From Russia with Love (UK - BD)
Scott McKenzie checks out the Blu-ray release of the second Bond movie...
In his second screen outing, James Bond's mission is to travel to Istanbul and try to recover a cypher machine from a defecting Russian agent. Little does he know that the situation he finds himself in is cleverly set up by SPECTRE to unbalance the world powers. With SPECTRE agents Red Grant and Rosa Klebb on his trail, he must work out who they are working for and face a final confrontation onboard the Orient Express.
After the success of Dr. No, director Terence Young found himself with a larger budget and more ideas coming from the producers for the second Bond movie in the series. As a result, the finished article of From Russia with Love is closer to the formula we've become used to down the years. The pre-credits sequence, theme song, Q's gadgets and final confrontation when you think the movie is over are all here. This truly is classic Bond, and even includes the first appearance of his arch-nemesis Blofeld.
The pre-credits sequence where Red Grant (Robert Shaw) 'kills' James Bond is a great teaser for the rest of the movie and it's right that this has formed part of the formula ever since, even if some of them (e.g. For Your Eyes Only) are completely unnecessary. However, watching the movie for this review, it's the first time I noticed that Bond takes a hell of a long time to show up. Aside from the opening sequence where it isn't really him anyway, it's almost twenty minutes before we get an appearance from our hero. I can't imagine a modern Bond film lasting two minutes before his big entrance.
The globe-trotting angle that has become another Bond staple is in evidence here as well. We take in Istanbul, Venice, Belgrade and Zagreb, with the plot focusing on our heroes' journey on the Orient Express in the second half of the movie. Going back to Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, trains have long given filmmakers a place to set intriguing spy stories, although it's hard to see how the fight between Red Grant and James Bond here will be topped. Their punch-up is long and brutal and free from the slapstick that dogged Roger Moore's time as 007. For once in the series, Bond is up against his equal (physically, if not intellectually) and it makes for an exciting battle.
Since this is just the second Bond movie, the storyline is pretty close to that of the original novel, certainly more so than some of the Roger Moore movies, which took only the title and not much else. There are a couple of changes, like the addition of SPECTRE instead of having SMERSH as the bad guys but the guts of the story are still there. As a big James Bond fan, this is one of the movies that I haven't seen quite as much as the others. This is a good thing because it felt more like a new movie to me than some of the others, which I've seen countless times, but it's also a bad thing because it's clearly one of the best of the whole series and I'm hanging my head in shame a little for watching Moonraker non-stop when I was growing up when I could have been watching this bona fide classic.
Given that this movie is over forty years old, I didn't hold out much hope that the presentation quality would challenge today's modern blockbusters, but I was pleasantly surprised. No doubt coming from the same master copy as the remastered DVDs that were released a couple of years ago, there is very little here to detract from your viewing pleasure. Only some external establishing shots seemed to be damaged or dirty enough for it to be noticeable, but these are very rare. The picture in general is bright and colourful, with a decent level of detail available. Is it a significant improvement over the DVDs? Maybe not, but this is definitely the best presentation of this movie in a very long time. Check out the un-remastered trailers and TV spots in the extras section of the disc to get an idea just how much better this movie looks now compared to what we were used to on VHS.
The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, which is mastered from the original mono track. The producers of this disc haven't gone overboard to mix everything up with heavy use of directional sound but there are some subtle changes that are welcome. The classic music is the highlight of the track, with the Bond theme sounding strong and clear. The dialogue does sound a little fuzzy at times, but not so much as to be off-putting. The balance of effects, music and dialogue is pitched at the right level in what is quite a loud track and I'm pleased to say that along with the video quality, it's a lot better than I was expecting.
The commentary track is chaired by a chap from the Ian Fleming Foundation and consists of interviews with members of the cast and crew. As Gabe stated in his review of the identical US release (which I've been trying not to completely rip off), it's the equivalent of reading a behind the scenes novel. The interviews and anecdotes are well-timed to the action on screen so while it may not be a laugh riot, this is certainly one of the most informative commentaries I've listed to in a long time.
As is the case with all the other Bond movies on Blu-ray, the extras are grouped together in sections. First up we get the 'MI6 Vault' that contains archive material. There are two featurettes involving Ian Fleming. The first is an interview with him that was originally broadcast shortly after his death, where he discusses his views on his success, espionage and language in his books. The second is a conversation between Fleming and Raymond Chandler. They obviously have a lot of respect for each other's work and they share a lot with each other about their characters and how they write. Finally we get an 'animated storyboard' of the boat chase sequence that technically isn't animated.
'007 Mission Control' allows the viewer to jump directly to character-specific scenes in the movie. 'Mission Dossier' contains a couple of longer documentaries. 'Inside From Russia with Love' is the making-of documentary that looks at all aspects of the novel and the movie, including its rise to prominence when it was reported as one of John F Kennedy's favourite novels. We also see the work that went into the fight on the train and it's interesting to note that the chess moves in the early scene were a recreation of a classic match. 'Harry Saltzman: Showman' focuses on one of the producers of the early Bond movies and looks back at is history of bringing stage plays to the big screen.
'Ministry of Propaganda' is an archive of trailers and advertisements from cinema, television and radio. The Image Database contains some animated slideshows of stills from the production. However, with my Blu-ray taking ages to load these up, I think it took longer to load than to watch them. It's worth noting that from time to time when the disc was dropping back from the extras to the menu, the background animation would appear but the menu itself wouldn't. This meant I had to take the disc out and put it back in again, which started to become pretty frustrating. This is also an issue with the other Bond discs I'm reviewing. I assume I need to update the firmware on my player but if this happens to you as well, take comfort in the knowledge that you're not alone.
From Russia with Love is undoubtedly one of the best Bond movies and went some way to creating the formula that was rehashed every few years until the tiring series needed a reboot with Casino Royale. On this Blu-ray disc the movie looks and sounds great and it's difficult to imagine how the presentation could be improved. The extras (especially the audio commentary) complement the movie to make this a disc worth picking up whether you're a big fan of 007 or just a newcomer to his adventures.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page.
Review by Scott McKenzie
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 20th October 2008
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital Mono English, Dolby Digital Mono Spanish, Dolby Digital Mono French
Subtitles: English HoH, English, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Greek, Hindi, Norwegian, Swedish
Extras: Audio Commentary, Ian Fleming Interview, Ian Fleming & Raymond Chandler, Animated Storyboard, Inside From Russia With Love, Harry Saltzman: Showman, Trailers, Photo Gallery.
Easter Egg: No
Director: Terence Young
Cast: Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, Robert Shaw, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell
Genre: Action and Adventure
Length: 122 minutes
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