James Bond Franchise Fails to Light New Fires with Old Matches

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Steve-Lundin-headshotBy Steve Lundin, Cultural Analyst and Author, “The Manipulator: A Private Life in Public Relations (Volume I)”

Two major products from the James Bond franchise machine completely emptied the war chest of plots, characters, villains, backstories, gadgets, cars, drinks, clothes, and overall Bond tropes, to deliver a two fisted critical dud this year. The much ballyhooed release of Spectre, the longest Bond movie ever, and Trigger Mortis, the longest Bond book ever, couldn’t make up for the desperately derivative nature of both products. It’s hard to shoot to kill when you’re packing reloaded blanks.

In returning to the past for inspiration and material, the producers of these works are demonstrating that they’ve either run out of ideas, in the face of more freewheeling and aggressive franchises (Mission Impossible and Bourne), or that the era of the angry, uptight, angst ridden, metrosexual, one lining gentleman secret agent has come to an end. Maybe it’s time this spy came in from the cold, with a little help from new friends.

James Bond SPECTRE

(Photo Source: Twitter)

The beachhead for revisiting the glories of the past was established by author Anthony Horowitz, whose book, Trigger Mortis, was supported with a massive (for a book, OK) international marketing campaign that preceded the movie by two months. Every stop was pulled out to distance this piece from the steady, high quality, brand supporting works that writers John Gardner and Raymond Benson had been cranking out for decades. The idea was to reinvigorate the character by returning to the non-PC, overconsuming, good old Cold War days. You know, when it was just us and the Russians. And while this approach to remembrance of days past (technically only for those between 70 and 80) may have worked for Mad Men, Horowitz delivered the veneer without the furniture.

The author, echoing what we would soon find in the movie Spectre, was more focused on demonstrating his knowledge of Flemingisms than getting down to telling a unique story. This included a running catalog of brand names, feelings, conceits, places, and references to other characters and adventures from other books. Ironically, Benson wrote this same book in 1984, it was called the James Bond Bedside Companion. Trigger Mortis and the Spectre even shared a common moment: the pivotal scene where Bond’s soon-to-be female companion (of the next twelve chapters, or second and third acts), advises our hero that she will absolutely not sleep with him, even though he has just saved her life. One thing is certain: this scene undoubtedly appeared in one of Fleming books and one of the earlier movies.

Spectre producers Broccoli and Wilson, and director Mendes, with help from writers Logan, Purvis and Wade, followed this same formula with their Bond, drawing from movies, not books. Collectively they delivered a movie that dragged in classic Bond scenes from the Golden Age of Connery and Bronze Age of Moore. These included, in no particular order, Blofeld, the Aston Martin DB5, shaken, not stirred vodka martinis, a train fight in a (white tuxedo no less), a boat scene, a funeral scene, a flare gun, the return of the gunsight title sequence, and a chamois holster for Bond’s Walther PPK. Fanboys across the world have no doubt already compiled lists of every conceivable reference. Suffice to say that the only thing new in this film was the revelation that Daniel Craig would actually return for another outing to tie up all the messy loose ends this plate of ancient spaghetti left in the theatre.

Collectively, these two efforts indicate that the Bond character has actually progressed backwards, leaving its audience in the windshield, while surging in reverse into irrelevance. It’s almost as if the writers and producers decided they could never compete with the more frenetic, unpredictable, self-deprecating and, frankly, hipper characters of other action thrillers. Their solution? Return to a better, older era, and hope the audience has a memory for a past that it technically never experienced. And that’s part of the problem. Does the new/old Bond really have any relevance to a contemporary audience? Unlike “Bridge of Spies,” this isn’t a story based on actual events.

The Bond franchise has always been big and bold, surrounded by roll outs of gadgets, cars, spectacularly absurd villains and nude photospreads of Bond women (a practice that Barbra Broccoli dropped).  There was a connection with the audience, and the marketing behind the movies was aspirational. Bond was more than just a movie, it represented a lifestyle. Somewhere in the midst of the Craig reboot, the producers lost their ability to deliver the Bond experience, and the end result was a dramatic repackaging of the leftovers from a half a dozen meals.

It’s a sad comment to see mainstream media questioning the future of the Bond brand. Do we see the same issues surrounding a character like Sherlock Holmes? Of course not, the character is robust, executed by numerous creators, and more importantly, exists in the public domain. And that is where Arthur Conan Doyle’s character and Ian Fleming’s character share a common hope: on January 1, 2015, the works of Fleming entered the public domain in certain countries, including Canada. This translates into new books and, more importantly (sorry fellow writers), films. So the future will hold more than one iteration of Bond, just like there is more is than one iteration of Holmes. The Bond franchise will be taken out of the hands of a small, incestuous group of creators, and receive a sorely needed transfusion of new ideas.

Ironically, one of the most derided and bastardized Bond movies holds a key to what the future may look like. In 1967, Columbia Pictures released Casino Royale, a troubled film with multiple directors and no less than six different actors playing James Bond, including David Niven (the original) and Peter Sellers. Watch it some time. It’s utterly unpredictable and has several scenes that are a hell of a lot more fun than the current offerings. And yes, it also retains enough references to the Bond lifestyle to satisfy the fanboys. Opening the Bond toy box to more than one vision is a healthy thing. It introduces new blood into what has become an almost Aryan-like experiment. It’s time that the character of James Bond was interpreted by the creative input of those who have supported it for over fifty years: the people.

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Published on December 3, 2015

 

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