Dalton’s two movies did poorly at the box office, proving that the public really does care about who plays Bond, and after 1989’s License to Kill, Pierce Brosnan took over. I think I have seen Brosnan smile in other films, and it’s true that in his four 007 efforts he does something with his mouth whereby he parts his lips and appears to bare his teeth as much as possible. But he looks like someone who doesn’t know the difference between a smirk and a smile and in trying to split the difference manages to accomplish neither. An old cliché has it that one’s favorite Bond is dependent upon which 007 you grew up with. I am proud to say that this is not the case with me, because I think the Brosnan films are, by and large, dreck. I mentioned earlier that the Bond of the books is self-conscious enough to be emotionally interesting. But the Brosnan films are slick exercises in self-conscious parody. It’s as if the go-go ’90s could not abide by a superhero who was not commenting on his own superhero status. Everything is a joke within a joke.
In that same spirit, the Bond films have never done well when they have tried to apologize for what they are. The downside of this comes when they embrace a different form of self-consciousness, often in the form of silly humor (see, for example, the abominable decision to play “California Girls” during a snow-boarding action scene in A View to a Kill). But the Brosnan films seem embarrassed by their own presence. Judi Dench, who is the tiresome object of endless praise no matter what role she is inhabiting, seems to have been included as a way of assuaging any viewer concerns about enjoying such frivolous sex and violence. “When I want sarcasm,” Dench’s M tells Bond in Goldeneye, “I will talk to my children.” This line, and others like it, appear aimed at the suburban mothers whom the producers presumably believe will otherwise turn up their noses at Bond. It’s true that the Brosnan films were important in keeping the series alive—they made bundles of cash—and even a Brosnan hater like myself must admit that he looks even better than Connery in a tuxedo. Still, it was a dreary era.
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Brosnan left the role, the producers hired Daniel Craig, and everything got better. Did the success of the Jason Bourne films register in the minds of the filmmakers? I have no proof, but it certainly felt that way. Casino Royale was stripped down, intense, and brutal, and the action scenes—especially the brilliant opening chase, which easily tops every action scene in the Bourne series—are outstanding. It’s true that the plot makes little sense, and the Montenegro setting seems to be a place that couldn’t actually exist. But the writers seem to have finally recovered their confidence, and the movie has none of the glib knowingness of the Brosnan films. Still, the Bourne approach carries its own risks: In Quantum of Solace (2008), Bond is doing very little smiling—in fact, he seems so angry throughout that one is tempted to tell him to get over the loss of the woman of his dreams. (Even Dalton was given more fun moments.) And the actions scenes, directed by Marc Forster—who is no Paul Greengrass—are almost indecipherable. Skyfall, fortunately,is much, much better than Quantum, even if it lacks the mixture of playfulness and tension that made Casino Royale such a fine brew. The film is pleasurably and appropriately nostalgic—albeit somehow flat. Mendes has got the tone basically right, but he doesn’t seem excited by it.
Graham Greene divided his fictions into “novels” and “entertainments.” That distinction may result from a certain snobbery, but it at least suggests that Greene took his entertainments seriously enough to give them their own category. Part of the reason Craig is so good is that he refuses to apologize for the absurdity of his environs, and he takes the scripts at face value. He seems to be having a good time not because he knows he is acting in a ridiculous movie, but because you, too, would enjoy being James Bond while he is romancing a beautiful woman. Conversely, you wouldn’t like being James Bond while he is being tortured—and Craig does not seem to enjoy it either. Dalton and Lazenby are the only two other Bonds I can imagine actually smiling because they both occasionally seemed like real people. But they were both failures: Dalton because he forgot that Bond films were supposed to be fun, and Lazenby because he couldn’t act. In order to make Bond a real person, you need the same things most good movies require: a talented actor and a proper script. Greene’s best entertainments are not exactly “believeable,” but they have plausible, well-drawn characters, whose shoes you can step into for a pleasingly gripping little diversion.
It would be easy to say that when Ian Fleming began writing his novels, during Britain’s austere postwar years, he was canny enough to realize that an exhausted citizenry would enjoy tales of Savile Row suits, fine food, and luxurious travel. And yet, more than 60 years later, with Bond insanely popular everywhere from India to America, the urge for the same fantasy remains, amid boom times as well as austerity. Bond’s MI6 has the pseudonym “Universal Exports,” and if there are three things that can sell anywhere on the globe, anytime, they are sex, violence, and consumer goods. A good James Bond is a great salesman—and over the past six decades, he’s been fortunate to have some wonderful products.
Also in Slate, Isaac Chotiner ranks the best Bond movies, actors, books, and music.