Nobody Does It Better – A James Bond Appreciation

UPDATE: I just found out that Robert Altman, acclaimed filmmaker passed away today. I’m deeply sadden by the news. I might just write up one of these essays about his films and their impact on me and on the rest of the film world. I’ll keep Bond up for awhile for everyone to ponder and discuss on but you can expect a healthy tribute to Altman in the coming days.

I’m aware that I’m one of three people in the entire world who didn’t care much for Casino Royale. Perhaps it’s my penchant for vintage Bond. In all reality, Casino Royale was too much of a redefinition for me that everything that’s new and reinvented in the latest installment can be found in other recent cloak and dagger movies. I’m also aware that we are being reintroduced to a character that perhaps lacks a true identity; one going through a serious mid-life crisis. Bond was no longer special. He has become more efficient, bolder and bloodier . . . just like his fellow cinematic spies. Bond was once the man who inspired countless characters like him. Now, he’s been reintroduced to us much like everybody else. Who is this James Bond?

Watching James Bond in film school opened me up to the notion that Bond on screen (not in the novels) found his true identity in the era he was in at the time. What made Bond survive all these years is that he truly is a man of his time. One can take a look at all twenty past Bond films and see that Bond’s identity came from the geopolitical climate of the era he was in. When Dr. No came out in theatres in 1962, the world was at the height of the Cold War, and here was a mere secret agent doing his job. We knew espionage existed then, and to be personified rather suavely catered to the growing popularity of “the dashing bachelor.” Riding the crest of prosperity after WWII, young men of this generation weren’t ready to settle down. Domesticity was not their groove. They relished their independence, and around them formed a unique culture of cool.

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Thus James Bond strived. Sean Connery, too. As the Cold War stories and theories grew far more outlandish, so did our favorite British secret agent. Goldfinger came along and sealed a franchise.

By the early 70’s a new approach was needed for Bond because the Cold War didn’t seem to end. It was almost ridiculous, creating new political language: superpower, nuclear, arms race. So in many ways we needed James Bond, not just someone who can save the world, but provide escapist entertainment. We had Vietnam on our TV screens nightly. It was a time of rapid social experimentation, energy crisis and Watergate. Pop culture responded, and so did James Bond. We needed James Bond to make us feel warm, not necessarily safe. Live and Let Die (which is essentially a Blaxpoitation film) introduced a witty, lighter Bond in the likes of Roger Moore, who probably had the toughest role of stepping under the shadows of Connery and providing the ‘funny’ while balancing the tougher act of Bond. His tenure as Bond the Entertainer lasted till the growth of computer technology and the rise of the venture capitalist, 80’s Reaganomics and greed. Moore’s final bow as Bond in the underrated View to a Kill pits him against Zorin (Christopher Walken) an industrialist billionaire who plans to take over Silicon Valley and the world. Zorin would probably fit right in with the Bill Gates/Steve Jobs elite.

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By the time Timothy Dalton stepped in as James Bond, the Cold War was near dormant and the future and purpose of James Bond was uncertain. The same summer License to Kill was released in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. It seemed we no longer need a James Bond, no matter how tough or realistic. Bond was no longer relevant.

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We entered a new world order in the 1990’s, facing rapidly shifting global alliances. Real-world villains were smarter, more technologically advanced, and soon enough, it seemed there might be a reason, even a need, for James Bond. Enter Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye catapulting the series into heights never before seen in the franchise. Bond was back and his enemies ranged from terrorist arms dealers, media megalomaniacs even a fellow double-o agent. The last Brosnan outing, Die Another Day suffered greatly from the dramatic shift of political attitude when September 11th occurred. Released a little over a year after the tragedy, Die Another Day had no other choice but to be a nostalgic, bombastic film. We needed escapist entertainment yet again and Bond came through. Instead of taking the approach of actually tackling terrorism, the Bond filmmakers decided to make a yearbook film, homaging the past nineteen Bond films. Looking back at it, it was a necessary entry: one to celebrate the man that is Bond. Despite a new and gritty opening title sequence, a riveting fencing battle (yes, I’m a fencer) and some interesting psychoanalysis, the film is marred by bad CGI eclipsing the stunts that were actually performed. The spirit was right, but Bond lacked credibility because the world around him got serious and confused. He needed a different approach.

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Now that Casino Royale is wowing audiences, it seems Bond’s timing to reinvent himself is right. In this day and age, perhaps we need a Bond who is all work and no play. Real-life Blofeld’s exist and it seems necessary to restart Bond, reintroducing himself to a new world; a far more dangerous one. What saddens me is that the previous Bonds all did it with a sense of fun and a great deal of wit and charm. Now Daniel Craig’s Bond is poised to be tough and desensitized. There’s something wholly out of touch by a Bond who is desensitized to me. Bond needs to have a soul and a wit that’s uncompromising. I hope it comes through later on with Craig’s Bond.

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Perhaps it’s because James Bond movies don’t just rely on the performance of the actor playing Bond. The villains, the gadgets, the women, the locations, the music—all of it contribute so much to a Bond film. To have them stripped away isn’t getting rid of a formula; it’s stripping away a cinematic identity. Bond films are the only movies that created its very own niche; its very own genre and there is much merit to that. Call me crazy, but as a budding filmmaker, one would want to be involved in such an established franchise. One of the first questions asked to us in film school was “what would you do with a James Bond movie?” Many composer friends have mentioned to me of the dream of “scoring a Bond film.” This is what disappointed me in Bond’s latest adventure; not much is referred to what creates a Bond film. Over forty years of creating something unique, is now stripped off of anything special. It’s like watching a film noir with all the characters perfectly lit. Or Indiana Jones never brandishing a whip. Can you imagine Star Wars without “May The Force Be With You?” I know I can’t.

These movies need to be looked at as a whole, and yes, it’s unfair to be so cold to Craig’s Bond as he has just started his run as the man in the tux. Looking back at the Bond films recently, I realized that there’s really not much merit, in this blogger’s opinion, to rank the actor’s who played Bond. Bond’s own identity shifts with the times, but his character will always be the same. Each five have contributed a lot to a character that never lost his true character: a man with rapier wit, lethal charm and ruthless determination.

Here are my takes on the eras of Bond. Going from most recent to the very first one.

The Brosnan Era

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Still the most successful Bond in terms of earnings, I find The Broz’s take on Bond the most fascinating. His introduction as Bond in GoldenEye is probably the best but there’s a lot of veneers in The World Is Not Enough, that are rather interesting choices for Bond. His execution of Elektra King (Sophie Marceau) caused a huge uproar by purists (mostly Moore fans) as it was the most cold-blooded killing of a woman by Bond to date. For anyone who doubted The Broz considering him a poor Bond, watch his kill of Elektra. A layered, nuanced moment in perhaps the second best of his era. There’s much to be said for taking a franchise in its all time low and taking it to all new highs. Much of what makes the Broz’s Bond so delicious are the subtler things; the dodging of bullets in GoldenEye as he preps his gun, the way his eyes check out the ridiculous Christmas Jones (Denise Richards). “First things first” he says, obviously alluding to the only reason why she’s in the film, and the delivery of “No more foreplay.” He also fits Ian Fleming’s physical description to a tee. Many Bond fans consider this era the second golden age of Bond, thanks to the right elements, particularly the hiring of David Arnold as the composer of the new Bond films. Arnold hits all the right diminished notes a la John Barry.


Best Brosnan Bond Movie:
GoldenEye, then The World Is Not Enough

Best Brosnan Bond Song: It’s a three-ring toss-up: Tina Turner’s GoldenEye is seductive, Garbage’s sultry The World Is Not Enough is the epitome of the classic Bond song with wailing horns and progressive minor chords but I’d have to give it to k.d. lang’s Surrender by a hair, the end credits song in Tomorrow Never Dies.
Best Brosnan Bond Villain: Elektra King in The World Is Not Enough, Trevelyan in GoldenEye

Best Brosnan Bond Girl: Xenia Onatopp (Famke Jansen) in GoldenEye

The Dalton Era

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Dalton’s Bond is highly underrated. It was a serious take that actually had the right amount of subtle humor. Dalton’s Bond was highly volatile (as experienced in License to Kill) but you still didn’t miss the notion that he could have a dandy ol’ time (something that Daniel Craig can take a few notes from). There is believability to him that many overlooked and his Bond might just be ahead of its time. His Bond can kick major arse but he knows how to balance the two opposing notions that make Bond; serious but witty. When he unexpectedly lands on a yacht in the Mediterranean with a woman who “can’t seem to find a real man in her life,” Dalton’s Bond goes from dead-serious to debonaire. She invites him for a drink and suddenly there’s a slight twinkle in the eye. A perfect Bond moment if there ever was one.

Best Dalton Bond Movie: The Living Daylights

Best Dalton Bond Song: If You Asked Me To by Patti LaBelle. Popularized by Celine Dion, but in true Bond-ian fashion during the end credits of License to Kill

Best Dalton Bond Villain: Hands down, Sanchez (Robert Davi) in License to Kill

Best Dalton Bond Girl: Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto) in License to Kill simply because she’s hot.

The Moore Era

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Roger Moore’s Bond had the best villains: Scaramanga, Jaws, Zorin, May Day, Dr. Kananga! But if anything Moore’s Bond was the wittiest and most engaging, even if it goes overboard. He brought that “elegance under fire” charm to Bond with such poise and ease. Even though it may have made Bond a bit more effeminate and less lethal, his Bond had wonderful moments. I still get a kick when Jenny Flex (Allison Doody) introduces herself to Bond in A View To a Kill. His response, “of course you are.” Effortlessly Bond.

Best Moore Bond Film: For Your Eyes Only

Best Moore Bond Song: A tie between Paul McCartney’s Live and Let Die and Duran Duran’s A View To a Kill or Carly Simon’s Nobody Does It Better from The Spy Who Loved Me

Best Moore Bond Villain: Jaws (Richard Kiel) Need I say more?

Best Moore Bond Girl: Dr. Holly Goodrider (Lois Chiles) in Moonraker is a fave of mine, but Jane Seymour as Solitaire in Live and Let Die is unforgettable.

George Lazenby

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A very athletic Bond, George Lazenby’s Bond is young and naïve, attractive and flawed. Lazenby’s lucky to have starred in probably one of the best Bond movies to date, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. There are striking similarities to this film with the new Bond film; Bond contemplating resignation, falling truly in love, a more sarcastic James Bond, etc. There’s very little to go by as he only made one Bond film but I think the true success of this film lies with the music (the best John Barry James Bond score which was openly imitated by Michael Giacchino for The Incredibles) and Diana Rigg as Mrs. Bond. I think it’s apparent that Lazenby lacks the acting ability when he does his scenes with Rigg, who ranks high among Bond girls.

The Connery Era

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The epitome of James Bond. Sean Connery had the privilege of working closely with Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator, giving him insight to the character and if Brosnan nailed Bond, and Daniel Craig is refreshing as Bond, Connery IS Bond. He paved the way for the world’s most famous secret agent, and even though his last “official” outing as Bond in the strange but fascinating Diamonds Are Forever was a bit uneven, Connery help shape a legendary character.

Best Connery Bond Film: Goldfinger
Best Connery Bond Song: Nancy Sinatra’s You Only Live Twice and Shirley Bassey’s Goldfinger

Best Connery Bond Villain: Blofeld. The best Blofeld is Donald Pleasance in You Only Live Twice

Best Connery Bond Girl: Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman)

The Name’s Bond . . . I guess.

On the surface, Casino Royale is a good movie. It’s just not a James Bond movie.

Not yet, anyway. I’m not saying this as a loyalist to a franchise that’s almost half a century old.

But then again the franchise is almost half a century old so to throw away some of the conventions of a Bond movie seems a little backwards. Why does an iconic film character have to earn his stars and stripes all over again? It’s okay with comic book characters because they’re always being reinvented all the time by artists and numerous interpretations through wonderful graphic novels. James Bond found his way through the world of film and, believe it or not, set the standards for action conventions. If I wanted to see a human James Bond I’ll wait till next year when The Bourne Ultimatum comes out. Why should the new James Bond be like Jason Bourne? Bourne has become the better franchise, even after this overrated and bloated movie. (It’s way too long with a neverending third-act.)

True, Die Another Day wasn’t much of an entry but it had the right spirit. Yes, the franchise has had its lows but it also had its share of highs. To disregard the high points of such an established franchise leaves a bad after taste to Bond afficianados. There is a reason why the franchise has lasted this long, no matter what you may think of it.

With Daniel Craig as the new Bond, it just feels forced. The guy can act no doubt, as we saw in last year’s Layer Cake, but let’s face it. He’s just downright ugly. “I’m all ears,” Craig’s Bond says in one scene, obviously poking fun at his own appearance. When did Bond have to mock his own looks?

Daniel Craig’s not a bad James Bond, really. He actually reminds me of Timothy Dalton who was an equally gritty and realistic Bond. But Dalton’s Bond knew how to have a good time. Craig mostly mugs and grunts his way through Bond. Not an inkling of what would (and should) become a collection of Sean Connery’s charms, George Lazenby’s looks, Roger Moore’s wit, Timothy Dalton’s finesse and Pierce Brosnan’s playfulness.

Casino Royale misses the magic primarily because it is so blatant in reaching its target demographic, perhaps the same demographic that lined-up overnight for the studio’s PlayStation 3 outside stores. For example, the plot revolves around Bond having to beat ubervillain Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a banker for the terrorist elite in a high-stakes game of Texas hold’em poker! (Dorm room crowds rejoice! A game you can understand!) Wouldn’t baccarat be a bit more realistic game to play for the likes of Bond and Le Chiffre? When a bartender asks if Bond wants his martini shakened or stirred, Bond quips, “Do I look like I care?” Dashingly smug is one thing, but being downright sarcastic loses the Bond-ian charm. If the writer’s were gonna do that, then they should have just changed the man’s drink. The movie, perhaps unintentionally, lacks a real sense of humor and a real sense of fun.

They call it a reinvention much like Batman Begins. Perhaps what they should have done to the franchise is rejuvenate it more than reinvent. I can look at all the past Bond films and catch all the highlights, (even with Die Another Day) proving to naysayers and revisionists that Bond films aren’t as trite as one might take them to be. A rejuvenation would mean not to go dark and macho (which is the obvious choice), but to actually give the conventions to a more apt filmmaker, like Tarantino or Soderbergh.

Perhaps future installments of the new Bond will harken back to golden ladies, babes with scandalous names, cool gadgets, Miss Moneypenny and Q. I look forward to it. I’ll give Daniel Craig another go come Bond 22. But right now this baby Bond leaves much to be desired and perhaps us Bond fans just aren’t used to it. Or maybe this is the end of the Goldfinger era. No more outlandish movies. Too bad. Looking back at it, that’s what made Bond such a cinematic experience different from anything else out there. Now he’s just another spy movie in the post-9/11 world.

James Bond is a ‘relic of the Cold War’ as M (Judi Dench) tells Bond in GoldenEye. In Casino Royale, she says she simply misses the Cold War entirely.

So do I, ma’am. So do I.

RATING: C+