Saturday, August 28, 2010

The End of James Bond? (Continued)

Still, I wasn't terribly intrigued by the idea of the "reboot" that was discussed some time afterward. I'm not big on remakes in general. Additionally, the truth is that the Bond series had already been overhauled any number of times, with the departure and arrival of new stars; with the need to recover from periodic commercial disappointments like The Man With The Golden Gun and Licence to Kill; and sometimes, simply in response to a drift too far in a given direction, even when the film had been commercially successful (as with Moonraker, a big money-maker that some felt was just too bloated and silly--much like Die Another Day).

That feeling didn't change as I found out more about the project, starting with its use of Fleming's Casino Royale. I was familiar with the novel, which I knew would not be easily fleshed out into a satisfying full-length action movie. I should also admit to having a bit of loyalty to the 1967 comedic version of the book produced by Charles K. Feldman. (It doesn't have a particularly good reputation, and I didn't think it was particularly good the first time I saw it for myself, but it grew on me during repeat viewings. By the fourth time I saw it, I thought it was a work of staggering genius.14)

The efforts of the publicists didn't help. They said there would be a return to the original concept, to a more realistic, darker story--but such statements are so routine in the promotion of remakes, reboots and the like as to be nearly meaningless. Besides, while I've enjoyed grounded efforts like 1963's From Russia With Love and For Your Eyes Only, a big part of what appealed to me about the Bond movies was the extravagant, over-the-top villains, plots, sets and action sequences that were more a part of the movies than the novels that inspired them (though Fleming certainly provided a good deal of the inspiration for it), and the distance of the whole from grim political reality, retro as all this may be.

I was--and still am--irritated that terms like "dark" and "gritty" are so often taken to be terms of praise, rather than descriptors, as if no other tone is even worth attempting. (I wonder at times if we as a culture haven't become so intellectually stunted and emotionally impoverished that things actually seem that way.)

And anyway, wasn't the darker, grittier approach a big part of what turned people off the series during Timothy Dalton's tenure in its lead role?

I also had my reservations about the casting of Daniel Craig as 007. I hadn't even heard of him at the time of the announcement. After I had (and realized that I'd seen him before in movies, like the 2001 Lara Croft, during which he'd barely registered, let alone seemed Bond-like) I wondered if, far from a return to roots, the idea wasn't to go as far away from the previous image as possible, simply for the sake of being different.

Still, I think I was fair-minded as I approached the 2006 film, and it's probably best to distinguish between my take on Casino as a Bond movie, and as a movie pure and simple.

To be honest, I didn't like the idea of an origin story for 007. Part of Bond's appeal is his appearance of being a superman living in a perpetual now, while still possessing a certain amount of mystery. To see him unpolished, rough around the edges, figuring things out, even hapless and hopeless (as he was at the end of his duel of wits with Le Chiffre), is not conducive to that. (Indeed, Ian Fleming himself didn't think much about Bond's past. He only invented one to round out the obituary in You Only Live Twice (1964).)

The update of the rather thin original novel didn't impress me on the level of plot either, even given the intrinsic difficulties of the source material. The stuff about terrorism was not just muddled, but a very poor contextual substitute for the Cold War game of this particular novel, and the Bond series in general. The blandness of the villain, whose characterization consisted mainly of a bleeding eye and an inhaler, didn't help. Additionally, while the film supposedly downplayed the gadgets (Q makes no appearance), the defibrillator in the car seemed awfully convenient to me.

More importantly, not only did the series seem increasingly ironic in the presentation of Bond's adventures; it was looking apologetic and even repentant, the discomfort with Bond's self-indulgences hitting a new peak. Not only was it the case that the traditional silhouetted women were left out of the opening credits, but the casual dalliances that were a routine feature of the old films were left out too, as were the bevies of beauties that had still less of a role in the story, but certainly contributed to the atmosphere. The Bond franchise actually seems to have become prudish about such things compared even with a TV show like Burn Notice (2006-) or Chuck, while film critic Vicky Allan found plenty of reason to write of Bond's own objectification as the culmination of the lengthy "feminization" of the films. (So much for the ultimate male fantasy!)

It seemed all too telling that every woman Bond actually got involved with died--first Solange Dimitrios (after only a very brief appearance), and then Vesper Lynd, this despite the significant alterations to the source material to make Lynd's actions appear more sympathetic (since, for all the talk of returning to the original, her original conceptualization wouldn't do). Before it was the case that Bond was playing a dangerous game in which people near to him--men and women--were at risk and often died (once in a film, and to his regret). Now Bond comes out of the situation looking like either a heartless cad, an outmaneuvered half-wit, or both, as M (who comes off as the most awful nag) shakes her head over yet another addition to the pile of corpses he is quickly accumulating. (Again, so much for male fantasy.)

At this point it hardly seemed worthwhile to wonder over whether Daniel Craig was a satisfactory Bond; I wasn't sure there was much of Bond left for him to portray.

As a plain old action film, I found Casino overlong and unevenly paced. I liked the early chase sequence at the construction site in Madagascar, but didn't think that any of the set pieces that followed it were as engaging (impressive as some of them were, like the chase at Miami airport, and the finale in Venice). I didn't like that Bond spent so much time looking at cell phone displays and computer screens; I suppose the mismatch between his analog heroics and the digital age jarred for me. (I have this problem with the Silicon Valley-soaked adventures of Chuck Bartowski as well.) And what time he didn't spend in an overlengthy IT product placement, he spent at the card table in a cinematic equivalent of a Celebrity Poker tournament.

A quick check of the comments on the Internet Movie Database showed that I was hardly alone in my response; this one was pretty polarizing, some loving it, some hating it, with the latter typically loyal to the older films. (Indeed, checking out the reaction I went through page after page of comments where ratings between one star and eight--out of a possible ten--were few and far between.)

All the same, the film was a big hit (not Thunderball-big, but certainly big enough to satisfy any reasonable commercial expectation), and two years later came Quantum of Solace, which was also a big hit, even if the critics were a bit less enamored of it.15 The new movie picked up right where Casino left off, but it had a good deal more zip than Casino, and an interesting bit of action here and there. It was also surprisingly loyal to the source material on a broad thematic level--one of the themes of Fleming's "Quantum of Solace" having been the corruption of foreign policy by economic interests, and the interference of major powers in the political life of Third World countries out of such motives.16

Still, while I was initially impressed by the film's political consciousness (Dominic Greene, far and away the series's most realistic villain to date, isn't the first to try to seize Bolivia's water supply), and the appearance that the series really was trying to do something different instead of just saying it was, I didn't think it would be reconcilable with the series' dynamics. Though the writing-directing team of Paul Haggis and Marc Forster was more successful in its attempt than I would have guessed (some parts of the script were perfectly on target), the need for a (relatively) happy ending that doesn't change things too much damages the effort's credibility and offers a reminder of at least one reason why it was best not to make the Bond films too relevant--the world's real problems are just not that simple, a point Fleming's original story more faithfully reflects. Simply put, you can have 007, and you can have Syriana, but you can't have the two in a single coherent package.17

It's notable, too, that the movie echoes the Dalton era at its most humorless, and that Bond and Camille Montes never even end up in bed together, an all too-telling first in series history. (Indeed, Olga Kurylenko's turn as Nika Boronina in Hitman the year before seemed more conventionally Bond girl-like.) Meanwhile Strawberry Fields fares no better than Solange Dimitrios in the last film. (This pattern, frankly, strikes me as more misogynistic than anything in the older films, and misandrous and generally misanthropic to boot. Is this a nod to theater of the absurd? Or are they taking a cue from those bad horror movies where an amorous moment is invariably followed by the monster or the killer striking again?)

A Real "Return to Roots?"
As of the end of 2008, the series was a strong financial performer, and seemed to please enough of the audience to promise to go on being that. Still, it hasn't quite found its footing creatively speaking, and the recent delays only increase the doubts about this, I suppose, because the thinking is going in the wrong direction--forward. Instead of continuing to update James Bond, maybe the thing to do is to leave him in the era from which he came; to go retro, as Mike Myers did with his parody of fiction's most famous international man of mystery in Austin Powers. Present 007 as a '60s-era agent in an era when the Cold War wasn't so cold, London was swinging, the romance of the secret agent man was a bit more vibrant, gadgets were pre-digital, and concessions to twenty-first century mores can be sidestepped in the name of "historical realism." (Mad Men did it, after all, and the show seems to be even more closely identified with the glamour of James Bond's original era than Bond himself is now. If the sitcom Community is anything to go by, it even seems Don Draper is being referenced in the way 007 used to be.)

In short, the new movie could be a lot more like the Connery-era Bonds, but with much more up-to-date FX. Call it "atompunk" or "jetpunk."18 Of course, I'm not sure how practical such a direction would actually be for a movie with a nine-figure production budget. Retro science fiction is very popular among genre fans, but really massive mainstream success has proven elusive. (As I have noted time and again, there have been plenty of steampunk-themed movies and television shows--but how many of those have been unqualified successes?19) And at last report, even the plans for a revival of the Matt Helm franchise have it going in the more serious direction of the new Bonds, and the Jason Bourne films which exploded at the box office during the last decade.

I'm not particularly enthusiastic about this idea either, but that's a whole other posting.

1. There was even an outright remake with Never Say Never Again, an update of Thunderball for the 1980s.
2. The Bond films have continued to be imitated, referenced, and parodied well after the '60s course, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas identifying Bond as an inspiration behind Indiana Jones, with the tendency continued all the way down through 1994's True Lies, the Austin Powers (1997, 1999, 2002), Spy Kids (2001, 2002, 2003) and Cody Banks (2003, 2004) series, 2002's xXx, 2003's Johnny English, and the ongoing television series Chuck (2007-). However, it's the original '60s-era conception that those involved respond to, rather than any significant innovations since then.
3. The non-EON Bond film Never Say Never Again also followed this trend toward trendiness and topicality, adding a paramilitary touch in the opening sequence with Bond looking like an SAS commando as he participates in the rescue of an ambassador's daughter from a rebel hideout in a jungle; the playing up of the novel's early health spa sequence, more prominent here than in the 1965 film; and the involvement of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. in contemporary Cold War and oil politics.
4. While the Bond films rarely featured the Soviets as Bond's primary antagonist (more often he was up against parties attempting to exploit the Cold War situation, like S.P.E.C.T.R.E. in From Russia With Live and You Only Live Twice, or Karl Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me), and even a Russian adversary was likely to be a rogue (like General Orlov in Octopussy or Georgi Koslov in The Living Daylights), the Cold War provided a complex, rich context for espionage fiction, for which the last two decades have offered no equivalent.
5. Through the 1950s and 1960s the country retained a good many more bits and pieces of its old empire. For all of the messiness and ugliness of the decolonization process (including the debacle of Suez, and the counterinsurgency campaigns in Kenya and Malaya), Britain was never involved in anything that produced the same sense of crisis as France's experience in Algeria during these years--while Germany was divided, and the European Union was still nascent. (In the earlier part of that period, the European Coal and Steel Community had barely been founded.) There had also been the prospect of the Commonwealth being an independent force in world affairs, and Britain continued to be a global military player of some significance. (It was, after all, just the third country to test a nuclear bomb, and in the 1960s still possessed both an air force with hundreds of strategic bombers, and a blue-water navy complete with full-deck fleet carriers that was regarded as second only to the U.S. in its capacity for "power projection." It also remained active in "keeping the peace east of Suez," demonstrating its capacities for long-range intervention in affairs like the 1963-1966 Konfrontasi with Indonesia.)
By the 1970s this had by and large passed, and since then the tendency has increasingly been to see Britain caught between its "special relationship" with a United States commonly seen as in decline, and its half-hearted participation in an ambiguous, ambivalent European Union dominated by France and an industrially and financially predominant united Germany.
6. Ian Fleming, From Russia With Love (New York: Penguin, 2004), pp. 42-43. Indeed, in Goldeneye the response was to grossly exaggerate British technical capabilities, conferring on it a network of British spy satellites advanced enough and extensive enough to provide continuous, high-res, real-time coverage of a site in northern Russia, even after one of the craft got fried by an electromagnetic pulse. In reality, Britain had no satellites of the kind.
7. Charles Stross, "Afterword: The Golden Age of Spying." In The Jennifer Morgue (New York: Ace, 2009), pp. 388-389.
8. Perhaps the most striking commentary on that generation gap was the opening scene of 2002's xXx, in which a tuxedo-wearing secret agent is killed outside a metal concert in Prague where he was all too conspicuous.
9. Part of this is the world becoming a smaller place due to changes in transport and media, and the homogenizing effects of modernization. However, there is also the discomfort with how the West has long depicted the Other and the taints of racism and imperialism in old ideas of the exotic. Paradoxically there have also been the backlashes attending wider, larger-scale immigration flows; intensified economic interaction across national boundaries, which has also meant intensified competition and friction; and the increasingly transnational character of problems like organized crime and terrorism. (In a particularly telling example, Aladdin's Baghdad became Agrabah in the Disney movie.)
10. James Cameron recently did it again with the release of his blockbuster Avatar (2009) in 3-D, which compelled
the decision to also release the next Bond film in this format
11. Generally the redefinition went in an antithetical direction, the sophistication and the sexuality comparatively muted. This was especially the case with the blue-collar types of the '80s, brawny, smart enough to do the job but not too polished, and generally one-woman or even no-woman men--like John Rambo (actually seen in a Buddhist monastery at the start of 1988's Rambo III) and John Matrix, and Chuck Norris's James Braddock. Even in True Lies, Schwarzenegger's Harry Tasker was a family man who never did more than flirt with Tia Carrere's Juno Skinner, and that only in the line of duty.
Of course, their era has since passed in its turn, Stallone's revival of the Rambo series (2008), and his newer film The Expendables (2010), are exercises in nostalgia, but the broader shift remains, quite evident in the Jason Bourne films (2002, 2004, 2007). As originally written by Robert Ludlum in the 1980 novel and its sequels (1985, 1990), Jason Bourne and Marie St. Jacques were grown-up, worldly, thirtysomething jetsetters, and they were played that way by Richard Chamberlain and Jacqueline Smith in the 1988 miniseries. Matt Damon and Franka Potente, however, come off like a couple of college kids backpacking around Europe.
12. It should be noted that these grosses were earned with much lower budgets than those invested in today's blockbusters. The first Bond film, Dr. No cost $1 million ($7 million after adjustment for inflation). Thunderall cost $5.5 million ($37 million), and You Only Live Twice--the biggest production until the late 1970s--$9.5 million ($60 million). Even Moonraker seems like a bargain today, its $30 million budget coming to about $87 million in today's dollars.
13. Admittedly, the weak performance of Licence to Kill in the American market was the exception, not the rule, the film's earnings in line with the preceding Bond films elsewhere. Additionally, defenders of the film attributed the poor U.S. gross to factors that had nothing to do with the movie's actual quality--such as a choice of title American viewers identified with standing in line at the DMV, a lackluster promotional campaign, and the exceptionally competitive summer season. However, the perception of failure was powerful enough to contribute to the long delay prior to the release of the next, quite different Bond film in 1995, and its scheduling not in the thrill ride-packed summer season, but the more open late fall period, still prestigious, but not so crowded with action movies.
14. Still, I was relieved that Quentin Tarantino would not be involved after all (and was somewhat encouraged by the selection of Martin Campbell, who'd done a good job with Goldeneye, as director, but only somewhat).
Tarantino actually owned the rights at one point, and frankly I've always regarded him as hugely overrated. A favorite line of mine in the film version of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People was Sidney Young's put-down of "talentless, pretentious" director Vincent Lepak as thinking that cinema began with Quentin Tarantino. To put it mildly, I'd met many of the type.
15. Casino took in $167 million at the North American box office, a little more than the last Brosnan film in dollar figures, a little less when adjusted for inflation, which got it the #9 spot that year, after Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest, X-Men 3: The Last Stand and Superman Returns (though it did somewhat better internationally, besting the two comic book-based movies to be the second-biggest action hit of the year globally).
16. The original short story mostly consists of Bond listening to a tale of marital woe, but the background to it has Bond in the Caribbean again, where he dropped thermite bombs through the ports of two cabin cruisers carrying weapons to Castro (at this point, still a rebel). Bond "hadn't wanted to do the job. If anything, his sympathies were with the rebels, but the Government had a big export program with Cuba" and the deal required the action. Fleming, "Quantum of Solace." In Quantum of Solace: The Complete James Bond Short Stories (New York: Penguin, 2008), p. 80.
17. The limits of the film as a political critique are encapsulated in Hiram Lee's review for the World Socialist Web Site.
18. There have already been some noteworthy examples of such fiction, like Charles Stross's "Missile Gap," and Edward Morris's "Journey to the Center of the Earth." The aesthetic of The Incredibles (2004) reflected such an influence.
19. Sherlock Holmes was a confirmed hit last year, but my guess is that it won't produce a broad enthusiasm for the genre to compare with earlier waves, like the rush of disaster movies seen in the '90s, or the sprawling historical or fantasy epics seen in the past decade.


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