Whilst he may be a British institution, 007 doesn’t always come across in the best light. Our Farmer Luke looks at why James Bond is a terrible spy.
Last year as her main Christmas present, I bought my girlfriend the complete James Bond box set. An odd present to by one’s girlfriend, you might say, but she’s a bigger fan of Bond than I am. As such, there have been numerous evenings where we have indulged in the wrangling of Britain’s most famous spy, re-watching all but the truly risible. Yet, with the recent build up to Skyfall, I couldn’t help wondering (whilst watching The World is Not Enough, one of my least favourite Bond outings) that, during all of his incarnations prior to Daniel Craig’s tenure, James Bond, for all his swagger, gadgets, shootouts and shagging, is actually a truly rubbish secret agent.
A bold statement for sure, especially considering the pedigree the name of Bond carries but, when compared to other screen and literature counterparts, he’s all flash and no substance. This is, of course, a sweeping generalisation for the entire 007 brand as, in amongst all the plot contrivances and reprehensible character beats, there is occasionally some thought provoking entertainment to be had, yet these examples, until recently, have been few and far between.
James Bond, whilst being the most famous fictional spy, is quite possibly the least professional when compared to his espionage brethren. Just take a brief look at his contemporaries: you have George Smiley, Harry Palmer and, most crucially, Jason Bourne. Smiley and Palmer (of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Ipcress File respectively) represent what you would call the old fashioned spy. Whilst this is true of their conception (both characters were conceived in the 60’s), both also represent figures of their time, as both fought their relative campaigns during the height of the Cold War. Whilst I can’t say much of the literary take on Palmer as I have not read any of the books, the film incarnation (played by Michael Caine) has more in common with George Smiley in that their most useful weapon is their brain. There is very little of what we would now call “modern” technology, just a high IQ and an impeccable ability of detection.
For my money, this kind of labyrinthine scheming and plotting is far more thrilling than the car chases, gun fights and gadget porn found with Bond. Anyone who has seen the recent Gary Oldman adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy can testify to the sheer density of its plotting (which, surprisingly, is far less complex than its source novel) and whilst it will lose many by the half hour mark, there is something infinitely more satisfying in seeing such complexities satisfactorily pay off (and on a more superficial note, it made me feel clever at having understood what was taking place).
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the hyper modern Jason Bourne (The Bourne Identity/Supremacy/Ultimatum). We have this gent directly to blame for the new direction that Craig era Bond has taken, not only due to the series’s popularity but the fact that Bourne showed just how desperately out of date the character of James Bond is. I personally have little love for The Bourne Identity (I felt the series immediately improved when Paul Greengrass became involved) but it’s hard not to be both impressed and intimidated by this piece of dialogue:
“I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs two hundred fifteen pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab or the gray truck outside, and at this altitude, I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking. Now why would I know that? How can I know that and not know who I am?”
It’s the first insight the audience has into how Jason Bourne’s mind works, how literally everything he sees, hears and touches is immediately analysed and calculated. He is a machine who is not only frighteningly intelligent, but ruthlessly efficient.
Compare this, then, to the opening of Goldfinger where upon seducing an attractive woman, Bond soon plays a game of fisticuffs with a non-descript henchman before electrocuting him to death in a bathtub. As the man lies dead at the hands of this “gentleman spy”, Bond leaves the vicinity, smirk in tow, and says: “Shocking. Positively shocking.”
Now forgive this writer of being a grumpy old man, but Bond’s very behaviour during this scene causes me to greatly dislike him. Firstly, he walks into a room where a young lady happens to be bathing, whereupon he pounces (not literally) with the intent of getting his dick wet. Secondly, when our requisite bad man appears, Bond dispatches him with little to no regard for the safety or wellbeing of the lady with whom, just moments ago, he was raring to do the horizontal beep-bop. And, to top it off, he has to make a quick pun (remember, there’s a smirk there too) whilst casually walking away from the man he’s just murdered. Am I the only one who feels this is the work of an absolute dick? A callous asshole who fails to take the gravity of his job and, therefore, his actions seriously?
There’s an excellent exchange during the equally excellent Goldeneye (one of the few films where Bond comes off as a fairly decent man) where M accuses Bond of being “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War.” – and she’s right on the money. Bond rarely treats women with respect or shows any empathy when they’re killed. In fact, many of those that perish often die due to his direct or indirect actions, regardless of their affiliations or innocence.
Take Moonraker, where Bond seduces Hugo Drax’s personal assistant all for the purposes of information only for her to be torn apart by dogs once Drax learns of her betrayal. In fact, one of the only women with which he shows any remorse of her death was his wife, where she is killed by Blofeld at the end of On Her Majesty’ Secret Service. This adds further insult to injury as Bond continues his womanising ways after his beloved’s death yet we’re to feel sympathy for him whenever the painful memory is revisited. No Mr. Bond, I do not feel the least bit sorry when her memory is all but forgotten by the time you’ve met your next fuck buddy.
Amongst all this, we have Daniel Craig who, for my money, is the best Bond to date. After the sheer lunacy of Die Another Day, it was very welcome to not just see the franchise take a change in pace but to heed audience demand and ground the character in something resembling reality. What many fail to grasp is that Craig is not explicit in the role. He retains a level of Bond’s sociopathic tendencies yet there is little of the arrogance or pleasure in his job. Taking a leaf of the book of Jason Bourne (his influence is all over the recent outings), Bond has the charm but he is cold and ruthless, and is more effected by his actions than any previous incarnation. There are few quippy one liners and, during the events of Quantum of Solace, we see the spy become the most unhinged he’s ever been, executing folk without due provocation.
We also see him more as a man rather than a brand. Rather than presenting the spy life as being all glitz, we see the real dangers of the job both physically and psychologically, a feat that has only worked due to Craig’s perceived vulnerability. There is a man in James Bond, he’s just hidden behind the facade of a calculated killing machine.
With the recent Bond output, I have high hope that, whilst Daniel Craig is our leading man, that there will be an equal measure of reality amongst the franchise trademarks. Sam Mendes, director of Skyfall, has been keen to reintroduce the jet-setting, gadgets and super-villains. In fairness, they’ve never actually left, they’ve just been handled expertly since Casino Royale.
The review for Skyfall will appear on the farm in due course. In the interim, I’ll reserve judgement on Skyfall and on Bond until I see the film myself.
Just keep it real Daniel, that’s all I ask.