NEW YORK — Early in
Questions about relevance dangle throughout the new
Yet as the film franchise turns 50 (yes, someone born the year "Dr. No" came out is now eligible to join AARP) themes of retirement and sell-by dates aren't simply screenplay fodder — they pertain to the franchise itself.
After strong early reviews and solid overseas business, the latest Bond adventure sweeps into theaters with blockbuster expectations. But even if the
No longer is a successful Bond movie simply a matter of dialing up clever dialogue and dazzling set pieces. Facing a world that would be unrecognizable to those behind the early
They must find ways for a tuxedo-wearing, martini-swilling protagonist to stay relatable while a global downturn rages. They need to project a contemporary degree of villainy in a world where the threat of Islamist terrorism is, for a variety of reasons, not as easily portrayed as the enemies and fears of the Cold War.
They want to retain at least a hint of gravitas after years of Austin Powers and Johnny English.
Maybe most important, they struggle with how to avoid what might be called the quaintness trap — staying relevant in a cinema culture that has seen the rise of splashy CG
"The theme of our story is that we have to question if the old classic things still work," said
For years, Barbara Broccoli, the longtime producer and steward of the spy series (total box office: about $5 billion), knew that she wanted a film for the franchise's 50th anniversary. "Bond 23," as "Skyfall" soon became known, was a way of honoring her late father, Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, who died in 1996 and was heavily responsible for putting Fleming's work on the screen. It also offered a third act in the Craig-led Bond.
About three years ago, with the blessing of studio MGM, Broccoli and stepbrother/fellow producer
Then MGM filed for bankruptcy, and suddenly everyone was frozen in place. (To avoid legal action from creditors, Mendes was retained off the books as a "consultant.")
"It was a nightmare," Broccoli recalled. "This was one of those situations that's really frustrating — when all the delays have nothing to do with the making of the movie." Craig's attitude was even more bleak. "I thought OK, we might have to say goodbye to this," he said in an interview in New York several weeks ago. "And that made me really sad." In the hiatus, Morgan left, replaced by the veteran John Logan (
MGM was finally reconstituted with new owners. But now came another problem: how to make Bond dramatically relevant again. The franchise wasn't just long in the tooth — it was coming off a disappointing entry in 2008's "
A big reason for that was Bond's nemesis. During the decades that the series provided a catharsis for the
In "Casino Royale," Craig's initiation, filmmakers used a clever work-around: They channeled the demons that would normally reside in the villain into the hero. Craig's Bond was grimmer and darker, which not only made for a compelling character but for some juicy zeitgeist stuff, Bond's beleaguered air matching our post-Sept. 11 anxiety.
In "Quantum," writers essentially opted out, creating villains and stakes that had little to do with the headlines (they involved a Bolivian coup and the arcana of water rights.) The film was rushed into production after the writers strike — "you shouldn't try to rewrite whole sections of the story while you're shooting," Craig noted dryly — and the results were wobbly.
This time, filmmakers decided to turn inward, to the question of intelligence agencies themselves.
"There's a feeling that you can cover it all with electronics and computer work, so that it makes a man who gets on the ground much more important, and yet under so much more pressure."
So "Skyfall" is about MI6, and Bond and M, and all their changing roles. In Mendes' telling, the intelligence service is on the defensive from a hostile government bureaucrat played by
MI6 also faces a nefarious threat from Bardem's Raoul Silva, a former agent with cyber-skills who felt betrayed by M years before. Silva sports light-colored suits, a creepy blond dye-job and all manner of vocal tics. "This is a guy who's rotten inside," the actor smirked. "So of course he looks like an angel."
For many, the Bond series holds a place in the heart like no other. But nostalgia can be a distorting force.
To watch several 007 films in succession circa 2012 is to at first be entertained by the colorful array of toys and spies — and, not long after, to be numbed by their sameness. New villains emerge, missions change and weapons evolve. Yet it's striking how much of the basic structure remains, so much so that each film feels a little more like a fill-in-the-blank exercise, a kind of espionage-themed Mad Libs. (The movies' mechanistic dispensation of bad guys is matched only by the parade of bed-able women, a dizzying display of interchangeable intercourse.)
"Every time they put out a new Bond film it's a very delicate dance and could go wrong very easily," said Rick Jewell, a cinema professor at USC who specializes in Bond. "You have to make him seem powerful in the world we live in now but you can't just have him save the world over and over again on a whim. That's what got so ridiculous earlier in the franchise."
Bond these days also has another problem — namely, he can't simply be painted, with his high living, like an out-of-touch one-percenter. As
No movie in the franchise struggles to maintain this balance as much as "Skyfall." There are, to be sure, some significant updates. A bad fate befalls a central character in a turn that one couldn't imagine in vintage Bond. There is also an unexpected exploration of Bond's youth.
And when Q, now played as a computer whiz by
Yet plenty of Bond touchstones remain: exotic women, casinos, grand human-stunt sequences (atop a train in Turkey, or high above the Shanghai skyscape).
"Skyfall," which cost about $200 million, is gorgeously shot by
There are no immediate plans for a "Bond 24," though Broccoli and Wilson say they would like to plunge back in.
But they and writers also know they need to be careful. "The bull's-eye for being original," Purvis said, "seems to get narrower each time out."