I have a soft spot, and perhaps even a bit of a blind eye when it comes to the Bond franchise. Just about everything I claim to prefer from my art and entertainment ends up clashing against the reality of my contradictory infatuation with the British super-spy.
Let’s start at the top of the list. A unified vision from a single, creative mind (preferably the originator of the material)? Nope. A narrative that develops over the course of the franchise in interesting and complex ways, building off the events of previous installments? Strike Two. How about just a consistent characterization for the role of Bond himself? Not a chance.
The Bond films, as I’ve pointed out in the past, are a bit of a mess. A glorious, awesome, fun mess that are endlessly watchable but rarely attain the heights of perfection that so many other great franchises achieve. I can argue pretty strongly in favor of four of the Bond films as being “great,” and can heartily recommend three other films with a few minor caveats. But even seven films out of twenty-four is a pretty lousy average, guys.
I’ve already examined why I think the franchise has managed to survive despite its rather middling average, but I realized something recently that has really put the film series in a new light for me and probably explains why the promise that “James Bond Will Return” never fails to excite me. It’s the promise of reliving what I call “The Bond Lifestyle” yet again.
When you get right down to it, a Bond film is usually pretty predictable. There’s a formula at work that has been mostly unaltered since at least From Russia With Love hit theaters in 1963. Make no mistake; it’s a damn good formula.
And consider how revolutionary it was at the time: the gun barrel opening, the iconic Bond theme, the cold open pre-credits sequence, the musical theme with its hallucinatory images of dancing naked women, its silent but deadly nigh-invulnerable henchman, the aristocratic megalomaniac with the plan to remake the world in his image, and Bond’s only consistent characterization amongst six actors– cool, collect, and quipping in the face of danger and dames.
But the montage of favorite scenes running through your head as you read this is probably a better Bond movie than was ever actually created, occasional bursts of artistic genius trapped in films that tend to be a bit shoddy as cohesive pieces of filmmaking. So why do we still love this series and keep returning to it while so many other action franchises wear out their welcome after a misstep or two?
Is anyone really clamoring for another Terminator movie? How about Die Hard? Lethal Weapon? Dirty Harry?
The difference is that the character of Bond and the world of his films is as intoxicating a fantasy for white, heterosexual men as any that has ever been invented. The films may rarely live up to their promise in the narrative or character-development department, but even at their worst, they offer what I call the Bond Lifestyle: a vicarious virtual reality of travel, fashion, violence and sex for two-hours-and-some-change
The first element to consider is the appeal of travel. One of the things that I’ve always enjoyed about the earlier films is the extent to which they establish the various settings. There is inevitably a fight scene that will break out in a crowded village market or a car chase through winding hills in the Alps. There is also considerable attention paid to the cuisine or the drinks of a certain culture. Whether it’s From Russia‘s gypsy camp dinner to be enjoyed while chugging rotgut or the Kentucky ranch of Mr. Goldfinger where an imprisoned Bond enjoys a mint julep on the front porch of an old plantation-style southern home, there’s always a sense of being somewhere new in a Bond film even if the tropes and plot beats are all too familiar.
These kinds of asides and details, as unnecessary as they might be in a narrative sense, are crucial to developing the world of the films and creating a more immersive experience for the audience. It’s remarkable to consider that just about every film from Dr. No to License to Kill (excluding the non-EON Never Say Never Again) takes great pains to establish a real sense of place and unique identity to the locations visited.
Despite a few instances to the contrary, the Brosnan films are a bit lacking in this department, which I think accounts for one of the reasons those films feel a little hollow and the fantasy world less tangible and immersive. Brosnan’s Bond operates in more generic settings than his predecessors, places that look more like unimaginative sets or backlots than on-location in memorable locales.
Speaking of which, the second half of the world-building equation involves the sets themselves and specifically the talents of designer Ken Adam. His revolutionary work on the architecture of Bond’s world over the course of the first eleven films is another key element in distinguishing the series from any number of derivative action franchises.
There’s a sense of exaggeration and a larger-than-life artistic sensibility, and it’s as prevalent in the villain’s absurdly decadent lair–think the underwater hideout of Karl Stromberg, Hugo Drax’s Moonraker satellite, or Blofeld’s volcano base–as it is in a setting that would ordinarily be dull and forgettable, like conference rooms for MI6 and SPECTRE. As represented in Thunderball the former is a cavernous, ornate hall that looks as if it belongs in a Renaissance chapel and the latter a cold room of shining steel and black chairs that would fit right in on the Death Star.
The other key element is of course Bond himself. We have an image of Bond belonging in a tuxedo or a tailored suit, his hair perfectly coiffed, an expensive watch on his wrist and a small but deadly pistol in his possession. This image does rather clash with the fact that he suffers many the fashion faux pas over the course of the franchise, whether it’s Lazenby’s puffy pirate shirt, Moore’s safari suits or Dalton’s baggy suit and bad haircut. Nevertheless, when it really comes together, Bond is a perfect blend of tough and posh, probably never better realized than Goldfinger-era Sean Connery’s white tux look, but Daniel Crag in a ridiculously expensive tailored suit certainly comes close.
Obviously, running around in that tailored suit when you expect to get into gunfights or blend into a crowd isn’t the most practical decision for a spy. But that’s okay. Bond, at his best, is about the illusion of a grounded reality, not the reality itself. Like Superman fooling the world from knowing his identity with a pair of eyeglasses, an expensively attired man known for dropping his name in dramatic fashion wherever he travels and only driving around in the most ostentatious vehicles is maybe not the guy you want spying on your country’s behalf. As an audience, we tolerate this illogical nonsense not because it makes any sense; it’s just FUCKING cool.
The Bond Lifestyle is all about this fantasy lifestyle sans the drawbacks. Consider: What if you constantly got into exciting gunfights and car chases but were never seriously injured? What if you were witty, athletic, just wealthy enough to never worry about money, and had naturally great taste in fashion, cuisine and liquor? What if you could legally kill anyone you wanted and didn’t have to deal with the messy fallout, politics or bureaucracy that plague policemen or real-life spies? What if you could hook up with a new partner every adventure and never cope with any messy breakups, STDS, heartache or loneliness? What if you could travel to every awesome place on the planet on the company’s dime and stop madmen from trying to take over the world?
Who can honestly say they don’t want to be that guy?
As the films progressed, the unflappable super-spy was tweaked to be made more vulnerable and relatable to a modern audience. These tweaks included acknowledging his increased age, developing for him a more realistic inner turmoil and grim demeanor, insinuating a deep loneliness and a problem with alcoholism, and both acknowledging the character’s misogynistic past and cutting down on the sexual predator aspect of the Connery era and early Moore films.
In the process, though, I find a lot of what made the character so initially attractive was unnecessarily excised or altered. The Bond fantasy became less fantastical and either more brutally, cynically grounded (as in the Craig films) or more by-the-numbers, watered down versions of edgier past adventures (the Brosnan films).
Part of the appeal of The Bond Lifestyle as represented by the earlier films was the idea of a fantasy where the id was unleashed without the ego and superego getting in the way. Obviously, it’s not realistic, but that’s precisely the point. Nothing about Bond is realistic, so adjusting the character to ground him too deeply in the real world runs counter to the philosophy of these films as vicarious fantasies. The more “real” Bond becomes, the less distinctive and unique his world and its fantasy lifestyle; rather, it begins to either mirror real life (only with more noticeable logical inconsistencies) or other spy franchises existing concurrently.
As I’ve argued before, the film series is constantly shifting directions between grounded and campy with successes and failures for both strategies. But regardless of which way they lean, the Bond films should never abandon the larger-than-life quality of the character and his world; the moment he and his adventures stray into real world problems is the moment the character paradoxically ceases to be relevant as a pop-culture phenomenon.
To clarify, “larger-than-life” and “fantastical” do not necessarily mean campy. I’m certainly not advocating a return to the excesses of Diamonds Are Forever or Die Another Day. I’m not even suggesting that the next Bond aspire to Roger Moore’s tongue-in-cheek sensibility (my own affection notwithstanding). In fact, what I am advocating is nothing so revolutionary; the trick to spinning this fantasy is really just embracing the spirit of the original Ian Fleming novels.
While many fans attribute those novels to being dark, gritty and grounded, I would caution another look. They have in them a hardboiled, violent, and at times grotesque quality, yes. But give them another look and I’ll bet you discover they are remarkably playful and intentionally pulpy as well.
Bond fights a giant squid in Dr. No. He battles diamond smugglers in a ghost town and aboard an Old West locomotive in Diamonds Are Forever. He thwarts Goldfinger’s plan to rob Fort Knox of its gold depository. Even the sober and haunting You Only Live Twice involves a Japanese castle, a villain dressed in samurai battle armor and a garden of poisonous plants. This is not realistic, sobering spy fiction ala The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. This is thrilling, fun, over-the-top stuff, and it expertly contrasts the absurd and fantastical with the mundane, whether that’s Bond’s morning routine of a scorching hot shower, followed by a frigid cold one and a breakfast of scrambled eggs and “very black” coffee or it’s our hero’s paranoid habit of placing a hair over a closet door to check if anyone searches his room while he’s absent.
Bond endures not because of exceptional quality per se, but rather because his world is so damn addictive. The stakes are always high, the villains always uncompromisingly evil, the women always “free-spirited.” There’s the promise of crazy stunts that actually look real and not a parade of CGI (except for Die Another Day, that is), gorgeous scenery, cool cars, and quirky gadgets. And at the center, the Bond of the moment, a reflection of our current times and anxieties and temperament.
Rather than a franchise that seems daunting or buckling under its own weight, the Bond series is engineered for the casual viewer to drop in and out and be assured that when they next see Bond, he’ll be up to his neck in an adventure the rest of us can only dream about.