Today, on what we're told is James Bond Day, with Skyfall just about a month out, it's a good time to reflect on the hopes and expectations that come with an actor's third turn as James Bond. These expectations aren't particularly warranted or realistic, but ever since brassy Shirley Bassey started belting a particular theme song in 1964, Bond fans have been conditioned to think that the third entry has to be Bigger! Better! Bolder! And as the Observer Effect kicked in, the producers of the franchise seemed to know it as well, and responded (or at least attempted to respond) accordingly.
Each Bond star's legacy seems to live or die on their third entry, and Skyfall appears to be no exception; not only does Eon need to raise the bar after the disappointing Quantum of Solace, they need to measure up to the series' touchstones and deliver Daniel Craig's BIG Bond film (on the franchise's 50th anniversary, no less). Let's see just what it is the film needs to match.
It has to be said: Goldfinger (1964) screwed everything up. It's the film where everything in the Bond formula gels, and the franchise is truly born. And for decades it's been an albatross hanging around the series' neck. It's because of Goldfinger that the producers jettisoned the often quite varied plots of the Ian Fleming novels, content to make film after bloated film of Bond vs. some diabolical madman, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. Over and over, for 40 years.
The elements had been gathering since the start: Dr. No had a power-mad megalomaniac with nukes; From Russia With Love had a modestly tricked-out suitcase from Q branch and the absolute gold standard of evil henchmen, Red Grant (Robert Shaw). But Goldfinger is where the Bond Formula really came together, beginning with a memorable pre-title sequence that has sweet FA to do with the rest of the plot. Dr. No didn't have a pre-title sequence; From Russia With Love's "PTS" teased the story to come. Goldfinger is the reason we think of the Bond PTS as a separate little mini-adventure, unshackled from the rest of the narrative. Goldfinger's PTS is a cheap bit of action, ultimately, but coasts on cool, packed as it is with future trademarks of the series: editor Peter Hunt's patented jump-cut fight scenes, a time bomb explosion, a little bit of flesh pressing with a local vixen, Bond wearing a dinner jacket under a wet suit, and of course, the patented puns which plagued the series for years to come. And we hadn't even gotten to the theme song by this point!
Those first few moments, followed by the all time greatest Bond theme, are in this writer's opinion a good chunk of the reason Goldfinger is often called the "best" Bond. The other major contribution to the film's legacy is Q's presentation (and Bond's subsequent use of) the Aston Martin DB5. Desmond Llewellyn gets to shine, the now-mandatory "Q scene" is born, and as Q unveils the car's special features, we're all too happy to spend the rest of the film waiting for Bond to engage those gadgets. And wait we do! Other writers have often pointed out that more than any other Bond film, Goldfinger has scene after scene of 007, man of action, standing, sitting or lying around listening to other people talk, and generally not doing much. There's also a fairly lengthy golf game where Bond gets to size up his opponent, following an introductory scene where we learn our sinister antagonist...CHEATS AT CARDS! Then there's the third act, nearly all of which Bond spends as Goldfinger's passive prisoner. It's an odd structure for an action blockbuster, and an odder structure for the producers to spend decades emulating.
So there's quite a bit of non-action in between moments of pointing lasers at Connery's dick and shooting Chinamen out of the Aston Martin with the ejector seat. Loyalists might argue that we're meant to get by on Connery's portrayal, and while it's definitely the goods, it should be noted that even by his third entry, Connery's starting to look a bit bored. That points up an interesting (and, one supposes, subjective) trend: every Bond actor's best performance is their first. It's nowhere near the best film in his run, but Connery was never as cool and dangerous as he was in Dr. No. Roger Moore only got less and less interesting after Live and Let Die, the one film where he seemed completely engaged and not terribly, terribly past his prime. Timothy Dalton only got two tries at bat, but his first turn as Bond is his best. Goldeneye is the one where Brosnan comes out swinging. And as of this writing, at least, the theory holds true of Daniel Craig, who was so good in Casino Royale that he coasted right through the underwhelming Quantum of Solace and still has fans excited for Skyfall.
With Connery's Bond kicking back for much of Goldfinger's running time, the supporting players must pick up the slack, which is where the baddies come in. Auric Goldfinger is a colorful enough villain - physically easy to dislike, pompous, utterly without charm. And he's augmented by his even more larger-than-life lackeys: Odd Job, a character somehow still fondly remembered as anything other than a racist caricature, and Pussy Galore, a lesbian firecracker whom Bond "cures." Or maybe rapes. (Debate in the comments section below. I will say that the movie considerably tones down the book's more offensive version of both of these characters.)
The film's finale cements the formula with Goldfinger's master plot (nuke the entire US gold supply in Fort Knox to increase the value of his own stash), an all-out battle between armies of soldiers and henchmen, and audience-rousing deaths for all the bad guys. (Again, though, it has to be pointed out that Bond does nothing to save the day; a government scientist has to disarm the bomb for him with seconds to go.) As the credits roll, the franchise is truly born, and just about every Bond film after, for better or worse, has its roots in things that were started in Goldfinger.
With any franchise, it's not long before fresh spins become expectations, expectations become traditions, and traditions becomes stale cliches. And The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) is FILLED with such cliches. What was fun and novel in 1964 has by 1977 become action movie comfort food - the megalomaniac villain, the global threat, the jumpsuited army of evil henchman. The Spy Who Loved Me is maybe one of the most cliche-ridden films in the series, its reputation today getting by on the fond memories of that great ski jump, the classic theme song, the underwater car and Jaws. Everything else in the film, Bond included, feels generic as hell. It's the generic part that grates the most; Moore plays Bond in what's perhaps the most daring cinematic decade of the century. It's a decade that could have given us a Bond film by anyone from Steven Spielberg to Robert Fuest to John Boorman - a true spectrum of visionaries. But what does that decade yield for Bond? Four movies of 007 resting on his laurels in a franchise that went from the epitome of cool to something your parents dragged you to see.
As flawed as they are, Moore's first two entries, Live And Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun, earn points simply for trying something different. They pair him with a hillbilly sheriff! (Twice!) They put him in Harlem! Q isn't even in Live and Let Die! Lots of messing around with the formula as Eon tries to figure out Moore's Bond. The problem is that what they eventually figured out is Moore is a droll and boring protagonist. Moore has his fans, those preferring the lighter touch of his gentleman spy take on Bond. But Moore's a bitter pill to swallow if you're predisposed toward Ian Fleming's original take - a depressed, hard-drinking depressive who is often described by the writer as looking out of place in polite society. While Connery wasn't exactly that, he was close. In contrast, Moore's more user-friendly take on Bond is a void, all arched eyebrows, smarmy puns and one-liners as dry as his martinis.
Retreating to the safety of the Goldfinger formula, The Spy Who Loved Me often feels like mimicry. Not helping matters is Stromberg, an absolute bore of a villain with a dopey plan that makes zero sense. But one senses the producers need to give Moore his Goldfinger (especially after reviews for The Man With The Golden Gun claimed "James Bond is dead"), so they ramp everything up and what you get IS the quintessential Roger Moore entry. Production designer Ken Adam is firing on all cylinders here, and the film's got one of the best themes, courtesy of Marvin Hamlisch, Carole Bayer Sager and Carly Simon (Moore's run really shines in the song department - only three Bond songs were nominated for Oscars, all during Moore's stretch). The Bond Girls in The Spy Who Loved Me are flat-out gorgeous; you'll not hear a negative word from this writer about Caroline Munro. But while Barbara Bach is equally lovely, as a performer she's never really up to the task of pulling off her role as a Russian agent with a mad-on for Bond (he's killed her lover and she wants revenge).
The spectacular opening ski chase, when you get down to it, has a little too much blue-screen work, and never comes anywhere near the epic ski scenes of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. No, much like the rest of The Spy Who Loved Me, the pre-title sequence is fondly remembered due to one moment: an insane ski jump off a cliff, followed by an eternal drop, culminating in the legitimately great Union Jack parachute reveal. It's without question the most iconic moment in Roger Moore's tenure - and it's stuntman Rick Sylvester doing it. That's indicative of Moore's entire run; his Bond has some great moments, but they're all carried out by other people. When you think of just about every other Bond, they earned their legendary status in moments where they're, you know, actually onscreen. Roger Moore's Bond stands on the shoulders of stuntmen and skydivers and engineers who figured out how to make cars do barrel rolls, and by the time we get to his third entry, Moore's credibility as an action hero is all but out the window. He's there to wear the tuxedo and utter the puns.
Timothy Dalton is the best Bond who never got a "great" Bond film. The Living Daylights was a respectable effort and an overall enjoyable entry, but the script still had one foot stuck in Roger Moore Land, so for every moment of badass reinvention, there's a reaction shot of a bird doing a double take, or a creaky one-liner that looks as if it pains Dalton to say it. His second go-round, 1989's Licence To Kill, moved into darker territory by lifting the maiming of Felix Leiter from the Fleming novel Live and Let Die to send Bond on a vendetta, and generally confining the action to familiar late '80s drug cartel territory.
It didn't pan out so well: after going up against Batman, Ghostbusters 2 and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and losing, Licence To Kill would be the last Bond film released during the summer season. EON cut ties with long-time Bond screenwriter Richard Maibaum and director John Glen and commissioned a 17 page treatment for Timothy Dalton's third Bond film, eyeing a late 1991 release and announcing it with some promotional displays at Cannes (see above). Dalton was verbally on board, and the curious shortlist of directors included Ted Kotcheff (First Blood, Wake in Fright), John Landis (who'd done some uncredited rewrite work on The Spy Who Loved Me), and John Byrum (who was sitting in director jail after his Bill Murray vanity project The Razor's Edge tanked).
For a long while fans claimed this treatment, written by Michael G. Wilson and television writer Alfonse M. Ruggiero Jr. (Airwolf, Wiseguy) was to be called The Property Of A Lady (one of the few remaining unused Ian Fleming titles), but this was never more than rumor. Anthony Hopkins was in talks to play a villain; Whoopi Goldberg (Dalton's squeeze at the time) was mentioned for a villainess role. This planned Bond 17 featured Dalton's 007 pursuing a global terrorist through Scotland, Hong Kong, Tokyo and mainland China, and would have had the master spy going up against the Yakuza, joining forces with a sexy cat burglar and, according to some reports, getting into a third act throwdown with a beautiful henchwoman named "Nan" who turns out to be a robot. Mercifully, MGM fell into some financial trouble around this time, delaying the project for three years.
By the time MGM got their shit together, the 1991 treatment was scrapped and a new script, Goldeneye, was turned in by Michael France. Dalton's Goldeneye was quite a different animal than Pierce Brosnan's eventual film: Bond is still a smoker, reports to a male M and generally plays a bit angrier. The villain is also bit different; this draft presents former double-oh turned baddie Alec Trevelyan straightaway, then reveals his shared history with Bond about 30 minutes in; the 1995 Brosnan vehicle introduces Trevalyan as an active MI6 agent in the pre-title sequence, and hangs onto the villain reveal a good bit longer. For reasons never fully disclosed, Dalton politely turned down Goldeneye, and the producers quickly snapped up the previously unavailable Pierce Brosnan.
Apologies, but I have to jump into first person to explain my disdain for the Brosnan run, because I have to acknowledge that it's largely my own hangup. There's just something about '90s action that leaves me cold. I know some people refer to certain '90s movie summers as their "1982," but my 1982 was 1982. When I see the '90s I see an industry happily benching its Walter Hills, Joe Dantes and Nicholas Meyers for more generic content generators by whom I was too old to be imprinted. It didn't help that as this new wave sanded the teeth off mainstream entertainment, they existed in contrast to the rise of folks like Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino and other cinematic shots in the arm.
So the mainstream '90s felt to me like a flavorless, personality-free supermarket shelf, and Pierce Brosnan's Bond films were the Hydrox cookies. It's not Brosnan's fault; just two years after leaving the role we saw a glimpse of the kind of fun for which Brosnan was down in 2004's The Matador. And he did well in The Long Good Friday at the start of the '80s. But in 1995 poor Brosnan inherited a limping franchise, struggling to reinvent itself in a new decade, and as it chased cinematic trends, the franchise moved further and further away from the wonky spirit of the early films. To keep up with a largely toothless decade, the franchise happily turned in its choppers under Brosnan's run, offering up a quartet of plastic greatest hits albums with a blow-dried, cardboard avatar at their center.
Still, The World Is Not Enough (1999) has its merits: a classic-sounding theme song from Garbage; a Fleming-esque villain in Renard, a sadistic terrorist on borrowed time and immune to pain due to a bullet in the brain; and a plot twist involving the villain and the love interest that Christopher Nolan seems to have really, really liked. But the last Bond film of the 20th century too often feels like a hollow adaptation of a video game, with an over-reliance on gadgets, one-liners and some seriously questionable casting in the form of Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist. In aiming to give Brosnan his Goldfinger, the copy of a copy lost its focus, and simply came out fuzzy and distorted. Perhaps that (along with the franchise's 40th anniversary) is why they tried again to give Brosnan his Epic Bond Movie with Die Another Day, which is an even more bloated scrapbook of Bond moments, taking the series into its most ridiculous space since Moonraker. The film stuck Brosnan's 007 into an invisible car and, alas, buried him in it.
Now we're on the eve of release for the latest member of the spotty "big third film" club. Skyfall must compete not only with the some of series' most popular entries, but with our collective memories, biases and baggage. Everything we've seen and heard so far suggests the filmmakers know this; as we look at this moment from the pre-title sequence, here's hoping they deliver.