"Well, I'm afraid you've caught me with more than my hands up."

James Bond (Sean Connery)

"No way!" ... "It can't be!" ... "How did they get that?" ...

It was one of those wonderful moments of pure, unadulterated genius in entertainment. I was merely one of 27 million other viewers in the UK watching as Danny Boyle's opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics played out live across the globe. And within the first 25 minutes, as five iron Olympic rings are forged in the arena and Kenneth Brannagh's Brunel delivered Capitan's "Be not afeared" speech to the masses, that huge wave of skepticism that had swept the nation leading up to the event had been brushed aside with aplomb. But what happened next just took my (and everyone around me) breath away...

007 himself, as played by Daniel Craig, and HRH Queen Elizabeth II, as played by HERSELF, parachuted into the Olympic Stadium... Wow!

Danny Boyle and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce had fully captured the audience's attention with one of this decade's biggest pop-culture talking points. But what grabbed me the most was this sense of re-appraisal for Daniel Craig's Bond and how he fits in the 007 canon, for here was a character trait on clear display to millions that many critics have noted as AWOL in recent films... self-reverential humor.
PictureNobody does it better...
Sinclair McKay's recent article for The Telegraph discusses the recent comments from former 007 alumnus John Cleese, where the one-time 'Q' decried the loss of his role in the films as the film makers wished to pursue a more action-orientated and gritty style. McKay argues that Cleese may be correct in his criticism. Pointing to the heavy influence of the Asian film markets as a factor, McKay analyzes the more raw, violent and cynical ingredients that are at the core of the Craig incarnation. The perceived demand for more bloodletting and bone-crunching from both Asian and American teenagers leaves viewers with a 007 that may be more human and vulnerable, but more dour and solemn than perhaps he should be. McKay's article mourns the loss of those knowing asides and double-entendre that oozed with charismatic charm from the great Sean Connery and Roger Moore in the Bonds of the 60s and 70s. And while he does acknowledge the increasing lapses in broad Carry On buffoonery towards the end of their tenures, he believes that the humor was key to the character's being - a wink to the ridiculousness of British pomposity in these post-colonial times.

Is he right? Are we taking this all far too seriously? This is a topic that I approach with great ambivalence, as I am a true Bond-phile. It was a Bank Holiday broadcast (A bit of a tradition here in the UK) of Goldfinger that got me dreaming of a life in movies. Connery was so debonair and suave, dressed impeccably as he defeated the most evil villains on the planet - and all whilst driving the most beautiful cars in the world and making love to the most beautiful women around. But that was then and this is now... Is that Bond even relevant any more? Commentators have pointed to the source material - Ian Fleming's spy novels - as evidence both for and against the argument for self-effacing humor. McKay is right on the money when he points out that despite the seriousness and sincerity that Fleming weaved into his adventure stories, there is no doubt that he also imbued them with larger-than-life bad guys, women with adult-rated names and death-defying situations that tested a viewer's suspension of disbelief. The books have their tongues wedged permanently into their cheeks.

PictureThe man with the Midas touch...
But McKay is not always right, and he certainly can't have it all his own way. When his discussion moves to the subject of film ratings, McKay states that the Bond films of the past were never rated above Parental Guidance (PG). Yes, Roger and Sean used quips and puns to soften the horrors of man-monsters like Oddjob and Jaws, as well as the act of killing and aggression, but those violent actions that McKay lamented about the recent Bond films were all present and correct in Connery and Moore's interpretations. In Dr. No, Connery shoots an unarmed man repeatedly in cold blood. In For Your Eyes Only Moore callously sends another unarmed henchman over a cliff in a car with a merciless kick as it lays perched on the edge. And these are just two moments of extreme violence which may not be as bloodthirsty in portrayal, but is still as cold-blooded as it can get. Yes the humor is deployed to diffuse the nasty tone but this man, for want of a better description, is a licensed killer - someone who has authority to kill with extreme prejudice. And no amount of quipping can cancel that out completely.

McKay surprisingly makes no mention of Timothy Dalton's interpretation of the character in his article. Seen by some at the time as a disappointing Bond, Dalton's back-to-basics approach after the high-camp of the latter Moore films is heralded by many hardcore Bond fans as the best version of the British spy. And yet there is no escaping the fact that in terms of box office, The Living Daylights and License To Kill were disappointments. Some have argued that Dalton's ruthless efficiency was ahead of his time (considering how Bond is today, Dalton may have been more successful now), while others contest that Bond was far too serious and that audiences craved that light-relief that the humor brought. McKay's viewpoint seems aligned with the latter case and I find it strange that there is no mention of that in his article. The answer to its absence could lie in the evidence that is found in the Pierce Brosnan range of movies. Now Bosnian was superb as Bond, and he brought an emotional side to the character - yes, James Bond does have feelings! But when you look at his films, particularly his swansong Die Another Day, the humor has not aged well, with some of the lines barely a single entendre, let alone a double-entendre.

PictureThis is the end...
McKay has also omitted one of the most influential factors to the change in the Bond character and it is a real-life event that changed so much. 9/11 will remain one of the defining moments in human history. The sheer volume of tragedy and destruction that occurred changed attitudes and feelings about the world of cloak and dagger forever... And this cannot be ignored. Perhaps the days of a man mercilessly dispatching a hood could not be dismissed with any pithy comeback or retort. Dial down the gags, bring on the real. Many people (including Cleese himself) noted the recent rise of another spy on the big screen - Jason Bourne. The cynical and dour approach to espionage caught the public's imagination, where the villains were not always on the outside and were certainly not megalomaniacs living in huge underwater bases. The success of the Bourne franchise could not be ignored and the Bond franchise followed suit with re-launched with 2006's Casino Royale - a straight, hard-edged and (for the large part) faithful adaptation of the book that started them all. McKay tries to use the key torture scene of LeChifre's bashing of Bond's genitals with a carpet beater as evidence for his case, but on the flip side the fact that this is straight out of the novel undermines him. The darkness was always there, Sinclair - how can you say that the films are too much when the proof is there for all to read?

Nonetheless McKay is right when he identifies the problems with Cleese's argument, however small those references are made. The most recent Bond film Skyfall had a distinct and overt Britishness in design, and there is more than a nod to the 007 of old (bring on that DB9!). Recent announcements that long-time Bond scribes Neal Purvis and Robert Wade had been brought back from the cold and are taking a pass at John Logan's script for Bond 24. While there has been no official word as to the reasons for their recent recruitment, the fact that shooting may now start later than had been anticipated points to the need to re-shape the script. It must also be noted that while Purvis and Wade have worked on all the Daniel Craig films, their biggest contribution to the franchise remains the latter Brosnan movies - and especially Die Another Day. It would seem that humor seems to be the agenda for the writers as they come back on the grid. Perhaps that moment when Bond escorted the Queen by helicopter to the Olympic Games showed the producers that maybe it is time to let Bond have a little fun again. Is this the best way to take the franchise? Is it time Bond started quipping again? Only time will tell...

Just leave the invisible car, Madonna and the "thrusting" gags in the past...

 


Comments

Neil T
08/07/2014 17:18

I quite like the level of humor in the recent Bonds, there's enough for a bit of a snigger without feeling like you're watching 21 Jump Street.

The big issue with the latest Bond is his ineptness, he's supposed to be the best of the best, yet seems to only just skim by on every assignment.

08/07/2014 23:21

Perhaps Bond's blundering is a cutting reflection of the UK in general? :)

Spencer
08/07/2014 19:11

@Neil T - Just to add to your comment, there was something telling about the new Bond, and his inability to actually be what he was supposed to be... a killer.

Le Chiffre - Killed by Mr White
Dominic Greene - Killed by ? (Quantum)
General Medrano - Killed by Camille
Mr White - On the run

In fact the only one he managed to use his licence to kill on is Raoul Silva, and that is after he is nearly killed by him and M is fatally wounded. Not to mention the loss of those helping him in the new series of films (Vesper, Mathis, Fields), think the old boy needs to up his game, not just his jokes!

08/07/2014 23:23

A very well-observed point you make, Spencer. Perhaps another reason for bringing in the old guard of Purvis and Wade to bring back that killer instinct?


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