The Bonds That Tie
Steve Erickson on the Movies How 007 went from being uncool to being the most famous character in the history of the movies
The film is a bit long, the opening credits that have become a hallmark of the series are uninspired, the theme song stinks, and the chemistry between the leads--on which an important plot point rests--is tentative. All that aside, only nostalgia stands in the way of concluding Casino Royale may be the best James Bond movie ever, in which the story grows out of its characters, in which the action is defiantly earthbound and all the more exciting for it, and in which the wit is less adolescent and of a more sophisticated, even subversive order. From "Do I look like I give a damn?" when Bond is asked how he likes his martinis, to "That's because you know what I can do with my little finger" when the femme fatale ponders the essence of Bonds's masculinity, Casino Royale offers more lines with a shot at immortality since "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die" in 1964's Goldfinger. Best is the new Bond himself. All the online speculation by geeks with too much time on their hands about Daniel Craig's blondness and whether he could drive a stick shift now looks silly when it's not altogether forgotten. As someone who used to be a blond before I became a gray, I knew better, of course, but I expected more of you brunets: Does anyone doubt that Steve McQueen (had he a British accent) would have made a convincing Bond? And just what color was Roger Moore's hair, anyway?
Bond is hotter than ever, Casino Royale comes out this month on DVD, along with a rash of remastered individual Bonds rescued from four box sets released this past fall. Bond books--The Art of Bond, The Science of James Bond, James Bond: The Legacy, The Ultimate James Bond Fan Book, The Complete James Bond Lifestyle Seminar, James Bond: The Secret World of 007--fill the shelves, including one called James Bond and Philosophy, not to be confused with the philosophy of James Bond, who would not need a book to explain his philosophy. All this tempts one to overthink Bond, but let's not. The World Is Not Enough (1999) was greeted with consternation by some who found über-nubile Denise Richards not entirely persuasive as a nuclear physicist, but what's the point of a James Bond movie if Richards, running around in short shorts and a tight top, can't be a nuclear physicist named Christmas Jones, only so that Bond, after having sex with her, can smirk, "I thought Christmas only comes once a year"? Yes, Judi Dench would have been more convincing, but she already had been cast as M, the head of the British secret service, in what for the Bond series was a radically matriarchal act. How many women under the age of 30 and the cup of D does one expect in a Bond movie? Some people just aren't sensible about these things.
Created by '50s novelist Ian Fleming, Bond isn't just the most famous character in the history of movies, he's the most preposterous. Batman is more believable. Most preposterous is that Bond's preposterousness is emblematic of nothing; Bond has survived one crumbling context after another, from the cold war to the counterculture, from feminism to postmodernism, and thus exists outside all of them and reflects on none of them. Obsolete from the outset, he's survived his own obsolescence; defiantly uncool from the outset, he's created an aura of cool on his own terms. A phenomenon of the '60s who launched the decade's secret-agent-man vogue, this is the guy who snorted with contempt at the Beatles, wore a tux when he wasn't padding around Miami in a baby blue jumpsuit, imbibed champagne and martinis through the age of pot--a Rat Pack of one minus the other rats. Does anyone imagine Bond doing a line of coke? "Bond. James Bond" became the coolest line in movies not for rhetorical flair--"Make my day" is Shakespearean in comparison--but for the same reason everything else about Bond, in all his uncoolness, became cool: Since the first time Scan Cannery introduced himself in 1962's Dr. No, it's all been in the delivery.
There is no Bond "philosophy" or Bond "art" or even a Bond "lifestyle." In the end Bond always has been the sum of his parts, no more and no less, as each of us adds up those parts for ourselves; the Bond "legacy" is a catalog, and my catalog is not the same as yours. The best Bond girl? You say Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty's Secret Service or Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies, I say Famke Janssen in Goldeneye. The best Bond villain? You say Gert Fröhe in Goldfinger or Christopher Lee in The Man With The Golden Gun, I say Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love. The best Bond song? You say Tom Jones's "Thunderball" (the first one actually about Bond) or some horrible Duran Duran thing from A View To A Kill, I say "You Only Live Twice," composed by the Bond maestro of maestros, John Barry, and originally sung beguilingly by Nancy Sinatra, but check out Natacha Atlas's recent version for the final proof. Bond's allure is so powerful as to steamroll into consensus all wildly varying opinions, including about even who's the best Bond; some misguided sorts (Ian Fleming, for instance) think it's Roger Moore. Since I've always been reasonably certain I could beat up Moore, his Bond movies immediately go out the window, as far as I'm concerned, along with their rotten Paul McCartney and Carly Simon tunes. In spasms of self-confidence, I believe my wife finds me more appealing than George Lazenby, so On Her Majesty's Secret Service doesn't fly with me, either. Unfairly maligned though Timothy Dalton has been, he's not commanding enough to rescue his lackluster vehicles-at which point we've now tossed on the dust heap of culture two-thirds of the franchise, without even taking into account Connery's low point in Diamonds Are Forever or the diminishing returns of Pierce Brosnan's Die Another Day. Yet Bond is so indestructible that he survives not only obsolescence and meaninglessness but a failure-to-success ratio of two- or three-to-one and a fractious audience that can't even agree on who Bond is.
That there is more unanimity about Craig than about any Bond since Connery is all the more impressive, particularly since Craig is so far from the mold of Bond as to create his own. Presumably this was the point in casting him; he doesn't make you forget Connery, but it's not overstating things to say he makes you rethink a character who would seem to have been beyond rethinking. He's the most complicated Bond by miles, whose complications inform all our preconceptions about Bond without necessarily contradicting them. If Dalton's and Lazenby's Bonds were never comfortable in their own skin, to use the cliché of the day, and if Moore's and Brosnan's were too comfortable, to the point of seeming lazy if not shallow, the brainstorm of Casino Royale is a Bond who's figuring out what that skin is, and settling in. We see him screw up now and then (clumsily giving himself away in a Miami museum), and we see him learning that while psychology will trump mathematics, it also will trump ego (and lose a lot of money in the process). Craig doesn't yet suggest a Bond with a worldview, as did Connery (even if he was disinclined to share it with anyone), but he certainly suggests someone on his way to a worldview; and that Craig is not yet a fully formed Bond mirrors Connery's own development, which didn't jell until his third time in the role. The most metaphorical moment in all Bond movies may be the one in Casino Royale when it's suggested Bond is an orphan, and that moreover the Bond girl of the moment--a smart update of the prototype by French actress Eva Green--is an orphan, too.
Given Craig's fine work in Munich, Layer Cake, and Sylvia (as the poet Ted Hughes), many have cited his casting as indicative of the producers' intent to go for a "real actor." But Dalton also had an esteemed résumé for all the good it did him, while Connery had virtually none at all, unless you rate Walt Disney's 1959 Darby O'Gill and the Little People high in your canon. Rather Craig's success is evidence that Bond is pure movie alchemy: some part skill and some part persona, in alignment with some shift in the audience by which the most iconic image of the very first Bond movie--Ursula Andress rising from the sea, to the sudden attention of men everywhere--gives way to that of the latest Bond movie, where it's Craig himself rising from the sea, to the sudden attention of women everywhere (and a few men as well). A "blunt instrument" is M's characterization of Craig's Bond, but for the first time since Connery, this Bond is more than everyone thinks he is, not less. By the time he gets to his last three words in the film, still the inexplicably coolest line in movies, he's earned the right to say them.
(Photo) AGENT PROVOCATEUR: Daniel Craig and Jeffrey Wright in Casino Royale; Sean Connery and Margaret Nolan in Goldfinger
By Steve Erickson
[Source: Los Angeles Magazine, Mar2007, Vol. 52 Issue 3, p86-90]