I know what to show and what to conceal… Reassessing James Bond #reviews

Oh yeah.  Let’s do this thing.

It’s no secret that the James Bond franchise has a problem with women.  It hardly takes my pseudo-intellectual style of reading way too much into things to notice that.  What is perhaps more interesting is that the conflict between Bond and the ladies is often a more immediate, personal, and human version of the conflict between the United Kingdom and its Soviet enemies.  In many ways, Bond hates women more than he ever hated any Russian, German, or media baron.

James Bond is a peculiar kind of power fantasy.  Unlike Batman or Bourne, Bond is a superhero whose loyalty is almost entirely with the State.  Even when his ‘licence to kill’ is revoked, or when Bond disregards orders, his loyalty to the Crown over personal interest is his defining characteristic.  The Bond franchise struggles with this identity over four decades, and flirts unfaithfully at times with the idea of being an American action film.  But it is difficult to imagine an American action series where the main character is devout — almost religiously devout — to the institutions of the United States government.  If anything, most American heroes define themselves in reaction to government authority.  ‘When the bureaucrats and politicians turn their back on what’s American, only one man has enough Americanity to get the job done.’  Bond, at his very best, is a rejection of that kind of hero and a celebration of an altogether different kind of patriotism, one where the organs of State are synonymous with the State itself.

The problem with trying to evaluate these films is that everybody comes to the party expecting something different.  Are we after a spy thriller?  Are we after a character study?  Pop international relations?  Gizmos and gadgets?

It’s probably no surprise that I’m looking for the big philosophical themes explored in an interesting way.  The films where James Bond confronts an enemy that is an imperfect mirror of himself are the ones which allow for a greater exploration of Bond’s character.  They also allow Bond to stand in as the whole of the United Kingdom, and not just as its sauciest spy.  It’s these films which allow Bond to be something of a moral exemplar; in turn, we get to analyse whether or not we want this kind of person as a moral exemplar (particularly with regard to the misogyny thing).  The enemy is identical to Bond but has transgressed the ‘rules’ in some way: they’ve become a mercenary, or they’ve betrayed their government, &c., &c., &c.

The second aspect I like is the cosmic threat: Bond’s enemy has transgressed social norms and now poses an existential threat by mastering some almighty force.  The best films explore this through the domination of outer space (through satellites and whatnot) because they provide an example of mankind at its extreme.  While remaining true to all things good and British, Bond has to defeat the transgressor who has acquired phenomenal power.

What’s curious is that not everybody agrees, and there is a long tradition of people who don’t like ‘cosmic threat’ films because they’re too ‘silly’, and who like the gritty realism of a spy thriller.  It’s here that the discussion appears to break down into preferences.  You might like bad puns; I might like sweet cars.  Because the Bond series is so broad and diverse, there’s enough in the Bond franchise to suit everybody.

On the other hand, there appear to be structural things which make for a ‘Bond experience’:

1. A disfigured (male) villain

The Bond films struggle with the idea of deformity.  In its moral world, the external physical appearance of a man and his internal mental space are linked.  If a guy’s physical appearance is distorted, it warps their cognitive functions towards evil (and vice versa).  It’s this element which focuses the tension between two alpha males: Bond — who is sexually attractive and sexually active — in conflict with the villain — who is visually repugnant and, if they are sexually active, demonstrates further how they upset the natural order of the moral world.

This is a typically masculine aspect of the Bond universe — evil women are, if anything, more attractive than their morally good counterparts.  For example, the most morally perfect woman in the Bond universe (M) is the least sexual woman; the most villainous woman (Xenia Onatopp in GoldenEye) used sex as a murder weapon.

2. A single iconic image

The ‘Bond-ness’ of a film is really captured in a single iconic image that somehow conveys the entire meaning of the film.  This is the scene which reveals what the film is about and distinguishes it from the other films in the franchise.  Bond films are supralinguistic.  Sure, we remember all of our favourite quips when a bad guy dies, but when we think of Bond films, it is difficult to think of an inspirational speech or piece of dialogue.  As such, we need the image to shock us, engage us, and speak to us.

Perhaps more importantly, this single image distinguishes the particular Bond film from the others.  It’s easy to remember Goldfinger, for example, because it’s the one with the woman painted gold.  It’s harder to remember Diamonds Are Forever because the film lacks a distinguishing scene.  There’s an amusing paradox here: the thing which unites the best Bond experiences is the thing which distinguishes each from the others.

3. A transgressive threat

Bond has a ‘licence to kill’ and is considered to be our elite line of defence against the people who wish to do us harm.  It is therefore an unsatisfying (or, as I would put it, fake) Bond experience when James Bond is pitted against a pedestrian threat (such as drug smuggling… cough).  Films often fall into the trap of the reverse problem: the villain is so spectacular and mighty that we struggle to believe that the heroes are capable of winning (see, for example, Star Trek: First Contact).  Bond easily falls the other way: our hero is so mighty, exceptional, and elite — we wonder why he would be sent on missions in which he does not confront mighty, exceptional, and elite opposition.

But enough with the generalities — on to each film.

Dr. No (1962)

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The first James Bond film is beloved and revered by fans of the franchise.  This affection for the film blinds fans to significant problems: the structure is wonky, the story is flimsy, and Bond isn’t particularly impressive.

The opening title sequence is a confused and messy attempt to induce epilepsy, reminiscent of a PowerPoint presentation by a year nine student who failed to complete the set reading.  The choice in font is particularly bad.  After a minute and a half, the style changes completely into a two dimensional celebration of sound and then finally transforms into three blind men shuffling along to a new style of music.

The opening sequence is the most memorable part of the film.  Everything that follows feels like a first draft, or a proof-of-concept.  The characters lack any depth.  The story lacks any semblance of sense.  If anything, the opening sequence is a miniature version of the entire film: it wants to be bright and flashy, but doesn’t quite know how to achieve it.

Dr No himself appears on a few ‘Great Movie Villain’ lists.  Looking at the film again, it is difficult to know why.  Dr No embodies two types of aberration.  In the puritanical world of Bond, Dr No is ethnically deviant — the child of a German missionary and a Chinese woman.  This gives rise to the second aberration: Dr No does not identify with a particular nation state (having pissed off the Chinese, Americans, and is now pissing off Bond).  Dr No stands apart from the rest of society and does not feel bound by its social framework.

This is conveyed in the film by having Dr No appear as some kind of Thunderbird.  It’s inescapably racist, even moreso than would become typical for Bond films.  Dr No is a caricature of ethnic diversity — a propagandist’s warning against miscegenation.

He also reflects the fear of science and technology in the hands of the impure.  This is what happens when rogue deviants get any kind of technological power, and this is why we have to keep technology safely in the hands of white people that we trust.  This theme in the film is fascinating given how Dr No intends to use his technological power: to disrupt the US’ space exploration program.  It is okay for the United States to dominate Earth’s orbit as part of the space race, but it is not okay for other global players to interrupt that quest for supremacy.  Bond causes Dr No’s nuclear reactor to explode.

Because Dr No is not aligned with any particular nation state, he also does not align with any particular political ideology.  This is unusual for a Bond film where most of its villains embody a particular rival philosophy to British imperialism.

If you were to watch Dr. No, it would be after watching all the others.  This is a film only for those with a pathologically morbid curiosity to see how it all started.

From Russia with Love (1963)

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In an ideal world, Dr. No would be a five minute prologue to this film.  From Russia With Love captures the sense of fun and adventure that the first film fails to nail, but flows somewhat naturally from the first film’s conclusion.

The plot to From Russia with Love is also more complicated than the first film.  The villainous organisation, SPECTRE, has devised a plan to take revenge on Bond personally for the events of Dr. No.  Bond’s apotheosis into the embodiment of Britain — even its avatar — occurs when the villains blame him rather than Britain (or MI6) for the death of Dr No.

To enact its plan, SPECTRE has to infiltrate into a nation state, and thus becomes identified with the Soviet Bloc.  Through this affiliation, SPECTRE demonstrates that it is ideologically opposed to Bond.  Not only does SPECTRE seek revenge, it is unable to reconcile with Bond due to this core incompatibility.  In this sense, Dr No’s death is immaterial and unimportant — it is merely the place at which Bond and SPECTRE intersect and through which the ideological struggle between East and West can be played.

In order to retaliate against Bond, SPECTRE’s chief strategist, Kronsteen, develops an elaborate plan in which an attractive Russian agent will be used as bait to entice Bond to Istanbul.  Using the rock solid reasoning of ‘Women be stupid’, Bond takes the bait and kicks of the back and forth between the two agents.

Kronsteen is an interesting antagonist.  He is shown to excel at chess, and his strategy takes on a chess-like quality.  It’s this characteristic which distinguishes him from Bond.  Kronsteen is cerebral and remains at arm’s length to the hazard; Bond is a man of action and gets his hands dirty.  Kronsteen believes he can work this to his advantage — closeness breeds attachment for Bond, but Kronsteen can maintain his perspective.

If anything, there are too many villains in this film and SPECTRE needs to start taking out its own in order to focus the attack on Bond.  Kronsteen is reporting to Blofeld (a mysterious, master puppeteer who does not reveal his identity throughout the film, further playing on ideas of distance, impartiality, and perspective — Blofeld does not have a face with which to emote, unlike Bond who is recognisable, iconic, and an embodiment of Britain).  Kronsteen’s plan is directed by Number 3, who recruits the attractive Russian agent and another assassin for the mission.

It is possible for something to be complicated and yet have a clarity to it, and From Russia with Love fails to find that balance.  On the other hand, the complexity lends the story a sense of relentlessness.  This isn’t a long, drawn out game of chess: this is lightning chess and Bond has to think quickly or fail.

People accuse Continental philosophers of obscurantism in order to hide their lack of depth.  A similar complaint could be lodged at From Russia with Love.  The opening credits strongly suggests that we are supposed to think of this film as cheap titillation.  The pretty women will be pretty and will dress provocatively for you.  Your counterpart in the story, Bond, will monster them on your behalf.  The sexual fantasy for the male viewer is not the individual women — as attractive as they might be — but that Bond’s behaviour results in his sexual appeal.  From Russia with Love understands one of the core functions of the Bond character: a power fantasy for chauvinists.

Goldfinger (1964)

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Following Dr. No and From Russia with Love, this is the first Bond film which entirely feels like a Bond film.  Bond is sent to snoop on Auric Goldfinger, an Austrian bullion dealer.  Goldfinger is textbook maniac — the Gina Rineheart of his time — who reflects both the power and the lack of trust that we have in the extravagantly wealthy.  Goldfinger has become wealthy through cheating (reflected in a game of cards where Goldfinger is given details of his opponent’s cards by Jill, his assistant, who watches on with a telescope) but craves greater wealth.  His interest in wealth is not for its utility but, instead, a strange fetish with the gold itself.

Again, the conflict between Britain and her enemies is embodied in a dispute between Bond and Goldfinger.  Bond seduces Jill, so Goldfinger kills Jill by coating her in gold paint.  The difference between Bond and Goldfinger is not huge.  Although Goldfinger literally objectified Jill by coating her in gold paint, Bond metaphorically did the same when he treated her as a means to attack Goldfinger.  Jill is the vessel through with the two alpha males in this story can attack each other.

What Goldfinger perhaps didn’t expect was that Bond is a textbook sociopath who really didn’t care about Jill…

It is both fascinating and disturbing that we are clearly supposed to find the corpse of Jill to be a titillating image.  She is topless, wearing a gold bikini bottom, and lying in a bed.  We could attempt to read into this scene a message of Goldfinger mocking Bond: in this moment of an attractive woman coated in gold body paint, Goldfinger has created something that both he and Bond could enjoy — Goldfinger for his fascination with gold and Bond for his satyromania.  This reading detracts from the earlier understanding of Goldfinger trying to hurt Bond through Jill.  A better reading, perhaps, is that through the transmogrification of Jill, Goldfinger’s desires are satiated at the expense of Bond’s.  Again, this doesn’t give us a particularly satisfying reading because we’d have to explain why Goldfinger left her in a ‘sexy’ pose.

The only real option available to the reader is that the producers included a soft core porn corpse for the purposes of attracting a particular kind of audience.  This would also explain a number of the accompanying promotional shots.

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Auric apparently spent some time putting eyeliner on Jill as well…

This film is perhaps Bond at his rapeyist.  Bond soon meets Goldfinger’s assistant, Pussy Galore.  While showing him around Goldfinger’s property, Galore rejects Bonds advances, but Bond grabs her and seeks information.  Galore, being proficient in Judo, throws Bond off.  Bond, being an A-Grade arsehole, trips Galore so she’s on the floor of the barn beside him.  The music plays a quirky string flourish to show this violence towards women is all just fun and games.  Climbing to her feet, she tries to throw Bond off her again but Bond over powers her and throws her into a haystack.  Another musical queue indicates that this is supposed to be fun.  A little bit more of a tussle, then Bond forces himself on top of a struggling, desperately resisting Galore.  Over powered, she succumbs to the embrace and decides to work with Bond instead of Goldfinger.

It’s decidedly creepy.

Where Goldfinger is less creepy is in its understanding of economics as a weapon.  Goldfinger — perhaps confusingly — wishes to irradiate the gold bullion at Fort Knox, making it unusable.  This would increase the value of his own gold and would wreak havoc on the international markets.

The problem with this plan is that it seems to cut across the grain of Goldfinger’s character.  If he has such a raging boner for gold-sans-value, why would he want to destroy one of the largest holdings of gold bullion?

Last but not least, this is the first film to have a proper theme song.  It’s not this one:

Thunderball (1964)

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Thunderball is the mirror universe opposite of Goldfinger.  Oh, except for the treatment of women.  That’s still the same.

What might surprise everybody is that the title ‘Thunderball’ is a reference to Bond’s over developed testicle.  The film explores his relationship with his testicle.

The film opens with James Bond attending the funeral of a rival spy.  The spy’s widow is attending the funeral, but Bond realises that he has no sexual attraction towards the widow.  Aha!  It’s really the spy in disguise.  That explains it.

This leads to an awkward moment of Bond bashing a transvestite, then escaping the building by means of a jetpack on the roof.  Frustrated by the deception of a woman who is not a woman, Bond can blow off steam with this incredibly elaborate, flashy, and entirely impractical display of dominance.  The jet, of course, representing Bond ejaculating.

Tom Jones croons the immediately forgettable title sequence, then we are thrust into the laboriously confusing plot of Thunderball.  Bond is sent to a physiotherapist who indicates no sexual interest in him… until Bond grabs her at which point she decides that she’s smitten with him.  This seems to be a common theme for a lot of Bond’s encounters, making us wonder if Bond secretes some kind of mind control drug from his mouth.

It’s from that moment on that nothing at all memorable happens.  We do get a reintroduction to the link between deformity and villainy through Emilio Largo — SPECTRE agent Number 2 — who has an eyepatch.  Largo has abducted two nuclear weapons and is threatening to blow up a city unless he is paid a ransom.

It’s possible — though I wonder how — that this plot was thrilling and suspenseful when it was first released.  The underwater scenes were considered ‘beautiful’ and ‘state of the art’ instead of ‘dull, dull, hideously dull’.

You Only Live Twice (1967)

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By this point in the series, there’s only been one great installment (Goldfinger).  If you’re new to Bond and you’ve heard all these rumours about Connery being the best Bond, by this point in the series, it’s difficult to believe why anybody would think it.

As if on queue, in comes You Only Live Twice, an utterly awful story in which Bond ends up ‘disguised’ as some sort of Asian for a good portion of the film.  About half way through this dreck, one is reminded of Karl Kraus’ comment: you don’t even live once.

For some reason, Bond fakes his own death so he can go to Japan and immediately declare who he is to anybody willing to listen.  After a series of chaotically noisy events, Bond decides to learn ninja so he can infiltrate the lair of Blofeld — the head of SPECTRE who has hijacked an American spacecraft.  Because Bond has openly declared several times who he is, there’s an assassination attempt on his life.  To keep him hidden, they give him a stupid haircut and a spray tan to make everybody think that he is really natively Japanese.

That’s not even the dumbest part of this trainwreck.  The moment Bond adopts the Japanese visage, he loses all of his charisma and sexual prowess.  He tries his usual mating ritual with a young Japanese woman and fails miserably.  Silly Bond, only Caucasians are capable of disguising staggering misogyny as sexual charm.

You Only Live Twice suffers from being so thoroughly and successfully parodied by the Austin Powers series.  Dr Evil is based on Blofeld (including Nehru jacket and eye scar).  It is therefore difficult in the world post Austin Powers to appreciate Donald Pleasance’s performance.

That said, giving Blofeld a face (disfigured or not) strips Blofeld of his key power: his inaccessibility.  Now, Blofeld is human — terribly human — and can be defeated by a guy who thinks a stupid haircut and a fake tan makes him look Asian.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

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I won’t lie.  By this point in the series, I was wondering why I was still watching them.  Blofeld survived the events of You Only Live Twice, had cosmetic surgery, and is now brainwashing attractive women into being sleeper agents.

Why is Blofield brainwashing attractive women into being sleeper agents?  Blofeld feels that he is entitled to claim the title ‘Comte Balthazar de Bleuchamp’ and — by God — if the title isn’t recognised, he will get his sleeper agents to set off biological weapons.  Blofeld has cunningly placed his evil lair on the top of a frequently-visited tourist destination.  In order to hide this from the outside world, he kills tourists and hangs their bodies out in the open.  Verily, this is a grand master evil schemer.

This is the first of the Eon Bond films not to star Sean Connery.  The Australian-born George Lazenby took over the gig and was, frankly, horrible at it.  For most of the film, his dialogue is mercifully dubbed.  One wonders why they didn’t remove him with CGI when the film was digitally remastered a few years ago.

Curiously, this film lays bare something at which the other films could only hint: Bond’s conflict with the antagonist of the film was merely a cover for a deeper kind of conflict — the one between Bond and women.  In one scene, Bond enters the room of one of the beautiful sleeper agents, says a few lines, and then seduces her.  Moments later, he enters the room of another sleeper agent, utters the same lines, and then seduces her as well.  Bond is a man caught in the crossfire of a gender war, who must resort to learned tactics and strategies in order to win the battle.  Just as the propagandists portrayed foreign enemies as indistinguishable, anonymous automatons, so too does Bond conceptualise women.

This makes the ending of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service curiously odd.  Bond ends up getting married to the pretty young thing that he saved from drowning.  As they drive off to celebrate, the bride is shot.  The film ends with Bond holding her as she dies.  It never feels like Bond has lost somebody important to him — far from it, he reacts as if somebody had taken his property.  It is a cold, almost brutal scene.  For a film filled with all kinds of violence, this is the act that seems superfluously violent.  Bond’s enemies kill his wife to get at him, but Bond is beyond emotional attachment in some Zen state of apathy.  Stone cold.

Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

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Connery returned to the series on the strength of Goldfinger; the studio paying him a record amount to return to the series.  The sogginess of Thunderball and You Only Live Twice were yet to count against Connery, with the studio also bringing back Goldfinger‘s director, Guy Hamilton.  So eager was the studio to recreate Goldfinger that Shirley Bassey returned to sing the title theme (the previous songs were performed by Tom Jones, and Nancy Sinatra, while OHMSS was not sung):

It makes Diamonds Are Forever entertaining at the very least.  There’s a sense of fun in this film that was missing from ThunderballYou Only Live Twice, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

The problem with Diamonds Are Forever is the story.  Blofeld has returned in a new guise (the excellent Charles Gray) and is smuggling diamonds.  Blofeld’s method of smuggling involves hiring a chain of smugglers to pass along a case of diamonds.  When they perform their task, two assassins also hired by Blofeld then immediately kill the smugglers.  Bond infiltrates the smuggling ring, bringing him into conflict with the assassins.  It never quite makes sense why Blofeld is killing off the smuggling ring.  The least subtle way of hiding a smuggling ring is to kill them off.  Dead bodies tend to attract attention.

Meanwhile, in a much more interesting subplot of the film, Blofeld has begun creating doppelgangers through a creepy process involving hot mud.  In Blofeld’s original appearance, he did not have an appearance.  His lack of appearance — his complete anonymity — gave him an unassailable quality: only things with identities can die.  I complained earlier that giving Blofield a face robbed him of this quality, but Charles Gray’s Blofeld recaptures it through the proliferation of identity.  It’s something of an apotheosis: Blofeld has gone from having no identity, to having an identity, to having multiple identities.

Live and Let Die (1973)

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The first of Roger Moore’s adventures as 007 is perhaps his worst.  There are two good elements to this film.  This is the first:

There’s not a lot that can be praised in Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles career, but the theme tune to Live and Let Die is one of them.  It is easily more fun, entertaining, and better produced than the film itself.

The second element is a surprise: Jane Seymour’s performance as Solitaire.

The film follows Bond as he tries to understand the unusual activity surrounding the dictator of a Afro-Caribbean country, San Monique.  British agents assigned to gather intelligence were murdered in strange — kinda racist — circumstances.  This ‘kinda racist’ nature persists throughout the film.  The dictator dabbles with black magic.  One of his henchmen is ‘Baron Samedi’ and he employs the services of Tarot-reading psychic, ‘Solitaire’ (Jane Seymour).

Seymour does a great job in the face of a particularly insensitive script and a character designed to appeal to fairly nasty sentiments of the viewer.  Solitaire’s psychic ability is linked to her purity.  Thus, she’s Caucasian (the only in the dictator’s posse) and a virgin.  Bond — of course — seduces Solitaire, stripping her of her innocence and, by extension, her power.  This is an awkward undertone to the film which already struggles with race issues.

The film presents the African American community as untrustworthy, sneaky, and corrupt.  Conversely, the Caucasian member of the villains cabal is secretly good and can be seduced back to working for her own (white) community.  The films dealt with race earlier in the series (the first film, Dr. No had a mixed race villain), but this is the first instance of Bond having an entire race as a villain.  Every single non-white character in this film is part of the villain’s cabal.  And it’s not just that the individuals themselves are bad people; the Black culture itself is part of the conspiracy against the West.  It’s an awkward and uncomfortable film.

It also feels problematic for a simple drug-smuggling syndicate to warrant the intervention of a spy with a licence to kill…

But the worst part of the film is the inclusion of Clifton James as J.W. Pepper:

The film is made in direct response to a shift in popular culture: Blacksploitation.  This is the first of a few obvious examples of the Bond films following the trend of cinema rather than leading or challenging it.  It’s also the film that first shows how difficult it is to nail down precisely what a Bond film is.  No matter how terrible some of the earlier entries were, it was clear that a Bond plot, at its heart, was a struggle between the powerful.  There was no sense of Bond being deployed against the underdog.  Live and Let Die changes the rules of this game.  Now, Bond can be deployed against anybody and anything that poses a threat to a peaceful Anglo world order.  At this point, we understand that a Bond film is about the titular hero protecting the status quo from any possible threat.

The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

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This film is amazing and anybody who tells you otherwise is a damn liar.

The Man with the Golden Gun captures the best elements of Goldfinger and pushes it that little bit further.  Christopher Lee plays Scaramanga — an assassin who uses signature weaponry to dispose of his targets: golden gun with golden bullets.  This makes him entirely different to Bond — an assassin who uses signature weaponry…

Oh.

This is the tension of the film: to what extent are Scaramanga and Bond different?  Scaramanga harbours a long-standing fantasy about killing Bond, even setting up a ‘fun house’ where he can shoot at a mannequin Bond.  Scaramanga sees Bond as the ultimate adversary and, at one point in the film, notes on how similar the two of them are.

The film reveals the unusual paradoxes in the film series.  Scaramanga is an assassin who lives an opulent life of (assumed) monogamy on his island paradise.  Despite his notoriety, he is anonymous — few know what he looks like, except for his tell-tale deformity: a superfluous nipple.  Bond, on the other hand, is an assassin who leads an opulent life of promiscuity.  Despite being a secret agent, he is recognised by damn near everybody in the Bond universe.

Everything in this film flows almost naturally towards the final confrontation between Bond and Scaramanga, a battle which is fought according to gentlemanly rules.  It’s on this playing field that the distinctions between the two men evaporate.  Neither is compelled to kill the other, except in the sense of the game that they have established between them.  Bond wins the match by pretending to be his simulacrum.  Scaramanga believes that Bond is actually a custom-made mannequin and isn’t the real Bond; while Scaramanga is confused, Bond shoots him.

Earlier in the film, Bond had impersonated him in order to gain information.  In that instance, Bond had failed because he did not fully understand the identity he was trying to emulate.  In the showdown between Scaramanga and Bond, Bond succeeds where he earlier failed because he can fully inhabit the intended character: an image of himself.

In previous films, it was Blofeld’s anonymity which granted him an element of power.  Scaramanga’s anonymity worked in a similar way in this film.  Yet Bond’s notoriety and infamy works to Bond’s advantage, even though he is supposed to be a secret agent.  This wonderful exploration of identity, masterfully discussed in terms of contradiction and juxtaposition, makes The Man with the Golden Gun particularly excellent.

Of course there are problems.  Britt Eckland is a waste of space.  And — in a not atypical bout of orientalism — Bond is assisted by two karate-proficient Asian schoolgirls…

We also have the return (for the final time, thankfully) of J.W. Pepper.

But even those awful moments don’t manage to detract from this fascinating exploration of Bond’s character.  It won’t be until GoldenEye that we will see this level of exploration into the character of James Bond.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

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There has always been a coldness to the way in which Bond executes people.  After electrocuting one guy, Sean Connery’s Bond quips: ‘Shocking.  Simply shocking.’

The Spy Who Loves Me struggles to frame this coldness in an usual way: what happens when Bond has to confront people who were emotionally close to the anonymous henchmen that he kills?  What we discover — perhaps due to ineffective writing, perhaps due to Roger Moore’s inability to act — is that Bond is a mega sociopath.  This is a man who is thoroughly dead inside.

This film is less about the villain — which is a shame, because it’s a classic Bond villain: threaten everybody with nukes! underwater lair! — and more about the interaction between Bond and the girlfriend of a guy Bond shot.  Bond’s weakness is that he can’t consider the girlfriend (Agent XXX) a serious threat, thus she has ample opportunity to drug him, steal MacGuffins, and generally keep one step ahead of him.

What is perhaps interesting about this installment of the franchise is that Bond is more accessible as a power fantasy.  There is, ultimately, nothing that wonderful about Bond himself.  What makes Bond is his gizmos and gadgets and — importantly — the car.  When on a high speed chase with Agent XXX in the passenger seat, we realise that Bond was never in any real danger because his car does all the work for him (it even transforms into a submarine).  This distinguishes Bond from other power fantasies like Batman and Iron Man.  Batman has to be at the peak of physical conditioning; Bond is old sauce.  Iron Man invented the gadgets that power him; Bond merely uses gadgets given to him.

There is no special skill to being this Bond — you just have to show up, get the gadgets, then seduce the foreign chick.

Moonraker (1979)

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Moonraker is the most divisive of the James Bond films.  It is the summa incarnation of all the campy, insane, superheroic aspects of James Bond.  As such, it is a wonderful film for people who come along to the James Bond films for those escapist elements.  As such, it is a horrible film for all the sour doldrummy types who have read all the novels and want their James Bond to be a dry spy thriller.

For me, these films only work as campy escapism which border on parody.  If they’re straight up serious pieces, then they become morally repugnant films.  As such, I love Moonraker because it is so completely insane.  But it also shows the extent to which the Bonds film are not genre leaders, but genre followers.  When Star Wars was a massive hit, Bond went into space.

Unlike in The Spy Who Loved Me, Bond is something of a superhero in Moonraker.   The evil Drax is planning to wipe out all human life on Earth and start afresh with a group of handpicked specimens of ‘genetic perfection’.  The plan is utterly nuts but utterly nuts evil plans are what Drax does best.

Again, we see that Bond is unwilling to contemplate the motives of his evil counterpart.  If wiping out all but a handful of the human race would lead to an overall increase in happiness, then Drax is promoting a consequentialist vision of a utopian vision.  Bond — thoughtless, meatheaded thug that he is — knows that Drax is wrong because his orders are to protect the status quo.  Bond is the pure reactionary in the face of Drax’ radicalism.

Moonraker gives us a villain whose gizmos and gadgets are on the same level as Bond’s.  The key difference is that Bond uses his technological power to protect the status quo where Drax wishes to use his technological power to revolutionise the world.  This makes sense of an early scene in which a mansplaining Bond informs Holly Goodhead that he could undergo any astronaut training that a woman could endure.  Bond is strapped into the G-force simulator while one of Drax’ henchmen sabotages the device in an attempt to kill him.  Despite relying on gadgetry himself, Bond becomes increasingly technophobic during Moonraker, resulting eventually in his complete nudity come the end of the film.

For Your Eyes Only (1981)

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Following the cosmic existential threat posed in Moonraker, the Bond films returned to the usual dreariness of the conventional spy thriller with For Your Eyes Only.  Some magical device is lost in the ocean.  The UK government hires a contractor to go and find the device.  The contractor is killed and Bond ends up sleeping with the contractor’s daughter.

The contractor’s daughter, Melina Havelock (portrayed by the stunning Carol Bouquet) shows an interesting problem in the James Bond film when it comes to women.  At one point, she dresses in androgynous clothing and saves Bond.  The moment she reveals her gender, she is no longer capable of rescuing Bond and must herself be rescued.  Given that he needs her a lot more than she seems to need him, this dynamic is strange and haunts the film like a bad smell.  Bond is somewhat incompetent in this film; Havelock having both the skill and physical prowess to deal with things by herself.  Still, it wouldn’t be Bond unless there was a Bond to anchor the story.

In many ways, this film doesn’t quite know what to do with Bond.  This is perhaps best demonstrated in the pre-titles sequence where Bond’s helicopter is remote-controlled by a person strongly suggested to be Blofeld.  Bond is a passenger in a helicopter.  Where is he going?  Doesn’t matter.  The helicopter pilot is suddenly killed by an electric shock delivered remotely by a bald man in a wheelchair.  Why does the pilot need to die?  Doesn’t matter.  Bond climbs out of the helicopter and tries to get into the cockpit while pseudo-Blofeld makes it do doughnuts and shit.  After a few minutes of this, Bond gets control of the helicopter then uses the helicopter to torture then execute Blofeld.  Why?  Who knows?

This is a Bond who merely occupies the space of Bond.

Moore’s age is starting to show by this point.  During the movie, a young ice skater, Bibi Dahl, begins to flirt with Bond.  Rather than demonstrating Bond to be the ultimate chick-magnet, the film makes it hard to escape the idea that Bond is something of a dirty old man.  He never acts upon the opportunity, but he doesn’t do much to discourage it either.

The villain of the film is also unusual.  There is some code-cracking device that the villain, Aristotle Kristatos (played by the phenomenal Julian Glover) wants to sell to the KGB.  Kristatos is initially presented to the audience as an ally but — in what I think is perhaps a first in the Bond series — he turns out to be the villain.  Because the film wants to play this as a betrayal, it shies away from exploring Kristatos as a character.  Giving away too much of what he’s like early risks letting the plot slip.  As a consequence, he’s a villain that we never get to understand.  Why does he want to sell the device to the KGB?  Money.  Oh well.

Octopussy (1983)

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 Bond disguises himself as a clown and as a gorilla, and makes a Tarzan noise as he swings through the forest.

It’s difficult to understand this film.  Bond, our superheroic embodiment of Her Majesty’s Great Britain, is tasked with finding out what’s up with these fake Faberge eggs.  At no point do we fully understand why we care about Faberge eggs (it’s something to do with faking all kinds of Soviet treasure), nor do we understand why we’d send freaking Bond to go and sort it out.

On some level, the producers and directors know that Bond is ridiculous — he is the world’s best known spy — and keeps winking to the audience that everybody’s in on the joke (hence the Tarzan call).  But these elements are entirely out of place in this film which is excruciatingly serious.

Even moreso than in For Your Eyes Only, the ‘Bond girl’ completely eclipses the main villain.  Maud Adams plays Octopussy, a cult leader associated with the primary villain of the film.  Where its predecessor explored a villain who disguised himself as good, Octopussy has a character who starts evil and slowly turns good, until she’s suitable for Bond’s sexual advances.  In this respect, Octopussy is like Solitaire before her.  As Octopussy rejoins the side of the angels, she subordinates herself to Bond and his needs, acting as the gatekeeper Bond needs to confront in order to find the bomb planted by the main villain.  Where evil males who stand in Bond’s way get shot, women get seduced.

Everything else about this film is forgettable, although it was nice to see Q get out of the office.

A View to a Kill (1985)

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Even Roger Moore knew that he was too old to play Bond by this stage.  There had clearly been a face-lift in the two years since Octopussy and it gives Bond an ‘uncanny valley’ feel.  Worse, nobody wants to see their sleazy old uncle cracking on to younger women.  Moore was no longer able to fulfill the role of being a power fantasy, appealing to the 20-30 something men who wanted to see the world, shoot the bad guys, and sleep with exotic women.  He was just old.

A View to a Kill is a strange film and, were it not for Christopher Walken, would be a complete write off.  In response to the tech boom, the film returns to the exploration of Dr. No: what happens when the bad people — that is, people who aren’t appropriately affiliated with Britain’s allies — get their hands on technology.

The villain is Max Zorin who transgresses in three important ways.  First, he is on the cutting edge of cybertech yet does not want to use that technology to aid Britain or her allies.  This is particularly heinous during the Cold War with the Soviets.  Second, he is the beneficiary of Nazi medicine to make him and his offsider into superhumans.  He is no longer just an ‘ordinary’ person but a transhumanist superman.  Third, he intends to cause an earthquake to destroy his rivals in Silicon Valley.

Backed by Walken’s superb performance, Zorin manages to encapsulate everything that we suspect about the unethical Randian hero — the wealthy (white) man who doesn’t let non-economic concerns get in the way of his economic goals.  Zorin has no loyalty to anybody, not even his own minions whom he gleefully guns down in one confusing scene.

Like other cosmic villains, Zorin dominates the air in his airship.  The final conflict between Zorin and Bond takes place on a bridge which tethers Zorin to the ground.  Bond is trying to subjugate Zorin to the will of the moral community which Zorin has abandoned socially (through trying to kill off Silicon Valley), technologically (through his airship and cutting edge cybertechnology), and biologically (through his posthuman augmentations).

It is a shame that this film sucks.

The Living Daylights (1987)

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This is the Bond film for people who like their films to have their grit laced with more grit.  It is a grittily gritty film where each scene is grittier than the last.

The Living Daylights has aged well (as opposed to the Sean Connery years) but there’s a sense of ‘giddy fun’ missing from the film.  Where the last few films didn’t quite know what to do with Bond, this film — Timothy Dalton’s first of his two adventures as Bond — has very clear ideas of how Bond should be.  Forget all that superheroic stuff about cosmic threats — Bond is a spy.  He should lurk in shadows as a counter-sniper, shooting people quietly and refraining from too many hilariously sociopathic quips.

This grittily realistic and realistically gritty Bond is a precursor for Daniel Craig’s.  A sort of joyless, human-all-too-human approach strips Bond of his shine.

Introducing a new Bond has been a bit of a hit and miss affair.  Roger Moore was introduced by brute force — he walks in and somebody refers to him as Bond.  George Lazenby began his one and only film informing the audience that he was the new Bond.  The Living Daylights plays with the idea of Bond undertaking a training exercise that suddenly becomes a real event.  It’s both a clever way to introduce the new Bond — the transformation from not-Bond to Bond — and the overall structure of the story — we will assume particular things are going on when in fact the opposite is the case.

The problem with the film is that it is unwieldy.  With so many ‘Oh, ho ho!  The good guys are bad guys and bad guys are good guys and defectors aren’t defecting and Afghans are here too’ the overall point of the story is lost.  The film also returns to the conventional Cold War setting of the earlier films.  Bond has to coordinate smugglings under the wall, &c., &c., &c.  It’s all very spytastic but without a clear sense of purpose, it’s sometimes difficult to know what all the cloak and daggers are supposed to achieve.

But the film is notable for my favourite blooper of the Bond series.  Following a plane crash from which Bond and the Bond girl escape by means of indestructible jeep, Bond notes a road sign pointing in two directions: Islamabad one way, Karachi the other.  ‘I know a good restaurant in Karachi’, he says, and then drives towards Islamabad.

Licence to Kill (1989)

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Licence to Kill is easily the most bleak and depressing film of the entire series.  If the main character were not called ‘Bond’, it would be all but impossible to consider it a Bond film.

The film starts particularly well.  Bond and Felix, his CIA partner, are on their way to Felix’ wedding when they are called away to deal with a local drug lord.  Hijinks ensue and Bond and Felix end up parachuting into the wedding.  It’s a wonderful mix of Bond’s private and professional lives.  Even something as high adrenaline as getting married can become even more action-packed in Bond’s world.

But does a local drug lord really warrant the deployment of Britain’s most famous licence to kill?

Further, all the joy we get in the opening sequence is quickly dashed upon the gritty rocks made of pure grit.

The drug lord escapes from custody and wants vengeance upon Felix and Bond.  Thus, he has Felix’ new wife raped and murdered, and then has Felix tortured by a shark.  This enrages Bond into undertaking a personal vendetta against the drug lord.  Where previous Bond films have given James a very unusual emotional landscape — ‘My wife died.  I have all the time in the world.’ — this is perhaps the first film to explore the psychological aspects of Bond.  Unfortunately, it’s not done in a terribly fulfilling way.

Bond ends up so enraged that his superiors believe that he’s emotionally compromised and isn’t capable of making rational decisions.  Bond’s ‘licence to kill’ is revoked, and Bond goes rogue.

Although the drug lord’s crimes are horrible, it’s difficult to justify the deployment of an assassin against him.  It’s even more difficult to justify Bond’s position morally when his licence to kill is revoked.  Bond has become a thug who pursues a personal agenda rather than the dispassionate best interests of the Empire.

The film breaks with the tradition of Bond fighting for the interests of England.  This is a Bond who has transformed into the Man With The Golden Gun: he fights on his own terms for his own interests, free of scrutiny.  It’s not fun.  It’s not interesting.  It’s just brutal.

GoldenEye (1995)

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This is easily my favourite Bond film.  It gets absolutely every part of the film correct and reveals an awareness about Bond’s character that will never again be seen in the series.

Ultimately, GoldenEye is about Bond being a relic of an older, more primitive age.  Old battles resurface.  Ghosts of the previous mode of engagement with the global community haunt the new age.  Abandoned ideas still influence new agendas.

GoldenEye is a beautifully crafted film.  Bond and his colleague, Alec, are engaging in covert operations in Russia when they are found by Ourumov, a Russian officer.  Bond shows that his loyalties are to the mission over his friendship with Alec.  Bond is a complicated character — he indulges in his senses through sexuality, but in all other respects he is austere.  On the other hand, his relationship with women is just as superficial as his relationship with his colleagues and friends.  They are expendable, means to ends.  Although Bond is driven by his sense of duty, he is no Kantian.

The film skips forward to the modern day.  The Cold War is over and Bond has moved on in his life.  Ourumov, on the other hand, longs for the old days when it looked like Russia might win the Cold War.  He seeks to recreate those old hostilities but through the utilisation of modern technology: the GoldenEye satellite, a space weapon that can shoot an electromagnetic pulse from orbit.  As the plot unfolds, it transpires that Alec — who didn’t die earlier — is manipulating Ourumov.

Meanwhile, Bond’s agency, MI6 has joined the modern world by promoting a woman, Judi Dench, to the top job.  Dench is a sensation in the role of M, bringing to it a depth and intelligence that we haven’t seen from the more bureaucratic representations in past films.

She is contrasted by Famke Janssen as Xenia Onatopp, the right hand woman of Alec.  Xenia is a sadist whose preferred method of assassination is by squeezing the victim’s chest between her legs during sexual encounters.

Both M and Xenia share a rejection of traditional gender roles but, where M is able to subordinate Bond through will and authority, Onatopp is able to subordinate Bond through will and sexuality.  They are in effect the two sides of the same character.

Is this the same thing? Yes, yes it is.

Is this the same thing? Yes, yes it is.

Goldeneye also brings the title sequence kicking and screaming into the modern age.  Sure, it’s still got uncomfortable gender politics from the earlier Bond age, but at least it’s pleasant to watch.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

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The magic of Goldeneye didn’t carry over into its successor, Tomorrow Never Dies.  Where Goldeneye was about settling old scores and burying old bodies in a new environment, Tomorrow Never Dies is about confronting new enemies in an old environment.  As such, it never seems to work.

Let’s start with the good bit: Michelle Yeoh.  This is the first time that one of the ‘Bond Girls’ didn’t find herself subordinated as an integral part of the plot.  Yeoh plays a Chinese spy who is as adept a spy as Bond.  Although Bond tries a few times to take the key position in the adventure, he ends up sharing the space more often than not.  This is big news for a series whose first villain was characterised in terms of his ‘half-Asian’ identity, and which had an installment dedicated to Sean Connery in yellow face makeup.

Brosnan definitely seems like he’s unsure of what to do in this film.  For the most part, that seems to be the problem of the plot — which is baffling — and the script — which doesn’t leave him many places to go.  The very worst parts of Brosnan’s performance involve Terri Hatcher.  Hatcher is just weed killer in the flowerbed of this plot.  The idea is that Bond and Hatcher’s character had previously had a fling, but Hatcher’s performance is so flat and cold that it’s difficult to believe.  What did Bond do to her to make her so frosty cold?  Did he smash her pet dog with a shovel?  Did he poison her family?  What?

But Hatcher’s character paves the way for the complicated world of the plot.  A media mogul (played by the fabulous Jonathan Pryce) has decided that it’s easier to create news than merely report it.  Thus, he conspires to manufacture a war between the UK and China.  This involves first stealing some sort of magical GPS device and then reprogramming it so that it’s wrong and then sink a boat using Chinese weapons…. blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.  It is difficult to know precisely why it’s so frigging hard to just report the news if this convoluted plan is easier.

Pryce never seems to believe that he’s not in some sort of parody film.  He chews scenery and has an evil laugh that rivals my own.  But the rest of the film doesn’t come with him on that adventure; Yeoh and Brosnan are playing the film straight.

This is a shame because the film could have been a fascinating exploration of the unchecked power of the media.  When media barons are corrupt and evil, who keeps them in check?  Journalists are taught that they are an essential part of democratic systems and, further, that they should resist any attempt to clip the wings of the media.  If the first part of this claim is accurate, the second part of the claim is extraordinary: no part of a democratic system is without checks and balances.

Tomorrow Never Dies takes the extreme version of this: what happens when a media baron goes completely off the sanity wagon and becomes a murderous supervillain?

But what if Tomorrow Never Dies had taken a more conservative path: what if Pryce were not murderous, but simply intended to use information he was collecting to blackmail various politicians and government officials?  Pryce ends up becoming a threat by exploiting the corrupt behaviour of others, creating a problem for Bond: is Pryce actually the villain, or is he merely the beneficiary of the villainy of others?

Instead, we get a tale where the moral of the story is that nation states are good and rogue agents are bad.  Bit unsatisfying.

The World Is Not Enough (1999)

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The World Is Not Enough is the natural successor to Goldeneye.  Betrayal, identity, history, the lot.

This time, we are exploring ghosts from M’s past.  Her friend, a wealthy oil tycoon, once lost his daughter (Sophie Marceau) to terrorist kidnappers (Robert Carlyle).  He turned to M for advice; M recommended that he not pay the ransom demanded.  The daughter now seeks revenge  upon her father and upon M.

This quickly forms an interesting problem conceptualising the theatre upon which the drama unfolds.  What is the relationship between M qua the person who has wealthy friends who have daughters that suffer Stockholm’s Syndrome and M qua the person who is the head of the spy agency?  The World Is Not Enough makes the work of M intensely personal such that an attack on her is, at once, an attack on England itself.  Bond is therefore the agent through which M can resolve her personal drama.

We also get a very quick glimpse of why M is the head of the spy organisation.  When she’s taken hostage, she hacks a 1980s clock into some sort of GPS tracker.  It’s just a shame that she’s something of a damsel in distress rather than a kickass spy wizard or something.  This is an idea to which we’ll return in a later film.

Sophie Marceau is amazing as the batshit insane villain.  Her character’s name, Elektra, plays on the character from Greek myth who conspired to seek vengeance against her mother and stepfather.  In The World Is Not Enough, M takes the role of the stepfather and Elektra takes revenge upon her father.

As with Xenia Onatopp in Goldeneye, Elektra uses seduction as a weapon, transforming the act of sexual pleasure into a violent, sadistic performance.  In this context, it is interesting that her lover, the terrorist kidnapper played by Robert Carlyle, is incapable of sensing pain of any kind.  Her need to inflict pain is countered by his inability to feel it.  Again, we see women juxtaposed with M.  Elektra fell in love with her kidnapper who is insensitive to pain, but seeks revenge against M who was insensitive to her pain.

Reveal and betrayal plots are often excruciatingly complicated, but The World Is Not Enough keeps everything tight.  Relying on ordinary family relationships that have turned sour, the betrayals make more sense.  Elektra is not the dutiful daughter.  The kidnapper is actually the lover.  Bond is not the 60-year old Russian physicist…

Speaking of Bond not being a Russian physicist, Denise Richards is painfully awful in this film.  She doesn’t really have much of a role within the family drama of the plot — she unconvincingly plays a nuclear physicist.  Indeed, every horrible bit of this film is directly related to trying to find Denise Richards a role in the film.

But let us return to nicer things.  Easily one of the top five ‘Bond Songs’, we have Garbage performing ‘The World Is Not Enough’ with a strangely creepy opening titles:

Awesome.

Die Another Day (2002)

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This is easily one of the worst Bond films.

Die Another Day is the inevitable telos of the Brosnan era of Bond films.  Goldeneye explores his personal past being revived in the present; The World Is Not Enough explores M’s personal past being revived in the present.  Where to from there?

The film tries to recycle the best bits of the previous films but doesn’t quite tie it all together.  The film begins with Bond imperfectly completing a mission (recalling GoldenEye) but — instead of escaping — he is captured and tortured.  The torture scenes merge into the softcore titillation creating a confusing swing of emotional response:

The blurring of the line between sex and violence had appeared in other Brosnan films (GoldenEye and The World Is Not Enough), but this was the first time that it was overtly presented for the enjoyment of the audience.

The enemy has a satellite that can destroy things from space (GoldenEye) but wealthy people make technological advances for the good of all mankind (theme from The World Is Not Enough) so nobody believes that it could be used for sinister intent (also from GoldenEye)

Again, we have the idea of the old score that needs to be settled, the betrayal, and the identity-reveal.  But this time around, the punches don’t land convincingly.  Why is Bond and the Evil Dude sword fighting?  Meh.

The elements of a good film are here, but there’s a listlessness to their execution, a sogginess that makes this feel more like we’re watching Where Is Carmen Sandiego? rather than a Bond film.  With nowhere to go in the plot, the film instead tries to go for spectacle.  Infamously goes for spectacle.

There’s two interesting questions which don’t quite get answered in this film.  The first is what it means for the West to continue to engage in spy games with Asian countries.  The film presents Bond and the UK as unquestionably good and morally perfect.  This robs us of the insight that GoldenEye gave us: that the UK could do the wrong thing and others could hold legitimate grudges against it.

The second is what it means for Bond to find the North Korean’s race-bending a perversion that needs to be corrected.  Bond sits as an authority enforcing strict divisions between the various races.  Colonel Tan-Sun Moon’s transgression is not the dominance of space through his magical satellite; it is the transgression of race by undergoing surgery in order to appear Caucasian.

But, ultimately, this is a film that showed that Brosnan didn’t have anywhere to go with his depiction of Bond which gave us two of the best entries in the franchise.

Casino Royale (2006)

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No.  Not that one.

Wait… what happens in Casino Royale with Daniel Craig?

Anything?

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Oh, that’s right.  They play poker for three goddamn hours and then Bond had to give himself CPR or something with equipment that wasn’t plugged in properly.

It’s hard to analyse a film when there isn’t any actual film to analyse.

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Seriously.  Look at how bored everybody looks.

Daniel Craig has that Keanu Reeves style of acting: generally look like every sandwich you’ve ever eaten in your entire life has been made out of elephant poo.  This spirit of elephant poo infects other actors.

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The film is — as far as I can make out — about whether or not James Bond can convince a responsible adult that he can successfully gamble vast amounts of UK taxpayer funds.  His methods of persuasion involve pouting and staring really hard at people.

This is a shitty film.  The first time I watched it, I fell asleep.  The second time I watched it, I felt drained afterwards.  I can’t quite work out why anybody involved in this film thought that it would be a good idea.  There’s nothing that really makes this feel like a Bond film.  He’s not a superhero.  He’s just gritty elephant poo dark grit.

There’s an attempt to ‘clean up’ the Bond image, perhaps, and make them feel more like spy thrillers of the Bourne-kind.  This is somewhat suggested by the new style of opening credits:

Wait…

Quite a departure from the traditional ‘naked models in silhouette’ style.  Although, to be fair, Rule 36 probably means that somebody who really loves playing cards way too much feels like it was their time to shine.  ‘All these years, naked girls.  Finally playing cards!’

By trying to appeal to a new, younger, ‘fresh’ market, Casino Royale made a film that was not really a Bond film in any identifiable way.  Instead, they made an extremely boring film about playing poker.  Perhaps more strangely, this film sets up the events of its sequel, Quantum of Solace.  The puzzle is then why didn’t they combine the two films?  This film has absolutely no structure and leaves the audience feeling like they haven’t actually watched a real film.  It’s like a seven-course meal where every course is hors d’oeuvres.

Quantum of Solace (2008)

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About 10,000 words ago, I discussed what it meant for a film to be a Bond film.  Where Casino Royale tossed out the rule book on how to make a Bond film watchable, Quantum of Solace attempted to align the new Bourne-esque style of Bond with the existing franchise.  Thus, we’re back to opening credits sequences with nude models:

We are also back to the world of the catastrophic global threat.  This time, Bond is locking horns with Dominic Greene who is trying to take over the water supply of a South American nation.  Despite a return to the faux-deity status of the villain, we still have a Bond who is still a stand-in for a video game sprite.

That said, there are two interesting things to take away from this film.  The first is the infantilisation of non-WEOG countries.  The villain of the film (Greene) has craftily negotiated a contract with a South American country.  Greene has promised to assist an exiled Bolivian General to stage a coup in return for a large patch of desert.  ‘Oho!’ laughs the Bolivian General, ‘That land is worthless, so of course I’ll sign it over to the wealthy white man.’

It is difficult to understand why the Bolivian General is so utterly stupid.  Perhaps he should call in some experts to make sure he’s not — for example — signing over the country’s water supply.

But this speaks to the question of why Greene is the villain of this film.  He’s the villain because he took advantage of a stupid, greedy General?  Or is he the villain because he’s supporting the coup in Bolivia?  If the latter, why aren’t Bolivian authorities handling this instead of the rogue Bond who’s been disendorsed by MI6?

Bond punishes Greene by leaving him in a desert with nothing but a bottle of oil to drink.

The message, however, is clear.  Bolivians are exploited and the only people who can take out the opera-watching, elite, wealthy white people is the assassin working on behalf of a different (legitimate) group of opera-watching, elite, wealthy white people.  The Bolivians themselves have no agency in their own protection, nor do they have their interests represented.

The second interesting part is the counter-development of Judi Dench’s character.  In the Brosnan years, we got some sense that M was a thoroughly capable woman.  The Craig films reversed that trend.  She’s the head of the UK’s spy agency, and yet she’s fragile and meek.  The start of the film begins with her bodyguard attacking her.  Instead of defending herself, she cowers and lets Bond chase after the bad guys.  The telos of this character arc will be in the next film.

Skyfall (2012)

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Skyfall is a bad film for a host of reasons.  Let’s start with the worst thing to ever happen ever in a Bond film.

While giving evidence to a parliamentary body, M (Judi Dench) is attacked by a group of armed terrorists who shoot up the committee room.  M — having delivered a speech about virtue and courage twenty seconds earlier — huddles like a terrified old woman while the men Take Care of Business.  One old guy dive tackles an assailant and begins shooting back while M cowers.

Fuck.  This.  Noise.

Some of you reading this might think: ‘But, Mark!  You are being unkind!  Judi Dench is approaching 200 years old.  She’s blind and frail and can’t move.’

But you’d be wrong.

My evidence:

Have you seen how frail Sir Ian is these days?

It’s not even an appeal to new technology.  Here’s a classic moment in science fiction:

It seems that we can accept the idea of a frail old man being able to draw upon reserves of ability, but we don’t extend that to women.  It’s this unconscious assumption on behalf of the audience that allows films to create some fun battles.  More from Star Wars:

We tend not to have examples of the powerful old woman.  To an extent, M was it.  She was the hard, wise, authority figure in the Brosnan Bond films.  Effectively, she was our Yoda training a boastful, arrogant, reckless Skywalker.

I can hear you again from the future: ‘But, Mark!  You are still being unkind!  Those films are fantasy films where people rely on magic.  Bond is about spies and science and realism.’

Bullshit.

Bond is fantasy.  As we’ve seen countless times over the course of the series, it’s a power fantasy.  It’s a particularly male power fantasy where a man with enough charisma can sleep with whichever woman he fancies, can kill off the bad guys, and can defy physics and logic to be the hero.  It’s laser beams and invisible cars, guns that are matched to your palm print and magic satellites in space.  Plus, Solitaire from Live and Let Die.

Skyfall completely guts M and causes us to ask: ‘Why the hell is she the boss of MI6?  All those accusations of her just being a bean-counter and bureaucrat seem to have been on the money.’

The film also has the audacity to mock earlier films.  Meeting Q for the first time — a first class dunderheaded nitwit who plugs the bad guy’s laptop directly into their secure network, who claims that he’s able to crack an encryption system that he himself wrote (which is either false — if the designer of an encryption system were able to decrypt messages using that software, we would have security problems all over the place — or, worse, it’s true and indicates that his method of encrypting data was so shitty that it could be decrypted by somebody.  Lesson: don’t use an encryption system that you’ve written yourself unless it’s been scrutinised), and who ticks every annoying box for what Hollywood seems to think is an indicator of genius — Bond is underwhelmed by the technology.  Q retorts: ‘Were you expecting an exploding pen? We don’t really go in for that anymore?’

No.  Daniel Craig’s films have not yet risen to the standard that they’re allowed to mock one of the best — if not the best — film in the franchise.

No.  This new Q — who’s an irritating prat — does not get to mock Desmond Llewelyn.

The rest of Skyfall is fundamentally stupid.  A former MI6 agent has become a cyberterrorist, again recalling the Brosnan years’ merging of the old history with new technologies.  Javier Bardem is entirely miscast for this role, suggesting that MI6 hasn’t been doing the best job of recruiting agents.  GoldenEye worked so well because Sean Bean and Pierce Brosnan were — in their own, strange way — believable as MI6 agents.  It’s not similarly possible to imagine that Javier Bardem and Daniel Craig were hired by the same organisation.  It absolutely defies belief.

And don’t even get me started on that absolutely moronic house-under-siege sequence.

Come the end of the film, the Bond franchise has unstitched everything that was good about the Brosnan films.  Judi Dench’s M is dead, replaced with a male M.  Moneypenny decides to retire from fieldwork, opting instead to become a secretary.  The men are back in charge of MI6 and the women are mostly forgettable.

Conclusion

Holy Christ, there are a lot of Bond films.

The films are at their best when they know what they want to say.  Even though the films are, ultimately, pulp fiction guff, they can have a surprising amount of depth to them.  They can entertain and delight on two levels.  The films are at their worst when they don’t know what they don’t have a tight grip on the plot and mechanics of the story, when Bond becomes an out of control reaction within the plot.

Daniel Craig is perhaps the worst Bond — even worse than Lazenby.  Lazenby simply couldn’t act and was out of his depth, while Craig appears to be deliberately shit.  Not that he intends to be shit; it’s merely that the intended performance is shit.

It’s the difference between the person who accidentally gives everybody food poisoning and the person who deliberately poisons the food.  Lazenby is the incompetent former; Craig the mendacious latter.

There’s no reason why women need to play second fiddle in these films.  The films have shown time and time again that, even with a male protagonist, the female characters can hold their own as villains or authority figures.  Again, the Craig films are regressive in this sense, once again subordinating the female characters.

The future of Bond films, from my tiny perspective, is in grappling with the character.  Although the betrayal/identity-reveal plots have often worked well, their tendency to become wildly complicated makes them a hazard.  A simple plot — perhaps even disguised as a complicated plot — would give the films room to confront some of the worst aspects of Bond’s character.  He is, fundamentally, an instrument of violence on behalf of the State.  Licenced to kill.

3 thoughts on “I know what to show and what to conceal… Reassessing James Bond #reviews

  1. Hey there, thanks for the link to my OHMSS review on Geek Blogger UK!

    Some interesting viewpoints here, OHMSS rates as one of my absolute favourites as does ‘Licence to Kill’ which is more like what ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ should have been had Lazenby stayed on.

    I would say ‘Skyfall’ is in the top ten for me but I wouldn’t rate as high as others seem to, ‘Casino Royale’ is still Craig’s best IMO (and I didn’t actually mind QoS, it tied up the loose ends of Casino, the two films being a sort of ‘Bond Begins’ piece).

  2. Pingback: I hope I die before I get old… Reassessing the Star Trek films #reviews | Only The Sangfroid

  3. Pingback: Four in the morning, and I’m zoning… Review of Atomic Blonde | Only The Sangfroid

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