors including a young Benicio del Toro. Perhaps it was Dalton’s fault, or perhaps it was simply because the Berlin Wall was falling and new world order was being shaped. Dalton’s Bond was no longer needed, but neither should he be forgotten: in the same way that Connery defined the Cold War of the 1960s for any number of moviegoers, no movie transforms the Cold War of the 1980s into a pop-culture artifact better than The Living Daylights.

– Mark Young

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight. The article is part of our James Bond Spotlight.

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Moonraker Completely Misses its Mark

James Bond investigates the mid-air theft of a space shuttle, and discovers a plot to commit global genocide.

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Moonraker review

James Bond Spotlight

Moonraker has the unique distinction of being the most absurd and over-the-top Bond film produced in 50 plus years of the series. Spy films exist in a genre unto themselves, but the Bond films sometimes like to crossover into other popular genres as well. The first clear example of this was 1973’s Live and Let Die, which mimicked the then-popular Blaxploitation genre. When Moonraker was released, however, the Bond series took this genre crossover to its extreme, resulting in a Bond film as much a science fiction saga as it is screwball comedy. Certainly one of the strangest Bond films to date, Moonraker holds a unique admiration among Bond fans and remained the highest-grossing of all the Bond films until the release of Goldeneye in 1995.

Before Moonraker came 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me which concluded with the end credit; “James Bond will return in For Your Eyes Only.” Then came the exuberant popularity (and profits) of Star Wars, also released in 1977. Star Wars’ popularity led to a barrage of memorable rip-offs from Luigi Cozzi’s Starcrash to Jimmy Murakami’s Battle Beyond the Stars. Bond producers also took note, changing their planned release schedule to push Moonraker ahead of For Your Eyes Only in order to capitalize on a then exploding interest in sci-fi epics. The third act of Moonraker is set entirely in space, complete with laser battles, keypads set to the theme of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and a 2001: A Space Odyssey-inspired rotating space station. Adding to Moonraker’s space cred was the growing fascination with a then-developed space shuttle that NASA was preparing to launch only a few years later. Producers made the choice to use the SRS Space Shuttle model in the film to play directly into a worldwide fascination in next-generation practical spaceflight.

The ambition is apparent in the visuals, but where Moonraker fails is in its execution of story. Tightly packed with all of the elements of a Bond film, without regard for their cohesion, this often overwrought story too heavily relies on bizarre moments that come across more Mel Brooks than James Bond. Moonraker is structured around the same basic Bond outline the series tends to follow; Bond visiting a number of very exotic locales in search of clues leading to whatever villainous mastermind happens to be plotting world domination. In Moonraker, that super-villain is Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), a space industrialist with plans of creating a new master race. All of the locations Bond’s investigation of Drax leads to are a bit too obvious. In their pursuit of grand set-pieces, producers seemed to overlook subtly for scale. Perhaps the worst moment in the film comes during a boat chase down the canals of Venice. Bond’s motorized gondola transforms into a terribly executed hovercraft that proceeds to drive across St. Mark’s Square in a scene derivative of bad slapstick. Campy scenes like this, as well as scenes with the return of giant henchman Jaws (Richard Kiel) instantly take viewers out of the story. A subplot in which Jaws falls in love with a short, pigtailed beauty, shedding his bad ways for good, plays just plain silly in a film that over-utilizes comedic cause where it should have focused on dramatic effect.

Moonraker James Bond 007 film review
Images: United Artists

Roger Moore isn’t known for being the best of the Bonds, and here he seems to go out of his way to prove why. Where Connery sold Bond as sexy and smooth, Moore’s performance comes across as forced and rigid.  An awkward fighting style and over-obvious one-liners don’t help his case. Moonraker also has the distinction of having perhaps the most overblown (seriously no pun was intended), straight-to-the-point names for a Bond girl in all the films; Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles).

Where Moonraker does succeed is in the exquisitely crafted set pieces by production designer Ken Adams. Adams sets, including a portable lab in a Venetian glass factory, a geometric space command center in hollowed Amazonian ruins and the space station itself, with its winding corridors of glass tubes, are all standout designs that succeed more than the films actors at creating the foreboding moods beneath the surface of the story. The greatest of all Adams designs is a conference room that folds in on itself, disappearing into the floor. Set beneath the thrusters of a space shuttle, the room is indicative of the famous war room in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, another set designed by Adams.

At its conclusion, Moonraker is only a mildly amusing entry into the Bond canon. Perhaps Moonraker’s greatest flaw is its reliance on perpetuating the characteristics of the series without setting itself apart. Moonraker is a movie produced to be visually appealing above all else. Maybe it’s because the script was rushed to come out ahead of the already planned For Your Eyes Only. Whatever the case, the double entendres Bond fans have come to love fall flat to shtick in this installment of the franchise. Moonraker completely misses its mark, catering more to a generation captivated by Star Wars than the generation that grew up with Bond since 1962. Money wins again.

-Tony Nunes

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight. The article is part of our James Bond Spotlight.

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The Man with the Golden Gun is a Curiosity Amongst Bond Fans

James Bond is targeted by the world’s most expensive assassin, while he attempts to recover sensitive solar cell technology that is being sold to the highest bidder.

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The Man With The Golden Gun James Bond review

James Bond Spotlight

One hallmark of the venerable Bond franchise is its willingness to change with the times. Sometimes the changes feel organic, like the shift to a more brutish Daniel Craig after international terrorism took center stage in the early 2000s. Other times, however, you can smell Bond’s desperation to stay relevant. Such is the case with 1974’s middling entry, The Man with the Golden Gun.

Guy Hamilton’s fourth turn as Bond director (GoldfingerDiamonds Are ForeverLive and Let Die) is a study in uncertainty. As Bond, Roger Moore is still searching for the debonair persona he would find in the upcoming classic, The Spy Who Loved Me. Surrounding Moore’s tentative performance are a collection of unfocused action set pieces, a less-than-formidable duo of Bond girls, and the most repugnant character in the series’ history. Add an ill-conceived leap onto the kung-fu bandwagon and you’ve got a recipe that would have poisoned a lesser franchise.

That’s not to say that The Man with the Golden Gun (TMWTGG) is without merit. First, the story is refreshingly simple. Bond must find and eliminate the world’s most deadly assassin, Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee), who intends to blackmail the energy-starved West with a mysterious solar energy device (an iconic MacGuffin called the “Solex agitator”). As the dapper assassin Scaramanga—who collects $1 million for every hit with his little golden gun—Lee oozes a slimy charm that is a welcome addition to the franchise. Perhaps more than any arch villain before him, Scaramanga feels like a regular man who can relate to Bond. He may have grandiose designs on environmental extortion, but he’s mainly just a thug who excels at killing people. Sound familiar?

Scaramanga is introduced by a snappy pre-title sequence, as well. With the help of his diminutive henchman, Nick Nack (Hervé Villechaize), Scaramanga lures a hapless hitman into his nightmarish funhouse full of traps. Not only is this a clever illustration of Scaramanga’s killing prowess, it foreshadows the film’s ultimate showdown with Bond. It also establishes one of the most interesting villain-henchman dynamics in the history of the franchise. “If you kill him, all this be mine!” Nick Nack implores Bond; his loyalties split between protecting his master and feeding his own ambitions. It’s an extra layer of texture we don’t normally see from Bond henchmen.

The Man with the Golden Gun review
Images: United Artists

The impressive shooting locales are spotted all over the Far East, including Thailand, Hong Kong, and Macau. Hamilton does a great job capturing the humidity and flare, keeping Bond in the streets and local establishments as often as possible. It also yields the film’s most ingenious set-piece; the wreck of the RMS Queen Elizabeth in Hong Kong harbor. The derelict ocean liner is cleverly transformed into the Far East headquarters for MI6. Another highlight is Bond’s low-altitude flight through the jagged rock formations in Hạ Long Bay. These geographical flourishes have become a staple of Bond films.

Sadly, that’s where the praise for The Man With The Golden Gun ends.

Even the normally-reliable John Barry, who penned the franchise’s most iconic themes and songs, falls prey to mediocrity. Though the title tune is undeniably catchy, Don Black’s insipid lyrics do little to help Scottish crooner, Lulu, who does her best Shirley Bassey imitation. This is definitely Barry’s weakest effort with the franchise.

It’s also the worst script penned by long-time Bond scribe, Richard Maibaum. Working from an early draft by Tom Mankiewicz and the original novel by Ian Fleming, Maibaum pruned most of the gamesmanship between Bond and Scaramanga. Instead of a battle between equals, Scaramanga feels more like a jealous half-brother with an axe to grind. It’s a missed opportunity for Bond to match wits and marksmanship with a superior adversary.

More glaring is Hamilton’s listless approach to the action sequences, including his continued obsession with excruciating car chases. Bond pursues Scaramanga through the streets of Bangkok before reaching a bifurcated bridge. In the film’s most iconic stunt, Bond executes a perfect corkscrew jump to traverse the broken and twisted bridge (bafflingly accompanied by the sound of a slide whistle). Making the chase even more intolerable is a curtain call from the racist Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James). As if Pepper wasn’t loathsome enough in Live and Let Die, he turns up to insult Asian citizens in their own country. Truly, this reprehensible character is emblematic of a time most Americans would rather forget.

Man With the Golden Gun review
Image: United Artists

Despite looking stellar in a bikini, Britt Ekland’s turn as Agent Goodnight is thoroughly forgettable. She’s completely useless as a field agent and barely registers a blip on the charisma radar. Her low point arrives in the final act when she accidentally activates a death ray with her ass. Faring even worse is Maud Adams as Scaramanga’s mistress, Andrea Anders. Bullied and subjugated by Scaramanga, Anders comes crawling to Bond, who promptly slaps and manhandles her. Anders looks less like a damsel in distress than a helpless victim of domestic abuse. Surely, Roger Moore must look back on this scene—obviously devised to toughen his image—with embarrassment and regret.

And let us not even discuss Bond’s brief detention at a kung-fu school. That he is rescued by two teenage girls is an unmitigated disgrace masquerading as a punchline.

What makes The Man with the Golden Gun particularly frustrating, especially when compared to similar missteps like A View to A Kill or Die Another Day, is how little fun everyone seems to be having. The humor isn’t zany enough to inject any camp, and the story (particularly Scaramanga’s reduced role) is too thin to be taken seriously. It’s stuck in the middle of what Bond used to be with Connery, and would eventually become with Moore. That it survived this transition is a credit to Moore’s natural charm and producer Cubby Broccoli’s determination. In that way, The Man with the Golden Gun is a curiosity amongst Bond fans; it’s hard to muster either enthusiasm or disdain for it. Perhaps, in the grander scheme, it’s the movie Moore had to make before he truly became James Bond.

J.R. Kinnard

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight. The article is part of our James Bond Spotlight.

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