So that didn’t work out as planned.
I’m not talking about the vesper martini, although that’s totally on my fail list. When the James Bond Project launched, I promised that the final post (hint: this one) would feature my first run-in with Bond’s official drink, but then the skies dumped a blanket of snow and tauntauns on North Carolina this last weekend, and my plan fell apart.
Now, I’ve lived in Canada. Yes, a temperate, wet corner of Canada, but Canada nonetheless. I’m not afraid to brave a snow storm, especially not when booze is on the line, but the people serving that booze were not so hardcore. When I finally found an open bar, the “I wish I was home right now” server wasn’t about to let me go off menu, especially not in search of a drink made with now-fictional ingredients like Kina Lillet. I settled for a chocolate martini, which, judging by the look on my girlfriend’s face, might as well have been concentrated estrogen.
By the following night, even that place had barred the doors, leaving a Mexican grill and its menu full of margaritas as my only option. Oh, I drank, but I never found the drink. When the ice thaws, I’ll be tripping over vespers, but not this weekend, not today, and not in time for this post.
In other words, insert that old cliché about best laid plans, because it also applies to my journey through this project. As a lifelong Bond fan, I thought it would be a breeze to talk about all the great Bond films the franchise had produced in its nearly five decades of life. I figured I’d hit “the good stuff” fairly early. Imagine my surprise when I was still swimming in mediocrity halfway through. There are less decent movies than I’d thought, and only about five or six that I could recommend as films without hesitation. I still love Bond, but it turns out that I don’t really love a lot of his movies.
So what’s the big deal, then? Why the fan following and the 20+ years of continuity for a series with so many sinkholes? Superman and Batman faced reboots after four movies. Spider-Man only made it to three. Jason Bourne got one well-received trilogy and now faces the threat of a prequel (a reset by another name.) Harry Potter’s story will end with the final book. Dirty Harry, John McClane, Rocky, and Rambo are all retired or nearly so. Why has James Bond alone endured all these years, virtually unchanged?
The answer begins in the long parade of actors playing Bond, interchangeable enough to make Eli Whitney proud. OK, we love this Bond or that Bond more than this other Bond over here, but let’s be honest; the character is larger than any single actor. The producers can throw a new face on the franchise every decade like a fresh coat of paint and the public will still show up. There’s no need to perpetually reboot and revamp as long as Britain produces a suitably dark and charming hunk at least once a generation.
This Dial-a-Bond approach gave the franchise room to grow into its roots, allowing a canon of characters and gimmicks to establish itself. The series may be as shallow as a tide pool, but good luck finding another franchise with this level of reverence for its history. The death of Tracy Bond still scored a reference in Tomorrow Never Dies, nearly 30 years after the character was shot. Lois Maxwell remained as Moneypenny, even as her Bonds grew younger. An entire film (Die Another Day) was assembled from scratch using only in-jokes and references.
So what does 40 years of hero continuity leave you with? Plenty of time to explore the villains, which may be the real key to the franchise’s success. Longtime producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli demanded that each Bond film feature a villain more dastardly than the last, and he wasn’t shy about chasing trends. If nuclear fears were on the rise, Bond would go after a rogue warhead. Energy problems in the 70s? Bond thwarts a plot to hoard limitless free energy from the world. Bond has taken a tour through our changing landscape, from the Cold War to the digital age, from distrust of the media to the planet’s dwindling oil and water supplies. Is there even a precedent for such a hero, willing to stand up, put his life on the line, and sock our collective fears square in the jaw?
Call it a ten-cent diagnosis, but somewhere in the back of our lizard brains we like to feel that we’re in charge of things when, of course, we rarely are. Cartoons like James Bond are laughable in their perfection, but they empower people to feel like their place in the world isn’t as fragile as it sometimes seems. These characters reflect our own natures, and stand in for us when tragedy and crisis keep the world from making sense.
So where does Bond go from here? I don’t think anyone is exactly sure. The new Daniel Craig films are still struggling to find their sweet spot between new-style action and nostalgia. Casino Royale got it right, Quantum of Solace not so much. The third film will set the pace. Personally, I fear that the less Bond-like the character becomes, the larger the risk of permanent damage or a fall into irrelevancy. Although, to put it mildly, nobody ever made a fortune betting against the series. (Poor George Lazenby even lost one.) The only thing I can safely predict is that James Bond will return. And I’ll toast my martini to that, chocolate or otherwise.
The James Bond Project (Final List)
10. Dr. No
13. Live and Let Die
14. Licence to Kill
21. A View to a Kill