Tuesday 20 March 2018

Rebooting Bond: how 007 grew a fond heart

Shaken and stirred: Daniel Craig returns with his
Shaken and stirred: Daniel Craig returns with his "weaker" take on Bond in 'Spectre'

Paul Whitington

In a few weeks' time the world will go Bond crazy, as the eagerly awaited new film Spectre arrives in cinemas. Daniel Craig returns in the lead in a storyline that sees him come face to face with a sophisticated criminal organisation led by a sinister German, played by Christoph Waltz.

Craig has proved a hugely popular Bond, and while a few years back he seemed on the point of calling it a day, he's just announced he wants to do more. Though the actor admitted that, at 47, staying in shape is "harder than ever", he vowed to "keep going as long as I'm physically able".

Good news all around then, but in a recent interview, thriller writer Anthony Horowitz described the current screen incarnation of Bond as "weak". He knows what he's talking about: Horowitz has just finished the latest Bond novel, Rigor Mortis, having been commissioned by the Ian Fleming estate. He's a lifelong Bond fan and is not at all happy about the direction the film series has taken of late.

While he's quick to praise Craig himself and enjoyed the "gritty seriousness" of Martin Campbell's 2006 reboot, Casino Royale, Horowitz has been less than impressed with the films that followed since. "Quantum of Solace just went wrong," he believes, adding that "Skyfall is my least favourite - it is the one Bond film I have never liked". His major gripe is: "Bond is weak in it - he has doubts. That's not Bond."

Horowitz is not optimistic about Spectre, either. "I'm looking at the trailer and I am seeing a photograph of Bond's family. This is going to be to do with his family background and I know the fans are all terribly excited to know more, but I'm saying 'don't tell me, I don't want to know'. I don't want to know about his doubts, his insecurities or weaknesses. I just want to see him act, kill, win."

So is Horowitz right? Have the writing team behind all four of the Daniel Craig Bonds, Neal Purvis, John Logan and Robert Wade, gone too far in depicting the spy as fallible and human, and strayed from the essential 007 formula? I think they have, but in doing so have done the franchise a service.

When Fleming dreamt up James Bond in his 1952 spy novel Casino Royale, he imagined him as "a neutral figure", a "blunt instrument", and "an extremely dull, uninteresting man to whom things happened". That kind of character was never going to stand up in a movie, and when the first Bond film appeared in 1962, a rather different version emerged.

Sean Connery's Bond in Dr No was suave and charismatic, and everyone in his orbit seemed fascinated by him. Men were intimidated, women swooned and while Fleming was initially horrified by the idea of an uncouth working class Scot playing his mannerly public school spy, he subsequently realised Connery was perfect in the role.

Fleming was something of a fantasist and Bond was the perfect fantasy hero for the Cold War age. At a time when the prospect of nuclear annihilation seemed real and imminent, the idea of a secret warrior who would kill with impunity to protect his country's interests was comforting. And for male viewers, here was a man they all wanted to be, a square-jawed stud and killer who was entirely unencumbered by the shackles of everyday existence - bills, mortgages, wives, kids. He was free, a rampant kid, and while they watched him, so were they.

Connery's Bond was sarcastic, sneering, almost vicious but otherwise without feeling and in those early films a simple but compelling formula emerged. 007 would be dispatched to an exotic location by his exasperated superiors to retrieve a piece of microfilm or a missing weapon of mass destruction.

There, often on a beach, or the decks of a luxury yacht, he'd meet the smiling, demented villain, whose grandiose master-plan involved either global domination or Armageddon. He was usually disfigured, often had eccentric pets (a Persian cat in You Only Live Twice, sharks in Thunderball), and was invariably surrounded by beautiful women, one of whom would fall in love with Bond and help him win. He would sail into the sunset with his arm around her waist, but probably threw her overboard once the cameras stopped rolling.

A car chase was mandatory, also a fistfight at close quarters with a hefty but doomed opponent (Oddjob in Goldfinger, Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love). Though theoretically capable of friendship (he seems fond enough of CIA man Felix Leiter), fundamentally 007 didn't care about anyone. He was a loner, a tough nut, immune to self-doubt.

For an entire generation, Connery quite simply was Bond and when he grew tired of wearing toupees and pretending to drive fast cars and departed the franchise in 1971, few believed it would survive long without him.

The franchise's producers had enough sense to realise that something new and different would be required, rather than some younger actor pretending to be Connery. TV star Roger Moore was 46 years old when he took over the role: he had an old-fashioned, gentlemanly, Ronald Colman-esque charm, but none of Connery's intimidating physical presence. And his would be a very different Bond, oily and laconic, a little bit above it all and not terribly keen on getting his suits creased.

The screenwriter Raymond Benson memorably described Moore's Bond as "a rather smarmy, eyebrow-raising international playboy who never seemed to get hurt". He was a bit like one of those 1970s lounge lizards, but it was possible to imagine Moore's 007 having a conversation with his ladies after he'd had his wicked way with them, a girlish weakness to which Connery's Bond would never have stooped.

But it was the tone, and not the essential formula, that was different in films like The Spy Who Loved Me and Live And Let Die. These movies were jokey and unthreatening, but still had the cars, the girls, the stunts and the grandiose villains (like Christopher Lee's Scaramanga in The Man With The Golden Gun) who spent more time explaining their dastardly plans than enacting them.

Bond's selfishness, his egotism, survived each incarnation intact. When Moore played him he seemed indifferent to and almost amused by the sufferings of others. Timothy Dalton's 007 was colder, sterner, more efficient and had some of Connery's cruel ruthlessness, while Pierce Brosnan's version was effortlessly elegant, hopelessly cocksure. But they all seemed, in different ways, superhuman, invulnerable - until Daniel Craig, that is.

By the time the muscular Englishman took over in 2006 at the age of 38, the franchise looked hopelessly outdated and in dire need of reinvention. And what Martin Campbell's Casino Royale did so brilliantly (see panel) was recalibrate the whole series and re-imagine 007 as a callow and trigger-happy spy whose future as an agent is very much in doubt and whose impetuousness is barely tolerated by his stern and schoolmarmish boss, M.

More daringly, Craig's Bond actually falls in love with feline treasury agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), and when that goes horribly wrong it provides a neat psychological explanation for the agent's subsequent attitudes to women. This Bond was depressed and damaged, slightly unhinged and prone to troughs of self-loathing, even doubt. In other words, he was believable, human.

In Skyfall, the writing team of Purvis, Wade and Logan went even further, giving him an ancestral home in Scotland and a dark back-story that involved the traumatic early loss of his parents.

The one factor that really distinguished the Craig-era Bonds, however, was 007's relationship with Judi Dench's M. She'd arrived in the Brosnan era, but with Craig developed a charming mother/son dynamic that gave the films something that had always been missing - heart. But they only managed to get away with this tender-hearted stuff because Craig was the first Bond since Connery who looked like he'd kick your head in.

Dench is gone now of course, replaced as M by the brilliant but buttoned-down Ralph Fiennes. So will the new film retain that vital emotional undercurrent that in my view has saved the franchise from extinction and allowed Bond to connect with a new, younger audience?

Let's see how the new, touchy-feely Bond handles that hurdle.

The best Bond?

For many years it almost went without saying that the 1963 adventure From Russia With Love was the greatest Bond film, with Sean Connery in his youthful pomp, a strong story, great location shoots in Turkey and Venice and, in Lotte Lenya's Rosa Klebb and Robert Shaw's Grant, two of the best Bond villains. But I think the 2006 reboot Casino Royale is a better written, better-looking, more accomplished and grown-up movie.

In a brilliant opening scene, Bond earns his 00 status after killing a treacherous MI6 section chief. But his boss, M (Judi Dench), is worried by his impetuousness and gives him a stern dressing down when he also kills a bomb-maker who could have proved an invaluable informant. Bond gets a chance to redeem himself when he's sent to Montenegro to ensnare a ruthless international criminal called Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) while playing high-stakes poker.

It's in Montenegro that Bond falls for Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a beautiful treasury agent with some dark secrets. Martin Campbell handles the film's lean, efficient storyline brilliantly. Casino Royale is loaded with wit as well as emotional depth, and Craig is electrifying as the young, raw and reckless Bond.

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