James Bond is one of those rare characters who transcends characterization and has, instead, become a concept against which a formula may hang comfortably. In every Bond movie, you can always count on an opening action scene that may or may not have much to do with the rest of the movie, an opening briefing with M (including a flirtatious moment with Miss Moneypenny, M’s secretary), an equipment check with Q (who supplies Bond with some array of gadgetry both novel and ridiculous), and then off to a cool foreign location to sleuth out the problem, seduce a woman who is not his co-star, get involved in an action sequence that introduces the villain’s top henchman, meet the real female co-star, be put on the back foot by the bad guy, go back after the bad guy, and then engage in an extended action finale that often involves Bond taking on the villain’s henchman and then the villain himself, all against a backdrop of a mass battle between the villain’s army of foot soldiers and those who have come to back up Bond…either the Royal Marines, the U.S. military, a band of friendly mercenaries…whatever. The bad guy dies, the evil plot is foiled, and Bond caps it all off with one final roll in the hay with his female accomplice, as a kind of epilogue. Done, done and…done. See you in another three years or so.
For a very long stretch of films, from Dr. No to Die Another Day, this was the formula, and the only thing that ever really offered true differentiation was who was playing Bond at the moment. The conversation was never about which Bond movie was your favorite. The conversation was always about who was your favorite Bond. I grew up watching Roger Moore play Bond; that is, when I began watching Bond movies, he was the Bond whose movies were playing at the theatre. Connery was awesome, but the Bond I knew was Moore, and it’s something for which I’ve received no amount of stick over in the years that followed. Fair enough; Moore’s Bond might have performed well at the box office, but man, he was smarmy as hell. The other Bonds round out the pantheon: Dalton, Brosnan, that one guy who played Bond once and is forever forgotten…except as that one guy who played Bond once and is forever forgotten. Lazenby! George Lazenby…I think.
Don’t get me wrong; I loved James Bond movies growing up. Watched them all the time. And while their formula was a welcome thing to a young viewer, after a time, it took on the same kind of predictability as Thanksgiving dinner, something you enjoy at the time, but don’t necessarily spent a huge amount of effort looking forward to until the day it happens.
Then they rebooted Bond and it all changed. And in every way that matters, it changed for the better. Daniel Craig was cast as the new Bond, and until that first movie came out, there was a lot of chatter about whether Bond should be blonde, is Craig too jacked up bodywise, who the heck is Daniel Craig anyway…and so on. Then we got Casino Royale in 2006, Quantum of Solace in 2008 and Skyfall in 2012 (after a brief delay thanks to financial troubles at MGM studios).
Casino Royale tells the story of 007’s first mission as a 00 agent, which makes us wonder, given the fact that Judi Dench played M for both the Brosnan Bond films and also for the Craig films, whether 007 is only a designation held by numerous agents and Craig’ is merely the latest to hold it (as well as the pseudonym James Bond), or whether this is a total reboot and Dench was the only thing from the old days worth keeping. Personally, I like the first idea – that paves the way for us to have all kinds of actors playing Bond once Craig leaves. Guys like Idris Elba, who I am certain would totally rock as Bond, and who would give all the right kind of people heart attacks. There are folks who could stomach a black American president, but cannot handle a black James Bond. Bring it on.
Quantum of Solace picks up the very moment Casino Royale ends, and where Casino Royale might be criticized for being too slow and methodical (though I quite liked the style and pacing of it), Quantum of Solace could be criticized for being too breathless and action-oriented. The whole thing is an extended fight and chase scene, which, for as well done as it is, feels like too much of a good thing. It also feels too much like the Bond franchise trying to emulate the Bourne franchise, which sort of stole its thunder before the Bond reboot.
The third film, Skyfall really hits a nice stride, with the right blend of everything, and feels like finally, we’ve got a Bond movie that is for nearly everyone. It dares to get personal with Bond’s characters, as well as those he works with, and we get – dare I say it – a kind of intimacy with this character we have never seen before. The stakes involved in this one are on a grand scale, sure, but even then, the plot at hand is all a delivery mechanism not to destroy the world, but to destroy very specific people in it. What a delightful inversion. I loved it.
Given the success of these three films, we can rest assured more Bond movies are to come, with or without Craig at the lead. But for all I care, if these three Bond movies were the only Bond movies ever made, I’d be alright with that.
Bond 2.0 finally offered me something I had always been searching for but could never find: an interesting James Bond. I didn’t want a great Bond movie so much as I wanted a great James Bond. I never cared for how Connery’s Bond seemed to really disdain the women he seduced, or how Moore’s Bond seemed to have this weird creepiness, or how Dalton’s Bond was trying too hard, or how Brosnan’s Bond sort of walked through the role after having waited for it for just a little too long. But with Craig, I got a Bond that was finally a person rather than a persona. We see from the very beginning what kind of damaged human being is required to fill the role of a 00 agent. And we see how Bond’s damage keeps piling up on him. He is an orphan with significant emotional and psychological baggage to begin with. When we see him tortured in Casino Royale, we see the effort fail not because Bond is tougher than his torturers, but because Bond is a guy who is already in so much pain it takes that much more effort to get through to the part of his psyche that can still be hurt. We then see Bond’s heart broken, we see him chase an unsatisfying revenge throughout Quantum of Solace while learning to trust others. And in Skyfall, We see him deal with a more literal kind of injury that leaves him wounded in more ways than one, and we see him understand what it means to be loyal in a business that rewards betrayal. The journey Bond takes over the course of just three movies – Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall – covers more ground and develops Bond more deeply that every other Bond movie ever made, put together.
And that is why I love these movies. Until it was rebooted, the Bond franchise had to be the biggest series of movies ever made around a central character about whom we knew almost nothing, who was himself virtually non-existent, and who did very little to make us care about the action surrounding him. We didn’t care about Bond so much as the mess he was in, which is fun for a while, but afterwards becomes a hollow exercise. The Bond reboot decided to acknowledge the fact that hero like Bond can only do what he does for so long, and it ratchets him back from a superhero to just a hero. And in doing so, it makes him ten times as cool, fifty times as interesting and a hundred times more enjoyable to watch.
The other thing I love about the new Bond movies is that it never lets its storytelling become a parable of the kind of post-9/11 world we all now live in. It resists the temptation to make really hamfisted political statements, all while acknowledging that the world has indeed changed, and we really do have more to fear from a guy in a plane with a boxcutter than a crazed tycoon with an orbital space laser. Meanwhile, the new Bond movies never fail to remind us that when it comes right down to it, guys like Bond are the sort we would never want to hang around our house, but they are precisely the ones we’d want to defend our way of life. The duty of protection has always fallen to the wayward and the misfit, and the new Bond fits that bill so perfectly, you might be forgiven for thinking that Bond is cool…but not that cool. There is something unhinged about him, almost. It is the same kind of unhinged quality that equips him to do the dirty work that must be done. Bond goes to hell and back because he’s the only guy who already understands the landscape, and because of that, nobody else has to. The same is true of all of the everyday heroes we see in our daily lives, the cops, the firefighters, the paramedics, the teachers, the construction guys, the holder of every job too tough or too trying for anybody else to have except those who have it. They are all worthy of applause. Most of us walk through life not realizing that. But the new Bond tips its hat toward it, and it makes these more than mere spy movies. It makes them movies about the people who step up. And that is why these are some of My Favorite Movies.
But what about…the Bourne movies?
Don’t worry. I’ll get to them. And yes, I like them more than the new Bond flicks. A lot more, in fact. But that discussion is still a little ways away.
But what about…Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy?
It might seem weird to compare this movie to the new Bond franchise, since the two movies are so incredibly far apart from each other in terms of subject matter, tone and execution (pardon the pun). But for me, there is a through-line in both, since they each deal with the collateral damage one incurs to oneself merely by being in the spy business. While the new Bond movies gloss it over while leaving just enough to remain interesting, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy wallows in it to such a depth that you soon lose any interest in espionage whatsoever, and look forward toward returning to your perfectly mundane gig at the mall or waiting tables or filling out TPS reports or whatever. Not to say that TTSS isn’t good – it is very good. But it is also the kind of movie you only ever want to watch once, despite the fact that it is replete with terrific performances and the gloomy dread of Cold War cloak-and-dagger. That stuff I said about how the new Bond reminds you that we rely on people we’d rather ignore to do our dirty work for us? Well, TTSS really gets into that, and to such a degree that you eventually come around to the story’s own conclusion: that none of it is really worth all the lives it has wasted. A fair point, and one well worth making. And one that makes you feel a little dirty for enjoying Bond’s escapist adventures so much. TTSS is like that plate of vegetables you serve to a kid: perhaps not enjoyable now, but still worth it. This one easily makes my Most Memorable list, but it misses my Favorite list by the margin of a single, suppressed bullet shot in the dark.