I only recently got around to watching Quantum of Solace a couple weeks ago. I suppose I had always wanted to watch it, but it wasn’t until one of the cable stations began running Casino Royale on a loop that my interest in it piqued again. Once Target dropped the price of the Blu-ray, I felt like I was morally obligated to pick it up. So I watched it and it entertained me for its entire duration. Despite the presence of James Bond, I have to admit I am most enamored with the presence of Daniel Craig.
When it was announced prior to the filming of Casino Royale that Daniel Craig would take over for Pierce Brosnan, it inspired two things in both casual and hardcore fans: 1) a Google image search for “Daniel Craig,” and 2) mild outrage. “He doesn’t even have black hair!” they said. “That’s not what James Bond looks like!” they cried. “They’re going to ruin the franchise!” they shouted, with venom. In addition to this casting choice came the news that this film would be a “reboot” of sorts, as Casino Royale was one of Ian Fleming’s first 007 stories. There was apprehension. There were doubts. Then Daniel Craig kicked ass for 144 straight minutes and everyone kind of settled down.
James Bond isn’t a man. He isn’t even a fictional character, really. He’s the institution of an ideal. Because of the original work of Sean Connery and the later work of Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan (who 97% of the population pre-ordained as James Bond years before he took on the role solely because he “looked like James Bond”), most people have a visual concept of what James Bond should look and behave like. He’s supposed to be a sexier, more physical cross between Hughs Grant and Hefner. Moreover, the franchise itself had established trappings that filmmakers were hard-pressed to adhere to such as the use of high-tech gadgets (mostly physical metaphors in that they appeared to be one thing, but served a completely different purpose); Q, the gadgeteer; an over-the-top villain (with even crazier henchmen); and of course, the Bond Girls. And while James Bond has always been something of a fantasy, at times, he captured all of the elements of science-fiction. By the turn of the century, every James Bond story was the same. It became the worst kind of formula where all of the parts were interchangeable, the plots rarely made sense (based on the world James Bond inhabits, there are criminal masterminds waiting in a line for their chance to take over the world, not unlike the queue at a deli), and as a result, the franchise became stagnant. Looking back, the holders to the franchise rights had no choice but to change directions, if for no other reason than to keep their property relevant.
That’s why the last two James Bond films have been spectacular. The writers seem to understand a simple truth: There is only one difference between the movies they make and every other action film out there- the James Bond mythology. Casino Royale is a two-hour and 24-minute flashback that essentially answers one question: Why does James Bond treat women like shit? The writers of the film answered that question with one character: Vesper, played by Eva Green (underrated hottie). James Bond fell in love once. That woman betrayed him. Even by the end of Quantum, we’re still to believe that he has unresolved issues with it. And so he will plow through women, engaging in one physical tryst after another without truly becoming emotionally attached. He cannot and will not allow himself to be hurt in that manner again. I thought that Daniel Craig did an outstanding job of playing a subtly more optimistic Bond until the last half-hour of Casino Royale where he starts figuring out that she’s played him (like he would go on to play a multitude of women). After that, he’s essentially a killing machine. Even Judi Dench’s M character is a colder, more realistic version of the one she’d been playing in the waning Brosnan days.
This shift in the main character is the most fascinating thing about Daniel Craig’s James Bond. He doesn’t really have cool gadgets. He is purely physical. The best example is the initial chase scene in Casino Royale. When the “urban runner” hops through a hole in the wall, James Bond just runs through the dry wall, destroying it, completely. The Dalton/Brosnan Bonds were finesse men. The biggest cracks they ever took were punches to the face that resulted in bloody lips. Craig’s Bond is bruised, bloodied, gashed, shot, and tied to a wicker chair without a seat so that his testicles can be mangled by a simple knotted rope. It just feels more authentic. Even if authentic is the wrong word, it feels more… logically acceptable? The Dalton and Brosnan Bonds specifically had a nasty little habit of uttering one-liners after some traumatic event which I suppose was meant to serve as comic relief, but the troupe became inane and archaic. Mike Myers didn’t just poke fun at this convention, he sodomized it in his Austin Powers Series. There’s only one character in the realm of popular culture who still does this with any regularity, and it’s David Caruso’s Horatio Caine (which is another story all-together, but the similarities between the Caine character and the Dalton/Brosnan Bond are striking when tallied).
And that was the problem with the James Bond franchise prior to Casino Royale, it had become too bloated and mired in its own processes and details. Every film requires some suspension of disbelief, but by the last two Brosnan films, the writers were really asking a lot.
My biggest problem with the whole concept of James Bond has always been:
The man uses no aliases. How is it that chapter one in the Evil Organization Employee Handbook isn’t a collection of these pictures:
with the following text in size 24 font, “Shoot any of these men on sight, along with anyone with the first name “James,” the last name “Bond,” or any and all combinations of the two.”
Other than this glaring detail, every 007 film begins with a chase scene of some sort. I think it was Golden Eye that had the most incredible (I mean that negatively) chase scene ever- Brosnan driving a Tank through narrow alleyways with debris flying all over the place- but somehow, his hair never moved. It sounds absurd and it seems even more unconscionable when you consider that that particular film was written in the 90’s. The last two chase scenes (the aforementioned “urban runner” and car chase through a rock quarry) are still high-energy, but far less contrived than their forerunners.
Another dogmatic problem was the development of the arch-villain for each film. Dating back to the first few films, the villains had catchy names like “Dr. No,” “Jaws,” and to a lesser extent “Odd Job.” They weren’t just people, they were strange and horribly deranged people. They were comic book villains. Over time, the effect became obvious- it turned James Bond into a comic book hero. He never ages, he never loses (important battles), and he could conceivably save the world 27 times over. By the 80’s and 90’s the writers had moved away from the caricature of the criminal mastermind, but were still doing what they could to make the villains seem quirky. The best (worst) example is the bald guy from The World is Not Enough who couldn’t feel physical pain or pleasure. What greater purpose does it serve that he’s got some kind of radical physical feature? James Bond is going to win. We all know that. It’s not the villain that’s important, it’s the evil scheme itself that makes the story. The writers of the last two movies understand that, as the conflicts have been global and mostly political, and thus more credible. The weirdest thing about a villain in the last two films? One of them had a fucked-up eye. But it wasn’t an eye that shot laser beams. Today’s bad guys aren’t former lab test subjects with robotic arms, they’re men of means and influence that operate below the radar and are motivated by money they can spend (if you blackmail the leaders of the free world for $140 billion dollars, how do you spend any of it without getting caught?) and power they wield. Quantum of Solace’s Dominic Greene is just a man. He’s a horrible, evil, corrupt man, but the scariest part about him is that there probably are people in the world who are just like him, operate just like him, and watched Quantum of Solace on their yacht surrounded by a harem of women on a bed of $100 bills, and wondered whether they should sue somebody over likeness rights.
Amid these changes, it is still very rewarding to see that the writers and producers of the last two films manage to walk on the fine line between updating the source material and staying true to its roots. The opening title sequence still features grandiose music created specifically for the movie by the pop stars of the day- most recently Alicia Keys and Jack White’s “Another Way to Die” which lyrically posed a pretty cool premise (that any little thing could mean death), but aurally registered as a disaster somewhere between “Call FEMA” and “biblical.” The art and graphics are still mostly abstractions that transform into non-abstractions, then back into abstractions, then into some other non-abstraction. It’s fluid; I should have typed that first. It’s fluid. As mentioned, they still honor the chase scene to start the movie, and they still manage to find ways for James Bond to wear a tuxedo or suit 88% of his on-screen time, and still have it seem perfectly acceptable- which, I might add, is no small feat. My favorite change, however, is the subtle long-term storyline that is emerging to underline the current movies. All the other Bonds films were stand-alone stories that had very little to no relationship with each other. The least they could have done is shown one scene in each movie during which James Bond takes out his pocket knife and adds another notch to his bedpost, then show the room where he keeps all the old, notch-covered bedposts he’s had to replace. That would have done it for me.
I wish other film franchises would be so willing to take risks as the keepers of the 007 properties are. Let’s face it, it’s really difficult to come up with completely original stuff in 2009. If the best we can hope for is a new slant on old material, then I suppose I could settle – so long as it’s as well done as Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.