Saturday, 25 August 2012


Before we launch into the bright new dawn that is Casino Royale there's just time to glance back at two distinct versions of Bond that got wedged side-by-side.

Kills (avg) Deaths (avg) Shags (avg) Helicopters (avg)

For once, these silly numbers actually do shed some light on what was going on. There is a clear disparity between the sober story-telling of Dalton's two outings and the whizz-bang exploderama that is the Brosnan era. The very fact that LTK has a reputation for being violent (and that, say, TND does not) tells you everything you need to know. Pierce kills more, shags more and more people and helicopters come to harm around him, but very little of it matters enough for the audience to made to feel uncomfortable. Pity poor Timothy, who somehow managed to alienate that same audience by committing the cardinal sin of acting as if he cared.

There's much though that connects these Bonds. Despite the six year hiatus, these films belong together historically, occupying the strange period between the end of the Cold War and the September 11th terrorist attacks. Seen together, these films show how the franchise was trying to adapt, not only to changing times, but to the changing mood of its audience. We can also see the writers and producers fishing for antagonists, constantly trying to identify global villains with which to justify Bond's existence.

The two Dalton films are self-consciously Flemingesque and set Bond squarely against spies and gangsters, just as Fleming himself did. TLD, one of only a few espionage stories in the series, seems like a deliberate attempt to depict the crumbling decline of the USSR. We see the great power to be vast and complicated; riven by hypocrisy; undermined by the lure of capitalist greed and by the earnest struggle of freedom-fighters. Indeed Bond ends up in Afghanistan, the very underbelly of Soviet imperialism, fighting with the Mujahideen. However 007 must join forces with the 'good' Russian, Pushkin, in order to defeat the real villains of the piece: men who are ripping up this world for their own profit. Both Jorgy and Whittaker are soulless, self-aggrandising egotists who pay lip-service to ideologies in order to pursue their own self-interest.

In LTK Bond gets invited to the USA's private backyard conflict: the War on Drugs in Latin America. Taking on the drugs barons may seem like an uncontroversial choice of villain, but the apolitical nature of the threat means that Bond must actually resign from MI6 before he can exact his vengeance on Sanchez. For once, Bond isn't being employed as a metaphor for British influence - in every sense this mission is an entirely personal one.

When the series returned with GoldenEye EON seemed determined to have their cake and eat it: the Brosnan movies represent an attempt to maintain the sense of the personal from LTK, but blended with the showmanship and superficiality of (most of) the Moore era. It was a necessary experiment I suppose to try and square the circle but it is clear that superficiality won out. However, in GoldenEye and TWINE, it almost comes off.

And the search for new villains continues. GoldenEye offers up a twisted version of Bond himself - Sean Bean's renegade 006 - mixed up with those rogue elements of the former USSR. It was surely essential for the series to address the fallout from the Cold War, but too often the film seems to showing Bond in the middle of a post-modern existential crisis, the series serving up these baddies as a manifestation of its own perceived failings.

But Britain was having too good a time in the late Nineties to put up with any angst. Economically prosperous and safely insulated from the unfolding horrors in the Balkans or Rwanda, Britain wanted and got fun and emotionally uncomplicated Bond movies. With no geopolitical threat to speak of (and with heavyweight issues off the table) Bond instead is sent up against multinational corporations - Carver's media empire in TND and Electra King's petroleum company in TWINE - whilst the UK even gets the dubious thrill of rattling the sabre with China for old times sake.

Fascinatingly and frustratingly, real issues do lurk in the corners of Brosnan's scripts but never get explored properly. Manipulation of news and governments by media organisations is, we now know, a real and serious threat to British democracy and justice. TWINE juggles post-Soviet nuclear proliferation with western reliance on Middle Eastern supplies of energy. DAD even coughs up references to the illegal trade in diamonds from war-torn African nations.

Even before September 11th these were flippant, superficial films. But when DAD was released, a clear fourteen months later, it felt like both Bond and his franchise were still knocking back Martinis and laughing at their own quips, unaware that the party was long over.

Inevitably, the reaction from EON was to go back to Fleming and to try and regain the lost sense of authenticity. These films don't just bookend an historical period, they also chart a complete cycle in the relationship between the films and the novels. TLD was the last movie to show anything of Fleming's stories, and DAD was the last not to, until Casino Royale.

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