Sunday, November 19, 2006


An Aston-Martin with an ejection seat. A semi-nude woman covered head to toe in gold paint. A woman with an inexplicably amusing name. A black derby hat that doubled as a deadly Frisbee. A laser beam creeping inexorably toward a man’s crotch. A man electrocuted in a bathtub, accompanied by the snappy comment, “Shocking, isn’t it?”

I was in eighth grade, and I had never seen a movie quite like Goldfinger. It took weeks for my eyes to settle back down into their sockets.

James Bond, impeccably portrayed by the one and only Sean Connery, was a new kind of hero. Suave, sophisticated, and dangerous in the extreme, it seemed there was no peril he could escape, no mission he could not accomplish. He functioned in a world that was perfectly tailored for the edification of the eighth grade male mind, replete with fast cars, faster women, and a rich supply of snappy double-entendres.

The first few Bond movies were classics of their kind: Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger (which is where I came in), Thunderball. Each different, but with similar structure and with the same tropes.

Megalomaniacal villain. Jazzy music played over the title. Vodka martinis, shaken - not stirred. The Aston-Martin. Beautiful women, at least one of which would end up falling in love with (or, at the very least, playing the Two-Backed Beast with) Mr. Bond, the man with a license to kill and an endorsement on that license that permitted him to roger every attractive bimbo he could get his mitts on.

Eventually, as Sean Connery got longer in the tooth, he was replaced in the role - but never in our hearts - by a succession of other actors. George Lazenby jumped in for 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, after which Connery returned to play Bond in Diamonds Are Forever (1971), a film that I remember seeing in Washington, D.C. in its original theatrical run.

Roger Moore took over the 007 duties beginning with Live and Let Die in 1973, a film that featured a theme song performed by Paul McCartney and Wings (feh). Moore’s version of Bond lasted for seven films in all, after which Timothy Dalton jumped in for two films in the late 1980’s.

Pierce Brosnan, who would have taken the role in lieu of Dalton but who was prevented from doing so by his then-in-force contract to play Remington Steele on television, assumed the Sacred Mantle in 1995, in the film Goldeneye. I had always felt that Brosnan would make a good Bond, but somehow, I managed to let all of his films slip by me. By then, I was a long, long way from giving Shit One about James Bond. Wha’ hoppen?

Over time, the Bond movies were not content to merely settle into their formula; rather, they tried harder and harder to beat it to death. The plots became ever more far-fetched, the villians ever more megalomaniacal, the effects ever more improbable. The opening gambits preceding the title and credits got more and more elaborate, packed with ever more ridiculous gadgets, ever more impossible stunts. The films continued to make money (lots of it), but something was missing. Speaking for myself, I could never bring myself to sit through any of them.

I’ll mention in passing two Bond films that fall outside of the EON Productions canon: the 1967 version of Casino Royale, which starred David Niven as Bond and was more a spoof than a serious attempt to make a James Bond movie; and 1983’s Never Say Never Again, in which a now grey-haired, balding Connery reprised his performance as Bond in an updated version of Thunderball. Until last night, Never Say Never Again was the last Bond movie I saw in a theater...23 years ago.

Which brings me to last night, when the Missus and I joined some friends to see the new Casino Royale, featuring Daniel Craig as James Bond.

The EON folks have succeeded in doing something I didn’t think they had the nerve to do - or the brains to realize was necessary. They have reinvented James Bond. Brought him back to his roots, so to speak.

Craig is not the debonair-looking Connery. He’s chiseled, rough, violent, dangerous, and brooding. Craig brings a few layers to the character that had never been seen in any of his prior film incarnations...and if you want to read more, you’ll have to do it below the fold. Caution: there be spoilers.

Casino Royale - the 2006 version - dispenses with a lot of the old James Bond shtick. The opening gambit is no longer a special effects-driven, gadget-packed actionfest. It’s relatively short, but it is gritty and extremely violent, characteristics that are emphasized by its being shot in grainy black-and-white.

The movie is packed with action: good old-fashioned stunt work, none of that CGI nonsense that I could detect. Bond is capable of almost superhuman feats of running, jumping, chasing, and basically Beating the Shit Out of the Bad Guys, but he displays a very human core as he learns the Basic Lesson of Spycraft: Trust no one.

There are none of the urbane witticisms we’ve come to associate with the old Bond, none of those stupid-ass double entendres having to do with sex or murder. It’s refreshing when Bond orders a vodka martini and the bartender asks, “Shaken or stirred?”

“Do I look like I give a damn?” is Bond’s semi-exasperated answer.

There is none of the traditional business of Bond sailing off into the sunset, girl in hand. This movie ends on a note that befits the new Craig version of Bond and stamps the character with his own unique seal. Take it to the bank, Esteemed Ones: Craig owns this role now, in a way that even Connery barely did in his prime.

It’s like being back in eighth grade again...minus the hormones and angst.

“Bond. James Bond.” Indeed.

No comments: