Wednesday, November 21, 2012

James Bond - Then & Now

On October 5th, 1962, movie goers,were treated to their first glimpse of the tuxedo clad James Bond in Dr. NoAudiences first met this suave hero as he was being ordered away from a winning run at the Baccarat table to receive his first assignment as a Double Oh Agent (Specifically Agent 007).  This new designation granted him the right, even the responsibility, to kill in order to further the interests of Queen & Country.  

Since receiving his license to kill, 007 - James Bond has protected the free world in 23 cinematic adventures, 24 if you count 1983's Never Say Never Again (the court mandated remake of 1965's Thunderball), 25 if you count 1967's Casino Royale (Woody Allen's spoof of the Bond franchise).

Most 007 film fans consider the "official" cannon to be comprised of the following 23 movies though, and consider the other two films to be outliers featuring Bonds of other quantum realities.

Movie Title Year Played James Bond
Dr. No 1962 Sean Connery
From Russia with Love 1963
Goldfinger 1964
Thunderball 1965
You Only Live Twice 1967
On Her Majesty's Secret Service 1969 George Lazenby
Diamonds Are Forever 1971 Sean Connery
Live and Let Die 1973 Roger Moore
The Man with the Golden Gun 1974
The Spy Who Loved Me 1977
Moonraker 1979
For Your Eyes Only 1981
Octopussy 1983
A View to a Kill 1985
The Living Daylights 1987 Timothy Dalton
Licence to Kill 1989
GoldenEye 1995 Pierce Brosnan
Tomorrow Never Dies 1997
The World Is Not Enough 1999
Die Another Day 2002
Casino Royale 2006 Daniel Craig
Quantum of Solace 2008
Skyfall 2012

Actually, hard core Double Oh fans probably choked on their proverbial popcorn when I lumped all 23 features into a single cannon.  Die hards recognize two official Bond Cannons, or timelines, these days. 

The first, or classic, timeline stretches from 1962's Dr. No all the the way to 2002's Die Another Day.  As with similar action heroes such as Robert B. Parker's Spenser, fans accept the fact that each adventure took place within the year each movie in question premiered, but our hero remained in his late 30s to early 50s during the entire span.

This Bond, played by; Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan; was the irreverently dashing gourmand who could dodge a barrage of bullets one moment, and the next moment be enjoying a medium dry vodka martini (shaken not stirred) with some caviar, quail's eggs, and foie gras before making love to his next sexual conquest.

It was this Oxford educated sophisticate who could taste a quality sherry and explain on which wine vintage it had been based, (see Diamonds Are Forever),  speak multiple languages, and memorize dossiers of potential enemy operatives such as Scaramanga (The Man with the Golden Gun).  In addition to his roguish charm, heroic talents, and refined palette, four additional components define the classic era in my mind.

  • Gadgets & Cars - Q Branch (MI5's tech department) didn't equip Bond in Dr, No. Bond's station chief, M, merely replaced 007's beloved Beretta with his first Walther PPK in the genesis of the series.  The following movie, From Russia with Love, first introduced Desmond Llewelyn as Q, who reprised the role until his death in 1999.  
Q's first allocation to Bond was, perhaps, the most realistic allocation of spy equipment during the franchise's tenure.  An ordinary looking attache case contained 40 rounds of ammunition concealed in two tubes disguised as metal studs on the bottom of the case.  A flat throwing knife was concealed in the side of the case, and was releasable by pressing a button under the clasp.  A disassembled and compactly stored AR7 folding Sniper's Rifle complete with scope and infrared lens, 25 gold sovereigns hidden in each side of the strap, and a tear gas cartridge disguised as a tin of talcum powder rounded out the covert kit. 

Since then, Q has supplied our hero with a dart shooting watch, exploding pen, inflatable ski coat, poison cigarettes, a jet pack, collapsible gyro-copter, cable & piton expelling belt, and a host of other gadgets which have saved the day on multiple occasions.

This list doesn't take into account his parade of top of the line luxury cars, modified by Q, with weapons such as assault rockets, headlight machine guns, buzz saws, oil slick dispensers, and ejector seats.  We've even seen a Bond car which could double as a miniature submarine.   Part of the fun of going to a Bond movie, during the classic era, was to see what new gadget & car Bond would be given next.

  • Bond Girls - Famous for their sexually provocative names and gorgeous bodies, Bond's romantic interests were key elements to the films of the classic era.  As with the gadgets & the cars, viewers hurried back to theaters to see which beautiful woman 007 would woo next.  
Would she be a lone damsel in distress, such as Dr. No's Honey Ryder or Thunderball's Domino? Would our hero have to rely on his charms to reform a moll gone bad as in the cases of Goldfinger's Pussy Galore, A View to a Kill's May Day, or Octopussy's title character?  He may even find himself temporarily partnered with fellow agents such as Moonraker's Holly Goodhead, Die Another Day's  Jinx Jones, or The Man with the Golden Gun's Mary Goodnight.

The earliest Bond girls were little more than bubbly headed eye candy.  These early girls pleasantly accepted their customary slap on the bottom and dutifully left the room so the men could talk.  When Bond wasn't saving them, he was correcting their ditzy ideas and trying to get them to focus on the matter hand, rather than his raw sexual vibe.  In From Russia with Love it was all the poor chap could do get Tatiana Romanova to record details about the Lektor decoding device, instead of James' dreamy eyes.

Beginning with Teresa di Vicenzo of On Her Majesty's Secret Service (the only classic Bond girl to get 007 to the marriage altar) however, women characterized by this vapid docility slowly began to be replaced by stronger leading ladies with attitudes of rugged independence and self assuredness.  By the time Die Another Day came along, movie makers were choreographing one battle for Bond and a separate battle for Jinx, the Bond girl, in the finale, essentially acknowledging the two characters as heroic equals.

  • The Bond Villains - For starters, it was usually rather easy to spot the villain in a James Bond movie; he was almost always the guy in the Nehru Jacket, with the notable exceptions of Auric Goldfinger and The Spy Who Loved Me's Stramberg.  Seriously, all 007 had to do was find a suspect sporting a traditional hip-length tailored coat with the mandarin collar and it would've been a good bet this was the guy who stole the micro-chip, nuclear missile, or decoder.  Of course, there was a reason for this odd form of consistency.
In the first movie it was established that Dr. No was a chief operative of a criminal organization called  SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion).  For the next six films, again with the notable exception of Goldfinger, the villain would  be a member of SPECTRE; the coat was to be a quasi-uniform of sorts.

Due to a lawsuit between producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman over the script of Thunderball, Broccoli lost the rights to mention SPECTRE and its founder Blofeld in any movie after Diamonds Are Forever.  However, Broccoli kept the jackets on his villains as nod to the organization he could no longer name.

Besides on the fashion front though, Bond's enemies were symbolic in another way as well.  If you look at the year each film was released, many of the villains were representations of what people were scared of, or at least worried about, at the time.  Beginning with Dr. No's attempted disruption of the space race in '62, to the atomic terrorism of Number 2's Thunderball in '64, to Scaramanga's attempted exploitation of the energy shortage in '74, to Kamal Kahn's manipulation of the nuclear cold war in '83, etc...  These and other Bond villains served as personifications of the looming menace of a given period which could be defeated in 2 hours by a martini sipping hero.
  • Tongue in Cheek Humor -  Bond's irreverence and boyish charm were most made evident by his occasional flippancy and tongue in cheek one-liners.  The movies were, by no means, comedies in the vein of Austen Powers, or anything like that.  Yet, there was a playfulness about the character as he lay in bed with a Russian spy and told his superior he was, "doing his bit to keep England's end up," (The Spy Who Loved Me).  Another favorite example is from Diamonds Are Forever when Plenty O'Toole introduced herself.
Plenty O'Toole: Hi, I'm Plenty.

James Bond (scans Plenty up & down, taking note of her ample measurements before answering): But of course you are.

There was no goofy silliness or slapstick BS going on.  However, you got the feeling that being in constant danger made it necessary for him to poke fun at his circumstances in order to maintain a functional level of sanity.  As he did, he let the audience in on the joke.

Arguably, the one classic era actor who didn't grasp this aspect of the character was Timothy Dalton, who tried to play Bond completely deadpan straight, much like a Jack Ryan (Tom Clancy's heroic spy) or a Jason Bourne (Robert Ludlum's) title spy.  It didn't work, and Dalton was released from the series after his second film, Licence to Kill.

      2006's Casino Royale changed all that by having M (Judi Dench) call James Bond (Daniel Craig) into her office to receive his first assignment as 007.  This revamp gave fans a grittier, somewhat darker, James Bond.  This Bond hasn't been through the cold war, is less gadget oriented, and probably couldn't tell, by tasting, if a martini had been shaken or stirred.  The latest film, Skyfall, featured an erotic shower scene, but I wouldn't say there was a significant "Bond girl" to speak of.

      In many ways today's Bond is a completely different character than the one I grew up with.  Yet, his sense of duty is still in tact, as is the number one rule of the James Bond Universe.

      What's that rule, you ask?  Simple, the number one rule of the James Bond Universe is that James Bond CAN do the seemingly impossible in order to save the day.  I can't tell you how many times I've been in a theater watching 007 perform some stunt such as diving from a cliff to climb inside a twin engine plane, or chase an enemy across a high scaffold, only to hear some idiot in the audience say, "He can't do that."  You're there to see him do what can't be done.  Making such a criticism is like going to a Mel Brooks movie and saying, "That's stupid."

      Without giving too much away about the plot of the current film, I'll wrap things up by saying, I found Skyfall to be the most enjoyable of the recent three films.  OK, the villain here didn't pose much of a global threat, granted.  Yet, we saw glimpses into Bond's past, as well as an emotionally vulnerable side our hero, neither of which Bond fans are used to seeing.  It was also fun to see 007 temporarily shatter the forth wall, reach back into his other timeline in what can only be described as a Dr. Who-esc moment, and retrieve his 1964 Aston Martin from Goldfinger and Thunderball.

      The film also re-introduced several classic elements to the modern series, including an all new younger long haired genius version of Q, reminiscent of Criminal Minds' Dr. Spencer Reid.  I can't list the other elements which were re-introduced without giving away key plot points and some fun surprises.  What I will say is that the inclusion of said elements may signal shift back to classic  007 story telling.
      Pictures within the entry are linked to products which may be purchased from Amazon.

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