Sunday, February 03, 2008

GoldenEyed: Watching the Bond Films After Casino Royale

One of the downsides to Casino Royale’s dynamite reigniting of the Bond franchise is to have made earlier installments of the series—even some of the very good ones—difficult to enjoy. GoldenEye, for example, fondly regarded by most aficionados as one of the best Bond films, does not fare well by comparison—perhaps because it, too, is a relaunch of the series, but a less thoroughgoing one.

I remember my excitement about finally getting a Brosnan Bond, back when GoldenEye hit the big screen. I had endured the humorless Timothy Dalton years with as much stoicism as I could muster, and now Remington Steele was finally where he belonged; all was right with my fantasy world. And it really was great, wasn’t it? Brosnan was like a hipper, younger, more dashing Roger Moore; Dame Judi made a perfect M(ommy) for the post-Freudian era; Sean Bean was well-cast as Judas 006; and Famke Janssen’s deliciously wicked femme fatale, Xenia Onatopp, stole every scene she vamped through.

And yet, when I watched it this weekend, I was barely able to sustain the attention necessary to see it through to the closing credits. The few truly delightful scenes were the ones at headquarters between Bond and his MI:6 cronies, M and Q. The rest of it all felt…so 1995.

It isn’t that the film is bad on its own terms. And of course it isn’t fair to compare something as of-its-moment as an installment in the Bond franchise with later, “cooler” installments. By virtue of their very hipness, every new Bond film should seem cooler, better than every Bond film that came before (even if it doesn’t always work that way in practice).

Nonetheless, knowing that doesn’t make it any easier for me to enjoy GoldenEye now—not after thrilling to the psychologically gritty, more darkly humorous, bloody-fisted elegance of the new Bond-cool established by Casino Royale. Unfortunately, rather than thinking of GoldenEye as I once did—as a moment of creative reenergizing—I can’t help but see it now as a cheesy relic of the mid-nineties (and earlier) blockbuster aesthetic, an aesthetic that is epitomized by the boring bark of machinegun fire and broad, dissonant comic riffs. In GoldenEye, the latter responsibility falls mainly on the shoulders of Alan Cumming, whose hammy, jittery performance as treacherous Russian computer nerd Boris Grishenko (he of the catchphrase, “I am inveenceeble!”) is particularly grating. The cut to his screaming face as the Goldeneye satellite explodes in space—the film’s climax—is laughably bad by any measure, but so much more excruciating now.

Do all the Bond films suffer by comparison to Casino Royale’s new gold standard? Certainly not, thank goodness. In fact, I suspect that the damage of Craig’s Bond to the rest of the franchise is limited to the Brosnan films, which suffer mainly because they are still so comparatively recent and embody a “cool” that we’re all—most of us, anyway—anxious to repudiate. Fortunately for them (and for those of us who shelled out for the Bond boxed set), Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and the rest all benefit from a different kind of cool—the cool that one attaches to genuine historical artifacts. They have an alibi for their cheesy machismo, for they dwell in the “real” past of pop culture, as opposed to its recent past of the Brosnan films, a shallower past which contains only detritus, yesterday’s news.

In the end, I wonder if the real beneficiary of Craig’s gritty, introspective Bond will be the reputation of Timothy Dalton’s tenure on the series. Not particularly beloved, and rarely anybody’s favorite, Dalton’s Bond was a more serious fellow than the rest, more of a Craig than a Moore. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen them. Perhaps the time to dust off those Timothy Dalton DVDs for a weekend marathon has finally come.

13 comments:

David Golding said...

I was never that fond of GoldenEye. Brosnan looked the part, but had to be the star of films with wildly differing requirements of the actor. I imagine you'd find the Ultimate Bond (in the Marvel sense) of Tomorrow Never Dies and the CGI-Moonraker of Die Another Day to be yesterday's news too. But if you put The World Is Not Enough in the context of The Living Daylights and Casino Royale you might get back some of that Brosnan excitement.

Disclaimer: Dalton has always been my favourite. I feel that his second film, a poor man's Lethal Weapon 2, failed him, rather than vice versa. And I think he had something that has now been vindicated by Craig's casting.

(Then again, in the last week, I have begun to wonder, if the new Casino Royale is a reboot rather than a prequel, undermining EON's claims to canonicity, then perhaps Niven is my favourite Bond...)

plok said...

I'm sure you're right: in the light of the new Casino Royale (what the kids are calling "James Bond Begins"), the Brosnan stuff looks a lot like something that was sitting on the table next to the current approach, that they preferred over it...and so it looks a lot more Roger-Moorey than it really was (that is to say, a lot more Roger-Moorey than Roger Moore's actual Bond work even was). Since I've been dying for a Bond more like the books for years and years, everytime I didn't get it I felt like I wanted to blame someone for it...but now that they've finally gone in that direction, I think that old resentment of mine's become a more accessible one: now that we see the Craig Bond, we've got to wonder why the hell we didn't see him a lot earlier.

I had high hopes for the Dalton Bond, and thought his first movie was rather promising...although that may be rose-coloured hindsight talking. Then it all turned into Miami Vice, of course -- bleah. I think the Brosnan Bond certainly inagurated some long-overdue modernizations of the Bond franchise, Judi Dench's perfect M being just the most obvious one of these -- but Casino Royale was so much more hypnotic than any of the Brosnan movies I think it'll be a while before anyone remembers that fact.

Bond movies that are really very good movies -- I do believe the kids are freaking out. Now if I can just get the second part of my Bond wish, the straight adaptation of my favourite Bond book, Moonraker...

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