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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 76.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Bonds have more fun
But will a turn to the dark side be the spy series' undoing?

Credit:Rob Zammarchi

"All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl," Jean-Luc Godard famously wrote, gratefully acknowledging the role that American action films had played in his development as a director. For some reason, Godard neglected to mention exotic locales, ingenious gadgets and vodka martinis - shaken, not stirred. Otherwise, his quip neatly sums up the James Bond movies, which have been entertaining audiences worldwide for well over 40 years. When Ursula Andress emerged, Venus-like, from the ocean's lapping waves in Dr. No, President Kennedy was still alive, Nikita Krushchev was still calling the shots in the Soviet Union, and the Beatles were recording their first single, "Love Me Do." Osama bin Laden, who would grow up to become one hell of a Bond villain, was 5 years old. as a low-rent successor to SPECTRE. It has possibilities. But don't expect those possibilities to be realized in the Bond movies, which have a way of meddling in world affairs without actually getting their hands dirty - one of the secrets of their success, no doubt. Likewise, Bond himself has survived any number of crises, from the engulfing charms of Pussy Galore to the decline and fall of the British Empire, while only occasionally having to adjust his tie. How does he do it? Why didn't Austin Powers, the reductio ad absurdum of the tongue-in-cheekiness that the Bond movies had always indulged in, put him away for good, embarrass him to death? Who needs Bond girls when we have "Girls Gone Wild"? For that matter, who wears a tux anymore, except to prom?

Worthy questions as Casino Royale, starring the newly anointed Daniel Craig as James VI, arrives on Nov. 17. Bond's 22nd movie outing, Casino Royale was adapted - loosely, it appears - from Ian Fleming's very first Bond novel, published in 1953. And so we've come full circle, in a way. John Huston directed a spoof version back in the '60s - a legendary stinker that holds up quite well as a legendary stinker. (It's like watching a car wreck, only less funny.) Otherwise, this is our first opportunity to see 007 before he's been issued a license to kill, a prequel of sorts. "We're going back to the character Ian Fleming originally conceived," says Barbara Broccoli, daughter of Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, who ran the franchise like Auric Goldfinger until the mid-'90s, when Barbara and her half-brother, Michael Wilson, took over.

The character Ian Fleming originally conceived - it has possibilities. But don't expect many of those possibilities to be realized in Casino Royale, which has reportedly dropped baccarat for the more au courant Texas Hold 'Em. What Barbara Broccoli appears to mean is that we're going to get a darker, grittier Bond, a diamond in the rough. Craig, who knows how to play rough trade (most recently in Infamous, where he planted a big wet one on Toby Jones' Truman Capote), is neither tall nor dark nor particularly handsome. And the Bond market has reacted as you might expect, various fan clubs threatening a boycott. But there's no denying that Craig generates sexual heat. Plus, he knows how to act, how to give a character emotional heft. And the word on the street is that there'll be fewer gadgets this time, more emotional heft.

I don't know about you, but my heart sank when I heard that. James Bond, emotional heft? I mean, it's not like Sean Connery's Bond didn't have any emotional heft. George Lazenby's Bond had some, too. Timothy Dalton's Bond arguably had too much. Roger Moore's Bond had...okay, his Bond didn't have any. But Pierce Brosnan's Bond had just enough to get by, and I'm not sure why you'd want any more than that. It isn't entirely clear whether Brosnan, who still had a few good years left in him, jumped or was pushed. But he'd done as good a job as anybody since Connery at capturing Bond's sense of wry, detached amusement while still taking the role seriously. It's not a debonair air we're looking for. It's a certain sexy nonchalance, which Connery had oozing from every pore of his Mr. Universe-accredited body.

And Craig may have it, too. He's nearly as buff as Connery was. And his eyes are so blue they could bore a hole right through you. But it's hard not to believe that Broccoli and Wilson, the keepers of the flame, aren't misjudging the appeal of what continues to be the longest-running and most financially successful franchise in movie history, an appeal that has its roots in - hit it, maestro - Camelot.

It was Jackie Kennedy who revealed that her husband had often whiled away the late-night hours listening to the original-cast recording of Camelot, Lerner and Loewe's paean to King Arthur and his chivalrous knights. But Jack might just as easily have been flipping through the latest Fleming opus. (From Russia With Love came in at number nine on his list of 10 favorite books, published by Life magazine.) The original Hound-Dog-in-Chief, Kennedy may have fancied himself a bit of a Bond figure, working his way through a succession of inflatable dolls while playing spy-versus-spy with the Soviets at the Bay of Pigs, then keeping his cool during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy in-law Peter Lawford had turned down the Bond gig, content to while away his own late-night hours with the Rat Pack, Frank Sinatra's Vegas-based party animals.

Partying was practically one's patriotic duty, the country having finally put the Great Depression, World War II and all those "I Like Ike" golf outings behind it. And the early Bond films, with their fast cars and fast women, captured the spirit of life on the New Frontier, at least for men who kept insisting they subscribed to Playboy for the articles. Yes, the whole world could blow up any moment, but the Bond movies spoke to that issue as well, proposing nuclear missiles as the ultimate phallic symbols. They were chits in an elaborate game of Mine's Bigger Than Yours, which, when you think about it, was what those years of massive arms build-up were all about. And what were those villains' lairs - one of them tucked into a volcano, another perched atop a mountain - if not the ultimate bachelor pads, hideaways for boys and their toys?

But what toys! Do you have to have owned a 007 attaché case, complete with fold-up rifle and secret decoder ring, to fully appreciate the ingenuity that Q always brought to his work? The early Bond movies had style to burn, jet-setting from the Caribbean to the Riviera, the claustrophobic depths of Fort Knox to the airy heights of the Swiss Alps. And what modes of transportation! Yachts, submarines, speedboats, jets, helicopters, a rocket pack. Today, the Aston Martin DB5, with its ejector seat, seems like the perfect vehicle for the kind of product placement that the Bond movies, although they didn't invent the practice, certainly perfected over time. Back then, it just seemed cool, part of the swank, suave, "Man at His Best" life that James Bond led on our behalf.

It was important, therefore, that Bond was British, the accent signifying a level of polish that we Americans, fresh off the boat or the farm, couldn't even aspire to. We forget he's not one of us sometimes, so taken are we with him. But Bond is veddy British, a savior sent to lift England out of its own postwar doldrums. The Suez Crisis of 1956 removed any doubts that the sun had set on the British Empire, but what could it hurt to indulge in a little fantasy? In the Bond movies, England is a superpower, right up there with the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. And Bond's mojo suggested that the country itself might still have some horniness left in it. Hence, Swinging London, an explosion of shagedelic style in the mid-'60s. If you wanted reality, you read Le Carré. If you wanted Pussy Galore, the name was Bond, James Bond.

Honey Ryder, Sylvia Trench, Thunderball - the double entendres were more like single entrendres, so blatantly did they wink at the audience, whereas Bond's quips were often subtle enough to sail over the heads of his younger fans. (Trust me on that.) Still, there must have been thousands upon thousands of budding feminists for whom Bond's "way with the ladies" was a sexual-harassment lawsuit waiting (and waiting) to happen. But the early Bond movies are so tongue-in-cheek, such playful little jeux d'esprit, that it's difficult to take them too seriously. In fact, they've got their tongues so far in their cheeks that you spend the whole movie suppressing a giggle. For better or worse, they're time capsules, mental snapshots of a world that, though perched on the brink of apocalypse, still knew how to have fun.

And now let us flash-forward, Austin Powers-like, to the present. Pre-feminism has given way to feminism has given way to post-feminism, whatever that means these days. The Soviet Union has given way to Russia has given way to the Russian mafia. Instead of Communists, for whom one can almost work up a little bit of nostalgia these days, we have jihadists. Instead of Tom Jones bellowing out the lyrics to "Thunderball," we have Eminem raping and pillaging his own family in "Kill You" and "Kim." And yet some would argue that masculinity itself is in peril, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger having floated on and off the screen, like tethered balloons in the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. A popular bumper-sticker in the '90s: SAVE THE MALES.

Is there a place in this mad, mad, mad, mad world for a guy who has his suits made on Savile Row, his cigarettes made by Morlands of Grosvenor Street? The rise of cigar bars and lad mags like Maxim and Stuff would suggest that the answer is "Yeah, baby!" But it's been suggested that James fine-tune his image a little bit, youth it up. Personally, I would hate to see that happen. As movie theaters have transformed themselves into glorified teen centers, Bond is perhaps the only action hero who seems like a man sent to do a boy's job instead of a boy sent to do a man's job. He even has hair on his chest (Connery and Brosnan did, anyway), something we almost never see anymore, Hollywood stars preferring to shave away their fur coats, lest they seem too beastly.

As for the Bond movies themselves, they could use a little tinkering, but I'm not sure I'd vote for colder, darker, more realistic. If you ask me, they're already colder, darker and more realistic than they were back when the chief threat to both Western and Eastern civilization was a thickly accented gentleman who spent most of his time stroking his putty-tat. I miss the larger-than-life villains of the past - Dr. No, Goldfinger, Blofeld, the inimitable Rosa Klebb. And although there was a vein (okay, a mother lode) of racism running through their depictions, at least they were memorable. Who can even tell me the names of the villains in Goldeneye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough or Die Another Day, Pierce Brosnan's entire portfolio of secret missions? Why not give Bond a worthy opponent?

Back in the early-'90s, when Timothy Dalton had just had The Living Daylights beaten out of him, there was talk of turning the Bond movies into period pieces set in an eternal '60s of Cold War politics and groovy-a-go-go design. There's a wonderful precedent for this: the American Western, which continues to tell us things about who we are now by telling us things about who we once were. Likewise, the Bond movies could zero in on a period that, as each year passes, continues to fascinate us. Or they could broaden their horizon a little - between the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, say. It's not really necessary for James Bond to escort us into the post-9/11 World of Tomorrow. Nor is it necessary for him to sober up, à la "the character Ian Fleming originally conceived." From the beginning, he's been at his best when he was slightly drunk on his own rakish charm - shaken, not stirred.

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