Monday, March 25, 2013

James Bond: so close, and yet so far

I still haven't watched Casino Royale (1967) or Diamonds Are Forever (1971). I promise I will, so you don't have to. I'm just not up to it at the moment.

When picking a movie for Anna and I to watch together, I jumped ahead to Octopussy (1983), which I think represents the beginning of the franchise's long, slow rebuilding of a modicum of dignity.
The villains! The actors who were in these movies! Telly Savalas, Max von Sydow, Michael Lonsdale (who I know only as the mysterious Jean-Pierre in Ronin), a very young Christopher Walken; Grace Jones as Walken's henchwoman, who apparently can't act, but is a stunning physical specimen who could surely pop your head off with her thighs.

Robert Davi, Christopher Lee, Jonathan Pryce, Sean Bean, Yaphet Kotto. These are phenomenally competent actors, but you wouldn't know it from their Bond performances. I wish I knew anything about film, because I feel there are deep themes in the historical sweep of the Bond movies. I want to ask: When you make a Bond movie, what, exactly are you trying to accomplish? It's clearly not "making a good movie," if "good" applies to the acting or the script. The plots go through varying levels of contrivance, but at all times you're conscious of how the script bends over backwards to avoid breaking the almost universally loose molecular bonds of the story. Human beings like Bond and his enemies do exist, more or less, with remarkable skills; however, those people do not fail to shoot someone from ten feet away. Nor do they decide, after Bond has nearly foiled their plans numerous times in the past 24 hours, to leave him alive to witness their triumphant global domination or blackmail or whatever. No, these extraordinary humans, their astonishing potential honed into a multifarious weapon by years of training, these are serious people. In real life, if someone jeopardizes the mission, they shoot that someone in the face immediately, probably more than once.

GoldenEye (1995) represents a sort of reboot, though the word "reboot" doesn't exactly apply here, since the Bond franchise has never tried too hard for continuity. Every movie opens with that view down the barrel of a gun, which expands onto the opening action scene, which itself either starts or ends with Bond having sex with some woman (sometimes both). After Timothy Dalton's vengeful assassin Bond--though, to my earlier point that the Bond actor does not make the movie, Dalton did not write the particularly grim script for Licence to Kill (1989)--Pierce Brosnan really is a breath of fresh air. His Bond is dignified, classy, and takes an earnest delight in his work that none of the other Bonds quite found. One often feels that Connery, Moore, and Dalton's Bonds feel their careers as something of an imposition, a burden they carry to serve their country (and in Dalton's case, to work out his psychological torment). Brosnan's Bond is having fun. He's an adrenaline junkie, and once the fistfight is over, or he's successfully parachuted off a cliff onto a fleeing airplane, or had a successful car chase through St. Petersburg in a stolen tank, he gets the same boyish smile normal men might get from buying and using new power tools to successfully build that buffet table they saw on The New Yankee Workshop.

The airplane and the tank are both from GoldenEye, by the way, and the tank especially shows what I mean by the script contorting itself to support the story. Some screenwriter got really stoned and decided there should be a tank chase, and shamelessly wrote the script to make that happen. The result makes the script kind of "meh" as a story; however, TANK CHASE. IN ST. PETERSBURG.

More than Bond's enjoying his job, GoldenEye marks a bit of a shift in the franchise's almost-inevitable chauvinism. The wholly remarkable Dame Judi Dench takes over as the spymaster M, the first actor to make the character interesting. Miss Moneypenny, M's secretary, has been developing gradually throughout the films. Lois Maxwell's fawning, unrequited love for Sean Connery and Roger Moore eventually grew unbearably pathetic. Caroline Bliss's Moneypenny clearly lusted after Timothy Dalton's Bond, but had no illusions about it ever happening. Now, Samantha Bond's Moneypenny sees Bond for the gifted spy but emotionally stunted man that he is, and she's happy to flirt, but wouldn't touch him with a ten-foot pole.

I don't know how far this can go, though. What is James Bond without the casual sexism? Whether the movie plays the sexism straight (the helpless, naive cellist in Licence to Kill), or as a backdrop for a surprisingly competent woman (when Michelle Yeoh kicks his ass in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)), it's part of the character.

Perhaps I will live to see J.J. Abrams re-make Bond into a woman, once he's done with Star Trek and Star Wars.

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