Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger needs a cigarette.
Our reviews of Dr. No (published May 4th, 2000), Dr. No (Blu-Ray) (published November 3rd, 2008), Moonraker (published May 15th, 2000), Octopussy (published October 27th, 2000), Tomorrow Never Dies: Special Edition (published June 16th, 1999), and You Only Live Twice (published October 2nd, 2002) are also available.
NOW meet the most extraordinary gentleman spy in all fiction!…JAMES BOND, Agent 007!
James Bond multimedia is as old as the franchise. There have always been the books, then the movies and Playboy short stories. There have been Tarot cards, posters, TV featurettes, martini sets…you name it, it was probably done. And now we have the James Bond Ultimate Edition, which is the final word on James Bond in standard definition DVD. With frame-by-frame remasters of each transfer, new DTS tracks, new features, and old features "declassified," the James Bond Ultimate Edition plants a bold stake as the definitive set to own.
The question on every Bond fan's mind is this: are the new features, new DTS mixes, and new restorations worth plunking down hundreds more dollars on this venerable franchise?
Facts of the Case
James Bond travels to exotic locations, beds lots of beautiful women, and blows lots of stuff up. He confronts five evil masterminds and foils five plots for world domination. Along the way, he makes friends, plays cards, goes into outer space, gets served sheep eyes on a platter, and generally acts like a wisecracking badass.
There comes a time in ever reviewer's life when he must drop all pretense of objectivity, cradle the DVDs jealously in his hands, and cackle madly with insane glee. That time has come for me, and if you have to suffer through it that's cool. It isn't just that the James Bond Ultimate Edition has come out on DVD, but that I finally get to say my peace on the Bond films, without argument, in front of a semi-captive audience. (Herr Stamper, you did remember to disable their back buttons, didn't you?) See, James Bond is why I became a reviewer in the first place. I noticed that DVD Verdict had reviewed every extant Bond film except for You Only Live Twice. That became my first review for the site; four years and four hundred reviews later, I get a chance to revisit it.
Enough about me…what have we here? This review will take a detailed look at the technical restorations of each film. This will be followed by a review of each film and its new supplemental features (the previous special features have been reviewed under the links in the sidebar.) If you don't care about film restoration or sound quality, best skip down to the individual reviews below.
The first thing you'll notice about Volume Four of the James Bond Ultimate Edition is its sleek, sexy, foil-stamped exterior. I can take or leave foil-stamped cardboard sleeves, but this one feels nice and looks better. The sleeve contains five double-disc thinpak cases with cover art that roughly matches the previous Special Edition releases for each film.
To get a sense for the visual and audio baseline, I popped in the 2002 release of the Dr. No special edition. I'd forgotten how annoying it is to have to "activate my navigation system," a challenge typically met by fumbling around with the buttons until something makes the main menu show up. The DVD menus for the Special Editions are great, by the way. Anywho, Dr. No's gun barrel sequence and funky colored dots kicked things off. Right away the gun barrel sequence presents a healthy scattering of dust, scratches, and grain. At the time these Special Edition transfers were favorably regarded, but they were by no means free of problems. Dr. No jitters in the frame, and though the contrast and detail are good for the time, they are still somewhat murky. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track (an impurity, because Dr. No was originally heard in glorious mono) was full and rich.
As giddy as the proverbial boys with toys, I turned to this spiffy new transfer of Dr. No. Steeled for disappointment, I popped in the disc (hey, no navigation activation required!) and went straight for the classic gun barrel sequence.
It looks fantastic. The grain is still there. You can tell it came from a film at some point. But the jitter, the graininess, the dust and specks and scratches are gone. I mean really gone. All that is left is a rock stable, water clear image. This stability is almost disconcerting in its confidence and serenity. Don't get me wrong, flaws are still there, such as the warbling ring at the end of the gun barrel. This is an artifact of the special effect itself. As for the clarity…If you know where a speck used to be and look at that spot, you can intuitively tell that a computer extrapolated the image details that were put back in. The transfer has a ghostly whisper of having been tampered with, like spectres of dead dust bunnies trampling over their graves. But this is completely consumed in the overwhelming experience of seeing Dr. No anew. Other fanatical cleanup attempts have taken the souls out of films, making them plasticine and overprocessed. This transfer strikes the balance I would choose if I were at the helm. It is neither too processed nor too hands-off, but just right.
After the gun barrel sequence come the funky polka dots, which present another wonderful surprise. The 2002 edition had rather teal, yellowish, spots. Those have now somehow become brilliant jewel tones. Not like the oversaturated hues that made Star Wars thermonuclear; these have a rightness about them that suggest the true colors have been put back in. This feeling is borne out in the actual footage of Jamaica. People look healthy, while flora and sky seem lush and natural.
Seeing these two transfers back-to-back leaves no doubt in my mind: the Ultimate Edition is superior. The difference is not even subtle; it is stark. Even the DTS mix is sharper and louder than the Dolby 5.1 mix, though I'm a fan of the mono track. But Dr. No is not the most challenging restoration in the set…what happens with the '70s era Moonraker?
The 2002 release of Moonraker had an anemic 5.1 surround mix, which suffered particularly during dialogue. Its dingy, yellowish transfer and poor contrast was supplemented by more dirt and dust than was present in most of the other Special Editions. Moonraker had great sets and better locations going for it, but time has not been kind to the film stock.
The Ultimate Edition is an improvement over the older release, but the difference is not as striking. The new DTS track is brighter, punchier, and more dynamic than the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, but even it cannot mask the flaws inherent in the audio. The dialogue is simply washed out in many scenes. The same is true of the video restoration, which cannot save the scenes that suffer from poor contrast. The shadow detail has definitely been improved and the color balance has been shifted bluish-white; this tandem improves contrast in some of the darker scenes and gives the footage a new look. There is definite, though often subtle, improvement in detail. Much of the dust and grain has been removed. It isn't that the restoration is lacking, it's that Moonraker doesn't give Lowry Digital as much to work with as did Dr. No.
Skipping to the most recent film in the set, how does the newish Tomorrow
Never Dies stand up? The difference is less clear. The transfer on the
previous release is pretty darn good. There are infinitesimal bouts of twitter
along high-contrast diagonal lines. Otherwise, the transfer is outstanding in
terms of detail, contrast, and color definition. This Ultimate Edition transfer
also looks great. The twitter is gone. Beyond that, I get the impression that
the new transfer has been handled similarly to the others in that a
frame-by-frame, massive-resolution scan has been done on the source. The
difference is hard to definitively pin down because both the old and new
transfers are rendered in standard definition, but I'd say there is a slight
increase in detail. Yet I also noticed some oddities in the color balance. A
periodic red push makes Pierce Brosnan's face seem overly flushed, but in the
next cut this effect is gone. It keeps coming back throughout the arms bazaar
sequence, making him seem out of breath one moment and fine the next. Perhaps
the new transfer is picking up very subtle shifts in light, or maybe there is a
non-consistent color balance shift. It's hard to say for sure, but it doesn't
matter much; both the old and new transfers are very high quality. I did notice
one large stutter in the film during a closeup on Brosnan, like the old days
when they'd plunk a layer change down anywhere the space ran out, whether or not
it was a good place to hide a layer change.
Yet You Only Live Twice benefits even more from sonic improvements. Nancy Sinatra's theme song sounds reedy and flat in the Special Edition. In fact, I've always found the song dull, even lifeless. The Ultimate Edition boosts the clarity of the audio and gives it more dynamic range. The result is a livelier, more impressive theme song that has nuance I've never heard before. The older release also suffered from a faint, rhythmic muffling in the soundtrack with a steady dose of sub-harmonic gaps in the sound. This track (the native mono track) is full, stable, and lacks this distortion.
Finally, let's peek at a little Octopussy. Perhaps the four years between it and Moonraker were enough to breeze past the infamous 1970s yellowing film stock, or maybe the Octopussy negative was just in better shape, but the transfer looks much better. Where Moonraker was dingy and lacked contrast, Octopussy is rendered in brilliant jewel tones with plenty of contrast. Even in the new transfer, saturated reds, ultramarines, and yellows threaten to weep into each other. But the detail is sharp with some minor bouts of softness here and there.
The bottom line is that Dr. No and You Only Live Twice benefit from dramatic visual improvement; Moonraker and Octopussy are definitely—but less dramatically—improved; and Tomorrow Never Dies is the same or arguably worse because of color balance games. The DTS tracks are welcome additions to the arsenal in each case, though the upgraded surround mix only purely applies to Tomorrow Never Dies, which already had a native, effective surround mix.
Then there's the final consideration: the Fox angle means that these new Lowry Digital restorations were undoubtedly contracted for with BluRay in mind. If the Standard Definition transfers show such marked improvement, it means that the High Definition treatment will blow this Ultimate Edition away. If you are a few years away from owning a BluRay player and you want the best image quality, this is the set to own. If you have the Special Editions and can hold out for the inevitable High Definition releases, you have to ask yourself how patient you are.
That does it for the technical discussion. The heart of this set is, of course, the movies and bonus features. I rarely pimp the DVD Verdict Jury Room forum, but this is a special occasion. Dimitris Kiminas of Athens popped into the Jury Room to request a review of the James Bond Ultimate Edition sets. To help things along, he compiled an incredible breakdown of the special features. In fact, I used his list to describe the special features listed for each film in the sidebar. If you want a straightforward look at the list, visit the link way down there at the bottom of the sidebar. Thanks, Dimitris; it was a big help. Now without further ado, lets move on to the movies.
But her spirited challenge could not mask a palpable lust. When Bond opened the door to his flat, on one knee with gun in hand, what did he find? Sylvia Trench putting golf, wearing nothing but his dress shirt. With the residue of the casino still on her—the cigarette smoke, the ruby red lipstick, the pheromones of sexual attraction and the buzz of the game—Sylvia Trench presents as enticing a package as any in the franchise. To this day I have a thing for women clad in nothing but dress shirts. Is it an archetypal fantasy, or did Sylvia Trench forge it?
In any case, I'd say they got the Bond Girl thing right from the word
"go." When James Bond cruelly uses Miss Taro later for information and
sex, it is a darker—but no less potent—male fantasy. It stirs me in
a way I'm not comfortable admitting when Bond casually forces his way into Miss
Taro's pants, sneaking a peek at his watch behind her back. Honeychile Ryder
combines these two with just the right mixture of innocence and challenge.
Dr. No deviates from the novel in several key ways. For example Professor Dent is not shot in cold blood. This scene outraged Bond purists at the time, and the scene is questionable to this day (not only for its blatant misjudgment of the gun, which actually had eight bullets.) The decision to show James Bond killing in cold blood was a way to visually reinforce what was on the line and what he was capable of. Yet it is a sharp contrast to Fleming's Bond, who loathed killing non-professionals. We also have no way to understand the rationale behind some of the scenes; Bond has a lengthy internal dialogue during his "escape" in the air vents that explains how Dr. No is trying to test Bond's endurance. In the movie, we aren't privy to Bond's mental toughness, the way he reframes the torturous pain as minor second-degree burns. Even so, Dr. No gets most of its power from its faithful adaptation of Fleming, who was casually racist, casually womanizing, and concerned with worldly things of all sorts.
Dr. No's most enduring legacy is its lack of gadgetry or flash over substance. Bond uses his wits, physical presence, and curiosity as weapons. Reeds and towels pack more punch in Dr. No than would the laser beams from outer space in latter films. It is retro in the best way, and pure in a way that no other Bond film would ever be again.
New Special Features
On the other hand, the trailer that plays if you forget to pull up the main menu is anything but moving. This gee-whiz promotion of the Ultimate Edition restorations boldly exclaims that the Ultimate Editions are the pinnacle of DVD video quality. Why, then, is this "Ultimate" footage shown non-anamorphically in letterboxed format? Hello, 1997.
• "The Guns of James Bond"
• "Exotic Locations"
You Only Live Twice
Don't get me wrong. I've watched You Only Live Twice at least a dozen times, and it has its moments. The rooftop chase, ninja training sequence, and final battle between the ninja commandos and Blofeld's army are neat-o. Akiko Wakabayashi, Mie Hama, and Karin Dor are pleasant ways to pass the time.
The problem with You Only Live Twice is how eagerly it strives to up the ante at the expense of plot. I'm as impressed as the next guy with the massive volcano set and the spacecraft-swallowing spacecraft. I applaud when Bond takes Little Nellie out of her suitcases and dutifully blows up one helicopter per weapon. But I'm more impressed when Bond gets himself into a real mess and has to use his wits and/or male equipment to get himself out of it. I like the death-tinged innuendo that permeates the books and the character. I like strong villains, terse chases, failure, and victory. You Only Live Twice offers instead a trapdoor sidewalk, scads of objectified women, and zany action sequences. There is no unifying thrust, no gravity, and no meaningful characterization.
You Only Live Twice did provide for the longevity of the franchise. But its real legacy is complete freedom from Fleming's source novels. The writers and directors no longer had any constraints, but carte blanche to do anything as long as it included gadgets, hot women, and explosions. These things are at the heart of the Bond franchise, and real reasons for its endurance and popularity. However, Bond is its heart, and Fleming is the final authority on Bond. On Her Majesty's Secret Service was a welcome course correction. Afterward, it wouldn't be until Dalton came to the scene that anyone made a real effort to reflect Fleming's Bond on the screen.
We got instead several recycled plots where modified vessels capture other vessels in order to cause a war for personal gain. This idea was mildly amusing in You Only Live Twice, tired in The Spy Who Loved Me, and self parody by the time Tomorrow Never Dies rolled around. And people rag Kevin McClory for wanting to remake Thunderball?
New Special Features
• "Whicker's World"
• "Exotic Locations"
Moonraker's ponderous and somnolent plot is accentuated by some of the dumbest sight gags in the history of cinema. Yes, that pigeon does a double take, and it's even stupider than it sounds. Yes, Jaws flaps his arms like a bird to break his free fall. All this and more is inflicted on us by this wretchedly paced film.
At least the wooden acting, tepid villain, forgettable henchmen (or in the case of Jaws, unforgettable), and pompous evil plan fit in well.
So is Moonraker a wash? Not if you adore Corinne Clery as I do. Despite her studiously haughty air and underplayed chemistry with Moore, Lois Chiles is extremely attractive. (Wish fulfillment alert: watch Bliss.) Moonraker also boasts some impressive action scenes, notably a tense fight scene at a glass manufacturing plant in Venice. The image of a man being thrown through a spectacular round stained glass window is shocking. Bond's showdown with Jaws atop a cable car is also impressive.
Women and action are mainstays of the series, but Moonraker has something else going for it. Though its vibe of fantastic splendor goes too far, it often hits a sweet spot. Jaws pursuing a lovely Bond Girl through the streets of Rio is but one example of the surreal mood that sets Moonraker apart. Barry's score is a major reason for the successful vibe. It isn't enough to launch Moonraker into the stratosphere, but such touches keep it out of the cellar.
New Special Features
• "Ken Adam's Production Films"
• "Sky Diving Test Footage"
• "Bond 79"
• "007 In Rio"
• "Exotic Locations"
The snub of choice is to make a snide comment involving the words "Roger Moore," "finally," and "clown makeup." Yes, Octopussy is the circus movie. It has clowns, sword swallowers, and carnies of every description. Moore even wears a gorilla suit. They couldn't have been more obvious with the sense of fun. Yet at the same time, the darkness and seediness of the circus are brilliantly exploited. The sequence where 009 flees knife-wielding brothers while dressed as a clown is thrilling precisely because of this juxtaposition. A balloon pops and betrays his location. With a knife in his back, 009 drags himself to the British Embassy, falls through the glass door, and drops a Faberge egg on the carpet. A balloon wafts ironically from his dead arm.
This image takes full advantage of the double-edged emotions associated with clowns and street performers: funny but disturbing. When 007 is later dressed as a clown and desperately trying to prevent an atomic catastrophe, the bookend is heightened dramatically because we've already seen one 00 clown killed. In fact, Octopussy is one of the few Bond films that actually have any tension in the finale. Most of them are predictable formula exercises: capture, escape, save the girl, kill the villain, blow up the stainless steel compound, then bed the girl while making a witty quip. Octopussy throws off that yoke in favor of a complex story of betrayal.
Kamal Khan is memorable precisely because he is not an impossibly skilled megalomaniac hell-bent on world domination. He is a conceited, flawed exile who wants to make a quick buck. His attempts to contain Bond are tragic in their ineptitude. His bumbling and early embarrassment make Khan's later retribution more bitter. The escalation of conflict between Khan and Bond is classic, and one of the best emotional entanglements in the series.
I must also spare some words for Kristina Wayborn and Maud Adams, who are two of the strongest Bond Girls in the series. Neither forces her independence as do the women in Goldeneye, nor are they placid. Wayborn is an Olympic athlete from Sweden rather than a studio-raised actress. This gives her a diffident air that works well. Adams is a perfect fit for the Bond series: beautiful, sensual, and spirited.
Though it is easy to condemn the gags in Octopussy, in truth it is a very funny film. "Here…you might need this to play with your asp," Bond says as he hands Vijay a large flute. Moore is at his lightest, most fun self in this movie. I'm not overly fond of the "jokey" Bond movies, but this is the pinnacle of that genre.
So Octopussy is funny, has a non-standard plot arc, memorable women, and memorable villains. Its threat of atomic annihilation is more tense and real than any of the fantastic "stainless steel compound" threats in other films. And its smuggling circus angle gives it a classic juxtaposition of thematic elements. But that's not the main reason I love Octopussy. I love it for the action. From its thrilling opening with the mini-jet to the extended fight scene atop the train, Octopussy is rife with strong action scenes. There's even a plane-top fight scene! Action is what James Bond does best, and nobody does it better than this.
New Special Features
• Audio Commentary with Roger Moore
• "James Bond In India"
• James Brolin footage
• "Ken Burns On Set Movies"
• "Location Scouting With Peter Lamont"
• "Shooting Stunts" Parts 1 and 2
• "Testing The Limits-The Aerial Team"
• "Exotic Locations"
• Photo Gallery
Tomorrow Never Dies
It is criminally easy to list the shortcomings in Tomorrow Never Dies, from the bloated histrionics of Jonathan Pryce, Ricky Jay, and Götz Otto to gems like this from Teri Hatcher's doomed Paris Carver: "This job of yours…[dramatic head toss] it's murder on relationships." At least the overwritten script is a good match for the most inane cadre of villains this side of Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd.
Yet all is not lost. For starters, Tomorrow Never Dies opens with one of the most thrilling pre-credits sequences in the series. Bond single-handedly takes out a terrorist bazaar in an orgy of bullets, hand-to-hand combat, and explosions. Humorous touches (like Bond driving a fighter jet with his knees) link Tomorrow Never Dies to the franchise's tongue-in-cheek past without crossing the line of stupidity. Other action interludes (including the escape from Carver's secret lab and the parking-deck chase) are stellar as well. The helicopter chase is over-the-top; would a non-suicidal pilot really tilt the helicopter forward and use its blades as a weapon? But even this implausible sequence gets the blood pumping.
Moving on to the women, James Bond's stud reputation remains intact. His "little Danish" is red hot. Teri Hatcher is alternately perfect and tone-deaf as the jaded socialite from Bond's past. The show is nearly stolen by Michelle Yeoh, who gracefully achieves a long-term goal of the producers: to give Bond a female equal without raising an army of Political Correctness red flags. Granted, I cringe when Agent Lin utters a dramatic kiai before shooting a bank of computers; you really have to pump yourself up for that—no telling when the computers will fight back. Otherwise, she and Bond have an easy chemistry that works throughout this film.
The window dressing that goes along with every Bond film is pretty appealing in Tomorrow Never Dies. Joe Don Baker is in the film, but his scenes are mercifully brief. On the plus side, the credits sequence is a worthy sequel to Maurice Binder's fantastic work over the years. There's also a great theme song by K.D. Lang, which somehow got relegated to the closing credits.
Two scenes make the movie. The first is a subtle apology for the foray into political correctness that characterized the Dalton era (well, maybe era is a little generous.) While Bond waits for Carver's representative to show up, he puts the silencer on his gun and loads up with a bottle of vodka. This scene is a reference to a similar scene in Dr. No, a welcome parallelism that links Brosnan's Bond to the ones that came before. A second scene establishes a similar link to From Russia With Love. In that film, Bond gets out of a jam by displaying just the right hint of eagerness when reaching for his briefcase. Red Grant opens it instead and gets a face full of knockout gas. In Tomorrow Never Dies, the wonderful Dr. Kaufman (Vincent Schiavelli) sets a neat trap for James. For the first time in years, Bond seems to be in real mortal peril. He is saved by the same subterfuge that worked on Red Grant all those years ago.
It has gaudy, ineffective bad guys and its fair share of cheese, but Tomorrow Never Dies is peppered with great James Bond moments. Brosnan carries the character with ease and gives us some of the best action sequences in the series. It is too bad that his films were tethered by bad writing and conservative plots.
New Special Features
• "The James Bond Theme (Moby's Re-Version)" Music
• Deleted and Extended Scenes
• Expanded Angles
• Photo Gallery
The Rebuttal Witnesses
James Bond Ultimate Edition (Vol. 4) is not without faults. I won't bore you with an obsessive breakdown, but video flaws still exist. Sean Connery's head skips a beat or two at a couple of points in Dr. No. There is some artificially induced twitter around people in Moonraker, probably a result of extensive digital cleanup of bad grain and/or dirt. There are the aforementioned blue-white shift in Moonraker and pink push in Tomorrow Never Dies. Even Tomorrow Never Dies has a major stutter. In other words, these restorations are not perfect. But they are 99.9% likely to be the best standard definition transfer you'll ever see of these films, collectively.
Some say that the Casino Royale reboot has rendered the previous Bond films moot. I'll admit that my own Special Edition DVDs have been gathering dust for years, and I haven't felt any compulsion to watch them. I'm glad this Ultimate Edition came by when it did; these James Bond stories were like old friends reminiscing about good times. Just because Casino Royale finally wrested the Bond franchise back to its source doesn't invalidate the decades worth of outstanding action, humor, and beautiful women that 007 has introduced to us.
Is Volume Four of the James Bond Ultimate Edition worth buying? Many of these new extra features were lame. But several of them were pure joy. The visuals and sound quality have definitely been improved. You'll also gain a little shelf space. I loathe double dips, but this is a clearly improved boxed set over the original releases. If you aren't hopping on the BluRay bandwagon, this is the set to own.
And they say communists don't know how to have fun.
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What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, Dr. No
Perp Profile, Dr. No
Distinguishing Marks, Dr. No
• Audio Commentary-Terence Young (Director) et al - Hosted by John Clark
Scales of Justice, You Only Live Twice
Perp Profile, You Only Live Twice
Distinguishing Marks, You Only Live Twice
• Audio Commentary-Lewis Gilbert (Director) et al - Hosted by John Cork
Scales of Justice, Moonraker
Perp Profile, Moonraker
Distinguishing Marks, Moonraker
• Audio Commentary-Lewis Gilbert (Director), Michael G Wilson (Producer), William P Cartlidge (Associate Producer) and Christopher Wood (Screenwriter)
Scales of Justice, Octopussy
Perp Profile, Octopussy
Distinguishing Marks, Octopussy
• Audio Commentary-John Glen (Director)
Scales of Justice, Tomorrow Never Dies
Perp Profile, Tomorrow Never Dies
Distinguishing Marks, Tomorrow Never Dies
• Audio Commentary-Vic Armstrong (2nd Unit Director) and Michael Wilson (Producer)
• IMDb: Dr. No
Review content copyright © 2007 Rob Lineberger; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.