He’s a hollow, rusted-out dinosaur and a dynamic literary presence. He’s a bawdy womanizer and a haunted romantic. He always has a joke. He takes life seriously. He’s a pop-culture footnote and a freshly relevant hero. He embodies, directly or indirectly, the changing landscape of the last 50 years, but is today just as he was in the sunny days of Kennedy’s Camelot.
In other words, James Bond doesn’t make much sense.
My relationship with Ian Fleming’s creation dates back to muggy Saturdays in Atlanta and the TBS Superstation. Bond movies were a fixture on the channel. For years it seemed as if the only broadcasts Ted Turner could afford were Braves games and Moonraker. Sometimes, when the stars aligned, the channel would open up the James Bond library and unleash its signature 7 Days of 007, and then, my friends, the shit was on.
I had my first exposure here to Sean Connery’s dry wit and Roger Moore’s smarmy masculinity. I also developed an affinity for the James Bond formula, that potent script of events forming the structure of any good Bond tale. The sneering villains and doomsday weapons were interchangeable. Useless, really. All that mattered to my young mind was that the movie played the right notes. Pre-credits action sequence. Titillating opening theme (with a song named for the movie, of course.) The set-up. The Q sequence. Some chases. Capture. Villainous monologue. Escape from the death trap. Huge final action sequence. Make out session with the sultry supermodel. Credits, with the promise that “James Bond will return…” It was comfortable and reliable and packed full of traditional childhood thrills. If ’30s kids had adventure serials and ’50s kids had cowboy shows, the children of the ’80s could look to James Bond.
I discovered much later that many Bond movies flat stink, but I remain fascinated with the films and the character. I guess that Bond movies have become a sort of cinematic comfort food for me, the way that my aging stepfather never passes up an episode of “Gunsmoke” or Pride of the Yankees. Put any Bond movie into my DVD player, even the silliest ones, and I’ll lose my next two hours. And that’s where things get strange.
What in the world do I see in the series? Enough with the warm and fuzzy recollections, these movies are irresponsible at the best of times, and blatantly offensive at the worst. James Bond was born in the era of “Mad Men” attitudes, where aggressive misogyny seemed the way to a woman’s heart and racism was as casual as a backhanded compliment. As the series marched through the Roger Moore era, these dark traits in the character intensified and, worst of all, were played for laughs, leading to a profound crisis of conscience that nearly derailed the franchise altogether as it entered into the “sensitive” ’90s. The self-loathing on display in Goldeneye, otherwise a solid entry in the series, is shocking. Even today, the franchise struggles with its deeper meaning and long-term future as it steals from other action movies that, frankly, owe their very existence to Bond. The individual movies can be dismissed as easily as a single piece of popcorn from a bag, but the series is a unique phenomenon in the history of the movies and hides some deeper truths about audiences, pop-culture, and the changing attitudes of the last half-century of American life. Not bad for a fictional Brit.
By now you will have realized that I’m cheating. The Hollywood Projects has a mission to chronicle the work of important or interesting film directors, and the James Bond series has hosted no less than 10 (as of this writing.) The answer to your burning question, assuming you’ve asked it, is that James Bond is one of those rare characters that transcends the director involved. Certainly, one can tell a John Glen Bond movie from a Guy Hamilton if they keep very close watch, but James Bond backs a dump truck of baggage up to the set, leaving a director very little room to maneuver. The Broccoli family, keepers of the Bond film legacy, understand this and intentionally seek out directors who can work within the Bond formula to produce a satisfying adventure. No auteurs allowed. For this reason, I think of Bond as his own director, calling his own shots. A James Bond Project is only natural.
Some ground rules going in: As usual, we’re counting up from the Bond movie I believe to be the least successful, meaning we’ll jump in and out of sequence until we hit the one I believe to be the best. I’ll work to put each film into context in regards to the time period and social conditions surrounding the movie, as well as any significant character moments as it relates to the overall series. For this countdown, I’m only looking at the 22 “official” Bond movies. The ’60s spoof Casino Royale is not eligible, nor is the rogue ’80s debacle Never Say Never Again. I’m not fond of either film, so if you must know where they’d stand on the countdown, just pencil them in at the bottom.
As an added treat, my reward for finishing this project will be a James Bond Vesper martini, shaken not stirred.
Obviously, that’s an added treat for me. I’ll take a picture.
(Note: The James Bond Project is complete. Please enjoy the links below, which will take you through the entire Project, a film at a time.)
11. Dr. No
14. Live and Let Die
15. Licence to Kill
22. A View to a Kill