‘Does anyone care about James Bond anymore?’ Yes, they do. Millions actually. But that is a view shared by many since the period from 1989 to 1995, when 007 endured his longest sabbatical away from the silver screen.
As time elapsed, the Berlin Wall collapsed and Cold War paranoia was vanquished, so why did the new world need a relic who was originally created against the backdrop of the post-World War II era? Producer Michael G Wilson however was of the opinion that ‘The world is more in need of James Bond than ever.’
Goldeneye (1995) quashed any notion that because communists were no longer deemed a viable threat, it wasn’t still business as usual for Mr Bond. Pierce Brosnan, silver-tongued and clad in Brioni, faced off against Sean Bean’s rugged Alec Trevelyan in a politically aware yet Bondian picture that resuscitated the franchise and contemporised it into a phenomenal cash cow. The Nintendo 64 game, forever idolised, was at the forefront of a new merchandise drive.
Thursday 6 October marked the 49th anniversary of the Bond film franchise, and number 23, Skyfall, is one year away from hitting the silver screen. At times it has felt like the sky would fall on the future of Bond on film, but Daniel Craig will be slipping back into the tuxedo and desirable Tom Ford suits for a third time, while Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes is at the helm with shooting now underway.
Yet Bond is experiencing a new identity crisis as the challenge now is to tailor the agent in the post-9/11 era. Once this has succeeded, with Craig’s superlative debut in 2006’s Casino Royale, but twice it has floundered via the ignorantly absurd Die Another Day (2002) and the straight-to-video fare of Quantum of Solace (2008). Disregarding Brosnan’s final appearance, Craig’s Bond has not so much taken a few leaves out of Jason Bourne’s handbook, as plagiarised it.
This was effectively portrayed in Royale because the director, Martin Campbell, had experienced guiding Brosnan through his first assignment 11 years previously, and his filming encapsulated Bondian grandeur. The post-credits chase sequence through Madagascar (although filmed in Nassau) features several frames that could adorn the walls of the Tate Modern.
Bond is experiencing a new identity crisis as the challenge now is to tailor the agent in the post-9/11 era.
But sandwiched in between Royale and Quantum was The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). Paul Greengrass had achieved the remarkable feat of performing on The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and its predecessor, the electric The Bourne Identity (2002), to conclude a trilogy that flirts with perfection and includes, aptly, its own identity. Banally though, Quantum followed the blueprints of Ultimatum and discombobulated its audience with erratic editing in a rushed and incomprehensible 100 minutes. Emotion was sapped in the absence of a worthy female successor to Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd, an airborne dogfight was tedious and sadly, we didn’t care about Bond, as striking as Craig was.
It is uncanny how Craig’s opening two films as Bond resemble Brosnan’s auspicious start and hasty follow-up (1997s Tomorrow Never Dies). Marc Forster, a director with aesthetic qualities at heart, was an incongruous choice for Quantum, since although the second unit boasted Dan Bradley (he of Bourne fame), the director didn’t have the nous to make it cinematic fare rather than Steven Seagal hash.
So why do we continue to yearn for Bond? Because he offers escapism. It offers death-defying stunts and the crew assembled are always hungry to push the boundaries and augment the wow factor. Cinema's diversity offers the opportunity to evade the day-to-day vitality for a couple of hours and be immersed in a dreamer's paradise, and this has been the essence of Bond for almost 50 years.
The Bourne films were great as a different presentation of a western spy, whereas Bond's ammunition extends to his dry quips on women, villains and his superiors. If men had the choice of who they'd rather be and women had the choice of who they'd rather bed, there's one unanimous winner. You know the name, you know the number.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was a masterful and taut espionage whodunnit which succeeded thanks to being grounded in reality. Mendes does however share parallels with Tinker's director Tómas Alfredson and is inarguably more Forster than Campbell. His CV boasts a theatrical background, American Beauty, Road to Perdition and Jarhead – a Gulf War film minus the fighting – amongst others. As an auteur, he is a left-field choice despite his British citizenship.
Him and Craig have re-read Ian Fleming’s books, and speaking to Hollywood Outlook, Craig stated: ‘Sam (Mendes) is a huge, huge Bond fan and has been all his life. He and I both said at the beginning to each other that the only thing we want to do is make the best James Bond movie we can. So therefore, we have to go back to what we know about all of that... And improve upon it.’
Enticingly, the cast is the best assembled in the series' history. Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men), Ralph Fiennes (In Bruges), Ben Whishaw (The Hour) and Albert Finney (Big Fish) offer a diverse range of masculinity through generations. Bardem will be the villain whilst Feinnes' character has been described as a ‘darkly complex role’, that requires ‘only an actor of great ability and dexterity’.
The multitude of thespians to face off with Craig almost certainly guarantees a similar character development which bolstered Royale so terrifically. And with female foils coming in the guise of French actress Bérénice Marlohe, Naomie Harris (28 Days Later) and the superlative Dame Judi Dench - returning as M for a seventh time - the ante has been upped to sky-high expectations.
It was compelling to witness Bond get hurt, appear vulnerable and be devoid of Q Branch gadgets in Craig’s first effort, but the caveat is that the fun is being extracted from the series. Mendes’ greatest challenge is to strike the perfect Bond concoction of humour, grit and gimmicks – the benchmark of perfection to aspire to is perhaps Terence Young’s From Russia with Love (1963).
The franchise’s films up until 1989’s License to Kill would end the credits with the uplifting promise that MI6’s finest would return in one of Fleming’s revered titles. Insecurity has since re-emanated and whereas 12 films were released in the 20 years beginning in 1962, just six have been made following Timothy Dalton’s last fire of a Walther PPK in 1989. But rest assured, James Bond will return. On October 26 2012.
You can follow Samuel on Twitter @samuelluckhurst
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