What makes the Bond film franchise so successful? The fact that this is a fantasy world where good will of course always triumph, and a rollicking good time will be had by all along the way
By Mira Hashmi
Hard to believe isn’t it? Ian Fleming’s super spy is 40 years old on film and pushing 60 as a literary lightweight (most young moviegoers today probably aren’t even aware that James Bond started life on the written page). And we all know the lore: he likes his cars fast, his women faster, can handle a double entendre almost as well as he can handle a gun, and in a crisis can be counted upon to be as cool as the vodka martini he prefers. So 40 years on, what’s the verdict on 007? Secret agent extraordinaire or ‘sexist, misogynist dinosaur’? Well, both actually.
Ironically, author Fleming was looking for a ‘suitably dull’ name for his newest creation in 1952, when he chanced upon a book called ‘Birds of the West Indies’ by a certain ornithologist named Dr. James Bond. The bird-guide never became a bestseller but the writer’s namesake became synonymous with unparalleled adventure, tongue-in-cheek heroism, and a certain heady hedonism that can exist without consequence only in the Bond universe. Bond is an essential icon of our pop-cultural landscape: men want to be him, women want to bed him, we all want the license to kill, not to mention the Astin-Martin (and is there anyone left on the planet who can’t hum along to Monty Norman’s twangy guitar chords that accompany the image of Bond firing his gun at the audience?).
Looking back at the history of the Bond films, it’s easy enough to see why the franchise is so successful (excluding the spoof Casino Royale and the unofficial Never Say Never Again – 20 films and counting): this is a fantasy world where good will of course always triumph, and a rollicking good time will be had by all along the way. The plot lines may be preposterous (Moonraker anyone?), but the movies – and Bond – never take it seriously enough to make it seem so. Yeah, we know even fake alligators don’t turn into gondolas but nudge, nudge, wink, wink, it’s a Bond movie remember? Realism be damned. As someone put it, the point of a Bond flick is the adventure, the less time wasted on plot and logic, the better.
As Warren, Andrew, and Jonathan so aptly demonstrated in the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, true Bond geeks can easily come to blows when discussion turns to that burning question: who is the best Bond? (Andrew got punched for suggesting it was Timothy Dalton). I don’t think I would be sticking my neck out much if I were to declare that the mantle rests with Sean Connery. For me the Scotsman is the quintessential Bond: rakish, charming, and unflappable (even while trapped in a coffin at a crematorium in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever). He’s in on the joke and plays it to the hilt.
Roger Moore, although nowhere near as derided as poor George Lazenby (whose only outing as Bond, 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, was actually one of the best of the series), probably carried over too much baggage from his stint as TV’s ‘The Saint’ Simon Templar, and came across rather wooden and cold. The doyen of American film criticism, Pauline Kael, called him ‘the iceberg’. It was also his misfortune to get stuck with two of the worst episodes in the series – the execrable Moonraker (1979), and the muddled mess that was A View to a Kill (1985). He does have however 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me to his credit – a sublime entry.
Dalton, though a good actor and easy on the eyes to boot, just seemed to take the whole thing a tad too seriously and that was his downfall. He was cynical, brooding, and – fatally – humourless. Even so, his second outing as Bond, 1989’s License to Kill, remains an impressive non-Connery vehicle.
Then we come to the Bond staples: the theme songs by famous musicians, the pre-title action sequences, the title sequences themselves with leggy girls in silhouette; M, Q, Miss Moneypenny et al. And there were the Bond villains, colourful baddies with diabolical ‘take-over-the-world’ plans and equally diabolical names: Dr. No, the macabre Goldfinger (who very memorably gave Shirley Eaton the Midas treatment) and his unforgettable henchman Oddjob, Bond’s arch nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld (played by, among others, the great Donald Pleasence, and Telly ‘Kojak’ Savalas). The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) gave us Christopher Lee as the dentally challenged Scaramanga, and The Spy Who Loved Me unveiled the much loved Jaws (Richard Kiel). In recent years the Bond villains haven’t been as noteworthy – I don’t think I’m the only one wishing and hoping and praying for a SPECTRE revival.
And then there are of course the Bond girls. Over the years, many a glam beauty has found herself exchanging racy banter (and more) with double-oh seven, but barring a precious few, most were plucked from obscurity only to be returned there. Their characters though, are immortal, and notorious too, for having rather, shall we say, imaginative names. The tradition started in the very first Bond film, 1962’s Dr. No, with Honey Rider (played by the Amazonian Ursula Andress). There was Kissy Suzuki, Plenty O’Toole, Octopussy. The trend hit its nadir with Pussy Galore from Goldfinger, and Moonraker’s annoyingly enervated Holly Goodhead. Even the politically correct 90s gave a nod to these venerable ladies with Xenia Onatopp in 1996’s Goldeneye (Onatopp – get it?).
With the latest Bond, the franchise has gone back to the basics. Impossibly handsome, suave, and with a certain humorous, almost self-mocking grace, Pierce Brosnan is surely the Bond for the new millennium. The last few Bond films too have thankfully ceased to be the anachronisms they had become in the 70s and 80s. Yes, there are the cars, the babes, bizarre weapons and gadgets, arch villains with foreign accents and a British Empire upon which the sun has yet to set (but gosh, it’s getting dark out), but the makers at MGM have managed to de-Austin Powers-ise the character. Bond might be a dinosaur but that’s okay, because his world is now Jurassic Park.
The latest edition, Die Another Day, is a vast improvement upon the lacklustre The World is Not Enough (1999), though still falls short of the smorgasbord of Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). The writers do well to sneak in contemporary politics, and a double agent at MI6, though not entirely a new idea, is still a good one. The narrative itself, however, gets a little lackadaisical, and did anyone else besides me have an objection to one of the major plot points being pilfered from Face/Off? The film tries to compensate by an-even-more-than-usual emphasis on special effects and gimmickry (which, admittedly, are first-rate – two thumbs up for the ‘invisible’ car – and who wants to see Bond reading quietly by the fireplace anyway?). That is not to say that the film is not one hell of a joyride. As always, leave disbelief suspended at the door and you are guaranteed to have your adrenaline pumping. Director Lee Tamahori sets up some of the most audacious action sequences ever devised for a Bond film (and that’s saying something), and has the vision to return Bond to the form we have come to expect of him.
As far as the performances go, Brosnan is top notch. He was always one of the best Bonds but has had to grow into his Bond shoes. While in Goldeneye he was all nervous bravura and colour-by-numbers (you could almost hear his heart pounding when he did the “Bond – James Bond” and “Shanek – not stirred” schtick for the first time), he has since blossomed: self-assured yet gracious, vulnerable yet steely. Here too, he gets to display his considerable acting chops. Brosnan has reportedly agreed to do a fifth Bond picture, and I, for one, will be happy to dish out the cash to see him don that indestructible tuxedo again.
Judi Dench is as always a pleasure to watch. She brings poise and gravitas to her role as M, and looks beautiful doing it: she could’ve been a Bond girl twenty years ago.
John Cleese is a worthy successor to Desmond Llewelyn’s Q (otherwise known as Major Boothroyd): all Basil-Fawlty-flustered and edgy. Samantha Bond too is the best Moneypenny since Lois Maxwell, and for all you aficionados out there who secretly wish that Bond and Moneypenny would just get it on (theirs is probably the longest bout of unconsummated foreplay ever put on film!), well, your fantasy has come true – sort of.
And now to the matter of Halle Berry as Jinx. Contrary to popular opinion, Jinx in fact does not rock. Yes, she’s beautiful, can deliver innuendo with the best of them (“I think I got the thrust of it”), and looks fine in the Honey Rider-inspired swimsuit, but an action hero she ain’t, certainly not enough to merit her own movie franchise. For that honour, my vote would go to Michelle Yeoh’s incredible turn as Wei Lin in Tomorrow Never Dies.
All in all, Die Another Day might not be the best Bond film this side of Connery, but it’s no misfire either. Good work, 007.