Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Best Bond

I am frequently annoyed with Roger Ebert - not because he's consistently bad, but because he's right often enough for it to be that much more galling when he's wrong. This is one of those times.

It's a long story how I ended up reading his review for The Living Daylights, so let me just say that I think it sums up nicely (and completely unintentionally) what's right about this movie and wrong about the rest of the miserable Bond series.

First, full disclosure: I haven't seen Casino Royale yet, though I'm given to understand it's quite good. So it's possible that in a couple of days (when I've seen it), I'll be able to say I honestly liked three Bond films. At the time of writing, I only really like two of them: the aforementioned The Living Daylights and On Her Majesty's Secret Service. More about this latter some other time.

Most casual Bond fans will object that these are the two least "Bond" movies in the series. But that is rather the point: the series as a whole is a fraud. And it's a fraud for exactly the reasons that Ebert gives for finding The Living Daylights unimpressive:

[newly-cast Timothy] Dalton is rugged, dark and saturnine, and speaks with a cool authority. We can halfway believe him in some of his scenes. And that's a problem, because the scenes are intended to be preposterous. The best Bond movies always seem to be putting us on, to be supplying the most implausible and dangerous stunts in order to assure us they can't possibly be real.

No, Ebert you moron, that's what SUCKS about the "best" Bond movies. That's why they're a waste of time: because they can't get over themselves. I mean, this is a really perceptive comment in its way - it just happens to draw the wrong conclusion. It's true that most Bond movies go out of their way to be preposterous - just to remind you that none of this could possibly ever happen in reality - and that's the problem with them. A good thriller is meant to entertain, not flatter the audience's faux sense of sophistication by allowing it to pat itself on the back for its post-modern sensibilities! What you want in a good thriller is - well, granted, not something realistic on its face (the whole point is that it's a fantasy, after all), but something that can at least distract you for a time. If it constantly draws attention to the fact that it's not real, then how can you possibly be distracted? The magic of movies is that they're an all-out assault on the senses. We get completely, passively, drawn in and can forget, for two hours, that what we're seeing isn't actually happening. I'm not aware of a single movie-goer who likes to be constantly reminded he's in a dirty theater with smelly other people watching color patterns on a screen!

In the sense Ebert points out here, the Bond movies are like that annoying friend everyone seems to have - the one who's a geek, but kinda ashamed of it, and so is constantly apologizing for the shit he likes. I think: if you're going to be a geek, just be one. And, well, if you're going to make a thriller movie, just make one for cryin' out loud! Spare me all the sophistico bullshit, please!

I guess my real objection here is to the (unstated, but strongly implied) idea that thriller movies have to be enjoyed with wink and an apology. They do not. They can be enjoyed in the same way any movie can be enjoyed; there is no golden rule saying, as one of my ex-girlfriends (and rabid Bond film fan) maintains, that they have to be evaluated solely on the basis of their explosions. Maybe this is shocking to the "I'm ashamed to enjoy myself in public" crowd - but a good thriller movie happens when you combine a good (read: complicated) action-oriented plot with believable characters. That's exactly what The Living Daylights gives us.

Dalton's Bond is the best I've seen mostly because he really is James Bond - i.e. the Bond Fleming wrote about, not the imposter Sean Connery played. Bond in the books - in addition to being a suave womanizer (Connery got the womanizer part right by accident - he happens to be really sexy. What most people seem to think of as "suave" with him, though, just seems goofy to me.) - is cold. He's had a hard life and lacks the ability to form real connections with people. THAT's what makes him a badass - and what makes it believable that he's so completely self-reliant. Connery's Bond might as well have sprung from the foamy sea fully-formed on the half-shell. I'm not sure what it is, but it certainly isn't human.

Bond is also meant to be neutral, ordinary. From a Reader's Digest interview with Fleming (source: James Bond: The Man and His World by John Murray):

I wanted the simplest, dullest, plainest-sounding name I could find, 'James Bond' was much better than something more interesting, like 'Peregrine Carruthers' . Exotic things would happen to and around him, but he would be a neutral figure - an anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a Government Department.

Dalton's understated, gritty-yet-aloof performance captures this perfectly. Sean Connery, by contrast, might as well walk into the room naked juggling basoons. The whole problem with him is that you can't forget he's there, not even for a little bit.

As for the plot:

The plot of the new movie is the usual grab bag of recent headlines and exotic locales. Bond, who is assigned to help a renegade Russian general defect to the West, stumbles across a plot involving a crooked American arms dealer, the war in Afghanistan and a plan to smuggle a half-billion dollars worth of opium. The story takes Bond from London to Prague, from mountains to deserts, from a chase down the slopes of Gibraltar to a fight that takes place while Bond and his enemy are hanging out of an airplane. The usual stuff.

Um, NO. WRONG. It isn't "the usual stuff," nor is it a "grab-bag." It true that the plot is made up of "recent headlines and exotic locales," but unlike the other Bond movies, these things are blended seamlessly and believably here. There is no megalomaniac trying to blow up the world with a laser from space. Everything that happens seems plausible, and there are good reasons why they end up in the exotic locales they end up in. For once in a Bond movie, I feel like the events on the screen might almost have really happened. Granted, it's not completely free of plotholes. (For example - Koskov tells Kara about Whittaker, even though he knows she's going to be picked up by the KGB for questioning when he disappears? Really???) But for a blockbuster thriller, the story here is surprisingly convincing.

One thing that isn't usual in this movie is Bond's sex life. No doubt because of the AIDS epidemic, Bond is not his usual promiscuous self, and he goes to bed with only one, or perhaps two, women in this whole film.

Actually, this has nothing to do with the AIDS epidemic - it's simply being true to the novels. In real life, Fleming's Bond only slept with one woman per novel as a rule (this was broken only after the movie franchise started - and then it was usually limited to two). That's what Dalton's Bond does here too - there's a central "Bond woman," and he may or may not have slept with the woman on the boat during the opening teaser.

As the only "Bond girl" in the movie, d'Abo has her assignment cut out for her, and unfortunately she's not equal to it. She doesn't have the charisma or the mystique to hold the screen with Bond (or Dalton) and is the least interesting love interest in any Bond film.

Well, yes and no. I thought she was fine, myself. It's true that she's "ordinary" compared to the others - but that's sort of the charm of it. But I won't pick nits here - this may just be a matter of personal taste. Ebert's right that a lot of the others were flashier, but I would add that most of them were completely ridiculous as well. Whatever else she is, Kara is a believable love interest (as was Tracy in On Her Majesty's Secret Service).

There's another problem. The Bond films succeed or fail on the basis of their villains, and Joe Don Baker, as the arms-dealing Whitaker, is not one of the great Bond villains. He's a kooky phony general who plays with toy soldiers and never seems truly diabolical.

And yes, I completely agree. Again - I didn't mind so much because all the "great" Bond villains were so over-the-top it was hard to take them seriously. I prefer Brad Whittaker to the likes of Drax and Blofeld. But it's certainly true that a bit more flair with Whittaker would have helped.

Of course, Ebert is cheating a bit since Whittaker isn't the only villain. There are at least two more - Koskov and Necros - and each is quite interesting in his way. But why let the actual film get in the way of what you want to write, eh?

But the real outrage here isn't the misrepresentation - it's the assumption that the Bond concept is doomed from the start, and that any attempt to deny this will result in failure:

The correct tone for the Bond films was established right at the start, with Sean Connery's quizzical eyebrows and sardonic smile. He understood that the Bond character was so preposterous that only lightheartedness could save him. The moment Bond began to act like a real man in a real world, all was lost.

There's an arrogance here - because Ebert assumes the audience doesn't know that the Bond character is preposterous and has to be constantly reminded of it. In fact, I think few, if any, moviegoers are under the illusion that the stuff on the screen is possible in reality. There's a reason why "don't try this at home, kids" is a cliche: there are maybe as many as 12 people in the real world who believe Superman can fly, and the warning is wasted on them anyway (for the obvious reason that they think people can fly).

A moviegoer goes into the theater to be decieved. There's a tacit contract here. The moviegoer will pretend to believe for the duration of the film IFF the moviemaker will help him along by providing a convincing illusion.

But in "The Living Daylights," there is a scene where Bond and his girlfriend escape danger by sliding down a snow-covered mountain in a cello case, and damned if Dalton doesn't look as if he thinks it's just barely possible.

In other words, Dalton is doing his job. I agree that the scene was preposterous, but Dalton's ability to sell it anyway is a testimony to his acting ability. Ebert should be praising this performance - but instead he's asking Dalton to hedge his bet???

Playing an action scene tongue-in-cheek, the way Connery always did, is cheating, end of story. ANYONE can take something preposterous and let you know it's preposterous. That's not impressive, and you don't need an actor to acomplish it. It's sort of the way any old idiot off the street can flub a magic trick. It doesn't really take skill to get halfway there and then "accidentally" trip on the trap door! What takes skill is keeping the illusion alive - and that's what Dalton does.

Granted, the writers weren't necessarily on board for Dalton's "realistic" take on Bond. Worse than the scene mentioned above is one where a spinning car's rim cuts a circle in the ice covering a lake, sinking the police trooper on top of it. I had a lot of trouble buying this one, and it's unfortunate that the franchise was still suffering from this sort of hangover when Dalton finally graced the screen for them. A sensible criticism of this movie is that it didn't divorce itself more from the franchise's goofy past. But I still think it gets a solid 3.5 stars for honest effort, even if it's flawed here and there.

What it does NOT suffer from is the lack of humor Ebert derides it for. This is, in fact, its biggest asset.

Self-parody rarely works, and when it does it's usually because it's embedded in something that's overall meant to be serious. We like people who can crack a joke about themselves in good faith, but we also know that people who do nothing but are painfully insecure. On the whole, James Bond is to action thrillers what Southpark is to comedy - generally fun and entertaining, but damned if it doesn't take things too far. Southpark's nevereending quest to make sure they've offended absolutely everyone equally is what comes back to bite them in the ass - because shit isn't funny anymore if it isn't at least a little bit true, if it doesn't draw at least a little blood. When you make sure comedy is "fair," you've sort of missed the point.

Connery-era Bond is like that too. I mean, on the surface it's the ideal male fantasy: there's this confident dude who plays by his own rules and gets all the ladies, plus kicks some serious ass in his time. But this fantasy is useless if you can't take it seriously at least for a little while - and I have always suspected that this, more than Connery, is the reason why so many girls like Bond. The films make it blindingly obvious that no such man exists (or if he did he would be a total goofball), and that makes them feel safe.

I liked The Living Daylights BECAUSE it was believable - at least for the most part. And for those scenes where it wasn't? Well, at least Dalton has the class to suck it up and play it straight. People don't pay to watch thrillers so they can be smugly above them. Well, alright, a lot of people do - but they're missing the point. As Ebert is here. It was a good movie - the best of the Bond movies, in fact. It's what the franchise should have been all along.

I don't want to completely trash Bond, though. Sean Connery was a gas, but he definitely has screen presence (as well as "it," as Fleming's mistress reportedly persuasively put it at his screen test), and several of the movies he was in were a lot of fun (Goldfinger and Dr. No, of course!). But without the all-star player, the whole thing turned to shit, and that says a lot about the concept. Aside from possibly For Your Eyes Only, did Moore even make a good film? Twice the goofiness, none of the sex appeal. Dalton came to fix all that; too bad things didn't work out.

It's been 20 years almost to the day (July 31) since this movie was released. Time to reevaluate, and acknowledge it for the gem it was.


At 1:40 PM, Blogger Juanita's Journal said...

My top three (3) Bond movies are as follows:

1)"On Her Majesty's Secret Service"

2) "Casino Royale"

3) "The Living Daylights"

(For example - Koskov tells Kara about Whittaker, even though he knows she's going to be picked up by the KGB for questioning when he disappears? Really???)

Originally, Koskov had never planned to disappear. But when Pushkin began to get suspicious about him, he made plans to do so. He also made plans to ensure that MI-6 would kill Kara for him, hoping they would believe she was a KGB assassin.

At 1:41 PM, Blogger Juanita's Journal said...

"FOR YOUR EYES ONLY" is number 4 on my list.


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