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Filmism.net Dispatch May 11, 2021

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Poor James Bond. After despatching more filthy rich, autocratic and fascist despots with hollowed out volcano lairs than most real career spies even come across in their lifetimes, a tiny virus has bought him low. As I write these words, No Time To Die has been in the can for almost a year, originally set to release back in April 2020. As COVID19 gripped the world and certain countries (you know who you are) went out and protested about social distancing instead of doing it while drinking bleach because Trump said it would cure you, they now have the dubious distinction of the highest case numbers and deaths of anywhere.

Blockbusters like No Time to Die aren't coming back to global cinemas any time soon, and nobody's going to repeat Warner Bros' failed attempt to release Tenet in whatever territories it could and roll it out across the world gradually when things improved. First, not enough territories were available to return such a massive budget. Second, things didn't got better in key markets towards the end of 2022, they got worse. Third, word of mouth about the awful sound design might have turned away even more people (though we'll never know how many).

There are plenty of people who hated Inception for its mind-bending temporal acrobatics, but it was a Chris Nolan event movie that came out in a healthy world and made its hundreds of millions before any real backlash built. That's what Tenet needed to succeed.

But I'm not really referring to Bond's rollercoastering fortunes as a franchise (although trade bible Variety claimed owners MGM were so desperate to make thier money back they considered selling it to Apple or Netflix). It's his rollercoasting fortunes in the actual films, the quality of the content and how it always moves in cycles.

Look at any Bond film you don't like (or that critics haven't liked) and I bet it's because of one of three problems. The first problem is when he goes rogue, like wet fish Bond Timothy Dalton did in License to Kill (1989). Nothing against Dalton, and there are those who claim (disaffected, sarcastic voice) 'he's the closest to the character Ian Fleming envisioned'.

But honestly, Dalton sucked as Bond and his Bond movies sucked too. Laughing and riding rollercoasters with his ladyfriend instead of downing a vodka martini, peeling off a wetsuit to reveal a tux and beating up a room full of goons with a signature quip? Come on...

The first problem is that Dalton was never as ice cool as Connery or Moore. He's too expressive, and when he spits the line 'you have my resignation sir!' it's not the words of a suave, sexy British secret agent in command of the situation, it's a very American motif of a wronged man standing up passionately for his principles. That's a worthy character... but it's not James Bond.

Bond needs the infrastructure of the British secret service because the gadgets, weapons and exotic locales are integral parts of the character. Take them away and he's just another lone wolf on the run out for justice, and that's been done to death.

The temptation to have Bond go rogue is always there thanks to the very American cultural tradition of the hero rejecting the stuffy, restrictive machinery of heirarchy and chain of command, doing things his own way.

But it's because Bond is devoted to his service of Queen and Country that he stands out. When Roger Moore skis off the snowy cliff at the beginning of The Spy Who Loved Me and his parachute opens with a flourish to reveal the Union Jack, it's a mission statement for what Bond is all about.

The second problem is when they try to go all 'Grand Unified Theory' of Bond. Look, from Dr No (1962) onwards, the really great Bond films were a rogue's gallery, one despotic villain-of-the-week after another, power hungry men who had ridiculous resources and who Bond had to go to greater lengths than ever to beat.

Think Stromberg's alien-esuqe seabase in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), Drax and his designs on space (complete with space shuttles firing laser cannons at each other) in Moonraker (1979), and Blofeld's immortal hollowed out volcano in You Only Live Twice (1967), a motif so integral to the Bond mythology it's the subject of parody (see Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery et al).

But you know what? Those villains and their ridiclous lairs and plans worked. I'm betraying my age here, but I grew up in the Moore era when Bond films got more fantastical, more like comic books than Fleming's spy stories, and I loved them.

But there's always the killjoy who comes along and tries to make all those larger than life antagonists not matter as much. For me it was Goldeneye (1995). Pierce Brosnan's debut was a reset of sorts, making Bond relevant again after the years he'd had been lost in the wilderness thanks to Timothy Dalton and some lousy scripts.

But the story, with Sean Bean as a former double-oh, tries to wrap up and summarily dismiss the Blofelds, Draxs, Strombergs and Dr Nos of the world, and I resented it. They tried to make Bond too serious about itself, a meta-comment about how cartoony so much of it had become when he talks about all the villains they stopped and regimes they undermined. The sentiment is echoed earlier when Judi Dench as the new M dismisses Bond as 'a sexist mysogynist dinosar, a relic of the Cold War'.

The third thing they always do wrong is the whole 'we're taking Bond back to basics' the franchise has been through at least as many times as there have been new actors on board. Like the second problem, it's a reaction to when things get too cartoony. Brosnan's last outing, Die Another Day (2002), was the most successful film of the series until that point, but it's remembered mostly for the bad CGI parasailing scene everyone decided afterward was so stupid.

Like a studio executive who turns in a flop the quips, gadgets and OTT conceits were out, and Brosnan was unceremoniously dumped with them. Since the mid 2000s we'd started talking about rebooting rather than remaking films, and the new Bond sales pitch latched onto that like a limpet. Series overseers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson told anyone who'd listen that they were 'rebooting' Bond. They were starting his story again, even going back to the original book (Casino Royale, a novel about a card game) to do so.

And unlike Brosnan's flamboyant locks and mouth always ready to curl into a cheeky grin, Daniel Craig's Bond was a humourless battering ram, muscle rather than wit. His stoic dispassion was explained by his falling in love with Vesper Lynd and losing her, and the new template was set.

And look, Craig's Bond movies have been pretty good, but as I said, I'm a product of my time. Nothing that's come in the current era has been as much good clean fun as the Moore era. To me James Bond should be a gentlemen, Roger Moore's cheeky charm behind the license to kill, casting lovers and enemies aside effortlessly like so many spent shell casings from his Walther PPK.

Craig's style, along with the jettisoning of the obligatory Q branch visit, string of beauties, etc, absolutely did what they said, going back to basics. But it meant the first few Craig Bonds were just solidly made action movies that happened to have Monty Norman's iconic music. They didn't feel like true Bond flicks.

Interestingly, with Spectre (2015) and the reintroduction of Blofeld courtesy of Christoph Waltz, they've edged back towards the comic book tone (no matter how prestigious the direction). Maybe there's just a magnetic attraction between James Bond and girls, quips and exploding pens.

Maybe, for that reason, there are good things in store for us when No Time To Die finally sees the light of day. Because every time they go back to basics, we get Timothy Dalton holding hands at the fun fair or Daniel Craig acting more like a well dressed thug picking fights in a pub than a gentlemen spy.

So there, I've thrown down a few gauntlets. Asking someone 'who's the best Bond' is like asking which is better out of iPhone and Android (Mac vs PC back in my day). What do you think?

On streaming services now is another miniscule release that was ignored and forgotten just as quick as it came out, Little Fish . Made by a writer and a director you've never heard of, it's a sci-fi film that looks and feels like an indie drama, stars the luminous Olivia Cooke, and it's as heartbreaking and beautiful as it is well shot.

And, ironically since I started talking about how moviegoing isn't really back out of the shadow of COVID yet, Godzilla vs Kong did thumping good business arond the world (it probably has China to thank), and deservedly so. After 18 months of us all living misery, depirvation, isolation and fear, it was actually nice to see something so simple minded that promised big screen thrills with an eardrum-shattering sound and delivered it. Not even the non sensical plot bothered me, I was so happy to be back where I belonged.

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