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Blu-ray Review: James Bond on Blu-ray

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Oct. 21 marks the release of the first six James Bond films to come to Blu-ray (other than Casino Royale.) The selection of the films is rather random, but considering the fact that all the Bond films will come to Blu-ray sooner or later, it’s as good a place to start as any.

Ultimate Edition DVDs of all the Bond films were released a couple of years ago, and the special features from those DVDs have simply been carried over to their Blu-ray counterparts. As far as I can tell, there are no new features. True Bond fans will no doubt want to make the format upgrade, but it really will depend on how deep your love for 007 runs to determine whether or not any or all of the Blu-ray releases are for you.

The first two Bond films to be produced, Dr. No and From Russia With Love are no-brainers to get the early Blu-ray treatment – they’re widely considered to be among the best Bond films and it just makes sense to release the films chronologically, but for reasons unknown to me, the other four films to be released are: Thunderball, Live and Let Die, For Your Eyes Only and Die Another Day. Here’s a closer look at each.

Thunderball (1965)

The Film:

The fourth Bond film, Thunderball really ramps up the campiness that seems to plague the series from time to time. There’s the unintentionally hilarious jetpack scene at the beginning of the film, the ridiculously large maps MI-6 feels compelled to use and the Tom Jones theme song that defines cheesiness. Does anyone actually know what “strikes like thunderball” means?

Still, the film has its moments. Already with three films under his belt, Sean Connery is in his prime as Bond – both suave and droll. There are extensive underwater battle scenes that admittedly tax the viewer’s patience, but you have to admire the creativity. A few more cuts, and these scenes would have been the most entertaining portion of the film. Plus, Claudine Auger has to be considered one of the quintessential Bond girls as Domino.

Thunderball falls somewhere in the middle among all Bond films – it’s one of the weaker Connery-era ones, but not a total disaster.

The Blu-ray Disc:

I can’t for the life of me figure out why Goldfinger was skipped over for Thunderball on these initial Blu-ray releases. It’s a much better film, certainly more iconic and produced before Thunderball.

Anyway, the picture on Thunderball is nothing astounding – there are no game-changing elements that would set it apart from the Ultimate DVD remastered picture. But compared with the original print, either the new DVD or the Blu-ray is a radical difference. Nearly all traces of grain have been removed, and colors and flesh tones remain true. But for someone who owns the Ultimate DVD, the Blu-ray is not significant enough of an improvement to warrant an upgrade – and that goes for every one of these films.

The DTS lossless audio sounds great most of the time, but does have an annoying problem in that the dialogue track is much quieter than any other track. Consequently, I was frequently turning the volume up in order to hear the dialogue and then back down so I didn’t hurt my eardrums when the Bond theme would kick in.

Special Features:

As mentioned earlier, there are no new special features on any of these discs. Most of the material on here is strictly diehard-only as you have to wade through plenty of grainy video to watch the ‘60s-produced documentaries. The Incredible World of James Bond TV special originally produced for NBC in 1965 is definitely the highlight here for viewers willing to put in the time.

Live and Let Die (1973)

The Film:

Live and Let Die gets a bad rap for its blaxploitation style and the heavy emphasis on the voodoo elements of the story. It also probably has one of the worst deaths for the main villain ever in a Bond movie, but I rather enjoy Roger Moore’s first outing as Bond.

The film’s best sequence comes in Louisiana Bayou country with a spectacularly entertaining boat chase. The appearance of Clifton James as the hick Sheriff Pepper trying to apprehend the bad guys is over-the-top and yet manages to be funny through its ridiculousness.

In the later films, Moore wasn’t always the best Bond, but he was definitely a great casting choice initially. He looks and acts the part perfectly. Jane Seymour doesn’t leave a huge impression in one of her first film roles, but she’s adequate enough. Plus, the theme song by Paul McCartney & Wings has to be one of the best Bond songs ever. It all adds up to an underrated Bond adventure.

The Blu-ray Disc:

Similarly to Thunderball, Live and Let Die doesn’t display any remarkable picture characteristics that set it apart from the DVD release. It is a darker film, both thematically and visually, and the blacks look deep and rich, but this picture isn’t going to blow anyone away.

Unfortunately, the sound mix has a similar problem to the Thunderball disc. It’s too bad there is such disparity between sound mixes, as the soft dialogue will either force you to keep your finger on the volume control or employ subtitles – neither an ideal situation.

Special Features:

There is nothing remarkable on the special features front, although it is interesting to hear different people talk about the casting of Roger Moore on several of the featurettes. The highlight is a short segment from the ‘60s British TV show Mainly Millicent in which Moore plays James Bond in what is apparently meant to be kind of a parody on the character.

For Your Eyes Only (1981)

The Film:

The ‘80s were not kind to James Bond. For Your Eyes Only appears terribly dated today, much more so than the films from the ‘60s and ‘70s. The abundance of cheesy sound effects are nearly suffocating and it’s hard not to feel like you’re playing a bad video game much of the time your watching the movie. Add the typical ‘80s ballad by Sheena Easton as the theme song, and it’s an effective reminder of the cultural wasteland that was much of that decade.

Aside from these contextual problems, For Your Eyes Only is not a bad Bond film. Julian Glover plays a great villain and it’s fun to see Bond get a sort of sidekick (who’s not female) in Columbo. Much of the plot of the film was a reaction to the outlandish Moonraker, and was an attempt to make the material more serious. As long as you put that in the context of the believability of most Bond films, it succeeds. The story is solid, and the portion of the film at the ski village in beautiful Cortina, Italy is magnificent.

Carole Bouquet is a forgettable Bond girl, and Moore is really starting to show his age, but For Your Eyes Only is still fun despite how dated it is.

The Blu-ray Disc:

The more recent the film’s release, the better the picture quality gets as For Your Eyes Only has a noticeably sharper picture than the earlier films. This is the first out of the series to really look like it’s presented in high definition, with a very clean transfer and colors that seem to pop out of the screen from time to time. The scenes filmed against the white backdrop of snow look especially great.

Also a plus, the annoying sound mix problem is significantly better here, though there are moments where the sound effects still seem to overwhelm the dialogue. That may be speak more to the obnoxiousness of the sound effects than the quality of the DTS mix however.

Special Features:

Unlike the other two discs, this one contains several deleted and expanded scenes that are mostly superfluous. The disc does contain two on-location featurettes specifically focusing on the locations – Greece and Cortina – that are quite interesting and definitely the highlight. For those that like to revel in the ‘80s, there’s a Sheena Easton music video that defies good taste.

Die Another Day (2002)

The Film:

I’ve never been much of a fan of the Pierce Brosnan Bond films, and it’s certainly not Brosnan’s fault. Even in his last turn as Bond here, he displays an admirable commitment to the character. The film itself is a little more hit or miss.

The beginning is excellent, with its hovercraft chase scenes and Bond ending up in a North Korean prison – it’s grittier than most Bond films, and it’s a nice change of pace to see Bond more disheveled than he’s ever been. Unfortunately, the rest of the story doesn’t match the excitement level of the beginning. Bond’s journeys to Cuba and Iceland seem more perfunctory than anything else, and Halle Berry gives a truly uninspired performance as Jinx.

The climax, which takes place in a burning airplane hurtling towards Earth, finally picks up the pace that was sucked out during the boring ice castle sequence, but it’s too little too late to make Die Another Day that memorable.

The Blu-ray Disc:

Honestly, for a film as recent as this one, I expected better from the Blu-ray transfer. Like the movie, the quality is variable depending on the scene. The colors and blacks usually look great, but the clarity wavers, and there is far too much noticeable grain in many shots near the end of the film.

Sound-wise, the disc delivers as the DTS mix sounds superb with the right balance finally being found among all the tracks.

Special Features:

The features are pretty typical fare by today’s standards – a couple of featurettes, a couple of commentary tracks and some still images. The highlight for me is a trivia track that plays with the movie, displaying facts on the screen. Some people will find this obnoxiously obtrusive I’m sure, but I prefer it to an audio commentary if I’m not that interested in a film.

The Bottom Line:

Right now, no one’s in a rush to convert their DVD collection to Blu-ray because there is little danger of the DVD format becoming obsolete anytime soon. If you don’t own the most recent DVD releases of the Bond films, then Blu-ray is the way to go, but otherwise waiting can’t hurt. The picture and sound quality just don’t necessitate an upgrade at this point.

Each Bond Blu-ray is available separately, in three-packs (Volume 1 has Dr. No, Die Another Day, and Live and Let Die and Volume 2 has For Your Eyes Only, From Russia With Love, and Thunderball)m and in a single six-pack with all the films.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.
  • Phillip Winn

    I still can’t quite bring myself to make the jump. :-(

  • Dusty Somers

    Can’t blame you there Phillip – it’s the right decision.

  • Phillip Winn

    I know eventually I’ll go HD, but I’m putting it off for as long as possible. Eventually it’ll be “cheap,” right?

  • El Bicho

    just wait until you need to replace a DVD player or until they get ridiculously cheap

  • Mark Saleski

    i’m never going hd. i still look at my viewmaster every night.