Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Many Lives of James Bond: A franchise of reboots

Contemporary Hollywood is known for two things: franchises and franchise reboots. When Daniel Craig became the 6th actor to portray James Bond in a 'reboot' of the series, it was seen as the creative team's reaction to this latter trend. However, taken in a broader view of the series, Casino Royale is merely the latest in a series of reinventions that the franchise has gone through in its 50-odd year history. While the most obvious 're-boots' can be defined by the introduction of a new lead actor,  there have also been more subtle reinventions of the tone, style and, in some cases, the generic conventions associated with the series. Some of these reinventions have been more enduring than others, but they all, in their own way, illustrate the ways in which the James Bond series has been able to perpetuate itself despite changing times and tastes.  

Connery Mk 1 - Dr No; From Russia with Love (1962-1963)
The series begins as a relatively straight series of novel adaptations, with a few welcome additions -- like a sense of humour. One major shift from Fleming that would have major implications for the longevity of the series was the decision to move from the overtly political antagonists of the novels (the Soviet spy organisation Smersh) to non-state villains who are more concerned with money and power than ideology (SPECTRE). Both Dr. No and From Russia With Love are very faithful towards their source material. Like the books,  these stories involve small-scale espionage with a touch of the fantastic.

Connery Mk 2 - Goldfinger; Thunderball; and You Only Live Twice (1964-1967)
With the success of Goldfinger and Thunderball, the series experiences a rapid escalation towards outright fantasy, thanks to increasing box office and culminating in the involvement of Roald Dahl as screenwriter on You Only Live TwiceYou Only Live Twice bears no relation to the book it is based on, a trend which would continue into the next decade. More than Goldfinger, it provides all the iconic elements which are associated with Bond. While previous films feature conventions we now associate with the series (good/bad Bond girls, giant Aryan henchmen, super villains, lairs, gadgets), You Only Live Twice is the movie where the complete 'Bond formula' is in place.

Lazenby - On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
The first changing of the guard means a brief return to the style of the early Connery era, and to straight adaptations of Fleming's novels. Perhaps feeling the absence of their original leading man, and the limitations of his successor, director Peter Hunt and his team try to break away from the style of Connery's later films. Gadgets are scaled back, with the focus back on Bond’s physical prowess (with three fistfights within the first 40 minutes) and his wits. Though there are gadgets, those on offer are either useless (radioactive lint) or so cumbersome their application is limited. The best example in the film serves as the basis for one of the few extended suspense sequences in a Bond film: Bond breaks into a nefarious party's office and has to use a massive safe cracker and photocopier to get the information he needs before the owner returns from his lunch break. A rare example of the series showing the limits of Bond's toys, this sequence is a protracted exercise in suspense and a rare injection of realism into a series that usually opts for something easier.

Connery Mk 3 - Diamonds are Forever

Following the relative failure of OHMSS, the producers decide that the only way to keep the series going is to take the series back to the style and tone of their one unqualified success: Goldfinger. The brief return of Connery also signals a shift in style and tone which will continue through the reign of his successor. The shift away from the realism of OHMSS back toward the fantastical is not simply a repetition of the late 60s films. What changes with Diamonds are Forever and the films of the 70s is the addition of a new camp dimension to the character and his world that continues to be a major influence on the series.

Moore Mk 1 - Live and Let Die; The Man with the Golden Gun (1973-1974)

The casting of Roger Moore cements the new tongue-in-cheek approach, but during his early years in the role it is not clear whether the series will endure. This first Moore era marks the point at which the series identity becomes more subject to outside influences. By the early 70s, the Bond films are no longer at the forefront of popular entertainment and Moore's first two entries are notable for their blatant attempts to copy current trends (blaxploitation and Dirty Harry in Live and Let Die; kung fu in The Man with the Golden Gun). Already out of date, the emphasis on following trends and overt comedy sees a law of dimensioning returns which will result in the series taking a 2-and-a-half year break to rekindle its mojo.

Moore Mk 2 - The Spy Who Loved Me; Moonraker (1977-1979)
Following the relative disappointment of Moore's second film, and the departure of co-producer Harry Saltzman, the creative team once again turn to one of their past hits to revive the series. This time it is You Only Live Twice, with its nuclear armageddon plot updated from the space race to nuclear submarines. The Spy Who Loved Me is a major hit and so the creative team decide that the only way they can continue to survive in a market place dominated by Star Wars is repeat the winning formula. The result is James Bond in space. Though a major hit like You Only Live Twice, at the time Moonraker is regarded as the ceiling for what Bond can get away with, and a decision is made to take the series back to earth in more ways than one.

Moore Mk 3 - For Your Eyes Only (1981)
Originally For Your Eyes Only is meant to introduce a new actor as Bond. This did not eventuate and instead Moore becomes the only Bond to receive a third re-invention. Stripped of the hardware of the late 70s (signalled by the destruction of Moore's iconic Lotus Esprit), the Moore adventures of the early 80s presage the shift toward a darker tone under his successor. Like Diamonds are Forever and The Spy Who Loved MeFor Your Eyes Only takes an earlier film as its template -- in this case, it is From Russia With Love, with  its simple mission-oriented plot, low key antagonists and emphasis on Bond's wits and physical prowess.

Another major change was more emphasis on the Cold War tensions between East and West, which had never been a major part of the series before. Previously, Bond's foes had oscillated between crime kingpins and stateless megalomaniacs. All of the villains of Moore's 80s films would be related in some way to the Eastern bloc, a trend which would be reprised briefly in Dalton's debut. 


While Octopussy and A View To A Kill will be closer in tone to Moore's 70s output, Moore's third re-invention will prove pivotal in another respect -- it signals a revision of Bond's character toward something darker and more psychologically complex, a model that will be reprised in the work of his successors. 


Moore Mk 4 - Octopussy; A View to a Kill (1983-1985)
Like For Your Eyes Only, Moore's last two outings are originally intended as vehicles for launching new actors in the lead role (you can find James Brolin's and Sam Neill's screen tests online). This means that, while they approximate the lighter tone of Moore's 70s work, there is a sense of schizophrenia to both Octopussy and A View To A Kill as the filmmakers seem to have run out of ideas about where the series is going. In this way it anticipates the creative indecision which will grip the re-launched series in the 90s.

Dalton - The Living Daylights; License to Kill (1987-1989)
Shorn of Moore's more light-weight persona, John Glen and his writers resume the realism of For Your Eyes Only and continue to move further away from the style of the 70s toward a new kind of realism, but one that has its roots in Bond's past (mainly From Russia With Love and OHMSS). The arrival of Timothy Dalton allows the creative team a chance to completely re-imagine the character. Though retrospective opinions are somewhat tempered in their appraisal, Dalton's Bond is far more tortured and conflicted than any of his predecessors. In contrast to his predecessors, whose adventures grow increasingly divorced from their source material (and reality), Dalton's movies represent an inversion -- while The Living Daylights boasts some campy humour and a formidably outfitted Aston Martin, these elements are further reduced in Licence to Kill.

While his run is short-lived, Dalton's Bond is a blueprint that both his successors will draw on. 

Brosnan - GoldenEye; Tomorrow Never Dies; The World Is Not Enough; Die Another Day (1995-2002)
Brosnan's tenure is, like Diamonds are Forever, a reaction to the films of his predecessor. GoldenEye's pre-credit sequence takes place in 1986, the year that Brosnan lost the role to Timothy Dalton. The implication is that Dalton's Bond -- and the style of his movies -- have been erased. However this is not strictly speaking true. While comparatively lighter than Dalton, Brosnan's Bond does pick up some of the psychological baggage and real-world context of his predecessor, but chooses to blend it with more of the camp and humour of Moore's tenure. 

In overview, the Brosnan series marks a period in which Bond is a firmly established part of popular culture, and each film marks, to varying degrees of success, attempts to cover Bond in all his previous permutations. Where his predecessors have a clear signature moment or image, Brosnan's Bond feels more like a 'greatest hits' version of the series as a whole. Each of his movies attempts a different version of Bond, and never really defines the kind of Bond that Brosnan is. 


GoldenEye feels more in the mould of Goldfinger - largely grounded but with trappings of the fantastic. Tomorrow Never Dies is another version of the You Only Live Twice plot line, with a megalomaniacal villain with a grandiose scheme and impressive lair (the stealth boat). The World is Not Enough attempts to go back to basics but is too cartoonish in its action sequences, puns and gadgets to be taken seriously, while Die Another Day does a Moonraker and loses the plot completely. Die Another Day is, however unintentionally, the latest in the periodic swings into complete fantasy that the series has taken before. Like You Only Live Twice and Moonraker, it becomes the new barometer for judging how far the series can go in terms of excess, and results in its successor being considerably smaller in scope. 


Brosnan's tenure is best judged as a transition between the 'classic' period (1962-1989) and the revisionism of the Craig era. While there are attempts to remould the series in a contemporary context, the movies are still firmly anchored to the traditional formula, which prevents any change from being anything more than cosmetic. 

Craig Mk 1 - Casino Royale; Quantum of Solace (2006-2008)
When Bond 21 is announced as a reboot of the series, it is seen as an unprecedented decision. However, like OHMSS and For Your Eyes Only, Casino Royale falls right in line with the series’s penchant for periodic resets. What is interesting to note is how well Craig's first two films echo Dalton’s abbreviated tenure - a move from singular villains with dreams of world domination back to smaller scale espionage stories with a focus on Bond himself and his relationships with other characters. Large scale action set pieces are pared down to emphasise the impact Bond’s escapades have on him. Both films are focused on peeling away the elements which every previous film included in the name of narrative economy. In a daring move, Q and Moneypenny are nowhere to be seen, and, shorn of the hardware and familiar supporting players, Bond is forced to be a more active character. By isolating him, the filmmakers cast Craig's Bond in a light that heightens the resemblance to the loner of Fleming’s books.

Like Dalton, Craig’s second film is subject to two lines of criticism. Like License to Kill, Quantum of Solace faces offscreen drama in the form of a writer’s strike which leaves the cast and crew with an unfinished script as shooting begins. And like Dalton's last film, the makers of Quantum of Solace attempt to pursue a darker, grittier version of the character by framing it through the lens of a contemporary style of action film. In 1989, this style is drawn from the Lethal Weapon series, with greater violence, a drug-related plot and a Michael Kamen score (the composer responsible for Lethal Weapon and Die Hard). In 2008 the filmmakers make a conscious effort to bring Quantum of Solace closer in look and feel to the Bourne franchise, with the addition of Bourne Supremacy/Ultimatum second unit director Dan Bradley to oversee the mayhem. Like License to Kill, Quantum of Solace is critically pummelled. Too dark in tone, the lack of strongly developed characters and vague plotting (not helped by the fast-paced editing) hurts the film and tarnishes the appeal of the new, gritty approach. In another unfortunate coincidence with Dalton's reign, any talk of a third Craig film has to be postponed due to outside financial issues to do with MGM’s bankruptcy.

Craig Mk 2 - Skyfall to present
Spectre may determine whether the Craig era follows his predecessors in getting more epic, but as it stands, Skyfall marks a major shift away from Craig’s first two films. For one thing, it marks the first time since the 80s that the same key creatives (director and screenwriting team) have been maintained between films. More importantly, it marks a return to tradition in its focus on a stateless megalomaniac and the re-apearance of the Aston Martin DB5. Where Craig's first two films resemble Dalton's, Skyfall resembles GoldenEye in its reversion to a more classic approach. However this is not to say that it completely abandons the tone and style of Craig's previous films. What Skyfall does is to take the sense of verisimilitude developed in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, and channels it in a different direction: exploring Bond's past -- something none of the previous films have attempted.

Before Skyfall, Bond is always a character of the present. Just scanning back over this article, you can see that the films are not overly concerned with continuity or a sense of history. Skyfall is all about the past. Based on the recent teaser trailer, Spectre is going to attempt something even more radical -- linking the new film back directly to its predecessor while also bringing back elements from Craig's first two adventures (tying up the Quantum plot line). Now, the series has established a stronger sense of continuity than before. It will be interesting to see how this new strategy pans out.


The future

With the series moving ahead, and Craig signed for one more film, the question of where the series goes next will pop up again: Do they continue with the approach they have done with Craig? Or do something else?

Personally I'm for doing something completely different. Previously the series tends to alternate between light and dark portrayals of Bond, and I'd like to see that continue. With its propensity for jumping on trends, will Bond try to ape the Marvel approach? Maybe the new Bond will be more along the lines of the Iron Man movies or this year's Kingsman -- character-based but not afraid to duck into irreverence and high-tech gadgetry.


Ah well. As the producers have shown before, when it comes to re-casting, they are always willing to go against the grain and try something new and different. The series has lasted for well over 50 years, and while that is in part due to the well-worn formula, it is also a result of a willingness to constantly re-invent the series and its central character. 

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