Bond, James Bond: The New Millennium, by Kyle Anderson
EON Productions, the company behind the James Bond film franchise, decided to celebrate the 40th anniversary in 2002 by making Die Another Day, a film which Roger Ebert said “sucked my balls.” (Roger Ebert did not say this though he should have) Unsurprisingly, EON wanted to shake things up in the series which had already become a parody of itself again. In the years following Die Another Day, rumors were bandied around as to what the next film would be. At one point, Quentin Tarantino expressed interest in writing and directing an adaptation of Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, provided it would stick very close to the source material and provided Pierce Brosnan remained in the role. EON and Sony must have taken to Tarantino’s suggestion partially but they no longer wanted Brosnan and they didn’t want Tarantino to be a part of it at all. Thanks for the idea, though. Casino Royale had been adapted a few times since it was written but never by the officially licensed range. Indeed, it remained the only novel not adapted into a film, at least in name. They went with a controversial decision to reboot the franchise, focusing on Bond in his younger days, and for this they would need a much younger actor to take over the role.
Daniel Craig, who was 38 at the time, was named as the new 007, an interesting choice. Many Bond purists objected to Craig’s blonde hair and blue eyes, attributes the literary character did not share. In 2006, Casino Royale was released and in many ways it returned the character and the franchise to the way it had been in the 1960s, focusing on espionage and realism while keeping the 90s character development and stunt-based action. Best of both worlds? Casino Royale was directed by Martin Campbell who had directed Brosnan’s inaugural story, GoldenEye. Campbell again proves he knows how to shoot action, with several impressive sequences, not the least of which is a massive free-running chase through Madagascar. Campbell can also adapt to the time. In a response to the massively successful Bourne trilogy, Campbell included many scenes of close-quarters, fast-paced hand-to-hand combat without aping those films’ visual style. With two films, Martin Campbell cemented himself as among the series’ best directors, alongside Terrence Young and Guy Hamilton.
The storyline for Casino Royale keeps almost the entirety of the original novel but adding to it a large prologue and the idea of this being Bond’s first mission as a Double-O. Indeed, the film’s first 45 minutes or so are completely added material with several action sequences and the obligatory Bond-sleeping-with-a-beautiful-woman scene. Somehow, these scenes work and connect to the original novel material quite well. In the novel, Bond is just a name and a job until later one when he gets emotionally involved; here we see the young agent as brash and arrogant who must learn to control his ego. This is also the first instance in the novels of Bond truly letting his guard down with a woman and allowing himself to connect. It proves, ultimately, to be a poor decision and this goes a long way to explaining Bond’s black heart.
The film follows Bond as he’s assigned to take part in a high stakes poker tournament (changed from baccarat in the book to the faddish Texas Hold’Em, one of my few contentions with the movie) put on by Le Chiffre (Danish actor Mads Mikkelson), a banker for some of the world’s largest terrorist organizations. Having lost huge amounts of money for his clients when an airplane fails to explode (something Bond prevented), he decides to win the money to repay his clients and save his own skin. M puts Bond in the tournament using British government money under the assumption that he can beat Le Chiffre. However, should Bond lose, the British government will have directed financed terrorism. A large portion of the middle part of the film deals with Bond at the poker table with he and Le Chiffre sizing each other up, trying to out-bluff and out-last each other. Le Chiffre even poisons Bond at one point, but the intrepid agent is able to save himself, with the help of Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), the treasury person M has sent with Bond and the reluctant recipient of Bond’s affection.
Vesper Lynd is easily the deepest and richest Bond Girl ever depicted in the movies. She begins very much the “ice queen” type who has open contempt for Bond and what she perceives as his reckless arrogance. The two engage in verbal sparring matches and seem to enjoy annoying one another. While it’s clear Bond likes and is attracted to her, Vesper is initially immune to his boyish charms. She would likely have remained unimpressed by Bond had it not been for an incident in a stairwell. Bond and Vesper are attacked by two Ugandan militants who’ve just threatened Le Chiffre to get their money back. Bond kicks one of the men over the railing, sending him falling to his death, however the other man proves more of a problem. Finally, Bond is at the bottom of stairs attempting to strangle the man while he reaches for his pistol. Vesper is forced to slam his hand against the ground making him drop the gun again allowing Bond the opportunity to finally end his life. This leads to a bit of a breakdown for Vesper. Bond returns to their suite later to find her, fully clothed, sitting curled up in the shower as it runs. Bond merely goes and sits next to her and puts a comforting arm around her. Her feelings for Bond are solidified later still in the film when Bond endures horrible physical torture when attempting to rescue her from Le Chiffre.
This relationship is important to Bond as he tenders his resignation near the end of the film in order to be with her. Unfortunately, for both of them, Vesper had been blackmailed by the criminal organization which funded Le Chiffre to give them Bond’s poker winnings instead of delivering it back to the UK treasury. Bond discovers this, through clues left by Vesper herself, and when he tries to intercept her delivery of the money to some bad guys in Venice, a gun battle erupts and Vesper is eventually trapped underwater where she prevents Bond from saving her, utterly ashamed of herself. This defeat guts Bond, causing his emotional shell to be built up again, stronger than ever. Part of Bond’s literary character, which is often overlooked in the films, is that, for all his sleeping with random women he meets on the job, he is incredibly unlucky with long lasting relationships. This film and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service are the only two films which effectively depict this. It’s no coincidence that these are the two films with the best and most well-rounded storyline.
Casino Royale works very well as a reboot of sorts for the films, with one odd exception. In the Brosnan films, Judi Dench is brought in as the new M, and much of the character development in those films deals with her dislike of Bond’s Cold War misogyny and his mistrust of women in authority. Yet in Casino Royale, Dench is again playing M. Her relationship with Bond here is more that he’s young and impetuous and lets his emotions take control too often. This has led to the interesting theory for the film series wherein each time the actor changes in the films, it is a totally different person and that “James Bond” is the official code name given to those who’ve been given the rank of “Agent 007.” This means that Brosnan’s Bond either died or stepped down and that Craig was simply the next in line called up to fill that position. It’s not unlike being the next Dread Pirate Roberts. This is a novel idea and while there are some evidence for it in the films, the small carry-overs between films, specifically the references to Bond’s tragic marriage to Tracy, make this a bit too far-fetched to take seriously. Plus, I refuse to believe there have been seven different people with the exact same taste in martini. No, I think this is just an instance of liking Judi Dench as M and wanting to keep her on despite the reboot.
Casino Royale did exceptionally well both with audiences and critics, earning nearly $600 Million worldwide and earning several BAFTA award nominations. How were they going to follow up on such a massive hit? Could they live up to their own success? Well, they tried. Two years after CR in 2008, Quantum of Solace was released. The title comes from an Ian Fleming short story but has almost nothing to do with it. This is the first film in the franchise to be a direct sequel and the first not to begin with stasis. The irony of course is that, while in the story this film follows on immediately from the last, as films they could not be more disparate. For evidence, look no further than the running times; Casino Royale is 144 minutes long, the longest film in the series, whereas its sequel Quantum of Solace is 108 minutes, the shortest film in the series. What makes for the drastically different lengths? Quantum of Solace decided to dispense with those pesky time fillers like character development and romance and instead jams it with one action set piece after another.
Quantum was directed by Marc Forster the German-Swiss filmmaker of Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland, and Stranger than Fiction. Not exactly the kind of films one would immediately associate with an action movie and I think he knew it. Forster seems keen to prove he can direct action as evidenced by the fact that in the movie’s first half hour, there are five different chases (car, foot, car, motorcycle, boat) and later on we get a sixth (in an airplane this time). He also uses a lot of CGI in both some of the action sequences and as a new form of table-top computing system. It’s not bad CGI, but it is very noticeable and sticks out. Very little time is spent on the story and truthfully it feels like all the interesting or important stuff in the movie were things they had to cut out of Casino Royale because of time. Essentially, the movie is about Bond finding the criminal organization, called Quantum, that was behind Vesper’s death and M being very suspicious that Bond is letting his rage cloud his judgment. While it’s cool to see Bond in revenge mode, the film lacks him doing Bond-like things, which had worked so well for Craig in pales in comparison to its predecessor.
Quantum of Solace had the largest budget ever for a Bond film, a whopping $230 Million compared to Casino Royale’s $103 Million, and while it did make $586 Million worldwide, it was not the enormous success they might have hoped for. Due to the fall of MGM, the rights holders, a third Daniel Craig film was delayed by several years. With the future of the franchise in question, it was worried that Craig might want to step down in the role. However, once the money was secured, the long-awaited third film went into production for release in October of this year, in time for the 50th anniversary. Entitled Skyfall, the film is being directed by Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes and will be the first standalone Craig film. The production has been scaled back from Quantum to a budget of $135 Million and promises to see the return of Miss Moneypenny and Q, something fans had been demanding. It’s got a lot riding on it and I can only hope it’s worth the wait.
So there we have it; James Bond in film. So far. It’s such a moneymaker, I can only assume the series won’t be going anywhere anytime soon and perhaps when I’m in my late 50s I can write about movies 23-44. I’ve really enjoyed this concentrated re-watch of the series and even the movies I don’t like were enlightening. James Bond is a fascinating character as well as a fun and indelible hero and seeing multiple realizations of him is educational. And even after watching all 22, I still like them and would and will watch some of them again probably soon. As a film fan, I’m happy that, like the end of each film promises, “James Bond Will Return.”
What are my findings? Well, of the 22 films already produced, I would say eight of them are truly good films with some kind of value beyond merely being action movies. In release order, those eight are: Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me, GoldenEye, and Casino Royale. I would put any of those in a film studies class about quality action adventure cinema this instant and deserve to be discussed.
Finally, my personal preference list of all 22 from one I like the best to one I like the least, that list would look something like this:
• From Russia with Love
• Casino Royale
• On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
• The Spy Who Loved Me
• Dr. No
• Licence to Kill
• For Your Eyes Only
• Live and Let Die
• Quantum of Solace
• Tomorrow Never Dies
• You Only Live Twice
• The Living Daylights
• Diamonds Are Forever
• The Man with the Golden Gun
• The World is Not Enough
• A View to a Kill
• Die Another Day