SPECTRE: Mendes does Bond’s greatest hits

Poor old Sam Mendes. In some ways he’s a victim of his own success. Skyfall broke a billion at the box office so it was a tough act to follow. Particularly if that act was yourself.

But Dan and Sam formed a superb working relationship on Skyfall, so why wouldn’t they roll the dice again? And roll they did, upping the stakes by introducing the shadowy organisation SPECTRE, helmed by the Bond franchise’s favourite go-to bad guy, Blofeld (Christoph Waltz).

For SPECTRE we start in Mexico in an impressive Day of the Dead sequence which sees Bond bring his usual suave and swagger to proceedings. A solid opener.

So far so Live and Let Die.

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From there – much like the whole of the Craig era so far – the story continues to explore the path of the previous films, particularly Skyfall, with Bond and the double O programme being seen as obsolete in a modern world where drones and data reign supreme. Leading the charge is the nefarious C (Andrew Scott); giving M (Ralph Fiennes) a foil of his own. Old school versus new school you might say.

And as the story unfolds echoes of Craig’s reign as Bond keep cropping up, almost like a final send-off. Is this his last film?

And as well as the Craig era references it seemed Mendes bowed to fan pressure and brought back a number of classic tropes. You could probably play a drinking game with the deluge of Bond references on show and end up hammered way before the second act.

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Generally though, in terms of a Bond story, this does feel tonally like it’s closer to the original books, perhaps more so than Casino Royale (still the best Craig Bond). But the problem this film finds itself in, more than anything, is despite attempting to have a natural evolution from the past few stories, it feels cobbled together. Our hero races from one set piece and country to the next and it all feels forced. With loose threads and characters dropped at various points to keep the story moving along it seemed the writers had leapt on a runaway train and had no idea how to stop it.

Simple stories are often the hardest to tell and, in this case, it feels as if the filmmakers have overcomplicated things. And somehow, bafflingly, they’ve put themselves in a place where, despite trying to continue the story from past outings, they still have to world build and introduce new characters. And that always takes time.

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So for me, SPECTRE the organisation and SPECTRE the film promised so much but delivered relatively little. Again, this is probably partially down to Sam Mendes impressing us all with his first go round, but for the most part this latest franchise entry just underwhelmed me.

Trying to pin down the reasons behind my feeling (or lack of it) I think was partly due to the story feeling clunky and numerous characters being short-changed. And when they did show up they barely made an impact (Monica Bellucci and Dave Bautista, the top suspects). Those that did get more scenes also didn’t really leap off the screen (Andrew Scott for example, just seemed unhappy to be there).

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And some just didn’t seem to fit the film properly at all; specifically Lea Seydoux as Bond’s love interest. Now she’s French, so I wonder whether they were trying to replicate the Eva Green effect with Craig? That fizzled at the time. Here though, Seydoux does perfectly well, but just seems too young and cute to be the right fit. Whether it’s actually an age thing I don’t know (Craig is 47, Seydoux is 30), but I’m not entirely buying that. Chemistry is chemistry, and here it didn’t work.

Or maybe Mendes just had other fish to fry? In particular Christoph Waltz as Blofeld. Waltz, if you give him good lines, will make them sing and dance for you. Yet here, as the powerful and troubled head of SPECTRE, he didn’t seem that frightening. He also didn’t have many scenes which really came alive. He’s undoubtedly a terrific actor, but it seemed like he was either coasting or didn’t have much to work with.

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Now many critics (and fans) have raved about this film already. Strong opening weekend, Mendes, Craig and the gang back together again and all that… so maybe I’m being harsh but I’ll stick to my guns. Bond is the longest running franchise in cinematic history (excluding the Carry On films, wahey!) and its standards are high, so we expect more. And I’m not even a rabid fan.

I am, however, a huge fan of Casino Royale and Skyfall and some past Bonds (I grew up in the Pierce Brosnan era), but each new instalment should surpass the last, and this one just trod water. Which simply isn’t acceptable. Judi Dench’s M would never have stood for it.

Spy: McCarthy prods buttock

After lengthy success in TV (Gilmore Girls, Mike & Molly), Melissa McCarthy finally broke through to film in 2011’s Bridesmaids, almost stealing the whole thing from the rest of the cast. In 2013 she received critical and commercial acclaim for The Heat with Sandra Bullock and, last year, starred opposite Bill Murray in quirky comedy St. Vincent.

So she’s been building to a big project and here with Paul Feig’s Spy we have the result. McCarthy leads the show but is ably supported by a great cast (all having a ball) which includes Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Allison Janney, Miranda Hart and Jude Law.

McCarthy plays desk-bound CIA analyst Susan Cooper, who gets thrown into the field to foil a plot by evil baddie Rayna Boyanov (a bitchy Rose Bryne) to sell a nuclear weapon. From the off we see Susan on a headset advising charismatic agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law on fine, narcissistic form) as he dispatches bad guys with time to check his hair. Bond eat your heart out.

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Once the Americans learn Rayna is behind a plot to steal a nuke, CIA head Elaine (a pragmatic, spiky Allison Janney) realises none of their current agents can get near her as they’ll be recognised, so up steps Susan, sent off to a series of European locations on a mission to ‘track and report’ only. This disgusts loose cannon agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham), who ends up butting heads with her throughout the movie in a series of hilarious encounters (who knew Statham was this funny?).

As a writer-director Paul Feig has formed a stellar partnership with Melissa McCarthy; they’ve now done three films together (Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy) and she knows exactly how to make his material sing, comedically speaking. And in the world of funnies she’s really carved her own niche. Lazy critics might say McCarthy is the female Will Ferrell or, given Bridesmaids‘ common DNA with The Hangover, the female Zach Galifiniakis. Why she has to be the female equivalent of a male actor is beyond me, but that’s Hollywood and the media I guess, still a man’s world to the core.

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Back to Spy, the plot is relatively simple and merely a device for McCarthy to show Susan’s progression from timid analyst to kick ass spy, which she does convincingly. She’s surrounded by quite a lot of British talent too, from fellow analyst, ditzy Nancy (Miranda Hart) to lecherous ‘Italian’ Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz having the time of his life). So it’s an odd mix in a way, but it works well.

Spy has its tongue in its cheek the entire time and there’s barely a quiet moment to reflect on whether all the jokes are landing or not (most of them do). But none of this matters as you won’t be assessing it during (a sure sign the comedy is flagging); you’ll be with Susan on her journey in all its sweary glory. In the year of spy films coming out (The Man from UNCLE, Bond’s SPECTRE) it remains to be seen whether audiences will tire of this genre by the end of the year. If they don’t, there’s a high chance we’ll see a Spy 2 greenlit, so watch this space.

Trailer park: Spectre, Southpaw, Spooks

First things first, let’s get the big guns out of the way. As far as new trailers go, the latest Bond film gets top billing. There’s also one from Jake Gyllenhaal – who’s in a bit of a purple patch – and some spy thingy set in London and starring ‘fit Kit’ Harington (him off Game of Thrones).

Spectre
Bond is back baby, oh yes. Tying up the Skyfall and Quantum of Solace storylines nicely, this sees the return of his biggest foe, evil network SPECTRE. Mr White is back looking harrowed, Bond calm and collected, and, the thing that’s going to get most fanboys excited, Christoph Waltz as the big baddie. With Sam Mendes again directing and new additions Monica Bellucci and Lea Seydoux joining the cast expect another triumph.

Southpaw
My top film of last year was Nightcrawler, with Gyllenhaal putting in a phenomenally chameleonic performance. Physically he changes tack here to beef up for this tale of a boxer out to do right by his little girl and return to the ring. Interestingly, the UK’s very own Rita Ora plays a drug addict in it too.

Spooks: The Greater Good
It’s impossible to mention this film’s title without bringing to mind a certain scene in Hot Fuzz. That aside, it’s nice to see the Game of Thrones lot branch out. We’ve recently had Richard Madden (Rob Stark) in Cinderella, and now here’s Kit Harington (Jon Snow) tearing around London as an MI5 agent trying to uncover a conspiracy, doing what we can hope is a darn better job than Jack Bauer did in the last season of 24.

Top swordplay scenes and fencing movie moments – en garde!

inigo montoya dread pirate robertsYesterday I went for my first ever fencing lesson with a group of mates. Quite an interesting sport – a lot harder than I expected.

As our Hungarian instructor attempted to explain the technique behind parry and riposte, my thoughts drifted to iconic swordplay scenes from movies. Let’s look at some of my favourites:

The Princess Bride (1987)

‘You seem a decent fellow, I hate to kill you.’ ‘You seem a decent fellow, I hate to die.’ Memorable lines uttered by cult character Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and the film’s hero Wesley (Cary Elwes), aka the man in black. A wonderfully scripted scene too. Patinkin rose to professional level in fencing as part of his preparation and bears striking resemblance to a young Antonio Banderas. Is that how Banderas got the Zorro gig a few years later? Hmm.

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The Three Musketeers (1973)

In terms of a compelling screen presence and down and dirty swordplay, you can pretty much pick out any scene involving Athos (Oliver Reed). D’Artagnan meeting the musketeers was a key scene, as it brought the main characters together brilliantly. But special mention should go to Athos’s fight in the third act, where he appears to get killed and impaled on a windmill. Great swordplay, great scene.

Die Another Day (2002)

Whilst this Bond film may have been below par, the swordfight scene was not. Found a great behind-the-scenes clip that shows Brosnan really got stuck in, doing most of the physical work himself. Most impressive!

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Pirates of the Caribbean (2003)

Try and force the rest of the self-indulgent franchise from your head for a second and focus on the original film – a thoroughly enjoyable tale. Johnny Depp elevated this film with his quirky, masterful take on Captain Jack Sparrow. A stand-out scene had Orlando Bloom’s blacksmith Will Turner meeting Depp’s Jack for the first time and trying to prevent his escape. As expected, a wonderfully choreographed fight ensues.

Kill Bill: Vol 2 (2004)

Just to be obscure I’m going to include a deleted scene, one where Bill (David Carradine) shows off his skills with Kiddo (Uma Thurman) watching with adoration in the background. I can see why it was cut, as it doesn’t drive the story forward a great deal, just adds more depth to Bill as a character. As sword fights go though, it’s pretty cool.

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Highlander (1986)

‘There can be only one.’ I’ve often pondered the subtext to that line. Only one what? Film with a Scottish guy (Sean Connery) playing an Egyptian lord? Or French guy (Christopher Lambert) playing a Scottish tribesman? Suspension of disbelief aside, it’s a film packed with iconic swordplay scenes. For me, Highlander vs. The Kurgan is the pick of the bunch.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

‘Recognise this? It was your father’s…’ Not technically great swordfighting, more a chance to watch Alan Rickman at his scene-stealing best, swinging a sword as long as his arm against Kevin Costner’s ‘Californian’ Robin Hood in this climactic battle. Even as an out-and-out bad guy, you don’t want Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham to die. He’s mesmerising to watch, particularly when fighting and spitting venomous lines in Robin Hood’s direction.

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The Lord of the Rings (2001)

Here, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) goes toe-to-toe in a frenzied battle with giant orc Lurtz. Fun fact: when filming, the stuntman playing Lurtz accidentally threw the knife directly at Mortensen instead of aiming wide as planned. Viggo instinctively deflected the blade with his sword. Does that mean Mortensen is actually Aragorn in real life? We can but sincerely hope this is the case.

As a final note, before anyone mentions Rob Roy, Seven Samurai or Star Wars, I’ve left them out because either I’ve not seen them, or don’t consider them worthy of inclusion in terms fencing quality. You may disagree, but it’s my list, so there we go.

Best twenty films of 2012

It’s been an epic year for films across a variety of genres. This list reflects my taste in films so I hope you enjoy. Sorry Twilight, you didn’t make the cut!

  • Skyfall
    skyfall-craigStrangely there are people who don’t like this film and say it’s not classic Bond. I think it’s the closest to Fleming’s Bond since Connery. To celebrate 50 years of Bond, the dream team of Mendes, Craig, Bardem and Dench pulled out the stops to make this film truly special.
  • Argo
    Can’t believe people still give Affleck a hard time for his early career. How many decent films does he need to direct before people will admit he’s a real talent? First Gone Baby Gone and The Town and now this. A proper, intelligent thriller.
  • Moonrise Kingdom
    This film is a great companion piece for The Life Aquatic, my favourite from Wes Anderson. As always, a great cast: Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Ed Norton. Although focus is on the two, young actors who confidently carry the story. A sweet and quirky tale.
  • Looper
    Rian Johnson and Gordon-Levitt are fast becoming a match made in heaven. First Brick and now this time-travelling sci-fi tale of assassins. This film had an interesting mix of futuristic and retro, plus it marked Gordon-Levitt out as a leading man in the making.
  • Silver Linings Playbook
    SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOKForget Hunger Games, this ranks as my favourite Jennifer Lawrence film, just edging Winter’s Bone. She has great chemistry with Bradley Cooper, both of them playing flawed characters in this acerbic, edgy and alternative type of rom-com. Highly recommended.
  • Chronicle
    Earlier this year this film was released and flew somewhat under the radar. Shown in found footage style, the best way to describe the first half is Jackass with telekinetic powers. It then goes darker as it builds to an epic finale. Thoroughly deserving of a place on this list.
  • Dark Knight Rises
    The final instalment of Christopher Nolan’s game-changing bat franchise. Tom Hardy as Bane, Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, Gordon-Levitt as Boy Wonder in the making. This was an emotional, visceral ending to the best set of Batman films of all time.
  • Avengers Assemble
    Despite my last comment regarding Batman, Marvel Studios has firmly staked its claim as the lighter, more upbeat side of the superhero world. Joss Whedon pulling off an incredible trick to balance a film with a host of big characters, letting them all shine equally.
  • Ted
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    Macfarlane knows his comedy. This film was his vision and really paid off. From script and direction through to mo-cap acting, he was the driving force. Mila Kunis and Mark Wahlberg added their dramatic and comedy talent to make this one of the funniest films of the year.
  • Life of Pi  
    Ang Lee’s tale of a young boy shipwrecked at sea with a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker is a visual masterpiece. Taken from a Booker prize-winner novel, it makes you question the nature of belief and how you perceive the world. An uplifting and life-affirming tale.
  • The Raid: Redemption
    Combine the talents of a Welsh Director and up-and-coming action star in Iko Uwais and you get an unexpected, kick-ass treat. Introducing us to pencak silat, an Indonesian form of dance and self defence, it’s breathtaking to watch when used to beat up bad guys.
  • The Hobbit
    Peter Jackson has worked wonders yet again. The dwarves are great and Martin Freeman is the perfect Bilbo. His ‘riddles in the dark’ scene with Gollum is brilliantly scripted. If you’re even a fleeting fantasy fan you won’t want to miss this exhilarating tale.
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
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    Critically well received, this fantasy film has drawn comparisons with Pan’s Labyrinth and is well worth seeing. It tells the tale of six-year-old girl Hushpuppy who, when looking after her ill and hot-tempered father, must learn the ways of courage and love.
  • Rust and Bone
    It’s no secret I’m a big fan of Marion Cotillard – there’s a permanent picture of her on my blog. Here she beautifully plays a killer whale trainer who forms an unlikely romance with a bouncer. Jacques Audiard directs this passionate and moving love story.
  • The Master
    Possibly a career-best film from Paul Thomas Anderson and performance from Joaquin Phoenix? Ultimately, this film is about the fascinating interplay between war veteran Freddie (Phoenix) and movement leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
  • Seven Psychopaths
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    From the Director of darkly comic film In Bruges, this tale of kidnapped dogs and gangsters is hilariously scripted and brilliantly acted. With a cast including Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Colin Farrell and Woody Harrelson.
  • End of Watch
    Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena put in the hours with cops on the beat in South Central LA to form a real bond prior to filming. The results paid off, as this thriller cop movie has real believability and chemistry between the two leads.
  • Magic Mike
    Ladies of Tampa‘, croons Matthew McConaughey, before he smashes his guitar and strips in front of a horde of screaming ladies. This film, though, belongs to Channing Tatum. Before acting he was a stripper – this film gives an intriguing glimpse of life back stage in that world.
  • The Grey
    It’s Liam Neeson, he’s cold, he’s angry, wolves are trying to kill him. In a minute he’s going to get really mad – what’s not to like? This bleak adventure sees a bunch of oil workers stranded in the Alaskan wilderness after a plane crash – in the middle of a wolf kill zone.
  • 21 Jump Street
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    Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill team up in this cop buddy comedy remake. Tatum is – surprisingly – very funny, with great comic timing. Jokes are often set up and don’t pan out how you might expect, which is a good thing. Also, Johnny Depp has an outstanding cameo.

Skyfall, Mendes, Bond and badass Bardem

Bond team assemble! Ok, I’ve slightly mixed up my franchises but seriously, hats off to Sam Mendes. Or should it be hats off to Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson? The producers behind Bond in the Brosnan and Craig eras. Maybe we should also doff our caps to Daniel Craig? Not just for his performance as Bond so far, but for his recommendation for Sam Mendes to direct. His influence is clear to see.

What he’s done is strip Bond back, not just to the visceral, gritty feel we got in Casino Royale, but on an emotional level, to a point where he’s fallible, broken, hell-bent on resurrection and proving that, whilst he may be a bit of dinosaur in the modern age of espionage, he’s still a necessary tool in MI6’s arsenal. Let’s look at the factors that make this Bond one of the best we’ve had in a long time.
james bondSam Mendes
Many of you will know him as the Director of American Beauty in 1999, however the best reference point in terms of why he got the Bond gig is probably Road to Perdition in 2002, his first film with Daniel Craig. But then, he’s always had a common theme running through his work – family roots and close ties. From American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, through to Jarhead and Skyfall, his films have first and foremost been about relationships and the bonds between certain characters.

For those that doubted his ability to handle action, Id like to point out the opening sequence in Skyfall – an exhilarating rooftop motorbike chase, culminating in a fight on top of a train and kick-starting the film’s events. The whole sequence is tense, dramatic and thoroughly exciting – pitched perfectly between realism and fantasy, which is precisely what we expect from Bond.

There’s plenty of other scenes I could use as examples of why Mendes was the man for the job. Suffice to say he balanced action, drama and classic Bond moments with quiet, tender scenes that really gave the film weight and characters depth – particularly the relationship between Bond and M, which I’ll come to later.

Roger Deakins
Simply put, the man who makes Mendes look good! Deakins was Cinematographer on this film, the person who plans and coordinates the actual shooting of the film, capturing the Director’s vision on screen. Relationships between Directors and Cinematographers vary. In this case, Deakins has worked with Mendes before and also extensively with the Coen brothers. He’s been nominated for stacks of awards, including winning a lifetime achievement award in 2011.

In terms of Skyfall, there’s a veritable plethora of beautifully shot scenes: Bond staring over the grey London skyline, coffins draped in the Union Jack, the opening chase sequence in Turkey, a yacht sailing towards an abandoned island when we first meet Bardem’s Silva, then there’s the whole of the third act in Scotland.

If you want to capture the rugged, majestic beauty of a wild landscape, Deakin should be on your speed-dial as a Director. He’s the man behind No Country for Old Men, True Grit, Jarhead, Shawshank Redemption – I could go on, check out his body of work.

bond skyfallJavier Bardem
What a villian! Bardem seemed to position him as the perfect blend of deranged, menacing, calculating and camp, or at least sexually ambiguous. His first scene is a classic and up there with Heath Ledger’s introduction as the Joker in The Dark Knight.

In fact, there are a lot of similarities to be drawn between Bardem’s Silva and Ledger’s Joker. In terms of physical looks, chilling back-story and meticulously planned acts of terrorism. In Dark Knight, the Joker spends about a third of the film outwitting Batman and Gordon, similarly Silva runs rings around Bond and M from his introduction up until the closing act.

That said, I’m not suggesting Ledger’s Joker would fit in Bond’s world. Bardem’s Silva still remained very much his own creation in that sense. His motivation – a deeply felt vendetta towards Judi Dench’s M – drives his actions. You’ll have to watch the film to find out why – I’ll just say that Bardem gives Silva’s motivation for vengeance against M believability. So often in action films I’ve not got on board with the villian and his or her motivations to kill someone/take over the world. In this case Bardem makes it work, giving Silva a tortured soul and fire in his eyes.

Bond and M
When talking about Mendes and themes in his work, I mentioned relationships and bonds between characters. In this case, a key driver of the film is the dynamic between Bond and M. Whilst some might feel screen-time for stunning Bond girls has been somewhat sacrificed, you could argue Bond charging around with a beautiful girl in tow doesn’t give us anything new.
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Of course you get Bond girls here, but more time is devoted to M, arguably the ultimate Bond girl in the Broccoli/Wilson era. From her casting as the first female M in Goldeneye in 1995, through to Skyfall in 2012, she’s become progressively more influential with each film, particular in Daniel Craig’s time in the role.

There’s a scene where she’s deciding whether Bond is fit for active duty and Mallory – played by Ralph Fiennes – says to her, ‘You’re sentimental about him’. Mendes lets this relationship unfold superbly, culminating in a tender, elegant and heartfelt moment in the third act.

50 years of Bond
I’d like to finish with a musical clip below by A. Skilz and Krufty Kutz, submitted to Annie Mac’s show on BBC Radio One in the UK. They created it to celebrate 50 years of Bond. If you’ve forgotten what’s so good about the character and this franchise, remind yourself now. I guarantee you’ll be giddy with excitement at the end. Proud to be British.

Damn, parkour is a tough sport!

parkour injuryWill I ever be any good at parkour/freerunning? I found myself asking this question last night as I sat in a London hospital with – yet another – injury. This time quite a bad one, a deep gash in my shin that needed two stitches.

Let’s rewind for a second. For those not familiar, parkour is essentially a type of movement used to overcome obstacles by way of vaulting, leaping, climbing, rolling etc. It’s done outdoors and – in London – often around housing estates, where there are lots of walls, rails, playgrounds. Ideal places to practice.

Still reading? Well, there’s an organisation called Parkour Generations that do lessons all around London. Well worth a go if you’re looking for a new sport. I realise, from my opening paragraph, I’ve probably completely put off you if you were considering it, apologies! To be honest, you can get injured in so many ways on a day-to-day basis. Crossing the road, preparing dinner etc.

The way I see it, I have no time for the gym, it’s such a static, sterile environment. It’s nice to train your overall body outside, doing something different, challenging, exciting. Injuries are bound to happen in any sport if you’re pushing yourself. You just need to know where your limits are. I was fully aware of mine but ignored the signs, hence the injury.

The video below was taken in the area I was training. None of the guys in the video are me by the way, I am nowhere near their level of skill, but it’s what I aim for. Well, except the flips, I’ll give those a miss!

Plus, these days, parkour has moved much more into the mainstream. No longer a niche, extreme sport, its influence can be seen all over the place, particularly in film over the last few years.

There’s a French film called District 13 which features one of the founders of the sport, David Belle. Well worth a watch if you’ve got the time. Good as a film as well as a showcase for the sport. Also, in Casino Royale there’s a scene featuring Sebastien Foucan, another parkour founding father. Watch the building site chase here, very cool.

So, back to my latest predicament. As I sat there cursing my stupidity at failing to admit my body’s limitations, it occurred to me that – in order to improve – that’s sort of the point. You have to push yourself. Dig deep, double your efforts, whatever it takes really. Cue 80s montage…