James Bond: It’s Time to Return to Absurdity with Love
With James Bond 25 slowly coming together and Kingsman: The Golden Circle in theaters, what should 007 do next?
The first time we see James Bond in 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, he is enjoying some… personal time with a lovely young blonde woman in a remote cabin somewhere in the snowy mountains of Austria. Because Bond is never at rest for long, however, we are not surprised to see his new watch spout out a ticker message from HQ requesting that he return to duty. With a brief innuendo-filled goodbye to his fetching companion (“something’s come up”), he is quickly out the door in a red and yellow ski suit that looks like something you might wear in order to reconcile a large bet.
But wait! A twist occurs as the companion uses a nearby radio to inform Russian agents that James Bond has left the cabin. It is not long before they are firing wildly at Bond as he works his way down the slopes. 007 is able to dispatch one of them by using his ski pole/rifle that, it should be noted, leaves a scorch mark on the Russian typically reserved for a close-range blowtorch. But soon, Bond is facing a much more perilous obstacle in the form of a cliff drop that he goes careening off at full speed. As he falls, the jazzy score lifted directly from the unused audio of the Across 110th Street soundtrack stops. In its place is absolute silence. We watch in horror as Bond falls toward his inevitable death below.
But wait again! Just before Bond smashes into the rocks, he reveals that he was wearing a Union Jack parachute all along. The reveal of this life saving, and quite stylish, chute coincides with the film’s first use of the classic James Bond theme. Before long, however, that iconic score is replaced by the opening words of the film’s main song, which only confirm what we’ve known all along:
“Nobody does it better.”
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The above scene is considered to be the most spectacular action sequence in the entirety of the Bond franchise due to its complex choreography and stuntman Rick Sylvester’s 3,000-foot fall off the top of Mount Asgard in Canada (thank you to our reader Stu for pointing out the location). There are some who go even further, though, by describing the opener as the most defining scene in the Bond film series. Among them is long-time Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli, who best summarized the opener’s legacy by stating, “You play that sequence around the world and it is James Bond.”
And now, as Daniel Craig retires from his tour of duty as cinema’s greatest secret agent, leaving behind a legacy of excellence highlighted by his part in returning James Bond to prominence via a more serious take on the character, Bond fans look again toward an uncertain future. We do not know who will play James Bond nor do we know what directors and writers may be designing his next globetrotting adventure. What we do know is that in times of uncertainty, it is always beneficial to remember your roots and use them as a compass.
In the case of James Bond, it’s time that the character gets back to a classic style where his films could be immediately recognized across the world based solely on the fact that no other action hero was capable of pulling off the same madcap sequences. It’s time that James Bond rediscovers what makes him unique by embracing absurdity once more.
Admittedly, this is a trait of the James Bond character that has been surrounded by controversy ever since Roger Moore took on the role. Moore’s Bond is somewhat infamous among franchise fans for his more lighthearted take on the character. Sean Connery’s 007 wasn’t opposed to throwing out the occasional one-liner, participating in some unlikely action scenes or even disguising himself as a Japanese man should the situation call for it, but he portrayed the world’s greatest secret agent with a subtle edge. When Connery had to convey that James Bond’s license to kill was as much a privilege as it was a pleasure, he was able to do so convincingly.
Moore didn’t possess that same presence. Instead, his Bond was more reliant on gadgets, wit, and spectacular sequences. He was the “fun Bond.” The one who you probably remember most fondly if you viewed the Bond films as a child. Still, you could argue that this version of Bond was a bit more faithful to the pulpy elements of the original books.
Upon the release of the first James Bond novels, the series was immediately considered to be a guilty pleasure among literary critics. Even Mad Men’s Don Draper once had to be assured by his wife Megan that she would not tell her professor father that he read the 007 books.
Opinions may vary on the validity of playing up that element to the degrees that Moore did, but there is little argument amongst fans that the approach peaked with The Spy Who Loved Me. Following that film, Moore and crew would show everyone the potential consequences to a lighthearted approach by unleashing Moonraker on the world. This movie is widely remembered as the “sci-fi Bond” movie and the entry that proved that a hovercraft Gondola did, in fact, have practical applications. The film’s screenwriter Richard Maibaum said of the film, “With Moonraker, we went too far in the outlandish. The audience did not believe any more, and Roger spoofed too much.”
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Moore’s following films would only up the ante on silliness. By the time that he bowed out of the role following the critical flop that was 1985’s A View To A Kill, it was clear that audiences were burned out on Bond’s more jovial antics. It’s a big part of the reason why the series’ producers were so insistent on upping the darkness and realism with 1987’s The Living Daylights. With Timothy Dalton in as the new Bond, the writers focused on delivering a movie that could equal the intensity displayed by those famous entrants into the ‘80s action genre, such as First Blood, Commando, and The Terminator. Surely this would be the Bond film that restored James Bond to his rightful place atop action hero mountain.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and it’s important to understand why. While The Living Daylights had its heart in the right place as it relates to taking Bond in a darker direction, the film failed when it came to the execution. This James Bond wasn’t quite ready to become as dark as the most popular genre films of the era. Unfortunately, it was also terrified of exhibiting the series’ trademark lighthearted elements, making it seem as if he’d rather bite his tongue than smile. For the first time ever, fans were able to describe James Bond as boring. It wasn’t necessarily awful, but it was generic.
Still, this was the turning point for the Bond franchise in terms of tone. It was clear from that moment that studios considered the era of the campy super sleuth saving the world from mustache-twirling foes to be over. Though The Living Daylights and the subsequent Licence to Kill failed to properly build upon the potential of this more serious James Bond, 1995’s GoldenEye nailed the concept by bringing Bond into the modern world while still embracing his more outlandish roots in more subtle ways.
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More than the success of GoldenEye, however, it was the failure of Pierce Bronsan’s following Bond films (each of which dipped back heavily into the pool of ridiculousness) that seemed to elevate the opinions of tonally serious Bond fans to the level of near-fact. Even Mike Myers was able to create a lucrative franchise of his own by parodying the absurd Bond films of the ‘60s and ‘70s. It became easy to laugh at those old Bond films because, in a way, the changing social climate of the time made it necessary for many fans to laugh at themselves for enjoying the movies so unironically. Many began to view the archetype of the James Bond character as M did in GoldenEye: “a Sexist, misogynistic dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War.”
By the time that GoldenEye director Martin Campbell returned to reboot the Bond franchise in the dark and down-to-Earth Casino Royale, you could practically hear the celebration in the streets. “Finally,” they said over the noise of freshly popped champagne bottles and a sudden marching band, “Finally James Bond is good again.”
But in the same way that The Living Daylights failed because it couldn’t execute its chosen tone properly, Casino Royale succeeded due to an incredibly well-made movie. Hence, the more serious nature of Royale helped to breathe new life into the franchise, not unlike Christopher Nolan’s kick-start of the “reboot” era with Batman Begins. However, it’s shortsighted to attribute the film’s success solely to its chosen style. Casino Royale is arguably the best James Bond film from a filmmaking standpoint not solely because of its edgier take on the character, but because it is a simply incredible movie that so happens to star James Bond.
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Yet, if the question is still “does Casino Royale perfectly portray the entirety of the James Bond character?” then the answer would be no. That honor would probably still go to From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, or perhaps even On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Those movies presented Bond as a living weapon, but also played up the character’s inherent superhero elements.
What Casino Royale fails to capture is James Bond’s playfulness. While Ian Fleming originally wrote 007 as a blunt instrument, the author’s own words would eventually paint Bond as a man who appreciated the value of humor and levity in a world that is trying to deprive him of such a thing. Flip to a random page in most Bond novels, and you are just as likely to land on a description of him using some incredible gadget or seducing a beautiful woman with unlikely pickup lines as you are to see him serving as the ultimate operative.
James Bond is, fundamentally, a character with pulp in his veins, and I don’t mean the kind he gets from the orange juice in his morning mimosa. The novel Moonraker and other Bond stories released around that time established many of the guilty pleasure elements of the Bond character (his womanizing, his drinking, his gambling), even though Moonraker movie arguably forever altered James Bond’s cinematic direction due to its failure to balance the character. If you are a filmmaker who chooses to ignore the more absurd elements of the Bond character and his world, you are depriving yourself of the qualities that have helped Bond outlive thousdands of other fictional spies and action heroes.
Aside from staying true to the character, however, the biggest argument for James Bond returning to absurdity are the times we live in. The common justification for the ridiculous Bond films of old is that times were different back then. Society as a whole wasn’t as politically correct, and the Cold War fearing portion of the world took comfort in the entertaining escapism that the typical James Bond film offered. The popular theory is that a film such as that could never work today because the modern audience demands something darker and smarter from our entertainment. A modern film that doesn’t address a social issue or two while striving for something a little more serious is insulting the intelligence of its audience.
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Without trying to account for the personal preferences of the individual viewer – or overlook the influence of more socially conscious blockbusters -, the problem with that philosophy is that it has created a deficit of truly well made “popcorn flicks.” These are movies that you go into with an understanding that you are expected, to a degree, to check your brain at the door. Thus the filmmakers can reward you with a well-crafted thrill ride that may not rank among the finest cinematic creations, but provide something a step above generic mass appeal entertainment.
While we have more attempts at this kind of movie than moviegoers in the ‘60s had to enjoy (thanks largely to the continued success of the Marvel films), we also have far fewer movies that attempt that kind of style while still primarily trying to appeal to a more adult demographic capable of identifying fantasy fiction even when it occurs in our world. In an era before the PG-13 rating, these movies found it necessary to perfectly balance risque qualities with more broad sequences in order to get the necessary returns. It’s the kind of film that James Bond used to be the master of before it was collectively decided that he had greater cinematic obligations to fulfill.
It’s also the kind of film that can be incredibly difficult to make as proven by the last two Bond movies. 2012’s Skyfall wasn’t just a critical darling, it so happens to be the highest grossing James Bond film by a fair margin (it garnered an obscene $1.1 billion worldwide). The funny thing about Skyfall is that it was the first Daniel Craig Bond film to incorporate some ridiculousness. Perhaps recognizing that Quantum of Solace tried too hard to portray a serious Bond, director Sam Mendes and crew decided to revitalize the classic Bond supervillain in Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva. His Joker-like character proved to be so magnetic that even fans of a more grounded James Bond couldn’t help but find a reason to accept his unlikely schemes.
In comparison, 2015’s Spectre tested those old waters too often without really committing to either style. Its inability to portray the so-called “greatest hits” elements of James Bond with any real conviction only seemed to reinforce the belief that some old-school Bond detractors had that a movie based around a more lighthearted Bond simply wouldn’t work in this day and age. It was hard for them to imagine what such a thing done well might look like.
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The funny thing about that is we don’t even have to imagine what a more absurd James Bond movie might look like in the modern age, as Matthew Vaughn gave us the perfect blueprint in 2015’s Kingsman: The Secret Service. Though that movie certainly ran into a fair share of critics who panned it with accusations of misogyny and stupidity, in reality that movie was an almost angry declaration of intent. If it felt outlandish and inappropriate at times, perhaps it’s because Vaughn was openly rebelling against the notion that the spy genre had to be so damn bleak all of the time and, in his enthusiasm, went a bit too far in defying every social decency he could.
Though the accusations surrounding Vaughn’s supposed lack of a moral compass were numerous, they were nothing compared to the praise he received from fans who cited the movie as the most entertaining genre film in years. As Steve Tilley of the Toronto Sun said in his review, Kingsman isn’t “necessarily trying to reinvent Bond, so much as reminding us that there are other games in town. And they are just as enjoyable to play.”
James Bond may have spent the last couple of decades trying to prove that he can throw punches with the Jason Bourne-style spies of the world, but now it is time for him to return to his roots. Not necessarily because he is obligated to, but because when it comes to delivering the kind of off-the-wall, globe-trotting, gadget-wielding, drink draining form of super spy game that we have been deprived of for too long, there is simply nobody that does it better.