Saturday, August 28, 2010

The End of James Bond?

Back in April the producers of the James Bond film series announced that the next film is on indefinite hold due to the studio's financial troubles.

At the very least, this means a much longer wait before the next film in the series. Where "Bond 23" would have come out this year if the series continued with its accustomed regularity, it now seems the earliest possible release date is 2012, four years after Quantum of Solace.

Of course, the series has survived longer pauses than that. It's worth remembering, too, that Quantum was a success (unlike the comparative flops from which the series successfully bounced back in the late '70s and mid-'90s). And Daniel Craig is at an early enough point in his tenure in the role that additional films would remain a possibility even if the movie was launched years after that date. Besides, it sometimes seems as if the series is unstoppable, as if it has been around for far too many years through too much change for its end to actually be conceivable.

Still, it wouldn't be the first time that a profitable film series wound up in development hell, and it's anything but certain MGM will get its house in order soon. A much longer delay would complicate matters considerably. Particular cast and staff might no longer be available, and much has already been made of Craig's signing on with another projected series, the planned Hollywood film version of Stieg Larsson's trilogy of Millennium novels (the first film in which seems likely to hit screens before Bond 23). With the passing of time the pressure to shake things up again would mount, and even if the series has pulled it off successfully a number of times in the past, it's by no means certain that the series' producers would manage it again, while the cost of a misstep, like a poorly timed theatrical release, or a poorly thought-out publicity campaign (both of which have happened before in series history) could mean another longer-than-usual pause after that film. Reflecting what has been on many minds, the cover story of the August 6 issue of Entertainment Weekly asked nothing less than "Is James Bond dead?"

Perhaps the venerable series has indeed come to an end.

To be honest, I don't know how to feel about that.

The Long Decline
The criticism has commonly gone that the James Bond film series's true glory days were in the '60s (four decades ago now), and that since then the films have been carried by new actors, new gadgets, new settings, new gimmicks, new songs from trendy new recording artists, and of course, bigger and better action sequences and special effects in ever-slicker productions, all as the core story elements--and indeed, a few particularly successful variants on the well-known formula (expositions of which you can find here and here)--are endlessly recycled. Consider, for instance, how much of Lewis Gilbert's You Only Live Twice (1967) returned in 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me (another story in which the bad guys planned to bait and bleed the superpowers into a nuclear war to pave the way for a new order on Earth). In 1979's Moonraker, the alliance between Bond and a female secret agent from the Soviet Union (Anya Amasova) in the 1977 film was redone with American agent Holly Goodhead, while the madman, his fortress, his ambitions and even the theft from the British government that got Bond on his case in the first place, were reoriented or relocated from the sea to space. The same concept would return in 1997's Tomorrow Never Dies, with Bond teamed up with Chinese operative Wai Lin to thwart an attempt to start a war between the UK and the People's Republic. And so on and so forth. (Even particular novelties were being recycled, like the gadget-filled cars, yesteryear's Aston Martin giving way to a Lotus, then a new Aston Martin, and after that a BMW roadster . . .)1

Unsurprisingly, where the series once set the pace for much of pop culture, so that old franchises like Tarzan and Bulldog Drummond were redefined in its image during the late '60s, the Bond films were increasingly the imitators, going to unprecedented lengths to follow the trends set by others.2 Live and Let Die (1973) seized on blaxploitation, The Man With The Golden Gun (1974) on the international success of the martial arts movie, The Spy Who Loved Me on the splash made by Jaws, Moonraker on the post-Star Wars wave of space-themed movies.

There was, too, a pursuit of topicality in ways the series had once eschewed. The controversy over the use of tactical nuclear weapons to offset a perceived Soviet superiority in conventional forces in Europe found its way into the plot of 1983's Octopussy, the war in Afghanistan into 1987's The Living Daylights, while the "war on drugs" was the basis for 1989's Licence to Kill, and the Internet and post-Soviet Russia were at the core of the story in 1995's Goldeneye. (By contrast, the story goes that an early script for The Spy Who Loved Me had an alliance of real-world terrorists storming S.P.E.C.T.R.E.'s headquarters and liquidating its leaders was rejected as too political.3)

Of course, the pursuit of trendiness and topicality has its limits within such a well-defined framework as the Bond films, and there's little arguing that the spy game lost much of its "mojo" with the end of the Cold War, that true "golden age of spying."4 By that point Britain's place in world affairs was far more ambiguous than it had been in the late '40s when it was being eclipsed by the U.S. and Soviet Union. After all, despite its decline from its earlier imperial-hegemonic status, Britain had still weighed more heavily in the scales as an independent actor at the time when Bond first arrived on the pop cultural scene.5 Even after Britain became a "normal country," the Cold War conflict and NATO gave British policy a clear global thrust. Such convenient delineations have since vanished.

Things have changed in other ways as well. In the early Cold War intelligence was already an affair of large organizations and high technology--signals intercepts, reconnaissance aircraft carrying sophisticated cameras, code-breaking computers. The fact hadn't yet eaten very far into the lone spy's romantic aura, but half a century on the reality has moved much further in this direction, and popular perception has caught up with it. The trend has made it that much harder to gloss over the fact that the British government couldn't then, and can even less so now, afford the very biggest and best in this area, the way Fleming did in From Russia With Love (1957), where the excellence of British spies, in spite of the meagerness of their resources, was all by itself enough to win a grudging respect from the chiefs of SMERSH, who speculated that "the Public School and University tradition. The love of adventure . . . the myth of Scotland Yard, of Sherlock Holmes, of the Secret Service" made up for SIS's material shortcomings.6

The cachet of being a British secret agent is not immune to such developments, and the villains with their schemes for "taking over the world" have likewise come to seem like yesterday's men. I often find myself thinking of how Number Two berated Dr. Evil at the end of the first Austin Powers film (1997), uttering a line that transcended lightweight parody to become meaningful commentary on where we've been going these last many decades:
I spent the last thirty years of my life turning this two-bit evil empire into a world-class multi-national. I was going to have a cover story with Forbes. But you, like an idiot, want to take over the world. And you don't even realize that there is no world anymore! There's just corporations!
Charles Stross also put it quite nicely in the afterword to his "Laundry Files" novel The Jennifer Morgue:
The perfect criminal, should he or she exist, would be the one who is never apprehended . . . the one whose crimes may be so huge they go unnoticed, or indeed miscategorized not as crimes at all because they are so powerful they sway the law in their favor, or so clever they discover an immoral opportunity for criminal enterprise before the legislators notice it . . . When the real Napoleons of Crime walk among us today, they do so in the outwardly respectable guise of executives in business suits and thousand-dollar haircuts . . . I'm naming no names . . . [but] They have intelligence services! Cruise missiles!7
In short, perceptions of real-world heroism and villainy have fundamentally changed in ways that also affect the cachet of being a British secret agent.

At the same time, there's hardly any point to denying that the iconic status of the Bond films is strongly connected with their representing "the ultimate male fantasy" of prowess, sophistication and independence inside a world of luxury and pleasure (culinary, alcoholic, sexual, etc.), mobility, cool toys and decisive, triumphant action. There may have been a dark side to it all, which the series acknowledged every now and then, but neither flinched from nor wallowed in, something that has been changing for a very long time now. The makers of the films seemed increasingly uncomfortable with Bond's lifestyle--the smoking, the drinking, and even more so, the bed-hopping and interactions with women more generally. The producers in fact made an increasing effort to present the newer Bond girls as a match for Bond, or even more than a match, one-upping him or bailing him out with increasing frequency, or otherwise taking him down a peg. (Just compare the relationship between Bond and Anya, or Bond and Holly, back in the '70s, and the interaction between Bond and Pam Bouvier or Wai Lin, for instance--or May Day for that matter.) When Brosnan became James Bond, he got for his new boss a woman who constantly upbraided him for being an un-p.c. anachronism. (This was quite a different thing from watching Sean Connery or Robert Moore get a rise out of uptight old Bernard Lee with his antics, and one I found much less entertaining.) The dry martinis were non-negotiable for the time being, but Brosnan's Bond finally put away the cigarettes.

If the films were still presenting "the ultimate male fantasy," then they were doing it with a heavier and heavier freight of irony, and maybe even guilt too. Meanwhile the version of hedonism Bond represented--black tie in the Old World casino, Savile Row-tailored suits and all the rest--came to seem old-fashioned. That Bond became increasingly identified with older actors--a fifty-three year old Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again (1983), a fifty-eight year old Roger Moore in A View to a Kill (1985)--didn't help, and neither did the accumulation of so many moments when he seemed out of touch with the young. Think of Bond making a crack in Goldfinger about listening to the Beatles with earmuffs (ironically, Paul McCartney delivered one of the series' more memorable songs with Live and Let Die nine years later) or his awkwardness with young Bibi Dahl in 1981's For Your Eyes Only, bits played for laughs, but there they were nonetheless.8 On top of everything else the glamour of the jet age is dead, the excitement with which airline travel was once imbued now associated with mundane errands, hassle and even personal indignity rather than novelty and glamour as flying not only became more familiar, but as the service becomes lousier (and in the last decade, security much more intrusive), and the romance of faraway places has diminished considerably.9

As a result the things that made the character and the films engaging, appealing and even distinctive (a few trademark trappings, like the gun-barrel opening sequence or the catchy theme music aside) were fading away, even as the whole was becoming less fresh over time--the franchise now only one series of action movies among many, and not the one pushing the genre's envelope either. Even before the end of the 1960s Sergio Leone and Peter Yates and Sam Peckinpah left their own deep footprints in the action genre, and since then it has been other filmmakers, other writers, producers and directors--Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Joel Silver and Jerry Bruckheimer, Luc Besson and John Woo, Richard Donner and John McTiernan, James Cameron and the Wachowski brothers, among others--who have redefined the action movie and the cinematic blockbuster.10 Actors in other roles, too, have redefined the big-screen action hero, Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Lee and Bruce Willis, Michelle Yeoh and Angelina Jolie--to name just a few.11

Consequently, while the Bond films continued to deliver a good many memorable bits, nothing in the later movies ever became as iconic as the extras on that first Aston Martin (the ejection seat, the Ben-Hur blades), Odd Job's hat, the scene in which Goldfinger almost cut Bond in half with a laser, Ernst Stavro Blofeld's bald head and white Persian cat, or S.P.E.C.T.R.E.'s base inside a volcano. Certainly no action sequence out of the later Bond films was nearly so likely to be referenced, imitated or parodied as Indiana Jones' run through the South American temple at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), or the balletic violence of Neo and Trinity in The Matrix (1999). (Equally, while there was continual improvement in the special effects, Thunderball received the series's first and last Academy Award in that category.)

Unsurprisingly, the box office receipts tell the story. While Die Another Day was hailed as the series' biggest grosser to date, the adjustment of the films' earnings for inflation left it a distant fifth behind Thunderball (the $63 million earnings of which translate to $437 million in today's terms), Goldfinger ($387 million), You Only Live Twice ($211 million) and From Russia With Love ($190 million), respectively, back at the peak of the franchise's prominence.12 Certainly by the 1980s the slippage was apparent when the grosses are compared with those of other, contemporaneous hits. Yes, 1981's For Your Eyes Only and 1983's Octopussy were unambiguous successes that ended up safely among the top ten earners at the American box office in their years, #8 and #6 respectively (while Never Say Never Again made the #14 position for 1983). However, 1985's A View to A Kill only made the #13 slot (well behind Rambo II and Jewel of the Nile), The Living Daylights #19 (after Beverly Hills Cop II, The Untouchables, Lethal Weapon, Predator and Robocop), and Licence to Kill ended up all the way down at #36 (after Tim Burton's Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, and even Tango & Cash and Black Rain).13 It took six years before the next film revived the series' fortunes (and finally scored its first $100 million hit, long after such grosses had become routine--and even requisite--for major action movies).

Still, for quite a long time I didn't give this line of argument much thought. I understood it intellectually, but as a fan I was pretty uncritical, even though I was nearly alone among my friends and acquaintances in my enthusiasm. The average adolescent's cinematic memory doesn't seem to go back more than a few months, which at the time put the Bond movies, especially the ones that made the series a household name, way, way out of the pop cultural frame of reference of most of them. It was Schwarzenegger, and Steven Seagal, and Jean-Claude Van Damme that they were more likely to talk about. All the same, the release date of Goldeneye might as well have been a national holiday for me, and I similarly looked forward to the next two films, even though neither was nearly as much of an event, or quite as satisfying an experience.

It was when I saw Die Another Day (2002) that this started to change. Despite the longer than usual three year wait after the previous film, it seemed to me that the plot was, more blatantly than in just about any of the previous movies, a sharply scaled-down version of an earlier entry, specifically Diamonds Are Forever. The stakes for which the game was being played was nothing so grand as Cold War nuclear supremacy, but the military balance on the Korean peninsula (the film's treatment of which made far too much of the strategic value of the minefields on the south side of the DMZ, as if it were propaganda on behalf of the policy). Halle Berry's emergence from the sea in Cuba was not just presented but heavily publicized as an homage to Ursula Andress's first appearance in Dr. No (1962). (But you just can't go home again.) And Bond was going rogue--yet another time. (He'd already done it a number of times, most notably when he went off to avenge Felix Leiter in License to Kill.)

It was all quite backward-looking, as if the new films were nostalgic for the old ones, even as some of the last links with the series' earlier days were being broken. (The late Desmond Llewelyn, Q for nearly forty years, had passed on, replaced by John Cleese, whose work I've always enjoyed, but still . . .) I found the attempt to write in the War on Terror (of which the North Korean stuff was a part) clumsy. I didn't like that Madonna was brought in to do the theme song (just as I hadn't cared much for any of the new songs since Goldeneye), and given a cameo to boot. And at times the film felt less like a Bond movie than a Bond-and-Jinx movie. This was, apparently, no coincidence, the producers apparently having been thinking about creating a new franchise centered on her character. (The plans never came to anything, studio enthusiasm for female-driven action movies slackening a bit after the sequels to 2000's Charlie's Angels and 2001's Lara Croft both underperformed the following summer.)

Some of the action was also marred by disappointingly poor CGI.

Despite all its flaws I found the film quite watchable--but to say it felt inessential was to put it mildly. To be fair, I don't think it was just the film. Part of it may have been my own changing tastes; my getting older, and feeling more distant from the fantasy, I suppose, a process Richard Rayner described in an article he penned for Esquire about the release of Goldeneye fifteen years ago. I read Rayner's article at the time never believing I'd end up looking at the series with anything like such detachment, but that's where I was by the time Die Another Day came along.

What was more, I found myself increasingly agreeing with those who thought the franchise had been just going through the motions, plugging new factors into an old formula for a very long time, with more or less cleverness and skill, but little innovation. In fact, I was not particularly disappointed to hear the film series wouldn't continue in the same vein.

Continue.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello,

Your writings about 007 are the most intelligent, and best researched I've read.

I have been promoting my father's QUILLER series since he died in 1996, in a vague hope 'Q' will replace BOND someday.
Ironically one of my art collectors is Lewis Gilbert who would probably have a good laugh at my idea.
I believe 007 is on his way out of the building...

After 9/11, MGM bought the movie rights to QUILLER with in mind (I am told by my LA contacts) to rival 007 perhaps.

Anyway I enjoy your site very much.

Thank you.

Regards.

JP TREVOR

www.quiller.net

www.thinkshapes.com

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