Saturday, August 28, 2010

The End of James Bond?

Collected in The Forgotten 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: "[Y]ou, 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, observing that if there is such a thing as a "perfect criminal," it is the kind of criminal whose crimes are "so huge they go unnoticed, or indeed miscategorized not as crimes at all" because they have been a step ahead of the law, or powerful enough to get away with what they do--and in the process, "perceptions of real-world heroism and villainy have fundamentally changed in ways that . . . 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.


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.


Friday, August 20, 2010

Review: Matthew Reilly's Jack West Trilogy: Seven Deadly Wonders, The Six Sacred Stones, The Five Greatest Warriors

Seven Deadly Wonders. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006, pp. 401.

The Six Sacred Stones. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008, pp. 447.

The Five Greatest Warriors. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010, pp. 381.

While this review focuses on Matthew Reilly's last three books, given its focus it seems only fair to start off with a bit of context, taking a look at his earlier work, and what Reilly has said about what he's trying to do in it. In a note at the beginning of the North American edition of Reilly's first novel Contest (1996)1, Reilly notes that it was "a prototype for a different style of book--a superfast-paced, absolutely nonstop thriller . . . It is like a sports car stripped down to its raw components--wheels, frame, engine. No fancy paintwork. No fancy upholstery. Just raw nonstop energy" (ix-x). The results read more like a summer blockbuster, or even a video game, than a conventional novel, and he has since then continued writing in the same spirit, establishing in his next book (and first properly published book) Ice Station (1998) the pattern he would follow through Temple (1999) and Area 7 (2001).

Their basic structure was a secret three-way duel between special-operations forces teams at the remote, exotic, dangerous site named in the title over a mysterious and spectacular "MacGuffin" that plays out in something like near real-time, with a hint of grand conspiracy and paranormal/science fiction plot elements, typically involving historical mysteries and speculative technology. (In Ice Station, the scene was an Antarctic outpost where what may be an alien spacecraft has been discovered under the ice; in Temple, Amazonian ruins containing a rare extraterrestrial metal; in Area 7, a secret base in the American desert southwest.) In particular, those set-ups tend to involve normally friendly actors driven to rivalry by an extreme development. (In Ice Station the American heroes are up against the British and the French in the fight over the spacecraft in a lesson on old-fashioned international relations realism; in Temple, various branches of the American armed forces fight one another in a particularly extreme form of interservice rivalry; while in Area 7, the roster of enemies includes a traitorous American Air Force General taking the rift between "Red" and "Blue" states to its outermost limit.)

And of course, the story is dominated by heavily detailed, spectacular action sequences in which Reilly takes enormous liberties with everything from the performance of weapons systems, to the laws of physics--and of course, with simple logic. In line with action thriller convention, his set pieces presume

* Heroes with the bad luck to keep getting into awful, bloody messes, and the good luck to generally extricate themselves from them in one piece.
* Bad guys who can on demand raise legions of willing cannon fodder utterly unable to shoot straight.
* An indifference to logistics, one expression of which is the tendency of everyone to bring too much firepower along for any job. ("Bring along a rocket launcher to a drive-by shooting? Sure, why not?")
* The propensity of everything to explode in a giant fireball when attacked.
* An affinity for theatricality at the expense of practicality on the part of the principals--as with the villains who insist on explaining themselves before sticking the heroes in overly complicated death traps and stalking off; the propensity of the antagonist to force the protagonist into playing intricate games (if only as cover for some other, more practical objective); and the readiness of so many good guys and bad guys to cast aside the guns and resort to fisticuffs instead.

Many of these scenes take place in hyper-elaborate settings (like the underground base in Area 7) that add greatly to their complexity. The result is that they often run for fifty pages and come with accompanying diagrams, because words alone are not always enough to paint a clear picture of what's happening. In describing them his prose reads in places like a film script, complete with descriptions of screenshots, and in others like a fanboy who has just walked out of such a movie really excited and is breathlessly telling his friend all about what he saw (as is usually the case in the passages ending with exclamation points, of which there are many).

While often straining credulity to and past the breaking point with his plots, Reilly gets credit for not subjecting the reader to rehashes of tired scenarios, and while his development of them is often extravagantly over the top, many of them actually contain the germ of an intriguing idea or two. Reilly also tends to steer clear of the nationalistic chest-thumping, xenophobic appeals and political propagandizing that unfortunately characterize so much action-thriller writing (which would, perhaps, be a liability in a writer from such a small home market as Australia, and so more dependent on appealing to an international readership).

Additionally, while one may well take Reilly to task for the roughness of his prose, the slighting of character development, and the preposterousness of much of the action, it is still striking that he can come so close to bringing the feel of a summer blockbuster to a work of print fiction, which he does most of the time.

Reilly refers to these early novels as "Matthew Reilly 1.0," in contrast with "Matthew Reilly 2.0," which began with his novel Scarecrow, featuring the star of Ice Station and Area 7, Marine Recon Captain Matthew Schofield. While retaining the pacing, action sequences and essential plot elements of the previous books (conspiracies, science fiction-al touches), they offer more intricate plots, globe-trotting sequences of events that take his heroes from one exotic place to another, and (somewhat) more developed characterization.

Reilly's Jack West, Jr. trilogy--Seven Deadly Wonders (originally, Seven Ancient Wonders), The Six Sacred Stones and The Five Greatest Warriors--continues in this "2.0" framework, featuring the new, titular character. Like Shane Schofield, West is a long-serving special operations forces officer (Australian Special Air Service) with striking, visible battle scars (he has a titanium arm), and abilities bordering on the superhuman. As in the "Scarecrow" novel Area 7, a special child is central to the plotline.

Additionally, as in Temple, archaeological adventure is blended with international intrigue, but in his new globe-trotting style. His approach to this is much more Clive Cussler than Dan Brown (to whom he tips his hat more than once, not least in his protagonists' own visit to the Louvre in Six Sacred Stones), though he outdoes even Cussler in his conceptual audacity (and especially unlike Brown, it helps that he never means for us to take him seriously), cobbling a full-blown mythology centered on the famed seven wonders of the ancient world (the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Lighthouse of Alexandria) out of Masonic and other occult conspiracy theories, and packing each of these books with enough archaeological surprises for a half dozen Dirk Pitt novels.

Specifically it turns out that those archaeological wonders include key pieces of a mysterious mechanism which offers the only way of averting an imminent, astronomical, extinction-level catastrophe--which will also confer enormous power on the party that completes the procedure. The United States and the European Union became rivals in resolving the mystery, and acquiring and using the lost treasures, while a club of small countries gets together to enter the fray as a third force. (Accordingly West leads not an Australian team, but a multinational one. Consisting mostly of operatives from English-speaking ex-British colonies-besides Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Canada and Jamaica are represented-it also counts in its membership a Spaniard and a special forces soldier from the United Arab Emirates, with an Israeli operative joining in soon after.) As the narrative proceeds, still other actors enter the fray, on the side of one of the three initial competitors, or striking out for themselves.

Together the three books make up far and away the largest and most complex of Reilly's adventures. Additionally, the characterization is somewhat more developed than in any of Reilly's previous books, aspects of West's past figuring into the plot, from the origin of his handy bionic arm, to his long-running struggle with a father and brother on the opposite side of the conflict, and his own fatherly relationship toward young Lily, developed in surprising depth and even having its tender moments.

Nonetheless, despite the more personal bits, and many long stretches of dialogue in which the protagonists attempt to unravel the central mystery, the novels retain the impressive pace of the earlier books, and may even be considered Reilly's most video game-like to date. Much of the narrative has his heroes moving from one booby-trapped maze to another, getting there just in time to get into a firefight with a competitor already there, or arriving just after they did. Still, Reilly offers enough variety in the settings and the action sequences to keep the pattern from feeling tiresomely repetitive in the way it easily could have been. (Journeying far beyond the list of seven sites, the incidents range from museum capers to rescues of captured comrades held in secret prisons on top of the tomb-raiding.)

However, even as Reilly manages to periodically top himself in the grandeur and audacity of the action sequences, he does still overreach from time to time, most problematically at the start of Seven Deadly Wonders. Even by Reilly's standards it's a tough read, and I almost didn't get past it. Despite the improved characterizations, the romance between West and his teammate Zoe Kissane is more thinly than subtly developed, and it may have been inevitable that such a large and diverse cast of (mostly) one-dimensional characters caught up in wildly over-the-top situations will contain much that is ridiculous, and even offensive. (While it was far from the only instance where this happened, I wondered what to make of the preposterous subplot in which the "Blood Brotherhood" attempted to insure that the catastrophe would in fact take place and destroy the world.)

The transitions from one book to the next are also problematic. Seven Deadly Wonders seems to conclude satisfactorily in itself, and the ritual reversing West's accomplishment that marks the start of Six Sacred Stones felt like an excuse to serve up more of this brand adventure rather than a natural continuation of it. Additionally, the resolution of the cliffhanger with which Six Sacred Stones ends (in the opening of Five Greatest Warriors) seems rather pedestrian. Readers hoping to get at the bigger mystery--who created this puzzle in the first place?--will be disappointed by the conclusion at the end of that last book.

Reflecting on these works it is easy for me to understand how many readers can be put off by them, but I found much to enjoy in them all the same. And for all their compromises and flaws I would go so far as to say that Reilly's novels have not only been a breath of fresh air for the action-adventure/international thriller genre, but are well worth examination by students of prose style who would ordinarily turn their noses up at popular fiction precisely because of the lengths to which Reilly goes in fitting the form to the content.

1. The bibliographic data preceding the body of the article apart, I'm using the original dates of publication, which tend to be a year earlier than the date of North American publication.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Culture, by Patrick Anderson

New York: Random House, 2007, pp. 288.

As Washington Post book reviewer Patrick Anderson notes at the start of his book, the bestseller lists of the '50s and '60s were dominated by historical epics, family sagas and the lifestyles of the rich and famous--the exotic, the sweeping, the glamorous. Books like James Michener and Harold Robbins and James Clavell used to write, for instance. Thrillers were certainly present, of course, but are comparatively much more prominent now, gone from being a category to arguably defining the mainstream (along with romances, one ought to note, given that these seem to be an even bigger business).

When I first started going through it I found the book a disappointment, for two principal reasons. The first is that the title implied a portrait of the transformation of American culture (or at least of publishing) during the past half-century. The broad cultural history, the sociology--they just aren't there.

The second is that Anderson's discussion of the thriller struck me as overly narrow. While the title is something of a misnomer, the book lives up only too fully to the implication in the subtitle, specifically in its focus on crime fiction, the only branch of the thriller that gets anything like comprehensive treatment. By contrast, spy novels, legal thrillers and military "techno-thrillers" (a term Anderson himself coined in a 1988 New York Times Magazine article on Tom Clancy) each get a bit of patchy attention, and many other subgenres--such as the Michael Crichton-style scientific thriller, the Robin Cook-style medical thriller, and with few exceptions, the action-adventure thriller (let alone anything more likely to be labeled speculative fiction, though it very regularly operates in the thriller mode)--are all but ignored.

Additionally, particularly after the introductory discussion of the genre's history from Poe to noir (the first four chapters or so), Anderson's personal likes and dislikes increasingly dominate the bulk of the narrative. (Anderson, quite up-front about this, identifies his tastes as middlebrow, though it should be noted that his preference--to go by what he praises--is specifically for stylishly written, character-oriented fiction, with a tone of either gritty realism or dark zaniness. By highbrow what he is referring to is Pynchonian lit crit-theory sorts of stuff.)

The letdown was, admittedly, a bit personal. Back when I read many more thrillers than I do now (and certainly more thrillers not readily categorized as science fiction), I never took much interest in crime fiction. I was much more attracted to action thrillers, and stories of international intrigue, and particularly to authors who combined the two--like Clive Cussler, for instance, or the techno-thriller writers I discussed in my article in The Internet Review of Science Fiction last year. Portraits of mean streets, neo-noir, the latest iteration of Jack the Ripper, cops in police stations and pathologists in morgues--these things had little fascination for me, certainly next to the spectacular action, exotic settings, cool toys, and giant plots of the Cusslers and Clancys and the rest. A bit later, I found myself drawn to the international thrillers of the '70s, less heavy on action and high-tech, but which I enjoyed for their political savvy and jet set flair (and in my favorite of these authors, Trevanian, his hugely underappreciated penchant for satire).

Nonetheless, Triumph did give me an introduction to a fair bit of pop culture history I knew only dimly, and a good many authors I knew nothing about. (And admittedly, the truth is that Anderson's tastes are far more in line with the thriller market than mine, his distaste for James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell and a few other Big Names aside, so that his history of the field is more representative than one reflecting my own preferences would be.) There is a lot of summary of key works here, but Anderson's writing is always lucid, brisk and highly readable.

Additionally, when doing more than retelling stories, Anderson is an astute critic, quite conscious of the silliness of so much thriller convention (the detectives whose brilliant deductions are just a combination of the obvious with wild guess disguised as intuitive leaps; the routine involvement of P.I.s in murder investigations), and also of genre politics (Anderson commenting on the challenges confronting a would-be liberal thriller writer). By and large, his criticism is also persuasive, at least where I've been in a position to judge the works in question for myself. Clancy, while recognized by Anderson for his research, large-scale plots and over time, somewhat improved prose, is taken to task for beating his readers over the head with his politics in books that were increasingly "too long, too preachy, too jingoistic, and sometimes just too silly," as well as too repetitive in its observations and expressions ("not since Chandler has [a major American writer] . . . been in such urgent need of an editor"); his tendency to present foreigners and villains as crude, propagandistic--even racist--caricatures, a point highlighted by the epithets his heroes casually toss off (which shameless pandering to prejudice drew yet another comparison to Chandler); and his "efforts to be hip," which "are a wonder" (as he says in a rather funny response to a rather anachronistic exchange in 2003's Teeth of the Tiger). Anderson also has a good eye for interesting, relevant trivia (seeing in the success of Patterson, a highly successful adman, the embodiment of "the belief that you can sell books the way you sell dog food").

The result is that rather than the epic history promised, the reader gets a number of sketches of major authors out of thriller history inside a hodgepodge of observations and comments, which offered just enough of interest to have been worth my while in the end.

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