Thursday, July 01, 2004

The Bond Franchise

Switching to movie geek mode, isn't it a shame what's happened to James Bond?

These used to be great spy movies. They had action, intrigue, comedy, suspense, style, and a dashing hero you couldn't help like.

Now, 4 movies deep into the Brosnan era, look at Bond. These movies are like animated versions of Maxim magazine. They've got chicks, they've got cars, they've got gadgets, and they've got stuff blowing up real good.

The modern Bond movies have a total mastery of one element of the Bond formula. They have great action set pieces. Though I could fault them for eschewing believability in exchange for wilder action, I will admit that the modern Bond movie knows how to throw together a good fight and a good chase. It's a far sight better than the lame stage punches Roger Moore used to throw on the cheek of a tightly-turtlenecked Jamaican henchman.

But that, sadly, is the only praise I can give to modern Bond. When Denise Richards, as eminent nuclear physicist Dr. Christmas Jones said, "Excuse meeeee... I don't speak spy." she may as well have been talking about the whole franchise. James Bond stopped speaking spy sometime around when Joe Don Baker was blowing up model tanks in The Living Daylights.

These movies used to be spy thrillers. There used to be intrigue. Double crossings, rogue agents, cold war conspiracies... Remember the brilliant sequence on the train in From Russia With Love? Bond vs. the Russian spy. Each pretending to be someone else. Each having mastered his mannerisms. The Russian orders red wine with fish... The booby trapped suitcases... the fight in the sleeping car...

Now, try to imagine a modern Bond movie having anything half as inventive or interesting as that. Not a chance. 20 minutes on a train? With mostly dialogue? Only a little fighting? Does the train crash into an oil tanker? Is it attacked by armored helicopters? Maybe the Russian spy should have a robotic skeleton!

Nowadays, every new Bond movie has only one objective, to surpass all previous Bond movies with even wilder stunts, bigger action, sexier chicks and faster cars. Really. I don't think a modern Bond scriptwriter is really concerned with anything else at the concept level.

I have nothing against Pierce Brosnan. I even liked Timothy Dalton. They both did a good job with the material they had. But a trip to a Bond movie now is like a trip to a stunt show. You can sense the impatience in any scene where firearms aren't being used. Exposition is a distraction, something to be gotten through quickly on the way to the next exotic location. The obligatory briefing with M feels like a begrudged ritual more than a part of the story. You can tell that the director wanted to cut the scene of Bond flirting with Moneypenny but someone reminded him that it was part of the "tradition".

All right. It's not too late for Bond. He's immortal. Here are a few modest suggestions to revitalize a great franchise.

1) The Broccoli family (who control Bond and have final creative authority on any script) should let someone else with new ideas take a crack at Bond. Call Steven Soderberg, or Tarantino or Spielberg, or any great director and say "Hey, want to make a Bond movie? It's all yours." I think they'd be surprised at the number of great directors who would love to make a Bond movie. The worst case scenario is that you'd end up with an oddball Bond movie that sucked. But even that's better than a average Maxim-style Bond movie that sucks.

2) Someone floated the idea of setting a new Bond movie in the 60s. Hey, that works for me.

3) Come up with some story arcs that span out slowly over 4-6 movies. Each movie would stand on its own, but figure into a larger plot. Pretty much like what they did with Spectre in the Connery era.

4) Take the action down a notch. Oh don't get me wrong, there should still be great action and plenty of it; but bring it down from the stratosphere into, say, the troposphere. No more Bond driving motorcycles off of cliffs to catch up with plummeting cargo planes. No more Bond trying to outrun an avalanche on a snowmobile. If you bring the action down from total fantasy to semi-believability, it actually gets more compelling.

5) Believe it or not, there's plenty of room for originality within the Bond formula. Spend some time on the story. Spend time crafting the characters. When Mission Impossible with Tom Cruise is beating Bond in the story department, you know you have work to do.

I guess there's more, and I'd welcome any comments (not that MGM is listening) - but that's basically an overview of what's wrong with Bond.

"I thought Christmas only came once a year!" uuuuugggghhhhhh.....

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