Friday, September 11, 2015

Hammerhead (1968) and Jaguar Lives! (1979)

Hammerhead (1968) and Jaguar Lives! (1979) - two films I've already mentioned here in the context of 'random movie trailers' - are evidence of just how difficult it is to replicate the James Bond movie formula.  Ever since Dr No proved a surprise hit back in 1962, enterprising producers across the globe, ranging from major Hollywood studios to low budget exploitation outfits have tried to cash in on Eon Productions' successful film franchise.  With little success, it has to be said.  Whilst Bond marches on, who really remembers now James Coburn's Derek Flint or Dean Martin's Matt Helm, let alone the slew of Italian knock offs?  No matter what approach the film makers took - spoofs such as the Flint and Matt Helm series and the rogue 1967 Bond adaptation Casino Royale, or relatively straight imitations like the two Richard Johnson starring Bulldog Drummond films from the late sixties - they just couldn't hit the mark.  Whilst some of these films made money, none could match the official Bond series.  Although cinema audiences in the sixties were hungry for additional spy action when 007 wasn't available, they weren't that hungry.  There was no substitute for the real thing.  The only movies which rode this first wave of Bond-mania which have enjoyed lasting success are those which took a different tack entirely: the Michael Caine starring 'Harry Palmer' series of Len Deighton adaptations, (which were, interestingly, produced by Harry Saltzman, one half of Eon Productions), although the third and most Bond-like of these, Billion Dollar Brain was notably less successful than the previous two, and Le Carre adaptations such as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and The Deadly Affair

The low budget Bond knock offs, like the desultory The Destructors, featuring a badly out-of-shape Richard Egan as a Bond substitute, or Lindsey Shonteff's various efforts in the genre,  never really stood a chance of replicating the 007 formula with their meagre resources.  Usually swapping exotic foreign locations for home front adventures, (set in California in the case of US productions, or over-familiar, damp and wintry London and Home Counties locations for their UK counterparts), they seemed anything but glamourous, pitting their heroes against decidedly non-flamboyant villains played by TV actors and engaged in very modest nefarious schemes.  The various 'Eurospy' movies - often Italian in origin - fared slightly better, with bigger budgets, exotic (to UK and US audiences, at least) continental locations and colourful and imaginative production design, but still fell short of the genuine article.  Bigger budgeted and studio backed productions, like the Flint films, or even the more recent Schwarzenneger starring  True Lies and XXX series, did little better, in spite of their greater resources.  Whilst often succeeding in looking something like a true Bond movie, with multiple foreign locations, super villains with grandiose plans and big action set pieces, they still lacked the 'feel' of the real thing, swapping the outwardly sophisticated protagonist of the official Bond series with more thuggish and muscle bound heroes, for instance.

Turning to the two films under examination here, both Hammerhead and Jaguar Lives! clearly had reasonable budgets, evidenced by their high production values and, in the case of Jaguar Lives!, an impressive supporting cast of genuine 'name' actors.  Of the two, Hammerhead is the most obviously 'Bondian', with its wealthy villain with perverse character traits, (he is obsessed with pornography and has amassed a huge collection) and a luxury yacht, sun-drenched foreign locations and a well dressed and supposedly sophisticated hero.  Like the Bond movies, it has a literary source - the first of James Mayo's 'Charles Hood' series - and, like the Bond movies of its era, is only a loose adaptation of its source novel.  Produced by Irving Allen, (who had once been Bond producer Albert Broccoli's partner in Warwick Films), it should come as no surprise that Hammerhead followed the pattern of his Matt Helm series by coarsening its source material.  Although it follows the book more closely than any of the Helm series had, it simplifies the plot, substitutes the villain's porn collection for his literary counterpart's art collection, tones down the sadistic violence of the novel and changes the main character beyond recognition.  The Charles Hood of the novel is a suave art expert who has a sideline operating as an agent for a private intelligence agency.  The Hood of the film's status is far less clear, although American, he seems to work for a branch of British intelligence, whether as a freelance or an employee, we never know. 

To be fair, Hammerhead does provide some nice-looking Portuguese locations for most of the film and manages to stage a few decent action set pieces.  However, plot-wise it never seems to get going, lurching from one set piece to the next without clear exposition or character motivation, before building to an underwhelming climax in which the main villain arbitrarily and casually dispatched by a relatively minor character.  The yacht doesn't even explode!  A real Bond film of that era would have climaxed with some huge conflagration involving the US Marines or the Royal Navy boarding the yacht and battling the villain's minions, whilst Bond subjects the villain to some exotic death, but only after defeating his main muscle-bound henchman in some kind of hand-to-hand combat.  Not only does Hood not kill the villain, he doesn't even grapple with his bodyguard, played by Dave Prowse.  The film's greatest weakness lies in its casting, which consists of familiar faces from TV.  Vince Edwards (TV's Dr Ben Casey) simply lacks the charisma needed to play Charles Hood.  Much of the rest of the cast is filled out with British TV sitcom favourites like Patrick Cargill, Peter Vaughn and Michael Bates.  All excellent character actors, but given little to work with by a weak script.  The female glamour is provided by Diana Dors and Judy Geeson, the latter playing an exceptionally irritating side kick cum love interest. The background of hippies, 'flower power' and art 'happenings', which accompany the action date the film badly and simply feels as tired as the whole 'swinging sixties' thing had become by 1968. The whole thing is very professionally made, but completely lacks the 'spark' associated with a real Bond film, coming over, instead, as an episode of a typical sixties TV spy series. 

Jaguar Lives! represents a later attempt to cash in on the Bond series' success and tries to follow the example of the Bruce Lee vehicle Enter the Dragon by mixing martial arts with espionage.  World Karate Champion Joe Lewis headlines the film as Jonathon Cross, codename 'The Jaguar', an agent for G6, an international spy agency.  To be fair, Lewis actually gives a perfectly decent performance, demonstrating considerable screen presence and charisma.  He is ably supported by an amazing supporting cast which includes no less than three former Bond villains (Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasance and Joseph Wiseman) and a recent former Bond girl (Barbara Bach), with further support from the likes of Capucine, Woody Strode and even John Huston.  Unfortunately, this is where the film's problems start: none of these stars has much more than an extended cameo in the film as it globetrots from one international location to the next, with Jaguar facing, and defeating, a member of the international conspiracy he is investigating, in each.  Whilst Donald Pleasance has a ball in his all too brief appearance as a South American dictator, pulling out all the stops in a hugely entertaining performance, most of the other stars have far too little to do.  Wiseman seems completely wasted as a mentor-figure, Huston, playing a millionaire victim of the conspiracy is all too clearly only there for the money and Lee, as an honourable villain and onetime ally of the Jaguar, gives a good performance but has very little to do.

In addition to reducing its star supporting cast to glorified cameo appearances, the globetrotting plot, although faithful to the Bond formula, results in a halting structure and tangled narrative.  All too often, the viewer is left wondering just why the Jaguar is in a particular location, let alone where he is at any one time. The lack of narrative clarity means that the nature of the international conspiracy is never totally clear - it has something to do with a global criminal syndicate taking over the world's narcotic distribution networks, using blackmail and murder to eliminate local rivals and shift their products in bulk around the world.  (The fact that, at several points in the film, there is resort to a voice over to explain events, indicates that the film's makers were well aware of the script's narrative deficiencies).  It also doesn't help that the identity of the mysterious mastermind behind the syndicate is clearly telegraphed in the pre-title sequence, (which, in another imitation of the Bond formula, sees the Jaguar completing his previous mission), meaning that the climactic unmasking is something of a non-event.  Worst of all, the film fails to properly showcase its star's martial arts prowess.  As the film was conceived as a vehicle for Joe Lewis and one assumes that he was seen as the main audience draw, it does seem surprising that he is given so little scope for employing his talents.  That said, the action sequences where he is allowed to employ his karate skills are superb.  Unfortunately, they are generally far too short.  In common with the earlier film, Jaguar Lives!  ultimately comes over as an extended TV episode, (indeed, director Ernest Pintoff spent most of his directorial career in episodic TV).

Like Hammerhead, Jaguar Lives! is glossily made with its production values reflecting a decent budget.  Also, like Hammerhead, whilst its makers have clearly recognised at least part of the Bond movie formula, they have failed to capture the 'essence' of Bond and, consequently, never really manage to lift the film above the level of a B movie.  Which is part of the official Bond series success: it raises what are essentially B movies to the level of A movies.  It does this, not just through big budgets, but through attention to the details of the fantasy world the films are set in, a narrative sweep which takes in multiple locations which actually advance the plot and a veneer of sophistication. They've also had the advantage enjoyed by any long-running series: the ability to establish a 'look' and a series of narrative and styling cues which reference previous entries and establish an overall 'identity' for the series.  The films are constructed from a series of recognisable set pieces and tropes: there's always a superficially 'civilised' encounter with the main villain, for instance, there's also usually some kind of gambling motif, (often culminating with some kind of encounter with the villain across a gaming table), a car chase, the elimination of a lesser villain a lengthy and violent action set piece, the escape, with the heroine, from some set-piece peril set up by the villain.  There are many, many more - not all appear in every film.  Indeed, it is the makers' deftness in arranging, rearranging and varying these elements in each film which helps the series seem simultaneously fresh and familiar. 

One of the series' greatest strengths has been its ability to continually re-invent both itself and the main character, reinterpreting the source material to suit the era in which each individual film is made.  This reinvention extends to the central character - like Doctor Who, Bond might remain more or less the same recognisable character, but each actor playing him adapts Bond to suit their own persona and the contemporary milieu in which they play him.  Hence, Connery's sixties working class hero hiding beneath a veneer of establishment sophistication gave way in the seventies to Roger Moore's light weight gentleman adventurer, whilst the films themselves simultaneously lightened their tone and tapped into whatever genres were currently popular, (Blaxploitation in Live and Let Die, Kung Fu in Man With the Golden Gun and science fiction in Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, for instance).  To be fair, Moore's interpretation of the character changed over time, to suit the films' change in direction post-Moonraker, (where the series' self-referential archness and comedic self parody had reached its apex), to a more realistic approach with less fantastical plots and villains, instead attempting to ground themselves in political and technological developments in the real world.  Consequently, Moore's Bond became noticeably tougher, highlighting a ruthless streak which had been evident in his earliest appearances in the role and toning down the comedic elements of the character, for his last three Bond movies.  This presaged Timothy Dalton's more Connery-like Bond: blunt, ruthless and driven, before he gave way to Pierce Brosnan's sleek professional battling corporate menaces in a post-Soviet world.  Most recently, we've had Daniel Craig's world weary warrior, ill at ease in the modern world of high tech espionage and continually seeking to establish a role for himself and his 'old school' methods amongst the surveillance cameras, drones and electronic eavesdropping.

The Bond knock offs, by contrast, are too busy trying to imitate their inspiration to bother trying to tailor themselves to the expectations of contemporary audiences.  Although I enjoyed both Hammerhead and Jaguar Lives! ultimately they left me feeling unsatisfied.  They feel like decidedly second string efforts whose producers might have understood some of the more mechanical aspects of the official Bond series but failed to grasp their sub text which blends everything from British class consciousness to the UK's post-colonial insecurities.  They simultaneously present an image of Britishness which appeals to the rest of the world whilst subtly questioning that image's underlying assumptions about the UK's national identity and its global role in the context of its waning military and economic power.  Without this sub text films like Hammerhead and Jaguar Lives! might succeed in looking, to some degree, like a Bond movies, but never feel like a Bond movie.



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