James Bond Retrospective

BIKE TO WORK: Daniel Craig's 007 maintains a strict dress code no matter how dire the situation. Photograph by Francois Duhamel

The purpose of James Bond in the age of the AGM-114 Hellfire missile may not be easy to grasp, considering the recently revealed CIA kill list, licensing agents to murder on executive order, not to mention the thought of the president scrutinizing what's been called a "baseball card" catalogue of terrorists to kill at his discretion.

Step by step, 50 years of insane 007 fantasies have become intelligence-apparatus realities. As the late Alexander Cockburn wrote, "Ian Fleming has a lot to answer for." Certainly, Skyfall, the latest Bond film, is part of a series limbered up by Daniel Craig's outstanding embodiment of the secret agent. Bond, who once upon a time knew in which direction to shoot, gets caught in a substantial amount of blowback in this installment.

Things weren't always this complicated. Once, 007 had clear shots at criminals who speechified like so: "For centuries, alchemists tried to make gold from base metals. Today, we make microchips from silicon, which is common sand. We are now in the unique position to form an international cartel to control not only production but distribution of these microchips. There is one obstacle: Silicon Valley. More than 250 plants account for, what, 80 percent of the world microchip market? I propose to end the domination of Silicon Valley!"

That was minor James Bond villain Max Zorin in A View to a Kill, who schemed to find the San Andreas Fault's sweet spot with a nuke and flood Cupertino with the Pacific Ocean. Not as memorable as stealing a nuclear missile or cornering the world's gold supply, but every little bit helps.

Since we just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the release of Dr. No, the Internet is stuffed with people revisiting the half-century-long saga in one sitting—22 films, not counting the noncanonical Casino Royale (1967) and Never Say Never Again (1983), a remake of Thunderball (1966).

All one can judge from the collected experience is that there are many moments the fans of the serious Craig as Bond would like to forget. The only question is how to find the lowest point: The stupid robot dog in A View to a Kill? The camel double-take in Octopussy?

Every revisit to the Bond oeuvre teaches something, though; a reassessment awaits every screening. Die Another Day (in which there is apparently a reference to every one of the previous 19 canonical Bonds) is allegedly overstuffed with gadgets—as if there were a comfortable home anywhere else in cinema for invisible cars, death rays and secret Cuban DNA-replacement clinics.

Roger Moore's most credible outing as Bond—For Your Eyes Only—is honorable but sometimes stodgy, even if its co-star (Carole Bouquet) is easily the most beautiful actress in the series. By contrast, A View to a Kill sometimes looks better than it did in its day, thanks to the interesting abrasiveness between a very young and snotty Christopher Walken and a very aged Moore.

The series has given us a multidecade cycle of excess and atonement, binge and purge. The bare-bones commando mission For Your Eyes Only arrives after The Spy Who Loved Me, a true kid-slaker with a steel-toothed giant. "Look how he moves," producer Albert Broccoli once marveled, as he had Sean Connery stride across the carpet like a show pony to impress some disinterested studio exec or another—a process Connery neither forgave nor forgot. But Jaws as great villain? Readers, look at how Richard Kiel moved. The poor man, disabled by his height, couldn't have outrun a hobbled newsboy.

To Bond's credit, when American movies were arguing that greed was good and the commies were an empire of evil, the 007 films suggested that the real figures to look out for were criminals pretending to be businessmen.

From great Blofeld down to Zorin, the antagonists were a populist's nightmare. They exemplified wealth and secrecy. They were Krupps and Kochs. If 007 originally escaped from an imperialist daydream in the novels, the films are about a government agent gunning for rogue capitalists. The irony is that there's so much dressing on the stories—the cars and clothes and resorts—that even the real-life malefactors emulate them. You could even watch one with Donald Trump—he's so vain, he wouldn't know the film was about him.


PG-13; 143 min.

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