The Writing Wombat

An American Marsupial in Fiction Land

Month: November, 2015

Taking Stock of the Bonds

Time to weigh in on a controversy I wasn’t aware even existed.

I always thought there were certain universal constants. Some facts or central truths that everyone could more or less agree on. That the Earth rotates around the sun, for instance, or that we should all use the Base-10 numbering system.

Or that Sean Connery is the best James Bond.

But it turns out that that last little tidbit isn’t quite as commonly accepted as counting to ten. I recently observed a conversation between my wife, someone tangentially required to be a Bond fan, and a friend of mine who proudly professes herself as a fan of the franchise. I say I observed this conversation, and did not partake in it, because it would have been hard to enunciate with my jaw upon the floor.

“Who’s your favorite James Bond actor?” the agent of Blofeld friend asked.

“Well, my husband says there’s only one answer to that question,” my wide responded. “I know I’m supposed to say Sean Connery, but I’ve always really liked…”

At this point, I think I blacked out. I tried to focus through the haze in my vision, the buzzards flying through my ears. My wife couldn’t have just listed the worst Bond of all time, the one who had made a mockery of the character and the franchise, as her favorite.

“And for looks alone, you’ve gotta love…”

Did she just do it again? Reference my second-least favorite actor? Has she seen the same movies as me? Is it too late to reference George Lazenby in the Pre-Nup?

So I guess it’s now on me to write the definitive list of the six James Bond actors from best to worst. I won’t countdown from last to first, because there shouldn’t be any suspense at the top of the list. I won’t rank (or even reference) every movie, because if I wanted to write 50,000 words and waste fifty hours of my life, I would’ve just done NoNoWriMo . And even if you put a Golden Gun to my head, I wouldn’t be able to recount what happened in The Man with the Golden Gun.

  1. Sean Connery.

Let me put it simply for anyone that is confused: Sean Connery is James Bond and James Bond is Sean Connery.

Go find a James Bond book. Any book. It doesn’t have to be an Ian Fleming one. Now read a passage and try to envision anyone other than Sean Connery as the person performing those actions. It can’t be done. He is the definitive version.

                Does it help that he went first? Sure. Does it help that he never shot laser beams in space? Absolutely. Does it help that he was named the Sexiest Man Alive twenty years after leaving the role behind, at the age of sixty? That certainly doesn’t hurt.

When you ask a random person to describe James Bond’s traits, the most common answer is suave. That’s all Connery. Despite our little imagination check two paragraphs ago, it’s not how the character was written. Ian Fleming put a certain vulnerability to the character. He was a flawed man in a flawed world.

But the James Bond that we have come to know is a non-powered superhero. The only time he is vulnerable is when a Russian lady is kicking at him with a poisoned knife or if Goldfinger has a laser pointed at his crotch.

And how does Bond react in that laser scene? Roger Moore would have hammed it up with a few puns. Daniel Craig would have stared down Goldfinger until the opponent withered. Pierce Brosnan would’ve just chilled out and waited for a machine gun or explosion to save him because he’s too attractive and cool to die.

But Connery shows his mind racing while his forehead is sweating.

“You expect me to talk?”

“No, Mr. Bond,” Goldfinger responds in one of the greatest lines in cinematic history, “I expect you to die.”

But Connery talks anyway. He uses his wit before resorting to weapons or gadgets or… whatever the hell Roger Moore uses.  What people who grew up with the later Bond actors don’t realize is how understated the character should be.

Some people have said Connery was the least believable Bond in the fight scenes. They’re probably right, but the character isn’t supposed to be a hulking stuntman.

The one major drawback to Connery was that he clearly stopped enjoying it after Thunderball. He kind of mailed in You Only Live Twice, before leaving for one movie and coming back for Diamonds are Forever. And really, we can’t blame him for that last one.

  1. Daniel Craig. I haven’t seen SPECTRE yet, and if it’s as good as Skyfall, I might be willing to put Daniel Craig as 1a.

Remember what I said about Connery creating the movie version of Bond, but not following the book version? Well it took fifty years, but someone finally played the literary James Bond, and that’s Daniel Craig.

The character is supposed to be dark. He should be focused on the task at hand. He should always be wanting out of his lifestyle, but knowing there is no way out. If he’s ever reckless, it’s because he assumes his own mortality, not because he’s an invincible, cavalier playboy.

The definitive Daniel Craig exchange happens not long into his first movie.

“Do you want it shaken or stirred?”

“Do I look like I give a damn?”

Oh, snap! Did he just pull the rug out from every other actor? Because he’s right, James Bond should never have been focused on how his martini is watered down. He’s got way too fucking many things to keep track of and keep his eyes on.

I’ll be honest, when I first heard there was going to be a blond Bond, I thought it was a horrible idea. They should all look as close to the source as possible. But by the time his third movie rolled around, I couldn’t imagine anyone taking over for him.  I fear whoever’s next might get the Lazenby treatment.

In fact, I would have loved to see Sean Connery play the caretaker in Skyfall. Even though Albert Finney did a great job, It’s obvious the roll was written with Sir Sean in mind.  It would’ve been a cool bury the hatchet/pass the baton moment, but alas, it was not to be.

Allegedly, one of the myriad of reasons they didn’t pursue Connery for the roll was that they didn’t want the sideshow to distract from the main actor. And while that would have been an issue for any other Bond actor, I think Daniel Craig could have held his own starring against Sean Connery. Hell, he held his own against Judi Dench, the best M in history.

My only hope is that Craig is serious about not coming back for a fifth movie. If he wanted to come back, I’d welcome him back. But if he ends up coming back only for the money, he might be tempted to mail it in.

  1. Timothy Dalton. This will be the first surprise on the list for most people.

Timothy Dalton only had two movies, and one of them might be the worst Bond movie of all time. But he was a precursor to Daniel Craig, someone who gave Bond the seriousness and gravitas he deserves, but at a time when people had come to expect nothing but camp from the character.

I feel sorry for Timothy Dalton, as he came into the franchise at a horrible time. Not only was the Cold War wrapping up, but the rights to the character were going through legal issues. The six-year gap between License to Kill and GoldenEye almost killed the franchise.

But it wasn’t Dalton’s fault.

In fact, I’ll put The Living Daylights up as one of the top five or six Bond movies of all time. The Living Daylights had it all. Just enough gadgets and explosions without going overboard. A James Bond that is unflappable and smooth.

Then came License to Kill. Ugh. It was 1989, and although the Wall hadn’t come down when they filmed it, the whole glasnost and perestroika thing was going on. How could they make Gorby the bad guy?

So instead, they made it a personal vendetta story. Yes,  I like my Bond dark, just like my coffee. But a rogue agent stalking and killing someone without the backing of the British Secret Service? That’s not dark roast, that’s ground-infested sludge. Bond is a secret agent, not an assassin.

So there’s Dalton for you – one really good movie, one horrible movie, then a legal battle which ensured he couldn’t prove which one was really him. It’s worth noting that Quantum of Solace was Daniel Craig’s second, and worst, film. How much higher esteem would we have for Dalton’s run as James Bond if his third movie had been like Skyfall?

  1. George Lazenby. I might be the only one who feels sorry for Timothy Dalton’s luck and timing, but EVERYONE feels sorry for poor George Lazenby. He never stood a chance.

When Sean Connery announced he would not continue the James Bond role, one of two things was going to happen: either they’d stop making the movies or else he’d have to be replaced. Since they opted for the latter, somebody was going to be the guy that replaced Connery. It didn’t matter what George Lazenby did, or how well he did it, he wasn’t Connery. There’s a reason that almost every Vice President who took over for a dead (or resigned) President didn’t win the next election.

Except for Teddy Roosevelt. And poor George Lazenby is no Teddy Roosevelt.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was one of the last Bond movies I got around to seeing. I assumed it didn’t fit in the grander scheme of movies. It was an anomaly, the answer to a trivia question. George Lazenby was Pete Best. He was New Coke. Why should I bother?

But then I watched it, and guess what? It’s a damned good movie! And George Lazenby? He was solid. I wouldn’t say he knocked it out of the park, but he certainly doesn’t come across as a model who had never acted before, which is precisely what he was.

Then Connery came back for one more movie (not counting Never Say Never Again), and that movie was a sizeable step down.

And in the end, George Lazenby can say one thing that none of the other actors can say – he never made a bad James Bond movie.

  1. Pierce Brosnan. So disappointing to have this guy down this far.

After GoldenEye, I thought the franchise was back on solid footing. Bond was back kicking ass and pleasing every lady in sight. He had just the right amount of smugness. Sure, they had to make the plot based on the Cold War, but this was the first post-USSR movie, so cut them some slack.

I couldn’t wait for him to return.

Maybe he should’ve pulled a Lazenby.

What followed was three movies that were interchangeable. A mishmash of the same tropes and same mailed-in performance. I think it was a trilogy called The World Dies Again Tomorrow.

Am I being harsh? Quick, which one was the one with Denise Richards? And was the one where he got captured in North Korea the same one that had Michelle Yeo? Or was that Terri Hatcher?

That line of reasoning doesn’t hold true with the other actors. If I asked the average fan which Sean Connery movie had Oddjob and which one happened on the Orient Express, it wouldn’t take an imdb.com search.

My biggest problem with the Pierce Brosnan movies is that they turned the character into an action hero. Instead of Bond needing to investigate and unravel a conspiracy that slowly led back to the main villain, it was “Here’s the bad guy. This is where you’ll find him. Now go bang some chicks and blow some shit up for a couple of hours, then get a machine gun and shoot everything.”

I know the actor isn’t responsible for the plot and the script that’s put in front of him. This is an argument that people who like the Worst Bond Ever (see below) point out.  Certainly it’s not Pierce Brosnan’s fault that they made the character windsurf down a Melting-Ice-Hotel-Tidal-Wave.

But I have to think they cater some aspects of the script to how the actor wants to play the character. Maybe if Pierce Brosnan had said “Hey, guys, how about if I put the machine gun down and just kick somebody’s ass this once?”

So a brilliant start and then three duds. Even Roger Moore waited until his fourth or fifth movie before he started going through the motions.

Some people still swear by Pierce Brosnan. The next time someone says he was a great Bond, ask them what they liked about him. Then have fun seeing what percentage of their answer comes from his first movie.

  1. Roger Moore. Wow, what can one say about the actor who played the character in more movies than anyone else? Here’s what I say – let’s include Never Say Never Again, so at least “most movies as James Bond” becomes a tie.

Some people say Roger Moore was good at first, but just hung on too long. To them, I say that Man with the Golden Gun was only his second movie.

Others will point out, as I did with Pierce Brosnan, that he can only read the lines that are given to him.

It’s certainly not Roger Moore’s fault that they decided to go into space and make Jaws a recurring character. I doubt even an android love-child of Humphrey Bogart and Robert de Niro could make Octopussy watchable.

But seriously, Roger Moore, get that fucking smirk off your face. James Bond doesn’t smirk, he doesn’t pan to the camera, and he doesn’t speak exclusively in puns and double entendres.

The best example of Roger Moore at his worst was A View to a Kill, his final movie. It should be a damned good movie. Christopher Walken and Grace Jones as the bad guys, with the final fight scene on the Golden Gate Bridge. What’s not to like?

Other than Grandpa Roger Moore bumbling around, completely unbelievable with actresses one-third his age, desperately looking for a camera he can do a half-assed breaking of the fourth wall into.

What if the producers had decided to pull the plug on Roger Moore one movie earlier? Put Timothy Dalton or Pierce Brosnan in that movie and look how much more kick ass it would be. An actor that played a “Not Taking Any Shit” James Bond would’ve added much more gravitas to the batshit crazy that Christopher Walken can play so well.

Let’s take the definitive Roger Moore line from A View to a Kill:

After sleeping with Grace Jones the night before, Christopher Walken asks him if he slept well.

“A little restless, but I…,” eyebrows raised into the camera,  “got off… eventually.”

Wow. I made better ejaculation jokes in eighth grade.

Ian Fleming is rolling over in his grave.

Let’s see how later actors would’ve reacted to that script and that scene.

Timothy Dalton would’ve looked at that script, and said, “I’m not saying that. I’ll just say fine.”

Pierce Brosnan would’ve asked if he could just take out a gun and shoot Walken.

And Daniel Craig’s scene would’ve gone something like…

“How’d you sleep, Mr. Bond?”

“Do I look like I give a damn?”

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Great Scott!

Lots of Back to the Future posts and references the last couple weeks. So why did I wait until this week? Had to make sure that Marty McFly was back to 1985. Now we can talk about him.

On October 21, a number of my friends were proudly posting pictures of themselves holding the Back to the Future DVD, saying they were just about to watch it.  Umm, good luck finding any 2015 there, guys. Cause it ain’t in the original movie. Even a number of the news reports I watched kept getting the release date of the movie wrong. Yes, the original movie was released in 1985, and that is the year from whence Monsieur McFly traveled.  But the movie in which he traveled to 2015 was Back to the Future Part II, released in 1989.

A sequel coming out FOUR YEARS after the original? How archaic!

In fact, when the original movie was produced, there were no plans for a sequel. The “To Be Continued” at the end of the movie did not appear in the theatrical release. In what kind of crazy alternate timeline is a movie released without the next five sequels already being planned and filmed?  And they didn’t even split the last movie in two? The horrors!

Of course, they DID film the second and third movie back-to-back, so that they could be released six months apart from each other. To my knowledge, they were the first to do this now-standard practice.

These are a few of the reasons the Back to the Future trilogy is still relevant, but there are others. And no, this is not just a reaction to Marty McFly’s “arrival date” just passing. Plenty of movies have predictions of future dates, but society doesn’t go apeshit when those dates arrive.  I don’t remember the news media running vignettes on the state of Artificial Intelligence on August 29, 1997, date Terminator predicted Skynet would become self-aware.

I know, I know. Self-lacing shoes are way more relevant to our future on this planet than self-aware technology. Who cares about the future of all human life if we can’t even get a goddamned hoverboard, right?

The Back to the Future trilogy is unique for a number of ways.  Going back to that whole 2 and 3 being shot back-to-back and released six months apart from each other. Six months! Even by today’s Fast and the Furious/Hunger Games standards, that’s fast. Twenty-five years ago, it was unheard of. The standard wait time between sequels back then was a good three years. I assume the conventional wisdom was that audiences would be disinterested in going back to see the “continuing adventures” so soon.

So at least in that one sense, Back to the Future Part II was as relevant as Godfather II.  Prior to Godfather II, movies were released like theater shows. First they would premiere in New York, and maybe Los Angeles, followed a few weeks later by the other major cities. They would then filter through the less-major cities, and if you lived in Omaha, you’re probably waiting a few months for the movie to hit the one screen in town.  The producers of Godfather II, released two years after the original, said “screw that.” They knew the public was clamoring to see the sequel, so they circumvented the powers that be and just released it everywhere simultaneously. It worked, and has been the standard ever since.

So you can thank Back to the Future for the fact that the Twilight craze wasn’t dragged out for another decade.

The trilogy itself was also unique, in that the three movies are so markedly different entities. The first movie was just your run-of-the-mill teen movie. Just take out Lea Thompson and add in Molly Ringwald, and you’d scarcely notice the difference between it and Sixteen Candles. The standard John Hughes tropes are all there. Geeky boy secretly pines away for beautiful girl, who is oblivious to his existence, because girl is enamored with foxy mysterious boy. Something about underwear, and then the geeky guy is encouraged by foxy mysterious guy to stand up to school bully and get the girl. And the space-time continuum is saved.

Wait, that last part wasn’t in Sixteen Candles? I must be thinking of Pretty in Pink.

The second movie is really the one that defines the trilogy.  I remember a lot of people complaining when it came out that it was too complicated. They had taken a cute little reverse-Oedipal story and added layers and complications. All these people wanted was another simple story about a boy trying to ensure his own birth, and those bastards went and added things like alternate timelines and divergence points. And sports gambling.

“Whatever,” I remember my pubescent voice admonishing people, “I’ve been reading comics for years. Alternate timelines? Big whoop.”

The second movie also did a good job of keeping some of the original themes going, but adding a little bit more gravitas to them. Now it’s not just Marty that will cease to be, but all of society. They also make squeaky-clean, save-the-world Marty the bad guy. Or maybe not the bad guy, but responsible for everything that went wrong. After all, he was the one who bought the sports almanac with the intent to make a quick buck in the past.

Then there’s the special effects. Having Michael J. Fox play multiple roles in the same room at the same time while not looking two-dimensional was new. And the last half-hour of the movie, where they actually are added into the original movie, was spectacular. If there’s a second Deadpool movie, maybe they can have him pull the “I was there during all of the earlier X-Men movies.” He does that in the comics a fair bit.

Oh, and they re-shot the final scene of the first movie with a different actress and barely anybody noticed.

I’m not sure which is more impressive: a scene in which one actor plays three roles or a scene in which two actresses play the same role.

Then came the third movie, a Western. That’s right, we went from teen movie to sci-fi head-scratcher to Clint Eastwood. Literally Clint Eastwood, since that’s the name Marty used in 1885, when the movie takes place. Imagine the balls on Bob Gale, the writer. He just decided he wanted to do a Western and, hey, the fans are clamoring for more Back to the Future, so here you go.

Imagine if the Return of the Jedi was suddenly about elves and dwarves. Or Return of the King showed Frodo and Sam spending a day in Saturday school. Or if the final Indiana Jones movie threw in aliens.

Wait, they did WHAT in Kingdom Skull? Okay, never mind.

The point is you can’t completely change the genre in the finale. But Back to the Future did. No more sports almanacs or alternate timelines or Michael J. Fox fading out of existence. But there was still enough of the standard tropes to connect the three – the Tanners are dimwits, benefiting from knowledge of the future, the time machine has lost power so a vehicle has to get up to 88 MPH. And trains. And horses.

And you know what? It worked!

So now that Back to the Future Day has passed, let’s stop with our obsession of how much it got right. No more hoverboards or shoes or Cubs. And let’s focus on the trilogy itself, and how groundbreaking it was. They influenced how trilogies could be filmed and marketed. They informed writers that, if you have an engaging premise and characters, you can do whatever you want with them and people will follow you.

Even if the hero abandons his girlfriend on the porch of a stranger’s house in a violent, dystopian present that he himself had created.