My very first James Bond experience was…confusing, to say the least. I caught Goldfinger on one of those odd independent stations (back when those existed) that cut to commercial every ten minutes.
The scene I vividly remember was the iconic scene where the girl is slathered in gold paint. I had no idea why this was happening or what I was supposed to think about it, but I ended up watching a bit of the movie.
For someone who knew nothing about Bond except for a vague notion of him being a spy, the Bond films made no sense. Even after I started watching more of them, they seemed sloppy and out of place. Why were all these women immediately doing anything Bond asked? Why did everyone seem to have a name that was just two slightly related nouns next to each other, like Miss Moneypenny? Where’s Hammernail and Weathercoat? Why are the bad guys doing everything smart except for the one thing that’s not?
It took me a while to figure out that all this was part of the charm. Sure, there’s a lot of clichés getting thrown around, but they persisted because people liked them and expected them to be subverted in some manner or spun in a new direction. And I won’t lie, it does have a certain charm to it.
I really only got to watch the Bond films live in my teenage years, starting with Pierce Brosnan. There was a healthy gap between Timothy Dalton and Brosnan, and for good reason: the franchise itself was faltering (some rights issues in the early 80s caused some problems) but more importantly the franchise’s bread-and-butter—the Cold War—had just ended. What is Bond going to fight now? Corrupt telecom executives? People who talk in movie theaters?
Actually, that wasn’t too far off: the next few films had villains that involved rogue ex-Soviets (one suspects a hasty re-write on that one), a media mogul, an anarchist and/or oil baron, and blood diamond magnate. Not shabby, I suppose, and it’s not like Bond exclusively fought the reds, but that most wanted list is pretty sad.
Daniel Craig has propelled Bond to be the darker and edgier version of the venerable spy, a direction I’m not sure I care for. They’re interesting movies, to be sure—I haven’t seen the latest two—but the movies were always played with a bit of winking at the camera. Craig not only doesn’t wink, he stares, dry-eyed into the soulless robots that surround him with a scowl. Good on him, he’s pulling it off, but it feels less like Bond and more like a different character. It doesn’t help that the more iconic elements of Bond have been sanded around the edges—the womanizing is downplayed, the substance abuse reeled back, and everyone is working smarter instead of blowing shit up indiscriminately.
Although let’s be honest: a lot of stuff is still getting blowed up. And, really, isn’t that what Bond is all about? Shame the target’s not the Kremlin anymore.