Bonded for Life
Reflections on GoldenEye
The respirator can be unplugged, but let's keep him in intensive care a bit longer. 007 isn't quite yet out of the woods.
Granted, the most durable of all secret agents has rallied strongly in his latest iteration. But few would dispute the notion that his condition over the last several years has virtually redefined the idea of lengthy illness.
"Bond... James Bond." The words are so familiar, the sound almost comforting. It's not so much a matter of our having become personally endeared to the silky smooth, handsome man of the world. After all, time after time he showed himself to be a remorseless killer. No, the enduring appeal is owed to the style of moviemaking one associates with the Bond films -- or at least used to associate with the Bond series in its heyday.
The tradition of cinematic spy thrillers is rich, incorporating some of the best work of Alfred Hitchcock, in too many films for listing here, and, among many novelists, Richard Condon (The Manchurian Candidate). The title many people offer when asked their favorite movie is that of a spy story: Casablanca.
But it wasn't until Bond's arrival in 1962, with Dr. No, that the spy thriller became big, lush, worldly, exotic, romantic. The Bond thrillers, originally based on stories by Ian Fleming, established themselves immediately as Major Motion Pictures.
To think of Bond is to inevitably be reminded of the character that is Bond. And we all know what that is. In the early Sixties, he was handsome, courageous, intuitive, worldly, and extremely effective at his work. He drank a man's drink and had scores of women. In the Nineties, he is handsome, courageous, intuitive, worldly, and still an extremely effective professional. He is quite possibly a secret lush and without question a ruthless sexual predator.
But Bond also conjures images of sun-drenched Mediterranean beaches, of glittery Monte Carlo casinos, of couples sipping cappuccino on the verandas of Alpine ski resorts. To this viewer, who saw Dr. No as a 13-year-old, the real draw of Bond was not sex and violence. It was travel, glamor, power, and just enough danger to make things interesting. (I don't have to remind 007's fans that in 18 films, not counting the spoof Casino Royale, Bond has seldom if ever suffered anything more than a few scratches.)
The early Bonds (Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice) are by today's standards somewhat old-fashioned. Techno-gadgetry is mercifully limited to Q's wondrous devices. There is no need for an automatic weapon or explosion when a pistol and silencer will do.
The early Bonds were more believable, in a word, and their march away from credibility brought them ultimately to Moonraker, an absurd, tongue-in-cheeky film that ought to be removed and sent the way of arch-villains Blofeld and SPECTRE. Subsequent films have hewed more closely to the physically possible.
When Sean Connery departed the series after Diamonds Are Forever in 1971, the series was never to be the same. This is not to say that it was never as good. His successor, Roger Moore, was tall, good-looking, and seemed to enjoy himself in the seven films he made as England's indestructible secret agent. He didn't have that singular ingredient Connery brought to the role, which is the ability to appeal to both sexes. Connery was a man's man and, as they used to say, a ladies' man. Connery's Bond seemed to live for the danger and intrigue; Moore seemed more comfortable circulating among the gaming tables.
In any case, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and For Your Eyes Only (1981), both with Moore, can be counted among the best in the series.
Eyes Only marked the beginning of a five film stewardship under director John Glen. After that first film, the Bond series entered a decline from which it has yet to recover.
Glen made two more films with Moore, the middling Octopussy and the dreadful A View to a Kill. The aging Moore then departed the series and the promising Timothy Dalton signed on. In the early 1970s, Dalton had contributed a smoldering, hunky Heathcliff to a remake of Wuthering Heights. Alas, the two Bond films featuring Dalton were both dreary and long-winded; Glen's sparkless style suggested a film assembled from an engineer's drawings. Dalton didn't help; his Bond was moody and humorless.
And so the series rested for six years, the longest interim ever. I can only hope that Bond's producers have figured it out: We didn't tire of Bond. We tired of the creaky, lumbering, two-hour-plus ways his sagas were presented to us.
Pierce Brosnan is the new Bond and -- news flash -- he's no Sean Connery either. He possesses neither the gift for irony nor the rich baritone. But he's nice looking and when he pulls his sidearm he doesn't remind us of Michael Dukakis riding around in that tank.
The new director is Martin Campbell, who scored some hits on British television before directing Defenseless and No Escape. He has picked up the pace and given the film some thrilling action scenes, including the destined-to-be-famous chase with an armored tank. But there's still too much time wasted with static scenes of spies scowling at each other in windowless rooms with a lot of push-button-operated moving panels. You may also miss the John Barry music -- given only a few measures here -- which, to me, is as key to the magic of Bond films as Bernard Herrmann is to Psycho.
To be sure, Campbell and Brosnan deserve another shot, and I hope it doesn't take six years. In the meantime, if Liam Neeson wants to suit up as Bond and go to work for James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, or Robert Rodriguez as director, you'll hear no objection from me. n