[12 November 2008]
Mystery writer P.D. James once admitted that she had watched actor Roy Marsden play her most famous creation, Adam Dalgliesh, so many times - five different TV miniseries had featured the actor as the poetic New Scotland Yard detective - that Marsden had replaced any other image she had of her phlegmatic Brit.
“When I write Dalgliesh now,” James said, “Roy Marsden is who I see.”
Who would author Ian Fleming see, were he around today and still banging out Bonds? Sean Connery? Roger Moore? Woody Allen? (Yes, Allen was one of several James Bonds in the original screen version of “Casino Royale.”) Fleming wrote 12 original Bond novels, which have inspired nearly twice that number of movies (as well as two short-story collections), but their author lived long enough to see only two - “Dr. No” (1962) and “From Russia With Love” (1963). Fleming apparently was impressed enough with Sean Connery that he stressed Bond’s Scottish heritage when he wrote “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” which ironically starred George Lazenby when it was filmed in 1969. But were he around today, the onetime naval commander, who died in 1964, would likely be confused - not just by the times, but by his hero. Or, rather, heroes.
It may be that every era gets the Bond it deserves, in which case the ubiquitous advertisements for “Quantum of Solace” (a title even more bewildering than “Synecdoche, New York”) gives off a bit of bad news: The two sourpusses in the ads, Daniel Craig and co-star Olga Kurylenko, look like a pair of sullen celebrities walking the red carpet at their own movie premiere. Welcoming they are not, but, as a symptom of star-obsessed culture, they work OK, either as a branding device or an EEG.
In early reviews, Web critics have stressed that the movie, which opens Friday, has little besides nonstop action, which may please the video-gaming fanboy base for cinematic excess. But it hardly suggests the suavity and sophistication with which James Bond has long been synonymous.
Craig’s breakout U.S. role on the big screen was as painter Francis Bacon’s boyfriend in John Maybury’s “Love Is the Devil” (1998), and he still looks like rough trade. Which is, of course, part of his appeal, which extends to both gay men and straight women. It also seems part of a cultural drift (or stampede) toward the brutish and extreme and away from the morally gray sophistication that Bond was meant to embody. Craig is built like the proverbial brick warehouse and, in this, he’s far more a reflection of our times than was Fleming’s original creation, who was envisioned as a glamorized version of the author - a smoker and drinker with the sexual discretion of a cage full of gerbils.
Men without personal trainers don’t generally look like Craig, and personal trainers were not part of the training regimen of secret agents as envisioned by Fleming. The postwar, ‘40s-style elegance of the original Bond (the first book was published in 1953) was not the product of Pilates or free weights, but military training slightly diluted by devoted dissipation, self-indulgence and operable knowledge of his own - and others’ - mortality.
He was also naughty. When Connery began playing Bond, sex in the mainstream media still carried with it a frisson of the forbidden, and the actor was all about sex. He wasn’t bulked-up, like today’s action heroes. But he did have the blessing of good timing: There was a president in the White House who looked like he actually slept with his wife (and everyone else, as it turned out) and the Bond films were part of a sexual awakening that helped turn the public chasteness of the Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower on its head.
Connery was Bond throughout the so-called Sexual Revolution, and, while we may be projecting, is it any wonder that Roger Moore always seemed a little exhausted? Moore, a perfectly capable actor, launched a reign that extended throughout the ‘70s and into the early ‘80s. He was the disco-era Bond - a little decadent, a little seedy around the edges; one imagines oversize sunglasses, oversize shirt collars and an air of calculated hipness that now seems less suave than surreal.
The classically trained Timothy Dalton assumed the role in 1987 with “The Living Daylights” (another great title), and, while Dalton is held in generally low regard by Bond-o-philes, he’s sorely misjudged. He can be funny; he can be charming. He was a bridge between the Reagan-era Moore and the Clinton-era Pierce Brosnan, one reflecting indulgence, the other irony. Who was a more ironical Bond that Brosnan?
He was the best - OK, fanboys, the best besides Connery, but a far better actor and even comedian. And in what seems a gesture toward the corporatization of our culture, he was cut loose like a Ford worker. Enter Daniel Craig.
Arthur Conan Doyle never got to see Basil Rathbone play Sherlock Holmes. Dashiell Hammett had written the “Thin Man” novel before William Powell made Nick Charles his own. It’s probably merciful that Fleming isn’t around to see what’s become of Bond, not because the films are bad or that Craig isn’t necessarily good, but just because James Bond has become something else, something more obvious, played by a guy who may be hot, but isn’t sufficiently cool.
At 106 minutes, “Quantum of Solace” is easily the shortest James Bond movie, although Daniel Craig shouldn’t feel dissed - his first as 007, “Casino Royale” (2006), was the longest (144 minutes) in the nearly five-decade-long Bond series. That film reintroduced us to James Bond, not as the university-schooled secret agent and seducer, but as a more thuggish mercenary, pursuing high-stakes terrorists via a high-stakes card game.
In “Quantum of Solace” - which last week was busy breaking U.K. box-office records - Bond battles Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), an environmental bandit in the guise of a noted conservationist, who is planning a Bolivian coup d’etat. Bond is also seeking revenge for the death of Bond Girl Vesper Lynd. And he does it in record time.
Overall, the Bond film as a genre has been remarkably consistent in length - most are just about two hours, many of the early Sean Connery’s films are less, and each in the Roger Moore oeuvre clocks in, suspiciously consistently, at about two hours, 10 minutes. “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” - notable for the one-time appearance of actor George Lazenby as Bond - was, until Craig, the longest in the series.