Monday, March 18, 2013

Belated Congratulations, Mr. Bond

I started following the other famous fifty year old British franchise known for changing lead actors regularly in a fairly unusual way.

I knew my grandfather always liked to watch James Bond on the ABC Sunday Night Movies, but apart from hearing the groovy theme as I brushed my teeth, all I knew was they were on past my bedtime.  I later learned my parents were into them too. This was unsurprising as they were well versed in the classics.

My true and proper introduction to the world of 007 was the Victory Games Role Playing Game. 

A friend’s mother drove us down to East Con in 1983. 

We were young enough to be shoved completely out of reach of our miniatures by much larger, sweatier geeks in an attempt to join the “Visual Dungeon.” (An amazing amount of complaining got us both a refund after not being able to see our pieces by turn three.)

However, we were old enough to hold down an intelligent conversation with Phil Foglio, which was pretty cool.

A key experience there was a demonstration of the upcoming James Bond role playing game.  We both marveled at how smoothly the system worked, and how much fun we had playing it.  I don’t recall if the game was available for purchase that day, or formally released shortly thereafter.  I know I bought it as soon as I could, and we told the rest of our gaming group what a great time we had.  I planned to give it a shot as Game Master at the after school “Dungeons and Dragons Club.”

Sadly, we eventually got in trouble with the club teacher for playing games other than D&D in the “Dungeons and Dragons” club.  We could never get her to understand the concept that D&D was not the only Role Playing Game in existence.  She was too busy coming over to our desks, which were completely covered with stacks of hard cover AD&D guides, handbooks and manuals; overflowing bags of dice; and packs full of Dragon and White Dwarf magazines, to ask if we wanted to borrow her Red Box Basic Set.

Before the D&D Racial Purity Act was made law, we did get to try James Bond. Two things were learned excessively rapidly.

1)  How smoothly the system worked was a direct result of the GM being the game designer, as opposed to some kid who skimmed the rule book a week or so before playing.

2) I knew somewhere between Jack and Diddley about James Bond.

Item two was reinforced dramatically when I received a phone call one Sunday afternoon:
“Jeff, there’s a James Bond movie on tonight…you REALLY NEED to watch it.”

Watch it I did, and though I was a late bloomer to being entertained by celluloid sex and violence, I more than made up for my late start with enthusiasm and gusto.

I did get better at running the game, but it didn’t become one of our favorites.  That isn’t my fault, as I went on to GM the TSR Marvel game successfully.  It also isn’t the fault of the system, which was actually very similar to the easy to use one in the Marvel game, with some added twists to generate the proper edge of the seat, risk taking, Bond feeling.  I think the issue came down to trying to shoehorn a group of gamers into stories from a genre that works best with a single protagonist.

It is often said that a viewer will imprint on their first James Bond who becomes their favorite.  I screwed that one up too. 
The film shown that night was For Your Eyes Only.  Yes, it starred Roger Moore, but was directed by John Glen, whose true vision of Bond occurred with Timothy Dalton.  In fact in tone and content it was much more like a Sean Connery film, featuring Moore’s strongest of very few scenes where he’s utterly convincing as the cold blooded killer an assassin in the “00” division would have to be.

It’s when he kicks Loque’s car over the cliff for those of you playing the home game.

I later learned this dramatic shift back to basics was common in the franchise. They were very evident when I watched them all in order accompanying my nightly exercise. I also noted the very organic way each film evolved into the next.  Whatever crazy or outlandish elements were deemed successful got tweaked and increased in the next outing.  That is, until one of them got tweaked too far and generated a negative reaction.  The over the top spacyness of Moonraker brought the next adventure back to the series roots.

Not only did the ABC Sunday Night Movie send me mixed signals, but my next cinematic exposures came from cable channels frequently running both Never Say Never Again and Octopussy. My confusion was compounded by reading several of Fleming’s original novels at the time, where I’d picture the Bond from the Role Playing Game artwork - drawn to look like a combination of Moore and Connery.  From reading those novels, I knew Bond was intended to look like a less attractive Hoagy Carmichael with a scar on his right cheek.  That didn't help very much in the years well before Google Image Searches.  Any time I'd try to look up his appearance, I'd get hungry for big sandwiches long before  I'd find a photo, and have to stop. 

The famed "Fleming Sweep" was obvious from the first books I tried, though it really kicks in on the third novel, Moonraker. The sweep does slow down almost Matrix bullet time like, though, every time details of food, drink and smokes; clothes and cars, exclusive clubs and casinos or similar items are addressed.  They highlight the references that are key to letting the reader live vicariously in this amazing world.

A View to a Kill was my first theatrical Bond, but that one didn’t really leave a strong impression on anyone. Not counting, of course, finally getting to see the (criminally too short) epic pairing of James Bond with John Steed, only sixteen years after 007 married Mrs. Peel.  Sadly, Moore’s age cut into a lot of the realism of the stunts, a normal hallmark of the series.

In the late eighties Timothy Dalton took over as James Bond, and I was thrilled to learn he was the first actor to go back and read the Fleming novels before taking on the role.  His time featured a strong shift back to much darker, grittier basics, and I was young and foolish enough to believe that was the only way to do things.  (I also believed the same type of late eighties commentary that told me I should be offended by Adam West and embrace only the dark and gritty Frank Miller written Batman.  The late eighties were kind of young and foolish themselves; happily, I’ve grown out of them.)

During that time, when my reading speed was cranked up to insane levels, I read all seven of the existing John Gardner Bond novels in between normal activities during a week of winter break. (I was clocking at well over a hundred pages an hour then - Yay College! – which means I remember the stories, but not which details happened in what book.)  I was thrilled to learn that Dalton was playing Bond exactly like what I was reading.  I polished off the remaining couple of Fleming novels I hadn’t read yet as a dessert over the weekend, and found myself picturing Connery more, but being young and foolish, I ignored it.

Now that I’m old and wise…
Ok, I’ll accept old and marginally less foolish.

I realize why the Gardner books and Dalton films were so similar.  They both were influenced by all the James Bond movies and all the James Bond books that had come before.  However, books and movies are different media. Books are more intellectual, while films are more emotional.

It’s not only me saying this; Roger Ebert said it in the commentary of Dark City, therefore it must be true.

This is why the franchise rebounded so strongly when Pierce Brosnan took over.  The brooding, introspective Bond of the novels who manages to merely survive can be intellectually related to in a book, but isn’t someone audiences in a theater can easily emotionally connect with.

The films’ influence on the novels was not a new phenomenon.  You Only Live Twice was published after Sean Connery debuted in Doctor No.  Bond’s sudden acquiring of Scottish blood was not a coincidence.

Now, viewing the classic Bond series objectively, I can honestly say Sean Connery is my favorite. This is largely based on the strength of Goldfinger, Thunderball and You Only Live Twice. Those three provided a definitive demonstration of what a Bond film contains.

However, picking a favorite does not diminish my enjoyment of the other lead actors, and there are stories starring them that I prefer to some of Connery’s other efforts.  I still highly rank the Timothy Dalton outings. (And not only for their increased use of Q.) The Brosnan films are generally lower on my list, but I do enjoy the fact that they are much more fun.

Speaking of fun, after watching all the behind the scenes stuff, the James Bond I would have most liked to be on the set with is Roger Moore.  His infectious loopyness and enthusiasm shine through on screen as well. It ratcheted the lunatic fun factor up to eleven, and leaned Bond toward the debonair side of the superheroic.

Also, Moonraker isn’t nearly as bad as the reputation it’s gained with over time.  For one reason, the first four Moore films have to be viewed as what they were, a homage to other genres:
Live and Let Die: Blaxploitation
Man with the Golden Gun: Kung Fu
Spy Who Loved Me: 1960’s Bond Films (It’s basically a You Only Live Twice remake.)
Moonraker: Sci-Fi
Click here for an excellent analysis of why Moonraker is a quality Bond film, even with the goofy space fight.

And answer me this:
Could any of the other Bonds have pulled off what was technically my real first sighting of 007:

The awesomeness of Seymour Goldfarb Junior in The Cannonball Run? 
I think not.

Even On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has deservedly gained much more respect.  Lazenby got saddled with replacing Connery at his peak, the first shift back to basics following the ninja-filled gadget-fest of You Only Live Twice, bizarre fight scene editing, weird costume choices, an uncharacteristic romance, and an idiotic agent all at once. He was better than the vehicle given him.
This never happened to the other guy, indeed.

More recently, something happened to initiate the franchise’s most dramatic shift back to basics in its history.  That something was Die Another Day.

The movie continued the tweaking of each Brosnan outing in the direction of more unbelievable gadgets (invisible cars - robotic death lasers that can alter ethnicity), more forced quips (pick a Jinx scene - or most others, really) and more unrealistic scenarios and locations (the out of control fencing duel- the secret double agent who spends the night with Bond and REMAINS against the female torturer that Bond couldn't convince in eighteen months to run away with him to a Pacific island?  Come on, this is James Bond. The car-meleon  and cuisinart lasers are hyper realistic by comparison). 

The tone snap back as a result was a whole new Bond, literally.

The announcements for Casino Royale didn’t thrill me.  Bond’s beginning is an interesting idea, but the fact that he’s at the top of his game and that, “All women want to be with him and all men want to be him,” (or an infinite variety of variations on that quote) is what draws me and many others to the character.   The interpretation was also intended to be a more reality based version of the character, which limited its appeal to us for the same reasons.

Other changes, such as the heinous omission of Q, the less offensive but still incorrect omission of Monneypenny and the removal of much of the “magic” of bond:

Poker replaced Baccarat
He didn’t care how his martini was made
No fancy gadgets
No over the top villainous plan of conquest or revenge
And possibly worst of all

When scoring the first two Craig films, composer David Arnold apparently forgot what he said in the documentary about Bond music on the View to a Kill DVD.  He stated that there was only one song to be played when Bond does something "Bondesque."  He also made an excellent point that, "You can't be afraid of overusing [the Bond theme]." Then "its an action movie, not a Bond movie."  

Where's John Barry when you need him?

And It being an an action movie, not a Bond movie is exactly what happened. Unfortunately. I thought the ending showed the origin was done and a promise that Quantum of Solace would be back to Bondness.  However, it was more of the same, a Bond that still wasn’t BOND.

To expand the “action movie” idea:

There are innumerable action films and franchises out there defined by Bond:
A poor man’s James Bond
A blue collar James Bond
A spiritual successor to James Bond
A kid version of James Bond
A Super Hero universe's James Bond

If the real James Bond movies become too stripped down and realistic they lose many of the details Flemming slowed his sweep for, and turn into just another action movie amid the crowd they’ve inspired.

When the bartender's question about the martini in Casino Royale being "Shaken or stirred?" was answered by:
"Do I look like I give a damn?"
The answer should have been:
"Yes, 'cause you're James FREAKIN' Bond!"

I didn’t see much promise when Skyfall was due, especially with the announcement that the shaken not stirred martini was to be replaced by a Heineken.  However, the anniversary and a promise of Q’s return added to my need to get the Blu-ray upon release.  I was more than quite pleasantly surprised.

The film’s cold opening initially confused me.  The previous installments were about Bond’s beginning, and suddenly he was surrounded by talk of being too old and washed up.  However, as he is a realistic Bond, this made perfect sense.  Much like the Nolan/Bale Batman series showed how a realistic Batman would have an excessively short functional life; the same is true for a realistic James Bond.  

Come to think of it, "Realistic Batman" was a great deal more like James Bond than previous incarnations, even gaining a "Q" in Lucius Fox.  A sign that there should be a bit of the super heroic in 007 after all, no?

The introductory chase scene maintained the levels of eye popping, practial effects action that is one thing the series has never lost.  At its climax, this worn out, realistic Bond faced a classic Bond villain.  Patrice was a silent, physical force of nature, who happened to be working for a shadowy, evil genius boss with government toppling power, and an insane personal vendetta.

The realistic Bond was beaten by a combination of his own failing abilities, his enemy’s supernormal skills, and a loss of faith from his superior.

Then the realistic James Bond died. 
No one could have survived that fall after being shot, particularly with the waterfall drop involved.

The film segued into him being pulled into a traditional looking title sequence to the first theme song I’ve gotten stuck in my head since “Tomorrow Never Dies.” (Thank Bassey they finally picked a good one again.)  This was a sign of things to come. 

“Bond” drinking the Heineken, and also him showing signs of being affected by alcohol and pain pills while looking distinctly scruffy, are in scenes demonstrating him to clearly to be “not Bond.”  

(I’m kind of amazed Heineken agreed to that kind of product placement.  Great slogan:
“When you’ve got nothing to live for, grab a Heinie!”)

He returned to work when England needed him and M was in danger, displaying clear evidence that the level of injuries he sustained effectively damaged “realistic Bond” beyond usefulness. 

However, now he had M’s confidence, he had Q, and he had an old school, megalomaniacal super villain to stop.

So he defied (both in-story and meta-textually) all the opinions expressed that his time and relevance was over and got better.

By magic.

Because he’s JAMES BOND.

Tuxedo wearing,
Quip tossing,
Shaken, not stirred martini drinking,
Ever charming,
Clean shaven with impeccable grooming,
Walther aim unerring,
Globe trekking,
Chivalrous even when seducing,
Clue solving,
Aston Martin DB-V driving,
Army vanquishing,
Hideout exploding,
Super villain toppling,

Yet still the real deal:

*hum theme here*

If I had heard one part of director Sam Mendes’s commentary ahead of time, I would have been first in line opening day.

He said he made Skyfall partially for his inner twelve year old.

Welcome back, 007!
Congratulations on your Fifty First Anniversary,
and may you have many more to come.


Since it’s me, there needs to be rants about lost opportunities.

Rant the First:

Q came back, modernized but still groovy in his scenes, and still maintaining the proper balance of respect and condescension in his relationship with Bond.

Bond first learned the whippersnapper next to him is the new Quartermaster and said, “You’re joking.”

And strictly to annoy me, Q did NOT acerbically reply:

“I never joke about my work, 007.”

I expect the line in the sequel, and a written apology.

Rant the Second

Bond has had a Batman like orphan origin since his creation. It is about time he got his own version of Alfred.  In the books he has May, his Scottish housekeeper that kind of takes care of him, but an old bearded Scotsman with a sawed off shotgun contains more awesome.

The film makers said they considered Sean Connery for the role of Kincade, but never asked him because they feared viewers would be taken out of the movie by the stunt casting.

Almost every Bond fan I know, upon seeing Albert Finney show up, was taken out of the film by thinking, “Why the heck didn’t they get Sean Connery for that part?”

Final spoilery filled thought:

Since the themes of resurrection, and faking one’s own death came up many times in the story, in my head M merely fell dangerously unconscious in the chapel, but recovered.

They faked her death, and she retired in secret to live happily ever after with Kincade.

Thanks for seventeen compelling years as M, Dame Judi.
You'll be missed.


Bruce Fieggen said...

Intertesting take on Bond, Jeff. My experience was quite different. I grew up reading all the Ian Fleming books then saw the movies whenever I could in whichever order serendipity allowed. I loved Sean Connery in the role but I got turned off when the movies deviated too far from the books. The sheer search for special effects with car/submarines and space travel turned me off the series for good.

Then Casino Royale came on with a return to basics. I loved it! Sure, they had to change the Russian villain for a Drug Cartel but otherwise it was true to the book, even that horrific torture scene.

So I'm a big Daniel Craig fan. I don't even remember if 'shaken, not stirred' is in the book or was made up by Connery.

Funny side note. My mother used to invite the Mormon missionaries into our house to argue religion with them. I talked to them because they were Americans. One was admiring our bookshelves and I was showing off my favorite books. I asked him if he'd ever read Fleming. His response, "Sure! Chitty chitty bang bang."

Brian said...

I prefer to think the end of Skyfall as being followed by a narrator closing the covers of an old worn book while surrounded by kids in pj's telling them "And that, kids, is how James Bond became the REAL James Bond we have known of for decades." It felt like Craig's Bond was such a mess up until the last scene of Skyfall. He exorcised all of his "non-Bond" demons and now, finally we have the old office scene and a clean cut 007 waltzing in. It felt like a rebirth to me anyway.

Jeff McGinley said...

I do agree that Casino Royale was a good and true adaptation first Bond Novel. But I also feel that fictional characters can grow well beyond their roots and even creators. Batman carried a gun in his first appearances, Superman couldn't fly in his, and Jane left Tarzan in the jungle jungle at the end of the first Burroughs novel. None of these things should be done in a current story with those characters.

The Dalton fims showed they can keep a darker, book like tone, but still maintain who James Bond has grown into.

As for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The book and film differ again. But I'm convinced the movie inventor Caractacus Potts went on to work for the newly formed Q-Branch...after all the garage owner he bought Chitty from was none other than the original "Q",
Desmond Llewelyn.

Here's hoping the new direction after Skyfall will keep us both happy!


You managed to sum up what I was trying to say about Skyfall over several pages in a single paragraph. I doff my fedora to you, sir (before tossing it onto Monypenny's hat rack).

Maybe when Disney buys this franchise we'll get to see that storybook scene on the big screen?

Thanx for posting guys!!

Jeff McGinley said...

oops, forgot one more thing.

"Shaken, not stirred" originally came from Bond's creation of the drink "The Vesper" in Casino Royale, which they faithfully recreated in the film, causing the Bond novel side of my personality to let out an embarassingly girly like squeeee!