Let me run this idea past you. I’m going to start a movie franchise based on a spy hero played by a man in his early thirties. I’m then going to produce a few more films based on the same character over the next six or seven years, then change the central actor and do a few more. By the time we get to 22 films, it will be 46 years from now and the original actor will be in his 80s. Our hero, by contrast, will still be out there all guns blazing, and still–miraculously–no more than 45.
Unrealistic? Unbelievable? Absolutely. But that’s exactly what’s happened with Ian Fleming’s James Bond in the five decades since Sean Connery first said those three magic words in Dr No. The question is, why do we all go along with it? Quantum of Solace grossed over $500m at the box office across the world, and the concept doesn’t show any signs of dying another day.
So the question is why? Why do we still fall for a format that stretches the willing suspension of disbelief to breaking point and well beyond? The easy answer to the question is that it’s escapism, pure and simple. Fast cars and even faster women for the men in the audience, and for the women, a well fit and well-kitted-out bad-boy of a hero who obligingly sheds a good deal of that kit in the course of the following three hours. If Bond the man is good with gadgets, Bond the franchise is equally good at pressing all our buttons. In fact every film is an elaborate if rather obvious sequence of wish-fulfilment fantasies, all set under exotic foreign skies with plenty of sun, sex, and spectacular car/powerboat/helicopter/ski-slope chases.
I buy all that. Or rather, I did.
I can see how audiences in the sixties would have been literally and metaphorically blown away by the first few films. I’m sure most people had barely even heard of most of those exotic places back then, never mind visited one of them, and a lot of them probably thought that spook life really was rather like 007’s daily grind of cars, cocktails and casual coupling. But now? Does anyone really think that the people running MI6 are known by letters of the alphabet? Does anyone really believe a secret service operative would go about the world announcing his real name to every Tom, Dick and Blofeld who asks for it? And – even more to the point – does anyone really think that Britain really wields that much influence in international geopolitics these days? (aside from us Brits, of course).
Much as I love Bond – and I do – I confess the template is looking a mite tired these days. Even the best Bond films always descended into farce in the last reel, as our hero homed in on the latest megalomaniac bent on world domination, holed up in his hopelessly ostentatious ‘secret’ HQ (every one of them construction projects at least as large as the London Olympic stadium, and just as laughably impossible to conceal). But we accepted it – thirty minutes of farcical fireworks was the price you paid for the fun – and wit – that came before. But now the films are trying to incorporate more realistic modern menaces like terrorism, drugs, and energy security, but these contemporary issues sit rather oddly with a set-up that’s saddled its hero with a rather old-fashioned attitude to women (to put it kindly), and a contract that seems to require him to appear at least once in every film in a dinner jacket and black tie.
After a number of high-profile pre-production difficulties, ‘Bond 23’ looks set to hit our cinemas in late 2012, but a small part of me wonders whether those much-rumoured problems might not be a symptom of a rather deeper uncertainty with the whole 007 series. Dare I say that Bourne beats Bond on almost all fronts these days?
Based upon the Bourne series of thrillers by Robert Ludlum, the action sequences are crunchingly believable, and the plots build to heart-pounding, rather than cringe-making, conclusions. And while Matt Damon is every bit as compelling on-screen as Daniel Craig or Pierce Brosnan, you can’t imagine him ordering a martini—and being fussy about how it’s made—any more than you could see him driving an invisible car. Jason Bourne may share his initials with James Bond, but the comparison doesn’t extend much further than that. The Bourne universe is an altogether more brutal place, and the Bourne hero an altogether more grown-up spy.
For further discourses 007, visit The Bond Hotline feature.
Lynn Shepherd’s ‘Jane Austen murder mystery’, Murder at Mansfield Park, is published by St Martin’s Press. Her website is www.lynn-shepherd.com, and you can friend her on Facebook or on Twitter @Lynn_Shepherd