In his review last week of the latest Bond film, Quantum of Solace, New York Times critic A.O. Scott notes that the Daniel Craig incarnation of Agent 007, occasional zinger aside, seems to lack in the sensayuma department—which, as it happens, brings him in line with other contemporary cinematic superheroes. "I know grief has always been part of the Dark Knight’s baggage," Scott says, "but the same can hardly be said of James Bond, Her Majesty’s suave, cynical cold war paladin. His wit was part of his — of our — arsenal, and he countered the totalitarian humorlessness of his foes with a wink and a bon-mot." I don't know about that wink—let's not confuse Bond with Sarah Palin—but bon-mot, for sure. And more. In my post about Sidney Lumet's 1972 The Offence, I quote Lumet on Bond, and his original embodier, Mr. Sean Connery, and his thoughts are worth reiterating here: "When you look at the Bond characterization, everybody says, ‘Oh, well he’s just charming.’ Well shit, that’s like saying Cary Grant was just charming. There is more acting skill in playing that kind of character. What he’s doing, stylistically, is playing high comedy. And that is extremely difficult to do, which is why there are so few of those actors, so few Cary Grants and Sean Connerys." Scott calls the Connery Bonds "smooth, cosmopolitan comedies," and says that the Roger Moore Bonds " sometimes ascended to the level of farce."
In Dr. No, Connery's Bond was suave and very chilly, his wit exceptionally mordant—as exemplified in the famous kiss-off "You've had your six." Bond's a little looser in From Russia With Love, and by Goldfinger he's letting the bon-mots fly, from his explanation as to why that brandy is disappointing to his very square observation about how to best listen to the Beatles. But that's not to say that Bond isn't pissed off at the murder of Jill Masterson—he is, and plenty. Here is where the genius of Connery's characterization registers most strongly. Andrew Sarris pegged Connery as a superb physical actor after his purposeful shipboard stride to rescue a near-drowned Tippie Hedren in Hitchcock's Marnie. If, facially and verbally, Connery's Bond gives the impression of a smart cynic, his body language—his bearing, the way he walks, and more—tells a different, more purposeful, story.
It's safe to say that no subsequent Bond man, no matter how gifted an actor, ever tried to play that kind of double game. Hell, Connery himself stopped bothering somewhere in the middle of You Only Live Twice. One-time-only Bond George Lazenby, despite the jokey "This never happened to the other fella" opening of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, played Bond as straight as can be, which is entirely apt, as in this film Bond attempts to straighten out—both himself and future (short-lived) wife Tracy. The finale of the film sees him turn revenger yet again. As for Roger Moore, he was always game, good with the one-liners, and gave a perpetual sense of not quite believing anything that was going on around him. As the Bond films became more bloated and more desperate to connect with a movie zeitgeist that Jaws and Star Wars were taking over. The padding, the forays into space, and such, didn't work; and that dreadful Tarzan yell in Octopussy is in fact the sound of a bunch of post-middle-aged boys giving up trying to win over the cool kids. The variant of a raspberry, if you will.
It was Timothy Dalton, not Craig, who was the first to play Bond-as-sobersides. Problem was, the films Dalton appeared in still felt like Moore vehicles. Oh look, Q really does care about Bond after all!!! Remember that nonsense? From License to Kill? Or, better yet, David "Al" Hedison's Felix Leiter cheerfully exclaiming to Bond "Let's go fishing soon!" mere days after witnessing his new bride getting eaten by sharks, and losing at least one of his own limbs to said sharks? I think we need to give Dalton credit for keeping a straight face, if nothing else. Pierce Brosnan had Moore's way with a one-liner and a lower level of Connery cool, but was most effective when he wasn't reminding you of either actor, which wasn't too often.
What the two recent Daniel Craig Bond films accomplish is something the franchise's masters have not been able to for many years—they do bring the series up to date. Into a cold, lonesome, quick-cutting, Bourne-like world where the good guys aren't always who you think they are, or should be. (The political blogger Juan Cole, at his site Informed Comment [http://www.juancole.com/], has some fascinating observations about the progressive politics of Solace.) A world where bon mots won't cut it. A world in which Q never has to utter the words "Oh, grow up, 007!"
Hey. Where is Q, anyway?