Friday, November 02, 2012

50 years of James Bond

The release of "Skyfall" on Nov. 9, will officially mark 50 years of James Bond. "Skyfall" is the 23rd official Bond film — the 1967 "Casino Royale" parody and Sean Connery's return to the role in 1983's "Never Say Never" are generally excluded — and while there have been highs and lows over the years, Bond still remains one of the most reliable sources of entertainment.

Bond was introduced to the movie-going world in the form of Connery in 1962's "Dr. No." Connery provided a perfect mix of raw machismo, charisma and wit. 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 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 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 on a train and plays more like a Hitchcockian thriller than the slam-bam action adventures the series would evolve into.

Also of note of the Connery films 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.

George Lazenby stepped into the role for one film, 1969's "In Her Majesty's Secret Service." He admirably acclimated to the role, but passed on continuing on even though he fought hard to get the role in the first place. The film is the closest to the vibe of the original source material of any of these early films. It also has the most unexpectedly heart-wrenching ending of any Bond film.

Then came Roger Moore, who, even though he appeared in the most Bond films, remains the weakest 007. Moore's Bond was all charm and little intimidation. Under his tenure as Bond, the series eventually de-evolved into pure camp and silliness. Bond was even sent into space for 1979's "Moonraker," a shameless attempt to cash-in on "Star Wars." That path was temporarily corrected with the more serious "For Your Eyes Only," but by the time Moore finished his run as Bond in 1985's "A View to Kill," the series had badly lost its way.

A new actor has always been a chance for renewal for this franchise. 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. The Dalton films moved away from over-the-top excess and went for straightforward 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, but by the time of his fourth film, "Die Another Day," campiness had once again over taken the franchise.

It has always been a delicate balance with the Bond movies of serious-minded action with a playful, self-aware tone. It is when the films become all about their own self awareness that they stop working.

Which brings us to Bond's latest era with Daniel Craig in the role. Starting with 2006's "Casino Royale," the series went back to square one showing us the origin of how Bond became Bond. Craig's Bond is still rough around the edges and more physical than previous incarnations. He is also given emotions to grapple with, something new for an actor playing Bond.

"Casino Royale," while removing most of the familiar motifs, did a fantastic job of balancing action, suspense, drama and humor. The follow up, "Quantum of Solace," was the first direct sequel to a Bond film and also the first to have Bond deal with unresolved emotions from a previous film. It worked as an action film, but felt lacking as a Bond film. It was a largely humorous, but necessary departure that helped to develop a more dimensional Bond. With two films of character development out of the way, this new film promises to be a return of the Bond we know and love. Here's to another 50 years of 007.

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