The Bond Age

You know their names, look up their has published this piece by Allen Barra, in which the author revisits Ian Fleming’s 007 novels (non-subscribers can read it after watching a short ad).

The article isn’t what it could be — largely because Barra, after dismissing Fleming as “a writer of genre fiction”, seems more interested in discussing the response to the books than the books themselves — but it did remind me of last year’s cinematic assignment, in which my wife and I thought it would be a good idea to pass the sluggish winter evenings by watching the Bond films in chronological order.

It took us almost a year to get through them all, largely because they aren’t very good. We stalled out for several months after “The Spy Who Loved Me”, because I knew “Moonraker” would have to be next. And “Licence to Kill”? It’s even worse than you remember.

(Hey, look, I’m doing that “after the jump” thing!)

The Moore pictures haven’t grown any better with time — even the back-to-basics “For Your Eyes Only” is undercut by the casting of Lynn-Holly Johnson as an ice-skating chippie — and while I’ve always thought the casting of Timothy Dalton was a good idea, I must admit his films pretty much blow.

I don’t blame the actor, whose performance was the closest to Fleming’s conception of Bond until Daniel Craig arrived; it’s more the fault of the franchise, which by that point was already sealed, amber-like, into a precisely calculated formula of exotic locations, evil masterminds and impregnable fortresses.

Even the attempts to update the franchise just ended up swallowing their own conceptual tails: “Licence to Kill” sent Bond after a druglord on a personal mission of vengeance, which was a good idea, except that said druglord was living the life of Blofeld in a luxurious mansion and processing his drugs in a giant, remote factory just ripe for a climactic demolition.

Remember how “Die Another Day” promised a dirtier, grittier Bond for the post-9/11 era, letting Pierce Brosnan wear rags and a fake beard after months of North Korean torture? And the big deal about how M more or less disowns him as damaged goods once he was released? All very promising, all very edgy. And then, if you recall, Bond escapes, checks himself into a luxurious Hong Kong hotel, showers and shaves and goes right back to dinner jackets and espionage.

To quote another great franchise character: “Meh.”

Incidentally, this is not a slap at Brosnan’s performance; he gave the producers precisely what they wanted, which was a performance along the lines of Moore’s and a willingness to react credulously to the most ludicrous plot twists. Brosnan’s a decent man and a good actor, and I don’t doubt he was an absolute professional in all four of his pictures. But I also think he was a lot happier making “The Tailor of Panama” and “The Matador”.

What I found most surprising, however, is how lame some of the Connery films turned out to be. And it’s not that “You Only Live Twice” or “Diamonds Are Forever” have dated; they were never that good to begin with, stuffed full of ridiculous plot points — Bond as a married Japanese fisherman, for one — and ludicrous villains that make the Austin Powers films look like loving homages rather than satirical caricatures. And Connery just looks tired; no wonder he let George Lazenby step in for “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, which could have been a truly great Bond picture with a tighter edit … and a better Bond.

“From Russia with Love” and “Goldfinger” still work very well; the former because its alternating between frenetic action and dialogue-heavy longeurs feel like the rhythms of the real world, and “Goldfinger” because its larger-than-life villain — one of the few characters who seemed to have the upper hand on Bond more often than not — gives the film license to be as outsized as it ultimately becomes.

“Doctor No”, on the other hand, is remarkably dull; I’d forgotten how little actually happens in the picture, although the Jamaican landscapes are indeed very pretty. And “Thunderball”, well … about half of it is entertaining, and the other half is pretty soggy. (Still, it was a sight more involving than the non-canon remake “Never Say Never Again”, which we watched after “Octopussy”. Whee.)

You might have noticed I haven’t mentioned the Moore films very much. Or the Brosnans. That’s because there’s really nothing to say about them: Like the Dalton films, they represent a point in time when the Bond franchise was a perpetual-motion machine stuck in an endless loop. Every film is essentially the same as the one before it, with a slightly larger budget and a slightly sillier tone. There are gadgets, there are quips, there is often a lovely dinner, and justice is served in time for the end credits.

The notable exceptions are “For Your Eyes Only”, which at least reduces the stakes, and “Tomorrow Never Dies”, which gives Bond a partner rather than a sidekick in Michelle Yeoh’s Chinese operative — and lets Yeoh be the more interesting of the two. But neither film is great; they’re just the best examples of a bad lot.

“Casino Royale”, on the other hand, really does reinvent Bond for the present day. It’s careful to include the elements the franchise demands, but it makes sure to deliver those elements in service to the plot, rather than building the plot around them. The bad guy is decidedly life-sized; if he didn’t have his connections and his resources, Bond could dispatch him in seconds flat. He plays a more complicated game than pointing and shooting, which brings us back to the glory days of Blofeld and Goldfinger.

More importantly, “Casino Royale” lets Bond be Bond — or rather, it lets Bond return to himself.

I’ve always kinda hoped the series would one day admit that “James Bond” is really just the alias assigned to whichever agent happens to be holding the 007 designation — that all the 003s are called “Robert Sterling”, or all the 009s are named “William Guinea”, or whatever. Being elevated to elite status would require the operative to renounce the trappings of his old life. And the new film does not exactly discourage this notion, since Judi Dench is still M in its reimagined universe.

But even if Daniel Craig’s Bond is supposed to be the one and only, the genuine article, he’s a great fit for the role — sinewy and impulsive and bordering on the sociopathic, this is the guy Fleming was talking about.

Bond is a thug in a suit, a murderer who’s found his purpose — quite literally, his license to be himself — as a government operative. He cleans up nice, but he’d really rather be garrotting someone in a jungle somewhere. Connery’s first films acknowledged that, sort of. And then the machine took over, and it kept on running for four decades.

There are very few machines in “Casino Royale”. And there is a great deal of brutality. Bond has become an indestructible, unscuffable superhero since the Moore days, but this time around the poor guy gets bruised, lacerated, poisoned and ultimately tortured in the name of Queen and Country. At one point, his heart even stops, and that’s before it gets broken.

James Bond is a human being again. Bloody good show.