I’ll lay my cards on the table: I have a sneaky nostalgic fondness for Bond movies, but I can’t say I have a great deal of respect for them. They’re the movie equivalent of one of Bond’s one night stands. I think Connery is the archetypal Bond, that Brosnan was actually pretty decent, and I regard otherwise sane people who think that Roger Moore is the best 007 with the kind of suspicion I normally reserve for Born Again Christians. It’s not that James Bond can’t be an overweight middle-aged lounge lizard who appears to be starring in a spin-off from Cannonball Run, but…
It’s also fair to say that there are few truly great Bond movies. As with the Carry On films, the moments that you love may be found in a truly dire movie and watching a Bond movie tends to involve sifting the good from the bad; admiring the parts not the whole. The formulaic nature of the films lends them to this method of viewing: you can happily admire Bond Villain A, but prefer Bond Girl B and Bond Finale C and they can all slot happily together in your head to form one really good Bond movie with the joins hardly showing at all.
All of which entirely pointless preamble leads me to the latest Bond movie, which is probably the best instalment since the 1960s. Most importantly it feels like a complete film, not merely the latest episode in a long-running and rather formulaic TV series. It reinvents the franchise in a form which is marginally but importantly less grandiose: the villains are more mundane, the stakes smaller, the stunts more realistic. We get occasional nods to the cheesy puns and contrivances of the past, but always with a faint sense of irony and distance. This film is not quite in the same genre as those films, and yet it doesn’t sacrifice that all-important sense of nostalgic familiarity (something the Timothy Dalton movies never quite achieved).
James Bond himself is reinvented in the same fashion. He’s recognisably the same man on the surface – cool, suave, womanising – but this time we get to see slightly deeper. Bond is allowed to have an inner life beyond the usual collection of catchphrases and shtick. He’s a human being, one who may have near superhuman endurance but who is revealed to be fallible; never quite as cool nor suave nor irresistible as he likes to think. For me this make him a far more compelling individual, one with whom it’s possible to empathise as he takes a pounding (which he does, repeatedly and eye-wateringly). Any Bond who can ruefully chuckle as his best chat-up line crashes and burns is a significant reinvention of the character. Although he picks up many of the familiar toys and mental tricks over the course of the film (much like Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins) he remains an altogether more charismatic incarnation of the character; which is ironic since this Bond is by far the most brutal killer we’ve seen in many a year. I lay full credit at the door of Daniel Craig who takes a good-but-not-great script, seizes the character by the scruff of the neck, and resolves the contradictions in Bond’s character in a wholly compelling performance.
This unusual depth is mirrored in the film’s “Bond Girl”, although the tag doesn’t really seem to suit Vesper Lynd since although Eva Green may wear a cocktail dress extremely well she’s allowed to be nearly as perceptive and interesting as Bond himself; indeed it’s only through her that we get to ‘skewer’ as much of Bond’s personality as we do.
The film’s major weakness is that it’s a little poorly structured at times. Although the plot meanders from one location to another with more than the usual semblance of logic, it reaches its natural end point and then continues. Even this reinvigorated film can’t shake off our expectations sufficiently to convince us that the last twenty minutes is going to be occupied by Bond enjoying a relaxing holiday. As a result we’re left waiting impatiently for the inevitable last-minute twist. But really this film is such an improvement over most Bond output of the last thirty years that it’s difficult to complain.