James Bond movies are generally fun to watch, but since just after Roger Moore took over the reigns from Sean Connery, they devolved into a gadget-strewn mess. It was obvious that the gadget that Q had demonstrated at around the 22 minute mark would get Bond out of a fix at the 55 minute mark. It was also a forgone conclusion that the sleek sports car that he was driving would have a number of tricks up its sleeve, but would ultimately get destroyed.
To me, the simplicity of ‘Dr. No’ and the style and sophistication of ‘From Russia with Love’ were simply never matched in later films. I understand that the world turns and moves on and that a spy that operated with such panache in the 60’s would be expected to wear flares in the late 70 and to trade his Rolex Submariner in for a Seiko digital, but it all seemed somewhat unbecoming.
One specific movie really summed up the disaster that James Bond franchise had become was Moonraker.
The book, which I read as a teenager, was a relatively short story about a brilliant millionaire and war hero, Sir Hugo Drax, who seems to be cheating when playing cards at a Gentleman’s club that M frequents. Because he is cheating, M suspects that he may be up to something more, so asks Bond to look into it. Bond rigs the deck and wins a considerable sum against him, before the story really warms up. Drax is building Englands first nuclear missile as a defence against attack from the continent. Slowly M and Bond put two and two together, they realise that there is something wrong, so Bond goes undercover. The plot is eventually revealed that London is the target, Drax turns out to be German and Bon saves the day.
It is not all that easy, obviously.
The movie also bears almost no similarity to the book. Drax is the protagonist, but somehow the second real is James Bond meets Star Wars, with Bond on a space station and militarised shuttles blasting each other with lasers.
To me, this was the moment that Bond movies utterly lost it.
When the series was rebooted with ‘Casino Royale, in 2006 with Daniel Craig at the helm, it felt necessary. Craig was tough, good in a fight, great with a gun and he wore the suit very well. He might not have been a modern-day Connery, but he was both tougher and more human. I had my doubts about the carry-over of the previous M played by Judy Dench though. This seemed to me, at the time, to be a mistake.
Casino Royale was very much in the same vein as the books that I loved as a teenager, the marked reduction in gadgets won my approval too.
Superficially the move ended when Bond had got to the bad guy. Mr. White. had the next movie not carried on the arc, the world would have been fine. But Quantum of Solace picked up, literally moments later. Bond had a new Aston, which although not entirely destroyed in his hands, was rather well used by the time he had finished with it.
Quantum was complex and answered only a few questions as to who anyone was really working for, although it seemed likely that there was a bigger organisation backing the protagonists. If you think of this movie as ‘Fall out from Casino Royale’, then it make reasonable sense.
Then came Skyfall. In Quantum it seemed that Judy Dench’s M was not really going to work out long term, she was too modern and too reliant on data to really fit the no-nonsense Bond. So something had to be done. Skyfall saw the destruction of the modern MI6 building, and then the demise of M herself . It also saw the demise of Bond’s beloved DB5 and his, much less beloved family home.
It all felt necessary, stripping Bond bare of pretty much everything, but showing his utter loyalty to queen and country. The modern MI6 building, the data driven M and everything that had preceded the reboot was swept away in this movie. But still there was an over-arching organisation behind the scenes, there was still a bad guy to get to.
So then we reach Spectre. The opening sequence is probably one of the best ever done, the photography is simply stunning, the car chase through Rome is beautifully executed, the bad guy, Franz Oberhausen, is perfectly played by Christoph Waltz.
It is a very long film, 148 minutes from opening sequence to titles, but you would simply not guess it.
Again the theme is to bring Bond back to his most basic, the Aston Martin has several gadgets, only two of which are any use, the third and final gadget, his Omega watch, is handed to him by Q, but does not make an impact for a couple of hours. In general he is able to use his intelligence and if necessary his muscle to get through every situation.
There are several stand-out scenes in the movie, the race and chase through Rome is obviously very good, then the cars vs plane chase in the snow and finally the escape from the collapsing MI6 building. All of them are filmed exceptionally well. But the really film-stealing sequence is the train fight. It takes every previous train set-piece and amplifies it to 11 or more.
All in all, it is a hell of a good movie and probably the best of the modern Bond films.
Not quite as stylish as ‘From Russia with Love’, or as raw and cool as ‘Dr. No’, but close, very, very close.