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A James Bond Retrospective

A James Bond Retrospective

Having been around ever since Dr. No was released in 1962, the James Bond series is one of the oldest film franchises that has continued to the present day.  Over its 50-year history, the Bond films have seen six different actors play 007 and have had many stylistic changes over time to adapt to changing tastes.  With the long-awaited release of a new Bond movie, Skyfall, this month, let’s go back and take a look at some pivotal points in the history of the series.

The Connery Years

Dr. No was considered a very controversial film to green light. Many studios passed on the project, thinking 007 was Dr. No“too British” to make a successful film. The resulting film had a low budget and starred then-unknown Sean Connery to keep costs down.  Watching Dr. No today can be an unusual experience for people who grew up watching the later Bond movies—Bond often comes across as a cold-blooded killer rather than a refined secret agent, the plot relies on mystery and suspense instead of car chases and catchphrases, and the opening credits sequence doesn’t even have a theme song!  Also interestingly, neither 007’s Bentley from the novels nor his Aston Martin from the film series appear in Dr. No, making it one of the few films in which Bond doesn’t have an iconic “cool car.”  However, the film is an exciting, well-paced thriller that did define several elements key to the success of any Bond movie—a beautiful “Bond girl” (in this film, Ursula Andress), a menacing villain, and the famous silhouette gunshot to the screen at the film’s opening.

The next two Bond movies would go on to further define the unique characteristics of the series.  From Russia With Love, released in 1963, had a significantly larger budget and featured a globe-trotting narrative and elaborate action sequences that would inspire those throughout the remaining Bond movies.  Goldfinger  featured the first opening theme song in a Bond film (From Russia With Love’s played over the closing credits instead), the first use of 007’s Aston Martin, and two of the most iconic villains in the entire series—the diabolic genius criminal Auric Goldfinger and his henchman, the razor-sharp hat wielding Oddjob.  This film’s massive success drove EON Studios to incorporate ever more elaborate actions scenes and glamorous locales into the series—Thunderball (1965) features one of the longest underwater battles in screen history, and You Only Live Twice (1967) has a memorable sequence with ninjas rappelling into a volcano.

The Lazenby Experiment

On Her Majesty's Secret ServiceAll these adventures came at a considerable cost. Although 007’s popularity was skyrocketing in North America, the costs of making the films were dramatically increasing as well.  Sean Connery had become a massive star in the role of Bond but was getting tired of it, demanding ever more money to repeat a part that had become physically and mentally tiresome for him.  To control the rising costs of the series, the Broccolis prepared to transition another actor into the role of Bond.  They chose George Lazenby, a man who looked the part of 007 but had an oddly bland and dry screen presence compared to the charismatic Connery.

The tragedy of Lazenby’s casting was particularly noteworthy since the resulting film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, was one of the more interesting entries in the series and likely would be considered one of the best if it featured anyone but Lazenby in the role.  It features both a memorable Bond girl (Diana Rigg!) and villain (Blofeld, played by Telly Savalas) and some exciting action sequences involving downhill skiing.  It is also one of the few Bond films to dare to end on an unhappy note and deny Bond total victory.  Lazenby would never star in another Bond film, making On Her Majesty’s Secret Service frustrating on the level of thinking what could have been—if he had stayed in the role and grown into the public’s consciousness as 007, would he have become regarded as one of the best points of the series rather than the worst?

The Roger Moore Years

Live and Let DieIn the 1970s, the Bond films became so campy and catchphrase-driven that they lapsed into self-parody many times.  The “Roger Moore Bond” trends started before Roger Moore was cast, with the film Diamonds Are Forever (1971).  Bond’s distinctive mannerisms had become rote and repetitious, the tone was more comedic than thrilling, and the first truly stupid Bond girl, Tiffany Case (played by Jill St. John) all combined to drag the film down.  The excitement, tragedy, and sense of Bond as a real person that defined On Her Majesty’s Secret Service were all distant memories, as Bond became a cardboard superhero.  Although Connery insisted Diamonds Are Forever was his last Bond film, he did reprise the role once more in Never Say Never Again (1983), a far more enjoyable movie that was released by Warner Bros. rather than MGM.

The tendency towards self-referential comedy and camp would define the Bond films of Roger Moore, Connery’s replacement.  His first film as 007, Live and Let Die, featured a memorable New Orleans setting, intricate use of tarot and voodoo in the plot, and an excellent performance by Yaphet Kotto as the villainous Dr. Kananga.  However, it also began the tendency to incorporate ridiculous comic relief characters into the action and continued the tendency to view Bond as a walking catchphrase machine rather than a man in any real sense of danger.  Later Moore 007 films would become progressively more ridiculous, culminating in Moonraker, a massively-budgeted film that included laser fights in space and dozens of exotic locales, but that had all the dramatic tension of a Brady Bunch episode.  Moore was also one of the longest-running Bonds, playing the role into his 50s by the time his last film, A View to a Kill (1985), and unfortunately was beginning to look his age by this point.  Moore’s growing dissatisfaction with the series forced the Broccolis to consider another replacement.

The Timothy Dalton Experiment

License to KillTimothy Dalton, Roger Moore’s replacement, made only two Bond films, The Living Daylights (1987) and License to Kill (1989).  These films were both much more intense and violent than the preceding Moore Bond films, especially License to Kill, a film rooted in the style of violent 1980s action movies like Lethal Weapon and the Rambo series.  The films made Bond seem like a person who truly “lived a life of danger” again, but were seen as some by being too derivative of other series in their stylistic elements.  Some fans have come to defend Dalton as being ahead of his time and anticipating harder-edged Daniel Craig Bond movies, though.  There was a long pause in the production of the Bond series between License to Kill and the next Bond movie, Goldeneye (1995).

The Pierce Brosnan Years

Because so much time had passed between License to Kill and the casting of the next actor to play Bond, Pierce Brosnan, his first film, GoldenEye, made many allusions to Bond being obsolete in a post-Cold War world. Despite these references, it preserved most of the stylistic elements of the Bond series—elaborate gadgets, a cool car (a BMW rather than an Aston Martin, due to BMW’s drive for product placement), and elaborate action sequences.  It also featured very strong and self-sufficient female characters, which would be a hallmark of Brosnan-era Bond movies, from GoldenEye’s Xenia Onatopp (played by Famke Janssen) to The World is Not Enough’s Elektra King (played by Sophie Marceau).  Brosnan played Bond for four movies, culminating in Die Another Day (2002), which was often considered one of the series’ low points. Despite this, Brosnan was generally liked as Bond and helped bring the films up to date successfully after the end of the Cold War. 

A New Bond

Casino RoyaleDaniel Craig has made only three Bond movies so far and is still cast in the role, but has already left a major impression on audiences.  His first film, Casino Royale, redefined Bond in a matter much more consistent with Fleming’s original characterization of 007—an intelligent yet brutal man who has no qualms about killing and will do whatever it takes to complete the mission.  Much more so than other Bond movies, which had become increasingly reliant on gadgetry and supporting actors, Casino Royale felt like a film that was truly about Bond, and Craig’s performance in the role was excellent.  Even in the film’s inferior sequel, Quantum of Solace, Craig’s performance was still excellent, and his vital, feral Bond was the best part of a film that sadly lapsed into a confusing plot and predictable action sequences.  There was a long delay between Quantum of Solace and the next entry in the series, Skyfall, but it appears to have been worth the wait; Skyfall has received excellent reviews from critics (over 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes!) and had the highest-grossing opening weekend of any film in the Bond series.  With these kinds of results, it’s likely Craig will have a long run as 007, and I look forward to all his future adventures.

Complete lists of the Bond series films (so far) can be found at:

http://james-bond-movie-list.blogspot.com/

and

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_James_Bond_films