After rewatching the first two of this current franchise—Casino Royale, directed by Martin Campbell, the man who kick-started Pierce Brosnan’s run with Goldeneye, and Quantum of Solace, directed by Monster Ball‘s Marc Forster—back to back, it only just sunk in how much the Broccoli team are truly interested in changing James Bond in order to stay relevant in the 21st century. This is really interesting to me because that was the exact same aim of Goldeneye—my childhood favourite—which, in light of the later Brosnan films, we can safely say with hindsight failed in its objective. Goldeneye was full of overt references to the Cold War and the fact that it’s now over, forcibly demonstrated in that scene where M/Judi Dench gives an impressive expository paragraph calling Bond out as a “misogynist dinosaur”. With 1995’s Goldeneye, the Bond production team seemed to be acknowledging the fact that it had one of the most successful franchises in film history, but that its iconic protagonist and his context were rooted in a vernacular that had become obsolete 10 or 15 movies earlier. As shareholders in a multimillion dollar company, they were undoubtedly asking themselves the same question I was asking as a Bond fan: how do you make the promiscuous, masculinist, hetero-assertive, carelessly violent, Cold War spy palatable to a post-Soviet, postmodern, more liberal, politically correct culture? This question was the starting point for the Austin Powers parodies, but it’s a question that I feel didn’t really get addressed in the Bond universe until these three movies came along—Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall—and fully instituted this new Daniel Craig era.
The gender thing was the big one: without opening the sizable potential debate on the subject, I’d say the culture has, since the appearance of Bond in 1962, begrudgingly shuffled its feet a few steps towards gender equality, at least to the extent that the average viewer doesn’t find it strange or farfetched to see Bond take orders from a hard-bitten dame like Judi Dench. That same viewer probably wouldn’t stand for a young heroine to only stand in as a fuck prop for our hero to keep him nice and hetero before he gets on with business and blows up the bad guy. We want there to be a woman, and for her to have as much (or as little) personality and character development as the males—not out of some half-assed, finger-shaking P.C. imperative, but because anything less is actually insulting to the intelligence. All this being said, as I grew up eagerly following each new Bond installment with the admirable Pierce Brosnan, I couldn’t help but notice that the “new leaf” started by Goldeneye had been pretty much given up thereafter. From Tomorrow Never Dies to Die Another Day, it was basically back to the same old Bond. And while I certainly enjoyed the overly megalomaniacal Jonathan Pryce as a villain, and I definitely enjoyed Halle Berry imitating the famous Ursula Andress bikini slo-mo shot, and I thought Madonna’s theme song was kind of cool, ultimately the Brosnan years owed more to Roger Moore than to Sean Connery. Yeah sure, they give us Bond with an overgrown beard, tortured in a North Korean prison, but in the same movie they give us a Bond villain with diamonds studded in his face (because it looks cool), and an invisible car, and an ice palace. I think that’s the movie that has Pierce wind-surfing a giant CGI glacier as it falls into the sea.
Rule of thumb: once you get John Cleese making pratfalls in your movie, you have abandoned any criteria for being taken seriously—and a quick survey of the contemporary Hollywood scene will tell you that we want our blockbusters to be cataclysmically big, somber, and serious as hell. Those Brosnan movies fit the same mould as all the Bond films from the 60’s to the 80’s Cold War years: the flavour-of-the-year Bond villain, each with an elaborate lair, a new G.I. Joe-level cartoon supervillain for a henchman, and most importantly, the continuity starts afresh at the beginning of each film, making each romantic encounter complete nonsense. The Bond films never explicitly showed him ignoring a phone call from some past lover; he never ditched anyone. They even showed him mourning the death of his wife in one of the older movies (the Lazenby one, right?). But the structure was such that they didn’t have to account for it: we assumed that, even though SPECTRE and SMERSH and Blofeld and M and Moneypenny and Q and the rest were all the same, the disposable love interest had somehow amicably disappeared into thin air. The women fundamentally were not important, in the same way that the villain was not important. In this sense, the Bond films at their worst devolved into hyper-budgeted Saturday morning cartoons, where the good guy always has another bad guy to blow up, and you tune in next week to see how—not if—he’s going to save the world next time.
“How many is that now?”
This is what makes these current films so damn refreshing. By simply offering a continuous storyline between movies, building the awareness of a shadow organization, tantalizingly scant in detail, they account for each villain as a functioning piece in a larger story, and their deaths actually contribute somewhat to the progression of the narrative (and the overall arch-narrative) that they seem to be constructing. Granted, the whole thing has frozen for a minute while they drain the pool with Skyfall, but those first two films were truly unique for initiating this kind of direct continuity—a first in Bond history. Starting with Casino Royale‘s Vesper (Eva Green), the central woman is somewhat less than disposable, and in fact, she informs Bond’s emotional base and his actions, giving him a personal motive to pursuing this shadowy Quantum organization, headed by the impressively sinister Mr. White (Jesper Christensen). Camille of Quantum of Solace isn’t bursting with significance perhaps, but she’s a respectable, even admirable, strong female lead, whose personal back story does tie in with the main narrative pretty smoothly. She’s also the only example to my memory of a “Bond Girl” who doesn’t sleep with Bond, and doesn’t even seem particularly attracted to him. This is part of why I actually love Quantum of Solace: it stretches the characteristics of a Bond film to almost unrecognizable lengths.
For me, the most striking way that the filmmakers tried to get this across was with the sacrificial character of Fields, the disposable, cute office worker who gets in over her head. The woman Fields is constructed as an exaggeratedly stereotypical “Bond Girl”, a very two dimensional character, barely developed, to the extent that she really doesn’t fit in with the rest of the characters. To me she sticks out very conspicuously as a Type instead of a psychologically realistic character. She is the martyr here, and her role is to stand in for every brain-dead “Bond Girl” whose function is to be irresistibly charmed by the hero, to sleep with him, and then either die and be replaced by another Bond girl, or float into the sunset on a life raft or something, safely reunited with Bond at the end of the film—and be then swiftly forgotten at the beginning of the next film. Once in a while they were allowed to be the villain, but there always had to be an actual love interest, a “good girl” to complete the romantic subplot, which was as flat and formulaic in each film as the world domination plot by the main (male) villain. This is the major upset from the rest of the films to this current batch, and it really didn’t sink in until Quantum of Solace. I noticed at the time that they seemed to be deliberately undoing everything, making Bond feel shitty about being Bond: the high body count and the disposable attitude towards women. That scene where M shows Bond the body of Miss Fields lying dead on the bed, naked and covered head to toe in dirty, black oil, was very potent in terms of its imagery. With that image, the filmmakers are talking to you, the Bond fan, who recognizes it as a reference to that other fateful Bond girl covered in gold, who filled the same function: the walk-on Bond girl whose role is to be young and beautiful, two-dimensional, to be seduced by Bond, become a target for the bad guy in order to get back at Bond, and then killed. When I first saw it, I didn’t like it. I didn’t like M saying to Bond, “How many is that now?”, making him feel retroactively bad for every girl he slept with. It felt like non-Bond fans dictating that Bond needs to appeal more to non-Bond fans, and the filmmakers taking the bait. But I think I get it now. I take that image to mean: we’re doing this one more time, but this is it; we realize that times have changed, and here we are, fully in the present, bringing Bond forward.
You Only Eat Cake Twice
In that sense, Quantum seems to be the sacrificial lamb of the series, the sober deconstruction of the mythology that was foregone in the Brosnan years, but that the Bond team thought was necessary to inoculate a modern, culturally and gender sophisticated audience against the uncompromising structure of this mythological hero who is essentially an anti-feminist, unflinchingly imperial strongarm for the old way of things (of course, the most attractive looking version of the old way of things). If this is the case, then the public certainly didn’t like the taste of their medicine, but, like the child after a forcible ingestion of Buckley’s, they sure do love being able to go out into the yard and play again. Skyfall is the reward for Quantum of Solace. We can go through all of that other shit, pay some lip service to modern 21st century reality, etc, etc, blah, blah, blah, and VOILA—here’s your status quo, almost entirely preserved as it was from the Connery years.
I’ve already said a bunch of stuff about Skyfall in my review here, but it’s interesting to see how that movie can go in two different directions simultaneously—the old Hollywood trick, Have Your Cake and Eat It Too. This latest film made such a big song and dance about how it’s restarting, turning over a new leaf, something fresh and hip and 21st century, etc, while going to such great lengths to drag in all of the other Bond mythology completely intact: the same old sexy, flirtatious Moneypenny behind the desk; a rigid, patriarchal M; a new Q to hand out gadgets (more sober and less gimmicky than the old gadgets, of course); an impossibly exotic and sexy “Bond Girl” like the other Bond Girls, swiftly killed after sleeping with Bond (swifter than usual, actually); a real Bond Villain with an elaborate headquarters; a cameo by the old Aston Martin; and a re-hashing of classic Bond mythology when he gets “killed” ten minutes into the movie. As satisfying as all this is, I was somewhat disappointed at the film’s end to see the status quo preserved so damn neatly as Bond walks in the office, highly lit, trimly edited, flashes a wink at Naomi Harris, and glides into M’s office to see Ralph Fiennes for a good old fashioned Sean Connery-Bernard Lee exchange—the old swing of things juuuust like it used to be, all’s well that ends well. Are Sam Mendes and the Broccolis winking at us like it’s a 1950’s sitcom? It almost seemed comical, as if Simon Pegg and Nick Frost and Edgar Wright were going to pop out of the corner at the last minute and say “Surprise! It was us directing this movie all along! Derp!”
Of course, for all of this bending over backwards to show us how new and fresh and different (but similar) the “new” Bond is, I’m curious to see if this current embodiment of the franchise can find enough steam to keep going, or if it will succumb to what proves to be the impossible contradictions dictated by its cultural context and go the way of the Goldeneye. But even if it does, all we have to do is wait another half generation to go by until the franchise restarts itself again, even more spectacular, dramatic and dark—and so incredibly more relevant and fresh—than this time. Good thing we don’t ever have to remember anything we watch, or else this whole thing might get tedious one day.