A License to Retire

Skyfall screenA few years ago, in one of my first articles, I wrote about the shambles that was Quantum of Solace. Not only do I think that was a rubbish Bond film, it was a very confusing and poor film in general. As you can imagine, then, I didn’t have high hopes for Bond’s latest outing – Skyfall. However, I had heard at least more positive things about it than for Quantum of Solace. I figured it was only fair for me to give it a chance.

It was a decent film

Ignoring the ‘Bond’ aspects of the film and focusing purely on the plot and acting, it was a reasonably competent and entertaining action-oriented film. It certainly wasn’t as nuts as Quantum of Solace. You could easily make sense of what was happening in Skyfall. The acting was strong on pretty much all accounts. Daniel Craig, whilst an uncharming Bond, is still a talented actor. Javier Bardem mostly makes for a convincing villain. But overall, it’s nothing I’ll remember for any length of time. In fact I saw it a few weeks ago and I’m having to constantly refer back to the film to recall exactly what happened.

It is representative of a good pop culture film – entertaining, kills some time, but has little to no lasting impact. Of course, you can rightly argue that the older Bond films were also designed to be ‘feel good’ type films, but I’m sure you will agree that they were actually quite memorable compared to the current crop.

When you start to take into account the James Bond flavouring, however, things start to get a bit muddy. After internalising these things for a little while, I seemed to arrive at one very strong overall prognosis…

They should stop making ‘James Bond’ films

I’m aware this is a strong sentiment, but allow me to explain my reasoning. The current angle of James Bond films seems to have moved away from the fancy gadgets and over-the-top plots of the Connery/Moore era, and into a more gritty, realistic and ‘current’ framework. This is not what James Bond was designed for. Bond is a character who was written to be alive and active in the mid-late 20th century. His behaviour, whilst individualistic, was also a sign of the times. Chauvinism and male dominance was a running theme and it was part of his character. The charm and wit was too. He was never an ‘action man’ type of hero. He was dexterous but never really an athlete in the same way that action heroes tend to be. He used his intelligence and environment to his advantage. Contrast that to the Bond of today. They’ve obviously spent a lot of energy trying to move the females away from the ‘damsel in distress’ attitudes they showed in the older films. M became a lady in Judi Dench, and there has been a general movement towards progressiveness.

That isn’t the same world in which James Bond lived in the 20th century.

The technology was a big part of why I liked the older Bond films as a kid (and still do). For both Bond and his enemies, the emphasis was on grandeur. These things were fantastical – laser watches and cars that drove underwater. They were at the forefront or ahead of their time. The Bond villains tended to have large bases and all sorts of ideas and schemes that indulged your imagination. Skyfall, as with the other recent films, has none of these elements. The technology is no longer impressive – it’s just what is available today. A smartphone today doesn’t intrigue or interest like an exploding pen did in its time. In fact, there were multiple tongue-in-cheek references in Skyfall that made fun of the past Bond elements and seemed to send us the message that ‘we don’t do that anymore, that stuff was corny’. But it wasn’t. It was imaginative.

A messy mismatch

The problem now is that we have a messy mismatch. On the one hand, we have the character James Bond. One that was born and presumably died (or at least retired) in the 20th century, when technology and social attitudes were different. And yet, one that still lives on today. Strangely, in Skyfall, we’re supposed to have been taken back to near the beginning of James’ career. And yet the character portrayed is a middle-aged male living in the 21st century with modern day attitudes and technology. He is a gritty and unrefined – a sort of rough but honest good guy. Craig’s Bond seems to be much more forthcoming with his feelings than Connery’s, for example. The suave 50s Bond would have scoffed at him. He never gave anything away. And yet, there are times when Craig’s Bond slips into ‘programmed’ classic Bond lines that really don’t fit the rest of the image surrounding him in the film. Hence, the character continuity just doesn’t make sense. You cannot claim to be telling the story of one person and change the environment and the fabric of what makes that character unique.

Can it be fixed?

As I see it, there are two directions one could take with the Bond franchise to make it coherent again. The first is to stay entirely faithful to the original. As I have stated, James Bond is a character that is the product of his own personality as well as social environment at the time. If you’re going to recreate the character from the novel, you need to recreate all the elements in order for the product to make sense.

However, it seems like it would not be a popular strategy for James Bond to be perpetually stuck in an out-of-date era. Presumably, it wouldn’t be as attractive to audiences. I would agree that if you’re going to go back to the original format, then it is best to leave the old films as is for others to rediscover rather than re-imagining what is already there. In that case, the second direction would be to have the new ‘gritty’ agent as an entirely new character altogether. This would free the producers from the shackles of being tied down to elements that they need to incorporate to maintain the Bond branding, despite them looking increasingly out of place in current films. They would have the freedom to craft a new character entirely, one that fits in with the current surroundings. Hell, they could even bring an old Sean Connery or Roger Moore to play the outgoing Bond as mentor as he hands over to his young protege if they really wanted to go down that route. This would allow them to keep the branding elements from the Bond universe intact (they could call the new agent 008 or something). I suspect the fear of not being able to cash in on the 007 brand is what is stopping them from moving on entirely.

In conclusion then, it is clear to me that James Bond, the character, should be given a license to retire. There are plenty of good examples of what he represented that have gone down in cinema history. However, his legacy is constraining progression, and new takes on his character are essentially ruining the essence of what makes James Bond, well, James Bond. The film world should not be afraid to move on. If they remain too stubborn to evolve the franchise dramatically, then the most sensible thing to do in my view is to kill it completely, in order to maintain some dignity.

Unfortunately, as with most industries, cash cows are milked until they are dry and probably sore. I do hope my pessimism is misplaced.

One thought on A License to Retire

  1. The only evidence one needs of the ruination/lack of continuity of character of the new (but “early”) James Bond as portrayed by Daniel Craig is that you can’t really imagine him evolving/maturing into the James Bond that was Connery/Moore.

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