(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2003)
Nowadays, there are more movie “franchises” than any of us can count, but before Star Wars there was only one – James Bond. Growing up in the UK in the early 70s, I remember a new Bond movie as a genuine event, and so was the traditional Christmas Day TV Bond film (there were only three channels, so a huge audience was guaranteed). Roger Moore was the epitome of a movie star at the time. Now there’s come career mismanagement for you. I just looked him up on the Internet Movie Database and scanned his recent list of work. The last time I saw that much obscure junk was when I cleaned out the closet.
A life with Bond
Back then I went along with the excitement when it seemed appropriate, but I don’t remember ever really being that big a Bond fan. I’m not a huge action aficionado by nature (of course, as a kid you’d tend to keep this kind of reservation to yourself), and even then, I think the repetitiveness of the format was a bit wearisome to me. Moore was the kind of upper-crust Englishman who left me cold, and Connery, with his remarkable Untouchables-inspired resurgence still years ahead of him, was yesterday’s man. I was too young for the women to be a major compensation, although I do seem to remember Barbara Bach making a distinct impression on me in The Spy who Loved Me. But she also epitomizes how the movies were barely fending off official schlock status – in the Moore era they were full of people like Britt Ekland and Richard Kiel and Corinne Clery, actors whose natural playing ground was cheap Euro-trash, and in some cases soft porn.
By the end of the Moore era I wasn’t paying attention at all, and although Timothy Dalton was less of a walking joke than Moore was at the end, the movies didn’t get much better. Pierce Brosnan has been a good Bond I guess, but I couldn’t tell you a single thing about any of his three films. The last one, The World is Not Enough, seemed to me to lack a single distinguishing feature. I only saw it in the first place because I was stuck in St. Albert, Alberta for Christmas with nothing better to do, and that wasn’t the case this year, so I was assuming I’d give the 20th and latest entry, Die Another Day, a miss.
But then the reviews came out, and were pretty good, and the prospect of a Bond movie directed by Lee Tamahori, the guy who made Once Were Warriors, and with Halle Berry (I’m somewhat better able to appreciate those compensations now) piqued my interest. So I went for it. And I’m glad I did. It’s the best Bond movie for a long time – perhaps since the 60s.
Die Another Day
I must admit though that my reasons for saying this are largely rooted in matters arguably antithetical to the Bond concept – Die Another Day comes close to being the Bond movie for people who don’t like Bond. Following a typically high-voltage opening sequence, he’s caught and thrown into a North Korean jail, where he’s confined and tortured for over a year. The West trades him out, but he’s suspected of having broken under pressure, and he’s thrown aside, his license revoked. On the trail of whomever set him up, he makes his way to Cuba, where Berry emerges from the ocean in her already iconic orange bikini. One scene later, she’s in bed with him.
The opening stretches strip the character pretty comprehensively of his superhuman qualities, before gradually allowing most of it back in. But even then, the movie contains several moments where Bond needs a major assist to save his skin, and Berry is a much more equal partner than most of the women who’ve gone before her (although she’s still a bit under-utilized). Her first scene with Bond is, in a way, a typical piece of glib double-entendre, but because we know Bond is still shaky from his ordeal (and that he hasn’t had an action for well over a year) and because she’s so much more assured from the norm, it carries a different dynamic than we’re used to. When we find out she’s an agent as well, their relationship takes on the rather desperate, needy air of two people who can only admit to each other their fear and isolation. Not that the movie, of course, gets quite that explicit about it.
I could actually follow the plot of Die Another Day, and I don’t know when the last time was I could say that about a Bond film. The film has an excellent second female character and a few action sequences that are impressive even by modern standards (I was especially taken by the car chase inside the melting ice palace). So on this occasion, I was a satisfied customer. It occurs to me that this may be the film’s greatest skill – to have tweaked the formula just enough that even an old skeptic like me can swallow it. Well, after forty years, they ought to have the audience manipulation thing nailed by now.
Since we’re talking franchise movies, I’ll report as well that I went to see Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. On this occasion I had the advantage (or not), very rare for me, of having read the book – albeit in French (very slowly, over a period of many months with frequent detours to the dictionary – but I stuck with it!) Maybe it loses in translation, but the book seemed to me a bit of a mess – certainly it’s not the most artful of structures.
This problem is carried wholesale into the movie. Most critics regard Chamber of Secrets as an improvement on the first film, but I really can’t see why. I thought the first film was kept aloft by a boy’s sense of wonder and discovery, but maybe that’s because in that instance I hadn’t read the book. The second film has a businesslike air that leaves most of the characters on the sidelines (even Hermione, supposedly a key character, has almost no functional role and what feels like barely more than ten lines). It improves on the book in some ways through simple compression, but ends up feeling just as arbitrary. Much more than the first, I think this movie is only for the fans. Others have already started looking ahead to the third film, which is to be directed by Alfonso Cuaron, the director of Y tu Mama tambien. They expect a harder-edged Harry Potter movie, which would certainly be better art, and may well be a shrewd move in terms of protecting the franchise.