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Why so serious, Mister Bond?

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?

I keep hearing that Craig’s Bond is humorless, but I must disagree. The films he’s been in have had markedly darker stories than most James Bond films. I think his brand of humor is appropriate for that level of story. If anything, I find it to be drier and even more cynical than Connery’s (and Connery’s approach, as delineated by you above, is the way to go). There’s certainly an undercurrent of humor in the way he flushes out the members of QUANTUM at the opera, the film’s best scene. And a dark sense of slapstick in his theft of the moped from the man following him and Camille in Haiti. I believe should the movies lighten up, we’ll see Craig’s “bon mots” fly a little more often.
I agree Tony: Craig returns Bond to the cynical humor of Connery, and takes it a bit further. If the Connery Bond was more misogynist and glib, Craig’s amused dryness seems an update of that old cynicism for modern times where Connery’s attitude might no longer by tolerated for a movie hero…I think we were supposed to laugh with Connery, but Craig is on another level, where we note his amusement but decline to share the laugh, but that’s just a theory.
I also thought that Craig’s Bond showed a dark streak of humour similar to Connery’s. It’s all down to the difference between humour and jokes. Also, Glenn, the pedant in me cannot rest until I correct your reference to Leiter’s wife in Licence To Kill. She was murdered in her home, not eaten by sharks.
Wasn’t it Leiter who was eaten (and killed) by sharks in that film?
Leiter gets eaten, but lives…to dream of fishing with his pal James some time soon.
IA
Your point on Connery’s body language is excellent. But I don’t think Dalton needs credit for keeping a straight face: though you pointed out a couple of goofy moments in his films, both are ultimately sober, and it’s hard to imagine Roger Moore in Licence to Kill. Incidentally, would any of the Bond directors qualify as low-level auteurs? I might nominate Terence Young and Peter Hunt.
Craig is a kick ass Bond. My favorite. When he is beating the shite out of baddies ? I believe it for once. The series seems much more serious (Plausible) than ever. I prefer this is my films.
I absolutely, positively disagree with the writer on many respects. Bond should never become Jason Bourne. The frenetic cutting and coldness of those films do not belong in James Bond’s universe. While Daniel Craig’s interpretation of the character is the closest to Ian Flemming’s conception (and most agreeable) part of the update, the Filmmaking in Quantum Of Solace is not. The Bond pictures are relics of their time, made with specific language and iconography in mind. Bond does not need the latest trends to be relevant, as evidenced in the excellence delivered in Casino Royale. Here was a film almost clasical in it’s telling, focused on character. The action was driven by the plot, and so where the details. All this, Quantum Of Solace systematically destroys by falling prey to the latest trends (shaky cam, unfocused cutting, incoherent action) in action movies. Such are the things one hopes will never repeat in a Bond movie again, as the lamentable aftertaste of QoS reigns supreme over the Bond cinematic legacy… My discussion of the Film’s Editing here: http://acap-terminal.blogspot.com/2008/11/action-is-not-incoherency.html
My 2 cents : I wasn’t a big fan of the action sequences either. And what’s the deal with Craig starting off every film with an urban fun run? The juxtaposition of Bond / baddie and the equestrian spectacle in good ‘ol Tuscany did not work for me at all. Come to think of it, I believe there is a similar editing sequence later in the film during the opera. I do love the bit though, when the old gentleman goes "Well, Tosca isn’t for everybody" … :) QoS was disappointing and I miss Le Chiffre… Dominic Greene was so not remarkable.
Alanedit Wrote: “Bond does not need the latest trends to be relevant, as evidenced in the excellence delivered in Casino Royale.” Casino Royale absolutely follows trends, particularly the poker craze of the past several years. I’m not sure if the craze is still there, but it was when Casino Royale was made. Casino Royale was meant to cash in on the poker craze in the same way that Live and Let Die cashed in on blaxploitation, Moonraker cashed in on late 70s sci-fi as started by Star Wars, and The Man With the Golden Gun cashed in on 70s kung fu cinema. Casino Royale also follows the concept of the reboot as made popular by Batman Begins.

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