Monday, November 17, 2008

Bonds, James Bonds

Well, the new Bond film, Quantum of Solace, hit theaters over the weekend. While not as good as the excellent Casino Royale, it's still a perfectly serviceable Bond flick – and an excuse, as are all Bond flicks, to rate the various actors who have portrayed 007. Here's my list, starting with the best:

1. Bond, James Bond
Sean Connery and Daniel Craig (tie)

I know a lot of traditionalists would dearly love to crucify me for raising anybody up to the level of St. Sean, but I have my reasons. I’ll get to those below. First, let’s talk about something that isn’t controversial: Why Connery is such a kick-ass Bond.

Connery (Bond in Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever, Never Say Never Again [unofficial])

Connery automatically has points added for being the first guy to play Bond (excluding Barry Nelson in a 1954 TV version of Casino Royale). He also starred in the movies made before the franchise started getting stupid (Dr. No through Thunderball).

Above: Awesomeness

But the real reason Connery stands head and shoulders above Bonds Two through Five is the combination of suave sophistication and cold-bloodedness he brought to the character. Connery’s Bond was an original, and – with one notable exception – the subsequent Bond actors haven’t really been playing Bond; they’ve been playing Sean Connery playing Bond.

Greatest liability: Scottish accent made him comically mispronounce the word Pussy.

Greatest asset: But he still got a lot of it.

Craig (Bond in Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace)

The notable exception mentioned above, of course, is Daniel Craig. His is the first Bond, as far as I can see, who owes nothing to Connery’s performance. If anything, Craig’s Bond owes more to Ian Fleming’s literary spy. Fleming liked to describe Bond as “a blunt instrument” wielded by a dispassionate government agency. His Bond was an unrepentant killer – and of the various Bonds, only Craig has embodied that aspect of the character.

Above: One cold bastard

Raymond Chandler’s seminal private eye Philip Marlowe once described a particular gangster as someone who would “beat my teeth in and then kick me in the stomach for mumbling.” That’s Craig’s Bond in a nutshell – a blue-collar thug, only slightly camouflaged by a veneer of sophistication, whose antisocial impulses have been legitimized by his work. Forget shooting the villain, straightening his tie and delivering a droll one-liner – this Bond is a desperate savage, beating people to death with his bare hands and then drinking a tumbler of Scotch to quell his trembling. And yet Craig gives Bond more than that; in his hands, 007 has a legitimate emotional core. Previous Bonds, including (sorry, folks) Sean Connery, have basically been cartoons of suave virility. Craig’s Bond is a terribly wounded man, a disappointed romantic who operates from a core of corrupted idealism and deep-seated self-loathing. In that, his 007 is a true original.

And it doesn’t hurt that he kicks major ass.

Greatest liability: Tiny hooded eyes.

Greatest asset: Those eyes radiate an utter lack of concern about whether you, he or anyone else lives or dies.

2. Bond, Same Bond
George Lazenby (Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service)

I know what you’re thinking, punk. You’re thinking, “Why would this fucktard put a one-shot like Lazenby right below Sean Connery and Daniel Craig?” Two things. First, I resent being called a fucktard, and I demand you take it back right away. Second, George Lazenby may have been a one-shot, but he made his one shot count, in what is perhaps the finest Bond picture of them all. While Lazenby’s principal contribution to the series was to try to be as much like Sean Connery as possible, he did something else, too: he gave Bond a heart.

Above: Sensitivity

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was really the last faithful adaptation of a Fleming novel until Casino Royale. Both the book and movie give Bond an emotional depth that had not been seen previously – nor would it be seen again until, you guessed it, Casino Royale. Lazenby had the considerable acting challenge of making an unrepentant cocksman fall believably in love – not in lust, but in actual love – and you know what, folks? He pulled it off. Of course, it probably helped that the script required him to fall in love with Diana Rigg. For those aren’t familiar with her work in this film or television’s The Avengers, Diana Rigg is the finest Bond Girl ever. This is not an opinion. It is cold, solid fact, and I will brook no dissent.

Above: Diana Rigg.
Seriously, Diana fucking

At any rate, Lazenby not only has to fall in love with Rigg (not hard), he has to save her from the villain (harder), propose (even harder for a playa), marry her (really hard), and get widowed (FUCK!) – all in the course of one movie. That’s a hell of an emotional arc, and Lazenby, despite his Connery-clone performance, pulls it off with great aplomb.

Greatest liability: He’s not Sean Connery.

Greatest asset: He gets to nail Emma Peel.

3. Bond, Tame Bond
Pierce Brosnan (Bond in Goldeneye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough, and Die Another Day)

In the world of Bond-dom, there are magnetic, earthy Bonds like Connery, brutal Bonds like Craig, vulnerable Bonds like Lazenby, and … um … protein-based Bonds like Brosnan.

Don’t get me wrong. Brosnan did a fine job and made some … well, okay, two decent 007 flicks; Goldeneye, his Bond premiere, was an entertaining action romp, and The World is Not Enough actually approaches classic Bond status, Denise Richards notwithstanding. It’s just that Brosnan – so engaging in his other work – is, as Bond, just sort of … there. I mean, he has a lot going for him: He’s smooth. He’s suave. He actually looks like what you get when you call Central Casting and say, “Send me down a guy who looks like James Bond.”

Above: I'm adequate!

But Brosnan, who is absolutely brilliant in post-Bond fare like The Matador and Seraphim Falls, falls victim to the 007 trap: playing the part as so smooth that Bond ceases to resemble an actual human. He did a sustained Cary Grant impression in Goldeneye, and by the time Die Another Day rolled around, he was doing a startlingly good impression of I Honestly Don’t Give A Fuck As Long As The Check Clears.

On a side note, the Brosnan Bond pictures gave us Dame Judi Dench as M. Some purists may prefer the original M, Bernard Lee. They are, without exception, asshats. Judi Dench rocks, and I will physically assault anyone who claims otherwise.

Greatest liability: The fucking invisible car.

Greatest asset: Judi Dench kicks major ass.

4. Bond, Game Bond
Timothy Dalton (Bond in The Living Daylights and License to Kill)

Timothy Dalton has the advantage of being, as indicated by the heading, very game to try a different direction with Bond. He was trying to get Bond back to basics after the debacle that was the Roger Moore Period (or, as it is known among Bondophiles, the Time of Darkness), and for the first two-thirds of The Living Daylights, he was succeeding admirably. In fact, if not for the utter godawful stupidity of License to Kill … Wait. You know what? That movie is so bad that it actually needs a new word to describe its badness. So I’m going to make one up. Craptaculatude. Okay, where was I? Ah, yes: In fact, if not for the utter godawful craptaculatude of License to Kill, I’d probably rank Dalton above Brosnan. As it was, License to Kill nearly killed the whole franchise; since 1962, there has been a new Bond film every one to three years ... except after License to Kill, a movie so bad it took an astonishing six years for the public to recover to the point that it could accept Goldeneye. And that's a shame, because the movie also killed a pretty damn good Bond.

Above: Wasted potential

Dalton’s Bond was a refreshing return to the earthy cold-bloodedness of Connery, a blast of cool air after the shit-furnace of stupid contrivance that characterized the Moore years. He was a serious, all-business Bond who didn’t have time for fucking around with witty banter. Had he not been sabotaged by the festival of dipshitiosity that was License to Kill, he probably would have had two or three more Bond pics in him. As it stands, Timothy Dalton’s Bond is basically a wistful exercise in “what might have been.”

Greatest liability: License to Kill is like watching a 96-minute assisted suicide.

Greatest asset: Kick-ass A-Ha theme for The Living Daylights.

5. Bond, Lame Bond
Roger Moore (Bond in Live and Let Die, The Man with the Golden Gun, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, and A View to a Kill)

To those who believe Roger Moore was the best Bond (and they are out there), let me say: Fuck you. No, seriously. Fuck you.

With a staggering seven films to his Bond résumé, Moore, unfortunately, holds the record for most 007 outings – unless Connery’s unofficial and unfortunate Never Say Never Again is counted, in which case they’re tied. Never Say Never Again was an off-brand Bond, basically a remake of Thunderball by a different studio, and it sucked pretty hard. Still, I’m going to count it just so Moore won’t have the edge on St. Sean.

Yes, Moore has seven Bond films to his credit. Of those seven, one (For Your Eyes Only) is actually a superior spy film, but fully three (Live and Let Die, The Spy Who Loved Me, A View to a Kill) feature theme songs that are far better than the movies themselves. The remaining three just suck all around.

Above: Fuck you, man. Just fuck you.

Moore’s Bond suffered from lousy, jokey scripts that favored bad puns and stupid slapstick over action. In previous years, other films had tried to imitate the Bond pictures. Now Bond consciously aped other films. Moore’s films featured chases between Bond and a lowbrow Southern sheriff, an obvious nod to the CB-and-trucker craze epitomized by movies like Smokey and the Bandit. After the success of Star Wars, Ian Fleming’s novel about nuclear missiles, Moonraker, was retooled into an idiot space opera. The franchise missed no opportunity to degrade itself. Case in point: The Man with the Golden Gun (widely considered to be the worst Bond film ever), in which an admittedly incredible stunt – a car jump featuring a midair corkscrew twist – is accompanied by a slide-whistle sound effect! A fucking slide-whistle!

And unlike Dalton, a serious Bond trapped in a sub-par movie, Moore aided and abetted the degradation. His read of the character was that Bond was more a lover than a fighter. His Bond was a guy who would much rather sit around sipping Cognac and making boner jokes than, I don’t know, actually go out and save the damn world. You always got the impression that Moore’s 007 felt that spying was an unwelcome interruption from his actual job, which was apparently being a douchebag of the first water.

Greatest liability: He was not smothered at birth.

Greatest asset: Now too old to ever, ever make another Bond film.

So there you have it. I realize that anyone who ranks the various Bonds is bound to generate controversy among 007 aficionados, and I welcome dissenting opinions. Except about Roger Moore. What a douche.


Fred Burrows said...

What about Woody Allen and David Niven? Or Neil Connery?

Rabo Karabekian said...

Niven, Woody Allen and Neil Connery don't count because they were not in official EON Productions pictures. Were I ranking them, however, I'd put them between Dalton and Moore.