Image via United Artists
James Bond remains the most renowned secret agent the world has ever known, spanning fifty-five years and twenty-four films, with six actors playing the role over the years. In 2017 there are a number of entries in the series celebrating significant anniversaries, and looking at those films provides an opportunity to explore the world of James Bond as a whole.
You Only Live Twice (1967 — 50 Years)
By his fifth turn as James Bond, Sean Connery had had enough of Bondage. His debut as 007 in 1962’s Dr. No was a relatively low-budget affair about a disgruntled scientist seeking retribution against the American space program. A year later, From Russia With Love had seen the approach changed to more of a Hitchcockian taut thriller regarding a decoding device; followed a year after that with what many still consider to be the best Bond film ever, Goldfinger. In it, Bond — driving a weapons-enhanced Aston Martin — went up against Gert Frobe’s Auric Goldfinger in an effort to stop the former from radiating the gold in Fort Knox, thus increasing the value of his own considerable supply. The film also blessed the world with a character named Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman). And then there was 1965’s (how DID they crank these out year after year like that?) Thunderball, which elevated the formula as Bond attempts to recover a pair of stolen nuclear bombs that SPECTRE planned on detonating if its demands weren’t met.
By the time Connery had gotten to You Only Live Twice, he believed that the Bond character was as much along for the ride as the audience was, carried away by ever-increasing gadgets, action that completely defied logic and a desire on the part of producers to “go bigger” in all areas with each subsequent film, even if the cost was the Bond character itself. In this case, going bigger was represented by things like a bad guys’ car being scooped up off of a bridge by a helicopter with a magnet attached to it; James Bond battling his enemies in a tiny helicopter (“Little Nellie”), arch enemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld situating himself in a hollowed out volcano in Japan, surrounded by seemingly thousands of jumpsuit-clad agents of SPECTRE, from which he could orchestrate World War III by stealing space capsules from Russia and America; and James Bond “turning” Japanese for some reason that still defies logic half a century later.
But ALL of that being said, in many ways You Only Live Twice (and, to be fair, Thunderball) is an iconic representation of the collective memory of what Bond films represented to that first generation 007 fan. Mike Myers certainly conveyed that with his Austin Powers films, which, while serving as a take-off of the ‘60s spy genre in general, certainly takes much of its inspiration from YOLT (Bond fans love their acronyms).
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977 — 40 Years)
There were changes aplenty in the world of 007 in the decade between You Only Live Twice and Spy. Connery left after YOLT to be replaced by George Lazenby in the decidedly character-oriented (but fiscally disappointing without Connery) On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), who was replaced by the returning Connery for 1971’s fairly incomprehensible Diamonds Are Forever. He in turn was replaced by Roger Moore, who debuted as 007 in 1973’s Live And Let Die. That film turned into a strange hybrid of Bond’s world with the booming blaxploitation craze at the American box office, while giving the world the title song from Paul McCartney. The following year’s The Man With The Golden Gun, a Bond film many actually consider painful to watch despite Christopher Lee’s portrayal of the title character. In a sense, the grandeur of You Only Live Twice had been done away with over the subsequent four films, but that all changed with 1977’s Spy.
In it, actor and character finally melded, and in many ways the production was a throwback to the larger-than-life days of YOLT with villains threatening global destruction and larger-than-life action sequences. In fact, in many ways Spy actually serves as a superior remake of You Only Live Twice, with Blofeld replaced by Kurt Jurgens’ Stromberg, stolen space capsules altered to polaris nuclear submarines and that film’s Lewis Gilbert returning to direct. Right from the opening sequence we know this film is going to be different as Bond, while eluding the bad guys, skis off the edge of a mountain and seemingly plummets FOREVER towards certain death, UNTIL a hidden (and unsuspected) parachute opens, allowing him to float to safety and triggering applause from audiences in cinemas around the world. Amazing sequence!
Beyond that, there were great car chases (including Bond driving/piloting the underwater traveling Lotus Esprit), Richard Kiel’s Jaws (he of the titanium teeth), Stromberg’s hollowed out sea vessel that is large enough to swallow up multiple submarines and house thousands of uniformly jumpsuit clad lackies, and the first woman in the series to equal Bond in all areas, Barbara Bach’s Major Anya Amasova/Russian Agent XXX.
By this point, Moore had mastered his unflappable approach to Bond, but there is a GREAT moment between Bond and Anya where she references his late wife (killed at the climactic moment of OHMSS) and his response is understated, yet powerful. All around, a tough act to follow.
The Living Daylights (1987 — 30 Years)
Flash forward another ten years. Moore followed Spy with 1979’s Moonraker, yet another variation of YOLT, which brought Bond into space ostensibly to stop Michael Lonsdale’s Hugo Drax from destroying the world’s population to make way for his master race, but in reality designed to tap into the success of Star Wars, released two years earlier. Things grew considerably more grounded again in 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, the closest a Moore Bond film got to, say, FRWL, as 007 competes with the Russians for a submarine tracking device. Octopussy (1983) was more of a hybrid between grounded and fanciful Bond, Moore apparently having a good time as 007 must preserve Western European defenses against a renegage Russian general. For Moore, it all came to an end with 1985’s A View To A Kill, which in many ways proved to be a Bond too far for the actor as he looked far too old to be cavorting around the way he was. The film did, however, have Duran Duran’s AMAZING title song.
By 1987, the time had come to bring in a new Bond and a new, grittier approach. Enter Timothy Dalton, who was determined to get his characterization of Bond as close to Fleming as he possibly could. Everything about this, the fifteenth entry in the series, felt reinvigorated, from the performances to the direction of John Glen (his fourth Bond film) and the John Barry score. The plot involves an (apparently) defecting KGB agent working with an American arms dealer on a massive opium deal that ultimately takes the action to Afghanistan. Dalton deserves some kudos for offering up a performance that was so radically different from Moore’s, summed up nicely in an early scene when he ignores instructions and wounds a suspect rather than assassinating her, commenting, “Stuff my orders. I only kill professionals. That girl didn’t know one end of her rifle from the other. Go ahead. Tell M what you want. If he fires me, I’ll thank him for it.”
If there was a criticism of Dalton here, and it would become even more pronounced in 1989’s Licence To Kill, it’s that he lacked the natural humor that (particularly) Connery had brought to the part. Dalton’s Bond was mostly business, and even his throwaway lines brought such import to them that much of the audience couldn’t help but hope that he would lighten up a bit.
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997 — 20 Years)
Six of the ten years between TLD and Tomorrow Never Dies were spent in a void as far as Bond was concerned and, for the fans, seemed interminable. A combination of low box office for Licence To Kill and legal issues regarding the global TV rights to the film catalog kept 007 out of production. In the interim, Dalton departed and was replaced in 1995’s GoldenEye by Pierce Brosnan, who had been the star of the TV series Remington Steele.
What Brosnan immediately proved on his arrival as Bond is that if Sean Connery and Roger Moore had a love child, it would be him as he captured the best elements of both, capable of a ruthlessness AND a light delivery of the character’s quips. While GoldenEye is considered by most to be his best Bond film, its followup, Tomorrow Never Dies, appears to be an underrated entry in the series. The action is spectacular, there’s some character heat between Bond and Teri Hatcher’s Paris Carver (wife of media magnate and main villain, Elliot Carver, played by Jonathan Pryce); and the plot — Carver’s efforts to manipulate the news by creating it in the hope of triggering a war between Britain and China all in the name of ratings and sales — seems almost prescient given how all-encompassing the Internet and vying for clicks has become.
Other highlights include Michelle Yeoh as agent Wai Lin, Vincent Schiavelli’s chilling yet humorous turn as torturer Dr. Kaufman, the score by David Arnold that captures the essence of John Barry yet makes it his own, a killer end title song by K.D. Lang (“Surrender”, see the recut opening titles to the film with that song above), compared to the less-than-inspiring title track by Sheryl Crow; and director Roger Spottiswoode, despite numerous reported production problems, does a sterling job in keeping things moving. Unfortunately, for Brosnan, things would go downhill from here.
Skyfall (2012 — 5 Years)
Time hopping fifteen years, more changes to the series. While financially successful, Brosnan’s The World Is Not Enough (1999) and Die Another Day (2002) demonstrated a growing lack of focus, and a return to downright inanity, particularly true in the case of the latter with its invisible cars, and villain in some sort of electrified super suit that Bond himself doesn’t even comment on (and Bond comments on EVERYTHING), simply accepting its existence. So odd. But producers, unsure where to go next, decided to go back to the beginning; to see 007 at the start of his career. The result was Casino Royale (2006) and the introduction of Daniel Craig in the role. Not since Connery in Dr. No had an actor stepped into the part and so clearly owned it. Quantum of Solace (2008) followed, carried by the strength of Craig and the direction of Marc Forster, but marred by a subpar script that fell victim to a Writers Guild strike and the decision to go into production anyway.
Everyone more than made up for it with Skyfall, the 50th anniversary Bond film. Directed by Sam Mendes with a script by John Logan, it scored with critics like none of the other Bond films had before and enjoyed a global box office success of over one billion American dollars. All of which proved that a Bond film as concerned with character as it was with action could work and connect despite a half century of adventures and twenty-two previous entries.
The past comes home to roost in a major way. For M (Judi Dench making her seventh and final appearance in the role) it’s in the persona of former agent Silva (the chilling Javier Bardem), who feels he’s doing his part by giving Bond a view of what his own future could look like: used, abused and abandoned by the world he feels they were manipulated into joining. And for Bond, its in his recognition of his place in the world, the question of whether or not he’s past his prime (c’mon — it’s ONLY been three movies), and an allegorical return to his childhood by going back to the home he grew up in (Skyfall), where a final battle is staged between he and Silva. A battle that plays like Home Alone on steroids as 007, M and house caretaker Kincade (Albert Finny) rigging the place with booby traps to be used against Silva and his henchmen.
Additional bonuses: Adele’s incredible title song (one of the series’ best), cast additions of Naomie Harris as Eve Moneypenny, Ben Whishaw as Q, and Ralph Fiennes as Gareth Mallory (who becomes the new M in Spectre).
Happy Anniversaries, Mr. Bond. Hope to see you soon.
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