Sunday, December 03, 2006

Putting Stock in Bond

I’m no Bond authority, but giving an opinion on the 007 series is a basic human right, especially in the wake of Daniel Craig’s debut. I find the history of the series to be fairly interesting, and without further ado, here’s my take:

Starting off, Never Say Never Again never happened. For good reason, this is often mentioned as the worst Bond ever, but it wasn’t an official (EON Productions) film. Let’s just wipe it off the list. I’ll also skip over Lazenby’s single stint; some say it would wear the best-ever crown had Connery stayed in the role and that it was unfairly panned since no one wanted a new, no-name Bond. Regardless, it was a mistake, and I’m not going to acknowledge it. In fact, I wouldn’t be against it being redone for the Daniel Craig era.

An interesting aspect of the franchise has been its faith in its directors, helping to maintain continuity. Of the first 27 years and 15 movies (excluding Majesty), only four directors were used: Terence Young (3 of the first 4); Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger, Diamonds, and the first two Moore outings); Lewis Gilbert (Only Live Twice, Spy Who Loved Me, and Moonraker); and John Glen (all five films from the ‘80’s). This, along with the 1996 loss of master producer Cubby Broccoli, changed with the four-movie Brosnan stretch. Another form of continuity was the regularity of releases: all movies came out within two years of one another until the franchise fell into turmoil at the close of the 1980s.

Because of the longevity of the series and its regular release schedule, it strikes me that each movie’s success largely depended on the popularity of the previous. Viewers would still have the previous installment fresh on their mind when the next was on the way (studio execs routinely keep sequels in the freezer if an installment bombs – see Teenage Mutant Ninga Turtles 2; 5 years wouldn’t be enough to let the Vanilla Ice scars heal). When you follow admissions rather than gross, keeping an even playing field across the years, I feel this bares fruit. The first three Bond sequels with Connery each saw an average of 30 million more admissions than the film they followed, likely a carry-over from the buzz each film generated. I do not think that it is a coincidence that the first 3 Bond films (No, Russia, and Goldfinger) are on everyone’s best of Bond list. Thunderball (taking in the most admissions of any Bond films at 166 million) was probably the first 007 film that could not keep up with audience expectations. Thunderball, still an excellent film, would be hard pressed to live up to impossible hype. You Only Live Twice (Bond #5) probably paid the price for this initial letdown, as ticket sales dropped by more than half. It didn’t take more than one look at Dalton for audiences to make up their mind; his second Bond outing marked the fewest admissions of any from the franchise. New-Bond curiosity also seemed to have a substantial effect; the debut of every new actor aside from never-happened Lazenby was accompanied by admission increases versus the previous movie.

The most notable difference between the Bond films and novels is the Hollywood emphasis on gadgets and high speed chase scenes. As the films progress, the departure becomes increased as the films seem to try and top one another with wilder and wilder Q inventions and adrenaline scenes. In my opinion, this ultimately led to the campy lesser era in conjunction with the end of Fleming novels as the basis for screenplays. As an example of Bond gone awry, studio execs put off For Your Eyes Only in the wake of Star Wars, Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind, and other space sci-fi films in order to put together Moonraker, whose connection to the Fleming novel begins and ends with the title and the name of the villain. Instead of the ground-based plot involving Cold-War missiles, EON Productions slapped together a space-oriented rehash of previous ‘destroy the world’ 007 plots and recurring nemesis Jaws, who finishes the film as a lovable goof.

At this point, in my eyes, the Bond legacy had fallen into silliness and self-satire. Seemingly aware of how far from the Fleming origins they had gone and how the grosses were slipping as well, a pair of attempts to re-establish the franchise were made. Roger Moore’s final outing, A View to a Kill, bore little resemblance to his more campy films, and the Dalton experiment stood out for its more serious and real-world-based approach. However, audiences did not accept Dalton and License to Kill’s plot was so routine (Bond seeks vengence while tackling a drug lord) that it was difficult to identify as a 007 adventure. When the dust settled, the Dalton box-office disasters along with legal infighting nearly sank the franchise as the 1980s closed.

The Pierce Brosnan stint brought about original stories, fully divorcing the films from Fleming novels. The failed attempt to move away from campy movies led to a second correction and an increased Hollywood blockbuster feel for the movies: the budgets and effects soared and seemingly overshadowed the plots. A new director was brought in for each installment, recurring CIA operative Felix was removed, and the Brosnan era ended with an Ice Castle showdown that nearly matched Moonraker in the ridiculousness category. Bond embraced Hollywood glitz until Brosnan walked away in 2003.

At this point, a best/worst list would be redundant, assuming you’ve read the above. Which brings us to Casino Royale. I can’t say I fully buy Danial Craig as James Bond, but that’s mostly for superficial reasons. He’s a rock-solid actor; declining to go the easy route by transplanting his Layercake role into this one and managing to give a distinctive take on the character. What I enjoyed most about Royale was its return to Flemings’ vision. Royale is the first book in the Bond novel series, often regarded as the best, but was not used in the films until now because EON founder Cubby Broccoli did not want to disrupt the films’ continuity by returning to Bond’s origins. Following his death and the loss of Pierce Brosnan, the Bond franchise found itself in yet another crossroads and decided to push the ‘reset’ button. The new movie freed itself of past Bond traditions while still paying homage to most. The quips, effects shots, and gadgets are minimized (Q and Moneypenny are not included) in favor of a strong plot, faithfulness to the novel source, and nods to the Bond mythos (the Goldfinger Aston Martin, a return to a warm Thunderball locale, a Moneypenny line, and the origin and recipe of a certain martini, among others). It was a bold move, but executed perfectly. Director Martin Campbell (Goldeneye) was brought in, the first returning director in over 15 years. A SPECTRE-esque criminal organization is alluded to as the film goes on, perhaps making another return to the original formula. All in all, this film only resembles the first two Connery (No, Russia) films, which is an extremely good thing in my personal opinion. It seems that Bond is in good hands.