When I was a kid, I loved action movies. I suppose that puts me in some pretty voluminous company, and it might even seem to qualify me as a fanboy. After all, I grew up on Star Trek, Star Wars, comic books, and cartoons. I collected graphic novels and stood in line to see Batman three times in 1989. But, alas, I'm really not a fanboy. I was 14 in 1989, and I'm glad to say that I moved on. As I peruse the film world today, I see that the fanboys have damn near taken over. I wish them well, but I am not one of them. When I discovered Bogart in high school, I started to lose interest in summer blockbusters. When I discovered Welles and Hitchcock and Bergman, I realized that movies could be about a lot more than exploding buildings.
I don't want to make myself out to be more of a film snob than I am. (Understand, I am absolutely a film snob and happy to be one. If you don't understand that the Spider-Man movies sucked, or you don't understand that the Lord of the Rings were beyond shitty, then we will have to work on our definitions of "entertainment" and "movie"). While I am a snob, I still like the occasional action film. The energy released by their stories and the craftsmanship of their making still impress me. Raiders of the Lost Ark and the original Die Hard are both, I would submit, good movies. The best action film I've seen of late--and I think I would put it up there with Raiders and Die Hard--is The Bourne Ultimatum. It's a fine piece of work, with thrilling set pieces and perhaps the single best fight scene I've ever seen.
All of which brings me to this piece of news: today I saw the new James Bond flick. I went to see it despite the generally bad reviews it's gotten. I guess I was just in the mood for a big budget action movie. I'd just finished writing a piece about film noir's greatest brawls, and, oddly enough, it put me in the mood for Bond.
First let me say, the film is better than a lot of critics have suggested. Almost all of the negative reviews I've read (including the Ebert review I linked above and Dana Stevens' piece over on Slate) have lamented the lack of the old Bond touches. The new film not much fun, they say.
What's true is that the film is much darker than any Bond film that has come before it. Daniel Craig plays Bond as a killing machine, and, yes, he has more in common with Damon's Jason Bourne than he does with any Bond who has proceeded him. Part of the reason for this is that for two movies now the filmmakers have placed Bond in an actual story. Quantum of Solace is a sequel--not just a follow up--to Casino Royale and it continues the story that began there. If you haven't seen Casino Royale lately--and I watched it last night to catch myself up--you will probably not know what's going on in this movie. Of course, narrative cohesion has never been a big part of a Bond movie, but here there's more of a plot (of sorts) to follow. Bond is
investigating the betrayal and subsequent death of his girlfriend, Vesper Lynd, from the first movie. This leads him to the discovery of a secret organization called Quantum. A bunch of action follows. Just about every scene ends with Bond beating the hell out of someone, usually just before he kills them.
But Daniel Craig remains a compelling actor. He's the first actor to play Bond who has an essentially sad persona, and he gives the character a gravity it's never had before. Is this a bad thing? Many critics seem to think so, but I'm not so sure. I have a theory that your conception of James Bond owes a lot to the actor who originated the role for you. I began with Roger Moore who often played the character as an almost campy parody. I loved it as a kid, but have you seen those movies lately? The Spy Who Loved Me, Octopussy, A View To Kill...and let's not forget Moonraker (which maybe the worst Bond ever, though Live and Let Die has the added strike of being racist). These are not good movies. They do not hold up well. The best Moore movie is For Your Eyes Only, which has its hokey moments but also tries to achieve a certain level of tension and pathos (remember Bond at his wife's grave?). I liked Moore--a charming, lightweight actor--but I don't have a lot of nostalgia for his Bonds or their progressively building cheesiness. Craig and the handlers of the franchise have made the decision to ground the series somewhat (this is relative, of course, because through the goofy gadgets have been downplayed, Bond himself is now capable of superhuman speed, strength and endurance). Craig's Bond maybe even more of a superhero physically, but he's also perhaps the first plausible human being. What's happening to the character is what has been happening to superheroes in graphic novels for at least the last two decades, he is acquiring more and more of the psychological trappings of reality.
Another aspect of the series that's changed is a shift away from misogyny. Craig's Bond seems as obsessed with women as his predecessors, but he's not out for conquest. His relationship with Vesper in Casino Royale was the most emotionally interesting relationship the character's ever had with a woman (a large part of the credit for that goes to Eva Green's performance as Vesper). In this film he's paired with Olga Kurylenko. She's beautiful and charismatic, but there has been some criticism of their relationship because as at least one critic put it "Bond doesn't sleep with her", oddly lamenting, in 2008, that man isn't the subject and the girl the object. What's different here is that they have an actual relationship. Bond seems, gasp!, interested in her. You know, like one person being interested in another person. He's not turning into a monk--he still "beds" a pretty girl in the middle of the film, but even that relationship has more depth than we're used to from Jimmy B. The new series, at least for these first two installments, doesn't view Bond the way it used to, as that playboy ladykiller who essential raped Pussy Galore at the end of Goldfinger, which itself was a step up from Fleming's original novel in which Bond, ah, cured Pussy Galore of lesbianism. Call me a wimp, but I'm thrilled James Bond isn't raping lesbians anymore. Craig's Bond actually seems to like women, and that's an improvement.
After this, I'll go back to not thinking much about big budget action flicks for a while, but I will be interested to see where the character goes from here. When is the last time anyone said that about James Bond?