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THE RETURN OF MR. KISS KISS BANG BANG
A few thoughts about the history and rebirth of Ian Fleming's James Bond 007.
By Sam Hatch
Back in the first year of Culture Dogs, my cinematic cohort Kevin and I spent one entire show dissecting the James Bond phenomenon. We mostly reviewed the twenty films (canonical EON productions only) in the series, gave our picks for best of the litter and opined on our favorite actors to have portrayed Ian Fleming's iconic secret agent on the silver screen. The year was 2002, and 'Die Another Day' had just been released to American theaters. We were left buzzed by numerous elements – the brilliant night-surfing pre-titles scene, how the Hong Kong and Havana bits came so close to the classic Bond feel, and that incredible fencing duel between Bond and Gustav Graves. Unfortunately, we were left underwhelmed by many elements as well, the grossest offenders of the bunch being the overly computerized Madonna title song and the horrifically cheesy special effects nightmare involving Bond parasailing off of a collapsing iceberg (whilst riding the shorn-off door of a speed-testing supercar). By the time we reached that last act or so, much of the rest of the film had devolved into a Moonraker-ish miasma as well. Blame it on Iceland if you must, for that's where the film started losing its footing.
So what we felt compelled to do toward the end of the show was to air our ‘Bond Producers Fantasy Camp', in which we detailed what we would do with the series if Kevin and I were to suddenly replace EON producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli (I've got a mustache, so I get to be Michael). Choices for Bond actors were thrown around (this was before I was on my ‘It's gotta be Jason Isaacs, because he looks uncannily like Hoagy Carmichael' kick), but my main focus was on the style of the films. I wanted something less gadget focused, closer to the original Fleming stories, and also for the brutality to come back into Bond's fight scenes. I mean the guy used to beat up guys with couches in the sixties! Not just ottomans or love seats, huge frickin' couches! I also yearned for a scoring return by the Bond maestro himself John Barry, though that was an unlikely wish since Barry had by this time publicly declared that he was officially passing the torch over to three-time Bond composer David Arnold. Wrapping up the segment, I declared that I would also enjoy it if the series would stop using one-off directors and writers and truly find a modern equivalent to Richard Maibaum/Terence Young or Maibaum & Wilson/John Glen. Anything but Tom Mankiewicz and Guy Hamilton, but that's another essay altogether.
The ‘fantasy' quotient of our segment was rather high, since my favorite style of Bond film (Connery and Dalton ones mainly, but 'From Russia With Love', 'Goldfinger', 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service' and 'The Living Daylights' all rank highly with me) was the Flemingesque back-to-basics story that tended to disappoint most cinemagoers. It often seemed that if Bond wasn't portrayed as some sort of clownshoe with laser-emitting trousers, in turn the audience would get grumpy, total grosses would be down, and then in the next film he'd be punching himself in the face to make the crowd laugh harder. Sadly, films like 'Ronin' and the 'Bourne' series were outdoing the Bond franchise in terms of a serious tone. Matt Damon's Jason Bourne character gave hope to us ‘hard-edged' Bond fans, mainly because his films were both character oriented and spectacularly successful. So there was indeed a market for down and dirty spy films after all.
Which leads to the annoying wishy-washy position of the press. For usually when a 'serious' Bond film hits screens, critics decry it as boring, bland and wholly without humor. The Dalton films - which are repeatedly slammed for such things, are actually rather funny at times. But once again, if you're not playing Bond as one degree separate from Jerry Lewis in tone, then you supposedly have 'no humor'. At all. While some of us were breathing sighs of relief that the very Moore-esque scene in which Bond was to ride a ‘magic carpet' over Morocco in 'The Living Daylights' was deleted, many were apparently wishing that it had remained. But getting back to the press, once all of these grittier spy films began rolling in, the journos kept going on about how the Bond films were being outshined by this new breed, and that the series was now but a parody of its glorious earlier self. Fair enough, but go ahead and give them a Bond movie that goes against that grain and they'll shout from the rooftops that it fails because of its lack of gadgets and humor. I'd love to say that the audience at large disagreed with this stance of the press, but they could be equally as finicky. The ‘hardcore' Bond fans would always wish for another 'From Russia With Love', while the general public was usually hoping for another 'Moonraker'.
So in this regard, the Bond producers have always been in a bit of a pickle. They try to stay true to the roots of the character, but films like 'Diamonds Are Forever' become huge successes whereas those such as 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service' falter a bit at the box office. And when I say a bit, it should be known that no EON Bond film can really be considered a box office bomb - it's just that the relative success of some titles is overshadowed by the enormous receipts of others. Thus there is that temptation to not toy with what appears to be doing rather well at the theaters. 'Die Another Day' raked in huge amounts of dosh, and there was no real fiscal incentive to move away from the formula.
Then the whispers started. The rights to 'Casino Royale' (the only remaining Fleming-penned Bond novel not in EON's possession) were finally within grasp. The name of Quentin Tarantino was being bandied about as a directorial possibility. Then there was talk of jettisoning Pierce Brosnan altogether, despite his obvious popularity. I had heard tales of MGM's new owners Sony having very different ideas about where the series should go as opposed to the wishes of Broccoli and Wilson. On the flipside, I had heard nightmarish rumors that the EON team wanted to go more 'American' (i.e.more noisy and nonsensical) and that the best way to rejuvenate the franchise was to turn it into a Vin Diesel blastfest. I also heard they might unload the series outright and sell it to the highest bidder. I never thought that someone would opt to do what I had been wishing for all along – go back to the source and make a great, back to the roots movie. I never thought that, because audiences haven't exactly given warm embraces to those entries in the series. On paper it would seem insanely risky to not only introduce a new actor as Bond, but to do so while simultaneously shaking up the formula by omitting the popular clichés of the series.
Thank heavens for Batman and Christopher Nolan! Not only for resuscitating another dying franchise and delivering one of my favorite films of 2005, but for proving that a strong, character based action/adventure movie could garner great word of mouth and perform well over a long theatrical engagement. It was the polar opposite of Hollywood's modus operandi of dumping some loud trash on you in the hopes of it making a hundred million over opening weekend, thereby allowing them to jettison it for Loud Trash 2 the following weekend. 'Batman Begins' proved that there was an audience for quality (albeit still of a loud nature), and it gave the producers of the Bond franchise the courage to do the same thing. Reboot the entire jalopy and start from scratch.
While the series had never rolled the odometer back to zero (or more appropriately, to zed) before, it had certainly reinvented itself often enough. Primarily out of necessity, due to the numerous cast changes in the role of Bond. George Lazenby's introduction in 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service' sure felt like a reboot, wherein the character was slowly introduced to us in shadowy segments. But ultimately the intention wasn't to introduce the audience to James Bond per se, but to Lazenby as James Bond. The remainder of the film offered concrete ties to the previous outings, with Bond still hot on the trail of SPECTRE mastermind Ernst Stavro Blofeld. There's even a short sequence in which Bond clears out his desk (as he intends to retire at this point in the story) and sound cues from the previous films accompany multiple familiar items as he looks them over. Of course the most notorious kick in the pants is when the film breaks the fourth wall after the opening fight scene. Bond saves the girl only to have her leave him in the lurch, alone on the beach. At which point, he turns to the camera and hits us with the postmodern line ‘This never happened to the other feller!'There were other moments when the series was remolded as it progressed (or in some cases regressed). The early seventies saw an intentional shift to more popular ‘exploitation' fare, with Bond aping the 'Shaft' films and Kung Fu blockbusters such as 'Enter The Dragon'. After a while an unofficial release template for the series had taken shape, resulting in the production trend of following films that were a little too over the top with more down to earth outings to cleanse the palate slightly before the next serving of fantastic silliness.