Friday, November 14, 2008

46 years of Bond

Today the 22nd official James Bond movie, “Quantum of Solace” arrives in theaters. I am not among the privileged elite who have already seen it, so for now I want to take a look back at agent 007.

I am hardly an expert on all things Bond. I will confess that I haven’t seen more than 30 minutes of any of the Roger Moore Bond pictures, but I don’t think I am missing much. Moore always seemed too dapper and sort of wimpy. Sean Connery is my Bond. I have enjoyed other actor’s work as Bond, but Connery will always be the first and best.

Connery brought raw physicality to the role. He could be rough and tumble one moment and then pour the charm on the next moment. He was able to play the material both seriously and with tongue placed in cheek. The playful innuendos that became increasingly more tired and obligatory as the series continued were delivered with a just right wink by Connery.

Those early Connery films, starting with 1962’s “Dr. No,” set up the template. There were always two Bond girls: one good, one bad, a grandiose villain bent on world domination, the delightful gadgets provided by Q, the sassy exchanges with secretary Miss Moneypenny, spectacular action that with each progressive film had to be topped and of course the double entendre spiked dialogue.

Of those first films, 1964’s “Goldfinger” still remains the most iconic and oft-parodied Bond film. In addition to the gold obsessed titular villain (Gert Frobe), the film includes the most memorably named Bond girl, Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) and the henchman Oddjob (Harold Sakata) with his lethal hat throwing abilities.

The second Bond film, 1963’s “From Russia With Love” is noteworthy for being perhaps the most suspenseful of the series. Much of the film is set a train and plays more like a Hitchcock thriller than the slam-bam action adventures the series would evolve into.

Also of note of the Connery film’s is 1967’s “You Only Live Twice.” Scripted by Roald Dahl, famous for writing such children’s classics as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Matilda,” it is the most delightfully odd Bond film.

In those first films, Bond seemed to be such an entity of the 1960s that it is hard to fathom that 46 years later he is still a force at the box office, but the character has become such an engrained part of pop culture that we as audiences don’t want to see him go. He’s an icon like Superman or Batman. The stories are always more or less the same and we all know what to expect, but there is comfort in that. The series is kept fresh because each decades Bond has had a different flavoring.

In the late 1980s, Timothy Dalton’s two Bond films, “The Living Daylights” and “License to Kill,” saw a return to a harder edged persona after the series went soft under Moore. The franchise had become overly bloated and verging on self-parody, so the Dalton films moved away from the campy excess and went for straight action.

With the cold war over at the open of the 1990s the series waited five years to figure out what to do without the franchise’s long standing villain of choice: the Russians. Ultimately, the franchise decided to stick with Russia as the settling for “GoldenEye,” Pierce Brosnan’s crackerjack first appearance as Bond, but the baddie was a British agent (Sean Bean) taking advantage of the instability of post-cold war Russia.

It was 1997’s “Tomorrow Never Dies” that would prove to have the quintessential Bond villain of the 1990s, a Rupert Murdock-esque media mogul (Jonathan Pryce) set out to create a world war so he could profit from telling the story via print and broadcast media. In these two films, Brosnan was almost on the same level as Connery.

Now Daniel Craig, the latest Bond, lives in a post-9/11 world with terrorism standing in for communism, but more on Craig and the new direction of the series in next week’s review of “Quantum of Solace.”

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