The news that Sam Mendes had been chosen to direct Bond 23, later christened Skyfall, troubled me. Mendes makes deeply meaningful movies, and attempts to endow James Bond with meaningfulness are, like the first woman 007 sleeps with in any given movie, doomed. When Mendes’ films miss their mark, they miss it, as in the case of Revolutionary Road, through pretentiousness. If a Bond film is to miss the mark, it ought to do so through sheer risibility. Think Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist.
I imagined Mendes crafting a moral parable in which rounded, fully imagined characters traversed the dark night of the soul, when the franchise demanded a story that, while unremarkable in itself, effortlessly brought together thrilling chases, eye-popping stunts, lavish sets, exotic locations and gorgeous protagonists. A James Bond plot works like salad dressing: It is necessary, but not what you remember about the dish. And if the plot is to miss, it should miss low.
I watched my first Bond films in a period when they regularly missed low. Those were the sorry, last years of Roger Moore’s stint as 007. Moonraker and Octopussy could only truly be enjoyed by children, and, since I was one, I did. Once Moore was finally put out to pasture, Bond’s producers took their first stab at meaningfulness. The result was two films unbeloved of adults and children alike. They starred Timothy Dalton, the worst of all Bonds, with the possible exception of George Lazenby.
When Dalton’s choice was announced, he was touted for his work in Shakespearean dramas. The British have a silly reverence for actors who’ve played Hamlet or Coriolanus on stage, a belief that mastering such characters qualifies a person to essay any role in any medium. I confess to having swallowed that misconception for a while, and convinced myself that if I found John Gielgud boring, as I did, and do, it was through some limitation of my mental make-up.
Being a Shakespearean actor, Dalton studied Ian Fleming’s novels deeply in preparing to play Bond. He tried to be the man Fleming had created, which was a serious error. In so far as the screen Bonds depart from the literary one, they generally do so for the better. Fleming’s creation is much more a cold warrior, more homophobic, and more misogynistic, than the Sean Connery or Moore versions. In the films, to a greater degree than the novels, nations behave responsibly, even within a context of differing interests or straightforward enmity. The real bad guys are almost always individuals or non-state organizations, represented most commonly by a man stroking a white Angora cat: Blofeld, head of SPECTRE. Bond villains are strangely unfearsome. They are convivial psychopaths, always postponing killing the British spy in favour of conversing about wine or playing a round of golf with him. The inherent absurdity has saved the films from obsolescence, although it sometimes plunges them into self-parody.
The only Shakespearean actor currently on the 007 roster is Judi Dench, who played Ophelia at The Old Vic back in 1957, and has been head of MI6 since GoldenEye. Though she’s a much better screen actor than Gielgud, I wonder why her M has not been sacked yet. GoldenEye featured Sean Bean as a British agent who double-crosses his colleagues. In The World Is Not Enough, M trusted the heiress Elektra King, and ended up abducted. In Die Another Day, Miranda Frost was the traitor within MI6, and Vesper Lynd betrayed Bond in Casino Royale. It seems British intelligence can’t find a single honest spy in Dench’s reign, and word is she messes up again in Skyfall.
Early notices also suggest Mendes has not messed up. I’m pleased he appears to have abandoned the hyperkinetic Unsteadicam style of the previous Daniel Craig outings, which threatened to turn Bond into a Jason Bourne wannabe. No matter how well received the new film is, however, it cannot possibly match the success the franchise experienced in its early years. It isn’t merely nostalgia that induces most Bond lovers to rank the first four films near the top of the hierarchy.
Take Goldfinger, which is my personal favourite because it contains every ingredient in the Bond recipe in good proportion: It was made for $3.5 million (around Rs.18.7 crore now), and returned $124 million, during a time when Eastern Europe and China were closed to Hollywood, and most other markets underdeveloped. In today’s money, Goldfinger made nearly $900 million. At 35 times its budget, the receipts feel like a licence to print money.
Since Pierce Brosnan took over, budgets have ballooned, driven by the increasing dominance of special effects, but grosses have not kept up. Casino Royale, which introduced Craig and is generally ranked among the best of the crop, made $600 million, but cost $150 million. Even Dalton’s ventures had a better ratio of box-office income to budget than the last six Bond instalments. No wonder the producers are willing to switch Aston Martins for BMWs and vodka martinis for Heinekens, recouping through product placements some of the money lost to a long-term box-office downtrend.
The franchise’s inordinate early success owed a lot to the first man to play its leading role, Connery. Connery’s 007 was handsome, sexually magnetic, charming, humorous and ruthless to the point of cruelty. His successor, Moore, couldn’t manage ruthless, though he displayed abundant charm and humour. That imbalance eventually led the series down the road to pastiche. Brosnan displayed all the requisite qualities but, apart from handsomeness, didn’t possess them in sufficient quantity. Craig’s Bond fails the handsome and charming grade, though he’s sexy and ruthless enough. Connery remains the only Bond who had it all.
Back in the 1960s, the producers didn’t credit Connery enough, denying him a fair share of the pie, though they made enough money from the films to keep their families afloat for generations. After Connery quit in disgust, they tried Lazenby, who was wooden on screen and manic off it. The producers returned, begging bowl in hand, to Connery, who had, in the meanwhile, gained weight and lost hair. Though he’d worn toupees in every Bond movie, the one chosen for his comeback vehicle, 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, was a radical intervention, and it showed, as did his indifference to the role.
Connery might have lost interest in Bond, but that hasn’t been the case with audiences across the globe. Though the adulation shading into hysteria that Connery encountered in the early 1960s has been tempered by the arrival of half-a-dozen other spy franchises, there is still a market for the pure escapism, hedonism and wish fulfilment the series represents.
When he first appeared, the spy with a licence to kill provided the public of post-war Britain, scarred by shortages and rationing, a vision of plenitude and excess. A nation reconciling itself to a rapidly shrinking empire could pretend it still belonged in the first rank of world powers. As Bond’s fame spread it became apparent that people everywhere had very similar material desires; keeping the series going has involved finding contemporary forms through which to actualize those fantasies on screen. If there’s a lesson in the enduring popularity of James Bond, it might be this: The world is not enough, but it is also far too much.
Skyfall releases in theatres worldwide on 3 November.
Girish Shahane is a Mumbai-based art curator and critic.
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