What To Do With James Bond
I’m a longtime James Bond fan. I vividly remember when Channel 4 made an event out of airing Doctor No. My parents let me stay up late and watch it. After that I was hooked. I checked out all the available films from the library and then quickly moved on to the books.
While the first Bond film I saw in the theatre was Octopussy, my favorite Bonds are Dr. No through On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Connery was great as Bond, I don’t think anyone would dispute that. Lazenby could have been amazing if he’d been in more films. I’m glad though that OHMSS is getting a second look from fans. I think it’s a great Bond picture. Good action scenes. Good character development. And Bond does actual spying for a change—I literally think it’s one of the few movies where he does actual spy work. Not to mention, Telly Savalas made a chilling Blofeld thanks to a zero camp factor and projecting real menace.
I enjoyed the Moore films much more as a kid. All the funny, campy, pulp action with gadgets galore and secret moon bases are awesome when you're thirteen. Dalton was good. I should probably revisit his spy-noir films because for whatever reason they haven’t stuck with me. Brosnan had some good moments, though I think the tone of his Bond is muddled. He was somewhere between Moore and Dalton in terms of his Bond portrayal while not hitting either note well. And I just think the films aren’t very good. Honestly, the best thing to come out of the Brosnan era was the GoldenEye game for N64—man, I played the hell out of that when I should have been going to class.
I don’t mind the new films. I grok the thought process behind a gritty, character-driven Bond franchise. I understand wanting to capture the tone of the books more. Audiences want different things now, even from event films like Bond. Not to mention the spy genre in general and James Bond in particular have been spoofed so much, you can’t do exactly what you’ve done before without running the risk of audiences laughing you off the screen. And there’s a particular set of problems beyond that. A modern spy film has to address the audience knowledge that this would all be resolved now with an intercepted email, a satellite image, and a drone strike. Then you either have to ignore the contentious mire of actual foreign policy or acknowledge it no more than necessary for your story.
I think the problem though is that the new films are uneven both individually and as a whole. Casino Royale was good but about 35 or 40 minutes too long. Quantum of Solace was an hour and forty minutes I’ll never get back. I dug Skyfall quite a bit, even understanding the complaint about the stalkery weirdness and the creep-o homoerotic vibe of Bardem’s character choices. Haven’t seen Spectre yet, though I’ve heard nothing but mixed opinions. And none of the Craig-era Bonds have been very much fun.
I think it was a mistake to place the emphasis on Bond being a “dinosaur” and the world not needing espionage agents. Too often in the new films the manner that they've addressed this theme has slowed the pacing down too much and ventured away from dramatic and engaging straight to tiresome navel-gazing...which I think can leave an audience wondering why they’re watching this in the first palce.
Craig has made no secret about his unhappiness with the role of James Bond. When he leaves, I think the smartest thing to do would be to set the next set of films period. And there’s no need for a period Bond to be Mad Men with guns. There’s plenty of the 1960s that never made into that show, and I don’t just mean fashion. I think it would be easy to set Bond in the Cold War, dial back the misogyny, and make the dramatic thrust the deep toll of being a loner and a killer without needing to remake anything. There are plenty of titles and plots from Fleming stories that never got used, like the Hilderbrand Rarity or The Property of a Lady. You’d avoid all the problems with modern spy films in terms of foreign policy and technology. You’d have a clear set of villains (the KGB, Stasi, ex-Nazis in Brazil). You could easily have plots that require active agents doing something, you could even riff on real incidents (the capture of Eichman, the U2 spy plane, the Cuban Missile Crisis). All sorts of great locations (Moscow, the Berlin Wall, the jungles of Brazil, the streets of Harlem, San Francisco drug dens) with possibilities for tension and suspense. And you could more easily have all the things you think about with Bond: the flashy clothes, the fast cars, and the beautiful women in exotic locations with danger around every corner.