A cold war hero intended to make British readers still feel like their country had a place in the world, the character and stories reflect the times and prejudices of their creator. The films made in the 1960s and 70s matched this character far better than more recent ones, but I suspect the reason for this goes deeper than mere shifts in attitudes (‘trigger warnings’ apply more to the sexism and xenophobia rather than actual gunplay).
I’ve been a Bond nerd since the 80s. Even as a child, I could tell it was an unsettled time for Bond films. The plots of For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy (the first one I saw) were more low-key than the lavish, world-threatening excesses of The Spy Who Loved Me or Moonraker. Offshoot film Never Say Never Again (essentially a remake of Thunderball) felt like a 1960s film made 20 years too late. Roger Moore was quite clearly ill-suited to playing Bond in A View To A Kill. The 25th anniversary of the film series in 1987 introduced Timothy Dalton as the new Bond in The Living Daylights. He lasted just two years in the role, finishing with Licence To Kill in 1989. It was six years before another Bond film appeared, largely because of legal wrangles.
In that gap – which might be the first ‘death’ of the cinematic 007 – also saw the end of the Cold War, and the deaths of screenwriter Richard Maibaum (who wrote all but three of the films to that point) and Maurice Binder (who designed all the intro sequences, including the gunbarrel logo). It also saw the first real alternative to James Bond as a ‘Bond-like’ action hero in True Lies (which apparently prompted a rewrite of the next actual Bond film, Goldeneye.)
So, without his raison d’etre, his writer, and (shortly after Goldeneye came out) producer Cubby Broccoli, how could the Bond films continue? I think the biggest problem they had to contend with was the fact that they’d run out of source material. Licence to Kill was the first film not to use one of Ian Fleming’s story titles (but it did borrow a handful of ideas from his work), and suffered from being yet another 1980s action film pitting heroes against drug dealers. Bond needs to be different.
After Goldeneye, the plots of Pierce Brosnan’s turns as 007 left me underwhelmed; the scripts lacked the wit that Richard Maibaum brought. Tomorrow Never Dies featured perhaps the weakest villain of the series (Jonathan Pryce was reportedly unhappy with the role); The World Is Not Enough failed to excite, and although Die Another Day gave me the over-the-top plot and spectacle I’d been missing since the 1970s, it suffered from weak special effects replacing stunts, and something far deadlier: competition.
Austin Powers highlighted everything that was completely ridiculous about the Bond formula, while Bourne tacitly pointed out that the character himself was obsolete.
It’s no coincidence that the start of the brainless action film xXx begins with a spy in a tuxedo being caught by his enemies after sticking out like a sore thumb in crowds of 21st-century ravers. Goldmember, The Bourne Identity, and xXx were all released in the same year as Die Another Day – the 40th anniversary of the 007 film series and 50 years since Ian Fleming wrote the first draft of Casino Royale. The second cinematic ‘death’ of 007?
I know many people disagree with me, but Daniel Craig’s turn as 007 hasn’t excited me that much. I think it’s the result of the swing from Bond silliness to Bond seriousness (previously seen going from You Only Live Twice to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, from Moonraker to For Your Eyes Only and then from Die Another Day to Casino Royale).
The plot of Casino Royale might have made sense in an era of smoke-filled gambling clubs, but it seems ridiculous to take it seriously in the 21st century (and Casino Royale really did take itself far too seriously). I liked the parkours chase in Madagascar, but it seemed like Bond was chasing after Jason Bourne rather than a bomb maker. The entire rest of the film bored me, but it was still more interesting than the utterly forgettable Quantum of Solace.
Skyfall was the reboot I was hoping for instead of Casino Royale. The plot was ludicrous and the villain’s motivations nonsensical, but it had the virtue of being entertaining, and even allowed itself some humour.
What of the latest effort? Spectre maintained the Bond silliness, but there wasn’t anything that swept me along for an adventure. The story seems to be partially recycled from Captain America: The Winter Soldier and commits the cardinal sin of expecting the audience to remember stuff that happened in Quantum Of Solace. Worst of all, it takes the Goldmember character arc (compare Bond and his nemesis with Austin Powers and Dr Evil in that film) and treats it with far more gravitas than it deserves. It’s not a bad film by any means – but I’m not sure it’s a keeper, either.
I just don’t think there’s anywhere left for Bond films to go; something Daniel Craig’s 007 has kept confirming for me. As much as I liked Skyfall, the whole film hinged on M’s speech to the government inquiry, which sounded more like 007 films trying to justify themselves in the 21st century. Otherwise, Skyfall and Spectre are filled with nostalgia, trying to recreate or riff on past glories (or else, making explicit references to Daniel Craig’s first two outings). Without the source material, the Bond films have become a pastiche of themselves.
For me, the best of Bond was in the 60s and 70s – before I was even born or had any memories of the world. It’s easier to put the character in a historical context that way. Perhaps a reboot placing Bond back in the 1950s might’ve been a riskier, but more effective path? I guess we’ll never know. Perhaps the films should take note from the last line of the literary 007’s obituary:
“I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”