Sunday, November 6, 2011

Some Bonds Are Hard To Break

Well, it's official: one year from today, November 6, 2012 (assuming the Mayans don't get their way) we'll have a new James Bond adventure: Skyfall.

I don't know what it is about British characters that allow a wide variety of actors to play the same role. Going all the way back to Shakespeare, the British have had a knack of creating theatrical roles that can be played by various actors without diminishing their predecessors. For example, eleven actors have played the role of the Time Lord known as The Doctor on the long-running Doctor Who, and each has their defenders (and detractors). Same goes for the MI6 super-spy James Bond. As of this writing, six actors have played 007 in the 22 official Bond films (not counting the quasi-official spoof Casino Royale and in the most curious case, the original James Bond actor in the non-canonical Never Say Never Again).

To many, the original is always the best. I am among those who believe Sir Sean Connery is the definitive James Bond, and he certainly had both the looks and talent to carry off the role.   In a strict, technical sense, Connery did not create the role (if we include television), but he is the one most identified with the part.  He was smooth, he was charming, but he was also ruthless and efficient.  The ease to which he could switch from a killer to a lover set the tone for the early Bond films, a strong mix of fantasy and action.

He began with the first Bond film (though not the first Ian Fleming Bond story): Dr. No, but opted to make the fifth Bond film, You Only Live Twice, his farewell appearance. Now, the inevitable question was raised: who could possibly replace Sean Connery and make a convincing James Bond?

I don't know what is most scandalous: that Connery's replacement was Australian (George Lazenby), that he had limited acting experience, that he was in only one Bond film (On Her Majesty's Secret Service), or that he wore a kilt.   In fairness to Lazenby, I have yet to see On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and he left the role by his own free will (which always makes me think of how Lilia was pressed to marry Dathan in The Ten Commandments--by her own free will, yet I digress).  My friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. (who may or may not be dead), did what I plan to do (more on that later), and he said On Her Majesty's Secret Service was actually one of the better Bond films. 

Lazenby was convinced to leave this franchise by his agent (smart move, kid).  Yet the franchise couldn't just stop.  Enter Connery again, who was back as Bond for (seemingly) his last bow, in Diamonds Are Forever.  That, however, was it for Connery as Bond.

Well, Sir Roger Moore had a better grasp of what Bond could be.  He was more the ladies man, and he played Bond with more humor than Connery and certainly more than Lazenby.  It wasn't as if he was a stranger to the spy genre (my mother STILL remembers him as The Saint), so 007 was perhaps a variation on a theme.  He also has the bonus of being the first James Bond to cross the color line in his very first outing as Bond: Live and Let Die

As the series went on, something started to go wildly wrong.  It wasn't that Moore wasn't effective as our secret agent (he holds the record for the most Bond films at seven).  Rather, it was that some of his later Bond films were becoming too jokey, too comic.  The stories were becoming more fanciful, almost outlandish, in order to try to top the previous efforts.  Some of Moore's Bond films almost looked like they were trying to copy the current trends in film (blaxploitation: Live and Let Die; Smokey & the Bandit-type chases with the hick sheriff: Live and Let Die AND the following Bond film, The Man With The Golden Gun; James Bond in Space: Moonraker).   Some of the henchmen became more popular than the main character (how else to explain having The Spy Who Loved Me's Jaws return in Moonraker).  To my mind, there was nothing wrong with having some fun with the material, but it always ran the risk of making James Bond more a joke than a serious action character. 

However, a bizarre situation came up during Moore's tenure.  Moore's penultimate Bond film (Octopussy) premiered four months before, once again, Sean Connery popped up in a competing James Bond film (the aptly titled Never Say Never Again).  Now, I haven't seen Never Say Never Again, but from what I understand it is basically a remake of Thunderball (one of the few Ian Fleming stories that, due to a series of odd circumstances, longtime Bond producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli didn't have the film rights to).  It's hard to say at the moment which is the better project.

Finally, Moore made a mistake that even he realized later (though far too late): he simply stayed in the role too long.  His final James Bond adventure, A View To A Kill, was the best evidence to how Moore simply was too old to make any of it believable.  He was 57 at the time (and looked every bit of it), but to make matters worse, his co-star/love interest/Bond Girl (Tanya Roberts) was only 30.  How does one convince an audience that somehow 007 isn't romancing someone old enough to be his daughter? Even more horrifying, in real life Moore was older than Roberts' mother!

With that, Roger Moore finally left the role, so we need another James Bond.

Timothy Dalton's era as James Bond appears to divide the Bond fans I know.  Some think that he was a disaster from the get-go.  Others, like my friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. (who may or may not be dead), have been pretty strong defenders of Dalton as 007.

In an odd twist, Dalton was one of the early favorites to take the role from of all people, George Lazenby.  At the time, he felt he was far too young for the role, but now he got his chance.  I have always felt he is hampered by being in only two Bond films (The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill).  Therefore, I don't know if he ever got a fair shake as 007.  From what I've seen, his James Bond is angrier than Connery or Moore, more tense, not as interested in bedding a bevy of beauties and more interested in taking out the bad guys.  Still, a truly fair assessment can only be made after watching the sum of the Bond canon.

Pierce Brosnan had all but been auditioning for James Bond for more than five years.  Anyone who doesn't think Remington Steele wasn't a variation of Bond is pretty naive.  In fact, he would have starred as 007 if not for NBC's decision to keep him as Remington Steele for another season, thus preventing him from taking the role at the time Dalton was around.  Now, was his chance.

Brosnan was far more smooth than Dalton, bringing a bit of the swagger Moore had.  He could also be just as efficient in dispatching the villains as Connery could.  It looked like a renaissance.  However, the world got in the way.  As the prime agent against Soviet expansion, what happens to a Cold Warrior when the Cold War ends (in victory for our side, I might add)?   GoldenEye addresses this post-Cold War conundrum, but after that, I think the Bond series got a bit lost.  Now, with no major adversary to contend with a la those Commies (save for the Chinese and North Koreans), James Bond now had to go against evil tycoons. 

Perhaps I'm putting in my own views on things, but I always got the sense that Brosnan's Bond was slowly becoming a little more p.c. (politically correct) in his adventures.  In GoldenEye I think we had to know that the British did bad things in World War II, in Tomorrow Never Dies, the villain is a Rupert Murdoch-substitute.  I kept wondering if the series had gone on a little longer, would 007 be fighting alongside Greenpeace?

I think the invisible car from Die Another Day (that damn invisible car as Fidel would always refer to it) was one gadget even the most die-hard Bond fans couldn't accept.  It also, coincidentally, was the final Pierce Brosnan Bond film.

We have now the newest (as well as the blondest, and at a mere 5'10", the shortest*, and certainly the moodiest) Bond: Daniel Craig. His is a grittier, angrier Bond. He doesn't care about martinis, he doesn't care about being surrounded by a bevy of beauties, he doesn't care about exotic locales. He isn't interested in any of that. He SHOULD be interested, though, in getting a good psychiatrist.  I joked after watching his second turn as 007 that Quantum of Solace is how Craig's Bond would describe his state of mind.  In short, Daniel Craig's James Bond is more interested in being on a psychiatrist's couch than being on the psychiatrist herself.

I never warmed up to Daniel Craig as 007.  He always struck me as being perpetually unhappy about having to be an action star (which only makes me wonder why he took the role).  In both Casino Royale and Quatum of Solace, there is no joy, no sense of fun or of fantasy.  The Craig-era Bonds (so far) are plagued by the same things that are bringing down the Christopher Nolan Batman films: this sense of hyper-reality, that it has to be totally real.  To me, James Bond was always going to be wish fulfillment, fantasy, not to be taken too literally. 

That's not the road the Craig-era Bond films have so far taken.  I can't recall anything about Casino Royale or Quantum of Solace that is definitive Bond: no Miss Moneypenny, no gadgets, no beautiful locales (or particularly beautiful women with exotic names from Honey Ryder and Pussy Galore through Plenty O'Toole and Holly Goodhead down to Xenia Onatopp and Christmas Jones up to Jinx), no great title song.  They've even stolen the iconic entrance where James Bond walks slowly then turns to shoot at us.  What the hell? 

I imagine part of it was to please Daniel Craig--he's an ACTOR, damnit, not a mere action star.  I imagine he wanted to have the world remember he's a thespian, and his way of doing that is to look perpetually surly and never smile.  Did he ever smile in Casino Royale or Quantum of Solace?  Even as he was bedding the agent Miss Fields (sadly wasting the chance to use her first name, Strawberry) in Quantum of Solace, he looked terribly bored, as if love-making was a perfunctory act, not something fun or remotely pleasurable.  It also led to a particularly terrible sight I've dubbed the "Oil-finger" moment which was neither fun or clever.

Which brings us to Skyfall.  I have nothing to say about that now.  I'm not overwhelmed by the director (Sam Mendes) or the villain (Javier Bardem), but I am heartened to hear that at long last, Miss Moneypenny will return!  Perhaps this is a sign that the current production team realized that with Quantum of Solace they might have gone overboard in making their version of a Bourne film and have opted to make an actual James Bond movie rather than a BINO--Bond In Name Only.  It would be nice to see an actual James Bond film, rather than movies featuring a character named James Bond but who is always grouchy, moody, unpleasant to be around, and generally takes himself too damned seriously.

Well, now we move on to the largest retrospective we've ever attempted: every James Bond film from Dr. No through Quantum of Solace.  Out of the 23, I'm surprised I've only missed ten.  However, my memory is a bit vague on some of the ones I have seen.  I should point out that for review purposes, I AM counting the quasi-Bond film Never Say Never Again in this retrospective but not the original Casino Royale.  Why?  Well, the first Casino Royale is a spoof and is meant to be a joke (not like some of the other official Bond films that just turned out that way). 

I will go in chronological order, starting from Dr. No right up to Skyfall.  Therefore, they will be:

Dr. No
From Russia With Love
You Only Live Twice
On Her Majesty's Secret Service
Diamonds Are Forever
Live And Let Die
The Man With The Golden Gun
The Spy Who Loved Me
For Your Eyes Only
Never Say Never Again
A View To A Kill
The Living Daylights
Licence to Kill
Tomorrow Never Dies
The World Is Not Enough
Die Another Day
Casino Royale
Quantum of Solace

I won't just be reviewing and ranking the Bond films themselves.  I will also tackle the serious subject of ranking the Bond Girls (sorry, Gloria Steinem, I'll always refer to them as Bond GIRLS) and the Bond Songs.  I am also thinking of ranking Bond villains, but that is not for certain.

I love the Bond films (even the weaker ones: here's looking at you, Moonraker and A View to A Kill).   I confess to not being a fan of only one Bond film (Quantum of Solace), mostly because it wasn't a Bond film to my mind.   I have mixed emotions about Skyfall: if it opts to bring back more of the traditional Bond features, it signals a road to recovery.  If it decides to be more hyper-reality nonsense, it may be that SPECTRE has finally triumphed.

* The average height for the actors playing James Bond pre-Craig has been 6 ' 1 1/2".  Connery at 6' 2 1/2" is the tallest, while Lazenby and Dalton are 6' 2".  Brosnan stands 6' 1 1/2" while Moore is half an inch shorter.  Daniel Craig, however, stands a mere 5' 10", which is by no means short but still it makes him the smallest James Bond as of this date.   


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